"WEITER DURCH DIE ZEIT":
PAST MEETS PRESENT IN
UWE JOHNSON'S JAHRESTAGE
AND THE NEW YORK TIMES
DEBORAH L. HORZEN
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Deborah L. Horzen
I would like to express my great appreciation to my committee
members, Prof. Franz Futterknecht, Prof. Alexander Stephan, Prof.
Sharon DiFino and Prof. Geoffrey Giles. Carine Strebel-Halpern, my friend
and devoted proof-reader, gave generously of both her time and her energy
to bring this project to a close. Very special thanks go also to my
dissertation director, Prof. Keith Bullivant, for his expertise and patience
throughout this whole long process. He was, and remains, a tremendous
source of support. I appreciate every opportunity he has given me since
that first semester.
Finally, I would like to thank my husband for being with me from
beginning to end with his limitless encouragement and enthusiasm. Now,
on to other things.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOW LEDGM ENT ................................................ ........................................iii
ABSTRACT ....... ..... ...... ............................ vi
1 INTRODUCTION: "GESINE ... MANCHMAL
VERSTEHST DU DAS LAND NICHT, IN DEM
W IR DOCH LEBEN" .................................................................. 1
2 "FUR WENN ICH TOT BIN": THE PARAMETERS
OF GESINE'S NARRATIVE PROJECT .................. ............. 32
3 "WIR SIND ZU GAST HIER": GESINE, NEW YORK
CITY AND THE SIXTIES 63
4 "DAS BEWUSSTSEIN DES TAGES": GESINE AND
THE NEW YORK TIMES ............. .... 107
5 "ALS SEI DER TAG NUR MIT IHR ZU BEWEISEN":
THE NEW YORK TIMES AS A PARALLEL TEXT ................... 157
6 "DEN KRIEG, DEN KEINER WILL": GESINE
AND THE VIETNAM WAR .... .............................. ....... 194
7 CONCLUSION: "GESINE, DAS SOLLTE DEINE
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH 282
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
"WEITER DURCH DIE ZEIT":
PAST MEETS PRESENT IN
UWE JOHNSON'S JAHRESTAGE
AND THE NEW YORK TIMES
Deborah L. Horzen
Chairman: Professor Keith Bullivant
Major Department: German and Slavic Languages and Literatures
Uwe Johnson's post-war novel, Jahrestage. Aus dem Leben von
Gesine Cresspahl, chronicles Gesine Cresspahl's search for meaning and
identity amidst the uncertainty and upheaval which define her experiences
in the U.S. during the late 1960s. In the course of one calendar year,
beginning August 21, 1967, Gesine systematically takes stock of her life,
herself, and the world around her.
The New York Times provides the thematic and narrative structure
within which her reconstruction of life under Nazi dictatorship and DDR
Socialism unfolds. Pivotal events from 1967/8 structure the novel formally
and thematically. News items illustrating various domestic issues such as
the Vietnam War, racial tensions, escalating urban crime and poverty are
woven into the narrative. And although she is in another country an ocean
away, Gesine is constantly confronted with reminders of Fascist Germany
and failed Socialism in the Eastern Block. The simultaneous explorations
of past and present brings her to question the fundamental assumptions
upon which her sense of truth and reality are based.
The New York Times seems to provide Gesine with "an objective
window on the world." But a closer examination of the original articles
reveals how Johnson manipulates documentary materials to fit his
narrative purpose. The text implies through both language and format that
the cited newspapers items are accurate representations of the source
material when in fact they are highly edited versions of the original event.
In numerous instances Johnson takes deliberate liberties with translation,
juxtaposes elements from different articles, and places exaggerated
emphasis on items buried in the depths of the paper. Thus, highly crafted
and seamless versions of news items are presented as objective
documentary material, while their presentation, relevance and impact are
in fact orchestrated by the narrator. Both the newspaper and Gesine have
specific agendas in determining "all the news fit to print." Her political and
social ideologies, which are not stated directly in the text itself, emerge
clearly in the comparison between Jahrestage and The New York Times.
INTRODUCTION: "GESINE ... MANCHMAL
VERSTEHST DU DAS LAND NICHT,
IN DEM WIR DOCH LEBEN"
Unlike many literary works written during the period spanning the
post-war era to the present, Uwe Johnson's epochal four volume novel,
Jahrestage. Aus dem Leben von Gesine Cresspahl (1970-1983)1 is not tied
solely to the political and social realities of a divided Germany, nor to its
recent past. However, the tetralogy to date has been read primarily as a
novel chronicling the history of a Mecklenburg family in the Weimar
Republic through the DDR's Aufbau period. This reading is, to an extent,
justified. Johnson's detailed portrayal of early post-war East Germany in
Jahrestage's fourth volume is unique both as a work of fiction and as an
historical document: "Da hat die Einigung einmal auch ihr literarisch
Gutes: Endlich konnen Ostdeutsche die Biicher des schon 1959 in den
Westen gegangenen Autors lesen, der wie kein anderer die Geschichte des
1 The first three volumes of Jahrestaee. Aus dem Leben von Gesine Cressnahl
(Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1983) were published separately. The
concluding volume took Johnson another ten years to complete. The novel was originally
conceived as a trilogy, as indicated by Johnson's note at the end of Vol. II which refers to the
sequel "der nichste und letzte Teil dieses Buches..." (II, 1009). The third volume, however,
documents Gesine's story only through July 19, 1968. The dust cover text ends with the
ironic note to the reader "NAchstes Jahr, wie iiblich, mehr." This prediction proved to be
premature as Johnson fell victim to "one of the most highly publicized writer's blocks in
modern literary history" (Theodore Ziolkowski, "Living with Germany on Riverside
Drive," New York Times 8 Nov. 1987: 61). For reasons both personal and physical, which
have been adequately addressed elsewhere by Johnson (Skizze eines Verungliickten and
Begleitumstsinde Frankfurter Vorlesunven), as well as in the secondary literature,
Johnson was unable to proceed with Jahrestage for most of the next decade.
ostlichen Halbstaats geschrieben hat, mit der Treue eines Chronisten, mit
der oft ironisch gefliigelten Phantasie eines Erfinders von Menschen und
Schicksalen."2 The novel is undeniably a result of a particular set of social
and historical conditions which defined Germany during the first half of
the century. However, such one-sided consideration of Jahrestage is
clearly limited in that it glosses over the novel's distinctly American
In many regards Jahrestage is of particular significance to the non-
German reader. It is easily the most encompassing and detailed treatment
of modern America in the post-war era by a German author. Gesine
Cresspahl's narrative is divided between recent historical events and twelve
turbulent months in 1967/8 during which she is living in the U.S. The
novel's contemporary strand is set in the quintessential American
metropolis, New York City. Details of national and world events are
supplied by the nation's premier newspaper, The New York Times.
In the course of Jahrestage Johnson weaves the bulk of twentieth
century German history into the narrative framework of a calendar year in
the life of DDR expatriate, Gesine Cresspahl. Since the death of Jakob Abs,
the pivotal event of Johnson's first novel, MutmaBungen uiber Jakob (1959),
Gesine has emigrated with their child to the United States. Johnson picks
up the thread of her story some ten years later in New York, where she has
resided since 1961. The novel's 1,900 pages of interwoven narrative and
documentary material has been described as "an ample balance sheet for
the best part of the writer's fictional estate, a colossal exercise in
2 Rolf Michaelis, "Geselliger Einzelginger," DieZeit 29 Apr. 1994: 13.
synchronic timekeeping and diachronic memory"3 with which the author
"legt. alles, was er weiB und kann, auf die Waage."4 The premise of the
narrative structure is a one-year agreement Gesine has made with her
narrative partner, Johnson's fictional narrative persona "Genosse
Schriftsteller." In the course of the year, Gesine takes stock of her life,
herself, and the world around her, and in the process compiles a detailed
catalog of her experiences ("eine BewuBtseinsinventur").5 Throughout
Johnson's "novel of consciousness"6 the narrative combines diverse
materials taken from Gesine's external and internal realities:
conversations, newspaper articles, poems, slogans and scores of musing
mini-digressions. As she shifts abruptly between past and present, as well
as between historical and personal arenas of experience, Gesine's
unassimilated childhood memories of Nazi Germany and the DDR
alternate with scenes of New York City life and a larger sociopolitical
reality represented by The New York Times. In the narrative the proximity
3 Wilfried van der Will, 'Approaches to Reality Through Narrative Perspectives
in Johnson's Prose," The Modern German Novel, ed. Keith Bullivant (New York: Berg,
4 Peter Demetz, "Uwe Johnsons Blick in die Epoche," Johnsons Jahrestage," ed.
Michael Bengel (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1985) 194.
5 From the title of Dieter E. Zimmer's interview with Johnson, "Eine
BewuBtseinsinventur. Das Gesprach mit dem Autor: Uwe Johnson." Johnsons
"Jahrestage" 99. Johnson, in the guise of Marie Cresspahl, elaborates elsewhere: "Von
mir ist in dem Buch nur, was meine Mutter zwischen dem 20. August 1967 und dem 20.
August 1968 an mir gesehen hat. Was sie horte. Was sie erinnerte. Was sie fur mich
fiirchtete. Was sie wissen konnte von einem Kind das allmahlich elf Jahre alt wurde.
Was--what was in her mind then. On her mind, too. In ihrem BewuBtsein" (Uwe
Johnson, "Interview with Marie H. Cresspahl 2.-3. January 1972," Johnsons "Jahrestage,"
6 Judith Ryan, The Uncompleted Past (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1983) 156.
of these multiple realities, which have no direct correspondence to each
other, form their own subtext.
For a continuous 365 days, beginning on August 21, 1967, Johnson
chronicles Gesine's story in minute detail "wo sie herkommt, d.h. was ffir
Leute und was fur Dinge es waren, die sie zu dem gemacht haben, was sie
heute ist."7 Gesine's intensive effort at the reconstruction and
reinterpretation of the past represents an exhaustive examination of
Germany in the twentieth century. Confronting the past
(Vergangenheitsbewdltigung) is an integral step in her search for identity
and self-determination. Unfolding parallel to the reconstructive narrative
are the political and social crises which define the American Vietnam War
era. Escalating involvement in Southeast Asia is coupled with decreasing
public support of the war effort. Racial tensions at home, along with
increased crime and violence in the inner city signal the disintegration of
urban America to many observers .
In the late summer of 1967 Gesine is living with her eleven year-old
daughter, Marie, in a rent-controlled apartment at Riverside Drive and
96th Street in Manhattan's Upper West Side. The flat comes complete with
an idyllic view of the Hudson River and a neighboring park. The realities of
parenthood have led Gesine to make some hard choices. In light of her new
priorities she has adopted a new maxim, which goes against everything
she learned in school: ". je dichter ich rangehe ans Geld, desto sicherer
7 Horst Lehner, "Die letzten 123 Tage im Leben der Gesine Cresspahl? Ein
Gesprich mit Uwe Johnson iiber den dritten Band der 'Jahrestage.'" Johnsons
"Jahrestaee" 107. Johnson's description here of the novel's theme echoes a similar
leitmotif in Christa Wolfs novel, Kindheitsmuster: "Wie sind wir so geworden wie wir
heute sind?" (Darmstadt and Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1979) 196.
ist es."8 Following the money, she eventually lands in the antithesis of
socialist society, New York City. Since emigrating from Diisseldorf in 1962,
Gesine has been working as a secretary in the international division of a
large midtown Manhattan bank. She has managed to build a seemingly
stable and secure life for herself and her daughter. Her European
background, knowledge of languages and work ethic ("Auffallen durch
Fleif")9 eventually lead to an assignment which would have a profound
effect on her future. Gesine's boss, De Rosny, senses a lucrative money-
making opportunity in the Czechoslovakian reform movement, and wants
her to assist him in arranging a hard currency loan to the cash-strapped
government. In contrast to her boss's pragmatic motivations, Gesine's
interest in the project is ideological. After a series of bitter disappointments
with Russian-style communism and the DDR's "Arbeiter- und
Bauernstaat," Gesine sees in Czechoslovakia's efforts to reestablish
financial and economical ties with the West the possibility of a new type of
socialism, which combines socialist and democratic principles--a utopian
"dritter Weg." Czech leader Alexander Dubcek envisioned it as "socialism
with a human face." Gesine plans an initial three-month trip to Prague to
lay the groundwork for this promising new monetary relationship between
De Rosny's bank and the Czechoslovakian government. Ironically, she
departs for Prague on August 20, 1968, the eve of the Russian invasion
which brings an abrupt end to the Prague Spring. Unlike the reader,
Gesine is blissfully unaware of what awaits her at the end of her journey.
The novel ends before her arrival. Although the events of August 21 lie
8 Uwe Johnson, "Einfiihrung in die 'Jahrestage,'" Johnsons "Jahrestage" 22.
9 Johnson, "Einfiihrung in die 'Jahrestage" 22.
outside the parameters of the novel itself, they overshadow the otherwise
seemingly idyllic conclusion of Gesine's narrative contract with Johnson.
The disastrous beginning of what would be a new calendar year is strongly
implied by the novel's rigid chronological structure and is also anticipated
Early in Johnson's career critic Giinter Bl1cker dubbed him "der
Dichter der beiden Deutschland."10 The designation stuck. However,
Johnson found this to be an unfortunate accolade which was misleading,
limiting, and increasingly irritating. Jahrestage represents a conscious
effort on Johnson's part to distance himself from what he considered a very
narrow reading of his fiction.11 Although all of his novels play out against
the background of a divided Germany, Johnson considered his
preoccupation with the extraordinary problems resulting from an
unnatural political situation to be simply the unstudied result of his life
experience, "die einem Schriftsteller fur seinen Fall gerade zwei
verschiedene deutsche Erfahrungen zugewiesen hat, als sein Material."12
Ironically, since 1990 Johnson has emerged as one of the most important
articulators of the DDR experience. German unification has brought
Johnson's work to the fore as the tool well-suited to what Norbert
10 Giinter Blocker, Kritisches Lesebhch (Hamburg, 1962) 196.
11 Johnson describes how his first two published novels, MutmaBungen tiber Jakob
and Das dritte Buch fiber Achim brought about this dubious honor: ". .. allmaihlich began
ich das nicht mehr amiisant zu finden, sondern fuir ein Mi8verstindnis zu halten, denn
mir kam es ja auf die Geschichte an, die ich erzlhlen wollte, und auf die Leute, die diese
Geschichte machten: Nun war das ein politisches Konzept geworden. Das erdrtickte mir
die Luft und das Leben und den Geruch und das Tempo dieser Geschichte." His third
novel, Zwei Ansichten, whose two main characters Johnson considered more than just
star-crossed lovers separated by the Berlin Wall, sealed his fate in the German press as
"Fachmann der deutschen Teilung" (Johnson, "Einfiihrung in die 'Jahrestage'"16).
12 Uwe Johnson, Begleitumstande (Frankfurt aM.: Suhrkamp, 1980) 337.
Mecklenburg describes as "literarische Archaologie jenes deutschen
Teilstaates."13 Descriptions of the DDR's early Aufbau phase in the second
half of Jahrestage are among the few existing literary works which
describe this period in detail. Since Johnson was not subject to the same
censorship as his contemporaries in the DDR, Jahrestage today has
assumed a critical role in chronicling a repressed historical phase for
which there are few existing sources with any degree of objectivity.
Johnson was one of the few East German writers who continued to
write about the country he unwillingly left behind: "Das Hauptwerk
Jahrestage schlieBlich enthilt mit dem dritten und ganz besonders mit
dem vierten Band eine einzigartige erzahlerische Abrechnung mit der
Geschichte der friihen DDR, eine Darstellung, deren historiographische
Dignitit erst jetzt richtig wird entdeckt und gepruft werden kinnen."14
Grass characterizes this aspect of Johnson's prose as "die genaueste
Geschichtsschreibung--wie sie kein Historiker listen kann--iber das
Entstehen der DDR .... Dieser Ubergang aus der Zonengesellschaft in die
DDR ist von keinem anderen Autor so akribisch und dennoch literarisch
gestaltet worden."15 For Gesine, steadfast adherence to the ideals
internalized during the fledgling period of German socialism eventually
brings her full circle. Like his protagonist, Johnson's early experience in
the DDR shaped his relationships, political convictions and sense of
13 Norbert Mecklenburg, "Uwe Johnson als Autor einiger deutscher Literaturen,"
Literature flir Leser 1 (1991): 1.
14 Mecklenburg, "Uwe Johnson als Autor einiger deutscher Literaturen" 5.
15 Roland Berbig, "Distanz, heftige Ndihe, Fremdwerden und Fremdbleiben.
Giinter Grass im Gesprich fiber Uwe Johnson." "Wo ich her bin ." Uwe Johnson in der
DDM, eds. Roland Berbig and Erdmut Wizisla (Berlin: KONTEXTverlag, 1993) 99.
identity. Ultimately, it had a profound influence on life's most crucial
Johnson considered himself neither an historical writer nor a
particularly political one. His critics are divided on this point.16
According to Peter Beckes, Gesine "will weder eine personliche
Vergangenheitsbewaltigung listen, noch mechklenburgische Heimat
nostalgisch feiern."17 Sarah Lennox, on the other hand, argues that
Johnson's deliberate manipulation of information from The New York
Times results in a skewed and highly politicized representation of the U.S
in the novel: "Gesine's a priori determination that political practice is
purposeless has many consequences for the content of Jahrestage, and
what readers are allowed to learn about political activities in the United
States and Europe during 1967-8."18 Regardless of Johnson's own
statements to the contrary, the political component of his writing is
inescapable. The link between the individual and the prevalent political
reality emerges as the central theme in his writing. He notes in one
interview that, "it is hardly possible to live on the outskirts of history."19
The ideologies, as well as the real-world manifestations, of twentieth
century European history form the background of his novels.
16 Johnson was by far the most thorough collector of Jahrestage criticism. See
17 Peter Beckes,"Gefillt dir das Land nicht, such dir ein anderes," Text + Kritik
65/66 (1980): 69.
18 Sara Lennox, "History in Uwe Johnson's 'Jahrestage,"' Germanic Review 64
19 A. Leslie Willson, "'An unacknowledged humorist': An Interview with Uwe
Johnson. Sheerness-in-Kent, 20 April 1982," Dimension. Contemporary German Arts
and Ltters 15 (1982): 402.
Compared to many of his contemporaries, including fellow Gruppe
47 members Heinrich B6ll, Ginter Grass, Hans Magnus Enzensberger,
Peter Weiss, Martin Walser and dramatist Rolf Hochhuth, Johnson is far
less outspoken on political topics. His novels all address difficult political
issues, but he does not advocate a particular political agenda. In his only
essay on the novel he contends that literature is unsuited to political
Ein Roman ist keine revolutionare Waffe. Er bringt
nicht unmittelbare politische Wirkung hervor. Die
taktischen Aussichten sind airmlich, strategische kaum
Johnson prefers to explore alternative political realities (alternative
Wirklichkeiten) in his novels. He sees literature as a means with which to
challenge an existing situation:
Zu priifen ware da nicht nur das BewuBtsein, in dem
wir erkennen: so leben wir. Stimmt. Auch ein anderes,
das der Frage hilft: Aber wollen wir so leben? Stimmt
For Johnson's characters, the definitive social and moral issue of the post-
war period is the struggle to preserve personal integrity. This in turn
necessitates the assumption of individual responsibility. Like many post-
war writers Johnson assumes the inseparability of a literary work from its
political and historical context--specifically that of the Third Reich and a
divided Germany. At the same time he refrains from overt political
declarations. His novels, though rich in political material, neither present
solutions nor propose specific courses of action.
