Kindheitsmuster; Patterns of Childhood

[This page by Astrid Köhler]

Kindheitsmuster; Patterns of Childhood (1976)

(The title of the first English translation, A Model Childhood, is rather misleading: The book is not about establishing a model, or proto-typical childhood story)

This novel which appeared in 1976 can be read both as representing Wolf’s sustained attempts to come to terms with her childhood in Nazi Germany, and as a continuation of her literary exploration of the workings of memory. It begins with a quotation from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun: ‘The past is not dead. It is not even past.’, and goes on to ask the crucial question: ‘How did we become what we are today?’

In the political context of the GDR, the book can be linked to the liberalisation of cultural politcs in the early seventies, and the 1971 call by Erich Honecker (head of the governing party SED) for the lifting of taboos in literature and the arts. Wolf and other authors such as Hermann Kant, Volker Braun, Heiner Müller, decisively broke with the established convention of referring only to a tradition of resistance to fascism and officially ignoring those traces of life in the Third Reich that could still be found in the GDR. (As Wolf saw it, this legacy could be detected in the prevalence of authoritarianism, moral cowardice, opportunism.) Thus, her book sets out to unmask self-deception and to work against the psychological and political repression of a now ‘inconvenient’ past.

The story’s starting point is an autobiographical situation, namely the journey of a first-person narrator together with her younger brother, her husband and daughter to her former home town which is now part of Poland and which her family had to leave in 1945. This gets interleaved with / woven together with two further layers of time: the time of narration and the time of the protagonist’s childhood before, during and after the flight.

The novel is centrally concerned with re-constructing the complex links bewteens these layers, including the attendant transformations of the protagonist from ‘then’ to ‘now’ , and with tracing the residue of the past in the present. The difficulties embedded in this process are reflected in the narrator’s use of pronouns: Whenever childhood is being re-told, she speaks of ‘Nelly’ and ‘she’, but when referring to her adult stage, she addresses herself as ?you?. Again, the crux is: How would these two forms converge into an ‘I’? None of the three sub-stories told unfolds in a chronological manner; rather, they follow the workings of memory. It is often by way of a sensual trigger (a sound, a smell etc) or by way of association that an event, impression, emotion of the past come to the surface of the mind and might in turn trigger others.

The complex process of reclaiming and accepting one’s own past, and of programmatically saying ‘I’, is by its very nature set against any temptation to turn a blind eye, or conveniently conform to the ideological demands of the present. During the Cold War, this was a call easily ignored or misunderstood on either side of the Iron Curtain.

Further Reading

Elizabeth Boa, ‘Wolf, Kindheitsmuster’, in Landmarks in the German Novel 2, ed. by Peter Hutchinson and Michael Minden (British and Irish Studies in German Language and Literature) (Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2010), pp. 77-92

Helen Bridge, Women’s Writing and Historiography in the GDR (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

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

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

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

Myra Love, Christa Wolf. Literature and the Conscience of History (DDR-Studien / East German Studies, vol. 6) (Bern: Peter Lang, 1991)

Michelle Mattson, Mapping Morality in Postwar German Women’s Fiction: Christa Wolf, Ingeborg Drewitz, and Grete Weil (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010), Chapter on Kindheitsmuster

Michael Minden, ‘Social Hope and the Nightmare of History: Christa Wolf 's Kindheitsmuster and Stadt der Engel’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 80:2-3 (2011), 196-203

Katherine Stone, ‘Marxism, Gender and Mediated Memories of National Socialism: The Paradoxical Case of Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster (1976)’, German Life and Letters 67:2 (2014), 202-18

Caroline Summers, ‘Patterns of Authorship: The Translations of Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster’, German Life and Letters 67:3 (2014), 378-98