Literary Censorship in the GDR

Let me begin this piece by stating emphatically that the so-called German Democratic Republic was not democratic, nor was it a republic; it was a repressive dictatorship, whose behavior was similar in many ways to what the world has witnessed recently in China, North Korea, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Iran, and unfortunately the list goes on and on. Repression is the act of subduing someone or something by force or other means of restraint, in order to keep someone or something under control. Dictatorships use various means to maintain control, especially of those elements in society they view as hostile or oppositional. Surveillance is one of the means all dictatorships use to keep voices of dissent and opposition in check; censorship is another. Literary censorship is the topic of this snapshot, and I am going to explain just how it was carried out in the communistic GDR, what types of censorship were practiced there, and what the true purpose of censorship was. I also want to provide the rationale for censorship in East Germany and mention some of the things GDR authors were expected not to write about, the taboo topics.

A concise rationale for censorship can be found in the GDR Dictionary of Literary Studies (Wörterbuch der Literaturwissenschaft, ed. Claus Träger. Leipzig: Bibliographisches Institut, 1986, p. 582.). It explains when literary censorship is appropriate: “In socialist societies the publication and dissemination of printed matter is governed by the principle of centralized democracy and is the full responsibility of everyone involved (authors, publishing houses, editorial boards, etc.). Publications that endanger peace, the harmonious relationship that exists among people everywhere, the dignity of human beings, and social progress are strictly forbidden.” There was however another, much more important, unstated rationale: Through censorship and other measures, the state authorities tried to keep authors writing in a non-critical manner and thereby curb political dissent in the GDR. It is important to note that the constitution of the GDR did not provide any legal basis for cultural censorship. In fact, Article 27 of that document unequivocally guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press, radio and television: “1. Every citizen of the German Democratic Republic has a right, in accordance with the principles set forth in this constitution, to express his opinion freely and publicly. This right cannot be limited by the nature of one’s work or service to the country, and there can be no prejudice against anyone who exercises this right. 2. Freedom of the press, of radio broadcasting and television, is guaranteed.” (Verfassung der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik vom 6. April 1968 in der Fassung des Gesetzes zur Ergänzung und Änderung der Verfassung der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik vom 7. Oktober 1974. Berlin: Staatsverlag der DDR, 1989, p. 29.)

Since censorship did not officially exist in the former GDR, and since there was no official censorship policy in written form, how was it carried out? When the GDR was founded in 1949, the communist state authorities implemented an elaborate filtration system to ensure that all works of literature and other published materials would be ideologically acceptable, if not ideologically pure. The forms of state censorship, the filters that a written work had to pass through as it made its way from author to reader, were these:

Editorial censorship: An editor employed by the publishing house would read the book manuscript and recommend that the author make certain changes. This very informal procedure, which has frequently been called “pre-censorship” or “gentle censorship,” depended on a good working relationship between the writer and his/her editor. Once the manuscript had been completed and revised, it would be scrutinized by a committee composed of knowledgeable persons (including some professors) who were known to be ideologically reliable. Their job was to uncover some heresy that at other stages of censorial review might pass unnoticed.

State ideological censorship: This form of censorship relied on two state agencies, the Publishing and Book Trade Administration (which regulated the activities of all GDR publishers) and the Copyright Office (which was empowered to authorize the publication of works by GDR authors in foreign countries, such as West Germany). Strictly speaking, this is the first level at which formal literary censorship began and the level at which most of it took place.

Party censorship: Censorship by the ruling communistic SED Party occurred at every level since party appointees occupied key positions in the main censoring agencies, such as the publishing houses, the GDR Writers’ Union, the Cultural Ministry, and the all-powerful Politburo under the leadership of the SED Party First Secretary.

