Obituary: Stephan Hermlin

The opportunity - the necessity even - to reassess a country's entire literature is as rare as it is disorienting. Such an opportunity arose when the German Democratic Republic ceased to exist. Its literature survived, but Western critics began to question its value - had they overvalued individual voices simply because it was good to hear them above the slogans? Few writers were spared such scrutiny, but Stephan Hermlin was.

More urgent questions, involving more than the imponderables of literary judgement, came to be asked when Stasi (State Security) files were opened, unmasking writers great and small as collaborators. Again Hermlin was spared - this member of the literary establishment, friend of the idealogue President of the Writers' Union, Hermann Kant, friend too of the country's leader, Erich Honecker, was not working with the Stasi, he was indeed being watched by them.

Yet here the puzzles begin - and the controversies. When the East German writer Joachim Walther was preparing his recently published giant documentation of writers and the Stasi, Hermlin was one of a tiny handful of writers, out of 140, who denied him access to their own files. Why he refused and what, if anything, he was hiding, has not been explained. In the last 12 months, Hermlin has been at the centre of an exceptional, highly personal controversy. Karl Corino, a redoubtable journalist-cum-sleuth, indefatigably hunting out Stasi connections discovered almost by accident that Hermlin had tampered with the facts of his own life, and to such an extent that Corino produced a book with the loaded title, Aussen Marmor, innen Gips. Die Legenden des Stephan Hermlin ("Marble Outside, Plaster Inside: The Legends of Stephan Hermlin", 1996). Here too there were no clear answers - Hermlin did not respond in detail to the charge that he altered facts in order to profile himself as a brave anti-Fascist. Again the controversy has not cleared the air. On the contrary, it has added one more enigma to an already enigmatic figure.

And yet, much is unambiguous, not least Hermlin's lifelong commitment to socialism. He was one of those exiles - Brecht and Eisler were others - whose return to East Berlin (he arrived in 1947) significantly influenced the cultural politics and the cultural life of the new state. He had been born Rudolf Leder, of cultivated middle-class Jewish parents, in Chemnitz in 1915. He spent the years from 1936 to 1945 on the move in Spain, England, Palestine, France and Switzerland. His move to East Germany was more than a matter of ideology. He returned in many essays and interviews to the question of Heimat (fatherland) and to his own powerfully emotional conviction that the GDR was his only conceivable home.

Rootedness, a seeking-after-continuities, lay at the heart of Hermlin's poetry. His first published volume, Zwolf Balladen von den grossen Stadten ("Twelve Ballads on the Cities"), appeared in Zurich in 1945 and other volumes of poetry followed during the 1950s. The themes were urgently topical, the forms were, however, traditional (ode, ballad, sonnet), the imagery often classical. It was a strategy bound to find favour with the framers of East German cultural policy for whom the classical heritage crucially underpinned the building of a socialist state. But Hermlin recognised the risk that a classicising style might become mannered and orotund - he himself wrote very little poetry after 1960. His own politics and his awareness of the dilemmas of war found more direct expression in prose stories - Die Zeit der Gemeinsamkeit, ("Time of Community", 1949), Der Leutnant Yorck von Wartenburg ("Lieutenant Yorck of Wartenburg", 1954) - while at a later date poet and prose writer seem to converge in his most popular story, Abendlicht (Evening Light, 1979), one of Corino's principal targets, in which fact and fiction, reality and dream, politics and Romantic gesture, combine in a story that shifts between autobiography - a young man growing up in the 1930s and 1940s - and the narrative of a distanced, anonymous observer.

Hermlin steered a devious course. He could toe the Party line and yet his essays often have the personal, undeclamatory ring of a man immensely well-read in world literature speaking up for literary values that embrace but go beyond politics. By 1969, he was judged dangerous by the Stasi, yet in 1972 he sent an internal memorandum to Honecker, at the latter's request, in which he attacked the blacklisting of authors. He advised and encouraged young poets in private and through public readings of their work, and he was instrumental in rallying support for a protest when the singer-poet Wolf Biermann was refused re-entry into the GDR in 1976 (later - tactics again perhaps - he tried to underplay his role). To Hermann Kant he was, it was reported, both "almost a trauma" and yet an irreplaceable figure on the East German scene.

Ultimately Hermlin paid for facing in too many directions, trying to be an old revolutionary while keeping pace with a changing scene. He sought a public role and yet remained secretive. At the beginning of Evening Light, he almost supplies his own epitaph: "Where one asks, others will know no answer, and where answers are given, questions will be waiting."

Rudolf Leder (Stephan Herm-lin), writer: born Chemnitz, Germany 13 April 1915; married four times; died Berlin 6 April 1997.

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