[This page by Astrid Köhler]

Christa Wolf (1929-2011)

Christa Wolf is arguably one of the greatest German writers of the 20th century. In her lifetime, she experienced a number of radically different political systems in Germany: the Weimar Republic (albeit as a very young child); the Nazi regime; the post-war period and the German Democratic Republic (GDR; East Germany); the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG; West Germany); and the unified German Republic (since 1990). Her writing is clearly informed by these experiences.

She was born as daughter of the shopkeeper Otto Ihlenfeld in Landsberg / Warthe (now Golzow / Wiopolski, Poland). After the flight to Mecklenburg in 1945 she worked in several small jobs and finished school, going on to study literature at the universities of Leipzig and Jena from 1949 to 1953. In 1951 she married her fellow student Gerhard Wolf, who was to become her lifelong partner and artistic collaborator. They had had two daughters. She joined the SED (East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party) in 1949 and remained a member of it until 1989 despite growing unease with many of its policies. Like that of many colleagues, her relationship with the state can be described as that of a ‘loyal dissident’. After university she worked for the ‘Deutscher Schriftstellerverband’ (Association of German Writers) of the GDR, edited the literary journal ‘neue deutsche literatur’ (New German Literature), and in 1959 became a reader for the ‘Mitteldeutscher Verlag’, a publisher of mainly contemporary literature which also brought out the first few of her own books. After the success of her first publication Moskauer Novelle (1961) she became a freelance writer and moved with her family to Berlin. Wolf received various high profile literary prizes in and outside the GDR, and was also nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. The publication of her book Was bleibt (What remains) in summer 1990 (shortly before German reunification) gave rise to the so-called ‘Literaturstreit’ ('literature debate'), a controversy in which she, together with other authors from the GDR, was accused of having been too complicit with the East German regime and having sacrificed the literary quality of her writing for political ends. What her critics did not want to see was that her writing was critical of repressive structures in modern industrial societies in East and West, and that trying to tie her down to a narrow political cause in the Cold War did not do her works justice.

Wolf was predominantly a writer of prose fiction, and best known for novels like Der geteilte Himmel; The Divided Heaven, Nachdenken über Christa T; The Quest for Christa T., Kindheitsmuster; Patterns of Childhood, or Kassandra; Cassandra. Many of her stories use contemporary settings, but reach back to the immediate past (e.g. Der geteilte Himmel; Kindheitsmuster; Störfall; Sommerstück; Leibhaftig), but she also refers to the eras of Romanticism (e.g. Kein Ort. Nirgends; No Place on Earth, which imagines a fictive meeting between Heinrich von Kleist and Karoline von Günderrode), or Antiquity (Kassandra; Medea. Stimmen). Her main topic was the individual’s quest for itself, i.e. the difficulty – in every society – of finding oneself and ‘saying I’. Early in her career as a writer she developed her very own literary technique which she called ‘subjective authenticity’. It is marked by the exploration of successive layers of (mainly individual, but also collective) memory, whereby each layer opens up in time yet another, even more submerged one. This is combined with extensive intertextual commentary and a highly precise use of language. Not surprisingly then, the subtitle of Wolf’s last book Stadt der Engel (City of Angels) of 2010 was: The Overcoat of Dr Freud.

Wolf’s books include:

Moskauer Novelle; Moscow Novella 1961

Der geteilte Himmel; They Divided the Sky 1963

Nachdenken über Christa T; The Quest for Christa T 1968

Kindheitsmuster; A Model Childhood; Patterns of Childhood 1976

Kein Ort. Nirgends; No Place on Earth 1979

Kassandra; Cassandra 1983

Störfall. Nachrichten eines Tages; Accident: A Day’s News 1987

Sommerstück; Summer Play 1989

Was bleibt; What Remains 1990

Medea. Stimmen; Medea. Voices / A Modern Retelling 1996

Leibhaftig; In the Flesh 2003

Ein Tag im Jahr; One day a Year 2003

Stadt der Engel. Oder: The Overcoat of Dr Freud; City of Angels. Or: The Overcoat of Dr Freud 2010

The best edition of Wolf’s works is: Christa Wolf. Werkausgabe in dreizehn Bänden, ed. by Sonja Hilzinger (Munich: Luchterhand, 2002-3)

Further Reading in English

Anita Bunyan, ‘Christa Wolf’, in Landmarks in German Women’s Writing, ed. by Hilda Brown (Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2007), pp. 173-192

Hajo Drees, A Comprehensive Interpretation of the Life and Work of Christa Wolf, 20th Century German Writers (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002)

Gerald A. Fetz and Patricia Herminghouse (eds.), What Remains: Responses to the Legacy of Christa Wolf (New York: Berghahn, 2022)

Gail Finney, Christa Wolf (Twayne’s World Authors Series) (New York: Twayne, 1999)

Marilyn Sibley Fries (ed.), Responses to Christa Wolf: Critical Essays (Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1989)

Anna K. Kuhn, Christa Wolf’s Utopian Vision. From Marxism to Feminism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)

Stefan Neuhaus, ‘Modern Inquisition or Democratic Counterweight? The power of the media and the four Christa Wolf “affairs”’, in Literature, Markets and Media in Germany and Austria Today, ed. by Arthur Williams et. al. (Bern: Peter Lang, 2000), pp. 159-78

Renate Rechtien, 'The Self and the Other. Images of Men and Women in Christa Wolf', in The Individual, Identity and Innovation. Signals from Contemporary Literature and the New Germany, ed. by Arthur Williams and Stuart Parkes (Bern: Peter Lang, 1994), pp. 149-64

Margit Resch, Understanding Christa Wolf. Returning Home to a Foreign Land (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1997)

Dennis Tate, ‘Christa Wolf: “Subjective Authenticity” in Practice: An Evolving Autobiographical Project’, in Tate, Shifting Perspectives. East German Autobiographical Narratives Before and after the End of the GDR (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2007), pp. 194-235

Ian Wallace (ed.), Christa Wolf in Perspective (German Monitor 30) (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994)

Christa Wolf, The Fourth Dimension. Interviews, intro. by Karin McPherson (London and New York: Verso, 1987)

Further Reading in German

Angela Drescher (ed.), Christa Wolf. Ein Arbeitsbuch. Studien – Dokumente – Bibiographie (Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau, 1989)

Carola Hilmes and Ilse Nagelschmidt (eds.), Christa Wolf Handbuch. Leben – Werk – Wirkung (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2016)

Astrid Köhler, ‘Christa Wolf: “Was ist das: dieses Zu-sich-selber-Kommen des Menschen?“’ In: Astrid Köhler, Brückenschläge. DDR-Autoren vor und nach der Wiedervereinigung (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), pp. 19-48

Web Links in English


Biography of Christa Wolf


Interview with Christa Wolf (2005)

Web Link in German


Christa Wolf Society, Berlin