You might now be wondering, who were the censors? The Publishing and Book Trade Administration employed a small team of censors, highly-trained individuals whose love for literature was combined with a real commitment to communism. They believed that the GDR, in contrast to West Germany, was committed to certain values: socialism, humanism, anti-fascism, anti-racism. We know now from interviews with some of them that the GDR censors eliminated very little of the literature that reached them. Formally, they never censored anything at all; they simply refused to give undesirable books an official authorization to print (Druckgenehmigung). No printer in the GDR could accept a work that was not accompanied by the official authorization, and all printing houses were owned by the ruling SED Party. So in practice, the process of securing an authorization to print and censorship amounted to the same thing. Therefore, it is fair to say that the GDR had actually developed an air-tight system of censorship, despite the provisions of its constitution. And throughout its short history the GDR state demonstrated that censorship, if exercised properly (that is, with predictable unpredictability), can help control people as efficiently as prison bars and walls.

What did the censors look for when going through a novel or a collection of essays? Above all, a censor had to be familiar with the sensitivities of SED Party leaders and have an eye for language that was likely to offend them. For example, the censors had to beware of all things American and West German. Also off limits were references to military defense, protest movements, and church dissidents. Any unflattering references to the Soviet Union or provocative references to the Berlin Wall would be expunged from literary texts, as would references of any sort to the secret police and emigration to West Germany. Certain topics like alcoholism, unemployment, suicide, homosexuality, crime, pollution—things deemed to be nonexistent in the GDR—were taboo until the late 1980s. In making decisions about what to cut from a text, the censors did not work from a check-list; they were guided instead by experience, instinct, and a very human desire to protect their own skins.

The most important and insidious form of literary censorship in the GDR was self-censorship, what I like to call the scissors in heads. Simply put, the GDR authors themselves, using their knowledge of what was and was not acceptable for publication, would censor their own works. Although much has been said and written about the mechanisms of state censorship, almost all of the censorship in the GDR took place in the heads of writers. Many writers poured considerable creative energy into the game of outwitting the censors, and in the process they probably succeeded in outwitting only themselves. For it is clear, at least to me, that literary self-censorship was the ultimate goal of the censoring agencies. The system forced writers to censor their own works, consciously and subconsciously, and this is precisely what the state authorities wanted to achieve in the GDR—to make each author decide what was suitable for print and what was not.

Most GDR writers learned the rules of the censorship game by a process of trial and error, and many tried to bend the rules while appearing to observe them. Those writers who absolutely refused to play the game, or who insisted on playing by their own rules, faced a series of possible penalties and punishments. The most drastic of these included imprisonment, house arrest, expatriation, and exile—punishments reserved for the most troublesome and persistent dissenters. Serious offenders might also be denied the privilege of publishing or reading, lecturing, and performing in public. They and their families might even be threatened with bodily harm or openly harassed by the secret police, if they were too prominent to silence in other ways; this is precisely what Günter Kunert and Christa Wolf experienced for “misbehaving” in the late 1970s. Lesser penalties included expulsion from the SED Party, expulsion from the local and/or national Writers’ Union, the denial of visas for travel to the West, and the publication of one’s books in ridiculously small editions. Some of these punishments had dire financial consequences for the affected writers, as one can easily imagine.

The Case of Prominent Poet Sarah Kirsch

Let me now present a first-hand account of the severest form of censorial repression in the GDR, one step short of incarceration. The victim in question was Sarah Kirsch, the GDR’s most celebrated woman poet who was one of my favorite authors and my friend. She was born Ingrid Bernstein in 1935 in Limlingerode in the region of Thuringia, located in the part of Germany that after WW II became the GDR. I got to know her in the fall of 1975 when I was working in East Berlin on a major book project focusing on GDR literature in the 1970s that ultimately would involve 45 writers. The cruelty of the GDR government authorities was on full display after they decided to prevent Sarah Kirsch from earning a living by publishing her writings or speaking in public, in order to discipline and silence her for behavior they viewed as hostile and oppositional to the SED regime.