20 Uwe Johnson, "Vorschlage zur Prifung eines Romans," Uwe Johnson. eds.
Rainer Gerlach and Matthias Richter (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1984) 35.
21 Johnson, "Vorschlage zur Priifung eines Romans" 33.
Gesine's continued passivity during a particularly turbulent period
in U.S. history is typical of Johnson's characters. Despite an acute sense of
moral conviction, she cannot bring herself to act. The protagonists of
Mutma8ungen iiber Jakob and Das dritte Buch liber Achim (1961), are
likewise both critical observers of a divided Germany's highly politicized
society. Jakob, a railway dispatcher, and Karsch, a journalist from
Hamburg, are impaired by an overwhelming sense of impotence. All three
are quite ordinary people whose convictions have resulted in their
alienation from mainstream society. Lacking in power and influence, they
are essentially passive figures whose decisions and actions (Alternativen)
are dictated by prevailing sociopolitical circumstances.
The essay, "Berliner Stadtbahn" (1961),22 is one of the few instances
in which Johnson elaborates on problems of narrative and politics. In it
Johnson analyzes Germany's post-war politization and its literary
implications. The essay begins with a statement of "anti-narration":
"Erlauben Sie mir, unter diesem Titel zu berichten fiber einige
Schwierigkeiten, die mich hinderten einen Stadtbahnhof in Berlin zu
beschreiben" (BS, 7). The political implications of a divided Germany
prohibit an objective depiction of a station in Berlin. The opening
paragraph contains the only empirical statement given in the text.
Johnson observes a young East German as he disembarks at a train station
in West Berlin, walks across the platform and exits onto the street: "Da tritt
unter vielen anderen eine einzelne Person aus dem eingefahrenen Zug,
iiberschreitet den Bahnsteig und verliflt ihn zur Strale hin" (BS, 7). This
single statement of fact becomes a motif which recurs in a modulated form
22 Uwe Johnson, "Berliner Stadtbahn," Berliner Sachen. Aufsatze (Frankfurt
a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1985). The abbreviation "BS" is used for subsequent references to the
throughout the essay. This single observation generates a chain of
speculation and conjecture. There are no visual cues to determine whether
the trip is an ordinary commute or a political gesture. Thus, a
commonplace occurrence becomes saturated with meaning given the
existing political situation. In the final paragraph Johnson sums up what
he perceives as the central problem: "Hoffentlich habe ich die
Schwierigkeiten mit einem Bahnhof der Berliner Stadtbahn dennoch so
beschrieben, daB Sie ihn sich ungefAhr vorstellen k6nnen" (BS, 21). The
essay is, in fact, an argument for the redundancy of narrative objectivity in
a divided Germany. Although Johnson documents the process in detail, he
is unable to gain any insight into the event. Its significance changes with
each shift in political context.
Johnson identifies Berlin as the embodiment of Germany's post-war
situation. The city's former image as a cosmopolitan political, commercial
and cultural center--the Erscheinungsbild der Stadt--has been supplanted
by a new political reality:
Die Grenze zerlegt den Begriff. Sie kann nicht als Kenntnis
vorausgesetzt werden. Zwar ist bekannt, dab das Gebiet der
ehemaligen deutschen Hauptstadt wie eine Insel vom ost-
deutschen Staat umschlossen liegt und daB die Insel
wiederum geteilt ist. Um jene Halfte, die von den Armeen
der Vereinigten Staaten, GroBbritanniens und Frankreichs
beaufsichtigt wird, ist die frithere Verwaltungsgrenze hart
geworden, wie lebendige Haut verhornen kann und nicht
mehr atmet. Sie ist wirtschaftlich und politisch isoliert.
In the post-war world Berlin has also come to symbolize the global
realignment into opposing capitalist and socialist camps. The city
embodies two ideologies which are "nicht durch Logik verbunden, sondern
durch eine Grenze" (BS, 12).
The politization of everyday existence is an inescapable fact of life in
Es gibt nicht: Berlin. Es sind zwei Stadte Berlin, die
nach der bebauten Flache und der Einwohnerzahl
vergleichbar sind. Berlin zu sagen ist vage und
vielmehr eine politische Forderung .. (BS, 9)
The city's cultural and political significance has been reduced to one single
factor. It has become "ein Modell fur die Begegnung der beiden
Ordnungen," which are situated "so eng nebeneinander, daB sie einander
nicht aus dem Blick verlieren k6nnen und einander beriuhren miissen"
(BS, 10). The influences of divergent political systems and ideologies on a
common language and culture create opposing realms of existence:
Es kommt denn hinzu, daB beide Machtapparate ihre
eigenen sprachlichen Verabredungen getroffen haben
und sie in ihrem Gebiet teilweise als Konvention
durchsetzen konnten. Beide Stadte Berlin nennen sich
frei einander unfrei, sich demokratisch einander
undemokratisch, sich friedlich einander kriegslustern
usw. Einige dieser diffusen Formeln sind tatsachlich
sprachgangig geworden und werden oft ohne Ironie
angesetzt. (BS 19)
Each of the political systems, "nach denen heute in der Welt gelebt werden
kann" (BS, 10), relies on a distorted view of reality. Germany's sociopolitical
reality consists of the contentious co-existence the two opposing systems.
Johnson's goal is to create a literature which "die beiden Gegenden in
einen Griff bekommt und zudem iiberregional ist" (BS, 20).
Johnson contends that both reader and writer have become
desensitized to an unacceptable situation. Assumptions and biases are
deeply ingrained in the German postwar mentality. The irony of Berlin's
unnatural situation has dissipated in the face of a seemingly unalterable
political reality. Just as the city represents two competing political
realities, Johnson precludes the domination of any single ideology by
utilizing a multiplicity of narrative viewpoints.
Using the simple example of a man at a train station, Johnson
explores a theme which suffuses his entire oeuvre. Each of his novels
unfolds within a specific social, political and historical context His
characters experience sociopolitical reality as a complex web of systems,
institutions and language from which they attempt to extricate themselves.
R.Hinton Thomas and Wilfried van der Will contend that the writer is
subject to these same influences and constraints:
insofern sie den Schriftsteller bedringt, anregt,
herausfordert, kurz: insofern sie in ihm BewuBtsein
produziert. In dieser zweiten Bedeutung mag
Gesellschaft zwar als ein den Schriftsteller
determinierendes komplexes GroBmilieu verstanden
werden, aber doch als ein solches, das ihn um Spiel
seiner Reflexionen und Einbildungen befreit.23
The reader is similarly affected by the sociopolitical environment. In the
interactive exchange between author and reader the narrative becomes a
tool in a "DenkprozeB, als Mittel der Wahrheitsfindung."24 Ideally, this
prods the reader to question his or her own assumptions. The function of
this narrative model is not to replace reality but to illuminate it:
Wozu also taugt der Roman? Er ist ein Angebot. Sie
bekommen eine Version der Wirklichkeit. Es ist nicht
eine Gesellschaft in der Miniatur, und es ist kein maB-
stabliches Modell. Es ist auch nicht ein Spiegel der Welt
und weiterhin nicht ihre Widerspiegelung; es ist eine
Welt, gegen die Welt zu halten. Sie sind eingeladen,
diese Version der Wirklichkeit zu vergleichen mit jener,
23 R. Hinton Thomas and Wilfried van der Will, Der deutsche Roman und die
Wohlstandsgesellschaft (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1969) 152.
24 Manfred Durzak, Der deutsche Roman der Gegenwart. Entwicklungs-
voraussetuzungen und Tendenzen (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1979) 339.
die Sie unterhalten und pflegen. Vielleicht paBt der
andere, der unterschiedliche Blick in die Ihre hinein.25
Johnson consistently argues that his fiction is intended neither as an exact
reflection of reality nor as its utopian projection. An approximation of
reality arises from collaboration of narrative viewpoints, by which the
reader's own experiences and convictions can be measured. The
negotiation of an alternate reality is part of the ongoing exchange between
narrator and reader: "So wird Schreiben praktiziert als Infragestellung
Johnson has often been criticized for his meticulous--sometimes
described as tedious--attention to everyday details while neglecting plot and
character development. Giinter Blacker describes Johnson as "der
Registrator und Vermesser Johnson, der Mann, der nichts auslIiBt."27 The
traditional role of narrative (i.e. storytelling) is subordinated in Johnson's
fiction to the demands of creating this "gesellschaftliches Modell":
Das Romane-Schreiben kann auch Geschichten-
Erzahlen sein. Fir mich ist da aber noch etwas anderes
dabei, namlich der Versuch, ein gesellschaftliches
Modell herzustellen. Das Modell besteht allerdings aus
Personen Mit diesen Personen versuche ich ein Bild
der Gesellschaft zu geben. Das heiBt: durch die
Personen, durch das, was ihnen so passiert ist und
passieren kann, und was die Gesellschaft ihnen fiir
Mittel gegeben hat, um diesen Ereignissen zu
widerstehen. Daraus entsteht dann eine Geschichte der
25 Johnson "Vorschlige zur Priifung eines Romans" 35.
26 Ingeborg Hoesterey, "Die Erzahlsituation als Roman. Uwe Johnsons
'Jahrestage,'" Colloquia Germanica. International Zeitschrift fir permanische Sprach-
und Literaturwissenschaft 16 (1983): 24.
27 Giinter Bltcker, "Prager Traum--New Yorker Wirklichkeit," Johnsons
Personen und, so hoffe ich, auch eine Geschichte der
The passages portraying the physical surroundings in Jahrestage are
meticulously detailed. Marie builds a replica of Gesine's childhood home
based on her mother's descriptions. No aspect of New York escapes the
notice of Gesine and her narrative partner, however trivial: train
schedules, subway maps, advertisements on the side of a bus.
In the historical narrative Johnson presents a complex version of
social reality through the story of Jerichow and its inhabitants. He also
draws on events and characters from earlier novels such as Ingrid
Barbendererde, MutmaBungen diber Jakob, Das dritte Buch iiber Achim
and Karsch und andere Prosa. Johnson's long term interest in specific
characters, notably Gesine and Heinrich Cresspahl, give a depth and
continuity to his complete works rarely found in literature:
In Johnsons friiheren Werken bereitet sich jeweils die
Problemstellung der spateren vor (s.o.); doch gilt auch
umgekehrt, daB im Spatwerk das friihere kommentiert
und entschltisselt, als die Bedeutungseinheit eines
Gesamtwerkes hergestellt wird.29
Heinrich Cresspahl's brief career as a British spy during the war, the
death of Gesine's mother, details of life in Jerichow during the Nazi
dictatorship and the Russian Occupation, the childhood relationship
between Jakob and Gesine, and Jakob's last visit with her before his death
are just a few examples of events alluded to in other works which are
developed in Jahrestage.
28 Christof Schmid, "Gesprach mit Uwe Johnson (am 29.7.1971 in West-Berlin),"
"Ich fiberlege mir die Geschichte ." Uwe Johnson im Gesprach, ed. Eberhard Fahlke
(Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1988) 253.
29 Walter Schmitz, Uwe Johnson (Minchen: Beck, 1984) 84.
Johnson's first novel, Ingrid Barbendererde (1985), was first
published posthumously.so This early work is significant in that it
addresses those thematic elements which define Johnson's writing over a
lifetime: the conflicting relationship between political reality and the
individual and the resulting alienation from society. The novel was written
between 1953 and 1956 while Johnson was a "Student der Germanistik und
'weiterer Folgen des Krieges'" at the University of Rostock.31 Shortly before
the completion of secondary school, Ingrid becomes enmeshed in the
conflict between the government and the members of a church-affiliated
group, the "Junge Gemeinde." What begins as a classroom protest against
"veranderten Lehrstoff'--specifically the socialist tenets of dialectics, class
conflict and historical materialism--and for individual freedom of thought
quickly escalates into a perceived attack on the system. As a result Ingrid
is accused of subversive activity, and is called before a school tribunal:
Sie wird am Mittwoch, 13. Mai 1953 im Verfahren gegen
die Junge Gemeinde aus der FDJ ausgeschlossen. Mit
289 gegen 17 Stimmen. Ihr ist das Betreten des
Schulgelandes ab sofort verboten. Fur eine Rede. Fiir
bloB eine Rede.32
After being expelled, she flees East Germany to "das andere Deutschland"
with friend and classmate, Klaus Niebuhr:
Wir werden ja sehen was an diesem ist: sagte Klaus.
Sie warden ja sehen was an diesem war. Ob sie es
30 The novel was originally rejected for publication by the Aufbau-Verlag because
of controversial political elements: "Der Verlag schitzte die literarischen Qualitaten
dieses Romans, aber wiinschte sich einige Anderungen politischer Natur, eigentlich mehr
innenpolitischer Natur, und dazu hkitte ich mein BewuBtsein indern miissen, das konnte
ich nicht. Da nahm ich das Manuskript zuriick." The manuscript was long assumed lost.
Horst Bienek, Werkstatteesprtche mit Schrifstellern (Miinchen: Carl Hanser, 1962) 87.
31 Siegfried Unseld, "Nachwort: Die Prifung der Reife im Jahre 1953," Ingrid
Barbendererde (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1985) 251.
32 Johnson, Begleitumstande 83.
vergessen hatten uiber ein Jahr, und ob das schlimm
Their defection to the West is not perceived as a political statement, but
simply the substitution of one unsatisfactory alternative for another.
The novel which launched Johnson's literary career, MutmaBiunen
iiber Jakob, opens with the death of the title figure. The novel's well known
beginning--"Aber Jakob ist immer quer iiber die Gleise gegangen"--
initiates a reconstruction of the events leading up to that moment. He is
killed in a moment of distraction--or perhaps despair--on the morning he
returns from West Germany, while crossing the tracks on a foggy
November morning. In retrospect multiple narrators attempt to
reconstruct an accurate account of what actually happened. They compile,
compare and negotiate information. Their stories both corroborate and
contradict each other. Contradictions within the story remain unresolved,
which Johnson finds an accurate reflection of human experience:
Der Verfasser sollte zugeben, daB er erfunden hat, was
er vorbringt, er sollte nicht verschweigen, daB seine
Informationen liickenhaft sind und ungenau. Denn er
verlangt Geld fiir was er anbietet. Dies eingestehen
kann er, indem er etwa die schwierige Suche nach der
Wahrheit ausdriicklich vorfuihrt, indem er seine
Auffassung des Geschehens mit der seiner Person
vergleicht und relativiert, indem er auslalt, was er
nicht wissen kann, indem er nicht ftir reine Kunst
ausgibt, was noch eine Art der Wahrheitsfindung ist.
Holes and contradictions in their theories are smoothed over with
conjecture and speculation. The result is a continuously shifting version of
33 Johnson, Inmid Barbendererde 247.
The figure of Jakob gradually emerges from the tangled web of
narrative as a socialist hero thrown into personal crisis during a period of
political turmoil. In the latter half of 1956 a combination of events ushered
in a brief--but doomed--period of liberalization in the Eastern Block which
followed Nikita Khrushchev's speech at the XX Party Congress. At roughly
the same time Imre Nagy initiated a program of democratic reforms in
Hungary. The Suez crisis was also brewing. Soviet reaction to the
Hungarian uprising was swift and brutal. Jakob's faith in the socialist
state, along with any illusions of personal integrity and self-determination,
are destroyed as he helplessly watches trainloads of Russian troops pass
through his jurisdiction on their way to Budapest. Although he could hold
up the transport temporarily, Jakob realizes that he cannot stop them
indefinitely. His intervention would be futile.
Jakob subsequently visits his lover, Gesine, who is working in
Diusseldorf as a translator at NATO headquarters. The reality of the BRD
as experienced by Jakob is disappointing. Everything strikes him as crass,
exaggerated and pretentious. He leaves West Germany disillusioned with
both of the political alternatives available to him. He deliberately chooses to
return to his work and his friends in an albeit fundamentally flawed
society, but where he believes the potential for change still exists. He is
killed the next morning. Gesine, as we later learn in Jahrestage, also
leaves the BRD in reaction to an outbreak of anti-Semitic violence. While
both East and West Germany are portrayed in the novel as severely
compromised systems, socialism at least holds out the theoretical promise
of social transformation and historical redemption.
When Karsch, a middle-aged journalist from Hamburg, crosses the
border into East Germany just a few years later in May, 1960, the situation
between the two republics has changed entirely. The border is closed, and
the estrangement between the two German states, already a decisive factor
in Mutmaiungen iiber Jakob, is complete. That "in Deutschland liegt eine
undurchlassige Grenze" (102) is to Karsch, however, a profound revelation.
On a trip into uncharted territory he finds himself in a foreign country,
though the surroundings are deceptively familiar. They may still speak the
same language but any common ground they once shared has disappeared
in the interim: ". er spricht die Sprache und kann sich nicht
verstandlich machen, sie haben da anderes Geld und andere Regierung:
damit soil er sich eines Tages vereinigen" (A, 120). Karsch's extended stay
in the DDR is the premise of the novel, Das dritte Buch Uiber Achim.
Karsch is struggling with a third biography of the chameleon-like
East German cycling star, Achim K. His subject is a national hero, a
respected party member and parliamentary representative, and an
otherwise model citizen of the socialist state. His research and the creative
process, in which he explores several different narrative avenues, comprise
the bulk of the novel. The reporter must sift through and evaluate
mountains of information. He painstakingly selects those aspects of
Achim's story which will "cohere into a meaningful pattern without
distorting the general truth."34 Achim's motivations, as well as those of the
party, are entirely different. They envision a didactic biography that
emphasizes the individual's role in socialist society, and which reaffirms
the political status quo.
After three months of research the proposed project collapses despite
the expenditure of much time and effort. Karsch's failure to produce a
cohesive image of his subject is a result not only of the disparity between
34 Mark Boulby, Uwe Johnson (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1974) 44.
Achim's personal and public image, but is also caused by the writer's own
inflexible idealism. He is overwhelmed by information, and feels compelled
to integrate all of it in order to provide a "true" picture of Achim. This
proves an impossible task as problematic incidents come to his attention:
Achim's active role in the Hitler Jugend, his betrayal of his social-democrat
father to the authorities, and an illegal trip to West Berlin for a three-speed
mechanism unavailable in the East.
The novel chronicles Karsch's failure to resolve the discrepancy
between Achim's public and private personae. Johnson describes the
narrative as a "Beschreibung einer Beschreibung, die Umstande einer
Biographie und was in dieser Biographie enthalten sein sollte."35 The
relationship between the biographer and his subject collapses completely
when Karsch confronts Achim with a photo which appears to substantiate
rumors of his participation in the Berlin Workers' Uprising on June 17,
1953. Achim denies he was there, and Karsch can't be certain that the man
in the photo is really Achim. Even seemingly concrete evidence proves
questionable and ultimately inconclusive. After following a number of false
leads, and faced with Achim's hostility, Karsch must ultimately conclude
"daB die Schliissigkeit eines Beweises beider Gesinnungsidentifikation
unmoglich ist und nur in ein Netz unaufklarbarer Fragen fiihrt."36
Karsch abandons his project in despair and returns to Hamburg none the
wiser about the "real" Achim.
Karsch's experiences are recounted from his necessarily West
German perspective during a marathon telephone conversation upon his
return. The interests and biases of his dialog partner, presumably a friend
35 Bienek 89.
36 Thomas and van der Will 140.
in Hamburg, also shape and direct the narrative. Karsch analyzes the
breakdown of the creative process as well as his own dual role as subject
and narrator. At home Karsch is able to view his recent experience in the
East from a substantial narrative distance, which "Karsch aus der Distanz
zu einer fast fremden Figur objektiviert."37 The change of scenery,
however, does not translate into any measure of objectivity. He finds
himself at a loss to explain anything of his experiences in the East, which
remain uninterpretable in context of West German society. The question,
"wie war es denn?" with which the novel opens and closes remains
unanswered and unanswerable.
