Hinter Mauern Meere

Part One: Inge Müller

The view leads over marble surfaces, past numbing violet straight into dazzling brightness. From somewhere in broken treetops comes the mad roar of a flock of crows, a few lilacs sway lazily in the midday light. It is a pleasantly hot June day here at the Berlin-Pankow municipal cemetery. My companion and I are walking along the gravel paths of the strongly scented, somehow Mediterranean-like grounds and are already on our way home when suddenly, after a more or less diligent search, we discover the memorial stele in an ivy-covered pine grove. It looks bare and unadorned, covered with a sea-green patina. On it, engraved in the typography of a typewriter: Inge Müller 1925 – 1966. The last physical memory of one of the “most important German post-war poets” hidden deep in the cemetery, even disappearing in the dim light between wild herbaceous growth and pale yellow pine trunks? Somehow, we think, it does not fit badly into this life story that has been passed over for a long time. Only later we learn that her actual grave was cleared and levelled in the early nineties; apparently, no one wanted to pay for the costs of an extension.

I had first read about Inge Müller in Marko Martin’s unagitated search of forgotten Eastern culture Die verdrängte Zeit (The Repressed Time), then got hold of the biography written by the writer and former GDR track and field athlete Ines Geipel Dann fiel auf einmal der Himmel um (Then the sky suddenly fell) and was – naturally – fascinated by a deeply fragile, idealistically driven personality. Müller first appeared in the cultural scene of the early GDR in the mid-1950s as a writer of children’s books and radio plays, but thereafter gradually disappeared from the public eye and was remembered, if at all, by a few as the wife of the nowadays universally known dramatist, Heiner Müller. Meanwhile, she also wrote her own texts, poetry and prose, of which – apart from a few reprints in two anthologies -, hardly anything would be published during her lifetime. Whether this was due to state repressive measures or whether in the first place an extensive publication was in her interest remains unclear to this day – as the poet that she ultimately was, she remained unknown long after her death, a marginal note in her husband’s canonical oeuvre.

It took a whole twenty years before a larger selection of her texts could be published nationwide for the first time in 1985. By then, Inge Müller was mostly forgotten in the GDR, which is why, initially, the compilation put together by the poet Richard Pietraß attracted only little attention in the East. In the Federal Republic, however, the small volume ushered in a small rediscovery: Little by little, feuilletons in the west became aware of Heiner Müller’s ‘writing wife’: the (wonderfully bibliophilic) volume of poetry Wenn ich schon sterben muss (If I Have To Die), published by Aufbau-Verlag in Leipzig, was followed over the years by other publications, including several extensive collections of works and two biographies. (In the meantime, there is also a considerable number of obituaries and reviews, most of them, however, from the 1990s and early 2000s). Inge Müller, one reads with a slight twitch, may today be counted among the “all-German literary canon”. And this even though her literary oeuvre has remained quite slim by comparison: In her estate, there are around three hundred poems, a few short stories of a more prosaic nature, a novel fragment called “Jona” as well as countless undated typescripts and manuscripts, loose notes whose author is sometimes difficult to identify due to the couple’s symbiotic way of working (also concerning Heiner Müller’s early plays). The sometimes puzzling question of authorship may tempt one to mythicise the material left behind, but after some examination and research it seems clear: What was brought to light at the time from Heiner Müller’s estates and today exists as an independent Inge Müller collection in the archives of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin is materially and visually already thoroughly captured in the 108-page selection of Wenn ich schon sterben muss. (The title of the book and the author’s name are embossed blind on it and tastefully disappear into the lime-white linen cover. The texts are set in strong Bodoni Antiqua and arranged chronologically in the form of a “lyrical autobiography”, as the literary critic Sibylle Cramer called it at the time in Die Zeit). What strikes one immediately on first reading, in any case, is the angularity, the stumbling of the verses. The lines, some of which were extremely compressed, usually came without any aesthetic superstructure or imagery; I often had to read them two or three times to get to their idiosyncratic grammar, their sound. Müller’s language – equally laconic and fragile – also seemed to be under an enormous weight – her all-dominant theme: coming to terms with traumatic war memories.

