Tear Down That Will: An East German Guide to Breaking the Spirit

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By Jennifer Hofmann

At the center of Jennifer Hofmann’s gripping debut novel, “The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures” set on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall — is a manual by the same name. Its author, Bernd Zeiger, an aging and ailing cog in the ministerial wheel of the German Democratic Republic (known in America as East Germany), considers it “his life’s work, a substantial volume, the closest he’d come to fathering.” Timeworn yet ubiquitous, the manual flatters and haunts the middle-aged Zeiger like a nefarious but artful offspring. Providing such strategies as creating “an aura of misunderstanding” to increase confession rates, its ultimate goal is to dissolve the victim’s consciousness into a spiral of self-doubt. “The self is a vessel that when turned upside down will empty itself of meaning,” Zeiger thinks. “It will grasp, cling to itself, turn in on itself, witness itself, go insane in that way.”

But Zeiger, who like most of his fellow East Germans drives a Trabant and drinks Kaffee Mix (a mixture of “coffee, pea flour and disgrace”), is himself on the verge of dissolution. Suffering from chills, aches, seizures and nosebleeds, he senses his own approaching death, as noxious as the “air of quiet catastrophe” on his street, where the specter of Chernobyl lingers. He moves through the city invisible and soundless, alienated from both his surroundings and himself.

Yet within his impassivity lives one obsession: Lara, the waitress at the corner cafe who used to serve him cheese toast and milk coffee daily, and to whom he once confessed all of his deeds and misdeeds — including his involvement in the conviction of Johannes Held, a physicist whom he simultaneously befriended and betrayed for a confession. The morning after his own unburdening, Lara mysteriously disappeared.

The young woman’s absence is but one of many vanishings in the novel. Also gone are several youths: Held, who once researched quantum entanglement in the Arizona desert alongside American scientists who were conducting experiments on teleportation; Mexican children in that same desert; and now Zeiger himself, who’s slowly slipping from his own life. Encompassing these vanishings is a more absolute void: the absence of memory, confiscated by the state and replaced by ideology.

Of his childhood, Zeiger retains little. His father served in the war and was later sent to a Soviet prison camp; his mother read him “Struwwelpeter” stories (19th-century cautionary tales for children by Heinrich Hoffmann) and once took him to see the preserved corpse of Knight Kahlbutz in the catacombs of Kampehl. His first conscious moment arrived when one winter morning during the war, his mother took him to Lake Müggelsee and threw him into the icy water, leaving him to sink underwater before retrieving him. “Men don’t catch death,” she told him afterward, believing she had made him invincible. When years later, in 1954, his father’s ashes were sent from the prison camp in a small box, his mother killed herself with her Walther service gun. Following her death, whatever was left behind — her collection of Meissen porcelain, her Solingen silver, some jewelry, her Walther and his father’s wartime pin of the “grinning skull” (the Totenkopf, the insignia of the SS) — was confiscated by the state. A final act of liquidation, not only of property, but also of memory.

When Zeiger is promoted and tasked with drafting the manual, his father’s pin and his mother’s gun are curiously returned to him. “They’re valuable,” his supervisor says of these totems. “You’re moving up the ladder, so no more secrets between us. You should have them back.” To this unusual recognition of individuality the supervisor adds, “For all we care around here, Hitler was from the West.”

This is important, and perhaps not stressed enough in the novel. Designating Hitler as a legacy of West Germany was among the tenets of the German Democratic Republic, which crafted a historiography of itself as a longtime opponent and victim of fascism. Wartime guilt, and all its associated convulsions, were therefore assigned to those living on the western side of the wall. While this may not answer “the whys and the hows” Zeiger seeks, it does serve as a reminder that even the negation of history — misguided and doomed to fail — arises from human frailty, our inability to reckon with ourselves.

Hofmann portrays this pervasive sense of syncope through rhythmic prose and powerful allusions to faith in an amoral world. The elevator at the ministry is a paternoster (a term that also means “the Lord’s Prayer”), the TV tower reflects the harsh daylight in “the shape of a near-perfect cross” (a phenomenon people call “the pope’s revenge”) and through a shared wall Zeiger hears his neighbor listening to Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.”

She also establishes an effective tension between the German penchant for order (manifested through repetition of the phrase alles in Ordnung, and the sudden eruptions of chaos: at the bakery, on the bus, in the streets — and in Zeiger’s own aging body. Hofmann heightens this sense of entropy with evocative descriptions of people and places. While humans are likened to animals (a soldier’s teeth are “sharp like a bat’s,” the elderly remind Zeiger of “vultures,” a woman has a “toadlike mouth”), environments are anthropomorphized: “The day was losing shape,” Zeiger thinks. “It was bleeding at the edges, hemorrhaging purpose.” This rhetorical inversion reinforces the manual’s very goal of disorientating and capsizing the self.

But the capsizing, which reaches a pinnacle at the novel’s clever, dramatic end — a testament to the manual’s perfect triumph — may nonetheless be too neat a resolution, historically. East Germany imploded, but neither its creation nor its demise was as vacuous as the novel suggests. Throughout the book Zeiger is told that “the why” does not matter. That is probably true. And yet, Tolstoy’s oft-repeated lines, “All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” perhaps could also apply to authoritarian governments. While they share common aspects, they are, each of them, particular to their time and to the culture and history from which they arise. What Hofmann’s novel could have explored further is this: What made this one possible?

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