Poetry in the Service of Politics

The Case of Adam Mickiewicz in Communist Poland and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in East Germany

by Anna Artwinska (Author)
©2015 Monographs 260 Pages


This book analyzes the ideology-based reception of Adam Mickiewicz in Communist Poland and of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in East Germany, the dynamics of that process and the strategies used to exploit the iconic status of the poets for the purpose of reaffirming the legitimacy of the new system. The basic question tackled here concerns the similarities and differences between the Polish and German styles of harnessing poets into the service of politics. These issues are presented in view of the cultural and political life, i.e. public appearances by prominent politicians and culture activists, Marxist history of literature and literary works that ennobled Mickiewicz and Goethe in a hagiographic manner.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Preface to the English edition
  • Part I. Politics
  • Chapter 1. Party-approved Mickiewicz: speeches, monuments, rituals
  • 1. Role models: Adam Mickiewicz in Soviet Lviv
  • 2. Romantic tradition in the years 1945–1948
  • 3. Communist celebrations: the 150th anniversary of Mickiewicz’s birth
  • 3.1. The problem of Dziady
  • 3.2. December 1948: the ritual of Thanksgiving
  • 3.3. The monument in Warsaw
  • 4. The national edition of Mickiewicz’s Works: censorship
  • 5. Mickiewicz in the times of thaw: the poet’s 100th death anniversary
  • 5.1. “You budge a bit, Mr Mickiewicz and we shall budge too”
  • 5.2. The monument in Kraków
  • 6. From October 1956 until the millennium
  • 7. Kazimierz Dejmek’s Dziady
  • Chapter 2. Party-approved Goethe: speeches, monuments, rituals
  • 1. German cultural policy in the years 1945–1949
  • 1.1. Weimar: remembrance in practice
  • 1.2. The theory of “cultural heritage”
  • 2. Communist celebrations: around the Goethe jubilee (1949)
  • 2.1. Celebrations in Weimar
  • 3. Faust as a national hero: the strategies of canonisation
  • 3.1. The debate over Faust (1952–1953)
  • 3.2. Schiller’s Year
  • 4. Concern for “unfalsified heritage”: censorship
  • 5. The Bitterfeld way
  • 6. The third part of Faust
  • 7. The year 1971
  • Part II. Research
  • Chapter 1. “New mickiewiczology”: Marxist conceptions of Romanticism
  • 1. Romanticism in literary criticism in 1944–1948
  • 2. For Mickiewicz’s new image
  • 3. Wacław Kubacki’s Mickiewicz
  • 4. The Convention of Polish Philologists (1950)
  • 5. Stefan Żółkiewski’s Mickiewicz
  • 6. The ILR in the Jubilee Year 1955
  • 7. The ILR criticised: the years 1957–1958
  • 8. The Convention of Polish Philologists (1958)
  • Chapter 2. “New Goetheology”: Marxist conceptions of Classicism
  • 1. In György Lukács’ circle of thought
  • 1.1. Ernst Bloch and Hans Mayer
  • 2. Gerhard Scholz’s Lehrgang
  • 3. Ingress of the new methodology
  • 4. Settling the accounts with György Lukács
  • 5. The classicism of Helmut Holtzhauer
  • 6. Faust: a signature of the century
  • Part III. Literary output
  • Chapter 1. “Mickiewicz – a living man”
  • 1. Poems about the Poet
  • 1.1. Friendship with Pushkin
  • 2. Socialist realist stylistics
  • 2.1. Ballade
  • 2.2. Epic poem
  • 3. The Romantic tradition in Polish poetry after 1956
  • Chapter 2. “We all come out of Wilhelm Meister”
  • 1. Goethe in East German poetry
  • 1.1. The Bitterfeld poems
  • 2. “We all come out of Wilhelm Meister”: socialist educational novels
  • 2.1. Theoretical basis
  • 2.2. From theory to practice: educational novel
  • 3. Overcoming the paradigm: Goethe another way
  • Summary
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index