In April 1945, Ingeborg Meyer (as she was still called back then) was part of the last batch sent by the Wehrmacht into the hopeless battle against the Soviets. She initially was an intelligence officer in the Luftwaffe, but after unsuccessful desertion, she was penalised and sent to an anti-aircraft gunnery station in Berlin. There, amidst the street battles in the northern Gleimviertel district, between burnt-out facades, fallen soldiers and horse cadavers, she was buried by a collapsing house one morning and was only found three days later together with a dog holding out next to her – she was twenty years old at the time.


»Als ich Wasser holte fiel ein Haus auf mich
Wir haben das Haus getragen
Der vergessene Hund und ich.
Fragt mich nicht wie
Ich erinnere mich nicht.
Fragt den Hund wie.«

As I fetched water a house fell on me
We carried the house
The forgotten dog and I.
Don’t ask me how
I don’t remember
Ask the dog how.


The fact of having experienced the Second World War in its last weeks and months, never to be surpassed in senselessness and destructiveness, the existence under the rubble, the powerlessness of being buried, all this became existential literary material that would not leave her for the next two decades. These were experiences, traumatic and physical inscriptions that could hardly be conveyed with brittle pragmatism: “I always tried,” said her then-husband, Heiner Müller, “to forget the past, to let it be the past […] otherwise I wouldn’t have survived.” He, too, was called up for the Reich Labour Service at the end of 1944, but would not have had “any noticeable” contact with the “enemy” there. The great fortune of having experienced a rather moderate war probably later allowed him to deal with the complex of the Nazi past in a much more distanced way in his stage art. For where Heiner Müller’s plays often tear open a historical long shot, heave themselves to the expressionistic, the explosive, there seems to be not the slightest of space left in the texts of his wife, secretly writing in the room next door, to be able to act from an objective point of view: All that remains for her poems is the escape forward straight into trauma – without a double bottom or even historical projections. It seems as if it was precisely this confrontation, this lack of distance to language, that ultimately became her downfall; from which freedom could never have arisen.

When Inge Müller was found dead on the night of June 1st 1966, her closest environment had already gone through roughly eight years of suicide attempts (the frequency of which towards the end can only be described as disturbing.) Ines Geipel reports in Auf einmal fiel der Himmel um that the ambulance was a constant sight in front of the Müllers’ home on Kissingenplatz in Pankow. Wolfgang Müller, Heiner’s twelve-year younger brother (with whom she’s temporarily involved in a strange romance) later comments on this: “Whenever I visited, it happened with regularity that we either had to pull Inge off the balcony or break in the door in the bathroom so that she didn’t jump out of the window there; or [that we] had to take extra care of the gas cooker.” Today we can say that her years of struggle with death were a silent perishing from the long-term psychological consequences of the Second World War, from the “weight of suffering”, as Hugo von Hofmannsthal once wrote. Her psychiatrist, who treated her for a short time at the end of the 1950s, later stated that the fact she had managed to stay alive for such a long time was more close to “a miracle”. If one then continues to study the biography of Inge Müller, one gets the impression that in her last years, she had become a manic-depressive, alcoholic, unpredictable person who, after all, did not seem to deviate from her ideals until the end though. Wolfgang Müller again: “She wanted to improve the world. She wanted it until the end […] There was something compulsive about her desire to be a good person.”

How could she have continued to live with all those memories without being crushed by their heavy burden? In her poems, the past could be subjectively traversed through once more, yet obviously could neither be banished nor overcome in the verbalisation – as the horrors of the last days and weeks of the war must still have been far too present, too photographically precise a decade later. In brief verses, she once again walks through “fire-breathing streets”, learns to “recover the dead”, sees “the world in ruins”, and is finally buried under rubble and ashes for nights on end.


»Und wachte auf als irgendwo im Herz der
Kontinente Rauch aufstieg aus offenem Meer
als tausend Sonnen
Kälter als Marmorherz.«

And woke up as somewhere in the heart of the continents,
smoke rose from the open sea,
Hotter than a thousand suns,
Colder than marble heart.


