Revision and Forgetting: Fractal Memory Realigned

As discussed in the previous chapter, fractal memory-narratives from the initial interview wave typically reached their climax during the middle phases of the IVende, associated with exuberant feelings of collective empowerment as peace vigils escalate into mass protests demanding civil rights on behalf of “We ... the people” of the GDR. These narratives went on to culminate in a sense of symbolic exclusion, as first-person protagonists recognize that their hopes for a hybrid alternative to both “actually existing socialism” and western capitalism are never to be realized. Such narratives thus displayed significant divergence from the mythologized storyline of contemporaneously emerging public narratives, in which November 9 came to be emplotted as a euphoric watershed that foreshadowed the inevitable victory of pro-unity parties in the GDR elections of March 1990. In portraying reunification as the inexorable telos of the 1989 revolution, the Wall Mythology promulgated a de-fractionated chronicle of the IVende. That is, it retroactively reduced the

“One was still so young then ” 165 spectrum of character types to a single dichotomy, such that the dramatis personae now consisted exclusively of regime loyalists, on the one hand, and the masses of citizens, on the other, who appeared overwhelmingly to favor political merger with the Federal Republic. In the process, hybrid standpoints and modes of action were effectively erased from public memory, their previous bearers tacitly omitted from the collective “we” for whom the story’s outcome presumptively delivered an unequivocal “happy ending.” It is for this reason, 1 argued, that fractal Wende narratives were especially prone to thematize feelings of estrangement from “the West” as an intrusive, alien presence.

From 1990 onward, the mythologized account of November 9 would be accorded pride of place in official repertoires of commemoration. More than a quarter-century after the fall of the Wall, there is little sign that official memory-work has reintroduced fractal complexity into the story of the 1989 revolution. To the extent that vernacular Wende narratives continue to center on fractal distinctions between hybrid and non-hybrid standpoints and associated modes of action, they remain incongruent with the authoritative frameworks of the Wall Mythology. Consequently, they should be accompanied by rhetorical devices of self-placement that convey a sense of marginality vis-à-vis “the West,” rather than symbolic inclusion in the imagined community of Gesamtdeutsche. By the same token, it follows that any gravitation toward the unmarked pole since the initial interviews should presuppose at least partial de-fractionation, in order to achieve autobiographical congruity with the black-or-white moral frameworks of official Wende memory. Indeed, over the long term, “push” factors like the ongoing stigmatization of spatial and biographical “east-ness” in public discourse would seem to create symbolic incentives for narrators to distance themselves from “the East” and thereby to insulate their autobiographical accounts against imputations of “nostalgia.” In order to realign their stories accordingly, moreover, they would have a shorter “distance” to cover than narrators like Johann, whose protagonists had remained regime supporters. Instead, the former need only revise their stories to accentuate the “opposition” side of their hybrid (for/against) standpoints in order to re-cast themselves “winners” of the Wende.

“But we were still young, it wasn’t so bad”

A particularly striking example of revision by means of de-fractionation is provided by Agatha. In Chapters 4 and 5, Agatha’s account of her experiences growing up in the GDR and during the Wende closely approximated the ideal type of a fractal memory-narrative. By early adulthood, her first-person protagonist had embraced a hybrid standpoint that was “against the system ... the way it was actually being managed” while endorsing the unrealized ideals of civil liberty enshrined in the GDR constitution—ideals that she associated with “socialism the way it was supposed to be lived.” In her previous interview, Agatha had also devoted a substantial portion of her narrative to an extended chronicle of events from the late 1980s through the end of 1990, during which time the people of the GDR had discovered their voice and begun standing up for their rights. In Agatha’s bridging narrative, even the fall of the Wall did not yet supply a sense-of-an-ending, but only a cliff-hanger. The dream of an autonomous GDR still seemed viable. Her Wende narrative concluded with the electoral victory of the CDU-led Alliance for Germany in the GDR elections in March 1990—an outcome that her protagonist was said to experience as “shocking,” while the defeat of her favored parties (the Greens and New Forum) was described as “tragic.” It was also Agatha who articulated one the most vehement critiques of reunification—as a “take-over” of the GDR by “the West.” “It was not a reunification,” the narrator insisted, but rather an “incorporation” [Einverlei-bung] or “annexation” [Angliederung],

