For Sonja Fritzsche—Ph.D. Grad, German cultural critic, and aspiring academic—sci-fi has been just the ticket
What can yarns about cosmonauts, time travel, and interplanetary exploration tell us about what life was like behind the Iron Curtain? Just ask Sonja Fritzsche, a 2001 GSD doctoral graduate who’s already making a mark in the field of German studies through perceptive analysis of popular science fiction literature produced in the former East Germany.
It’s the culmination of a lifelong interest for Fritzsche, whose childhood fascination with sci-fi novels primed her to be especially intrigued by East German works. “In a way, they represented the ultimate ‘other,’” recalls Fritzsche. “This was during the Cold War era, in which the Soviet Union and East Germany were like the ‘untouchables.’ Reading science fiction out of such a different culture helped me understand this culture, on the other side of the wall, so to speak.”
Since the razing of the actual Berlin Wall, in 1989, and the reunification of the German Democratic Republic with its West German counterpart, scholars like Fritzsche are casting fresh eyes on East German cultural history. Unfettered access to a wide variety of materials has been a boon for scholars who for years have had to make do with officially sanctioned documents. Fritzsche comments that although socialist science fiction has long had a robust tradition in Soviet-bloc countries, a U of M Library search on the keywords “science fiction” and “East Germany” shortly after the wall’s fall turned up only two results (she gratefully credits the availability of those two titles to a 1970s exchange program with Humboldt University spearheaded by GSD professor Frank Hirschbach).
Popular culture trailblazer
When Fritzsche decided to write a dissertation on East German science fiction in the mid-1990s, popular culture was just beginning to be accepted as a legitimate focus of scholarship in German studies. “Looking at popular cultural forms—popular novels, periodicals, movies, and so forth—can allow you to take the temperature of what’s going on in a particular culture,” says Fritzsche, who began to study the German language in earnest in the seventh grade. “But respect for that approach—outside of American studies— was just slowly starting to develop.”
Even though her work was based on extensive historical and cultural research, its premises were highly suspect. “One, it focused on science fiction, considered to be a trivial form in the context of the great German literary tradition, ”Fritzsche says, “and two, it focused on science fiction in East Germany, where everybody assumed that the regulation of cultural expression meant that everything produced was propagandistic.”
Yet beyond conforming to general rules intended to keep literature “within the bounds of socialist realism—representing an attainable vision, as opposed to the very fantastic”—science fiction writers had what seemed to Fritzsche astonishing literary license.
“Science fiction for a time was officially illegal, but pressure from below—from the reading public—led officials to permit it under some really pretty broad guidelines, ”Fritzsche says. “To the extent there was censorship, it was implicit—authors and publishers both understood what could be and couldn’t be published,” says Fritzsche, who while reviewing text after text repeatedly found herself marveling, “I can’t believe this was published. ”The fact is, she says, “publishers often just looked the other way—mostly because they didn’t think science fiction was all that important. They didn’t assign their best people to scrutinize the manuscripts. They missed a lot.”
As a result, authors used the genre’s imaginative and allegorical potential to explore a wide range of issues, even to the point of taking in “the entire 20th-century tradition of socialism and capitalism. In science fiction, the writer sets up an alternative world and plays with possibilities,” says Fritzsche, noting that sci-fi traditionally has been fertile ground for social critique.
“Many East German science fiction writers implicitly were playing with different ways East Germany could develop—exploring a utopian vision of what the country could look like. Essentially it became a very popular game to find the critique embedded in the works.”
That in large part accounts for the enormous popularity sci-fi works enjoyed among the East German reading public, Fritzsche suggests. “People were fascinated by science fiction because it allowed them to play with ideas that otherwise might not find their way into the public discourse,” she explains. As a younger generation came of age in the 1970s, “there was the sense that the country—which had been founded on explicitly idealistic principles related to developing a new type of society— could benefit from certain improvements. A number of intellectuals and writers still believed that East Germany was the only true alternative to German fascism,” she says.
Her dissertation on cultural politics and socialist critique in East German science fiction not only helped her land a coveted tenure-track faculty slot; it also has attracted the interest of potential publishers. Fritzsche is revising the manuscript to include a chapter on the few new works that have been produced by once-prominent East German sci-fi authors. She also will discuss how the climate has changed for their work. Given that reunification “essentially amounted to a West German takeover of the German Democratic Republic,” Fritzsche notes, many writers and artists associated with the socialist tradition have found themselves targets of suspicion or hostility.
East Germans who enjoyed literary or other forms of success often are presumed to have been puppets of Stasi, the East German secret police, she says. Many sci-fi writers have been unable to publish or to pursue other work; one prominent author committed suicide.
The complex issues of the Cold War and its aftermath are not only of consequence to Germans, Fritzsche emphasizes. “The Cold War shaped us, too, in every way, even in ways we’re not consciously aware of,” she says. “We can learn a lot about our own culture by understanding the culture on the other side of that wall. It’s a way of reexamining all of our assumptions about the Cold War—who ‘they’ were, who ‘we’ were, and who we’re all becoming.”
The life of a new professor In addition to continuing her scholarship— she’s now expanding into cultural analysis of film—Fritzsche is busy settling into her new life as a faculty member. It’s the fulfillment of an ambition she’s had since childhood, when she set her heart on replicating the stimulating lifestyle of her parents, a business professor and a high school English teacher (“I knew I wanted to be a professor even before I knew in what field,” recalls Fritzsche, who grew up on the U.S.West coast).
Making the transition from a large research university in the center of a major urban area to a small college in the corn belt has taken some getting used to, she admits. But she likes her huge two-bedroom apartment in “a lovely old house on a park,” within walking distance of the Illinois Wesleyan campus in Bloomington, Ill. —“and just two hours away by train from Chicago.”
More important, she’s found her students smart and eager learners, if not as culturally sophisticated as those at Minnesota. She even gets to teach a course on German sci-fi.
When she’s not standing in front of a classroom or poring over texts, Fritzsche often can be spotted crisscrossing the community on her bicycle— actually, one of a stable of two-wheeled wonders that includes a road bike, a recumbent bike, and two commuting bikes. A competitive racer since her undergraduate days at Indiana University (and later during graduate school at UCLA), she now does mostly bicycle touring, with one exception: She and a blind friend make up a tandem team that competes at special events worldwide.
Drawn to cycling for the “extraordinary feeling of speed, the wind in your face,” she’s recently taken up speedskating as well. “Gliding along the ice is a lot like flying down a road on a bike,” she says.
“The speed is exhilarating, and there’s a quality of meditation or contemplation you get that’s almost mesmerizing. It’s the perfect counterpoint to academic pursuits.”