Theses Doctoral

Children of a Former Future: Writing the Child in Cold War and post-Cold War German-Language Literature

Greene, Alyssa Claire

“Children of a Former Future” argues that the political upheavals of the twentieth century have produced a body of German-language literature that approaches children and childhood differently from the ways these subjects are conventionally represented. Christa Wolf, Herta Müller, and Jenny Erpenbeck use the child as a device for narrating failed states; socialization into obedience; and the simultaneous violence and fragility of normative visions of the future. In their narratives of girlhood under authoritarian or repressive societies, these authors self-consciously decouple the child from the concept of futurity in order to avoid reproducing the same representational strategies as the twentieth-century authoritarian regimes that co-opted the child for political ends.
Examining literature from the GDR, Communist Romania, and post-Reunification Germany, “Children of a Former Future” argues that these representations offer important insights into the fields of German literary studies, queer theory, and feminist scholarship. The dissertation contends that a historically-grounded reading of Cold War and post-Cold War German-language literature can meaningfully contribute to and complicate current feminist and queer scholarship on the child. This scholarship has focused primarily on historical, social, and cultural developments associated with Western democracies and capitalism. “Children of a Former Future” demonstrates how a consideration of literature from Socialist and post-Socialist context complicates these theorizations of the child. At the same time, the dissertation demonstrates how the analytical modes developed by queer and feminist scholarship can create new frameworks for the interpretation of German-language literature.
“Children of a Former Future” examines authors who intentionally set out to complicate readers’ preconceptions about children in their writing, specifically the pervasive theme of childhood innocence. Written during the 1970s, Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster (1976) examines the effects of authoritarianism on childhood development, as well as critiquing the German Democratic Republic’s founding historical myths. Herta Müller’s Niederungen (1982/4) and Herztier (1994) examine childhood in an ethnic German community in Communist Romania; Müller’s protagonists grapple with the legacies of their parents’ experiences with fascism and Soviet labor camps, as well as the experience of entering Romanian society as a cultural minority during the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Writing after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Geschichte vom alten Kind (1999) and Wörterbuch (2005) critically examine the emotional impact of adult idealizations of childhood through the lens of post-authoritarian transition states.
“Children of a Former Future” argues that these narratives use the child to reflect on socialization into obedience and conformity; kinship formations; social reproduction; trauma; and political life. Wolf, Müller, and Erpenbeck highlight the ramifications of the emotional burdens placed on children, particularly on girls. Their representations resist conventional idealizations of children and childhood. Intensely concerned with complicity, the authors scrutinize how children are taught to conform to and even revere repressive social systems. The authors posit that certain childrearing practices in fact enable the rise of authoritarianism, in that they condition children that love is contingent upon obedience. The dissertation argues that for these authors, examinations of childhood are at once opportunities to sift through the experiences that begin to constitute the individual self, and to analyze how these psychological dynamics contribute to, sustain, and reproduce larger social and political dynamics.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Germanic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Huyssen, Andreas
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 9, 2018