Twenty years later, Agatha employs a strikingly different rhetoric of selfplacement. Although the East/West asymmetry retains a degree of salience, her overall assessment of inter-German relations now stresses the progress made toward dismantling mutual prejudice and toward successful integration. It is among those who lack first-hand experience with “the other side” that prejudice still remains apparent after two decades:

Well, in general, I think ... that there is ... less prejudice than 20 years ago. But prejudice still plays a role. The overwhelming majority of west-German people [die westdeutschen Menscheri] still have never been to the former East. That is, [they] have never even visited it yet. In general. These are just facts. That’s not just a belief; rather, that’s the way it is. Vice versa, of course, the east-Germans [die Ostdeutschen] have, at least, at least taken a look [at the former West]. That is, there is hardly anyone, I think, who has never at least been somewhere in west-Germany—in the former west-Germany before. So, vice versa, that exists [i.e. that people from the former East have visited the former West], And ... but in spite of that, people have drawn closer to each other [man ist sic/i ndherge-kommen], [They have] noticed that [the others] are just people after all. Have uhh—on both sides [they’ve] noticed: they are just people.

The passage contains at least two novel rhetorical devices. One is the attenuation of barriers between citizens from the GDR and the pre-unification FRG, respectively. Increasingly, there is recognition that Germans “on both sides” are “just people after all,” enabling them to “draw closer to each other.” The other device is temporal displacement. Although Westdeutsche and Ostdeutsche are still referred to as discrete groups, the territory previously belonging to the GDR is now “the former East,” while space coinciding with the pre-1990 FRG is characterized as “the former west-Germany.”

After a long pause, Agatha continues, pointing to migration patterns and accompanying attitudes that she believes have helped foster mutual understanding and integration:

And many have, of course, made the decision, if they came from the former East, to live in the West now—in the former West—and vice versa too. And the people who have made the decision so to speak ... to ... abandon their place of origin so to speak, they have integrated themselves well. On both sides, I believe. And uhm ... and someone who is an open person [can integrate well]. And ... uhm ... [ten-second pause] Generally ... [long pause] And 1 believe it is always—always the case that the way it appears to you looking into the forest, that is also how it appears looking outward [.so, wie es eben in den Wald hinein schaut, so schaut’s wieder hinaus]. Regardless of the direction in which one looks.

As the passage concludes, comparisons among successive generations introduce a third rhetorical device—liminality—that we observed previously in the cases of Stephan and Paul. Although lingering prejudice can still “play a role” in inter-German relations “in general,” this state of affairs is merely a temporary way station. Thus, Agatha believes it is less apparent in her own generation, and still less among those who are even younger:

With my generation ... [prejudice] also doesn't play such a great role any more .... Uhm ... but certainly a little bit. That is, it is not yet the way it is among young people, where it is even less. And probably a generation later, it will be even less. I suspect.

In sum, Agatha’s rhetorical repertoire now employs devices nearer to the middle of the spectrum. Previously, her summative assessment had foregrounded the speaker’s feelings of marginality, estrangement, and indignation in relation to “the West”—a space that she portrayed as having intruded into “the East.” It was a state of affairs, she had noted bitterly, that she “never actually wanted”—“1 never wanted to travel to the West while the GDR existed. And now I am living here [in “the West”] in spite of that. I have exactly that after all.” Nearly two decades later, the speaker still makes use of demonymic labels that posit a distinction between Westdeutsche and Ostdeutsche, while implicitly ascribing herself to the latter. Yet, barriers to mutuality and integration have receded. Concomitantly, the spatial referents of “West” and “East” have been displaced into the past—a device employed deliberately, as evidenced by the repeated self-corrections to ensure that each spatial designation is preceded by the temporal adjective “former.” In the context of a growing distance between present and past, references to boundary attenuation across successively younger generations serve to underscore the liminal status of the present and gesture toward a future in which mutual prejudice is more nearly overcome.