“There is an intimate relationship between the word and power. One might say they have been entwined since the very dawn of all myths”, wrote Jerzy Jarzębski.1 This statement became a point of departure for a conference on the relationship between literature and authority in Poland and Germany. In both countries, this relationship took on a special form in the period of communism.2 Instrumental treatment of the word formed part of the revolution which, in the opinion of its initiators, was not only not supposed to devour its children, but was to ensure their well-being and happiness. Both in the Polish People’s Republic (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa – PRL) and in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), language was being reshaped for the needs of propaganda. This transformation had two objectives: the legitimisation of the new order and the creation of a new symbolic universe by using appropriate rhetorical devices. Although the relationship between power and language was not so much intimate as artificial, it held strong until the downfall of the system. The modified language was a means of enforcing a certain vision of culture and tradition, while simultaneously facilitating their disassembly. The point was to reshape the semantic content of existing words, well rooted in language, in order to manipulate the understanding of history and historical past.

The biographies of Adam Mickiewicz and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, proclaimed national poets already in their lifetimes, were also subjected to reinterpretation. Both in Communist Poland and in East Germany, the new authorities were very much interested in using the significance of these poets to legitimise their authority in an attempt to draw the heritage of Romanticism and Weimar Classicism into the circle of “progressive” traditions. Marxist-oriented literature historians, culture activists, writers and poets readily lent a helping hand, reproducing officially approved concepts and images. The revision of biographies ← 7 | 8 → and of the works of the great poets was a large-scale project, aimed to mould role models that could fit into the communist pantheon. The socialist realist and Stalinist discourse on Mickiewicz in communist Poland, just as the discourse on Goethe in the Soviet occupational zone and later in the GDR, may be interpreted as one of the many techniques of instrumentalisation, which may be reduced to the casual use of tradition and the senses it implies.

This book aims to look at the issue of instrumentalisation from a comparative perspective. The basic question tackled here concerns the similarities and differences between the Polish and German styles of harnessing poets, as the title reads, into the service of politics. I present here, in the form of a systematic lecture, the history of the ideology-based reception of Mickiewicz in Communist Poland and of Goethe in East Germany, the dynamics and key moments of that process, as well as the key mechanisms and strategies used to exploit the iconic status of the poets for the purpose of reaffirming the legitimacy of the new system. I was interested in reconstructing the fate of both authors in the historical perspective. This led to the present chronological order of the book, which allowed me to capture the continuity and change, and to observe the mutual relationship between the rhetorical choice of arguments and the specific political reality. I have explicated the issue of instrumentalisation in three cross-sections based on three separate areas of cultural and political life of those times, i.e. public appearances by prominent politicians and culture activists, Marxist history of literature and, last but not least, literary works that ennobled Mickiewicz and Goethe in a hagiographic manner. In the first part of my work, I focused specifically on the official Party rituals. In the second part, I addressed the questions of methodology, and in the third part, I concentrated on literary works. My focus on texts such as Party speeches, literary historical essays, propaganda poems was deliberate: I saw them as a form of testimony to the biographies and work of the poets. By adopting a comparative approach I was able to place the instrumentalisation of Adam Mickiewicz in a broader context as, through viewing it in the light of appropriation of Goethe, I managed to capture the traits typical of the Polish reception, distinct from the German approach to reinterpreting its literary tradition. The comparison has also shown that methods used in both countries were to a great extent similar, which in turn sheds light on the ubiquity of Soviet patterns in cultural politics of the Eastern Bloc.

The time frame adopted for this book spans the years 1945–1970 and requires a short explanation. In the case of the Soviet occupation zone and later the GDR, this phase was a closed period dominated by the rule of Walter Ulbricht (which of course does not imply its homogeneity). In Poland, this period was divided into a few shorter intervals, with the breaking point marked by the year 1956. This chronological misalignment is also reflected in the topic of my work – contrary ← 8 | 9 → to the GDR, where the year 1956 brought no considerable change, in Poland it marked the end of the period of the most intense control over culture and the humanities. This is why, while writing about Adam Mickiewicz, I concentrated primarily on the first decade after the war, considering the later events either as a recurrence of earlier manipulations or as a reference to them. In the 1960s and 70s, these manipulations were not as plentiful, although those that did take place were not devoid of their own character and dynamics. It would not be an overstatement to say that the same breakthrough which occurred in the official Party reception of Romanticism in Poland around 1956 did not take place in the GDR until around 1971, with Erich Honecker’s rise to power, followed by the beginning of revision of the Classical cultural heritage theory. As I was primarily investigating the techniques of manipulation and socio-technical strategies, I have given considerably less attention to the decomposition of the doctrine or to the process of emancipating tradition from the custody of authority.

