He, Who Thinks Differently, is the Enemy


More than two decades after German unification Richard Zipser, witness to a particular realm of the history of the division, that of “GDR literature,” presents his memoirs. These are the memoirs of a researcher, teacher, and advocate for the literature that arose under the communistic Socialist Unity Party (SED) regime. Publications like DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter [GDR Literature During the Thaw] (1985), Contemporary East German Poetry (1980), as well as Fragebogen: Zensur [Questionnaire: Censorship] (1995) belong to the canon of American German Studies. Yet the reader does not need to know any of these works to benefit from reading this one. While Von Oberlin nach Ostberlin [From Oberlin to East Berlin] (2013) opens up a surprising historical context to those familiar with other works of Zipser’s, the book can also stand alone, dealing as it does with the author himself. Just as every narrative invites the reader to take hold of the depicted reality, this one has something so provocatively radical that it is worth pursuing Zipser’s retrospective.

It is in the nature of memoir literature that one can approach it via the whole or the individual components, whether of facts, incidents or constellation of participants: The reader himself is accountable!


The author, as the only American Germanist to be designated by the Ministry for State Security (MfSS) of the SED regime as an “operative,” – this is documented in his Stasi file – had taken it into his head in the 1970s to research the thinking and working of writers all of whom were members of the conformist professional organization, and subsequently to publish his discoveries in the USA. In view of the touted socio-political “thaw” after the fall of Walter Ulbricht (1971) and Erich Honecker’s renunciation of German unity, this did not seem a futile undertaking; quite the opposite, for the regime was craving international recognition.

The interview questions, approved in advance by the GDR Writers’ Union, used the required vocabulary and were ideologically correct. Zipser was clearly confident that – even with self-censorship – differing personalities would bring to light differing views of newly decreed “flawed heroes.” It was perfectly fine with this literary scholar, schooled as he was in Klemperer and Brecht, that the responses – in their essence – might provide an account of dissent, contradiction, incompatibility, in short of opposition to “top down infusion.” At any rate, the “socialist hero” was passé and the “socialist human community” superseded by the “developed socialist society.” Intellectuals and artists were given the prospect of “taboo-free zones,” so long as they did not intend to shake the foundations of socialism.

Without doubt a “broad field,” demonstrated by each of the 112 episodes, completely in character for the Germanist from Oberlin (Ohio), who wanted to gain his own knowledge on location through facts and in intimate, personal encounters with the writers. “Looking down from on high, one sees everything false.” This heretical statement by the young Goethe might stand over Zipser’s subversive search for knowledge. He saw himself on the track of changes that needed to be recorded. Since, in this project in the surveillance state, he came close to “hostile-negative actions,” in keeping with directives, “continual political operative assessment, targeted scrutiny, and analytical processing of the information gained” were initiated. In the never-ending confusion of the Stasi operatives about how to categorize Zipser – whether as an academic simpleton or cunning CIA agent – it becomes clear whose child the “sword and shield” is, i.e., that of a party that knows it can keep itself in power only as an all-encompassing dictatorship. That someone can be interested in literature of their domain without being up to something seditious and of his own free will, as a foreigner, and takes the announcements of the SED 8th Party Congress seriously, sets off the usual alarm bells in the brains of their Chekists: Whoever thinks differently is the enemy.


Anyone who is even halfway socialized as a liberal democrat and no expert in or apologist for Marxist-Leninism can only shake his head in disgust over the appropriation of the literary scene by the secret service in the SED regime. Moreover, the shameless way many a writer in his reports celebrates his informant activity as the expression of a superior morality presenting itself as class struggle belongs to “GDR literature.” As a reminder of the minefield on which Zipser had to acquire his investigations: of the 19 members of the Writers’ Union Executive Committee, twelve had committed themselves to being informants. The local districts did not look any different: of the 39 Union writers in Halle, 14 were unofficial collaborators (“Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter”).

How the system produced fear, cowardice and human duplicity was known to anyone who had been subjected to it. Without the general fear of arrest, repression, and degradation, the SED could not have existed. Zipser discovered little by little that with the 1973 World Student and Youth Festival, the “Woodstock of the East,” the breakthrough to an unrestricted surveillance state was completed. (When Ulbricht was ousted in 1971, the MfSS had 45,500 full-time workers; when the SED regime fell, it had at its disposal 91,015 full-time workers and approximately 190,000 unofficial collaborators.)

In his interviews Zipser let writers speak from the generation that had started writing under these conditions and that in most cases accepted  the postwar order as a space shaped “by the battle of the systems” (hence, many of them nourished the expectation of an “improvement” of circumstances; one of the illusions was called “socialism with a human face”). And in the course of encounters through the years, he discerned and documented their individual self-assertion and emancipation from the ruling ideology and indoctrination. Thereby a dialogue increasingly emerges in which the interviewer is drawn into the confidence of the interviewee. The memoirs reflect the growing power of resistance of a “different” way of thinking unleashed by him and radiating out – thinking committed to freedom, democratic identity, and the future of the society and of each individual.