Consistent with the hypothesis of selective permeability, this right-ward shift in self-placement is accompanied by a narrative realignment that renders the GDR portions of Agatha’s autobiographical account more consistent with canonical frameworks of GDR remembrance. Rather than fractal and contradictory, the storyworld of her youth is depicted predominantly as a zone of constraint with little space for individual agency. Meanwhile, no mention is made of her one-time hope for an autonomous country where the unfulfilled promises of “socialism the way it was supposed to be” have been redeemed. So pivotal to the plot 20 years before, the hybrid (for-and-against) standpoint of her protagonist now appears wholly “forgotten.” Instead. Agatha’s opening chronicle in the second interview explicitly frames her life story around three leitmotifs (referred to as “levels” or “threads”) presented in roughly chronological succession.

The first level centers on themes of family, church, schooling, and occupation, from childhood and adolescence up to the present. Taken as a whole, the story arc describes a trajectory of growing self-confidence upon overcoming a series of obstacles, beginning with her “non-conforming” family background as a hindrance to university study. “Well, what certainly shaped me was of course my—my family, in which 1 grew up. And it was basically a ‘craft worker’ family, which was not necessarily in conformity ... with this ... GDR system.” Nonetheless, young Agatha had been a “good pupil” in school, who hoped that a strong academic record would qualify her for delegation to the college entrance examination (Abitur). However, “because of my family background, which, uh, was of course [classified as] ‘craft worker’—read: actually, well, ‘capitalist’—I was therefore not delegated.” Nor, by the same token, was she encouraged by her parents to seek alternate avenues to university study. “For that reason [i.e. their ‘craft-worker’ values], the thought never even occurred to my parents: ‘Hey, people, that child is smart. Maybe she could, well, study later on’—somehow that was just not worth striving for.” In the years following reunification, the protagonist gradually develops self-confidence, which the narrator attributes to her success in working her way through university and. later, to overcoming her inhibitions about public speaking by teaching classes of her own.

Conspicuous for its absence, in the opening chronicle, is any narrative bridge connecting the GDR storyworld to the post-unification present—a syntagmatic element that had previously occupied a substantial portion of the interview. Nearly two decades later, “the Wende” is rarely mentioned at all, and only in passing. Even then, the rhetorical thrust suggests continuity rather than rupture: “And then, after the Wende, [my father] remained in this specialization [as a maker of contact lenses].” It is as though the time span once filled by a dense succession of significant events is now bereft of temporal extension, collapsing into a mundane contrast between “before” and “after.”

After concluding her train of thought concerning the first “level,” a passing remark, embedded within a segue to the second, hints at a possible reason for this striking omission: “And that, well—that [level] runs like a thread all the way through, right?—this topic which I am not, not sad about now either [laughs]” (italics added for emphasis).10 This fragmentary gloss—that she is “not sad about” the first topic she has chosen to discuss—is initially puzzling, as she has not yet mentioned any subject that she associates with sadness. Nor

“One was still so young then ” 169 does it appear that the intent is to set up a contrast between the first topic and the two that follow, as the latter consist of further variations on the theme of growing self-confidence. Thus, the second “level” picks up a few years after the point at which the first interview left off and begins with the experience of motherhood. This thread then expands to the broader theme of relationships, from her self-liberating breakup with Hermann after 14 years of growing discontentment to the subsequent marriage to her current husband. The third level, in turn, will revolve around the couple’s recent move to a cottage in the countryside—an idyllic refuge that returns full circle to the “quietude” of her childhood parish.

To what “topic,” then, does the speaker obliquely allude, in counter-factual contrast to one which she “is not sad about now”?

Upon gentle prompting, a terse Wende chronicle gradually materializes, whose departure from Agatha's previous account, together with meta-com-mentary by the narrator, suggests a plausible answer to the riddle: Two decades hence, memories of disappointment and “shock” associated with the election outcome of March 1990, along with the Wende itself as a discrete interval, have been “forgotten”—excised from the speaker’s active storytelling repertoire. In their place, a cluster of virtually seamless storylines now imbues the narrator’s life story as a whole with a more continuous, upward trajectory, rendering the autobiographical performance more consonant with prevailing accounts of the period.

