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  • Searching for a New German Identity: Heiner Müller and the Geschichtsdrama
  • Matt Cornish
Searching for a New German Identity: Heiner Müller and the Geschichtsdrama. By Theresa M. Ganter. East German Studies / DDR-Studien, no. 16. Bern: Peter Lang, 2008; pp. 455. $97.95 paper.

With the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 2009, German theatres and critics have been examining not only their nation’s history, but also the way playwrights have approached that history. In March 2009, for example, the premier German theatre magazine Theaterheute released a special issue on German myths, with several different authors writing on German identity, the necessity of finding historical myths for the German people to unite behind, and the use of history in recent plays and films. In this environment, Theresa Ganter’s Searching for a New German Identity: Heiner Müller and the Geschichtsdrama—a study of Müller’s history plays Germania Death in Berlin (1956–71) and Germania 3 Ghosts at Dead Man (1996)—is timely, participating in the ongoing debate about what it means to be German after reunification.

Ganter argues that, unique among Müller’s many plays, Germania Death and Germania 3 use all of German history to investigate three essential questions faced by Germans in the wake of World War II: “Who were the Germans in ages past? Who are they at the moment? Who might they become in the future?” (14). By analyzing how Müller approaches these questions, through close readings of the historical references in each play, she believes that we can come to a better understanding of German identity past, present, and future.

Ganter provides her readers with a brief biography of Müller, essential for an understanding of his work. A poet, playwright, and director, Müller was born in 1929 in Saxony (later part of the communist German Democratic Republic [GDR]). He and his family survived World War II, and though his parents left the newly founded GDR for the west in 1951, Müller elected to stay. He matured artistically under the influence of Bertolt Brecht, and began his career with plays in the style of Soviet-realism, such as The Scab (1956).

Germania Death in Berlin, however, breaks from realism competely; critics often describe it as a “synthetic-fragment,” similar to the better-known Hamletmachine (1977) in tone and structure. In pairs of grotesque, seemingly unrelated, and certainly nonchronological scenes, the play moves from depicting a pregnant Goebbels with giant breasts to quoting from Tacitus’s first-century text, Germania. It was not [End Page 122] staged in the GDR until 1988. The similar, but postreunification Germania 3 Ghosts at Dead Man was Müller’s last play, unpublished and unproduced before his death on 30 December 1995. Although his plays move far from the established conventions of the German history play—exemplified in Friedrich Schiller’s dramas, such as Wallenstein—Müller nevertheless continues the long tradition of using the events and figures of German history to comment on German identity.

Delving into the tangled origins of each play, Ganter lays out the cultural, intellectual, and political milieu of the GDR, from its early days in 1949 through its collapse in 1989. She also provides a brief history of the German Geschichtsdrama (history play), before moving on to a long chapter on Germania Death, and another on Germania 3. These two chapters consider the major themes and characters of each play, providing valuable context for Müller’s often confusing and interwoven references to historical events (like the Hungarian Revolution of 1956) and figures (especially Rosa Luxemburg). Ganter also gives a great deal of background on the other texts cited by Müller, including Brecht’s Coriolanus (1956) and Peter Hacks’s The Miller from Sansouci (1958). In a typical passage, after explaining the context of the third scene in Germania Death, she writes that Müller “warned his contemporaries that the Prussian heritage, that is, the unquestioning attitude towards authority and the people’s obedience, . . . could still threaten the development and, therefore, the future of the GDR” (144). In the final chapter, she pulls...


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