The novel's open-ended conclusion underlines Johnson's conviction
that a "unified vision of reality is itself a fiction."38 This same theme is
further explored in the short story "Eine Reise wegwohin, 1960," in which
Karsch tries again to make sense of his DDR experiences. Irrespective of
the angle from which he approaches the problem, the formulation of a
compromise between the two political alternatives proves unattainable.
Opposing political, social, and historical factors make it impossible to
synthesize a single definitive biography of Achim. The truth can only be
approximated. Thus, the presentation of unreconciled and unresolvable
paradoxes is in itself the most truthful portrayal of the existing situation.
Friend and colleague, writer Wolfgang Koeppen, characterizes the search
for truth as the driving force of Johnson's narrative:
37 Thomas and van der Will 141.
38 Ryan 41.
Johnson suchte die Wahrheit. Die Wahrheitssuche ist
aber ein Prozel3, und erst wenn man ihn beschreibt,
nahert man sich vielleicht der Wahrheit.39
According to Judith Ryan, "the idea of history as a product of individual
perceptions becomes a central theme of the novel."4o This view of history
later becomes the organizing idea in Jahrestage, but on a much wider
Johnson's third novel, Zwei Ansichten (1965), unfolds during the
months immediately before and after the building of the Wall. The work
sealed Johnson's fate in the German press as "Fachmann der deutschen
Teilung." As the novel begins Berlin is a city in crisis; however the political
separation is not yet physical. The narrative portrays the alternative
Wicklichkeiten of two lovers: B., a West German photographer, and D., an
East German nurse. They wake up one morning in August to find
themselves on opposite sides of an armed border. It is obvious who belongs
where. Just in case, the characters are neatly labeled to avoid any
confusion. Initially their personal and political identities are inseparable.
In the course of the novel, however, it is possible to point to a degree of
personal development in D.'s character, while B. becomes increasingly
mired in his slavery to materialism.
Every aspect of daily existence in Berlin--however trivial or personal--
is affected by international Realpolitik. Like the two lovers, the city is
inseparable from its political reality. It literally rests on the fault-line
between the socialist East and the capitalist West. Its physical division is
representative of the division evident in all aspects of German society. It is
39 Wolfgang Koeppen, "Ein Bruder der Massen war er nicht. Uber Uwe Johnson,"
Gesammelte Werke vol. VI (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1986) 426.
40 Ryan 40.
the living embodiment of the Cold War. Johnson finds this division is
insurmountable both on a political and on a personal level.
The relationship, which begins as a casual interlude between two
young people with little in common--"eine Liebschaft, eine Bandelei, eine
Woche, ein Verhiltnis, einen Anfang, sie wuBte das Wort nicht und nicht
warum"41--intensifies commensurate to the political situation. Like their
two countries, the closing of the border politicizes their relationship and the
decisions they make. D. is desperate to leave the DDR as her choices
become increasingly limited. But, as with Johnson's other characters, is
not seeking a new reality, but only to flee from the old. When D. finally
escapes over the border some months later, it is clear there is nothing left of
their flimsy relationship once the physical barriers are removed. The only
thing they have in common is their exploitation of each other. D. is
motivated by the chance at a new life for herself in the West, B. by his need
to assuage vague feelings of guilt and obligation.
Both B. and D. belong to the first post-war generation for whom the
division of Germany is a fact of life. They represent the first "divided
generation," immersed in opposing schools of political thought. However,
D. comes off far better by comparison. In this novel, B. could just as easily
stand for "boor." Like his love interest, B. is synonymous with the political
and economic system from which he comes. He consciously cultivates an
image of professional and financial success. Youth, money and a fast car
all figure in the novel's opening sentence: "Der junge Herr B. konnte die
Hand auf groBes Geld legen und kaufte einen Sportwagen" (ZA, 7). The
narrator later reveals that the car has been acquired with slick capitalist
41Uwe Johnson, Zwei Ansichten (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1965)13. This work
will be referred to subsequently in the text as "ZA"
ingenuity. When B. is called to photograph an accident for the newspaper,
he buys the car on the spot from the owner, who is eager to part with his
bad luck. The red status symbol not only wipes out five years of savings, but
also requires him to overextend himself financially. However, he considers
it is worthwhile, since "einen solchen Wagen wiirde es nur ein einziges
Mal geben im Umkreis von zweihundert Kilometern" (ZA, 8). As a bonus,
word spreads of his financial savvy, and he can charge more for his
pictures. The car immediately becomes an extension of his weak self-
image. Time and again he fantasizes how D. will react when he drives up
in his flashy new foreign car. B. is devastated when the car is stolen within
the month, and he is forced to rent a "klapprigen Kasten, den nicht einmal
ein ostberliner Midchen bewundern wfirde" (ZA, 17). After arranging for
D.'s illegal border crossing into West Berlin, he is unable to meet her, as he
is in Stuttgart picking up his new car.
Unfortunately, B. never overcomes his crippling superficiality.
Entirely without family or friends, he dulls his feelings of loneliness and
isolation with alcohol and a succession of girlfriends. His emotional life is
limited to his car. His feelings for D. and concern for her livelihood never
achieve the same emotional intensity. In Zwei Ansichten B. remains a
pathetic caricature of West German bourgeoisie: shallow, self-involved,
materialistic and somewhat stupid. While Johnson is consistently critical
of the BRD in his novels, his concerns are not taken seriously by West
German critics. Even the many pointed barbs found in Zwei Ansichten fail
to hit their mark: "Somit is angedeutet, wie ein 'Dichter der beiden
Deutschlands' sich damals zu benehmen hatte."42
42 D.G. Bond, German History and German Identity: Uwe Johnson's "Jahrestage"
(Atlanta: Rodopi, 1993) 183.
There is never any question of the ultimate failure of the relationship
between B. and D. Like Berlin itself they remain divided at the most basic
level, and are unable to enter into any kind of meaningful relationship. the
novel clearly illustrates Johnson's skepticism that there could be any sort of
interaction or mediation between East and West. Although Johnson's view
of the two political alternatives available in a divided Germany is negatively
depicted in Johnson's early works, he advocates a continued dialogue
between the two countries in preparation for an eventual political
Three later works, Eine Reise Nach Klagenfurt (1974), Skizze eines
Verunglickten (1981), and the fragment, Versuch einen Vater zu finden
(1988), parallel some of the fundamental narrative and sociopolitical
thematic elements of Jahrestare. They all have a unique relationship to the
novel in that they were written during the ten-year break between the
tetralogy's third and fourth volumes. Narrative techniques and structures,
as well as thematic content, are typical of Johnson's fiction. Like
Jahrestage, the two short works turn to the past--specifically the
documented historical past--for illumination of a problematic individual
Reise nach Klagenfurt, which for lack of a more precise description
has been called a "Reisebericht," a "Nachruf," and a "Totenmesse,"
describes Johnson's visit to Bachmann's childhood home shortly after her
tragic death in Rome. In this "biographische Arbeit" he uncovers vestiges
of fascism in Klagenfurt which have been obscured by the passage of time,
progress, and willful cultural amnesia. Through a collage of archival
documents combined with his own personal observations and memories,
Johnson recreates a city and a childhood destroyed by fascism. Events
which took place under the Nazi occupation had a profound effect on
Bachmann both artistically and personally.
The posthumously published fragment, Versuch einen Vater zu
finden, consists of the first 35 pages of Johnson's next project, Heute
neunzig Jahr. It chronicles Heinrich Cresspahl's history as a young man
and soldier in the Great War in years leading up to the events described in
Jahrestage. The project--which Mecklenburg describes as "a mosaic of
facts and signs, dates and sources, documents and oral evidence processed
into hypotheses, episodes and images, and all with a strong degree of
personal involvement"43--was left uncompleted at Johnson's death in 1984.
The search for information is undertaken after Heinrich's death by his
daughter, Gesine. Though Johnson's final intentions for the novel can only
be guessed at, this preliminary fragment details another attempt by Gesine
to contextualize her father's confusing, and often conflicting, actions long
after his death. Here, as in Jahrestage, Johnson portrays an individual
caught up by overwhelming historical circumstances. But in this case, it is
a past to which she has no personal access. She must rely solely on
historical documentation and personal conjecture to reconstruct the most
plausible version of her father's history.
Gesine's past and sense of identity are intimately linked with that of
her father in Jahrestare. Heinrich Cresspahl's life story, which also
comprises a significant portion of the novel, is the story of modern
Germany. When Gesine begins with her reconstruction of his story, he has
been living abroad in the Netherlands and England for ten years. While on
43 Norbert Mecklenburg, "'Ei Junge aus dem Dreikaiserjahr': Uwe Johnson's
'Versuch, einen Vater zu finden,'" trans. Sarah Brickwood, Literature on the Threshold.
The German Novel in the 1980s. eds. Arthur Williams, Stuart Parkes and Roland Smith
(New York/ Oxford/ Munich: Berg, 1990) 36.
vacation in Mecklenburg in the summer of 1931, Cresspahl becomes
enamored with Lisbeth Papenbrock, the youngest daughter of a wealthy
Jerichow landowner and businessman. Despite an age difference of
eighteen years and Lisbeth's engagement to another man, they marry and
eventually settle in Jerichow. When an unbalanced Lisbeth commits
suicide after witnessing anti-Semitic violence in her own town during the
Reichskristallnacht, Heinrich is left to raise Gesine alone. During the war
he simultaneously works for the German Luftwaffe at a local airfield while
spying for the British. In 1945 assumes the thankless job as Jerichow's
mayor; first under British occupation, then under the Russians. Some
months later he is incarcerated, and spends two and a half years in a
Russian prison. He is finally acquitted in May, 1948. Like his daughter,
Heinrich is subjected to a series of sociopolitical realities beginning with
German unification under Bismarck and ending with East German
socialism. In contrast to Gesine, who is content to observe from the
sidelines, he is an active participant in the political events of his time,
driven by circumstances and the will to survive rather than ideology,.
In each of Johnson's works, documented history is both examined
and challenged. Like most other writers of his generation, truth in both
history and narration is a central issue for Johnson. The reality of a
divided post-war Germany was that nothing could be taken at face value:
Alienation from language and material was an
especially difficult problem for post-war artists. The
observation of the propaganda practices employed by the
Nazis, the defeat of that system and the reeducationn' of
Germans by the victorious Allies clearly sensitized the
generation to which Johnson belonged in a special way
to the dangers of taking at face value official
pronouncements of the truth.44
44van der Will 172.
Mecklenburg views this central theme as a series of overlapping processes:
"... how is it possible to get from the crust to the core, from political history
to the history of an individual, from the facts to the truth?"45 Gesine finds
that the impact of historical interpretation is immediate and personal as
she turns to documentary materials in her attempt to reconstruct the past.
In Johnson's work, any compromise between the individual and
sociopolitical reality--whether in the form of "ein dritter Weg," Dubcek's
"socialism with a human face," or Gesine's illusory "moralische Schweiz,
in die wir emigrieren konnen" (I, 382)-- remains out of reach. In his study,
which reexamines the political dimension of Johnson's works, Kurt Fickert
is overly optimistic in his characterization of Johnson's protagonists in
their struggle against political circumstances:
Jakob, Karsch, and perhaps B. have been sequestered in
disillusionment, the primary state of mind resulting
from the realization that they are powerless to change
the course of human events, even to the extent that they
might at least maintain their own integrity On the
other hand, D., whom B. failed to appreciate, Karin, and
the Gesine of the Mutma/fungen fiber Jakob all have the
capacity to effect a compromise in the struggle between
conscience and political reality; they learn that
individuality can persevere against the forces of
conformism by way of accommodating themselves to the
existing situation, by making use of it, or by contending
with it in a place where choice is still a viable factor.46
Regardless of the eventual outcome, the thematic thread which links all of
Johnson's novels is the paradoxical co-existence of political reality and
private life. Even those figures who seem to affect a balance between the
45Mecklenburg, "'Ein Junge aus dem Dreikaiserjahr': Uwe Johnson's 'Versuch,
einen Vater zu finden" 35.
46 Kurt Fickert, Neither Left nor Right. The Politics of Individualism in Uwe
Johnson's Work (New York: Peter Lang, 1987) 98.
two are doomed ultimately to fail. Jakob Abs, Gesine Cresspahl, Karsch
and the others are all in search of a nonpoliticized reality, an objective
assessment of history, or both.
Gesine embodies this set of problems, which occupied Johnson
throughout his writing career. In Jahrestage she becomes a point of
convergence (Zuordnungspunkt). Unlike Mutmal3ungen iiber Jakob, in
which the narrative focuses essentially on a reconstruction of past events,
the Jahrestage narrative examines the conflict between individual and
sociopolitical reality in both an historical and in a contemporary context.
The politically charged atmosphere of the late 1960s--resulting from the
controversy generated by American intervention in Vietnam and the civil
rights movement--exerts a profound influence on Gesine's life. Domestic
problems such as violence, big-city crime, police brutality and racial
tensions share the front page of The New York Times with international
news of Cold War conflicts and the Prague Spring.
Contemporary events from The New York Times are all an integral
part of Gesine's daily existence, whether directly or obliquely. Her
perceptions of America are further shaped by her socialist upbringing, as
well as her early exposure to fascism and war: ". jene friihe Erziehung
in Sozialismus sitzt fest in ihr, sie hat ja auch das Schwimmen nicht
verlernt und nur mit ausfiihrlicher Beschreibung des Anfangs [der DDRI
werde ich zeigen kinnen, wie sie es, im Alter von 35 Jahren, doch noch
einmal versuchen will mit dem Sozialismus."47 This sense of political
awareness is also evident in Gesine's detailed reconstruction of her
childhood. Childhood memories--indelibly marked by facism and
socialism--compete with contemporary events unfolding on Gesine's
47 Uwe Johnson, "Brief an Siegfried Unseld" Johnsons 'Jahrestage" 94.
internal stage. She views the task of confronting the past as a fundamental
part of the search for identity and meaning: "Vielleicht war es die
Lebensmitte, der Beginn der biologischen Riickbildung, die ihr das
Bewusstsein des Lebenslaufes umkehrte in Richtung der Vergangenheit,
in den Versuch zu finden, wie die jeweils vorvergangenen Zustande ihres
Lebens noch durch etwas anderes verbunden waren als ihr
Nacheinander."48 Only by coming to terms with her history can she move
beyond a passive acceptance of her surroundings and act decisively in
determining her future.
When the novel ends abruptly at the end of one calendar year, the
legitimacy of this entire process is radically undermined. On closer
examination, however, the groundwork for this reversal is carefully laid
throughout the fourth and final volume of Jahrestage. In the final volume
Gesine's relationship to the present is markedly different. References from
The New York Times, which form the structural and thematic framework
of the novel, become less frequent as her focus shifts away from her
immediate surroundings. This is reflected in her increased preoccupation
with the past and the future represented by the Prague Spring. These two
issues tend to overshadow the political and social concerns that dominate
the first three volumes.
As in Johnson's earlier novels, Gesine also seems doomed to failure
by the existing political reality. For his characters, options are limited.
They must choose among resignation, destruction or flight. True to form,
Jahrestage ends with Gesine's departure for Prague, which offers the hope
of a liberalized form of socialism. The significance of her renewed
commitment to socialism is negated as she is engulfed--and perhaps
48 Johnson, Begleitumstande 415.
consumed--by larger political events which lie outside the scope of the novel.
The outcome is carefully anticipated in Johnson's portrayal of the political
situation in the U.S. and the BRD during 1967/8. Unable to come to terms
with either alternative, she commits herself to the third possibility offered
by the Prague Spring. The steps leading to her ultimate break with the
West are discernible in The New York Times items included in the text.
However, when Gesine departs for Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Russian
invasion at the close of Jahrestage it is clear that there is no escape or
sanctuary from political reality.
"FUR WENN ICH TOT BIN":
THE PARAMETERS OF GESINE'S
From the outset critics have hailed Johnson's Jahrestage a
masterpiece of the post-war period. It has been described as a "Zeit-
Mosaik"1 and an "erziihlte Chronik, die Privates politisch nimmt, die
Gesellschaftskritik und Geschichtsschreibung in individueller Biographie
aufgehen lailt,"2 which "auch in unvollendeter Gestalt lingst als eines der
eigentiimlichsten und bedeutendsten [Romane] der neueren deutschen
Literatur galt."3 Peter Demetz points to the novel as belonging to those
works "die ihre Schicksale haben, und solche, die Mythen bilden, ehe wir
sie noch ganz gelesen haben."4 In his review of Jahrestage's final volume,
Fritz Raddatz calls the completed novel "eines der unverganglichen
Denkmale der Zeit .unvergleichlich in seiner schwer entzifferbaren
1 Joachim Kaiser, "Fiir wenn wir tot sind," Johnsons "Jahrestage" 168.
2 Rolf Becker, "Eine Bitte fur die Stunde des Sterbens," Johnsons "Jahrestage" 187.
3 Becker 187.
4 Demetz 194.
Kompostition aus glaserner Klarheit und ratselhafter Dunkelheit."5 Long
before its completion Rolf Michaelis included Jahrestage in the prestigious
ZEIT-Bibliothek der 100 Biicher.6
First and foremost, Jahrestage has been read as a novel which
addresses recent German history, the implications of its Nazi legacy and
the early years of the DDR. Its thematization of historical and political
trends over a period of almost forty years is in the well-established tradition
of both the political and the epochal novel (Zeitroman).7 Rolf Becker's
characterization of the work is typical of the almost exclusive focus on the
Jerichow story in Johnson scholarship: "Seine 'Jahrestage' sind ein Buch
von der Vertreibung und vom Heimweh, dieser 'schlimmen Tugend,' ein
Buch von Verletzung, Verlust und Tod."8 Roland Wiegenstein describes
the far-ranging work as "gegen das Vergessen geschrieben."9 The process
of Gesine's reconstruction of memory clearly builds on the idea of
Vergangenheitsbewaltigung in its striving to explore and edify blank areas
in Germany's historical and political consciousness. Like many post-war
5 Fritz J. Raddatz, "Ein Marchen aus Geschichte und Geschichten," Johnsons
6 Rolf Michaelis, "Uwe Johnson, Jahrestage," ZEIT-Bibliothek der 100 Bicher, ed.
Fritz J. Raddatz (Frankfurt aM.: Suhrkamp, 1980).
7 Kaiser, "Fir wenn wir tot sind" 168.
8 R. Becker 92.
9 Roland H. Wiegenstein, "Johnson lesen. VorschlAge zu den 'Jahrestagen 1-4,'"
Johnsons "Jahrestage" 205.
works, Jahrestage addresses the "Liicke im Bewulftsein."10 For Gesine,
National Socialism was neither an aberration nor a closed chapter.
However, Johnson radically expands the movement's traditional historical
parameters in his examination of recent German history.
Although the term Vergangenheitsbewiltigung is used today to
describe a wide range of literature over the last fifty years which addresses
National Socialism, it more accurately describes the thematic focus of West
German literature in the early post-war period. There was no comparable
public discussion in the DDR, whose government categorically refused to
acknowledge any ties to Nazi Germany. Early novels such as Hans Werner
Richter's Die Geschlagenen (1949) and Sie fielen aus Gottes Hand (1951),
Alfred Andersch's Die Kirschen der Freiheit (1952), and Wolfgang
Koeppen's Der Tod in Rom (1954) all sought with some success to articulate
the realities of Nazi Germany. Heinrich Boll, who became the most
prominent writer of the immediate post-war period, established himself as
"das kritische Gewissen des deutschen Volkes"11 with novels such as Wo
warst du, Adam? (1952), in which he took the Catholic church to task for its
passivity in the face of Nazi brutality. The theme of coming to terms with
the past was not just confined to prose. Max Frisch's drama, Nun singen
sie wieder (1945), was one of the earliest portrayals of Nazi atrocity. Carl
Zuckmayer's enormously successful play, Des Teufels General (1946), is
probably the best known work of Vergangenheitsbewaltigung in literature
before 1959. The horrors of the Holocaust also became the subject of poetry
10 Kurt Batt, Revolte Intern. Betrachtungen zur Literatur der DDR (Leipzig:
Verlag Philipp Reklam Jr., 1974) 104.
