Book Review: Ingrid Babendererde

Ingrid Babendererde / Reifeprüfung 1953

Johnson, Uwe

Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt a. M., 1985

Ingrid, Klaus, and Jürgen, early summer, 1953, in a small city in Mecklenburg.  Three friends, top students all, in the final days before their Abi with thoughts alternately on school and on sailing the boat which Klaus and Jürgen refurbished the year before on the local lake.  Ingrid is the pretty girl, whose old-fashioned teacher father died in a “freak” boating accident and whose academic mother now supports them by working in the post office.  Klaus is the athletic one whose parents both “died of heart attacks on the same day following a long train ride” shortly after sending him and his younger brother to live with relatives, who developed into the class and school “Young Pioneer” leader before Ingrid began to take up much of his time.  Jürgen is the wallflower, the smart boy who has been paired up with Ingrid throughout their school careers and with Klaus in his free time until Klaus and Ingrid found each other, then turned to picking up the leadership roles Klaus left open.

Jürgen’s nights and days are filled with the party, first the local meetings in the school, then the city meetings, county meetings, etc…  The head of the school is very impressed with him, and so when the official word comes through that a fairly popular Christian youth group “is an organization of spies, saboteurs, and troublemakers funded by the evil West” he is given the task of making sure that the students, esp. those who are members of that organization, know it’s “true purpose.”  It eventually happens that one member of that group openly renounces her membership in the Young Pioneers, which is cause to be expelled.  Jürgen manages to smooth her issues out and an assembly is called where she will apologize to the school and encourage the other members to follow her example.

The assembly begins with the entire Abi class knowing that it is a farce to the extent that they don’t bother going until the school director comes to their room and forces them to attend.  One of their members, the student leader of the “opposing” group, stands up to the assembled panel of party dignitaries and it becomes clear that the “just and equal” system of their government is neither as any points he raises, based primarily on the East German constitution,  are either ignored or he is simply told he is wrong.  The assembly goes well past the customary lunch break and a recess is called, during which Ingrid is assigned by the city party leader the task of preparing and presenting arguments showing why this organization does not fall under the protection of the laws to protect religion.

Klaus opts to go sailing, but Ingrid declines his invitation to join him and wanders around the streets trying to collect her thoughts.  She arrives back to the assembly quite late and tries to slip in, but is publicly reproached and led to the front.  Her speech has nothing to do with what she was asked to speak on, instead she questions why the government, esp. as personified by the school director, sees everything from the West as bad. She uses the example of a fellow student who wore pants to school which she had bought in West Berlin  during a family vacation and which were then prohibited by the school director although there was nothing against girls wearing pants.

She leaves the assembly, which the director then uses as an opportunity to “democratically” have her expelled by the votes of the students.  Aside from her entire class, including Jürgen, who was seated on the podium, she was unanimously  voted out.

The next morning, after an aimless night, she heads toward school as usual but notices that she is being followed.  Unknown to her, the “other” leader is arrested by the Stasi as he arrives at the school, but smelling the trap and playing the innocent girl, she finds a local policeman and complains about the strange man following her.  While he approaches the man and officiously begins a conversation with him, she slips away and is gone before the follower can present his Stasi ID.

Klaus, who last thought that Ingrid would be giving a talk on the assigned subject and didn’t hear otherwise, is surprised to find her seat vacant when he arrives.  After a notice arrives during the second period stating that the party has decided to expel both the other party leader and Ingrid.  He notices that none of the other members of the class signed the document, but, quite upset, he leaves the class and gives the secretary his voluntary resignation from the school.  Shortly thereafter, Jürgen is called to the director’s office and is reamed by the director for publicly going against party line as well as encouraged “to avoid contact to Klaus or Ingrid” before being told his leadership status will only be continued if he fulfills several probationary responsibilities.    While they are “discussing,” the secretary brings Klaus’s “resignation” and Jürgen  sees in that and the recent events the end of the “good” party he was part of and declines the probation.

That afternoon Jürgen finds them getting ready for a sail and joins them, fully assuming (rightly) that that night Klaus and Ingrid  will take a boat and leave.

The text itself ends at that point, but throughout the book there are one or two page italicized sections that don’t seem to have anything to do with the story but which, seen after reading, describe their departure.  They land near Rostock and smuggle themselves onto a Western night train to West Berlin, using fake passes “from the school’s “Young Pioneer” group” which Jürgen helped with, then he flies to Hannover and she flies to relatives in Lübeck with the hope of meeting back up sometime. Oddly enough, their class travels to Berlin after their exams and are watching from the observation area of the W. Berlin airport when they fly out and Ingrid is recognized by one of her classmates as she waves goodbye to Klaus, whose  plane leaves first.

An excellent book, at first simply seeming like a description of the last days at the Gymnasium but gradually showing the personal side of a repressive government in a rather unique way.

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