Taking up the problem of an ideologically motivated reception of Mickiewicz’s work, one has to be aware that, although the Party-sanctioned approach was the official and dominant way of perceiving the Mickiewicz tradition, it was not the sole one. The official image of the author of Dziady emerged from the system and from the ideology it served, but it never managed to supplant other, opposing images, shaped mainly by literature historians not associated with the new, communist authorities. Jerzy Szacki, in his reflections on totalitarianism, concluded that “even the most totalitarian political system does not engulf everything that happens on the territory it controls”3 and this certainly holds true for the work of Adam Mickiewicz. It is necessary to draw a clear distinction between the totalitarian ambitions of the authorities and the realities of the social and political life, which were subject to control by means of political and administrative tools only to a limited extent. This is an interesting issue, as in the GDR the problem of “the limits of totalitarianism” was more complex. The official concepts of tradition played almost an exegetical role in the GDR and were held up as the one and only possible interpretation of Goethe and the Classicism. In “the first socialist state on German soil”, all literature historians who interpreted history differently were banned from expressing their ideas and from performing their job. The agenda behind the East German cultural policy was to further the imperial ambitions and applications of power.

The comparative approach enabling me to juxtapose the reception of Mickiewicz in the PRL with that of Goethe in the GDR stems, on the one hand, from the exceptional place these two poets inhabited in the national culture of both countries, and on the other hand, from the fact that both states were under ← 9 | 10 → totalitarian rule. Hence, the common denominator of the study is the figure of a great national poet, harnessed into the service of politics, while the subject of my analysis is the process of using that figure towards an ideologically motivated purpose. At the same time, two crucial differences must be considered. The first concerns the diverse cultural backgrounds of the two poets. As we know, Adam Mickiewicz was the founder and the most important poet of Polish Romanticism, while Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the symbol and the most prominent author of German Classicism, also known as Weimar Classicism, after its centre in this city.4 Comparing the significance attributed to the two poets in the PRL and in the GDR means comparing the functions of two different cultural formations, even if – from the historical point of view – these formations served a similar role in the process of shaping the new Polish and German identity and national literature. The second area of difference is the significance that the ruling parties in both countries attributed to the traditions represented by the two poets. In the GDR, Weimar Classicism was, from the very beginning, viewed as the most important part of the German heritage and a “realm of memory”, the sense of which should find its continuation in the present. On the contrary, Romanticism in the PRL was an object of suspicion as an ideologically inappropriate tradition – overly religious and overly anti-Russian. Therefore, the official standpoint that Mickiewicz was still “relevant” and “vital” was not so much the authorities’ conscious choice, but rather a premeditated calculation, which suggested that omitting this tradition in their founding narrations and propaganda would simply bring no profit. In the humanities this discrepancy was less visible, as most literature historians ← 10 | 11 → were studying Romanticism of their own accord. The problem lay in aggressive implementation of Marxist directives.

In spite of the vast number of studies on the history and culture of the PRL, there has yet to appear a comprehensive monograph which would analyse in detail the issue of instrumentalisation of Mickiewicz – or, more broadly, of the Romantic tradition – by the Polish Communist authorities. This makes the minor studies and articles, which offer many interesting clues and hypotheses, even more important.5 I followed these texts in an attempt to go beyond the obvious clichés about the repressive character of the PRL’s cultural policy and the use of national symbols for the purpose of legitimising the authorities’ power. It was my objective to investigate carefully the methods of appropriation used by the authorities and to put them into their proper political, methodological and literary contexts. I found observation and description more important than moral evaluation, and so I focused on all those discourse methods expressed in the Party’s programme by phrases such as “revolutionary Romanticism” or “more alive than in his lifetime”. My work centres on the existing critical texts, leaving less space for archival materials, which I treated more as an example. I am confident that this approach will not undermine the credibility of my findings.