11 Keith Bullivant, "Heinrich B611--A Tribute," German Life and Letters 39 (1986):
for German-Jewish writers Nelly Sachs (In den Wohnungen des Todes,
1946) and Paul Celan (Mohn und Gedichtnis, 1952).
Few German writers who experienced Nazi brutality survived to
write about it. Ernst Wiechert's early survival narrative, Der Totenwald
(1947), describes five months spent at Buchenwald in 1938. In 1955 novelist
H.G. Adler published an account of the organization of everyday life in a
Nazi "show camp," Theresienstadt 1941-45: Das Antlitz einer Zwangs-
remeinschaft. Such unvarnished first-hand accounts are rare, and are
seldom written in German. For the most part, early post-war literature
addresses the experiences of non-Jewish Germans far removed from the
front and the camps. Of primary concern are the issues of complicity and
guilt. However, stories of individual struggle common in post-war
literature are at odds with collective behavior. Portrayals of suffering and
pathos on the part of individuals swept along by historical events did little to
explain Nazi successes on a national scale. This literature mirrors a
society which displays only limited comprehension of individual moral
responsibility in the Endlosung. Consistently individuals were portrayed as
at odds with anonymous, monolithic institutions (i.e. the military, the
camp, the government). Early examples include little or no discussion of
the broader political and social issues which first enabled Hitler's rise to
power and later led to widespread cooperation with his policies. There was
also little sense of continuity between the years leading up to and following
1945. While many of the early literary attempts at Vergangenheits-
bewdltigung confronted the reading public with extremely uncomfortable
issues of the recent past, these works did not expressly address the
cumulative consequences of individual actions or passivity, examine the
wider socio-historical context of Fascism or question too closely West
Germany's post-war path.
The close of the 1950s marks a turning point in literary perceptions of
the past, as demonstrated by the two definitive, but vastly different
examples of literature dealing with Germany's Nazi past, Heinrich Boll's
Billiard um halbzehn and Ginter Grass' Die Blechtrommel. These two
novels are decidedly different from earlier works focusing on isolated
individuals and events:
Ob Boll, Grass, Lenz oder Johnson, sie all thematisieren
.und zwar gegen den Strich politologischer
Theoriebildung, durch deren Strukturgitter das sich als
moralische Personlichkeit diinkende Individuum
zumeist durchfallt, die Verstrickung des einzelnen in
dem undurchdringlichen Gestrupp politischer
Interessen und Machtpositionen. Sie alle versuchen
literarische LSsungen fir die sich aus solchen
Verstrickungen ergebenden Gewissensprobleme zu
entwickeln, die die Integritat des einzelnen und letztlich
auch seine personal Identitat bedrohen.12
In fictional guise both Boll and Grass look to Germany's prewar years as a
prelude to the Third Reich. In both novels the popular cultural myth of a
Stunde Null, or a complete break with the past, is shown to be a pathetic
The introduction of this theme initiated two important developments
in literature addressing Vergangenheitsbewaltigung. The phenomenon of
National Socialism is discussed in a considerably wider historical and
social context than was previously the case. Even more important is the
realization that, in the aftermath of two world wars in which Germany was
the aggressor, certain social and cultural traits had contributed to the
12 Beckes 64.
public's susceptibility to authoritarian thinking and behavior. These are
factors which still play a significant role in contemporary German society,
as well as in literature:
Es sind mir wichtige Namen genannt worden: Eich und
Huchel, Koeppen und Kastner. Ich weiB nicht, was die
Genannten bestimmt hat, so zu iiberleben. Ich kann ihr
Verhalten wahrend der Nazizeit (weiterdichten und
publizieren) nicht wagen, doch nehme ich an, daB jeder
fiir sich sein Verhalten am Schicksal jener
Schriftsteller gemessen hat, die Deutschland verlassen
muBten, die in den Selbstmord getrieben wurden, die
man erschlagen hat. Oder sie haben sich spiter an
Autoren messen miissen, die gleichfalls geblieben
waren und iiberlebten, doch ohne das von den Nazis
schlau eingeraiumte Gehege zu nutzen.13
The documentary literature which emerged in the early Sixties
honed in on the role played by ordinary citizens who, for reasons of their
own, actively participated in or passively condoned the actions of the Nazi
government. Proceedings and testimony from war crimes trials became
tools with which to examine the role played by individuals in context of
larger events. Unlike many earlier literary works addressing
Vergangenheitsbewaltigung, in which crimes against Jews were
invariably committed by madmen, they become nightmares of conformity in
documentary literature. In her first-hand account of one of the most
sensational war crimes trials, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), Hannah
Arendt portrays Adolf Eichmann, the orchestrater of Hitler's Endlosung,
as a man who is both deceptively normal and horrifically flawed. He is an
embodiment of dangerous extremes. He displays an abject conformity to
authority, a complete subjugation of moral considerations to the attainment
of political goals, and an ordinariness so profound as to be evil. She sees in
13 Giinter Grass, Kopfreburten oder Die Deutschen sterben aus (Darmstadt and
Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1980) 23.
him "die Banalitat des Bosen" characteristic of the "millions of ordinary
men who differed from Eichmann only in being differently employed."14
Dramatic interpretations of the Nuremburg and the Frankfurt Auschwitz
Trials, as well as of Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem all emphasize this
Some significant documentary dramas from the mid-Sixties are
based on materials generated by war crimes trials: Die Ermittlung (1965)
by Peter Weiss, Joel Brand. Die Geschichte eines Geschafts (1965) by
Heinar Kipphardt, and prozeB in niirnberg (1967) by DDR dramatist Rolf
Schneider. Though they are based on actual documentary materials these
works are not without their problems. The selected materials fit to some
extent the playwright's predetermined agenda. However, the
dramatization of trial proceedings neatly circumvents several major
obstacles in writing about the Holocaust. Events are related in hind-sight
rather than reenacted. Crimes and atrocities are recounted by both victims
and perpetrators in a controlled, factually scripted situation. The
courtroom itself creates a well-known visual parameter in which
incomprehensible events are explored. The script utilizes the same
historical language that played such a crucial role in the Nazi's success.
Lastly, there is the structure of the trial itself whose sole purpose is to
determine responsibility for crimes committed. The trial process itself sets
distinct criteria for the types of evidenciary material permitted. The
building of the case creates forward momentum in a drama where the
verdict is a foregone conclusion.
14 Michael Hamburger, After the Second Flood: Essays on the Postwar German
Em (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986) 37.
These dramas are significant in that they "broke through the
comfortable myth of National Socialism having been the work of a small
group of madmen, to ask telling and highly differentiated questions about
personal guilt and also about the involvement of German business in
National Socialism."15 The trial dramas all focus on the ability of ordinary
German citizens to carry out atrocities, and the inability of many to
comprehend how the sum total of their individual actions culminates in the
unthinkable. As in earlier works of Vergangenheitsbewiltigung, these
dramatists are again quick to shift a large portion of responsibility to
anonymous, monolithic forces. The significant difference is that these
contributors to the Holocaust are largely external. Capitalism and the
Allies are both popular targets. Rolf Hochhuth chastises the Catholic
Church for its politically expedient passivity during World War II in his
1962 drama Der Stellvertreter. Despite overwhelming documentary
evidence, the problem of individual responsibility remains unresolved both
in the courtroom and in literature.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s the literary focus turned from
the broad historical stage to the intimate sphere of family life. Unlike
works from the immediate post-war era, a younger generation of authors
undertook essentially factual explorations of the roles played by family
members and neighbors during the Third Reich. Often childhood
perceptions were irreconcilable with both accepted collective history and
existing archival evidence. Several novels from the 1970s view Nazi
atrocities from a very immediate, personal context and often incorporate
authentic documentary materials. Using strategies developed in
15 Keith Bullivant, 'The Spectre of the Third Reich. The West German Novel of the
1970s and National Socialism," After the 'Death of Literature.' West German Writing of
the 1970s, ed. Keith Bullivant (New York: Berg, 1989) 141.
documentary dramas, several writers associated with the
Studentenbewegung turned to the materials locked away in local
Giftschranke to deconstruct "official" versions of events. Younger writers,
too young to have actively participated in Nazi society yet indelibly marked
by fascism, confronted perpetrators and Mitlaufer within their own
immediate social circles. Unlike the documentary playwrights, however,
they tend to be critical of historical documents and the circumstances
under which they were created. This generation was exposed early to Nazi
propaganda, censorship and Allied reeducation efforts. They were
suspicious of the unreflected transformation from fascism to democratic
capitalism. The result was an inherent mistrust of language and
institutions of authority which characterize the Vaterromane and
documentary novels of the Seventies and early Eighties. They all explore
the discrepancies between fabricated and factual versions of events during
the Third Reich perpetrated within the family and what effect this had on
their upbringing and family dynamics.16 Some better known examples
include Peter Hartling's Nachgetragene Liebe (1980), Christoph Meckel's
Suchbild (1980), Giinter Seuren's Abschied von einem Mdrder (1980). In
these Vaterromane the writers assume the mantle of judge and jury in
evaluating the actions of family and neighbors.
Manfred Franke's documentary novel, Mordverliufe (1973), is typical
of this period. As an adult he sets out to uncover what really happened in
his small Rhineland town during the Reichskristallnacht. The novel's
subtitle ("9J10.XI.1938 Ein Protokoll von der Angst, von MiBhandlung und
Tod, vom Auffinden der Spuren und deren Wiederentdeckung") initially
16 Keith Bullivant, Realism Today. Aspects of the Contemporary West German
Novel (Leamington Spa, Hamburg, New York: Berg, 1987) 158.
attests to the addition of a new goal for Vergangenheitsbewiltigung, that of
historical rehabilitation. But despite a thorough evaluation of available
materials this goal proves unattainable. It quickly becomes apparent that
ostensibly factual sources such as police reports, trial proceedings,
depositions, interviews, newspaper articles are all tainted. In retrospect
Franke discovers that it is impossible to differentiate between actual events
and the public fabrication, or quite literally to separate fact from fiction.
From Franke's perspective the fictionalization process of the
Reichskristallnacht assumes greater significance than his initial objective
of establishing what actually happened that night. The corruption of
documentary material to substantiate a public version of events
demonstrates how, despite the outward repudiation of violence, a society
can systematically rationalize murder and persecution. By the end of the
war the fiction was a psychological necessity. It was impossible to reconcile
the reality of the Holocaust with the faces of friends and neighbors. In the
post-war investigation by the Allies the townspeople were given an
opportunity to rectify errors in public mythology, but again fail to punish
those responsible for murder. The failure to administer justice, despite
radically changed political circumstances, becomes an indictment of not
just one small town, but of an entire society.
For Franke, the actual events of the local Reichskristallnacht are far
less damning than the townspeople's inability to act or to later take
responsibility for the horrific cumulative results of their passivity. In the
end, the evidence as it exists and the story behind its corruption bears out
his initial supposition: "Auch Nichthandeln ist Handeln."17 Both violence
17 Manfred Franke, Mordverlaufe. 9./10.XI.1938 Ein Protokoll von der Angst. von
Miihandlung und Tod. vom Auffinden der Spuren und deren Wiederentdeckune
(Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1973) 27.
and passivity played decisive roles in the systematic persecution of Jews
and other undesirables. In Mordverlaufe, as in other works of
documentary literature, Franke demonstrates with ample evidence how
victims of Nazi persecution were hurried along the route to the
concentration camps by innumerable individual instances of action or even
There are two features which distinguish Jahrestage from many
other novels of the genre. Rather than beginning with her own birth,
which neatly coincides with Hitler's assumption of power, Gesine's
historical reconstruction chronicles both the prelude and the aftermath to
National Socialism. Within the context of her story Johnson cites historical
evidence to demonstrate his premise that Hitler's Third Reich was neither
an insular historical epoch nor the culmination of a tragic historical chain
of events. There are numerous political, social and economic ties which
link it firmly to the failed Weimar Republic and the American Vietnam
War era. The New York narrative becomes the crucial component in his
argument. By placing the historical reconstruction in a contemporary and,
most importantly, non-German context Johnson accomplishes several
objectives. Because of the complex interrelationship between the Jerichow
and New York stories, National Socialism is effectively chained to an
historical continuum leading directly to the present.
Although Gesine is separated from Germany's Nazi legacy by an
ocean and almost a quarter century, reminders of her childhood
experiences are everywhere. She regularly comes across related items in
The New York Times. Her interest in modern Germany as reflected in the
text are limited: war crimes trials, developments between East and West,
the Neo-Faschist movement and former Nazis still active in the West
German government. The Cresspahl's Upper Manhattan neighborhood is
home to many dislocated Jews. In addition to Mrs. Ferwalter, a
concentration camp survivor who ironically suppresses any sense of anger
or outrage against the Germans in her desire to preserve a precarious
historical mythology, Gesine has other acquaintances who are victims of
the Third Reich. She describes sociology professor Dmitri Weiszand as an
"Absolvent mehrerer Lager in Osteuropa (I, 145). Her tutor for Czech,
Anatol Kreslil, lost his wife to starvation while they were in hiding from the
Nazis. She also finds National Socialism a facet of her own identity. In the
eyes of others it is often impossible to separate her from her homeland's
Fascist past. It is a distinction that Gesine herself is often incapable of
making. In the New York story her surroundings and the paper are a
constant reminder of the links of history.
At the bank, among friends, as well as within the context of her own
historical reconstruction, Gesine cannot escape the label of "die Deutsche."
Whether the subject is politics or history Gesine is expected to justify her
country, and by extension, herself:
Erklaren Sie uns das. Es sind doch Ihre Landsleute,
Mrs. Cresspahl. Versuchen Sie uns, dies zu erkliren.
While any explanation is doomed to failure from the outset, it must
nevertheless be attempted. The novel is in effect an attempt to fulfill the
With a few exceptions, such as Christa Wolfs Kindheitsmuster,
Vergangenheitsbewaltigung remained primarily a West German concept:
"The increased emphasis in the Federal Republic on Bewditigung of the
Nazi past, particularly by means of a self-exploratory, self-revelatory
psychological process, converged with--and possibly helped create--literary
tendencies toward split perspectives and the unveiling of the author within
the text ."18 Like Johnson, Wolf also considers strenuous engagement
with the past an unending, if unavoidable, process: "Fiir diejenigen, die in
der Zeit des Faschismus aufwuchsen, kann es kein Datum geben, von dem
ab sie ihn als 'bewiltigt' erklaren k6nnen."19 It is not only an undertaking
for Germans, but for other societies.
In Jahrestage Johnson removes the discussion of
Vergangenheitsbewdltigung from a strictly West German context, and
with it any pretenses of progress in that area: "Ich kann mich weder von
der deutschen Vergangenheit noch von der deutschen Gegenwart
dispensieren."20 Gesine systematically chips away at her armor of
socialized consciousness in an American venue against a background of
international events. Her New York City surroundings places Gesine's
reevaluation of the past in an entirely new context: "So zieht sie dem
Abstand von 6000 Kilometer Geschichte ein, so macht sie uns den hiesigen
Aufenthalt angenehm" (I, 173). The distance enables "eine die nationalen
Grenze hinter sich lassende Blickweise."21 Her efforts are also in part a
concerted effort to address her daughter's curiosity about her family and
homeland. Marie's separation from her German roots is more than
18 Sandra Frieden, "In eigener Sache": Christa Wolfs 'Kindheitsmuster,'"
GermanQuarterly 54 (1981): 473.
19 Hans Kaufmann, "Gesprach mit Christa Wolf," Weimarer Beitraie 20 (1974):
20 As quoted by Theo Buck in his article, "Anstande mit der Wahrheit," Text+
iritik 65/66 (1980): 20.
21 Buck 21.
geographical. She represents a generation whose knowledge of the Second
World War is entirely second hand, but is aware that issues from the past
continue to impact the Cresspahl family's daily existence. Thus, Johnson's
Jerichow story transcends both political divisions and generation gaps.
What distinguishes Jahrestage from other earlier works addressing
National Socialism is that Gesine's reexamination of the past results in the
undermining of the Vergangenheitsbewiltigung process itself:
Es ist notwendig, das festzustellen um desto
unbefangener und vorbehaltloser fiber das sprechen zu
konnen, was auch an diesem Buch--wie an den
vorangegangenen--kostbar und unvergleichlich ist.
Dazu gehirt in erster Linie Gesines heimlicher Zweifel
an der Tauglichkeit ihrer Vergangenheitsarbeit. Gesine
versenkt sich ja nicht proustisch ins Gewesene, um aus
seiner Vereinigung mit dem Gegenwartigen etwas
Allgemeines, ein Gesetz, eine "ewige" Wahrheit zu
gewinnen. Was sie will, ist vielmehr eine praktische
Lektion fuir ihre Tochter.22
She does not seek reconcile past and present in order to come to terms with
contemporary Germany. She in fact rejects the BRD as a viable political
alternative because it pretends to have adequately addressed the past
despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The discussion
surrounding the statue of limitations for war crimes is the first West
German current event mentioned in Jahrestage: "Die westdeutche
Regierung will die Verjahrung fir Morde und Massenausrottung in der
Nazizeit ganz und gar aufheben, vielleicht" (I, 21).23 The overwhelming
majority of BRD items reported in The New York Times are in some way
22 Blocker, "Prager Traum--New Yorker Wirklichkeit" 165.
23 The significance of this particular news item in Jahrestage is often mis-
construed in secondary literature. See Ch.6 for further discussion.
connected to the Third Reich. There are, of course, a number of articles
appearing during 1967/8 which deal with completely different issues,
although they do not usually make the front page, unlike the more
sensational reports from the courtroom. In any case, Gesine does not
generally make note of them in the narrative. This topic's prevalence in
The New York Times, and subsequently in Jahrestage, suggests at least
from a U.S. perspective that Germany's identity remains inseparable from
National Socialism for the foreseeable future:
S. .nur soll die jeweils erzahlte Vergangenheit uns
unsere gegenwartigen Verhaltnisse erklaren. Wir
konnen die Nachrichten von unseren VorgAngern
gebrauchen, wenn sie auch Nachrichten ffir und fiber
The central role played by Marie in Gesine's exploration of the past is also a
strong argument that, unlike in the legal system, there should be no
question of statute of limitations on the past. As Christa Wolf suggests, it is
an ongoing process with no foreseeable conclusion.
In Johnson's Jahrestage and Wolfs Kindheitsmuster the
questioning of public and private history is intimately linked to the
determination of individual identity. Gesine and Nelly, her counterpart in
Kindheitsmuster, both set out to recover an authentic version of childhood
under the Nazis as a response to a post-war society based on historical
fabrication and alienation: "Niemals haben Menschen so vieles vergessen
sollen, um funktionsfahig zu bleiben, wie die, mit denen wir leben."25
Wolfs historical reconstruction also acknowledges the immediacy of
Germany's recent past in contemporary life:
24 Uwe Johnson, "Vorschlage zur Priifung eines Romans" 31-2.
25 Christa Wolf, Kindheitsmuster (Darmstadt/ Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1987) 451.
[. [es] ist nicht tot; es ist nicht einmal vergangen. Wir
trennen es von uns ab und stellen uns fremd.26
For the protagonists of both novels the exploration of childhood becomes a
means by which they can reclaim their sense of self and purpose.
