Books

Günter Kunert, Searingly Satirical German Author, Dies at 90

Günter Kunert, a German writer who rose to prominence in the 1960s with satirical and increasingly critical works about the repressive Communist government in East Germany, which eventually led him to flee to the West, died on Sept. 21 at his home in the village of Kaiserborstel, in northern Germany. He was 90.

His family said the cause was complications of pneumonia.

Mr. Kunert had settled in Kaiserborstel in 1979, drawn by the peace and privacy he had craved during his final years in East Germany.

His searingly satirical voice was rooted in the deprivations he suffered as a half-Jewish child under the Nazis and came into its own under the repressions of Erich Honecker’s East Germany in the 1970s. “I write to bear the world as it steadily crumbles into nothingness,” he was quoted as saying in the 1979 anthology “The Poet’s Work.”

Considered one of modern Germany’s most profound and prolific writers, he examined the complexities and contradictions of his country’s post-World War II history through his two novels and his many poems, short stories and essays. After his emigration, and even after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he continued to highlight the differences between the two countries that had opposed each other during the Cold War.

“In many of his works, he was a politically conscious and observant person, but he also reflected a lot on life,” Jo Lendle, his publisher at Carl Hanser Verlag, told the radio network Deutschlandfunk. “He was not only a poet, he was a storyteller and a visual artist. But I believe for him that poetry was the most important, it was the ground on which he stood.” (In addition to writing, Mr. Kunert painted and drew throughout his life, in a style he described as “comical realism.”)

Born in Berlin on March 6, 1929, to a Jewish mother and a Roman Catholic father, he survived the war but lost many relatives on his mother’s side to the Holocaust. He told the German daily Die Welt in 2007 that people in his family were never practicing Jews, but added: “The connection to Judaism still remains. The dead are always with me.” As a so-called mixed-race child, he was forbidden to attend a college preparatory school, but he took up the study of graphic design after the war.

He quit university to devote himself to writing in 1947, after the publication of his first poem, “A Train Rolls Past.”

Like many young intellectuals in the early years of East Germany, he was an anti-fascist committed to the ideals of building an egalitarian society; he joined the Communist Party in 1949.

His writing caught the attention of Bertolt Brecht and the author and politician Johannes R. Becher, who became mentors and helped promote his works. In 1962 he won the Heinrich Mann Prize for essay writing, the first of more than a dozen awards he collected throughout his lifetime, which also included honorary doctorates from Allegheny College and Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.

The East German government allowed him to serve as a guest professor at the University of Texas in 1972 and at the University of Warwick in England in 1975.

But as the government became more restrictive, his works became more critical. In 1976, he was among the first artists to sign a petition protesting the East German authorities’ decision to revoke the citizenship of the singer and songwriter Wolf Biermann, a friend of his, who had criticized what he saw as the distortion of socialism by Soviet-style bureaucracy.

Although Mr. Kunert and a dozen of the other most prominent signatories feared they would be prevented from publishing, their only formal punishment was to have their membership in the Communist Party revoked. But they suffered indirectly under repressive tactics that included shadowing by the secret police and smear campaigns.

In an open letter published in 1977 in the West German weekly Die Zeit, Mr. Kunert wrote that the East German government was deliberately driving critical artists into emigration. “According to the American principle of love it or leave it, the removal of critical artists is seen as a painful amputation of a diseased member of society,” he wrote.

Two years later he fled to the West, where he continued to write, supporting his art with commissions for radio plays and television scripts. A self-declared “cheerful melancholic,” he focused his criticism on capitalism and raised awareness about the environment, long before fears of climate change became widespread.

Mr. Kunert is survived by his wife, Erika Hinckel, and a stepdaughter, Lore Reimann. His first wife, Marianne, died in 2013.

His first novel, “Im Namen der Hüte” (“In the Name of the Hats”), was published in West Germany in 1967. His second, “Die Zweite Frau” (“The Second Wife”), a biting satire of life in East Germany dedicated to Ms. Hinckel, was written in 1975 but not published until this February. He knew when he wrote it that the cultural authorities would never allow him to publish it; it languished in an unopened moving box for years before he rediscovered it.

The novel paints an unvarnished picture of life in the former Communist country under the watchful eye of the dreaded state police, the Stasi, which he described as “all-knowing and at the same time thick as two planks.”

A final book of his previously unpublished essays from the same era, as well as more recent prose works, is to be published early next year under the title “Nachgetragene Wahrheit,” or “Accomplished Truth.”

Melissa Eddy is a correspondent based in Berlin who covers German politics, social issues and culture. She came to Germany as a Fulbright scholar in 1996, and previously worked for The Associated Press in Frankfurt, Vienna and the Balkans. @meddynyt Facebook

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