Christa Wolf was one of Germany’s most important writers. She was born in Landsberg/Warthe (now Poland) on March 18, 1929. From 1949 to 1953, she studied German literature at the universities in Jena and Leipzig. Starting in 1953, she worked for the German Writers Association and became editor-in-chief at the Neues Leben publishing company in Berlin. She was an editor at the neue deutsche literatur journal from 1958 to 1959 and a freelance editor for the Mitteldeutsche Verlag in Halle from 1959 to 1962.
As of the start of the 1960s, Wolf devoted herself to writing full-time. Her first published prose work was Moskauer Novelle (1961, Moscow Novella), a love story between an East Berlin doctor and a Russian interpreter. Today, this critical examination of fascism is considered one of the most important works of East German literature. Her international breakthrough came with the highly successful novel Der geteilte Himmel, about a love relationship that cannot survive in divided Germany. Her 1968 novel, Nachdenken über Christa T., deals with the conflict between the expectations of socialist society and the personal development of the individual; it was hotly debated and even banned for a time in the GDR. Kindheitsmuster (1976) is a groundbreaking reflection on growing up in Nazi Germany.
Wolf’s books, often published in limited editions in East Germany, were always highly anticipated by the reading public and initiated important public debates. In Kassandra, for example, Wolf presents feminist ideas through the legendary mythic character. In her novella Störfall. Nachrichten eines Tages, written immediately after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, she connects a personal story with a global disaster and discusses the dangers of technology and ecological destruction. And in Sommerstück—a story she had worked on since the 1970s—she examines the possibility of an alternative lifestyle in East Germany, apart from official patronizing and stagnant expectations.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Wolf also worked on films at the DEFA Studio for Feature Film, including on her own adaptation of Der geteilte Himmel (dir. Konrad Wolf). She was credited as co-author of the script Die Toten bleiben jung, a film adaptation of Anna Seghers’ German chronicle set between 1918 and 1945, and of Rainer Simon’s Till Eulenspiegel. Together with her husband, author and publisher Gerhard Wolf, she co-wrote the script for the experimental film Fräulein Schmetterling, based on their own short story. The production was stopped, however, and the film was not widely released before its reconstruction and restoration in 2020. In 1989, director Peter Vogel adapted her short story Selbstversuch, about gender-change experiments, for East German television. Wolf also appeared in several documentaries, including Zeitschleifen – Im Dialog mit Christa Wolf, in which DEFA director Karlheinz Mund presented important events in the author’s life since 1989.
Wolf was a board member of the Berlin section of the GDR’s Writers Association. This ended when she, together with other artists and intellectuals, protested the expatriation of singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann in 1976. After that, she continued to defend East Germany and the political system in which she lived, while at times also publicly criticizing it. Wolf was one of the artists involved in the mass demonstration in East Berlin on November 4, 1989, where she called for reforms and democracy in East Germany.
In 1990, Wolf published her novella Was bleibt, which she had written in the late 1970s. In this book, she described her own experience tracing one day in the life of a female writer who knows she is under surveillance by Stasi. This book generated a negative response when she revealed that, although she had no recollection of it, she was a Stasi informant from 1959 to 1962. (It was after this that the Stasi started monitoring her because she was deviating from the official line.) She tried to debunk media accusations and, in 1993, published her complete Stasi file under the title Akteneinsicht Christa Wolf. Zerrspiegel und Dialog. Eine Dokumentation.
In Wolf’s last years of writing, two works stand out. Ein Tag im Jahr. 1960-2000 was a project she worked on for four decades. Once a year, on September 27, she recorded her thoughts on her life and events, offering a unique insight into East German past and present; a second volume covering the years 2001 to 2011 was published posthumously in 2013.
Wolf’s last major work, Stadt der Engel oder The Overcoat of Dr. Freud, was published in 2010. This autobiographical novel examines memory and offers a surprisingly funny and touching exploration of her time in the United States. She visited the U.S. several times, both before and after the Wall came down: in 1974, she was a writer-in-residence at Oberlin College; in 1983, a guest professor at Ohio State University; in 1991, she became an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and in 1992-93, she was awarded a stipend at the Getty Center, in Santa Monica, California.
Christa Wolf died on December 1, 2011. Interest in Wolf and her work continues to grow to this day. Her classics are being reprinted and new titles are appearing posthumously and being translated. The Academy of Arts in Berlin houses an extensive Christa Wolf archive. Since its founding in 2013, the Christa Wolf Society has been contributing to the study and preservation of the author and her work.
Bibliography & More:
(We use the English title for books that are available in English translation.)
2021 Sämtliche Essays und Reden 1961-2010
2014 Nachruf auf Lebende. Die Flucht.
2013 Ein Tag im Jahr. 2001-2011
2012 August. Erzählungen (August)
2010 Stadt der Engel oder The Overcoat of Dr. Freud (City of the Angel or the Overcoat of Dr. Freud)
2005 Mit anderem Blick (From Another Point of View)
2003 Ein Tag im Jahr. 1960-2000 (One Day a Year. 1960-2000)
2002 Leibhaftig (In the Flesh)
1996 Medeas Stimmen (Medea’s Voices )
1994 Auf dem Weg nach Tabou: Texte 1990-1994 (Parting from Phantoms: Selected Writings, 1990-1994)
1993 The Author’s Dimension: Selected Essays
1990 Was bleibt (What Remains, and Other Stories)
1989 Sommerstück (Summer Play)
1988 The Fourth Dimension: Interviews with Christa Wolf
1987 Störfall. Nachrichten eines Tages (Accident: A Day’s News)
1983 Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung: Kassandra
1983 Kassandra (Cassandra. A Novel and Four Essays)
1981 Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers
1979 Kein Ort. Nirgends (No Place on Earth)
1976 Kindheitsmuster (Patterns of Childhood)
1974 Selbstversuch (Self-Experiment)
1972 Till Eulenspiegel. Erzählung für den Film
1972 Lesen und Schreiben. Aufsätze und Betrachtungen (The Reader and the Writer)
1968 Nachdenken über Christa T. (The Quest for Christa T.)
1963 Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven)
1961 Moskauer Novelle (Moscow Novella)
|2014||Der Fluch der Medea (The Curse of Medea, short, herself)|
|2005||Ein Tag, ein Jahr, ein Leben. Die Schriftstellerin Christa Wolf. (A Day. A Year. A Life, TV, herself, doc.)|
|1990-91||Zeitschleifen – Im Dialog mit Christa Wolf (Time Loops: In Conversation with Christa Wolf (herself, doc.)|
|1989||Selbstversuch (Self-Experiment, TV, author)|
|1989||Unsere Kinder (Our Children, herself, doc.)|
|1974||Till Eulenspiegel (co-scriptwriter)|
|1968||Die Toten bleiben jung (The Dead Stay Young, co-scriptwriter)|
Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly, co-scriptwriter)
|1964||Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven, author, co-scriptwriter)|