Repression used as a survival mechanism sets a dangerous precedent.
Their individual projects gain particular significance as their young
daughters become politically cognizant. Wolf uses news events in alluding
to recurrent patterns of socialization and the sometimes destructive results
on a world-wide scale. Ongoing conflict in Southeast Asia, Chile and the
Middle East, along with an increasingly chilly Cold War all have their
historical counterparts. The implications of these patterns are personal as
well as global. Likewise, Gesine can find ample evidence for the failure of
Vergangenheitsbewiltigung in the news from West Germany:
Immer noch haben sie in Westdeutschland einen Greis
zum Staatsprasidenten, der im Jahre 1944 Bauplane ffir
Konzentrationslager unterzeichnet haben soll. Er
glaubt nicht, dal er es tat; einen Eid k6nnte er nicht
darauf ablegen. Ein amerikanischer Schriftensach-
verstandiger hat die Signatur auf den Plinen als die des
Staatsprasidenten erkannt. Ein bonner Student, der
neben dem Namen des Staatsprasidenten in einer
Ehrenrolle die Berufsbezeichnung "K.Z.-Baumeister"
eintrug, wurde von der Universitat gewiesen. Die
Christlich-Demokratische Union, der die Sozial-
demokraten beim Regieren helfen, antwortet auf
Forderungen nach dem Riicktritt des Belasteten: Wer
das verlange, wolle nur die Koalition unter Druck setzen
und die Weichen fiir die Wahl einer anderen stellen; das
ist der Stellenwert von Konzentrationslagern in der
westdeutschen Politik; ein solches Land ist das, und
Mrs. Ferwalter sagt: Sicherlich mufite jeder das
damals tun, gewil hatte er eine Ehefrau. (II, 788-9)
26 Wolf 9.
The furor over Bundesprasident Heinrich Liibke's complicity in the
construction of Nazi concentration camps lasts several weeks. Gesine has
little to say about his participation in the Endlosung or the current scandal.
She lets his political maneuverings speak for themselves. The focus of the
newspaper items in the text is clearly on how clear-cut evidence of Liibcke's
collaboration is received by the press, the public and politicians. His evasive
replies to the charges, along with his party's reaction to the scandal,
illustrate clearly the government's failure to confront latent elements of
National Socialism from within. The backlash against those who brought
Liibcke's collaboration to light is particularly vicious. The student who
brings the documents to the public's attention is expelled from the
university. The CDU decries the accusations against Liibcke as blatant
political mudslinging. That the signature on the blueprints--material
evidence authenticated by an American handwriting expert--exists at all is
of seemingly secondary importance. The need to rationalize proves
overwhelming on both a political and a personal level, as illustrated by Mrs.
Ferwalter. The content of the debate is a clear indicator of the current West
German political climate.
In their examinations of childhood under fascism, Johnson and Wolf
both address the layers of socialized consciousness which makes it possible
to sustain this sort of public self-deception over time. In Kindheitsmuster.
the reconstruction process centers around the question: "Wie sind wir so
geworden, wie wir heute sind?" Wolfs approach to the past is a self-
exploratory analysis of psychological process which probes a childhood that
is "vergessen, verdraingt, verleugnet."27 The tenacity of the survival
mechanism proves a stumbling block for Wolfs autobiographical persona
27 Wolf 12.
in the novel. For her the key to the past--and ultimately to freedom from its
repetitive patterns--is an understanding of the subjective process. Wolf
points unequivocally to "dieser fatale Hang der Geschichte zu
Wiederholungen, gegen den man sich wappnen muB."28 Similarly,
Johnson's protagonist struggles to obtain some measure of objectivity. His
emphasis is on the process of analysis and change. The exploration of
Gesine's awareness (Bewuf/tsein) and perception only lays the groundwork
for the writer's true purpose. In an interview with Manfred Durzak,
Johnson articulates the crucial second step which is his principal objective.
It is the moment when the reader recognizes:
Ja, so wie es da geschrieben steht, so ist es, so leben wir.
Aber wollen wir so leben?"29
For Gesine, an understanding of how individual actions (i.e. those of family
and neighbors) contributed to past events is a necessary prerequisite to
responsible action in the present. Wolf believes recognition of such patterns
is the beginning of their exorcism. Conversely, Johnson finds that there is
no escape from the patterns of the past.
The news from West Germany indicates that elements of National
Socialism are deep entrenched in the highest echelons of nation politics.
The uproar over the discovery of Bundesprasident Heinrich Liibcke's
signature on concentration camp blueprints is only one example.
Bundeskanzler--and former Nazi party member--Kurt Georg Kiesinger
shows blatant disregard for the Vergangenheitsbewiltigung concept when
28 Wolf 159.
29 Manfred Durzak, "Dieser langsame Weg zu einer griileren Genauigkeit.
Gesprich mit Uwe Johnson," Gespriche iiber den Roman. Formbestimmungen und
Analysen, ed. Manfred Durzak (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1976) 431. See also
Johnson's essay on the novel, "Vorschlage zur Priifung eines Romans."
he appoints another "ehemaligen Angehdriger und Beamter der Nazis" to
the post of party speaker (I, 253), who remains unnamed in the text itself.
Gesine is so incensed by the successful political rehabilitation of Franz
Josef StrauB that she lists it among her reasons for leaving the BRD. The
man, whom she refuses to name in the text, served as "'Offizier fir
wehrgeistige Fuhrung' Voraussetzung: aktiver Nationalsozialist" and
afterwards "gab er sich aus als Widerstandskampfer." His subsequent slick
political maneuverings--upon which Gesine elaborates over the next three
pages--have brought him within reach of what he truly desires: "Der Mann
mochte Kanzler von Westdeutschland werden und Atomwaffen unter den
Druckknopf bekommen" (IV, 1874). Straul embodies the egotism and
moral bankruptcy rampant in West German politics. A return to the BRD
under such circumstances is impossible: "Hatt ich je Heimweh nach der
westdeutschen Politik, ein Bild hangt ich mir auf von dem" (IV, 1874).
West German political reality belies any pretense of progress in confronting
the recent past.
Gesine, like other Johnson characters, is locked into the identity
determined by her sociopolitical environment:
S. ich gebe dir recht, immer von neuem verwechselt er
die Person mit der staatlichen Herkunft. Fur ihn bin ich
Deutschland, das vorige und die beiden jetzigen, fiir ihn
habe ich manchmal kein Gesicht am Kopf, sondern
nationals Pigment, ihm bin ich verantwortlich fiir die
westdeutsche Bundesbahn und fur die westdeutschen
Nazis. (I, 145)
The societies in which she participated have all left their mark. As an
individual she is powerless to bring about significant change. Even if she
could manage to transcend the pasts' internalized patterns, she would be
unable to change the attitudes of those around her.
Johnson's Jahrestage simultaneously explores and criticizes the
concept of Vergangenheitsbewaltigung. However, the novel's closing
image reinforces the links of history: "Wir hielten einander an den
Handen: ein Kind; ein Mann unterwegs an den Ort wo die Toten sind; und
sie, das Kind das ich war" (IV, 1891). This same interrelationship of past
and present, particularly in the confrontation of German fascism, is echoed
in Christa Wolfs Kindheitsmuster, where "der heutige Tag ist schon der
letzte Tag der Vergangenheit."3o
Through the figure of Gesine Johnson articulates the concerns of an
entire generation seeking to define their identity as citizens of post-war
Das ist einer Person vom Jahre 1933, die im Jahre 67/68
nicht mehr in Deutschland sitzt, wo sie geboren ist,
sondern in New York, und die in den eigenttimlichen
Zustand geraten ist, der manche Leute um die 30
ankommt. Das ist der Zustand, in dem man sich
unverhofft, ohne daB man es vorher geahnt hat, fragt:
"Woher komme ich eigentlich, was sind meine Eltern
gewesen, was ist das fur ein Land, in dem ich
aufgewachsen bin, wie kamen meine Eltern dazu, daB
ich 1933 geboren wurde in dem Zustand Deutschlands,
der damals war?" Das fragt sich diese Person. Sie ist
sicherlich nicht die einzige, die sich das fragt, und sie
versucht nun durch Erinnerungsversuche, durch
Rekonstruktionsversuche, sich selber zu finden.31
Clearly, Jahrestage is a novel about history and the historical process,
although Gesine's historical reconstruction takes place in a distinctly non-
German context. Up to this point, however, this one-sided view of the novel
has all but eclipsed the role of New York City as Jerichow's temporal,
thematic and structural opposite. Her new vantage point, and eventual
30 Wolf 9.
31 Schmid 255.
rejection of both German political alternatives, projects these issues on the
American stage. There has been little discussion about the novel as a
historical chronicle of America in the late 1960s, which over the last thirty
years has achieved its own historicity.
The significance of New York and the issues facing the U.S. during
1967/8 in Johnson's Jahrestage were of only secondary interest to critics
until the early 1980s. Most subscribed to Christian Gebert's position that
Johnson, like Columbus who embarked for India only to discover America,
"namlich, etwas gescheiter durch die modernen Verkehrsverhaltnisse,
kam nach Amerika und entdeckte Mecklenburg."32 Only with the
publication of the long-awaited fourth and final volume of Jahrestage in
1983 did the examination of Johnson's Amerikabild gain momentum. It
was also not by chance that this new direction in Johnson criticism
coincided with a trend among American Germanists to emphasize
American-German interrelationships in literature and other areas. The
early 1980s saw a spate of publications addressing the U.S image in
literature. As a result well-known works by a range of writers from
Goethe, Heinrich Heine and many 20th century writers were reexamined
in a new context. Post-war works in particular were at the forefront of the
Beginning in the 1950s the U.S. is used by several post-war writers as
a vast background against which the protagonist evolves--or unravels. In
many cases the events are loosely autobiographical. America plays a
prominent role in several of Max Frisch's novels, as well as in his
Taeebuch 1966-1971. In their far-reaching quests for identity, the
protagonists of Homo faber (1957), Stiller (1954), Mein Name sei Gantenbein
32 Christian Gebert, "United States of Mecklenburg," Johnsons "Jahrestage" 147.
(1964) and Montauk (1975) all traverse large tracts of the country. In
contrast to Johnson, Frisch's depictions of the U.S. fall more or less in the
category of Reiseprosa. Typically, America takes shape in his novels as a
composite of highways, cities and airports. The scenery is secondary to the
character's futile search for meaning. Another example is Wolfgang
Koeppen's travelogue, Amerikafahrt (1959).33
In general, Durzak characterizes this portrayal of America in
German literature before the mid-Sixties as stilted and cliched:
Ein Amerika-Image, das kaum mehr in erster Linie von
der Literatur propagiert wurde, sondern an dem die
Literatur gleichsam nur partizipierte, wie von allem
zahlreiche--bereits analysierte--Reiseberichte belegen.
Die Massenmedien, politische und kulturelle
Journalistik, haben in erster Linie dieses neue
Amerika-Image kreiert, das weitgehend affirmative
Geltung hatte und das publizistische Feigenblatt fiir eine
politische Machtposition abgab, mit der man sich haufig
The image of the U.S. as a patriarchal democratic superpower suffered as
the Cold War progressed. A younger generation of German writers began
to question long-entrenched East-West political positions, and the severe
repercussions the conflict had for Germany in particular. Durzak also
points to American intervention in Vietnam as the point where "der gro3e
Bruder, der sich zum Hiiter der westlichen Freiheit in der Welt
aufgeschwungen hatte, an rapider moralischer Auszehrung zu erkranken
[begann]."35 Reinhard Lettau's scathingly critical Taglicher Faschismus.
33 For a more in-depth discussion of the Amerikabild in German literature refer to
Manfred Durzak's study, Das Amerika-Bild in der deutschen Gerenwartsliteratur.
Historische Voraussetzungen und aktuelle Beispiele (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1979).
34 Durzak, "Abrechnung mit einer Utopie?" 176.
35 Durzak, "Abrechnung mit einer Utopie?" 177.
Amerikanische Evidenz aus 6 Monaten (1971), which describes a nation
saturated with fascism and violence, is indicative of a new image of
America. Similarly, Jiirg Federspiel's dark portrait of New York City,
Museum des Hasses. Tage in Manhattan (1969), describes a cold, inhuman
society self-destructing from within.
By contrast, in a tamer version of the loosely structured "road novel"
inspired by Beat writer Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957) Peter Handke
uses the U.S. as a completely apolitical backdrop for a warring couple in
Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied (1972). Several works of varying
quality were the result of writer-in-residence visits such as Martin
Walser's campus novel, Brandung (1985), Gunter Kunert's Der andere
Planet. Ansichten von Amerika (1974), along with such later works as
Dieter Wellershoffs Florida Reisebericht, Im Lande des Alligators (1992).
The Jahrestage narrative can be broken down into three basic
threads, which are nominally linked by the collaborative project between
Gesine and her narrative partner. On one level, the novel recounts
Gesine's experiences "as a citizen and a taxpayer of New York."36 The
reconstructive narrative depicting Gesine's recollections of childhood and
early adulthood in the small Mecklenburg town of Jerichow constitutes a
second level. A third narrative strand expressed in italics, consists almost
entirely of real and imagined exchanges. Often these are between Gesine
and long-dead figures from her past. Each narrative strand is
characterized by a distinct style, viewpoint, and historical time. These
three separate narrative strands intersect in Gesine, who is the focal point
36A. Leslie Wilson, "'An unacknowledged humorist': An Interview with Uwe
Johnson. Sheerness-in-Kent, 20 April 1982," Dimension. Contemporary German Arts
and Letters 15 (1982): 412.
and primary narrator of this novel encompassing The City, The Sixties,
and Germany's recent past.
The three strands function independently in the narrative, but share
a degree of thematic interdependence. Transitions between them results in
an implied thematic counterpoint. Gesine's past and present experiences
coexist with a larger sociopolitical reality in which she is a minute, but
relevant, participant. Peter Beckes describes the relationship between the
two as an "enge Verzahnung zwischen Privatsphare und offentlichen
Belangen, zwischen der 'Banalitit' des Alltags und den groBen politischen
Staatsaktionen in beiden Wirklichkeiten."37 The proximity of items from
different narrative threads in the text imply associations between past and
present events, rather than through any overt intervention by the narrator.
However, in a novel which many critics consider as being one about recent
German history, the coexistence of the Jerichow and New York narrative
strands has long been a source of pointed criticism:
Schon dieser kokette Provinzialismus, modisch
konfrontiert den New Yorker Kulissen (alles natiirlich
mit Akribie beobachtet, oh!, da stimmt jedes Detail): Mal
Dialekt aus Mecklenburg, gleich darauf die headlines
der "New York Times," damit niemand sagen kbnne,
man sei unaktuell, die unertragliche PreziositAt, die aus
US-Negern "Birger afrikanischer Abstammung," aus
Landstreichern "Stadtstreicher" und aus den in
Vietnam Gefallenen "beruflich am Krieg Gestorbene"
macht. .Und dann die vielen falschen,
37 Beckes 65.
38 Peter Hamm, "Uwe Johnson, der Schwierige," Johnsons "Jahrestage" 154.
Gebert is not alone in considering these passages "von geringem
Interesse."39 Consistently, critics' objections to Johnson's obsessive
attention to detail is limited to the contemporary narrative strand,
especially the inclusion of contemporary events from The New York Times.
For many, the coexistence of the two narrative strands implies a
problematic comparison between Nazi Germany and the U.S. in the late
Sixties, an assumption which Johnson vehemently denies.
In her study Uwe Johnsons "Jahrestage": Die Gegenwart als
variierende Wiederholung der Vergangenheit, Roberta Hye argues--not
entirely without success in some cases--for the direct correlation between
past and present events through the continual recurrence of evil.40 Her
argument for Johnson's portrayal of human history as an endless, violent
cycle is based on a perceived pattern of correlation between newspaper
items and historical events. She further contends that Johnson uses these
parallel events to suggest similarities between America in the late 1960s
and Nazi Germany:
Das Gleiche wiederholt sich nach Johnsons Vorstellungen
nicht. Wohl aber kehrt Ahnliches wieder zum Beispiel,
obwohl der Zweite Weltkrieg einmalig ist, kommen Kriege
in der Geschichte immer wieder vor und mit ihnen
verwandte Erscheinungen. In Jahrestage sind die
Variationen in der Wiederholung durch die spezifischen
Daten--1938 und 1968--durch die Personen--die
Vergangenheitsgeschichte gehort Heinrich Cresspahl und
die Gegenwartsgeschichte seiner Tochter Gesine--und
schliefl3ich durch die Schauplatze des Romans--Jerichow
39 Gebert 149.
40 "Uwe Johnson zieht zwar Parallelen zwischen dem Deutschland der dreiliger
Jahre und dem Amerika von 1968. Aber er bleibt nicht bei der ParallelitAt der zwei
Perioden stehen, sondern geht dariiber hinaus und stellt mit seinem Werk eine
Geschichtserfahrung dar: Die Gegenwart erscheint als variierende Weiderholung der
Vergangenheit." Roberta Hye, Uwe Johnsons "Jahrestage": Die Gegenwart als
variierende Wiederholung der Vergangenheit (Frankfurt a.MJ New York: Peter Lang,
und die Stadt New York--gegeben. Aber obwohl die Daten,
Namen und Orte verschieden sind, bleiben das Bild der
Welt und das Bild des Menschen in beiden im Roman
geschilderten Epochen sich gleich. Der Mensch Andert
sich nicht; das besagt, er ist genauso base in Amerika 1968
wie er 1938 Deutschland war.41
Hye's supposition, however, goes too far in establishing correlations
between the two narrative threads, especially in her insistence on the
interchangeability of historical epochs. She claims that the similarity
between the Gestapo and the CIA "ist nicht zu unterschatzen." In her
estimation there is also little appreciable difference between the CIA
practices and the methods employed by the East German government.42
She views the "Fangeliste" hung at every post office with the rumored
"komputerisierten Karteien des CIAs fur jeden Burger afrikanischer
Abstammung."43 In this case, Hye fails to distinguish between fact and
fiction, contrary to Johnson's own position cited in the text. The supposed
CIA files on African-Americans are part of a larger conspiracy theory in
which this information will be used to incarcerate them in camps to
preclude a racial civil war. This scenario--among others which are equally
questionable--is part of the small talk at a cocktail party given by Grifin
Seydlitz.44 The speaker, Anselm Kristlein,45 makes a number of
41 Hye 11.
42 Hye 55.
43 Hye 55-6.
44 The character is modeled after Hannah Arendt who lived near Johnson on
45 "(Auch) Romanfigur von Martin Walser." Kleines Adrefbuch fur Jerichow
und New York. Ein Register zu Uwe Johnsons Roman "Jahrestage," ed. Rolf Michaelis
(Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1983) 157.
questionable comments which are either ignored or attributed to alcohol:
"Der ist immer gleich so schwer angeschlagen" (II, 877). Gesine has little
to contribute to the swirl of conversation "in diesem Abbild einer
verrottenden Gesellschaft," and leaves. Her unwillingness to speak up
becomes grounds for criticism:
Muflte sein, Gesine.
Wenn du schon hingehst, warum driickst du dich an
den Wanden herum?
Damit ich es seen kann.
Du sollst den Mund aufmachen, Gesine! (II, 878)
Hye also cites Johnson's use of Hans Magnus Enzensberger's letter, in
which he renounces his stipend at Wesleyan University in protest against
U.S. involvement in Vietnam. She sees this as evidence of deliberate
parallels within the novel, "von Uwe Johnson ausdriicklich
durchgefiihrt."46 Here again Hye falsely attributes statements to Johnson,
and ignores Gesine's subsequent comments on the matter. The parallels,
however, are clearly drawn by Enzensberger alone, as demonstrated both in
the text and the original document: "So wie in den U.S.A. heutzutage war
es in den mittleren dreifiger Jahren in Deutschland" (II, 800). Gesine
flatly dismisses his contentions:
Naomi, deswegen mag ich in Westdeutschland nicht leben.
