Der geteilte Himmel

[This page by Astrid Köhler]

Der geteilte Himmel; Divided Heaven; They Divided the Sky (1963)

(The title plays with the double meaning of the German word Himmel: heaven, sky)

Der geteilte Himmel was Wolf’s second book; its appearance in 1963 brought her instant national and international fame. Its title immediately refers to a historical event of far-reaching importance: the erection of the Berlin Wall on 13 August 1961, which completed and manifested Germany’s division in the Cold War. The title also indicates the main structure of the novel - the division of a (former) whole into (now) two halves which are nevertheless mirror images of each other.

The novel starts with its protagonist, a young woman named Rita, waking up in a hospital bed and having to confront the events that had brought her to near death. She knows that immediately before she lost consciousness she had seen two trains moving directly towards her, coming from opposite sides. What follows are her weeks of recuperation, in which she tacitly recalls her life of the last couple of years: the house in a remote village which she had shared with her mother and aunt, her job in the village’s mayoral office, the teacher who had come to recruit others – including herself – to the teaching profession, and Manfred, a scientist working in the field of chemistry with whom she had fallen in love and who had taken her from the village into his parents’ house in the town where she was going to work in a train factory and start her teacher training. The love story between Rita and Manfred is presented as torn between two different ways of experiencing life in the young GDR: Rita’s youthful openness, optimism against experienced odds, and increasing social integration is set against Manfred’s distrust inherited from the previous system, disbelief in the new political system and the people representing it, his negative experience at work and consequently his growing social disintegration. When he does not return from a conference in West Berlin (he was offered a lucrative position by a company there), Rita is faced with the decision whether or not to follow him. She returns from a visit to West Berlin as she cannot see herself staying there for Manfred’s sake and leave her life in the East behind. However, the final decision is taken out of her hands with the erection of the Berlin Wall. It is this dilemma which had caused her breakdown. By the end of the recovery process (recovery here in more than one sense), Rita is able and keen to continue her life, now without Manfred, but with her friends and colleagues at university and the train factory.

In several respects, Christa Wolf had observed the cultural-political doctrine prevailing in East Germany at the time when writing this novel. 1959 had seen the launch of the so-called ‘Bitterfelder Weg’ (Bitterfeld Way; Bitterfeld is an industrial town) according to which workers were urged to reflect on their experience at work by writing about it, and authors were asked to join workers in the factories in order to better understand their lives and concerns and to draw on this experience in their writing. Wolf herself worked in the train factory ‘Waggonwerk Ammendorf’ for some time, and in the narrative of Der geteilte Himmel, the ‘Brigade’ (Rita’s working team) and the whole factory to which it belongs often take centre stage and clearly have a huge influence on the heroine’s personal development.

Wolf is also said to have observed the principles of ‘Socialist Realism’ in the novel, according to which authors should uphold and renew the tradition of 19th century realist prose writing (as represented for instance by Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister or by the novels of Theodor Fontane) by basing their stories in their current environment, taking a clear political stance towards socialism and promoting socialist ideas through their main protagonists. Whilst Der geteilte Himmel does not reject such demands, it cannot be restricted to this limited pattern. One could at best argue that it is a modern Bildungs- and Entwicklungsroman (see Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister): tailored to a female heroine, the historical knowledge of the mid 20th century and the contemporary circumstances of the time of writing. But even this does not fully take account of the book’s narrative structure: the way it presents the workings of memory, the oscillation of the narrative voice between protagonist and outside narrator, and likewise the movements of the narration between different layers of time. Rather than just following the above named patterns, this book is about the quest of an individual for herself, her very own identity.

Indeed, the questions and writing techniques developed in Der geteilte Himmel were sharpened further in Wolf’s next novel Nachdenken über Christa T. and remained relevant for her writing throughout her career.

The novel Leibhaftig of 2003 based its story on a similar initial constellation: Here too, a female protagonist finds herself in a hospital bed after what can be seen as an attempted suicide; here too, the reader follows her as she works through her memories and her understanding of what had happened; and here too the success of the doctors much depends on the success of her mental journey into, and working through, the past. Set not in the early 1960s but in the late 1980s, much of the hope and optimism which characterizes Der geteilte Himmel has now gone.

English Translation

Christa Wolf, They Divided the Sky, trans. by Luise von Flotow (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2013)

Further Reading

Agnes Cardinal, Introduction to: Christa Wolf: Der geteilte Himmel, ed. by Agnes Cardinal, Methuen’s Twentieth Century Texts (London: Methuen, 1987), pp. 1-41

Peter Hutchinson, Literary Presentations of Divided Germany. The Development of a Central Theme in East German Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977)

Karin McPherson, 'Christa Wolf’s Prose and Essay Work of the 1960s', in Graham Bartram and Anthony Waine (eds.), Culture and Society in the GDR (GDR Monitor, Special Series 2) (Dundee, 1984), pp. 51-58

Renate Rechtien, ‘The Topography of the Self in Christa Wolf’s Der geteilte Himmel’, German Life and Letters 63:4 (2010), 475-89

Dennis Tate, The East German Novel. Identity, Community, Continuity (Bath: Bath University Press, 1984)

Ian Wallace, ‘Teacher or Partner?’ in The Writer and Society in the GDR, ed. by Ian Wallace (Tayport: Hutton, 1984), pp. 9–17