Sarah Kirsch, who—unlike her famous colleagues Wolf Biermann, Reiner Kunze, Jurek Becker, Günter Kunert and Stefan Heym—was never considered a troublemaker, would eventually become a nonperson in the eyes of the GDR’s cultural bureaucracy. Her sin was to protest, along with eleven other leading GDR writers, the government’s expatriation in November 1976 of dissident songwriter and poet Wolf Biermann, while he was on a concert tour in West Germany. Her punishment for this transgression turned out to be worse than the ones other protesters received. She was informed that her writings would no longer be published in the GDR, that she would not receive any more free-lance translation work, the main source of her income at that time, nor would she be allowed to participate in public events of any sort. Since Sarah was divorced, and since she had a six-year-old son, her sudden inability to earn an income soon became a major existential problem. Her solution was to apply for a permanent exit visa that would enable her to move to the West. She did that, but the visa was not forthcoming. The government authorities had clearly decided to make an example of her, so other writers would know not to follow in her footsteps.

Sarah lived in a modern high-rise apartment house on Fisher Island in the River Spree, in central Berlin. I got to know her in the fall of 1975 and visited her frequently that year as well as in 1976 while I was working on my book projects in the GDR. Sarah was a reserved, unassuming person who preferred to avoid the spotlight. We got along well and I enjoyed her company immensely. Happily, she took a genuine interest in the work I was doing which involved—among other things—visiting, interviewing, and gathering texts and other materials from a large number of East German writers. She was always eager to hear reports on my visits with these authors, also to hear how I as an outsider from the US viewed each of them and their works. I should mention that Sarah was romantically involved with a German writer who lived in West Berlin, a lover who would come to East Berlin periodically to visit her. This unusual across-the-Wall relationship contributed significantly to her desire to move to West Berlin, but for more than six months her visa application was ignored. Eventually, in the summer of 1977, Sarah was finally permitted to emigrate to the West and made the move to West Berlin. I visited with her that fall and asked how she had managed to get the visa. I was so desperate, she said, that I finally decided to appeal directly to SED Party leader Erich Honecker. I wrote him a letter and told him that I had applied for a permanent exit visa more than six months ago, but—despite my repeated inquiries—had not yet received a response. I said that I desperately needed his help and wanted him to intervene soon, very soon. I emphasized that this was an urgent life-and-death matter and concluded by asking him to keep in mind that my apartment was located on the seventeenth floor. Honecker then intervened, presumably because of her veiled threat of suicide, and her visa application was approved right away. In August 1977, Sarah Kirsch and her son Moritz relocated to West Berlin, without any fanfare.

Volker Braun, a prominent East German writer and close friend of Sarah Kirsch, memorialized her desperate flight to West Berlin in one stanza of his 1978 poem, Lake Müggel (Der Müggelsee): “and Sarah leaps over the Wall / From the seventeenth floor, her Love- / Song full of ravens! Ravens! / Black, under water.” Black as midnight, raven symbolism and meaning is often associated with death and the underworld. But here it signals that something is about to transform Sarah Kirsch’s life. Whether positive or negative, the impending transformation is certain to be dramatic. So the ravens, fierce protectors, are there to help guide her safely through the fray.


For detailed information on the forms and function of literary censorship in the GDR, see Fragebogen: Zensur. Zur Literatur vor und nach dem Ende der DDR, ed. Richard A. Zipser (Leipzig: Reclam, 1995. 341 pp.). This documentary work contains a critical introduction and interviews with 70 former GDR writers on the topic of literary censorship. All of the interviews were conducted in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of the two Germanys. Also, see Literary Censorship in the German-Speaking Countries, a special issue of The Germanic Review, ed. Richard A. Zipser. Part Two: Literary Censorship in the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic (Summer 1990, Vol. 65, No. 3, 97-131). This volume contains my essay on “The Many Faces of Censorship in the German Democratic Republic, 1949-1989,” also essays by and interviews with 11 GDR writers from the late 1980s and 1990, with observations from the period before the reunification of Germany. Most of these authors had already left the GDR and moved to the West, so they were not constrained in any way by the prevailing East German restrictions on open discourse.