Weil solche Leute dort Wind machen?
Ja. Solche guten Leute. (II, 803)
The last sentence is a direct reference to Johnson's essay, "Ober eine
Haltung des Protestierens" (1967), in which he pointedly criticizes those
who pay lip service to the peace movement only as long as it poses no
46 Hye 59.
personal inconvenience: "Die guten Leute wollen eine gute Welt; die guten
Leute tun nichts dazu."47 Enzensberger himself falls into this category.
His convictions are of overriding concern only when he fears the loss of his
credibility as a leftist intellectual (II, 801-2). Instead of remaining in a
place where he potentially might make a difference, he leaves for Cuba: "Er
hat eben einfach so den Gedanken, daB er von den Bewohnern Cubas mehr
lernen kann ("Freude"), als den Studenten der Wesleyan University an
politischer Haltung beibringen" (I, 802). The passage in the novel is
markedly similar to the essay in subject matter. Further, both use the
same formulated phrase, "solche Leute." Any doubt the passage alludes to
the essay as a parallel text is dispelled when Gesine states: "Vietnam ist
das Spanien unserer Generation! Das sagen solche Leute" (II, 801). This
essay originally appeared in English as part of Authors Take Sides on
Vietnam: Two Questions on the War in Vietnam Answered by Authors of
Several Nations,48 which was modeled on an immensely popular collection
of essays addressing the Spanish Civil War. The tone of this particular
passage in Jahrestage, together with the earlier essay, leaves no question
that Gesine and her narrator reject simplistic historical equations put
forward by Enzensberger and his contemporaries.
Any direct correlation between America in the 1960s and Germany in
the 1930s is also refuted by Johnson. He concedes the reciprocal
relationship between the Jerichow and New York narratives, but
consistently avoids drawing any unequivocal one-dimensional links
between Nazi Germany and the political climate in the U.S during the
47 Uwe Johnson, "Uber eine Haltting des Protestierens," Berliner Sachen 95.
48 see Cecil Woolf and John Bagguley, Authors Take Sides on Vietnam: Two
Questions on the War in Vietnam Answered by Authors of Several Nations. (London:
Peter Owen, 1967).
Vietnam War era. In an interview with Dieter Zimmer he elaborates on
the narrative function of associative chains in Jahrestaee:
Es kommen aus der amerikanischen Gegenwart sehr wohl
AnstiBe, es werden Ereignisse von damals heraufgerufen
durch Ereignisse von heute, lediglich aber heraufgerufen.
Wenn zum Beispiel bei den Unruhen in Washington eine
Hauserzeile ausgebrannt ist, so ist fiir sie die Folgerung:
So sahe ein Krieg in amerikanischen Stidten aus--Von
diesem Vorstellungsbild kommt sie zuriick auf ihren
eigenen Krieg, auf das Jahr 1945; daran schlieBt sich das
Sterben des Flughafens Mariengabe bei Jerichow an.49
Parallels within the text are purely accidental and arise naturally from the
material itself. Johnson brusquely criticized efforts to establish direct
correspondences between the two epochs:
.. ich hatte vor, diese Person bei ihrem alltaglichen
Leben in New York, bei der Erinnerung an das Echo
bestandener Tage zu zeigen. Das ist der eine Aspekt der
"Jahrestage." Der tagliche Tag ruft die Erinnerung der
Vergangenheit herauf, den anderen Aspekt. Sie
suchen diametrale Gegensatze, eindeutuge Urteile und
riicksichtslose Stellungnahmen. So kann man aber
He repeatedly warns against the inevitable inaccuracies which arise when
attempting to assign a specific correlation between present and past events
recounted by Gesine:
Parallelen begegnen sich ja nicht, das eine bedeutet nicht
das andere. Ich wiirde zum Beispiel von einem
amerikanischen Faschismus nicht sprechen. Das Wort
weist auf die historische Gebundenheit des Phdinomens, das
sich so nicht wiederholen wird. Amerika hat andere
Voraussetzungen, andere Strukturen und wird auch
49 Dieter E. Zimmer, "Eine BewuBtseinsinventur. Das Gesprich mit dem Autor:
Uwe Johnson," Johnsons "Jahrestare" 101.
50 Heinz D. Osterle, "Strukturfragen und Todesgedanken. Eine ratselhafte
Deutsch-Amerikanerin," Bilder von Amerika: Gespriche mit deutschen Schriftstellern.
ed. Heinz D. Osterle (Minster: Englische Amerikanische Studien, 1987) 127.
andere Formen finden als der italienische oder deutsche
The novel's narrative fabric is much more complex than would be indicated
by its bi-level structure. The continuous shifting between subtly
differentiated narrative perspectives is a central component of Jahrestage.
Polyperspectival narrative is no less important for Gesine's story than for
earlier novels. Jahrestage displays the same unequivocal rejection of
traditional Balzacian realism as well as of socialist realism's "abgesungene
epische Totalitat."52 As elsewhere in Johnson's prose, overlapping and/or
competing perspectives call into question the use of traditional narrative
categories (i.e. first and third person) which are also employed extensively
in the novel.
In Johnson scholarship discussion of Jahrestage's narrative
strategies has proved uneven and often contradictory. The only aspects
which will be addressed in any detail here are those pertaining to the New
York narrative, and particularly his use of documentary materials.
However, some background is necessary in order to evaluate widely
divergent conclusions concerning the novel's shifting narrative
perspectives and the gaps in existing research.
Ingeborg Gerlach reduces the narrative into its two most basic
elements. In her paradigm Gesine relates the historical Jerichow story,
while the contemporary New York strand is told by her narrative partner.
Analyses by Ingeborg Hoesterey and Peter Pokay specifically address
Johnson's problematic "Vermischung von auktorialen und personalen
51 Zimmer 101.
52 Hoesterey 24.
Erzahlsituationen,"53 which Gerlach glosses over. Both argue that in
Jahrestage Johnson adds a critical twist to the continuous shifting between
limited and omniscient narrative perspectives characteristic of the modern
novel, in that the tangle of viewpoints is never sorted out within the text.
According to Ingeborg Hoestery: "Solches Fragen gehort freilich .
unmittelbar zur Intention des Textes."54 It is often difficult to make a clear
distinction between multiple viewpoints. The continuous destabilization of
narrative integrity is an important, though often overlooked, component of
Gesine's perceptions of the U.S. and contemporary events are also in
constant flux. Of particular interest for this analysis will be the passages
incorporated from The New York Times, which is Gesine's only consistent
source of information about the U.S. Her knowledge is limited to what she
can read and observe. Her experience of the U.S. are fundamentally
different from her daughter's. Unlike her mother, Marie is fully
assimilated in the culture: ". gerade als ein fremder Ankommling von
viereinhalb Jahren hatte sie tichtiger, gewitzter und amerikanischer
werden mtissen als die anderen. .. ."55 Gesine's views on the U.S. are also
quite different from those of her fiance, Dietrich Erichson, who has
deliberately shut the door on the past and moved on. She continues to
question her sense of identity as an individual, as a German and as a
product of her political upbringing. Her perceptions of New York and the
U.S. in 1967/8 are tied to her attempt to come to terms with these issues.
53 Hoesterey 13.
54 Hoesterey 13.
55 Johnson, BegleitumstAnde 413.
"WIR SIND ZU GAST HIER"
GESINE, NEW YORK CITY AND THE SIXTIES
Long before Gesine leaves for Prague she is acutely aware that the
hard-won sense of security provided by her job is tenuous at best. Her
survival is guaranteed only from paycheck to paycheck. So she takes
advantage of every opportunity within her control, acknowledging that
appearance is just as important as substance:
Ihr kann alle vierzehn Tage gekiindigt werden .... Sie
will keine Versicherung versiumen, nicht einmal die
rechtzeitige Anwesenheit am Arbeitsplatz, die optische
Prasenz. (I, 84)1
However, nothing can insulate her from the fear of random violence or the
stress of urban life.
As a resident of New York City, Gesine is aware of a wide variety of
problematic social issues either through her own observations or through
The New York Times. Social and economic extremes, urban crime,
isolation of the underprivileged and the pervasive effects of poverty are all to
be found just around the corner from her apartment. It is merely a street
or two away: "In den SeitenstraBen zwischen den Avenuen sitzt er
inzwischen in vielen der brownstones" (II, 842). The neighborhood market
1 Uwe Johnson, Jahrestae. All subsequent citations from the novel are indicated
by volume and page.
at the corner of 96th Street and Broadway is a cross-section of the ethnically
and economically mixed neighborhood. Its diversity illustrates the best and
the worst of the American melting-pot:
.. damals und heute standen abgerissene Manner an
den Hauswanden, Hehler wie Diebe, Betrunkene, Irre,
viele afrikanischer Abstammung, arbeitslos, krank,
manche bettelnd. Die Sprachen auf diesem Broadway
sind vielfaltig, verwirrend arbeiten Akzente aller
Kontinente an Versionen des Amerikanischen, im
Vorbeigehen zu horen sind das Spanisch aus Puertoriko
und Cuba, das west-indische Franzosisch, Japanisch,
Chinesisch, Jiddisch, Russisch, die Jargons der
Illegalen und immer wieder das Deutsche, wie es vor
dreiilig Jahren in OstpreuBen, Berlin, Franken,
Sachsen, Hessen gesprochen wurde. (I, 27)
She is attracted by the lively diversity that is in marked contrast to Germany
in general and the homogeneous village where she grew up in particular.
At the same time she is repelled by the privation and suffering in its midst.
Gesine's paper of choice, The New York Times, is full of reports on
the Vietnam War as well as on drugs, corruption and racial unrest in the
ghettos. The world portrayed in the paper is a daily affront to her well-
regulated, insular life in the Upper West Side. These elements are all
related to Gesine's crisis of identity: How does one reconcile individual
conscience with sociopolitical reality, and at what price? Rolf Becker
summarizes the unifying theme of Jahrestage:
Wie ist mit Anstand zu leben, wie ist gerecht zu urteilen
und wahr zu sprechen in einer Welt allseitig haftbar
machender Systemzwange, ihrer ideologischen Tlusch-
ungen und parteiischen Sprachregelungen? Wie lebt man
mit dem "BewuBtsein schuldnaher Anwesenheit," von dem
kein Land- und Staatswechsel Gesine entlasten kann?2
2 R. Becker 191.
The novel's central message is that there is no sanctuary from political
reality. The unresolved conflict between personal ideology and harsh
sociopolitical reality profoundly affects Gesine's view of events past and
present. Gesine enjoys the benefits of a society which is embroiled in a
bloody third-world conflict and discriminates against its own citizens. She
also wrestles with her family's actions during the Third Reich and what it
means to be German in the post-war era. At times she finds that her own
identity is synonymous with that of Germany's recent past:
S.. [gute Freunde von mehreren Jahren] sehen mich, und
sie denken an die Verbrechen der Deutschen.
Ohne die Absicht der Krankung. Es ist ihnen selbst-
verstandlich, nattirlich. So verhalt es sich. (II, 851-2)
Johnson noted in a letter that, "as a German, you are not treated as an
individual but as a member of a group who did something to the Jews."3
This theme, which appears in fragmentary form in earlier novels, proves to
be the fundamental reason for Gesine's reconstruction of her childhood and
her ultimate break with West Germany in Jahrestage.
As a member of the post-war generation, Gesine is the product of a
unique set of sociopolitical circumstances. Years of mind-numbing
ideological indoctrination--first under the Nazis, then the socialists--have
left Gesine with an acute awareness of the sociopolitical forces at work in
her daily life. Her German heritage and her life in the U.S. at this
particular historical crossroad both incur feelings of guilt--if only by
association--which are irreconcilable with her desire to live a morally
correct life: "Wlre aber gern ordentlich gewesen, unbeeinfluBt von
Biographie und Vergangenheit, mit richtigem Leben, in einer richtigen
Zeit, mit den richtigen Leuten, zu einem richtigen Zweck" (II, 889). The
3 Ziegfield, Uwe Johnson and Helen Wolff, manuscript.
discrepancy between her principals and political reality has crippled her
ability to act. However, she still continues to shoulder the burden of
responsibility and guilt spawned by her continued political passivity.
Experience has shown her repeatedly that, as an individual, she is helpless
to alter government policy or the priorities of society. Under the current
circumstances, Gesine believes political engagement to be futile:
Ich konnte einen Leserbrief an die New York Times
schreiben; ich konnte fiirs Leben ins Zuchthaus gehen
wegen eines erfolglosen Attentats auf den Prasidenten
Johnson; ich konnte mich offentlich verbrennen. Mit
Nichts konnte ich die Maschine des Krieges aufhalten
um einen Cent, um einen Soldaten; mit Nichts. (II, 894)
Since all alternatives are flawed in some fundamental way, any attempt at
individual action seems futile. While Gesine declines to actively participate
in the political process, her destiny is nonetheless governed by political
forces as she becomes ever more involved with the Czechoslovakian reform
movement professionally and personally.
Within the confines of the tightly regulated calendar structure,
Jahrestare chronicles Gesine's search for meaning and identity amidst the
uncertainty and upheaval of the late 1960s. Now in her mid-thirties and a
parent, she returns to the past to question the fundamental assumptions
that define her sense of self and her heritage. In the past Gesine responded
to ideological disillusionment under different political systems with flight.
She experienced fascism followed by military occupations first by the
British, then the Russians in quick succession, "ohne daB man sie das
gefragt hatte."4 Like the other members of her generation in the DDR, she
is indoctrinated in socialist philosophy at school. Although Gesine retains
4 Johnson, "Einfiihrung in die 'Jahrestage" 21.
her idealistic political convictions regardless of circumstances, she is
acutely aware of the hypocrisy rampant in socialism as it really exists:
Sie hat also den Sozialismus auf der Schule gehabt, und
zwar theoretisch, d.h. in dem Sinne, daB der Lehrer
wuBte, dab man log, und daB man wuBte, daB der
Lehrer wuBte, daB man log, also eine perfekte Allround-
Verstandigung, die aber dann den Lehrstoff, soweit es
den Sozialismus betrifft, auf etwas Theoretisches
begrenzt. Als dann der Lehrstoff sich wirklich machte,
im Juni 1953, auf den StraBen der Republik, mit einem
veritablen Aufstand der Arbeiter, nicht der Bauern, aber
der Arbeiter, gegen die sozialistische Regierung, bekam
diese Schiilerin Gesine Cressphal Angst vor der
Wirklichkeit des Sozialismus und floh blindlings nach
Westberlin: Sie lief weg. Obwohl sie wuBte: Moralisch,
politisch, zukunftsbewuBt gesehen, tu ich mir das
Schlimmste an, was ich tun kann, ich geh in die
Vergangenheit, ich gehe zu dem schlechten Entwurf
des Lebens, ich gehe zu dem menschenverachtenden
Before arriving in New York, Gesine has already failed twice to come to
terms with sociopolitical realities. As outlined in Jahrestage, Gesine is
propelled by political events from East to West Germany, and finally to New
York. Despite her disappointments, these experiences have only intensified
her utopian longings for a truly humane and just society. The violent put-
down of demonstrating workers during the June 17, 1953 Uprising put an
end to her childish political ideals: "Kinderwiinsche Sozialismus
etcetera" (II, 990). In a 1983 interview Johnson explains the significance of
this event for Gesine:
Ihr ist ja der Sozialismus auf der Schule als die einzig
menschenm6gliche Alternative beigebracht worden.
Aus dieser Illusion ist sie durch Ereignisse auf der
StraBe von dem Landgericht Gneez in Mecklenburg
aufgeschreckt worden. Das war die erste Warnung, sie
wollte sich diesem Widerspruch nicht aussetzen. Sie
war konsequent genug, von dieser Unklarheit
wegzugehen in eine Gegend, die sie damals fiir die
schlimmste der Welt hielt und halten mufite--so war es
in der Schule gelehrt worden--in den Westen, in den
Kapitalismus. Hat hier iiberlebt, aber doch jene
sozialistische Idee, Alternative, weiterhin vor Augen
gehabt, schon weil sie Heimat betraf, weil sie ja
Mecklenburg verwaltete. 5
The reforms promised in early June were never implemented (IV, 1897).
Subsequent Soviet military intervention demonstrated "wer in diesem Land
regiert: die Sowjets" (IV, 1853). Later, Russian intervention in the 1956
Hungarian Revolution, which plays a pivotal role in Mutmalungen iuber
Jakob, further emphasizes the discrepancy between the classroom ideology
and the real-world practices of socialist leaders. It effectively rules out any
possibility of Gesine's permanent return to Jakob and Jerichow. West
German proved equally disappointing, if for other disquieting reasons:
Ich wollte aus dem Land, fur eine Weile. Am
Weihnachtsabend 1959 war in Koln, in der Nachbarschaft,
eine Synagoge mit Hakenkreuzen beschmiert worden und
mit Spriichen: 'Deutsche fordern Juden raus.' Das war
das eine Das andere war die Karriere eines Politikers
in der westdeutschen Republik. (IV, 1872)
Violence, whether real or threatened, used as a tool of control and
repression is a common denominator between Jahrestage's Jerichow and
New York narratives. This same specter of brutal government intervention
casts a shadow over the last few days comprising the novel's conclusion.
Gesine's arrival in Prague coincides with that of Russian tanks.
Like other Johnson protagonists such as Jakob Abs and Karsch,
Gesine finds it difficult--if not impossible--to reconcile her ideals with her
surroundings. For Jakob neither the East's repressive version of socialism
5 Jiirgen Becker, Rolf Michaelis and Heinrich Vormweg, 'Gesprach mit Uwe
Johnson (Am 8. December 1983 in KI6n)," "Ich a lberlee mir die Geschihte ." Uwe
Johnson im Gesprach, ed. Eberhard Fahlke (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1988) 309.
nor the West's democratic capitalism represent a viable alternative.
Karsch's failed biography of Achim lay bare the irreconcilable differences
between East and West. In the short story, "Eine Reise wegwohin, 1960,"
Karsch leaves both Germany behind in favor of Italy's comparative
neutrality only to later run afoul of the Mafia. At the close of Zwei
Ansichten, D.'s escape to the West is not an escape to a new reality but a
flight from the old: "Manchmal ware sie bedenkenlos mitgegangen,
hatte einer sie fiber die Grenze bringen wollen, einfach aus UberdruB, ohne
viel Hoffnung, sich zu verbessern" (ZA, 195). In each case flight does not
represent forward motion. It is the meaningless exchange of one morally
bankrupt political reality for another, as characterized by his own
emigration from East to West Germany which he describes as the
"Riickgabe einer Staatsangehorigkeit an die DDR nach nur zehnjahriger
Benutzung."6 Johnson himself was another disillusioned socialist but an
unwilling emigre. Although he resided intermittently in West Berlin,
Johnson spent most of his life in self-imposed exile in Italy and the United
States before finally settling in the isolated fishing village of Sheerness-on-
Sea, England in 1974. He remained there until his death in 1983. For
Johnson exile was the result of default rather than choice: "die Fremde
war schon gleich, nachdem es Heimat nicht sein konnte."7 This is a
consistent theme in Johnson's prose and is true of his own life experience
In depicting the quintessential metropolis of New York City, which
New York Times editor and columnist James Reston called the "Mecca of
6 Uwe Johnson, "Vita," 0Jber Uwe Johnson, ed. Reinhard Baumgart (Frankfurt
a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1970) 175.
