Re-writing My Life and Work: Jurij Brězan’s Autobiographical Writings by Peter Barker

This article by Dr. Peter Barker first appeared in Editions Rodopi, German Monitor, no. 75 in 2012.


Jurij Brězan was the major Sorbian writer of the 20th Century, who was known above all for his novels, a genre which before 1945 hardly existed in Sorbian literature. Despite his view that his most important task was the protection of the Sorbian language and identity, he was a significant literary figure at national level in the GDR. His two major autobiographical works, Mein Stück Zeit (1989) and Ohne Pass und Zoll (1999), illustrate the dilemmas of a socialist writer caught between politics and writing in the GDR who in the end gave up his belief in the power of literature to have a direct influence on politics.

The Sorbian prose writer, Jurij Brězan, born in 1916, had a writing career which spanned the whole of the life of the GDR, and continued beyond unification until his death in March 2006 at the age of 89. He started to write his autobiography, Mein Stück Zeit,[1] in the mid-1980s, completing it in February 1989. Its unfortunate publishing date was 9 November 1989, which meant that it was largely ignored at the time. This first attempt to assess his political and literary role was mostly concerned with his early life in the Third Reich. Significant experiences were his underground activities in Poland and Germany for a Sorbian/Polish organisation in the late 1930s, which led to his arrest in Dresden in 1938; his forced removal from Lusatia to North Germany, where he worked as an agricultural labourer; his experien­ces in the army and as a prisoner of war (1942–1946); his return to Bautzen in 1946 and his alignment with the new political forces in the Soviet Zone and the beginnings of his literary career. The first volume of his autobiography did not extend far beyond the 1950s, but did include the problems caused by his participation in youth brigades in Yugoslavia in the late 1940s and his confrontations with the new Stalinist leadership of the Sorbian cultural organisation, the Domowina, which led to observation and interrogation by officers from the Ministry for State Security (MfS) in 1956. After the collapse of his original GDR publishers, Verlag Neues Leben, it reappeared in 1998 with a new publishing house, Gustav Kiepenheuer, almost unchanged, the only additions being a foreword and an epilogue. In the foreword he described how, when he started work on the autobiography in 1986, he was denied access to certain papers.[2] In the absence of documents he set up a framework to the book in which a traveller tries to buy a ticket to an imaginary town, which he is then told does not exist. This provided the impetus to his autobiographical journey in which he tries to show how his original ideals become illusionary.[3] In 1999 he published the second volume of his autobiography, Ohne Pass und Zoll,[4] which concentrated on his life in the GDR, his literary work, in particular the Felix Hanusch Trilogy and the novel Krabat oder die Verwandlung der Welt (1976), and his role in the Writers’ Union, of which he was a vice-president from 1969 to 1989.

Brězan was the first Sorbian writer to publish his works bilingually. Usually he wrote the Sorbian version first, and soon after a German version. He continued this practice for all his major works, with the exception of his two autobiographical works, both of which have only appeared in German. This divergence from his normal practice probably had much to do with his own particular problems with the political group which had taken over the running of the Domowina in the early 1950s, and his escape into the wider cultural landscape of the GDR in the mid-1950s. He wrote about his intentions with Mein Stück Zeit in the second volume, stating that he was arguing for ‘ein natürliches Miteinander mit den Deutschen’.[5] He then went on to explain why he had written it only in German: 

Bewußt mich ausschließlich an den nichtsorbischen Leser wendend, schrieb ich zum erstenmal ein Buch nur in Deutsch. Das hatte eine für enges Denken typische Reaktion zur Folge, indem es — außer in einem törichten Pamphlet eines Studentleins — in der sorbischen Öffentlichkeit nicht registriert wurde.[6]

The second edition was thought necessary because the publication of the first edition had coincided with the fall of the Wall and was lost in the subsequent political turmoil. The second volume was a response to reviews of the 2nd edition of Mein Stück Zeit, which pointed to the fact that it contained little about his literary work and excluded the 1970s and 1980s. Brězan contended that this was not true, but admitted that the last two decades of the GDR were only present in a ‘Geheimsprache’, otherwise it would not have been allowed to appear.[7] The title of the second volume refers to Brězan’s desire see his works appear in both Sorbian and German: ‘Die Alternative, zwischen meinen beiden Sprachen wählen zu müssen, löste sich auf und bildete sich neu als Möglichkeit einer Brücke, passierbar ohne Paß und Zoll.’ He saw this second volume as a kind of bridge between the two cultures.[8]

