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Was the GDR really the better Germany? Does standing up for your own political ideals pay off? Christa Wolf has her qualms — and yet she defends the moral advantages of socialist daily life.
"In those last August days of the year 1961 the girl called Rita Seidel awoke in a small hospital room. She had not been asleep, she'd been unconscious. As she opens her eyes it is evening and the clean white wall, the thing she sees first, is in shadow. This is the first time she has ever been here, but she knows immediately what happened to her, today and before."
Rita Seidel, a young woman in her early 20s, is the heroine of Christa Wolf's 200-page novel They Divided the Sky. Released at the end of 1962, Christa Wolf's second book of prose turned her into a leading figure in East German literature overnight.
She had already written a first draft by 1960; further versions were created through the summer of 1961 and yet the author felt the love story that she was telling was still too banal. She was looking for what she called the big "Überidee" — an overarching idea. History came to her rescue in an awkward manner when, in August 1961, construction of the Berlin Wall began.
Two lovers who are coming apart will finally be separated by the wall. Manfred, a chemist with great ambitions, sees no perspective for himself in the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) and settles in the West. He becomes an "East German refugee."
Rita, a student 10 years younger than her teacher, tries in vain just a few days before the wall is built to bring him back. Convinced of the politics of the GDR, she does not follow him but stays in East Germany.
A love story that captures contemporary history
As the story opens, there is talk of the "August days of the year 1961." With that, the story's timing and its political context is established, even if not explicitly named.
The construction of the wall is not mentioned anywhere in Christa Wolf's entire story. The writer joined the Socialist Unity Party (SED) immediately after her high school graduation; she is part of the political system. Only indirectly can one guess what is meant when she writes:
"We didn't know then, none of us knew, what kind of year lay ahead: a year of the most exacting ordeals that were not easy to survive. A historic year, is what they will say later."
The lovers at the center of the story are forever divided in this country, whose division is now visible and carried out with unequivocal hardness. The sky of the book's title becomes a symbol of this division of the two German states into East and West. At their last meeting, Rita and Manfred search one last romantic fixture, a firmament of their lost love, which does not withstand this division:
"In the past, lovers who had to separate would look for a star where their gaze might meet in the evenings. What can we look for? 'At least they can't divide the sky,' Manfred said in a mocking tone. The sky? This enormous vault of hope and yearning, love and sorrow? 'Yes, they can,' she said, 'The sky is what divides first of all.'"
Christa Wolf's narrative works not only on a poetic level, it also holds political incendiaries. The author clearly sympathizes with Rita: Her commitment to the GDR is a political address, the author a convinced socialist. But Christa Wolf, whose husband was also active in the SED, cannot be painted with a propagandistic brush. She is clear in her criticisms of the excesses of state dogmatism, something which Rita encounters during her training to become a teacher or during an internship in a factory that builds train carriages.
Official reactions to the publication of They Divided the Sky were also poles apart. The party leadership of the SED condemned the novel sharply and accused Wolf of unsocialist subversion.
A strong cinematic adaptation
Yet sales of the book were quite successful. After a pre-printing at the end of 1962, Christa Wolf's narrative appeared in book form in May 1963 — and immediately sold out. More than 100,000 copies were quickly in circulation, an extremely high number for books in the former East Germany. Young readers especially liked the tragic love story of a division between two worlds.
In the same year as the book's publication, Christa Wolf even wrote the screenplay for the book's film adaptation — together with Konrad Wolf, who also took over the movie's direction.
The movie was greeted with equal fury; today, it is counted by the Association of German Cinematheques as one of the 100 most important films in German film history.
The book quickly found its place in the canon of German literary classics as well. It was and is widely read in schools and German classes, seen as a piece of political literature that is likely interpreted very differently in East and West Germany.
Christa Wolf: They Divided the Sky, University of Ottawa Press (German title: Der geteilte Himmel, 1963). English translation: Luise von Flotow.
Christa Wolf was born on March 18, 1929 in Landsberg an der Warthe in present-day Poland. She had to flee with her family from the advancing Red Army in 1945; they landed in the German state of Mecklenburg. After high school graduation, Wolf became a member of the SED. She initially worked as a scholar and editor before deciding in 1962 to write books on a freelance basis. They Divided the Sky is her second book. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, she campaigned for the preservation of a democratically changed GDR. In 1993, she responded to allegations that she spied on her writing contemporaries by publishing her complete Stasi file. She died on December 1, 2011 at the age of 82.