Afterwards, she walks along the once familiar, completely destroyed route “from the end of the city to the other end” to the place of her childhood in Lichtenberg, where she will also find her parents in the bombed-out ruins of the houses; whom she will bury the next day alone with a wheelbarrow. All these irreversible images and experiences of horror never really graspable, resulted in a bitter realisation – to the very end, she sees herself as a “leftover” of the war, accidentally found between piles of stones and corpses. In the course of her life, there was probably little reason to change her perspective on things; more likely, when she began to take writing seriously, her realisation might have become even more solidified due to the gradually seeping certainty of being subjected to state-imposed amnesia. I. Müller’s lyrical attempts collided again and again with SED policies, which from the beginning tried to establish a new collective memory in rigorous fashion. The literary and thus public reappraisal of individual war neuroses did not fit – logically and disastrously so – into the image of a socialist utopia. (As late as 1952, psychiatrist Friedrich Panse fatally concluded in Angst und Schreck that “the psychological [war] experience activates somatic, i.e., organic processes, but […] these disturbing consequences are only temporary and fundamentally reversible and do not leave permanent symptoms”. In addition, psychiatric treatment was rare in the post-war years, and medical centres were usually working to capacity due to the weakened infrastructure. The term ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ first appeared three decades later; in Germany, it was only legitimised as a diagnostic category in 1991). This quasi-natural reflex to taboo the feeling of guilt and shame is a phenomenon that seemed to cover the memory of the whole of Germany like a clammy horse blanket until way into the 1980s. As it is all too easy to imagine, especially in the course of the founding scenario of the GDR, there was little to no concrete public confrontation with National Socialism. Recent history was to be kept quiet, subjective experiences of rupture hermetically sealed off; the communist resistance fighters were to be commemorated, not the victims. Writers were thus more or less obliged to perform a political service: In the so-called edification literature, whose static, hyper-moral stories were about the reconstruction of society in its economic and human form, an eminent socialist world view was to be presented – but not the reality of a one-party dictatorship with its radical propaganda of progress. What was allowed to be remembered, said and described in public was thus under strict state control. Literature that did not want to follow this doctrine, that was aesthetically resistant, that rebelled by using its own memory, so to speak, exposed itself to the danger of being suppressed, censored, made nameless. In retrospect, it is not without reason these were called ‘the bloody years’ in which politically rebellious individuals were punished with imprisonment and labour camps, often for the most arbitrary reasons. What remained of them? Sometimes, as in the case of the young, dissident student Edeltraut Eckert, no more than a small octavo booklet full of descriptions of barren landscapes of the soul and a hope that never quite faded.


»Ich weiß nicht viel von mir zu sagen,/Nur dass ich lebe, dass ich bin,/Und alle Wünsche, die mich tragen,/
Sind im Verzicht ein Neubeginn.[…] So steh ich wartend unter vielen./Ich lache mit und bin nicht froh./
Ich hör und seh mich selber spielen./Mein Herz ist weit, ist anderswo.«

(I don’t know much to say about myself,/Only that I live, that I am,/
And all the wishes that carry me,/In renunciation are a new beginning.[…]
So I stand waiting among many,/I laugh along and am not happy,/
I hear and see myself playing,/My heart is vast, is elsewhere.)


Indeed, Inge Müller’s most productive creative phase from the early 1960s onwards did fall within the time frame of the fading era of Walter Ulbricht, in which it looked as if certain relaxations would be enforced for creative artists in the long term, but let’s remember: Müller’s poems were in some respects unprecedented in their radical inner views, in their formal harshness and brevity and also in their idiosyncratic punctuation. How was the GDR literature industry, which was geared to accessibility and mediabilty, to find a use for such “subjectivist” texts dealing with the past? Also, from December 1965 at the latest, initiated by Erich Honecker, a different, much sharper wind suddenly blew at the plenums of the SED Central Committee concerning the ongoing liberalisation of the cultural sector. If Müller’s literary endeavours can, in the end, be described as ‘forbidden’, is, however, questionable: Seventeen of her texts were published shortly before her death in the anthology In diesem besseren Land (now entirely out of print), and it is said that a volume of her own poetry was in planning. As is the nature of literature, however, it always takes a while for published texts to actually reach public perception; in the context of an affirmative-socialist intellectual landscape, many of her poems were furthermore considered unfashionable, even unwanted.