First, as in the canonical Wall Mythology, the Wende is now equated with “the fall of the Wall.” Responding to a standard prompt—“When did the Wende begin for you?”—she begins: “Well, pfff, this experience of the fall of the Wall, so to speak, was certainly crazy somehow, but one couldn’t quite grasp it somehow.” Second, the impact of November 9 is now portrayed as liberatory. Following a long pause, the narrator attempts to identify the onset of this “crazy” period in the context of personal experiences which the narrator associates with freedom of travel:

When did the Wende begin? [chuckles] Maybe the Wende began at that moment when we ... had just traveled to Holland, [long laugh] when one ... could [travel] wherever one wished. Maybe it began then, [laughs] I don’t know [laughing]. Don’t know. One was still so young then, as young as they are now. [laughs, pointing to her older children’s room] Well, and suddenly the world stood open. Which had been closed before. Maybe it began then. The Wende.

It is scarcely surprising, of course, if experiences and reactions long past grow more difficult to recall with the passage of time. More noteworthy in this context is the role that the forgotten details had once played in the bridging narrative and, thus, the impact of their omission on the shape of the new storyline. In the previous account, the protagonist’s reaction had been characterized as one of nonchalance and disbelief.

I didn’t just get up [and] run over [to West Berlin]. Somehow ... 1 don’t know. [News of the border opening] was somehow a strange report, but ... 1 didn't quite believe it yet either. And then I thought: “Well, if [it’s true], then you’ve still got time for it tomorrow.”

Once on the other side, the protagonist of the original episode is like a spectator amid the “merry commotion” (lustiges Treiben). Rather than sharing in the elation of others, her own emotions are non-committal: “But everything was totally hectic and chaotic somehow, right? With standing in long lines ... at the border and then crossing over. And ... [it was] somehow strange.” In light of the “shock” and “tragedy” to come, the “strange” interlude conjures a mood of eerie suspense. The narrator knows what will happen in the end, but for the protagonist, it “still looked as though ... this idea of remaining an autonomous country remained [viable].” Two decades later. Agatha’s otherwise spotty recollections have her and Hermann traveling to the border and crossing over without delay (“on that evening”) upon hearing the news. Asked whether she remembers when she “first heard that the Wall was open,” Agatha struggles to retrieve memories that have evidently atrophied from disuse:

Yes, 1 still can. [1] was actually in bed already. Was actually already in bed. [It] was sometime in the evening. And ... Then my mother rang the doorbell—[my parents] lived ... still in the apartment, somewhere in the city, ah ... near to us. And [she] said: “something has just happened.” And then, then [speaking softly, as if for dramatic effect] I was a little bit— each of us—Hermann was still there—I don’t remember exactly any more, don’t remember exactly any more. And then we ... if I remember correctly, then on that evening, I think, we traveled to the Wall, that is, to the—to the border. And ... crossed it, if 1 remember correctly. // JS: Which border crossing? // Agatha: 1 believe [it was] Bomholmer Strasse [speaking slowly, uncertainly], 1 think. [Hermann] had, well, maybe ... right, if I’m guessing correctly, it was on that same evening. Because I just don't remember it exactly any more. Don’t remember any more ... it could be that it was on the following day ... . Don't remember any more. Mm. [takes a deep breath] Right. When did the Wende begin ...

As the commentary continues, “the Wende” collapses again into a single, undifferentiated “period” marking the moment of transition from confinement to freedom—the same temporal juncture between contrasting storyworlds on which the Wall Mythology relies for its plot resolution. In this passage, we are afforded a clearer view of the point of suture, as well as the likely motive behind the excision: “And it was such a completely crazy period, right? And then suddenly ... The sentence is never completed. Whatever happens next remains unspoken. Instead, the ellipsis is followed by a consoling rationale for leaving the rest of the story untold—one whose ending the narrator had previously characterized as “tragic”: “But of course, we were still young, it wasn’t that bad. After all, everything was closed off anyway. And 1 was just finishing up with my apprenticeship.”

In sum, in order to structure the autobiographical account as a whole around topics “which 1 am not sad about now,” events that had aroused painful memories just five years after the fact have been passed over in silence two decades later. Like so much stitching around an old wound, “the Wende" simply marks the end of an era in which freedom of travel did not yet exist. As if to reassure herself that “it wasn't that bad” after all, the speaker invokes the youthfulness of her generation at the time (“we were still young”), reinforced by the sense of closure she had just achieved (“And 1 was just finishing up ... ”) before embarking on the next chapters of her own occupational trajectory.