The state of study of the reception of Goethe in the GDR is a different case. Since 1989, the German Democratic Republic has been the most frequently researched country of the former Eastern Bloc apart from the USSR. The history and culture of the GDR has attracted the attention of scholars from Germany and beyond. It is worth citing here the monumental works by Karl Robert Mandelkow: Goethe im Urteil seiner Kritiker: Dokumente zur Wirkungsgeschichte Goethes in Deutschland (Goethe in the Eyes of his Critics: Documents on the History of Goethe’s Influence in Germany, 1984) and Goethe in Deutschland. Rezeptionsgeschichte eines Klassikers (Goethe in Germany. The History of the Classic’s Reception) (vol. II: 19191982; 1989). Already in 1987 Deborah Vietor-Engländer published Faust in der DDR (Faust in the GDR), which contained many factual discoveries that were important to my project. In 1998, professor Lothar Ehrlich and the Stiftung Weimarer ← 11 | 12 → Klassik initiated a project entitled Weimarer Klassik in der Ära Ulbricht. As a result, a comprehensive collection of texts devoted to the reception of Classicism in the years 1945–1970 has been published.6 The book has great significance, as it not only summarises the state of study thus far, but also completes it with new conclusions drawn from archival materials. Although the authors had no ambitions to settle accounts with the Communist authorities, they made it plain to see that the Weimar Classicist tradition was treated instrumentally in the GDR – it was to sanction the policy of the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands – Socialist Unity Party of Germany). The authors precisely named all “figures and argumentative schemes” (Georg Bollenbeck) applied by the GDR authorities. The study of censorship, led by Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung in Potsdam, and the activity of the Berlin-based Stiftung zur Aufbereitung der SED-Diktatur as well as the extraordinary availability of archive materials, played a vital role in disseminating information about the significance of the Weimar Classicism in the GDR. In this situation, my role was reduced to recapitulating the German state of studies in the Polish context and comparing the situation of the two poets. For this reason, I refer to the fact findings of the German philologists and historians, applying to the dynamics and turning points of Goethe’s reception in the GDR. Most of my quotations from that period are after them. The addressee of this book was first of all a Polish philologist; reconstructing the German state of research and rendering it more popular seemed very important to me. I am conscious of the fact that for a German philologist my analysis of Goethe’s reception in East Germany brings no revelations and may seem a little selective in the context of the rich subject literature. My ambition was not, however, to revise or supplement the German state of research (the work was written at the Faculty of Polish and Classical Philology at the University of Poznań), but a comparative view at the problem of instrumentalisation of the Classics.


As a side note to her contemplations on the “point of view” in non-fictional prose, Małgorzata Czermińska wrote:

The colonist’s or the invader’s narrative […] is conceivable when the point is to achieve, apart from the invaded nation’s submission to military and administrative violence, obedience internalised by the members of the invaded society. Creating narratives for the subjects by the subjects would then be motivated by the striving to colonise ← 12 | 13 → the consciousness, to expropriate the community of its own tradition and to replace it with an artificially fabricated version aiming to justify the foreign dominance. Such a mechanism of “captivating the minds” appears not only in the case of contact between different cultures, but also within one culture (civilisation) between different political systems.7

To explain the process of “expropriating the community of its own tradition” or, more broadly, the influence of totalitarian power on literature, it helps to recall the theory of cultural fields, coined by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. He introduced the notion of field to describe the entirety of social life, postulating that literature be analysed in a broader sociological context, at the same time stating that literary communication is characterised by the struggle for position within the field, which is in fact the struggle for symbolic power – retaining or change of the status quo. Bourdieu wrote: “The struggles over definition (or classification) have boundaries at stake (between genres and disciplines, or between modes of production within the same genre) and, therefore, hierarchies. To define boundaries, to defend them and to control numerous entries is to defend the established order in the field”.8 According to the founder of “reflexive anthropology”, the study of cultural issues requires three kinds of operations. First, the analysis of the literary field within the field of power and its evolution in time; second, the analysis of the inner structure of a given field; and third, a reflection on relations between positions occupied by individuals and groups placed in a situation of having to compete for legitimacy.9

