Dissolution / Revolution: Uwe Tellkamp’s post-89 Novel Der Turm and the Peculiar Configuration of the Public Sphere in the Late GDR

Julia Hell, University of Michigan


When asked to exhibit at the Musée du quai Branly in 2007, the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare chose the theme of Jardin de l’amour, creating installations that celebrate the French revolution and the revolutions to come. Recently named Member of the British Empire, Shonibare arranged his trademark wax figures in three scenes, inspired by the French rococo painter, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806). Like all of Shonibare’s mannequins, the lovers in these installations are headless; they wear the luxurious outfits of eighteenth-century aristocrats, but instead of brocade and lace, their clothes are made of colorful African fabrics. Recreating Fragonard’s scenes of courtship, Shonibare invited his audience to draw a parallel between pre-revolutionary Europe and the twenty-first century, between the conspicuous consumption of the European elites before the revolutions in Paris and Haiti erupted and the “growing resentment on the part of the expanding underclass” outside of contemporary Europe and North America. Shonibare’s installations are warnings: “you can have all this luxury,” Shonibare tells one of his interviewers, “but you will have it at the expense of your head.”[1]

Fragonard’s paintings often depicted dark, threatening clouds forming above his lovers’ heads and black shadows, falling over the lush trees, bushes, and follies, which served as the background to his scenes of decorous love-making. They were meant to signify love’s passions, eruptions of the forces of nature, and served as memento mori, the presence of death in the gardens of the living. With hindsight, we now read Fragonard’s clouds and shadows as signs of the end to come, of the bourgeois and anti-colonial revolutions that shook the foundations of Europe’s metropoles at the end of the eighteenth century. Fragonard’s dramatic cloud formations were part of the visual archive of eighteenth century-painters, who often transposed the Arcadian ruin landscapes of the gulf of Naples with a smoldering Mount Vesuvius in the background to northern European climates. One of the early specialists in these allegorical landscapes was Jan Frans van Bloemen (1662-1749), a Dutch painter much admired by Friedrich Franz von Anhalt-Dessau (1740-1817).[2] The ruler of a small principality known for his enlightened views, the prince had a replica of Mount Vesuvius built in his gardens, located between the city of Dessau and the small town of Wörlitz in Saxony, the industrial heartland of the former GDR. The prince’s visitors watched the toy volcano’s eruptions, simulated by means of fireworks and the firing of cannons, while comfortably seated in small boats (the volcano is located on the so-called Felseninsel Stein).[3] By the time of its completion in 1796, the prince’s quaint volcanic spectacle might have reminded the prince’s guests of rather unpleasant events, like the revolutionary beheadings in Paris and the unseemly demonstrations in the gardens of Versailles.[4] After 1989, the garden empire’s derelict grounds (with their Pantheon, Temple of Venus, replica of Sir William Hamilton’s house at Naples, synagogue, castle, and many other buildings), were restored to their eighteenth-century splendor, and the volcano erupted again in 2005, turning the revolutionary metaphor into pure spectacle, celebrating the return to German “normalcy.” In 1989, no heads were lost. Instead, a state dissolved, while its citizens escaped or poured into the streets discovering themselves as “the people.”


Not surprisingly, the metaphor of volcanic eruptions surfaced after the fall of the wall. In the summer of 1990, three East German punk bands gathered in a club in Berlin; the concert was recorded under the title “The Last Days of Pompeii.”[5] In literary texts, a similar nature metaphor appeared, that of the flood. In Alte Abdeckerei (1990; Old Knackers Yard), Wolfgang Hilbig (1941-2007), the GDR’s working-class-author steeped in T.S. Eliot, Ernst Jünger, and Franz Kafka, lets his text explode in a flood of fragmented sentences and words, killing their meaning and creating a stream of neologisms that dissolve the text’s allegory – the knackers’ yard as Germania I and II, Nazi Germany, and the GDR. Evoking the industrial region bordering on the Dessau-Wörlitz gardens as an apocalyptic landscape of industrial ruins, poisoned rivers, dying trees, and un-dead workers, Hilbig, trained as a stoker, celebrated the end of East German socialism with a mixture of white hot rage and bottomless disappointment about the degradation and betrayal of the working class. The dilapidated Fordist zones of the east constitute the epicenter of his text. Similar to Roberto Bolano, who represented the industrial zones along the American-Mexican border as the rotten center of capitalist globalization in his monumental novel, 2666 (2008), Hilbig’s texts represent the Lusatia region with its derelict steel mills and brutal strip mining the dying heart of state-communism, the graveyard of the socialist project.[6]