In this context, the mentioned anthology In diesem besseren Land could also be seen as an early attempt in literary counterculture – as it’s mercilessly undermining the expectations of the cultural commissioners with a selection of consistently “wrong texts” (albeit “right” authors) and a lack of a recognisable “socialist lifestyle”. Nevertheless: despite new threats of repression and the constant fear of being ‘caught’ with one’s texts, out-of-state writing gradually made its way underground in small, branching rivulets. Language now began to strike a more self-conscious, critical note between the lines, using metaphors and cyphers – a kind of second public sphere emerged: a parallel space of memory. In this rising emancipatory process of literature – which, on top, brought with it a wave of enthusiasm for poetry that swept from the Soviet Union into the GDR – Inge Müller’s “successful end” also falls into place.

Were her traumatic memories ultimately and secretly deformed into false memories? Or, in the words of cultural scientist Aleida Assmann, “How do divergent memories relate to the ideal of a single authoritative historical truth?” Could an early approval of her poems have made her rethink or would mental catharsis have ultimately never been achievable due to the threat of censorship? What could a decoupling of that past have looked like without drugging it with vast amounts of wine and vodka? Perhaps the infernal image of having buried both parents with a handcart in the middle of a landscape of ruins would never have been manageable either way. What could have sustained everyday life in the face of that?


»Träume aus Gummi grau oder blau
Blinde Fliegen am Glas
Drückt euch die Nasen platt
Ich hab es satt
Mir tut die Nase weh.
Bis ich durchs Fenster geh
Ohne Träume
Über die Bäume
Mit dem Wind wild und lau
Quer durch den Weltball
Im Haar einer Frau
Irgendeiner die irgendwo geht
Zwischen Stein Stahl und Leibern
Und den Kopf hebt.«

Dreams made of rubber, grey or blue;
Blind flies on the windowpane:
Squash your noses
I’m sick of it,
My nose hurts.
Till I pass through the window,
Without dreams,
Over the trees
With the wind, wild and tepid,
Across the globe,
In one woman’s hair,
Someone Who Walks Somewhere,
Between stone, steel and bodies,
Lifting her head.


A kind of inner exile. A state of exception, but un-heroic, fragile, apathetic, turned against itself. A state that, moreover, has less and less to tell of the former vitality. One feels reminded again of Wolfgang Müller’s quote, her compulsive desire for the good in people. Because in the beginning, she is still in the thick of it, decisively shaping the life around her: In the late 1940s – after she had been one of the many “Trümmerfrauen” assembling and rebuilding the ruins of Berlin – she, like so many others, feels exhilarated by the new promise of socialism, seems to be fully absorbed in this utopian, shimmering social project. She enthusiastically reads Lenin and Marx, believes in the potential for development, becomes a member of the SED, and shortly after, a correspondent for the party’s cultural department. She marries the communist and circus director Herbert Schwenkner, who already makes obvious advances to her at an earlier KPD meeting and impresses her with his pomadic cosmopolitanism and his connections to the glittering life of Berlin. Schwenkner also takes her on a grander circus tour a short time later. The cheerful and opulent performances are well attended, as the population in those chaotic days is trying to restore something like the present and everyday routine by all means. And although her briefly aspired career as a tiger tamer does not come to fruition, it appears that she, the daughter of a working-class family in Lichtenberg, has indeed arrived in the social upper class at the beginning of the 1950s. Schwenkner soon provides the small family (including I. Müller’s son Bernd from a hasty post-war marriage) with a comfortable house on Lehnitzsee in a newly built forest estate near Oranienburg. There, away from Berlin, in the middle of the vast Brandenburg countryside, the mind opens, and time stretches – since a long time, it seems, she has been fully thrown back on herself again. Here she not only develops early ideas for a novel project (on which she will work unsuccessfully for over ten years) but seriously thinks about taking the step as a freelance writer for the first time. Her past, however, is constantly on her heels.



