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Matthew Belcher, University of Pennsylvania, Dept. of Germanic Languages & Literatures

The Ideology of Environmentalism: Ecological Action by East German Authors

With a dominant concentration on the cultural politics in the GDR, Germanists have neglected topics in landscape, environment and nature, despite the East German author’s central role in advancing the ecological discourse.  Until recently, ecology also remained an unexplored topic in German literature as a whole.  My project unearths and explores ecological awareness in East German literature to show ecology as a highly ideological, liminal space, where right and left interact, within yet above the political framework of the GDR.  Environmentalism in the GDR was, not surprisingly, multifaceted in its literary substantiations, situated neither to the right nor left in itself, but incorporating elements of both, often in conjunction with other themes.

A particularly interesting phenomenon throughout the limited East German environmental literary corpus is the dialectical interplay of conservative and progressive, or often, the functionalization of the conservative by progressives.  German environmentalism’s progression from the 19th-century conservative Heimatschutzbewegung to a contemporary progressive movement is intriguing, for ironically, the common use of conservative literary motifs of landscape and Heimat mark the path toward progressivism.  Ecologically engaged East German authors approached the rampant environmental neglect in the GDR from a variety of angles: many latched onto the popularity among the rural majority of the Bauernromane of authors like Erwin Strittmatter and Ehm Welk and constructed endangered idyllic settings; others encouraged action by depicting hazardous working and living conditions in industrial settings, while still other authors resorted to technophobia and reactionary catastrophism as a by-product of immoral production.  The variety of deliveries guaranteed an audience all along the political spectrum for their pleas for environmental consciousness.

The project consists of two perspectives.  Primarily, it investigates East German literature in its relationship to the environment to answer the questions: How did ecological consciousness inform the works of key GDR writers, and what forms did their expressions take?  Do the ecological alarms raised by prominent East German authors argue for a reconceptualization of East German literature beyond knee-jerk identifications with SED cultural politics?  The second, social-cultural perspective of the project examines the history of environmentalism in the GDR, including the official Umweltpolitik and the organizations influencing environmental policies.  Shortsighted legislation riled environmental groups and their literary supporters to action; the project will therefore examine the latter two’s interactions and the manifold literary products they spawned.