This same industrial region, already a central site in the literature of the GDR’s heroic era of reconstruction (i.e., the early texts by socialist realists and later the texts by the GDR’s avant-garde Leninists Bertolt Brecht, Heiner Müller, and Volker Braun), also plays a role in Uwe Twellkamp’s Der Turm (2008; The Tower). Beautifully subtitled Geschichte aus einem versunkenen Land (Story from a Vanished Country), the novel revives the power of epic narrative in ways similar to Bolano’s 2666. With its dense descriptive prose that strives to recapture the details of everyday life, the 1000-page novel recreates the lifeworld of a country “devoured” by the West, its architectural traces slowly eliminated, its forty year existence often reduced to a mere interlude in the (semi-)official exhibits about the history of the German nation.[7] Written by an author born and raised in the GDR, Tellkamp’s Turm chronicles the country’s last decade from a perspective hitherto absent in (post-) GDR literature: the perspective of the non-communist intelligentsia, doctors, researchers, and authors, clinging to their dying bourgeois culture in the crumbling villas of Dresden’s residential district. But this is only one strand of this multi-voiced novel. In the vein of the nineteenth-century historical novel, Tellkamp (b. 1968) works with a diverse cast of characters: middle-class doctors, whose distance towards the socialist experiment ends in blackmail and collaboration with the Stasi; ex-exiles, whose thinking is mired in the categories of 1930s Marxism; Christian, one of the novel’s main characters (with strong autobiographical traits), who rebels where his father acquiesces; a fervent young communist and friend of Christian’s, who wants to escape to the Soviet Union, away from the “burned out fires” of East German socialism, or the daughter of a high-level functionary, who joins the Dresden punk scene.

Tellkamp’s Der Turm tells a story of decline not only of a bourgeois family, but an entire “empire.”[8] With its elegiac evocations of ruined houses and crumbling values, the novel repeats Thomas Mann’s story of degeneration in Buddenbrooks (1901). Tellkamp’s imagery of decline and fall is both explicit and quite vivid. Some of the older protagonists fixated on the bombing of Dresden in World War II immerse themselves in the study of Babylon’s ancient ruins, finding comfort in the knowledge that even “our Nineveh” will turn to dust (T871).  Passing two signs in Dresden — one of which announces a new play, ANATOMIE TITUS FALL OF ROME (T877), the other proclaiming: “Socialism is winning” – Christian corrects himself: “Rome: Christian thought. No, Troy. This here is Troy” (T877-78).   Yet while most of the novel’s plots are set in Dresden’s bourgeois suburbs, some of the later chapters take place in the proletarian regions of Lusatia, thus introducing the trope of decay into the history of communism. While serving in the army, one of Der Turm’s five narrators, Christian, is sentenced to work, first in a carbide factory and then in strip-mining. In these chapters, Tellkamp paints the same hellish picture of labor in the dilapidated factories and mines of the second world that we find in Hilbig’s texts and in an even more aestheticized form in Tarkovsky’s films. Tellkamp narrates Christian’s crisis, the moment when he is ready to give up all resistance, as becoming one with the rotten, poisoned territory of the GDR’s “chemical empire” that surrounds him: “Here was his place” (T840), Christian thinks, reduced to the numb existence of Hilbig’s undead proletarians. Following in Hilbig’s footsteps, Tellkamp thus inscribes yet another story onto the territory that once encompassed Franz von Anhalt-Dessau’s idyllic gardens with their eighteenth-century visitors, listening dreamily to the faint echoes of the French revolution and fearing for their heads, and whose factories later came to embody first the victory and then the death of socialism with a German face.

