- Suddenly Everything Was Different: German Lives in Upheaval
Suddenly Everything was Different is the English translation of Olaf Georg Klein’s book Plötzlich war alles ganz anders. Deutsche Lebenswege im Umbruch, published in 1994 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch in Germany. Categorized by Dwight D. Allman as “Dokumentarliteratur” (documentary literature), one could easily list the volume as well under the genre interview literature, as laid out by Hans Joachim Schröder in his Interviewliteratur zum Leben in der DDR (Interview Literature on Life in the GDR), published in 2001. Schröder analyzes interview literature as a subgroup of documentary literature and points, specifically, to the interdisciplinary ties to sociology, history, and oral history, among other disciplines. This genre represents both memory work and everyday cultures, presents viewpoints and life experiences from prominent as well as from otherwise unfamiliar people, and its tradition in the former GDR and in (West) Germany is significant, beginning with Erika von Hornstein’s collection Die Deutsche Not in 1960.
In his introduction, editor Allman provides the reader with a short synopsis of “History and German Identity,” a biography of the author (“Growing Up with the GDR”), a quick overview of (to use his own subheadings) “The Revolution of 1989,” and some details on how “Suddenly Everything Was Different.” But he fails to indicate why, given the rather overwhelming choice of texts within the documentary or interview literature genres that present aspects of life in the GDR, he picked Klein’s; we can only assume that he followed the judgment of Wolfgang Emmerich who, in the new and expanded edition of his Kleine Literaturgeschichte der DDR (2000), ranks Klein’s book as “one of the best in the genre of Wendeliteratur” (literature documenting the change or “Wende”) (ix). The translator’s preface follows Allman’s introduction, providing the reader [End Page 222] with some helpful explanations about the rendering of specific terms such as “Wende” and “IM” (“unofficial co-worker”), and it is complemented suitably by Allman’s annotations at the end of the book, offering necessary and very helpful explanations for terms, names, and dates referred to in the main text.
The main text, then, corresponds to the German original, that is, Klein’s preface and his twelve “interviews” with four women and eight men. What makes Klein’s work stand out somewhat from the hundreds of other volumes of interview literature, before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, is the intentional confusion of the reader, professed in his preface. He calls the end of the GDR a “collective heart attack” (xxvii), within which he sees himself as both a “chronicler” of events (and of the contradictions and fissures in their interpretations) and a “translator” of “values and interpretations” (xxviii) who “must not only set down what was said, claimed, or contended, but above all how, when, and in what context it was done or not done.” Consequently, he encourages the readers to judge “for themselves who these fictitious characters are ‘in reality’” (xxix), having dubbed his texts—which are based on actual interviews—“literary monologues.”
These “monologues” depict a number of events and personal histories from a variety of people, including a day care worker, a former collaborator of the secret police, a student, two pastors, an artist, and a journalist. When interviewed, the oldest was 56 and the youngest 18. All interviewees speak to the changes brought about by the fall of the wall and re-unification in October 1990, and some bring up other major events in East German history, for example, the uprising on June 17, 1953. All of them address the interlacings between private and public life, between personal opinion and party politics, and they recount encounters with official doctrine, changes in their personal positioning towards official doctrine, or how they handled the loss of the “system” altogether. Family life coincides and/or clashes with demands and responsibilities at work while the “collective heart attack” often rattles firmly...