Online teaching! Literature about the events of 1989

by Janine Ludwig

“Und es hat ‘Zoom’ gemacht” – is a famous line from a German song called “1000 und eine Nacht” (a thousand and one nights) by Klaus Lage.

Zoom has hit us all in March and quickly became the ubiquitous tool for online teaching. Since mid-April, I was teaching classes online, especially for our wonderful students who had to leave Bremen and suspend their study abroad.

One seminar dealt with literature/novels on the events of 1989/90 and beyond in (East) Germany. In order to make it more attractive and give the students somewhat of a substitute for not being in Bremen, I invited seven German guests to participate in the online meetings:

Introductory sessions:

  • Egon Krenz, Head of State of the GDR in the fall of 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, attended a meeting and answered students’ questions. He described how accidental the fall of the Berlin Wall actually was, what the immediate Russian reaction was that he received, at what point he realized that his government was losing control over the events and why he thinks the socialist Eastern Bloc eventually lost the Cold War.
  • Emeritus Professor Wolfgang Emmerich, University of Bremen, leading West German expert on GDR literature, talked about how and why he re-wrote his standard book on GDR literature after 1990 and how he was criticized for that (as being a political opportunist). He also gave an insight into personal relations between intellectuals and writers in East and West, sadly describing debates with some of his East German friends/writers who were less enthusiastic about the reunification than he was.
  • Prof. Philipp Kneis, Oregon State University, and I reported for the students how we experienced the fall of the wall as teenagers. Our biographies, memories, and perspectives were not entirely the same, which hopefully was interesting for the students to understand. For instance, Prof. Kneis was in the church community (unusual in the GDR) and described the role of the church in the revolution of 1989.

Sessions on Wende novels:

  • For the meetings in which we discussed literary texts, all four authors of the novels we read were so kind to accept the invitation to participate and talk to our students: Jens Sparschuh, Jens Wonneberger, Bernd Schirmer, Kerstin Hensel.
  • We discussed passages in their texts and asked them questions about their ideas behind it, or what they think about our interpretations. They shared intriguing insights into the writing process, disclosed some hidden allusions in the texts, their biographical background and how they as writers experienced the upheavals of 1989 and later on, including difficulties in a completely changed literary sphere.

I am happy to say that remote online teaching is working much better than expected. It is not the “real deal,” but it works. And it was great to see our students regularly at least on screen. Of course, it demanded a quick adaptation to a new system, format, and way of teaching – but where would it be more adequate (and easy) to master such an adjustment than in a seminar about the monumental societal changes that occurred in East Germany in and after 1990…?