Brězan started his literary career by publishing his works only in Sorbian: his first collection of poems, Do noweho ãasa [ahg1] (Towards a New Era), came out in 1950 and his first collection of prose works, Prûnja brózda (First Furrow), in 1951. But in 1951 he made a significant move by publishing a collection of poems and stories in German, Auf dem Rain wächst Korn. Brězan was therefore the first post-war Sorbian writer to publish his own German version of stories and poems which had only recently appeared in Sorbian. He went on to relate this event to the changed attitude of the GDR government to the Sorbs, compared with all earlier German states: for the first time a German state was in his view not intent on forcing assimilation; ‘…so ist die Deutsche Demokratische Republik heute zur Heimat, zum wirklichen Vaterland für die Sorben geworden.’[9] The pathos of this declaration was accentuated by the fact that the first poem in this collection was a translation of Brězan’s own statement of identification with the GDR, ‘Kak wótãinu namakach’ (How I discovered my Fatherland). Shortly afterwards the cultural journal Aufbau announced the award of the National Prize to a group of Sorbian artists and writers, including Brězan, for their work in providing the impetus for a new period of Sorbian cultural activity. The journal went on to provide Sorbian writers with the major platform for the publication of their works in German in the early 1950s. This role was taken over by the journal of the GDR Writers’ Union, Neue Deutsche Literatur, in 1954 when it published a number of poems from the next collection in German, edited and translated from the Sorbian versions by Brězan, Sorbische Lyrik.[10] One longer prose piece by Brězan, ‘Wie die alte Janschowa mit der Obrigkeit kämpfte’ — the German version was published in Auf dem Rain wächst Korn — came to be regarded as a classic portrayal of Sorbian resistance to German oppression before 1945.

The price which Sorbian literature and culture had to pay for these increased opportunities to publish and perform was submission to the ideological pressures exerted by the cultural policy of the GDR, which in the 1950s was dominated by the Soviet doctrine of socialist realism. The state had largely taken away one of the functions of a minority literature, its educational role as protector and promoter of the language, by creating a bilingual educational system. This function did not disappear entirely, and still remains more important than for a majority literature; but the task of overcoming the linguistic and cultural repression of the Nazi period now fell primarily to the state. In return for this support the state required greater integration of Sorbian cultural activities into the mainstream of GDR society. While the state provided the opportunity of greater expression in the Sorbian language through education, it demanded a greater social role for writers and literature, a demand which applied to both German and Sorbian writers. Some Sorbian writers rejected this social role. They felt that the national interests of the Sorbs were being jeopardized by the subjugation of Sorbian culture to the political demands of the SED. But through the lifetime of the GDR a new generation of writers emerged, such as Brězan, Kito Lorenc and Jurij Koch, who were prepared to be regarded as GDR, as well as Sorbian, writers. Perhaps the fact that the GDR was a much smaller entity than the German Reich, with a total population of only around seventeen million, made it appear less threatening, despite the obvious ideological pressures. Those writers who did accept this social role, alongside their national one as Sorbian writers, found that the state encouraged and supported their work in ways which had been inconceivable in previous German states.

In the 1950s this social role involved support for the GDR’s programme of socialist reconstruction, which in Lusatia meant presenting a positive picture of the processes of industrialization and collectivization of agriculture. In 1955 Brězan demonstrated his loyalty to socialism by writing a number of works which reflected uncritically the changes taking place in the Sorbian villages as a result of the industrialization of Lusatia. He wrote a poem on ‘Schwarze Pumpe’ for the Fourth Writers’ Union Congress in January 1956 in praise of the new power station. He also announced at the Congress that he was planning to write a novel about the power station, but it never came to fruition, reflecting his worries about the negative effect of the plant on the Sorbian way of life.[11] By the mid-1950s disillusionment at the destructive nature of the GDR’s energy and industrial policy had set in amongst those Sorbian writers and artists who supported socialism, including Brězan, and this was expressed most strongly in an article published in the Upper Sorbian newspaper, Nowa doba, in October 1956, ‘Tysac dobrych skutkow’ (A thousand good deeds), by the Circle of Young Sorbian Writers, in which Brězan was heavily involved. This article was criticized as an example of ‘national pessimism’ by the Politbüro member responsible for Sorbian affairs, Fred Oelßner, at the Fourth Federal Congress of the Domowina in March 1957. The Circle was dissolved shortly afterwards.