The symbolic violence perpetrated and the related subjugation of the structures of tradition by the authorities of East Germany and the Polish People’s Republic are indisputable. Thus, in a situation where the Party aimed at full control over social and political life, it also determined the positions taken within the field. At stake was the monopoly to “sanctify” authors or, more broadly speaking, the totality of literature and culture. Mickiewicz and Goethe, viewed in the categories of national capital, became the subjects of shifts and shuffles in the political game. It is necessary to remember that in both cases it was not only about the – one of many – cultural struggles for domination in the symbolic field, but also about the instrumentalisation and complete reinterpretation of the goods of culture. Instead of taking up rhetorical battles with likely competitors, the communist authorities chose to eliminate them, which was coupled with full takeover and reuse of the field structure. The powers that were of the new order reached for the sole rule in the sphere of values and national symbols, which also meant that they were free to ← 13 | 14 → arbitrarily determine the meanings therein. In this sense, the discourses described in this work, although based on numerous models from the past, were singular and unprecedented phenomena.


This book is a revised version of my doctoral thesis, which I defended in April 2007 at the Faculty of Polish and Classical Philology of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. I would like to thank my doctoral advisor, Professor Zofia Trojanowicz, as well as my reviewers, Professor Michał Głowiński and Professor Hubert Orłowski, for their invaluable comments and insights. I would also like to express my gratitude to Professor Rudolf Jaworski, Professor Lothar Ehrlich and Professor Jerzy Fiećko. The final shape of this book was highly influenced by my cooperation with the Stiftung Weimarer Klassik, whom I would like to thank cordially for the scholarship I received. ← 14 | 15 →

1Jerzy Jarzębski, “Słowo władzy – władza słowa”, Teksty Drugie, 1, 1995; see also: Elżbieta Sarnowska-Temeriusz, “Słowo wstępne”, in Literatura i władza, Bożena Wojnowska, ed. (Warsaw: IBL, 1996).

2My work does not reflect the discussion of the notions of “communism” and “socialism” and the differences between them. I am using the term “communism” as an operational category to describe the political, cultural and social reality of Poland and the GDR in the years 1945–1970. I followed the practice used by Polish literature researchers, who very often use “communism” as a terminus technicus rather than an (exclusively) ideological one. As a matter of fact, it is worth highlighting that this practice is not common in the German humanities.

3Jerzy Szacki, “Dwie historie”, in Spór o PRL, Marta Fik, Piotr Wandycz, eds (Krakow: Znak, 1996), 69.

4This term, traditionally used to refer to the period in German culture between 1786 and 1805 (Goethe’s first journey to Italy and the death of Schiller) may spark justified doubts. As we know, it was a period influenced by the German idealism in philosophy and in the historical context, it was a reaction to the French Revolution. The “Weimar Classicism” label relates to the Thuringia city of Weimar, the unquestioned hub of intellectual life of that era, centred around the court of princess Anna Amalia. The trouble with the notion “Weimar Classicism” is that the aesthetic concept had been developed in the 19th century and, as such, was an ex-post creation, relating almost exclusively to the period of friendship between Goethe and Schiller. This made the reception of Classicism very selective, reducing it to Goethe and Schiller, while both these poets did not think of themselves as classics (see: Czesław Karolak, “Społeczeństwo niemieckie drugiej połowy XVIII wieku. Rola Wielkiej Rewolucji Francuskiej”, in Dzieje kultury niemieckiej, Czesław Karolak, Wojciech Kunicki, Hubert Orłowski, eds (Warsaw: PWN, 2006), 203-217. Nonetheless, most works from the field of literature history still use this notion. One way of overcoming this problem might be using a term proposed by Reinhart Koselleck, who came up with a metaphorical notion of Sattelzeit, “the time of the saddle”, to describe the period between 1750 and 1815. However, this issue requires more comprehensive study.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (May)
Sozialistischer Realismus Nationaldichter Hagiographie Marxismus
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 260 pp., 7 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Anna Artwinska (Author)

Anna Artwińska is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Slavic Literature at the University of Hamburg. Her research interests comprise the study of communism, socialist realism, postcolonial studies, the romantic period in Russian, German and Polish literature and genealogical narratives in Russian and Polish contemporary literature.


Title: Poetry in the Service of Politics