7 Wiegenstein 212.
my Generation,"8 Johnson follows in the tradition established by such
writers as Alexander Doblin (Berlin Alexanderplatz, 1929) and John Dos
Passos (U.S.A., 1937), who depict the modern metropolis as a microcosm of
an alienated, dysfunctional society. The complexities of urban life are
conveyed through the juxtaposition of multiple narrative strands, including
alternative narrative devices such as stream of consciousness, "camera
eye," collage, montage, and the juxtaposition of images. The cinematic
narrative flow is often interrupted by the incision of documentary
materials. Johnson's own experimental narrative approach, exhibited in
such works as Mutmaflungen uber Jakob, Das dritte Buch fiber Achim and
Eine Reise nach Klagenfurt, represents a veritable"Potpourri aller
Stilexperimente von Faulkner und Brecht bis Doblin und Robbe-Grillet
und Strittmatter und J.R. Becher."9 In Jahrestage, Johnson has refined
the his narrative style: the layering of multiple--and sometimes
contradictory--narrative perspectives. The authenticity of the various
viewpoints is constantly destabilized by unresolved questions and
discrepancies arising within the narrative itself. Overlapping first- and
third-person narrators recount Gesine's past and present stories. Her
unvarying daily reality, as established by the novel's calendar structure, is
often framed by contemporary events taken from the newspaper and other
sources. Occasionally other items of realia are included such as
descriptions of a subway map, a radio broadcast on Cardinal Spellman's
death, and television coverage of Robert Kennedy's funeral. Johnson's
generous use of factual materials imparts the impression of a more
traditional narrative mode than in earlier works. A closer examination of
8 "New York Times: Brunnen der Geschichte," Spigel 13 May 1968: 140.
9 Hermann Kesten, "MutmaBungen iiber Uwe Johnson," Die Welt 25 Nov. 1961.
narrative practice in Jahrestage demonstrates that it remains in essence "a
novel of consciousness,"1l and differs only in superficial technical respects
from the narrative complexity which distinguishes Johnson's earlier
The function of the documentary materials is twofold. In the
Jerichow narrative they substantiate and flesh out Gesine's childhood
memories, which are often fragmentary and unreliable. In some instances
they are little more than impressions strung together by speculation. There
are no first-hand memories at all for reconstructing the fateful chain of
events which brought her parents from England to Mecklenburg the same
year Hitler came into power. It occurs to Gesine that her German identity
is a quirk of fate: ". um 35 oder schon um 30 passiert manchen Leuten
das, daB sie sich zu fragen beginnen, warum bin ich in Mecklenburg
geboren, und muBte das 1933 sein? Und was haben meine Eltern sich
gedacht?"11 These basic questions of identity which arise from their
actions are the genesis of Gesine's reconstructive process.
The first two hundred odd pages of Jahrestage, which recount her
parent's courtship and the newlyweds' strife-filled months in England,
clearly lie outside the scope of Gesine's personal knowledge. These early
scenes are a compilation of available materials, hearsay and conjecture.
When she visits Richmond as an adult, Gesine tries to reconcile the past
and the present with what might have been had her parents only remained
in England. At this point the weaknesses of the reconstructive process are
exposed, causing Gesine to turn inward and challenge her own
assumptions and expectations. That which emerges in the month of
10 Ryan 156.
11 Lehner 108.
November as Gesine's central conflict--the question of identity (i.e. being
German in a post-war world)--hangs on a simple twist of fate. Her destiny
is sealed when Heinrich Cresspahl joins his estranged wife and infant
daughter in Germany despite his distaste for the ruling National Socialist
Party. Given what she knows of her father and his convictions, Heinrich
Cresspahl's decision to leave a thriving business in England to settle in the
small town of Jerichow is inexplicable. His wife, Lisbeth, had returned to
Mecklenburg for the birth of their child. When Heinrich prepares to return
home after the christening, she refuses to go. Alone in Richmond,
"Cresspahl konnte acht Monate von auflen zusehen, wie die Nazis ihren
Staat einrichteten" (II, 733). Gesine cannot fathom--or forgive--what seems
to be an ideological and moral capitulation:
Warum bist du denn hingefahren zum Krieg.
War doch noch nicht zu sehen, Gesine.
Ne. (I, 391)
The fact remains that her father returned on March 21, 1933, the same day
"an dem ein Irrer names Hitler von einem alten Feldmarschall das
Deutsche Reich in demiitiger Verbeugung entgegennahm" (I, 331). She
accuses him of putting short-term personal concerns ahead of moral
considerations: "Du harst din Fru n Dirschlant, un sass hest du di nich
vel dacht. / Siss hev'ck mi nich vel dacht (I, 392)." Moral authority is a
double edged sword, as Gesine discovers when she castigates her father for
not seeing the writing on the wall. She is herself confronted with her own
failure to act:
Wo sittst denn du, Gesine? Kannstu din Kriech nich
seihn? Worim geihst du nich wech, dat du kein Schult
krichst? Du kennst dat nu doch as dat iss mit de Kinner.
Wat secht Marie, wenn se't merkt hett? (I, 391)
At this point in the novel Gesine's moral authority rests solely on her own
ability to face the same unflinching criticism she directs at her family,
especially her father. Her debilitating passivity in political issues, however,
is not overcome until the close of Jahrestage.
As a direct result of her parents' decisions, her sense of identity is
irrevocably linked to Hitler's Grofldeutschland and the actions undertaken
in its name: ". ich bin das Kind eines Vaters, der von der planmaBigen
Ermordung der Juden gewu8t hat (I, 232)." Despite belonging to the
generation granted "die Gnade der spaten Geburt," Gesine feels in no way
exonerated. Unlike her father, Gesine knew nothing at the time of what
was going on behind the scenes. Happy childhood memories of a summer
at the shore result from blissful ignorance:
Heute weiB ich, daB die Ferien von anderer Art waren.
Nicht weit von Althagen, auf der anderen Seite des
Saaler Bodens, war das Konzentrationslager Barth ....
Wir wuBten es nicht. Hilde Paepcke ist mit uns nach
Barth gefahren, uiber die Drehbrticke, damit wir die
Stadt ansahen. Wir haben nichts gesehen. Die
Bahnstrecke, auf der Cresspahls Kind zum Fischland
kam, passierte Rovershagen. In Rovershagen war ein
Konzentrationslager, dessen Haftlinge ffir die Ernst
Heinkel Flugzeugwerke A.G. arbeiten muBten. Heute
weiB ich es. (II, 955)
Gesine's blurred impressions of Rovershagen framed by the train window
have nothing to do with reality. The sudden shift in narrative perspective
from collective first person to third person reflects the alienation between
reality and memory for her generation. As an adult armed with factual
information she can place a childhood memory in its proper context. While
this rectifies an instance of verfdlschte Vergangenheit, it is at the same
time an act of destruction. The memories upon which identity is based are
not just questioned, but nullified. Links between the adult Gesine and the
alienated "Kind, das ich war" (IV, 1891)12 must be reforged. Objective
knowledge gained through the comparison between personal experience
and documentary materials becomes a powerful component in the process.
Thus in Jahrestage the reconstruction of the past becomes synonymous
with the reconstruction of identity, beginning with the most basic building
Almost thirty-five years later Gesine attempts to recreate the
circumstances which sealed her identity as a German. As she walks the
streets of Richmond, England--which would have formed the backdrop of
her childhood under other circumstances--Gesine repeatedly asks herself,
"Was wissen wir noch?" History and politics have rendered the landscape
unrecognizable: "Wir miissen weiter durch die Zeit, umso
undurchdringlicher als vergangen. Jetzt sind wir wo du warst" (I, 287).
In her attempt at reconstruction, Gesine is subject to the same restrictions
on what she can, and cannot, know that Johnson places on the narrator.
She can easily fabricate the image of a pregnant Lisbeth: "Es ist m6glich,
hier ist sie gegangen im Winter 1932, vorsichtig mit ihrem schweren
Bauch zwischen den aufgeregten Kindern, die der Arbeit eines Tauchers
zusahen" (I, 333). But Gesine can only trace her footsteps, not her
thoughts. The answers to her most basic questions remain inaccessible.
Her failure to reconstruct her parents motivations throw three of
Jahrestage's central themes into sharp relief: the problems of
Vergangenheitsbewaltigung, loss of Heimat, and lastly, the search for
truth and the limits of such an undertaking.
12 This phrase, with which Jahrestage closes, is a frequent motif in the text (see for
example: 489, 1008, 1017, 1743, 1891).
Johnson again calls attention to the significance of this particular
event in another short piece, "Interview with Marie H. Cresspahl," in
which Marie traces her mother's and grandmother's path through the
streets of Richmond:
[Lisbeth] soil hier gegangen sein im Winter 1932, allein,
schwanger mit Gesine. So wie Gesine es erzihlt hat,
mu1 ich es annehmen als wirklich und vergangen und
out of reach. Unerreichbar. Kann ich nichts bei
Her parents' return to Germany is a central event for Gesine, whose entire
sense of identity is linked to this one decision. Marie, however, considers it
only a minor point. Marie, as the beneficiary of Gesine's mistakes, accepts
with resignation Gesine's version of the past as flawed but adequate. The
reasons are for her less important than the facts. Gesine's attempts at
reconstruction, "bis es ausreichte zum Erzahlen,"14 is valuable only for
what it reveals about her mother. Unlike Gesine, who considers New York
an intermediate station en route to a politically perfect permanent
residence, Marie considers herself American:
Ihre hat die Bogen und Schleifen der amerikanischen
Vorlage. Beim Malnehmen schreibt sie den
Multiplikator unter, nicht eben den Multiplikanden. Sie
denkt in Fahrenheitgraden, in Gallonen, in Meilen. Ihr
English ist dem Gesines iiberlegen in der Artikulation,
der Satzmelodie, dem Akzent. Deutsch ist fiir sie eine
fremde Sprache, die sie aus Hbflichkeit gegen die Mutter
benutzt, im flachem Ton, mit amerikanisch gebildeten
Vokalen, oft verlegen um ein Wort. Wenn sie achtlos
English spricht, versteht Gesine sie nicht immer. (I,
13 Johnson, "Interview with Marie H. Cresspahl 2.-3. January 1972," Johnsons
14 'Interview with Marie H. Cresspahl" 75.
Only four years old when they left Germany, she is "ein Kind von New
York"s5 and knows where she belongs: "Ich m6chte nirgends leben, nur in
New York: sagt sie" (I, 259). Unlike Gesine, she has completely
assimilated. Jerichow and the events which are of such vital importance to
her mother are the stuff of stories.
Initially, Gesine clings to the belief that she would be contemplating
an entirely different--and eminently preferable--childhood had her parent's
story unfolded in a different context:
Ich ware jemand anders, bis auf den Namen. Ich ware
nicht deutsch; ich wtrde von den Deutschen sprechen
in einem fremden und entfernten Plural. (I, 334)
This alternate geography of her life would allowed a return and closure
made impossible by history and politics:
Ich kame zuriick auf den Friedhof Sheen, der im
Norden viel Grasland hat. Da ware noch Platz gewesen
in dem weifen Geflacker der sehr diinn ausgesagten
Kreuze und Figuren. Waren sie hier gestorben, hier
konnte ich meinen Eltern Besuche abstatten. Hatten sie
hier gelebt, wir waren im Leben zusammen gewesen.
Instead, Gesine lives in uneasy exile. She is barred physically and
politically from the DDR. Morally, she cannot rationalize a return to the
BRD. Gesine elaborates her reasons on tape for Marie:
Aber in Deutschland m6chte ich nicht noch ein Mal leben.
Im Westen haben sie eine Nazipartei, und die Nazipartei
hat eine Schligertruppe gegrtindet und gibt der Presse
dariiber eine Konferenz. Und die Presse kommt. Die
Abkiirzung ftir die Saalschiitzer ist S.G., von Schiitz-
gemeinschaft, und der Obernazi kann und kann da keine
Anspielung auf die S.A. Hitlers verstehen, die auch als
Ordner angefangen haben. Und von "Bluts-
verbundenheit" reden die auch schon wieder, wenn ich
15 "Interview with Marie H. Cresspahl" 76.
common blood nicht falsch auffasse. In Deutschland
machte ich nicht noch einmal leben. (I, 422)
As an outside observer in England Gesine would have escaped the double
burdens of German guilt and exile which have profoundly affected her,
although it offered no guaranteed sanctuary from the war. This parallel
existence is symbolized by Heinrich's illegitimate son by Mrs. Trowbridge.
Mother and son both are eventually killed during the war:
Cresspahl hatte im September eine Nachricht
bekommen. Sie seien am 14. November 1940 bei einem
Angriff auf die britischen Midlands ums Leben
gekommen. (III, 1209)
The fact that, but for a move across the Channel, Gesine would be
grappling with an entirely different set of problems underscores a
recurrent theme in Johnson's fiction of an individual swept along by the
overwhelming forces of politics and history.
Gesine is forced to confront circumstances which even the most
optimistic storytelling cannot alter: the war, her parent's basic
incompatibility, her mother's instability. It is possible that in England
Lisbeth could have survived the war, and eventually come to terms with
both her marriage and inner demons. Gesine fantasizes that her mother
might still be alive today: ". sie aber hatte hier iiberlebt, und in eine jener
roten Siulen mit dem Topfdeckel ohne Henkel konnte sich noch heute
Briefe einwerfen nach New York: Liebe Tochter" (I, 332). In an imaginary
exchange her mother points out the futility of such speculation:
So weit bin ich in meinem Leben nicht gekommen,
Tochter. Das kann ich nicht wissen, und nicht
versprechen. (I, 333)
Still, Gesine cannot bring herself to absolve her father of responsibility for
the eventual outcome of his decision to leave England.
At the beginning of the narrative sequence which recounts the events
resulting in Heinrich's fateful decision to join his family in Jerichow,
Marie squeamishly begs her mother to alter her story: "Ich mag nicht was
nun folgt: sagt Marie: Kannst du es nicht indern?"16 (I, 296). Gesine
steadfastly refuses to stray any further from the facts as she knows them,
and states flatly: "Mehr andern kann ich es nicht."17 At most she is
prepared to interpret them with some understanding and compassion.
She grants he could have ignored his conscience either out of weakness or
out of love. Still, she is reluctant to close the door on what might have been.
The problems posed by Vergangenheitsbewiltigung cannot be solved with a
change of location or nationality. Nor can the Cresspahl's participation in
a national tragedy be reduced to the simplistic motivations of a homesick
girl, and of those a man simply trying to save his marriage.
Gesine is a woman without roots. Unlike Marie and D.E., Gesine
continues to consider herself a visitor with no particular bond to New York
or the U.S. She tells her daughter, "Wir sind hier zu Gast." Marie, who is
committed to her new homeland despite recognized problems, replies "Wir
leben hier" (II, 810). Because Gesine makes no real emotional or political
commitment to the U.S., any sense of disappointment or outrage is muted.
16 For other examples see further Jahrestage 296-300.
17 Jahrestae 300.
Warum sagt er ihr nicht: Nimm das Kind, nimm dich
zusammen, geh hinter mir her?
Du bist sonst nicht fiir Gewalt, Marie.
Es going nicht darum, Gewalt zu vermeiden. Er hatte Angst.
Er hatte Angst, sie zu verlieren.
Er war feige! Er wollte nicht wissen, wozu sie notfalls imstande
Her outsider status becomes a way to avoid guilt and political engagement
in "eine Art Immunisierungsstrategie."18 Any feeling of belonging is
temporary and illusory: "Es ist eine Tauschung, und fiihlt sich an wie
Heimat" (I, 134). These images of "Heimat" occasionally evoked by the
weather or Staten Island, "Mecklenburg in New York,"19 are reminders of
a Jerichow that has been permanently lost. By perpetuating her outsider
status in the early part of the novel, Gesine is able to both rationalize her
stay in the U.S. and her lack of political engagement:
Es geht uns nicht an, wir sind hier Gdste, wir sind
nicht schuldig. Wir sind noch nicht schuldig. In
Vietnam fallen mehr Amerikaner als Siidstaatsoldaten,
und General Westmoreland hat mehr davon bestellt.
She is, however, critical of those who change their sociopolitical venue as a
matter of personal convenience. Hans Magnus Enzensberger is the novel's
most infamous example. She takes an equally dim view of a German actor
who reframes his return to the DDR as a political statement, rather than as
a matter of professional expedience.
Hope for the future is reawakened when, as a result of a promotion at
the bank, Gesine has a chance to help Dubcek's government realize a new
form of liberal socialism--a longed for "dritter Weg"--in Czechoslovakia. In
the latter half of the novel this gradually supplants the invariably
depressing news from Southeast Asia and the BRD, a shift in coverage
which is not based on coverage in the newspaper itself. Although it is clear
18 Beckes 68.
19 "Es ist Mecklenburg, was wir da sehen, Gesine Cresspahls Heimat, mitten in
New York .... Wiesen, dazwischen ein Sandweg, hinter Baumen die Nadelspitze einer
kleinen Kirche. Es ist mehr als d6jh vu, es ist wie Rickkehr in die Kindheit." Klaus
Podak, "Auf den Spuren von Gesine Cresspahl, Johnsons "Jahrestare" 348.
in the the course of the year that Gesine is moving gradually toward a
recommitment to socialism, the Vietnam War is the measuring stick
against which her progress is gauged.
Along with the Prague Spring's role in Gesine Cresspahl's personal
story, the Vietnam War is Jahrestage's most pervasive and influential
thematic and structural component.20 The progress of the Vietnam War is
one of several contemporary strands which Gesine follows throughout the
course of 1967/8. Of all the issues having bearing on the novel, New York
Times items concerning the war are the most consistent and frequent. In
this aspect, Gesine's concern with the issue mirrors its prominence in the
American psyche as well as the national press. The articles cover the
spectrum of issues which make up traditional war coverage: battle reports,
assessments, administrative policy, body counts, congressional debate and
political posturing. These items through their very repetition often border
on the mundane, despite their disturbing content.
For a variety of reasons the importance of the Vietnam War, and the
"Vietnam era" as a whole, in Jahrestage is frequently eclipsed by the role of
the Prague Spring in criticism. As a practical consideration, Dubcek's
failed reforms and the subsequent Russian intervention was, of course, of
greater relevance to Germany than the Vietnam conflict, in which
Germany had no political or military involvement. But the problems with
Johnson's use of the Vietnam war in Jahrestage are both structural and
ideological. Two aspects in particular are consistently targeted. Quite
correctly, critics point to the war's suddenly diminished role in the fourth
20 According to the Gallup Poll, the Vietnam War is also cited above other
competing issues as the most important problem facing the U.S. during the years 1966-72.
See further the article by William L. Lunch and Peter W. Sperlich, "American Public
Opinion and the War in Vietnam," Western Political Quarterly 32 (1979): 21.
volume, as Gesine's personal and professional lives become ever more
intertwined in the evolving political situation in Czechoslovakia. The
second area of contention is that the novel's portrayal from a predominantly
mainstream American perspective runs counter to prevailing attitudes
among the German intellectual left. Until 1967 polls indicate that the
public generally supported the government's policy. Lunch and Shipman
describe this lack of public concern as a textbook example of the
relationship between the administration and its constituency as long as the
situation is perceived to be going well: "As long as the administration
seems to have foreign affairs in hand, and nothing seems unduly
alarming, the vast majority of citizens are content to follow the President's
leadership."21 Since Gesine turns to The New York Times, which has a
prominent role in communicating administrative policy and shaping
national attitudes, for almost all of her information on the war the picture
of the Vietnam War which emerges in Jahrestage is very different from
that found in Kurasuch, or in the writings of Johnson's friends and
contemporaries such as Giinter Grass, Martin Walser and others.
