Stefan Heym: A 20th Century German Life

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Arts Languages and Cultures

Abstract

The proposed study will present the first comprehensive intellectual biography of the East German Jewish writer Stefan Heym (1913-2001), who became East Germany's most prominent dissident. Heym, whose life spanned all five political systems that ruled twentieth-century Germany - from the German Empire the unified Republic after 1989 - was among the most prolific and widely read postwar German authors on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He combined - like none other in divided Germany - an important literary oeuvre with political engagement, and thus came to be seen as a symbol of outstanding moral and political integrity.

Following on from my AHRC-funded monograph Cosmopolitanisms and the Jews (2017), where I began to explore Heym's oeuvre through a cosmopolitanist framework, this project seeks to shed light on the nuanced and complex trajectories of political dissent in its particular Jewish incarnations in the GDR. In doing so, it will intervene in the reductive Cold War reception of East German culture, and East German Jews in particular, as 'perpetrators and victims, villains and useful idiots, bystanders and accessories' (Michael Wolffsohn), which continues to vex the discussion of East German culture and the Eastern Bloc in general. At the same time, a consideration of life writings related to Heym reveals the need to complicate his idealising image as a 'perpetual dissident' (Peter Hutchinson), given that this only partially accounts for Heym's responses to the GDR.

Whereas previous studies have largely rested on a discussion and contextualisation of Heym's literary works, this planned intellectual biography and associated publications will be the first work to weave together the largest available range of sources from Germany, the UK, the USA, Israel and the former Czechoslovakia. This will overlay Heym's extensive publications with the vast archive of previously unconsidered or unavailable life writings and biographical sources. These include personal correspondence and the secret police files of various political regimes under which Heym lived, including National Socialist Germany, the United States and the GDR. It will also draw on a wealth of personal photos, letters, manuscripts and 8-mm personal footage depicting Heym, as well as a series of exclusive interviews with surviving friends and associates before the final passing of that generation. These sources will expose the personal motivations, tactical manoeuvrings, personal networks and internal contradictions that made up this towering figure of the East German opposition.

By making Heym's life and oeuvre relevant to the post-Wall generation, this project will transcend the still prevailing, dichotomous Cold War portrayals of the East German culture, counter culture and opposition to uncover sites of creativity and personal agency under Communist rule. The study of GDR culture has become largely discredited since the post-1990s revelations that a number of leading dissident GDR writers had themselves worked for the Stasi. At the same time, number of more recent popular culture renditions of life in the GDR, including The Lives of Others (Germany, 2006), Deutschland '83 and '86 (Germany, 2015 and 2018) and Gundermann (Germany, 2018) have sparked renewed popular interest in and nostalgia about the GDR, at the risk of normalising the broad involvement of its citizens with the Stasi. Through the combination of the definitive academic study of Heym's life and an international conference, with impact events including a film series and an international TV documentary, I want to explore the fascinating interplay between politics and personality in the making of political disobedience. I seek to illuminate Heym's dissenting leftist and cosmopolitanist position for a new generation facing the rise of right-wing extremism and populist movements which threaten the humanitarian vision of the European project.

Planned Impact

The proposed study will present the first comprehensive intellectual biography of the East German Jewish writer Stefan Heym (1913-2001), who became East Germany's most prominent dissident. Heym, whose life spanned all five political systems that ruled twentieth-century Germany - from the German Empire the unified Republic after 1989 - was among the most prolific and widely read postwar German authors on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He combined - like none other in divided Germany - an important literary oeuvre with political engagement, and thus came to be seen as a symbol of outstanding moral and political integrity.

Following on from my AHRC-funded monograph Cosmopolitanisms and the Jews (2017), where I began to explore Heym's oeuvre through a cosmopolitanist framework, this project seeks to shed light on the nuanced and complex trajectories of political dissent in its particular Jewish incarnations in the GDR. In doing so, it will intervene in the reductive Cold War reception of East German culture, and East German Jews in particular, as 'perpetrators and victims, villains and useful idiots, bystanders and accessories' (Michael Wolffsohn), which continues to vex the discussion of East German culture and the Eastern Bloc in general. At the same time, a consideration of life writings related to Heym reveals the need to complicate his idealising image as a 'perpetual dissident' (Peter Hutchinson), given that this only partially accounts for Heym's responses to the GDR.

Whereas previous studies have largely rested on a discussion and contextualisation of Heym's literary works, this planned intellectual biography and associated publications will be the first work to weave together the largest available range of sources from Germany, the UK, the USA, Israel and the former Czechoslovakia. This will overlay Heym's extensive publications with the vast archive of previously unconsidered or unavailable life writings and biographical sources. These include personal correspondence and the secret police files of various political regimes under which Heym lived, including National Socialist Germany, the United States and the GDR. It will also draw on a wealth of personal photos, letters, manuscripts and 8-mm film by or depicting Heym, as well as a series of exclusive interviews with surviving friends and associates before the final passing of that generation. These sources will expose the personal motivations, tactical manoeuvrings, personal networks and internal contradictions that made up this towering figure of the East German opposition.

By making Heym's life and oeuvre relevant to the post-Wall generation, this project will transcend the still prevailing, dichotomous Cold War portrayals of the East German culture, counter culture and opposition to uncover sites of creativity and personal agency under Communist rule. The study of GDR culture has become largely discredited since the post-1990s revelations that a number of leading dissident GDR writers had themselves worked for the Stasi. At the same time, number of more recent popular culture renditions of life in the GDR, including The Lives of Others (Germany, 2006), Deutschland '83 and '86 (Germany, 2015 and 2018) and Gundermann (Germany, 2018) have sparked renewed popular interest in and nostalgia about the GDR, at the risk of normalising the broad involvement of its citizens with the Stasi. Through the combination of the definitive academic study of Heym's life and an international conference, with impact events including a film series and an international TV documentary, I want to explore the fascinating interplay between politics and personality in the making of political disobedience. I seek to illuminate Heym's dissenting leftist and cosmopolitanist position for a new generation facing the rise of right-wing extremism and populist movements which threaten the humanitarian vision of the European project.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description The project has uncovered a wealth of previously unknown information regarding the extent of Jewish dissidence in the Eastern Bloc more broadly, and the GDR more specifically. The findings have significantly expanded our understanding of activities that can be classed as dissidence; the contribution of Jews to such activities; and the specific avenues taken by Jewish agents to express dissent within Soviet Bloc regimes.
Exploitation Route Tbc.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

 
Description This section is really tbc., as the impact activities were significantly affected by the pandemic.
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description Faculty Research Recovery Fund
Amount £1,818 (GBP)
Organisation University of Manchester 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2022 
End 06/2022
 
Description Jewish Dissidents in the Eastern Bloc 
Organisation Humboldt University of Berlin
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution 2-day co-organised international conference
Collaborator Contribution The Selma Stern Centre hosted the conference online and offered support via a dedicated conference assistant from their team. The Director of the Selma Stern Centre delivered an introductory lecture which will be published in extended form in the conference proceddings.
Impact - 1 2-day international conference - 1 volume of conference proceedings (in preparation)
Start Year 2020