Spectres of the GDR: The Haunting of the Berlin Republic

Despite the pervasive rhetoric of new beginnings associated with the unification of Germany, German literature and culture since 1990 have seen a paradigm shift from looking forwards to looking backwards. This is in part the result of the collapse of those certainties which had sustained the post-war political consensus as well as people’s everyday lives since 1945. But it is not simply a product of the nostalgia for the East or ‘Ostalgie’ which has brought a new word into the German language. We are also witnessing a much more significant renegotiation of history that involves re-evaluating what has been suppressed or silenced in the drive for progress. A key example is Communism, the ‘spectre’ upon which East Germany was founded; another is the socialist state it inspired: now itself a spectre that haunts contemporary capitalism as unrealized aspiration, trauma or travesty. This project examines how the GDR and its legacy are remembered in the Berlin Republic. It analyses how, alongside the official public culture of remembrance, ‘un-accommodated’ or taboo aspects of that past have manifested themselves in the form of a plethora of spectres, ghosts, revenants, phantoms, vampires, ‘doppelgänger’ and the undead in the literature, film and culture of the united Germany. Traditionally, the appearance of a revenant has been interpreted as the sign of unfinished business: a disturbance in the symbolic, moral or epistemological order, which is resolved once the ghost has delivered its message. However, in this context the widespread appearance of spectres can be read as the symptom of a profound crisis. Using the spectre as a specific focus, the project addresses works of the last two decades by major and lesser-known artists in which revenants of various kinds play a central role: the ‘haunted subject’ of post-Wende Germany; the spectral topographies of the united Germany; the phantoms of tradition; and the unobserved but observing the ‘spooks’ of the secret police. Three case studies then present major writers whose sustained engagement with phantoms also offers ways into considering tradition, aesthetics and the business of writing itself (Christa Wolf, Volker Braun, Heiner Müller). But, at a second level, the project draws on deconstruction, psychoanalysis and cultural philosophy to tap into larger issues of melancholia, mourning, memory, generational transfer and German history: that is, the way the past ‘haunts’ the present at a metaphorical level. It analyses the way that phantoms of a specifically GDR past also mobilise other acute histories and intertexts (including the paradigmatic spectre of Hamlet), in order to ask what the return of the dead means for contemporary German society. Throughout the ghosts are interrogated for what they tell us (or conceal) about the past: through nostalgia, trauma, unfulfilled aspiration or ideological critique, but also for what they express about the state of German culture today. The project addresses three further linked questions. It analyses the ‘ethics’ of a dialogue with the dead; it examines the possibilities and limitations of what might be called a ‘spectral aesthetic’; and finally, it asks what this specific case study can contribute to studies of what cultural critics are calling the ‘spectral turn’. In this way it demonstrates that the figure of the revenant presents a particular challenge to the cultural amnesia of the present, serving as a reminder of the extent to which significant histories can be overwritten in the dominant political interest. In this it feeds into widespread debates in cultural philosophy which address the end of utopia, the future of Marxism or the significance of post-secularism in contemporary thought. It also contributes to a discussion of concerns of perennial importance in any society at any time: loss, memory and mourning. Finally, it aims to show that in cultural terms, the return of the dead, perversely perhaps, offers a vital sign of life.

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