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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Die Denunziantin

Brigitte Reimann

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To purchase Die Denunziantin

Title: Die Denunziantin
Author: Brigitte Reimann
Genre: Novel
Written: (1953)
Length: 376 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Die Denunziantin - Deutschland
  • Die Denunziantin has not yet been translated into English
  • Completed in 1953, Die Denunziantin was never accepted for publication and only published posthumously, in 2022
  • Edited by Kristina Stella

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Our Assessment:

B : a fascinating if problematic work, very well editorially presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Frankfurter Allg. Zeitung . 25/11/2022 Tilman Spreckelsen
Frankfurter Rundschau . 31/10/2022 Cornelia Geißler
nd . 18/12/2022 Irmtraud Gutschke

  From the Reviews:
  • "Das Vergleichen von Fassungen oder Arbeitsstufen ist Sache der Germanistik. Aber auch für alle anderen findet sich in dem neuen Buch eine Menge. Zuallererst ein Zeitbild. Brigitte Reimann erzählt auf mehr als 200 Buchseiten von Konflikten in der DDR, schildert etwa einen Streit darum, ob der Widerstand einzelner gegen den Nationalsozialismus gefeiert oder besser ein Schlussstrich gezogen werden sollte. (...) Das liest sich hier wie direkt aus dem Tag gegriffen. Auffällig ist das Bestreben der jungen Autorin, originell zu schreiben." - Cornelia Geißler, Frankfurter Rundschau

  • "Anders als 1952, als sie mit 19 Jahren die Arbeit daran begann, liest man den Text heute im Wissen um ihr Gesamtwerk. Und nicht nur das: In diesem Erstlingswerk steckt etwas, das beim Lesen tief bewegt, gerade weil es so irritierend ist. (...) Es geht um deutsche Schuld, aber auch, im konkreten Fall, um politische Deutungsmacht. (...) Aber so, wie sie diese Eva zeichnet, so wahrhaftig in ihrem Wollen und in ihrer inneren Qual, wird daraus eine überaus interessante, schillernde Gestalt, in der man das Ringen der Autorin spürt. Denn was Brigitte Reimann uns hier vor Augen führt, ist eine beinahe schon masochistische Erziehung der Gefühle." - Irmtraud Gutschke, nd

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: Die Denunziantin has not been translated into English yet. All translations of quotes are my own.]

       Die Denunziantin -- 'The Informer', or, literally, 'the denouncer' -- centers on East German high school senior Eva Hennig, and takes place in her final school term, in 1951. Brigitte Reimann began writing the novel -- her first -- in 1952, but was unsuccessful in getting it published; she re-worked the manuscript several times -- closely documented in this excellent edition --, with the fourth, very different (and fragmentary) version eventually published as Wenn die Stunde ist, zu sprechen .., in Das Mädchen auf der Lotosblume. (Elements of the story remain, and Eva Hennig is the protagonist, but that work differs markedly from Die Denunziantin.)
       Die Denunziantin begins with Eva and classmate and boyfriend Klaus visiting Berlin, including the American-occupied sector -- a world away from the provincial town of 30,000 where they live. Eva does enjoy the big city -- and the capitalist wares on offer -- but she is ideologically completely committed to the socialist ideal of the East German project, an enthusiastic supporter of the party-line. (Klaus, on the other hand, takes after his father, an opportunist who makes good money on the black market (despite officially being a simple pensioner); Eva considers him a 'Volksschädling' (social pest) -- a very harsh term, especially given its Nazi connotations.)
       Klaus and Eva's relationship is of the typical hot and cold (or over-heated and chilly) high school sort -- driven more by lust (not that they can get very far, especially with all the prying eyes in their hometown) than otherwise being a good match. (Klaus wants her to promise that they will name their kids Nelli and Ödipus, and while Eva does wonder whether he is in his right mind when he suggests the latter, she is so besotted that not even that is apparently enough for her to break it off with him.) Interestingly, Reimann does note very early on that Klaus caught Eva with another boy -- from a lower grade, no less -- a few weeks earlier; for all of Eva's ideological purity -- and there's no denying that -- she's much more flexible in matters of the heart; she's extremely passionate -- in different ways -- in both regards. Still, as she makes clear also to Klaus, she has her priorities: "Meine gesellschaftlichen Pflichten stehen mir höher als meine Privatinteressen" ('My obligations to society are more important to me than my private interests').
       At school Eva is tasked with putting on a school production of a play, one showing the then-illegal activities of the antifascists in Nazi times -- Peter Nell's Die Eysenhardts. Eva, a generally excellent student, is particularly interested in theater (and film) -- that's what she wants to go on to study, hoping to become a director -- and is happy to take charge, though she struggles some with putting the show together.
       Among the distractions she faces is a teacher whose attitude she does not like, Sehning. He's a favorite of most of her classmates, and certainly a good teacher -- but, as Eva notes: "Als wenn es die einzige Aufgabe des Lehrers wäre, uns Mathe und Sprachen und so was einzupauken !" ('As if a teacher's only duty was to drill maths and languages and whatnot into us !'). No, Eva is convinced pedagogues must also help prepare and shape students for this new, socialist world -- and to her mind Sehning is a reactionary who is subtly but constantly undermining the ideals they should be working towards. Her classmates -- including Klaus -- are annoyed with her for her rigid attitude -- and she is denounced as a denouncer, a would-be tattle-tale, for her criticism of the teacher already early on.
       There are minor incidents testing class resolve -- a window gets broken by a football (leading to the question of who should pay to have it replaced); an expensive scientific instrument is apparently stolen from class -- and Eva of course has her say each time. Her passion always rises up quickly and loudly, and it doesn't make her any more popular among her classmates. If at times she shows teen insecurities, she's nevertheless sure of what is (ideologically) right. But, as her wise mother -- who also points out to her the obvious, that Klaus is a poor match for her (but is willing to let her daughter make her own mistakes) -- notes about her theatrical plans, which clearly mirror her general approach:

Du bist mächtig für ,Wirkung‘ oder was du so nennst. Schlag auf Schlag willst du hinsetzen. Du willst blenden, Eva.

[You're firmly for "effect" or what you call effect. You want to land blow after blow. You want to dazzle, Eva.]
       Briefly, Eva even gets along with Sehning -- he has a way about him, she certainly has to grant him that, too -- but things come to a head when he gives her his opinion about the play she wants to put on. He wonders -- in 1951 ! -- if there hasn't been enough of this reminding everyone of the horrors of the Nazi time, and whether it isn't long time to move past all that. And he hits too close to home when he says that activities of the (then-)illegal anti-fascists opposing the Nazis served little purpose. Since Eva's father was killed by the Nazis for his activities, she isn't very open to this argument -- and off she goes, to more formally denounce Sehning to the school director (who, having been imprisoned with Eva's father, in both prison and a concentration camp, is certainly sympathetic).
       Eva's denunciation does not go over well among her classmates, who think she's taking things much too far. Nevertheless, the director immediately calls in a commission to consider the case. Since Sehning never really expressed himself -- then or otherwise -- in a manner that could clearly be construed as undermining the East German project or revealing truly reactionary tendencies there's ultimately not much the commission can do. Sehning is a snake, but a careful one who isn't so easily caught out; one commission member supports Eva's instincts -- they are little more than that -- but ultimately even the school director has to side with those agreeing that there's no firing offence here. (Eva holds this against the director for quite a while.)
       While a few stray friends remain supportive, on the whole Eva is now loathed by her classmates -- which she finds tough to take. Reimann mentions her keeping a diary earlier, but now even switches for a bit longer to entries from it, a first-person perspective of her suffering. She doesn't doubt that she is right, but the cost is a difficult one for her to bear. Despite her frustrations about Klaus not siding with her -- and then moving his seat from beside hers, and starting to go out with a new girl -- she still has some lingering feelings for him.
       Oh so briefly, Eva acts out, neglecting her schoolwork and going out dancing and letting herself be pawed by another fellow, but she comes to her senses very quickly, cutting off the plunge of becoming a tramp before things get out of hand. She takes her studies seriously again and, realizing she has let everyone down by neglecting her duties in preparing the play-production, throws herself wholeheartedly into that -- though the date of the performance has to be postponed.
       She doesn't easily win over her classmates, but those helping her with the play are a good start, and she begins to win over some of the others through her actions as well -- including challenging their Russian teacher and demanding that the scores for a recent test that many of her classmates did poorly on -- she, of course, did well -- be stricken, telling the teacher to his face that he is the one who failed his students by not preparing them properly. (He takes the path of least resistance and agrees.) The great triumph, of course, then comes with the performance of the play -- an eye-opener that leads her classmates to realize her original denunciation of Sehning was, in fact, entirely valid. (The performance, in front of an invited audience that included a horde of war orphans, of course pushed all the right buttons.)
       A cocky Sehning then thinks he still has the class in hand, but shows too much of his true colors when he teaches some Rudyard Kipling poems and speaks admiringly about the healthy competition among the capitalist nations and bemoans how the Germans were always too late with their colonizing efforts. Yes, he definitely gets too big for his britches, and before he knows it, the tide has turned and he has fled the scene and tendered his resignation. (No worries -- he goes, just like Klaus does, where he belongs: to the decadent West.)
       Yes, everything goes well -- including Eva getting her place at film school, to which she will head in the fall. (Other than the locale -- Reimann has Eva set to study in Berlin -- this too mirrors Reimann's own path; amusingly, she only lasted a few days at drama school in Weimar, turning instead to training as a teacher.)