Brězan’s prose works dominated Sorbian literature in the 1950s and 1960s, but the fact that he seemed to be more active in the German cultural sphere was criticized by some other writers and functionaries. Brězan’s escape into the German cultural landscape represented a variation on the escape from the island mentality, since it seemed to derive more from his own political problems in Lusatia and from a desire to enter the mainstream of GDR cultural life than from a wish to explore the potential of a bicultural approach. He was subject to constant harassment in the mid-1950s from SED party bodies as a result of accusations of ‘nationalism’ directed against him by, in particular, the leadership of the Domowina. In a series of meetings of the SED group in the Domowina in 1955 Brězan was accused of having strong nationalist tendencies. During one meeting, on 29 January, Brězan announced his intention of leaving Lusatia.[12] Brězan’s own account of these confrontations with the leadership of the Domowina and the SED are recounted in detail in both volumes of his autobiography.[13]

Brězan’s move into the centre of GDR cultural life was underlined by the direction of his work in the latter part of the 1950s, especially in his prose works. The attempt to turn his Felix Hanusch trilogy (Der Gymnasiast, 1958; Semester der verlorenen Zeit, 1960; Mannesjahre, 1964) from a Sorbian ‘Entwicklungsroman’ into a GDR social novel seemed to owe much to the pressure of GDR cultural politics. The novels bear a close resemblance to Brězan’s own life, following the development of the central character from the end of the First World War to the social and political changes of the 1950s, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the writing of the third part in particular, which is set in the GDR, was influenced by the demands of GDR cultural policy which culminated in the 1950s in the ‘Bitterfelder Weg’. Whatever Brězan’s motivation at the time, it is significant that it was the German versions of these works, particularly Mannesjahre, which received most attention from critics in the GDR. They were discussed in the same breath as Erwin Strittmatter’s Ole Bienkopp (1963) and Christa Wolf’s Der geteilte Himmel (1963), as works within the socialist realist tradition which had been stimulated by the ‘Bitterfelder Weg’.

The imposition of these precepts from outside, which placed social questions before national ones, was not wholeheartedly endorsed by all Sorbian writers and artists. Sorbian functionaries had already criticized various aspects of cultural activity at the conference on culture of the Domowina in February 1958, and afterwards writers, such as Brězan, had criticized their colleagues for having ignored the new social reality of Lusatia in their works. Brězan’s own Mannesjahre reflected the social and political changes in the villages of Lusatia. But there were other voices from the Sorbian cultural intelligentsia which were critical of the imposition of a political perspective on Sorbian culture. Nevertheless, despite the specific political difficulties that Brězan had had with the SED leadership of the Domowina, he demonstrated through his works of the 1950s into the 1960s a clear commitment to the overall socialist reconstruction of the GDR.

Brězan’s development in the 1970s and 1980s saw him return more explicitly to his Sorbian roots for his central themes. Krabat and Bild des Vaters (1982) aroused critical controversy as a result of their treatment of particular general themes: in Krabat it was the question of genetic engineering and in Bild des Vaters Brězan’s portrayal of the subject of death. But more importantly from the point of view of his role as a Sorbian writer, both works saw him returning to his childhood as a source of imagination. In 1981 Brězan described in an autobiographical essay the way in which he had had to turn his back on what he now saw as a betrayal of his own imagination in his works of the 1950s and 1960s and discover a new formula for his writing.[14] Krabat was widely reviewed in the GDR, and although much of the discussion focussed on the central ethical question, a number of critics recognized in the novel Brězan’s attempt to write the great epic of the Sorbian people. Brězan had clearly signalled when he started to write the novel that his return to the Krabat myth was part of his search to express that which is specifically Sorbian. Bild des Vaters represented a different route back to his Sorbian roots. In an interview in 1983 he indicated that he had considered writing a book based on his father ten years earlier, but that he had found this impossible to do while his father was still alive.[15] The novel represented an attempt not only to pay homage to the memory of his father, but also through him he seemed to be trying to return to some of the main elements of his roots, such as the importance of religion in Sorbian life. Brězan’s commitment to socialism had led him away from recognizing such elements as an essential part of a continuing Sorbian identity. It is true that in the novel there is a clear distance between the son and the father in this respect, but there is a recognition of the importance of the relationship between the homeland and religion. Nevertheless, Brězan made it clear in the same interview that despite this greater emphasis on certain aspects of his Sorbian roots, which had been submerged in his earlier works, he still saw Sorbian literature in the context of GDR literature, as an enrichment of the literature of the GDR. The thematic concerns of the two literatures had similar roots: both Krabat and Bild des Vaters were primarily concerned with themes which were in the mainstream of GDR literature, but the form and the language gave the works elements which Brězan regarded as being specifically Sorbian.

