This Biography Should Be in English -- Part I, Part II

April, 2014

Berlin/Washington -- Anyone who follows German history of the 1960s and 1970s knows of the remarkable lives of Gretchen and Rudi Dutschke. Unfortunately, the English-speaking world has not had the benefit of reading Gretchen Dutschke's prose. I am no professional translator, but with Gretchen's permission here is my translated excerpt from her book Wir hatten ein barbarisches, schönes Leben: Rudi Dutschke, eine Biographie.

The scene takes place in 1966, when Rudi's father and mother came from East Germany into West Berlin to see how their son was doing with his new American wife, Gretchen, a native of Illinois. The new wife narrates the dreaded first visit of the in-laws.

Vati Dutschke was sixty-five and allowed to travel in the West. Mutti Dutschke was also allowed to travel on account of a health condition that permitted early retirement. They came to see how married life was treating their dear son. We wanted as much as possible to survive these days without friction. So we undertook a new experience together: a frantic housecleaning. We washed all the dishes, swept up the dust, vacuumed, cleaned the windows, scrubbed the floors, did the laundry. The apartment shined as never before. Rudi got a haircut and shaved.

While I waited with a vague foreboding at home, Rudi picked up his parents at the border. When they arrived, we offered them coffee and cake. But just as I was covering the coffee table, Mutti Dutschke started to investigate the apartment. In the kitchen we had terrycloth hand towels. "That's not appropriate," complained Mutti. "In the kitchen the towels must be linen. Only in the bathroom are terrycloth towels allowed." In the living room she asked where the curtains were. I didn't understand. I had sewed curtains, and hung them as curtains are supposed to be hung, or so I thought. "White sheer curtains" she said. "You must have white sheers with the other curtains." The newspapers we put up as wallpaper did not please her at all, to say the least. Rudi offered: "Come, sit down Mutti, coffee is ready." The peace did not last long. As soon as she drank the coffee and ate the cake, she got up and went once again through the apartment. Vati found Rudi's haircut much too long. Rudi protested that he had just been at the barber's, but Vati laughed mockingly and said no one should pay for such an insufficient haircut. When the bickering didn't let up, I was at the end of my nerves. I ran out of the room and slammed the door so hard that the whole apartment shook. I took up my flute and played wildly. But I overheard how Mutti challenged Rudi: "Why do you allow your wife to behave like that? Do something!" Rudi said nothing. Then she scolded him: "You are a wet dishrag."

It is more than an oddity that Gretchen Dutschke's words need translation from the original German into English. She is an American. She should be published in her own country in her own language. She was at the forefront of the changes that shook the world in the 1960s and 1970s. We could learn a lot from her if we had access to her in our own common mother tongue.

April, 2014

Berlin/Washington -- In the last post, I offered in English an excerpt from the German language biography of Rudi Dutschke written by his American widow, Gretchen Klotz Dutschke. That selection was comic; the following selection is somber.

The scene is set in Aarhus, Denmark, the place to which Gretchen, Rudi, and their two children repaired after being unfairly evicted from England. It is December, 1979. Rudi has suffered epileptic seizures for several years after being shot in an assassination attempt (provoked by the Springer press and perhaps the Stasi). In a few months, Gretchen is expecting their third child. She narrates:

Dead leaves lay on the ground; the darkness of that time of year depressed me. I awakened in the middle of the night covered in sweat and shivered. I shook Rudi, sleeping next to me, because I was so afraid. A nightmare still swirled around in my head in which I went into the bathroom and saw a person who had drowned in the bathwater and lay at the bottom of the tub.

On the twenty-third of December the children and I decorated the apartment for Christmas. We placed pine boughs around, put little figures in them and draped them in cotton snow; bulbs and tinsel hung on the Christmas tree; candles stood everywhere. When the children were finally in bed, I said to Rudi: "Let's light the candles." They transformed the old, somewhat shabby room into a wonder-world of mysterious shadows and sparkling lights. Rudi and I sat together on a chair, held each other in our arms and took in the magic.

On the following afternoon, the day of Christmas Eve, the telephone rang constantly. Mostly they were calls from Germany: Christmas greetings and words about the many tasks that lay ahead in the following week. Günter Berkhahn also called. The conversation began friendly, so I paid no attention. But then I noticed that Rudi's voice was raised markedly. He said he wasn't working on the book right now. He seemed torn and pained. He didn't know how he ought to tell Günther that he couldn't finish their common project. Besides, the Green cause was just too exciting. No, it was not the socialist project that they both had wanted, but it was important. Berkhahn apparently yelled that it was idiotic to waste time with the Greens; he threatened but then became resigned and wounded. It was hard for Rudi to take. He didn't want to disappoint Berkhahn, but he knew that he could not write a book right now. Especially this book. As the telephone conversation came to an end, Rudi was visibly upset. He said to me only, "I can't write that book with Berkhahn just now. Later, perhaps. Günter puts me under too much pressure." It was one of the last things we talked about together.

I began to prepare the goose. We had invited a guest to join us for dinner, Pia, a Dane who had lived for a time in Germany. Pia set the table. Rudi went into the bathroom. As the goose sat in the oven, filled with apples, rice, and spices, I thought that Rudi must soon be finished with his bath. I looked into the bathroom and thought that he's drying himself. But he was dead. The nightmare raced in glaring colors before my eyes. I screamed, and simultaneously pulled him out of the tub and tried to bring him back to life. It was totally ineffective. I was asked later how I could have done it, to lift him out of the bathtub, and I didn't know.

It's unfortunate that the whole book is not available in English. Gretchen Dutschke is not only a fine writer, she is a formidable philosopher and interpreter of the ideologies that drove a generation of Germans to reflect on their past and change their country for the better.