The general consensus among critics is that the fall-off in war
coverage in the novel's closing weeks represents a failure on Johnson's
part to sustain the theme throughout the course of the novel. The Vietnam
issue is seemingly jettisoned in favor of the Prague Spring. But I would
argue that Gesine's growing interest level in Czechoslovakian affairs is
unrelated to the diminished role of Vietnam towards the novel's close.
Instead, a closer look at the novel and documentary sources clearly shows
that the novel merely reflects a national trend as embodied in The New
York Times and other media following extensive, intense, emotional
21 Lunch and Sperlich 22.
coverage during the Tet offensive. Even the national weekly news
magazine, Der Spiegel, whose coverage of U.S. news is overwhelmingly
dominated by the war, official policy and political fallout, exhibits a marked
decrease in articles on Vietnam after the Tet offensive. This is especially
noticeable during the months of July and August, the same two months
chronicled in the novel's final volume. Further, Gesine's loss of interest in
the Vietnam conflict is one of appearance only. Although the number and
frequency of newspaper items in the novel does fall off markedly beginning
in late June 1968, the interrelationship between Gesine and Vietnam is
reinforced in key passages during July and August, especially in the
novel's closing pages where she looks back on her stay in New York City in
which war events appear as milestones (IV, 1877-8).
The dichotomy between German and American perceptions of
Vietnam is well illustrated by differences in press coverage. General
differences can be established by examining coverage in Der Spiegel. While
the format and focus are differ from those of a daily newspaper, such as
The New York Times, the weekly is comparable in bread and depth of
international reporting, journalistic stature and reputation for factual
accuracy. And, in the analysis of Jahrestage, the comparison between The
New York Times and Der SDiegel is particularly relevant. Both Gesine and
Johnson were devoted readers of the magazine while in New York,22
which was available at the same kiosk on 42nd Street where Gesine bought
her paper each morning. The magazine's role in his fiction is documented
both in Jahrestage itself and Johnson's series of Frankfurt Lectures,
published under the title Beeleitumstande (1980). A complete set of the
22 see Ja tage 211, 1338, 1748.
magazine stood next to his writing desk in Sheerness, upon which he relied
in the writing of Jahrestage.
An article from 18 September 1967, "Vielleicht zufillig," is typical of
the weekly coverage of the Vietnam War in Der Spiegel.23 The bulk of the
article is devoted to recent developments in American foreign policy, with
scant mention of battle details and casualties. There are two items of
special interest. The first is McNamara's plan to create a fortified border
between North and South Vietnam. The second is President Johnson's
increasingly sticky predicament as the election looms ever closer. Without
a total resolution of the conflict or a believable plan to achieve this end, his
chances of reelection are zero. Yet any decisive escalation to bring about a
timely end to the war would almost certainly lead to a head-to-head
confrontation with Red China. This article also addresses North
Vietnamese born attorney Truong Dinh Dzu's surprisingly strong second
place finish in the recent South Vietnamese presidential election. In most
respects this article's factual content does not differ significantly from
articles appearing in the mainstream American press. However, some
differences are immediately obvious.
Despite similarities in factual content, Spiegel articles tend to display
an analytical slant critical of the situation in Southeast Asia, whereas The
Times editorial policy advocated "facts only" reporting. Items are typically
separated out into compartmentalized articles linked visually in the page
layout or with printed references. Any political and military analyses
appeared in a separate sidebar article and are clearly labeled as such. Der
Spiegel, like the International section's format in the American national
23 These events occurred during the last week of August. For instance,
McNamara's report on his latest Vietnam tour appears in The New York Times on 26
weekly, Time, condenses marginally related news items into a single
article. For example, most SDiegel items include both Washington policy
reports and news from the war arena in the same article, inviting parallels
and associations between the two. These items would usually appear in
separate articles in The New York Times, perhaps even on different pages.
The presentation and perception of the same news items is quite different in
the two formats.
In many instances, coverage of the Vietnam war in Der Spiegel
conveys a political bias absent in The New York Times. For example, the
escalating tension between the U.S. and China and the possible nuclear
repercussions are mentioned regularly in Spiegel coverage. The "domino
effect" theory, should communist forces prevail against the South
Vietnamese army, was central to the formation of American foreign policy
in Southeast Asia. Clearly, a nuclear power with a population quickly
nearing one billion figured significantly in political and military strategy.
But unlike Der Spiegel, there was little in the American press by way of a
sustained serious discussion during 1967 of a possible future conflict
between the U.S. and China, other than the government's consistent
assurance that an American success in Vietnam would preclude further
communist incursions in Southeast Asia. War hawks, like presidential
candidate Richard Nixon, criticized Johnson's North Vietnam bombing
strategy. For example, Time Magazine reports a Nixon campaign speech
where he predicts that Johnson's misguided policies would "drag (the war)
into the 70s, with growing risks of a confrontation with China as Peking's
nuclear weaponry improves." But the article concludes, that "Nixon
seemed to be going against a gathering party consensus."24 To the
German press, the situation was perceived quite differently. For instance,
any escalation designed to bring the war to a swift and decisive close could
prove disastrous: ". etwa eine Invasion Nordvietnams, die vollstandige
Zerstorung des Landes oder Angriffe auf Basen in China--brachte die Welt
an den Abgrund eines Atomkrieges."25 Another Spiegel article from July
10, 1967, characterizes President Johnson as carefully considering further
investment of money, manpower and prestige "fiir einen Kampf, den
Amerika langst nicht mehr gegen Nordvietnam, sondern mit dem Blick
auf die Supermacht Rotchina fifhrt."26 From Germany's point of view
further escalation was not to bring about an early end to the Vietnam War,
but was in anticipation of "dem von Washington erwarteten Showdown mit
dem erwachten gelben Riesen China."27 This particular political reality is
one which Spiegel confidently declares "kaum ein US-Generalstabler
bestreitet heute noch."28 In terms of American press coverage, any
hypothetical denial was superfluous since no one seemed to be talking about
Like the TV press, Der Spiegel gives significant space to protesters in
1967, describing one group of D.C. demonstrators as "heitere Hippies mit
bliihenden Blumen und bartige Linke mit Portriits des gefallenen Guerilla-
24 Ti 25 Aug. 1967: 16.
25 "Vielleicht zuflillig," Spifgel 18 Sep. 1967: 120.
26 "Vielleicht zufallig,"piagel 18 Sep. 1967: 120.
27 "Vietnamkrieg: 25 Jahre," Spiegel 10 Jul. 1967: 76.
28 see "Vietnamkrieg: 25 Jahre," Spiegel 10 Jul. 1967: 76.
Helden Guevara."29 At this point in the antiwar movement, they were still
operating on the social fringe. In addition, such articles were often the only
ones in the issue dealing with Vietnam, and tended to combine war news
and war policy news in a single article. This results in the linking of items
not necessarily linked in the American press. In Der Spiegel, the line
between separate incidents and issues frequently becomes blurred.
One Spiegel article, chosen at random, indicates how extreme
differences in American and German perceptions were. The article from
the September 4, 1967 issue, "Sofort raus?", reports on Robert McNamara's
latest visit to the war arena. His characterization, also published in the
American press, of the air war at the current level of intensity was blunt
and critical: "Bomben konnen Nordvietnam nicht in die in die Knie
zwingen."so But in the article's lead paragraph glosses over McNamara's
report which monopolizes American headlines. Instead the focus is on
possible impeachment proceedings against Johnson. The Spiegel
supposition is based on two mentions of the word in relationship to
Johnson. The first mention appears in an eleven line note31 ofJohnson's
fifty-ninth birthday in Time, which points out that Andrew Jackson was
fifty-nine when impeached. The second mention was made by dove Sen.
William Fulbright, Dem. Arkansas, in a television interview. The article
paraphrases Fulbright's statements thus: "Die einzig wirksame Sanktion
des Kongresses gegen eine weitere Eskalation des Vietnam Krieges 'ist ein
29 "Demonstranten: Ober den Fluf," Spieel 30 Oct. 1967: 144.
30 "Sofort raus," Spiegl 4 Sep. 1967: 102-104.
31 If this seems rather paltry, it is perhaps explained by the extensive photo spread
on Johnson and his three years in office in the previous issue of Time.
Impeachment.'"32 After a lengthy buildup, finally, in the eighth
paragraph, the probability of such proceedings is admitted to be nil, or to
again quote Fulbright, "politisch wohl nicht durchfiihrbar." A look at the
American press gives a quite different picture. In the birthday notice, Time
simply notes that 59 was a tough year for three presidents for a variety of
reasons: "Andrew Johnson was impeached, Benjamin Harrison lost his
bid for reelection and F.D.R. brought the U.S. into World War II."33 The
parallel to Harrison is the most plausible, given that a July Gallup poll
showed 52% of American disapproved of Johnson's handling of the war.34
Johnson's approval rating had tumbled precipitously since his June
meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister, Aleksei Kosygin, from 52% to 39%.
To date only President Truman's approval rating of 31% was lower.35
Interestingly, Fulbright's mention of impeachment does not appear
in Time or in The New York Times. According to the New York Times,
Fulbright's only reported television appearance during that time period
was on ABC's "Issues and Answers," where he discussed a possible repeal
of the Bay of Tonkin Resolution of 1964, which was at the crux of a power
struggle between the President and the Senate.36 While accusing the
President of misleading Congress about the Bay of Tonkin Incident,
32 "Sofort raus," 102.
33 ime 1 Sep. 1967: 43.
34 Time 11 Aug. 1967: 11.
35 Tim 18 Aug. 1967: 18.
36 The 1964 Bay of Tonkin Resolution was cited repeatedly by President Johnson as
the basis of his authority for deploying 467,00 American troops to Vietnam and the bombing
of North Vietnam. Fulbright was especially bitter about Johnson's perceived deception. At
the time Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, Fulbright personally shepherded the
resolution through the Senate on the President's behalf. Johnson later challenged Congress
to try and repeal the resolution.
Fulbright seems conciliatory rather than confrontational. Admitting that a
repeal was unlikely, he states in the interview "Politically this [repeal]
would be a direct slap at a leader in time of war. It will not be done that
way, the disillusion, the dissent, that will be expressed in other less direct
ways."37 The Spiegel article emphasizes that "[die USA] in zweieinhalb
Jahren mehr Bomben auf Nordvietnam geworfen haben als auf
Deutschland wahrend des zweiten Weltkriegs."3s Ironically, the Johnson
administration is under intense criticism for not committing 100% of
military capabilities to the bombing campaign during this same week.
Republicans are vocal in their call for wider, more intensive airstrikes
against the North Vietnamese. Humanitarian issues must be weighed
against American loss of life. On the floor of the House, Republican House
Leader Gerald Ford demanded, "Why are we still pulling our air power
punch?"39 In opposition, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and others
suggest that an unconditional halt to bombing might bring Hanoi to the
conference table, a key condition if Johnson was to have any shot at
reelection in 1968. With Johnson unable to communicate a clear sense of
what America was doing in Southeast Asia, the power struggle between
Johnson and the Senate heightened tensions further. The public was
increasingly frustrated with a lack of concrete progress, but still
impeachment does not appear to be a part of the national vocabulary at the
time, despite Der Spiegel's allegations to the contrary.
37 The New York Times 21 Aug. 1967: 1.
38 "Sofort raus," 104.
39 ime 18 Aug. 1967: 17.
Rather than emphasizing the rift between Johnson and Congress,
The New York Times instead minimizes the fractiousness of the debate by
showing that even Fulbright publicly admits the Senate has little chance of
overturning the Bay of Tonkin Resolution, and that in fact such a move
could undermine Johnson's role as Commander in Chief. Normally a
vocal antiwar proponent, Fulbright seeks to avoid a head-to-head
confrontation with the President in the interest of national solidarity, while
still "demanding a more substantive role for Congress in the conduct of
foreign affairs in general."40 This comparison of news items taken from
just a single week in late August 1967 demonstrates how perceptions in the
American and German press are starkly different in several instances.
Another example which clearly illustrates the divergent positions of
American and German press on the Vietnam War issue is the publication
of Mary McCarthy's essay, "Report from Vietnam," which explores the
war's impact on the Vietnamese economy, political life and people. It was
published at roughly the same time in the U.S. and Germany, with
interesting and illustrative results.
An internationally renowned writer and literary critic, Mary
McCarthy is best known for her unemotional observations, satirical wit and
acerbic style, such as in her best-selling novel, The Group (1963). As a
vehement antiwar advocate, McCarthy sought to capitalize on both her
standing in the intellectual community and as a popular author in getting
her message out. She believed her success provided her with "an immense
audience that she felt might listen to her about what she saw as the
40 Time 11 Aug. 1967: 10.
immoral American military presence in Vietnam."41 After finally
securing a press visa in early 1967. She spent a month touring South
Vietnam with a brief stopover in Cambodia. The resulting essay, "Report
from Vietnam," was published in The New York Review of Books in the late
spring of 1967.42 Significantly, the magazine is characterized as "the hot
intellectual magazine of the Sixties"43 and served as a platform for the
intellectual Leftist agenda. The magazine had featured an number of
critical articles about the Vietnam War beginning as early as 1964.
McCarthy's "Vietnam" series was essential in the Review's transition from
a rather stuffy intellectual periodical into a chic trendsetter, and helped
propel the magazine's "great literary leap leftward" in 1967.44
41 Carol Gelderman, Mary McCarthy: A Life. (New York: St. Martins Press,
42 McCarthy's "Report from Vietnam" appeared as a three-part serial in The New
York Review of Books as follows: "The Home Program" 20 Apr. 1967: 5-22; "The
Problems of Success" 4 May 1967: 4-9; "The Intellectuals" 18 May 1967: 21+. The
concluding article in the series, "Solutions" appeared 9 Nov 1967: 3-6. McCarthy's
Vietnam essay was also published subsequently in The Observer in four parts (30 Apr.
1967-30 May 1967). All three essays and "Solutions" were later published in book from
under the title, Vietnam (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1967). In 1968
McCarthy published the controversial essay, Ianni (New York: Harcourt, Brace &
World, Inc., 1968), a sympathetic portrayal of the North Vietnamese based on a two week
tour of North Vietnam. She wrote a total of three pieces on Vietnam between 1967 and 1973.
These were later published together in The Seventeenth Degree (New York: Harcourt,
Brace, Jovanovitch, 1974).
43 Philip Nobile, Intellectual Skywriting. Literary Politics and "The New York
Review of Books" (New York: Charterhouse, 1974) 3.
44 Nobile 39. "Almost every article that the Review is now famous, or notorious, for
was squeezed into that twelvemonth." It includes the conclusion of McCarthy's Vietnam
series, "Solutions." Also appearing that year were essays from Noam Chomsky, "The
Responsibility of Intellectuals," and Paul Goodman, "The 'We Won't Go' Movement." I.F.
Stone chastises anti-Vietnam advocate Senator William Fulbright and labels him a
"drowsy watchdog" and a "cloakroom crusader" who spoke up too late against the war in
"Fulbright: The Timid Opposition." Another article alleges a nefarious link between the
CIA and intellectuals.
From the outset, McCarthy ignores military and political issues, and
instead focuses on the detrimental impact of American soldiers and
civilians on the country and culture of South Vietnam. Her
characterizations are illustrated by unsettling anecdotes based on her first-
hand observations. In the opening paragraph she baldly states her antiwar
bias, admitting she arrived in Saigon looking for "material damaging to
American interests." Her prejudices are quickly validated when she sees
how Americans and their war machines dominate the landscape. By day
the city resembles a "gigantic PX," and a "World's Fair or Exposition in
some hick American city" by night,45 an atmosphere which McCarthy
likens to a cruise ship, with a "pepless Playboy flavor" (MC, 6). The war
seems far away, but she quickly learns that "a short trip by helicopter from
Saigon in almost any direction permits a ringside view of American
bombing" (MC, 31). To those who stand to profit, the war in Southeast Asia
is just a "cheap form of mass tourism, [which] opens the mind to business
opportunities" (MC, 23). The American presence has completely undercut
the local economy, turning it into a booming service economy entirely
dependent on civilian and military personnel. The inevitable American
withdrawal will surely and swiftly lead to Saigon's economic collapse.
With the steady influx of foreign troops and consumer goods, Saigon
has become a classic example of unbridled capitalism and opportunism at
work. It has been transformed into an American city populated by an
Asian minority, mirroring the best and the worst of the American dream.
The similarities to home are striking. The surroundings and atmosphere
in the city are that of a vacation, except for the unmistakable presence of
45 McCarthy 5-6. All further references to McCarthy's text will be indicated
parenthetically by the abbreviation "MC".
war. The war in the countryside, where the "terrain" is cleared with
"Incindergel" (i.e. napalm, "which makes it sound like Jello") and
"weedkiller," (i.e. defoliant, "something you use in your driveway") is a
barely visible column of smoke on the horizon (MC, 3).
McCarthy's Americans, whether found behind a desk or a gun, are
"zealots" and "springy, zesty, burning-eyed warriors" (MC, 25). Typical of
the military mindset, "the war is not questioned; it is just a fact. The job
has to be finished" (MC, 10). The focused and disciplined soldiers she
observes and interviews in the field "can become very sentimental when
they think of the good they are doing and the hard row they have to hoe with
the natives, who have been brainwashed by the Viet Cong" (MC, 25). They
are missionaries "spreading the American way of life, a new "propaganda
fide" (MC, 18). McCarthy's essay is populated with clueless ideologues,
who speak glibly of reeducation, "pacification" and progress as defined by
statistics and diagrams. Vietnam has become a laboratory for academics
tinkering with their social and economic theories. She finds it difficult, if
not impossible to get a straightforward answer to any of her questions
except from those actually on the front lines. This warped idealism is not
confined to the pencil-pushers and bean-counters in Saigon, as illustrated
by numerous examples from the field.
Repeatedly McCarthy tours refugee camps housing entire villages,
which have forcibly uprooted and resettled. Even the showplaces are
lacking in rudimentary supplies, sanitation, clean water and decent
quarters. One area, the "Iron Triangle," was razed during Operation
Cedar Falls ("Clear and Destroy"). The 7,000 plus refugees (mostly women,
children and old men) were allowed to bring only a few personal belongings
and some animals. Despite the fact that these people have traditionally
engaged in rice cultivation, the U.S. Army has decided to turn them into
vegetable farmers. Not only have they lost everything, but their water
buffalo are sickening and dying in the new environment. It is apparent to
her from the outset that even the most humanitarian of projects in the field
are part and parcel of the military's public relations effort. The hard sell is
directed not only at the American press and public, but at themselves.
Propaganda is everywhere. A banner at the entrance to a refugee camp
reads, in English: "REFUGEES FROM COMMUNISM." Even for those
who are not refugees, but whose lives have been disrupted, life is fraught
For McCarthy, the true measure of the war's progress is illustrated
by problems created by the Americans themselves: a flood of refugees and
the nightmarish logistics of caring for them. By 1968 about ten percent of
South Vietnam's population had been dislocated by the war. As McCarthy
bitterly notes, these are not typical political refugees fleeing persecution
from the enemy. It is the Americans who have flushed them from their
homes and farms. This program of destruction and relocation was an
integral part of the American "pacification" effort, which, however, created
infinitely more problems than it solved. A recurring theme in the essay is
the disruption of an ancient agrarian society.46 The American's
systematic uprooting of the Vietnamese population is echoed in the rural
landscape which is grossly disfigured by defoliation, bombing, mounds of
industrial garbage and war wreckage: ". the fecal matter of our
civilization" (MC, 51).
46 This theme is also the subject of the drawings accompanying McCarthy's "Report
from Vietnam" in The New York Review of Books.
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