More broadly, the necessity of employing more than one mode of realignment—here, the alternation between revision and “forgetting”— illustrates something distinctive about fractal memory-narratives. One the one hand, fractal accounts will have a shorter distance to cover in order to achieve congruity with official frameworks of GDR remembrance, compared to cases where protagonists had inhabited intact storyworlds before the IVende. If the latter must typically resort to either explicit reframing or wholesale rewriting, the former need only undertake partial revision of storyworld and standpoint, namely by means of de-fractionation and de-hybridization. Thus, in Agatha’s initial account, her protagonist’s orientation had been depicted in terms of fractal distinctions on both sides of the loyalty/opposition dichotomy. The “for/ against” hybrid contrasted equally with “really against the system” and with dutiful affirmation of Party doctrine. Two decades later, the young protagonist’s standpoint has been retroactively aligned with unqualified (de-hybridized) opposition to the state, enabling the narrator to condemn the GDR as a space where “everything was closed off anyway” and to depict the IVende as culminating in a liberatory state of affairs in which “the world suddenly stood open to us,” a world “which had been closed off before.”

On the other hand, because fractal complexity and hybridity had been crucial to the chain of events in 1989 and thus to reactions and expectations of the protagonists, Agatha’s earlier account still preserved memories of subsequent disappointment, reinforced by feelings of estrangement from the gesamtdeutsch collectivity to which the incipient Wall Mythology was addressed as it was being authored. Consequently, realignment of her IVende narrative two decades later necessitates a substantial degree of “forgetting”— namely, a surgical removal of extended, suspenseful chronicles which began with undreamt-of prospects for collective agency and eventuated in dashed hopes, disempowerment, and alienation. Such amnesiastic memory-work, by its nature, typically erases its own tracks. In Agatha’s case, we are afforded a momentary glimpse of the suture between the two “pasts”—as once remembered and as presented now—at the point of ellipsis: “And then suddenly ... but of course we were still young, it wasn't that bad.” The “shock” and “tragedy” to come have been written out of the story, attested only by a fleeting reference to the rationale for elision. Moreover, through the removal of story elements most at odds with orthodox memory of the GDR and the Wende, revision and forgetting also eliminate the proximate source of the narrator’s previous sense of symbolic marginality. Thus, the realignment of fractal memory has the further consequence of authenticating a rhetoric of self-placement—here, liminality and temporal displacement—more nearly in tune with the narrative of gesamtdeutsch unity than with the narrative of ongoing division.

In sum, the findings in this chapter suggest that both types of non-fractal narratives can display considerable continuity over time, albeit for different reasons. Where GDR storyworlds, protagonist standpoints, and bridging narratives already exhibited congruity with canonical frameworks, narrators had every reason to preserve these features in recounting their life stories many years later. Meanwhile, the purging of East-West distinctions in commemorative discourse has found its echo in vernacular self-placements suggestive of a progressively “purified” gesamtdeutsch stance, as interstitiality gives way to liminality and even boundary elision. Meanwhile, narrators whose stories had featured intact storyworlds and system-conforming protagonists have typically responded to non-fractal incongruity in ways that obviate the need to rewrite, revise, or “forget” the autobiographical past as such—namely, by disavowing the first-person protagonist’s previous standpoint (reframing) or through emphatic resistance to realignment in favor of pointed critiques of the inverted moral frameworks which disadvantage them (counter-memory). In all these cases, the associated self-presentations necessitate the retention of storytelling elements from earlier accounts, thereby safeguarding both forms of non-fractal “memory” from oblivion despite the elapse of some two decades.

In contrast, fractal memory-narratives appear more susceptible to substantial modification over time. In this regard, the realigned account in Agatha’s second interview represents a limiting case, in which revision and “forgetting” result in an almost seamless story more in accord with canonical frameworks of remembrance. In other cases, the alterations were often less dramatic, comprising either minor revisions to accentuate instances of non-conformity or a reframing of one’s youthful protagonist as relatively quiescent after all. Yet, whatever the mode or means, realignment represents the predominant trajectory of narratives that had foregrounded fractal complexity and hybridity two decades before. Indeed, by the second interview wave, fractal counter-memory had all but vanished from these narrators’ storytelling repertoires. Projected into the future, this finding suggests that fractal memory may be on the brink of extinction. What such a scenario would mean for the future of divided memory is a question taken up in the concluding chapter.

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