       With its high school setting and teenage main characters, there's something of the YA novel to Die Denunziantin. This excellent edition includes a close comparison of the four different versions -- this one the first (and, along with the third, the only complete one) -- and among the early editorial advice she got was to polish the language, as she had her characters speak like the youth of the day; this was terrible advice and presumably fatal for the following versions; Reimann had a good ear, and most of the youths of Die Denunziantin feel authentic. The one peculiar stand-out is, of course the Reimann-stand-in Eva; as editor Kristina Stella notes, the novel was basically unpublishable in this form because the character was too individualistic -- though of course for actual readers that's the main charm of the novel. This forceful bundle of energy and emotion dominates everything around her -- and, because the novel is of course one of self-reflection and -analysis, the Eva character is by far the most compelling. But it's an odd contrast with much of the rest of the novel.
       The other piece of editorial advice she got early on was not to bring up the charge of denouncer so early; the editor has a point here -- but then the novel is titled Die Denunziantin, so you can sort of see how Reimann wanted to make a big deal out of that. That is, of course, also the big problem with the novel which, cut to its essence, is absolutely terrible in its message. Yes, Sehning is a snake, and a reactionary imperialist, and his subtle, roundabout maybe-indoctrination of his students might be problematic -- but when Eva first accuses him she really has nothing on him except her gut feeling. Nevertheless, she is immediately taken very seriously, and Sehning, in essence, tried (and essentially absolved, since there is nothing on him ...). As remarkable and appealing as Eva is, she's also following the Stalin, Nazi, or Khmer Rouge playbook in allowing for lives to be potentially completed upended or outright destroyed on the flimsiest of evidence. This is not good. In fact, this is terrible.
       Un(der)founded denunciations were a dime a dozen in that society, of course, -- and usually opportunistic rather than, as here, honestly ideologically driven, but Eva is no model here (and the fact that she is, in fact, right shouldn't absolve her; in fact, it just muddies the message further). Presumably, Reimann was working through some things of her own here, and while the German publishers who declined to publish the novel mostly did so for other reasons, one has to admit that this would have been a problematic text to put out there. (That the German publishers were willing to engage with author and text to the extent they did speaks for her talent, which bubbles through all over: Die Denunziantin is a rough work by a young author, but she altready showed her chops here; it's obvious she was a very, very promising writer.)
       This edition, presenting the complete first version of the text, as well as then a history of its (and its successors) non-publication (until Wenn die Stunde ist, zu sprechen .., the unfinished fourth version) and pointing out and showing (often significant) textual changes, is excellent. We see what Reimann wrestles with in her writing, trying to balance an aim to please with a need to remain true to herself; clearly, the first is the best of the four versions (though the very different last one is of interest too). A valuable piece of literary-historical documentation, this edition of Die Denunziantin is an impressive package.
       Die Denunziantin is, to put it mildly, a problematic -- because, fundamentally, fanatic -- text, but it's a fascinating and revealing piece of Reimann's œuvre, and a remarkable document of the German Democratic Republic in its earliest days (with, in its supplemental material, some interesting insight into the literary and publishing scene of the times).

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 March 2023

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Die Denunziantin: Reviews: Brigitte Reimann: Other books by Brigitte Reimann under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       East German author Brigitte Reimann lived 1933 to 1973.

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© 2023 the complete review

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