»Ich schrieb und schrieb
Das Grün ins Gras
Mein Weinen
Machte die Erde nicht naß
Mein Lachen
Hat keinen Toten geweckt
In jeder Haut hab ich gesteckt.
Jetzt werd ich nicht mehr schrein
Daß ich nicht ersticke am Leise-sein!«

I wrote and wrote
The green onto the grass
My weeping
Made no soil wet
My laughter
Hasn’t woken the dead
In every skin I’ve been in
Now I will cry no more
Lest I choke on my silence!


These barren verses, almost concluding in the manner of a nursery rhyme, reveal the constricting reality of those days: What during the first post-war years could still be covered up in a nervous mixture of blind euphoria, romantic frenzy and manic work ethic, began to break out again here in the seeming idyll at Lehnitzsee. These are lines that speak not only of an increasing alienation with the communist system but also of the arduous, basically impossible transition to everyday life – a burden that she shares with so many war survivors of those years. The fact that she temporarily lives in the spacious brick building in Lehnitz with her husband Schwenkner (upper floor) and her new acquaintance Heiner and his brother Wolfgang (lower floor) in commune-like conditions probably did not make her situation any easier. (Whether this was a first demonstrative objection against the social conventions together with its rigid sexual morals? Her affair with Wolfgang Müller, who was still a minor at the time, could probably be explained in such a way; however, this does not make her any less transgressive). In the meantime, she has to defend her day job, writing children’s books or light revue programs, more and more within her own family. Heiner Müller, in his autobiography Krieg ohne Schlacht: Leben in zwei Diktaturen (War without Battle: Life in Two Dictatorships): “At the time, I made the big mistake of telling her what I thought [of the children’s books]. I was young and arrogant. Then began her great struggle to prove to me that she could write differently. Rarely did she show me any of it.” It is easy to assume how tedious her search for literary form and individual voice must have been with such fragile, uncanny material. How was Inge Müller to know if what she was putting down on paper had any merit?


»Um die Ecke Urwald hinter Mauern Meere
Zwischen Straßenschildern Laternen und Gewehre
Überm Bahnhof eine Wolke schwarzgrau in Eile
Ein Schornstein schreibt Zeile für Zeile
Chronik der Stadt in den blauen Dunst
Formeln Farbe Schwarze Kunst«

Jungle around the corner, oceans behind walls.
Between street signs lanterns and guns.
Above the station, a black grey cloud rushes by.
A chimney writes, line by line, chronicle of the city in the blue haze.
Formulas, ink, black art.


Something like peace and continuity does not seem to be entering her life, even fifteen years after the end of the war. It’s the early sixties, and the Müllers – now married, both freelancers and reasonably secure with lucrative assignments for radio – have moved back to the big city in Pankow, when the plan to build a wall around East Berlin, long kept a state secret by the GDR, suddenly becomes a reality. Khrushchev and Ulbricht are getting serious. In 1961 the border is closed, and Berlin finally divided. And even though this world-political event is barely being mentioned in most of her poems, Inge Müller must have felt the walling-in of the city, as Ines Geipel reports, as a “personal threat and a new war situation”. (What is often overlooked in her vita: Years before her husband, the ‘wife of Heiner Müller who loved to travel’, as it says in the Stasi files about her, made it to the stages of the entire republic. She accompanies the cast of the Deutsches Theater’s guest ensemble to Frankfurt am Main with her adaptation of the Russian play V doroge, a nihilistic coming-of-age stage play about individual localisation in a desolate post-war Russia. Shortly before that, I. Müller also made the accomplished radio play Die Weiberbrigade (The Women’s Brigade), which resulted from research the couple did together on the site of Schwarze Pumpe brown coal power plant). In the same year, she must have experienced déjà vu of an unsettling kind when her husband was put on trial for his provocative play Die Umsiedlerin (The Resettler). Heiner Müller had previously been awarded a grant from the German Theatre – based on Walter Ulbricht’s supposedly progressive appeal that stage plays should now be more “anti-didactic”. And although the project itself was sanctioned and supported by GDR cultural policy, it was secretly subject to direct ties and control. For two years, he wrote the play without being bothered and, assuming artistic freedom, shaping the proletarian-socialist material at will, turning it into a dystopia. In his bohemian seclusion, he apparently did not realise that the political landscape had literally hardened in the meantime: the premiere of the play in September 1961 coincided precisely with the building of the Berlin Wall, which meant that the performance was all of a sudden interpreted as “anti-communist” and “counter-revolutionary” by the numerous cultural commissioners present. The Central Committee subsequently took action against the “scandalous” stage play with a hard-fought campaign, confiscated all working materials and manuscripts (which were retyped by Inge and Heiner the same night) and ultimately cancelled it. For the Müllers, who in those years fulfilled the mythical ideal of a congenial poet couple very closely, hard times are now dawning. Neither of them holds a great deal of money or reserves after the cancellation of Die Umsiedlerin. The creative and economic shutdown, Heiner Müller casually comments years later in a television interview, did not affect him in an existential way though, “I had two years of peace”, “it was a free space, even if it looked like a fence”. For his partner, however – by now firmly anchored in a mutual work relationship – it appears to be a decline. “It was a difficult time, with no money, with debts. She suffered tremendously from such things. I didn’t mind being antisocial, but for her it was the end,” H. Müller recalls further.