And like Hilbig, Tellkamp then abruptly shifts his text at the end from the story of slow and inevitable decay to the moment when time explodes like a force of nature, depicting the 1989 demonstrations in Dresden (occasioned by the arrival of trains, filled with East German citizens who had gathered in the West German embassy in Prague, passing through the city’s main train station to the West). The celebration of the end of the GDR in Tellkamp’s text is free of the melancholy furor that marks Hilbig’s end-time explosion. Tellkamp’s narrator ecstatically revels in the event, which he describes as the liberation of time, time whose historical course had been arrested for decades: “… but then all of a sudden… the clocks began moving again, striking November 9” (T973; elisions in the original). Portraying the events of 1989 by condensing the texts of the novel’s five narrators into a breathless montage, Tellkamp repeatedly interrupts these pieces of text with the same sentence fragment:  “but then all of a sudden…” (T890).Whereas Hilbig thematized the anxiety that the collapse of the symbolic order might render his words meaningless, Tellkamp stops short of Hilbig’s linguistic work of destruction. Instead, his narrators see the possibility for telling new stories. The text’s last sentence ends with a colon, instead of a period, announcing a sequel to Der Turm, one that Tellkamp has promised to write.

Tellkamp likens the events of 1989 in Dresden to the sudden overflowing of the city’s river, the Elbe. Spilling over its shores, the stream of time is finally breaking free from all attempts to regulate its “incalculable energy, feverish with its power” (T944). Tellkamp creates this allegory of stalled time in the novel’s opening pages, written by Meno Rohde, one of the novel’s narrators and like Christian an autobiographical figure. Meno pictures the family’s world as both different from and similar to the country that surrounds it, as caught in the past and resisting the flow of time. Petrified in their heritage of a “bygone bourgeois world” and infected by a disease he calls “the sweet disease Yesterday” (T11), the family members live in houses, where clocks are ticking but time stands still. In Tellkamp’s GDR, time is frozen – in the well-worn, subdivided villas of Meno’s bourgeois family, in the dusty rooms of state-socialist bureaucrats, on the rusting Fordist production sites, in the elegant salons of its intellectual elite, and in the bare offices of desperate functionaries, who, directors of factories, are hoping against hope that perestroika will take hold in their own country.

Time has come to a standstill – and then it suddenly breaks free. The novel’s opening passage begins with a depiction of the “stream,” the Elbe, winding its way through Dresden at night, “searching” for something — a heavy, slow-moving river, carrying the toxic refuse from the country’s coal mines and state-owned chemical plants. At the end of the novel, Meno then describes this regulated stream as finally spilling over its borders – at the very moment when the demonstrators break through the barriers erected around the train station. Tellkamp invites us to read this trope of the arrested and then liberated river on multiple levels. In a narrowly political sense, the metaphor relates to Gorbachev’s reforms. Tellkamp would probably agree with Boris Groys’ assessment of the breakdown of the communist regimes as the result of a “process of dissolution.” [9] In a 2009 interview, the Russian-German philosopher stated: “The whole thing collapsed because the people’s engagement continuously decreased, because people invested less and less of their energy in the system, worked less and less, and were psychologically more and more alienated, including the leadership.” Tellkamp would also agree with Groys’ statement that the main motive for the demonstrations was the very material desire for freedom of movement and freedom of expression. Finally, I also think that Tellkamp would accept Groys’ assessment of the relative importance of the protest movements. Dismissing the idea that the protest movements caused the breakdown of the communist regimes, Groys maintained that the events of 1989 to 1991 were part of a “revolution from above”: “The process of dissolution was staged by a certain group inside the politburo of the Communist Party which had come to power. All of the other acts of protest were only successful because they were allowed to happen.”[10]

This political reading of Tellkamp’s guiding metaphor of the stalled/liberated course of time contradicts another level of meaning, since the trope also seems to thematize “history” in a Spenglerian, (or Mannian) vein as a cycle of birth and decay.[11] It is the narrator, who introduces the terminology of degeneration, writing about the “tired, body of the Republic” (T867), but it is Meno, who develops this metaphorical register in its most baroque form, reflecting upon the “strange disease” affecting the GDR’s “state-body” (T890). Time itself, instead of advancing, is simply becoming old (“Zeit fiel aus Zeit und alterte”), Meno observes and then writes: “Young people were old … citizens lived in niches, withdrew into the state-body, which, ruled by old men, was lying in a near-death slumber” (T890). Whatever meaning(s) we decide to give Tellkamp’s metaphor, we are following the narrator’s invitation, reading his musings on the river’s “search” as a gesture urging us to reflect on the events of 1989, to re-think the phenomenon experienced by Christian or Meno as rebirth.  In the novel’s last paragraphs, Tellkamp then adds another layer of meaning to the allegory of the de-regulated river of time, depicting the Elbe as an unruly flood washing away paper, pages from official newspapers and “cautious” pages from the archives of censored books, searching for “purity” (T970), for a new, pure language, untainted by censorship and ideology.