The autobiographical works also reflect this dual focus. Firstly he was concerned with justifying his role as a writer who remained a loyal, if critical, member of the SED to the end of the GDR; secondly he used his autobiographies to demonstrate his continuing commit­ment to defending Sorbian culture and identity, while at the same time settling scores with his adversaries within the Sorbian community. Much of what he experienced was common to both Sorbs and Germans: life in the Third Reich; experience of war as a soldier and as a prisoner of war; coming-to terms with post-war reality, which ultimately led to the question of how far to commit oneself to the new political order. But at the same time there was nearly always a specific Sorbian layer. In the Third Reich he became involved in underground activities in Poland after the suppression of Sorbian institutions in 1937. In the GDR there were particular points of tension when SED policy seemed to be undermining Sorbian national interests. The high point in this tension came in 1964 when the bilingual school system was cut back. Brězan felt moved to withdraw his ‘Vaterland’ poem of 1951 and write a second poem, ‘Wie ich mein Vaterland verlor’, which he read out to Kurt Hager[ahg2] , who was responsible for culture in the Politbüro.

This apparent closeness of Brězan to key figures in the SED hierarchy and his role as a functionary in the Writers’ Union caused others to question his genuineness as a ‘critical’ writer. He himself described his role in the presidium as that of somebody who was on the ‘Ersatzbank’[ahg3] .[16] There is a sense, particularly in the second volume, that he was constantly trying to defend himself against the charge, which was levelled against him by the writer, Erich Loest, at the last Writers’ Union congress, that he had also been a ‘Mitspieler’.[17] It is true that right to the end he was using his influence with the leadership of the SED. In March 1989 he went to see Honecker to persuade him to allow the Domowina to remove the term ‘sozialistische Organisation’ from its statute. Honecker had in practice already done this by replacing this term with ‘nationale Organisation’ when a delegation from the Domowina visited the Staatsrat in October 1987 on the 75th anniversary of the Domowina’s foundation.[18] But it had somehow crept in again in his draft ‘Grußadresse’ to the Sorbian Festival of Culture, scheduled for June 1989, probably as a result of pressure from Sorbian SED functionaries. When Brězan managed to see Honecker in March 1989, he readily agreed to drop the term ‘sozialistisch’ again.[19] But when the ‘Grußadresse’ was actually sent, the term ‘sozialistisch’ had been reinstated. Brězan then wrote on 22 May 1989 about this matter to Honecker and the latter replied on 31 May, agreeing to reinstate the originally agreed term, ‘allumfassende, nationale Organisation’.[20]

This closeness to power in the GDR was held against Brězan by some in the Sorbian community. On the one hand there were middle-ranking SED functionaries who resented his ability to go over their heads and get decisions they had made reversed. On the other hand he was accused, particularly by the Churches, of being a ‘Kumpan von Honecker’.[21] Others accused him of having insulted the people of Yugoslavia when in 1952 he had handed back the medal given to him by Tito for his service with the youth brigades in the late 1940s.[22] He was also attacked for having received favours from the state, such as the tenancy of a house in Bautzen. But there was never any suggestion that he had cooperated with the Ministry of State Security[23] and on his own account he was still under surveillance by the MfS in 1988. In his last meeting with Hager in March 1989, Hager told him that he had been given the manuscript of Mein Stück Zeit to approve. He picked out one sentence at the end in which Brězan seems to be accusing the SED of bringing about its own downfall.[24] The relevant sentence actually implies that Brězan realized he had not given his full commitment to GDR socialism:

 Zu Olims Zeiten, denkt der Mann ohne Anteilnahme, während er im Spiegel sich näher treten sieht, nicht verwundert, daß er ich ist. Dunkelfleckiges, rissiges Spiegelglas zwischen uns, ich sehe, daß meine rechte Schulter ein wenig hängt, ich habe immer nur auf einer getragen. Meinen Anteil für das Große Experiment am Ende unseres Jahrtausends. Wenn es mißlingt — wenn wir es mißlingen machen —, zählt sich unsere Welt selbst aus dem Ring.[25]

Brězan agreed with the accusation made against him in the 1930s and the 1950s that he was ‘politisch unzuverlässig’ and speculated that he was probably seen in the same light by the political authorities in Saxony after 1990, as somebody who is suspicious of political power, while at the same time being in favour of change.[26] Ultimately Brězan was trying to answer through his autobiographical writing the questions that he posed at the beginning of Mein Stück Zeit:

 Sind meine Ideale Illusionen geworden? Oder war das Zeitlimit, das die Träume der Wirklichkeitswerdung der Ideale setzten, illusionär? Wann ist die Desillusio­nierung eingetreten? Und wodurch vor allem, durch welche Erfahrungen? Ist unter den Erfahrungen vielleicht die dafür gewichtigste die, daß ungerechte Gewalt sich zum Ungeheuer ausgewachsen hat und alles frißt, was menschlich ist, auch Ideale?Wenn das die gewichtigste Erfahrung wäre, warum resigniere ich dann nicht, entwaffne mich und hebe die Hände?[27]

In the end Brězan admitted in the second volume of his autobiography that his experiences in the 1950s led him to give up his belief in the power of literature to have a direct political impact, and he even questioned whether it was desirable for it to have this power. But he did not feel able to say so directly until after the political changes of 1989/90.

 Diese Umstände bewirkten, daß ich begann, mich von der Vorstellung zu lösen, Literatur könne — oder solle — unmittelbar Einfluß auf politisches Geschehen haben. Das schreibt sich so heute hin, in Wirklichkeit war es ein langer, widersprüchlicher Prozeß.[28]

But this realization did not detract from his belief in socialism. Although he had become disillusioned with certain aspects of GDR socialism, he remained a member of the SED until 1989.



[1] Jurij Brězan, Mein Stück Zeit, 1st edition, Berlin: Verlag Neues Leben, 1989; 2nd edition, Leipzig: Gustav Kiepenheuer, 1998. All references will be to the first edition, unless otherwise stated.

[2] Brězan, Mein Stück Zeit, 2nd edition, p. 7.

[3] Brězan, Mein Stück Zeit, p. 15.

[4] Jurij Brězan, Ohne Paß und Zoll, Leipzig: Gustav Kiepenheuer, 1999.

[5] Ibid, p. 213.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. 28.

[9] Jurij Brězan, Auf dem Rain wächst Korn, Berlin: Verlag Volk und Welt, 1951, pp. 7–8.

[10] See Neue Deutsche Literatur, 2 (1954), which contains a selection of poems from Sorbische Lyrik, ed. J. Brězan, Berlin: Verlag Volk und Welt, 1954.

[11] After the early phase of the building of the ‘Schwarze Pumpe’ power station, Sorbian writers and artists tended to avoid it as a theme, and it was German writers, such as Heiner Müller and Brigitte Reimann, who placed it at the centre of their works.

[12] ‘Information über Parteigruppenversammlung der Domowina’, 21 February 1955, SAPMO-BArch, DY30 IV 2/13/380.

[13] Brězan, Mein Stück Zeit, pp. 342–7; Ohne Pass und Zoll, pp. 130–3.

[14] Jurij Brězan, ‘Sophokles und Spellerhütte’, Sinn und Form, 33:3 (1981), 524.

[15] Jurij Brězan, ‘Geschichten sind die Brille, die man weitergeben kann’, Sonntag, 19 May 1983.

[16] Brězan, Ohne Paß und Zoll, p. 169.

[17] Ibid., p. 169.

[18] See the autobiography of the last head of the Domowina, Jurij Grós, Staatsange­hörigkeit: Deutsch. Nationalitat: Sorbe, GNN Verlag: Schkeuditz, 2004, pp. 145–6.

[19] Brězan, Ohne Paß und Zoll, pp. 187–8.

[20] Ibid., pp. 188–9. See also SAPMO-BArch, DY30 IV 2/2.039/224, Büro Egon Krenz, Beziehungen Domowina mit ZK, 1987–1988, pp. 43–4.

[21] Brězan, Ohne Paß und Zoll, p.232.

[22] Ibid.

[23] According to Joachim Walther, Brězan seems to have been the one vice-president of the Writers’ Union who had not been recruited by the MfS and was ‘negativ erfasst’ as a result of their surveillance operations. See Joachim Walther, Sicherheitsbereich Literatur, Berlin: Ullstein, 1999, p. 872.

[24] Brězan, Ohne Paß und Zoll, p. 184.

[25] Brězan, Mein Stück Zeit, p. 357.

[26] Brězan, Ohne Paß und Zoll, pp. 189–90.

[27] Brězan, Mein Stück Zeit, p. 12.

[28] Brězan, Ohne Paß und Zoll, p. 226.

 [ahg1]Please check all Sorbian text for correctness

 [ahg2]Reference for this information?

 [ahg3]Explain the meaning?


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