2. Background: 1969–1975

Before I provide more excerpts from my Stasi-file, I should explain how I came to have one. During the 1970s, when I was teaching at Oberlin College, I spent a lot of time in the GDR, travelling and working on various projects involving writers. In those days, very few scholars from the United States were able to do research in the GDR, and no scholars from West Germany were permitted to work there. For most Westerners the GDR was a closed society, and it remained that way until everything collapsed in the fall of 1989. I first visited East Germany for two weeks as a tourist in 1969, because I was curious to see what the other Germany was like (to my surprise, mention is made of this trip in the initial report in my file); in the summer of 1973, I toured that country for an entire month. In 1975-1976, I had a sabbatical leave and spent much of it in the GDR working on a book project. In the fall of 1977 and spring of 1978, I spent several months living in East Berlin, supported by an International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) grant. During this period and during my earlier sabbatical leave, I was able to travel freely throughout the GDR and interview some 45 writers for a three-volume book entitled DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter: Wandel – Wunsch – Wirklichkeit (GDR Literature During the Thaw: Change – Desire – Reality). In 1985, I was invited by the USIA (United States Information Agency), to attend the Leipzig Book Fair and preside over an exhibit entitled “America’s Best: Prizewinning Books 1983-1984.” This was my final stay in the GDR before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

My interest in GDR literature was awakened in the spring of 1974, when prominent East German prose writer Christa Wolf spent six weeks in Oberlin as German writer-in-residence. She was accompanied by her husband Gerhard, a well-known literary scholar and editor with connections to many contemporary GDR writers and publishers. I spent a lot of time with the Wolfs while they were in Oberlin, and they introduced me to the GDR literary scene through selected readings and conversations. The Wolfs encouraged me to think about doing a sabbatical project on GDR writing in the 1970s and promised to assist me. In the spring of 1975, another prominent East German writer—Ulrich Plenzdorf—came to Oberlin as writer-in-residence. Plenzdorf and I became good friends that semester, and he helped me finalize plans for my sabbatical leave, a good portion of which I intended to spend in the GDR.

According to the plan I had developed with the Wolfs’ and Plenzdorf’s help, I was to prepare a book that would explore and document how GDR writing had been evolving during the regime of Erich Honecker, who in 1971 had replaced Walter Ulbricht as General Secretary of the ruling Socialist Unity Party. Amazing as it seems today, given what we remember about Honecker’s hard-line pronouncements and crackdown on writers in the late 1970s and 1980s, he ushered in a short-lived period of liberalization for literature and the arts in the GDR. The first five years of his regime, the “no taboos” period before the infamous expatriation of dissident writer/singer Wolf  Biermann in November 1976, may well have provided a model for Mikhail Gorbachev and the policy of glasnost (openness) he initiated in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s.

The objective of my book was to introduce readers to the leading East German writers of the day, especially to those who were shaping the new sociocritical direction of writing during the 1970s. Each author would be introduced by a bio-bibliographical sketch, photograph, and a personal statement about his or her goal as a writer; this would be followed by a representative text—a short story, poems, essay, or chapter from a novel—a  text focusing on some problem in GDR society that was of concern to the writer as a writer; and finally, there would be an interview based on a questionnaire designed to elicit each writer’s responses to issues in contemporary GDR society. The literary texts and interviews would become a cause for concern among GDR authorities.