There are hints of “Ost-algia” in the air these days in Germany. One in seven German wants the Wall back, according to a recent poll published in Stern magazine. Many feel they were better off when the country was divided. They are bitter about high taxes and millions of dollars of their money poured into rebuilding the formerly communist east over the past two decades. And all that for what? For an eastern region that’s depleting itself demographically, and where unemployment is twice as high as in western Germany.
But lost in those statistics is the reality of oppression.
This year’s literature Nobel Prize is bringing that reality to the surface. German novelist Herta Mueller gives voice to key themes of the oppression, dictatorship, and exile that dominated not only her life but that of the millions of victims of the Soviet regime in Germany and Eastern Europe.
That’s why German president Horst Koehler said it was a “good signal” that the top literary honor went to Herta Mueller on the 20th anniversary of the end of the dictatorships in Eastern Europe.
Herta Mueller “has a capacity of really giving you a sense of what it’s like to live in a dictatorship; also, what it’s like to be part of a minority in another country and what it’s like to be an exile,” Academy Permanent Secretary Peter Englund told Swedish radio news today, as he praised the woman who received death threats in her native Romania for refusing to cooperate with Nicolae Ceausescu’s totalitarian regime.
Read the Monitor Book Editor's take on Mueller's work, here.
Her family belonged to the German-speaking minority in Romania, a country that was closely linked to Nazi Germany. Her father served with the Waffen SS during World War II. But when, in 1945, the Red Army marched into Romania, all of Romania’s ethnic German men and women between 17 and 45 years of age - 80,000 in all - were deported to Soviet labor camps. Mueller’s mother was one of them. She spent five years in a labor camp in what is today Ukraine.
In her latest novel, “Everything I Own I Carry with Me” (“Atemschaukel” in German) Mueller depicts the exile of German Romanians. “That’s her life motto, to break the silence about the dictatorship in Romania ... and its consequences on people, and she wants to give the silence a voice,” Sigrid Loeffler, a German literary critic, said today on German Public Radio.
Although Mueller grew up in Romania, she was always part of a minority, and never felt at home there. Eventually, she escaped to Berlin in 1987. Her work -- for example, “ Traveling on One Leg” -- deals with the consequences not only of oppression but of exile. “A lot of her books deal with being torn between staying and having to go, between saying goodbye and separating, about feeling a foreigner in one’s own country,” Loeffler said. “Hers is a life in transit. She’s waiting to go, but she never really arrives in the new country.”