In a recent essay Volker Braun, the author of one of the GDR’s most censored novels, Unvollendete Geschichte (1977; Unfinished (Hi)story) recalled the “break-down of the GDR”: “The GDR vanished at the very moment when it started to get interesting, and when our readers and spectators became readers and actors.”[12] Braun thus repeats once again the central claim of the GDR’s dissident intelligentsia: that in the east, books mattered, that readers and spectators learned “Gegendenken” (counter-thinking), and ways to imagine “Gegenrealität” (counter-reality). Despite censorship, the “impure” language of the books and plays by Christa Wolf, Brigitte Reimann, Heiner Müller, and other dissident authors, had prepared its readers/spectators to become political actors. It is and was art’s role, Braun wrote, “to cross borders.”[13] As a Brechtian playwright and author of modernist prose, Braun believes that art in the GDR disregarded the boundary between stage and audience and the limits set by the SED’s cultural politics, thus pushing back the limits of what could be said and thought.

There are several characters in Tellkamp’s novel who subscribe to this view of literature as a de facto public sphere — writers, editors, and cultural functionaries, engaged in the endless negotiations over censorship and self-censorship.[14] But Tellkamp ultimately dismisses this position, portraying these intellectuals – dissident and non-dissident Marxists – as belonging to an ossified elite, caught up in ritualized meaningless negotiations that were an integral part of East German cultural politics.[15] The literary voice in Tellkamp’s novel is Meno Rohde who, tired of censorship, writes a “pure” experimental text, a diary, without even thinking about publication. But then the borders open, creating the conditions for his kind of literature.

There is no doubt that the texts by Volker Braun, Christa Wolf, Brigitte Reimann, Heiner Müller, Franz Fühmann, Irmtraut Morgner, et al. contributed to the creation of a public sphere however rudimentary in the GDR. But we need to historicize these claims. Quoting from an early poem by Stefan Hermlin, the master of dissident self-censorship, Braun calls their literary work “labor of disillusionment,” claiming that this disillusionment with real existing socialism set in as soon as the “time of miracles” came to an end.[16] Braun’s “time of miracles” refers to the so-called era of anti-fascist democratic reconstruction, the years before the founding of the East German state, which soon veered toward state-socialism of the familiar Stalinist kind. The short cultural thaw from 1961 to 1965 was followed by a cultural politics that switched back and forth ever more randomly between repression and liberalization. What was left in the 1980s was a dissident literature increasingly seen by many as the GDR’s “official” literature, and a younger generation, which lived in subcultural spaces waiting for the end. At this time, the GDR’s (semi)public literary public sphere acquired a peculiar configuration. East German literature and East German authors, had always moved across the East-West border, but in the 1980s, they began doing this in the most literal sense. Hilbig is a good starting point for a discussion of the peculiarities of this Cold War’s cultural landscape. After the publication of some early poems, Hilbig encountered increasing difficulties and started to publish in West Germany. Like many of his colleagues, he was fined for his first publication a collection of poems entitled Abwesenheit (1979; Absence), with the renowned West German Fischer Verlag. In 1985, Hilbig was given a visa that allowed him to live in the West (the expiration date was 1990), where he accumulated several prestigious literary awards.[17]

Hilbig was loosely associated with the so-called Prenzlauer Berg bohème, a group of poets with roots in the GDR punk scene. As disciples of Foucault and Derrida, they were enthusiastically committed to the de(con)struction of the GDR’s official languages. When the archives of the Stasi opened after 1989, two of the group’s leading members, Rainer Schedlinski and Sascha Anderson, were unmasked as having worked closely with the Stasi. Anderson in particular seems to have built this “underground” network of poets, musicians, and visual artists in the service of the Stasi as much as out of love for his friends. Eager to control this subculture which had emerged in the late 1970s and blossomed in the ’80s, Stasi officers asked Anderson to get involved in West Berlin’s alternative scene, and helped him organize several trips to West Berlin. Putting East and West German sub-cultures in contact (which involved the exchange of books and records as well as the organization of readings and concerts in the semi-public spaces of churches and private apartments), the Stasi thus sanctioned border traffic, hoping to thereby control an ever more active subculture, with its semi-public spaces east and west of the Berlin wall. The cultural landscape of the ’80s, described by Tellkamp in such minute detail was thus characterized by a tension between, on the one hand, exporting troublesome authors to the West or keeping them on a short leash with limited visas, and on the other hand, inventing ever new ways of keeping this peculiar cultural landscape under control. But then this system too dissolved.