After the caesura of the building of the Wall, the permanent struggle for financial security, the constant neglect on the part of the cultural industry (Inge Müller goes unmentioned several times as a co-author), a mysterious, chronic illness, the constantly crumbling work and love relationship with Heiner Müller and the mental exhaustion of a still tightly scheduled everyday life, the fault lines were now to merge in a destructive way. In one of her most quoted poems, she probably already senses it:


»Mond Neumond deine Sichel
Mäht unsre Zeit wie Gras
Wir stehn aufrecht im Himmel
Auf dünnem Stundenglas.
Der Stern geht seine Wege
Wir suchen unsern Weg
Wenn ich mich niederlege
Geh über mich hinweg.«


Moon new moon your sickle
Mows our time like grass
We stand upright in the sky
On thin hourglass
The star goes its way
We seek our way
When I lie down
Pass over me.


There is an isolation, a blind rage, an increasing inner loneliness that even the supposed foundation of her life, the social institution of the family, can no longer support. In May 1966, as Ines Geipel reports, she writes her son Bernd a farewell letter to the Erzgebirge, where he is serving his military duty with the NVA. About a week later, when Heiner Müller came home one night from friends (in the final phase, he avoids their place at Kissingenplatz more and more often), he finds his “perhaps unconscious, perhaps dead wife” lying on the kitchen floor. “I went back into the kitchen and turned off the gas cooker, […]thought, […] of my life with the dead woman, or rather of the various deaths she had sought and missed for thirteen years, until tonight’s successful night.” It’s strange: if you sift through the photographic archive, you come across many, many pictures from the last phase of her life, where we see her with an unforced smile. Years later, writer Henryk Bereska, who, at the time, was working as a translator at the Aufbau publishing house, also remembers a “cheerful, strong woman”, “whose end remains incomprehensible to me”. And maybe, indeed, she could have thus finished her “Jonah” novel at the beginning of the seventies. In retrospect, there is no need to exaggerate Inge Müller’s literary attempts (her estate contains a number of somewhat stiff short stories, borne of a rather charmless everyday realism), or to appropriate it for emancipatory female writing, but, it is quite possible, that her voice would have found its place, its legitimacy, somewhere between Irmtraud Morgner’s straightforward fantastical prose in Hochzeit in Konstantinopel, Brigitte Reimann’s magnificently exuberant Franziska Linkerhand fragment and, beyond the national borders, certainly also next to Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina. In the end, we are left with the realisation that her body of work, which is quite manageable, somehow contains a lot of opaqueness, raises questions, does not leave out controversial issues; how fragmentary much of it also seems as soon as it’s looked at in a more focussed way. What remains with some force and vehemence is her uncompromising, misjudged-by-the-zeitgeist, hard-pencilled on paper poetry of remembrance. It still emanates, even nowadays, a subtle glow, an undeniable attraction.



All pictures © Akademie der Künste Berlin



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