More than facile expressions of “abhorrence and outrage,” Zipser’s book captures the structures and consequences of a “cradle-to-grave” dictatorship, because he does not compare the systems, but rather lets them speak for themselves. On the basis of encounters with artists like Ulrich Plenzdorf, Jurek Becker, Elke Erb, Sarah Kirsch and Bernd Jentzsch, he makes visible the contradictions of a society in which pronounced solidarity stands next to Stasi-terror, integration next to resistance, everyday pragmatism next to disappointed idealism.

It behooves later generations to exercise humility and take responsibility for life gained by the fall of the Wall in a free democratic society. Today it is scarcely imaginable that what Zipser documented was cruel daily life for decades between the Elbe and the Oder.


At no point did Zipser ingratiate himself with the SED powers. One might not think it necessary to mention this. But the reality was different. A not insignificant number of American Germanists had elevated “GDR Literature” to their academic speciality. Often, however, it was impossible to determine whether they had chosen the literature or, rather, collaboration with the regime. Such at least was my shocked reaction in 1980 when a lecture and workshop tour took me for the first time to German Departments of universities on the East Coast and far into the middle and West of the US.

They spoke of their hatred of “predatory capitalism,” were full of contempt for the “ugly American,” wallowed lachrymosely in the belief in a “socialist alternative” and gave themselves up as willing partisans to the “other Germany.” Thus, they selected mostly those texts that were “representative” of their good buddy. They preferred to seek out their contacts and tasks in the realm of “engineers of the human soul” rather than among those who described the gulag for what it was.

One of them nine years later, just a day after the Wall had fallen, argued unabashedly to me: “But the utopia! What happens to the utopia?” They knew very well how the regime was composed: “With the protection of the secured border we are building the better state.” For anyone who wanted to know, it was obvious; solely by means of the death strip did the Wall maintain its political effect: whoever wanted to survive had to arrange himself – in the Party’s “Hegelian” philosophical-ideological concoction; it was called understanding of necessity! In Zipser’s memoirs they show up as well.  

In the first weeks and months they held back, were on their guard about what and how much the Stasi files would reveal about their deliberate activity. Soon, however, they settled down, “historicized” the object of their devotion, and strutted again in public. When, for example, a critic held up to a prominent writer her onetime activity as an unofficial collaborator, 174 (!) faculty members of American universities got together to protest in a public letter (Die Zeit,  June 18, 1993) that “positive social reform approaches in the GDR had been disparaged.“ Regarding the author’s legwork for the Stasi, they said sympathetically, “we don’t have the comforting certainty that we would not have acted differently [. . .] in the same situation. Like many others at that time she may have seen in the GDR the only practical possibility of building a human alternative to capitalism. That she went astray when she got involved with the machinations of the Stasi, and deceived herself when she hoped for democratic reforms from the ‘Unity Party,’ one can recognize much more clearly today after the failure of this attempt than at the time in the GDR; however, it was not only the GDR that was characterized by calculated thinking or even political opportunism.”

Whoever thinks this way has, to paraphrase Loriot, either a corpse in the cellar or is off his rocker.

Nevertheless, this type of dealing with the GDR dictatorship is not surprising. Too many intellectuals of the 20th century before them had already succumbed to the fascination of totalitarian systems contemptuous of the individual. Working together on the creation of a “new man” was always more enticing than really achieving equality, liberty, and brotherhood for all citizens through the workings of democracy.


Zipser’s memories, awakened by the Stasi-reports, let the reader learn how the freedom and dignity of human beings and their right to “independent thinking and feeling” are the basic conditions for the creation and reading of literature. Because he regards with suspicion the totalizing view “down from above,” during his stays in the GDR he looks at events from up close. The episodes recounted are like “an endless stream,” moments that do not form a “constructed entity.” Although he cites material from files, regulations, and “procedures,” his book is not a documentary in the traditional sense, but rather a subjective examination of his achievement as an expert, scholar, and mediator of a certain chapter of German literature.

His portrayal comes at precisely the right time, in a situation in which – whether through thoughtlessness, ignorance, or intent – positions are increasingly spreading that relativize the injustice of the GDR regime (e.g., “. . . the GDR a small country with grey historic cities and green boulevards” the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of February 12, 2011 lovingly states).

Ultimately, all nostalgia also illustrates – among other things – the absence of knowledge and enlightening information. Thus, I hope that Zipser’s contemporary testimony may find application in political and academic education. The responsibility to “think differently” must not come to an end!

Heinz-Uwe Haus
August 2012

Translated by Cecile Zorach




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