1.  On Yinka Shonibare’s Garden of Love, see: http://quaibranly.fr/en/programmation/exhibitions/last-exhibitions/garden-of-love-created-by-yinka-shonibare-mbe.htm; last visited January 2, 2010. See the catalogue to the exhibit, Yinka Shonibare, MBE, Garden of Love, ed. Germaine Viatte (Paris: Flammarion: 2007).
2.  See his Campagna at: http://www.wga.hu/art/b/bloemen/jan_frans/campagna.jpg
3.  The island was built to remind the prince of his obligatory grand tour to Italy.
4.  On the industrial region’s musealization after 1989, see Kerstin Barndt’s excellent article, “’Memory Traces of an Abandoned Set of Futures’: Industrial Ruins in the Post-Industrial Landscapes of Germany.” Forthcoming in Ruins of Modernity, eds. Julia Hell and Andreas Schonle (Duke UP, February 2010).
5.  “Die letzten Tage von Pompeij” (1990), Peking Records; the bands were Ichfunktion, Die Firma, and Freygang.
6.  An even more rage-filled settling of accounts is Reinhard Jirgl’s Abschied von den Feinden (1995; Goodbye to the Enemies), an experimental novel, painting East Germany as a ruined, putrifying country, a zone of death. A trained mechanic with a social background similar to Hilbig’s and a protégé of Heiner Müller, Jirgl (b. 1953), like Müller, was influenced by Schmitt, Bataille, and Jünger, but unlike Müller he was never published in the GDR. In his recent books, Jirgl’s apocalyptic imagination now encompasses the capitalist west. See his Die Atlantische Mauer (2000; The Atlantic Wall). The concluding pages, with their stream of maimed sentences and broken words revel in the liberation of language, a liberation bordering on the loss of meaning.
7.  Bernard Umbrecht, “Sur les traces estompées de l’Allemagne de l’Est,” Le Monde Diplomatique, Novembre 2009 : 17. Der Turm won several book prizes, culminating in last year’s German Book Prize, turning the award ceremony into yet another commemoration of the fall of the wall.
8.  Uwe Tellkamp, Der Turm (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2008): 969. From now on, I will quote the text using T plus a page number. All translations are mine.
9.  Boris Groys, “Postproduktion Berlin: Kulissenkult und gutes Leben im Jurassic Park des realen Sozialismus,” Lettre International 86: 40.
10.  Boris Groys, “Postproduktion Berlin: Kulissenkult und gutes Leben im Jurassic Park des realen Sozialismus,” Lettre International 86: 40. While Groys’ take on the situation seems plausible, I would add that the protest movements seem to have developed a momentum of their own; ultimately the SED and its functionaries were confronted with developments in the S.U. and in their own country that left them completely helpless.
11.  A third reading would draw on Marx’s famous dictum, “all that is solid melts into air,” i.e., the relentless change at the heart of capitalist modernity.
12.  Volker Braun, “Im kuehlen ruhigen deutschen Herbst: Eine Erinnerung an den Zusammenbruch der DDR,” Neue Zuricher Zeitung, October 31, 2009; the article is available online: http://www.nzz.ch/nachrichten/kultur/aktuell/im_kuehlen_ruhigen_deutschen_herbst_1.3949041.html; last visited January 2, 2010.
13.  Braun,  “Im kuehlen ruhigen deutschen Herbst.“
14.  Der Turm is a novel about decay, decay that includes East German literature and the GDR’s cultural politics. One of the novel’s artistic protagonists in this roman a clefs is an author easily recognized as Franz Fühmann, whose story is told as the destruction of a literary talent by censors who know less and less what the nature and purpose of their censorship ought to be.
15.  As I mentioned above, the novel focuses on the 1980s, i.e., the late GDR characterized by repetition and stagnation. Had he written about the earlier GDR, his take on the function of literature might have looked different.
16.  “Die Zeit der Wunder schwand. Die Jahre sind vertan.” Braun, NZZ.
17.  Others who regularly crossed the border were Heiner Müller and Monika Maron. The first step in this development was the expulsion of the writer/songwriter Wolf Biermann, who received a visa for a concert in Cologne and was then denied reentry to the GDR.

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