100. Project on Literary Censorship in the German-Speaking Countries: 1987–1990

A topic that would come up frequently in my conversations with GDR authors, especially those who were writers in residence at Oberlin College, was the existence of literary censorship in their country, how it functioned and impacted their writing. Through these conversations I came to understand the various forms and subtleties of literary censorship, and I also came to appreciate the dilemma it posed for every writer living in the GDR. These writers were not able to address any topic of their choosing in their works, and they were expected to exercise restraint and remain within the parameters of what was permissible. The ultimate goal was to have the writers censor themselves, so that official censorship would not be necessary, and self-censorship was more prevalent in the GDR than most writers wanted to admit. In other words, the system worked well. Not all GDR writers cooperated, of course. Some tried to widen the parameters and wrote critically about taboo topics, such as the Wall, the Stasi, the SED party, socialism as it existed in reality, and major problems prevalent in GDR society. The highly critical writers, such as Stefan Heym, Wolf Biermann, Reiner Kunze, and Thomas Brasch—to name just a few, were considered subversive and not permitted to publish any or many of their works in the GDR. Some were able to publish their writings in West Berlin or West Germany, and in the late 1970s and 1980s many dissident writers had to emigrate to the West, where they would be more able to earn a living.

In the mid-1980s, Professor of German Inge Halpert, who was Executive Editor of THE GERMANIC REVIEW, announced that the editorial board was soliciting interesting topics and guest editors for special issues. I contacted Halpert and proposed preparing a special issue on “Literary Censorship in the German-Speaking Countries.” Halpert and the editorial board liked my proposal, which eventually culminated in the publication of two special issues of THE GERMANIC REVIEW (spring 1990 and summer 1990) on that topic.

The two-part series, for which I served as guest editor, explored the problem of literary censorship in the major German-speaking countries, focusing on the period following World War II. Four Germanists contributed to the project: Tamara Evans (Switzerland), Paul Haberland (Austria), A. Leslie Willson (Federal Republic of Germany), and I (German Democratic Republic). We began with Switzerland and Austria in the first issue, then continued with the FRG and GDR in the next issue. Each contributor wrote an essay discussing the various forms and consequences of literary censorship within a particular country. Each of these essays, designed to introduce readers to the general problem of literary censorship in that country, was followed by a companion article in which contemporary writers addressed the topic of censorship.

In order to gather firsthand information, the contributors asked a large number of writers from each German-speaking country to respond to a set of four questions (in German) on the topic of censorship.

1. Is literary censorship practiced in your country? If so, in which form (e.g., self censorship, state or juridical censorship) and to what extent?

2. Has one of your works ever been censored? If so, please describe the occurrence.

3. If literary censorship is practiced in your country, does it have any impact on the way you or the way your colleagues write?

4. Is censorship practiced when a selection of books is made for
public libraries and bookstores?

The contributors solicited responses to these questions from authors of different generations and varying degrees of prominence, either in a personal interview or by letter.

In the fall of 1987 and the spring of 1988, I sent a censorship questionnaire to twenty-five former GDR writers, persons who had left the GDR to live and work in the West. I had decided not to contact any authors living in the GDR, as I felt that sufficient and perhaps more accurate information on literary censorship in that country could be obtained from those who would seemingly have less reason to fear the possibility of reprisals.

In time, I heard from seventeen of the twenty-five writers I had approached. Some wrote lengthy letters explaining why they could not answer my questions on censorship; two agreed to respond at first, then decided not to later on. I received responses from nine authors, six of whom provided me with very detailed and insightful information on censorship in the GDR. A few writers chose to discuss their experience of censorship in both Germanys, and one described a unique form of censorship in the FRG that affected only former GDR writers who were overly critical of the GDR. The writers who cooperated by responding to the censorship questionnaire or providing other material were Wolf Deinert, Gabriele Eckart, Jürgen Fuchs, Wolfgang Hegewald, Karl-Heinz Jakobs, Frank-Wolf Matthies, Stefan Schütz, Joachim Seyppel, and Gerhard Zwerenz. Their responses, written in the first half of 1988, constituted part two of my contribution to the special issue, “Literary Censorship in the German Democratic Republic. The Authors Speak.”

At the conclusion of my May 1989 essay on “The Many Faces of Censorship in the German Democratic Republic, 1949-1989,” which was part one of my contribution to the special issue, I stated:

As the 1980s draw to a close, ideological restrictions on artistic freedom have again been relaxed and we have entered another period of “thaw” in the GDR. One can only hope that the cultural climate will remain warmer throughout the 1990s and into the next century. (Summer 1990, Vol. LXV, No. 3, p. 116)

About six months later we witnessed Honecker’s resignation and the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by momentous political changes in the GDR. However, my essay and its companion piece did not contain information on the situation that had developed during the six-month period after the fall of the Berlin Wall and before publication of the second special issue in the summer of 1990. And due to publication deadlines for this project, it was not possible to do the extensive rewriting and revising that would have been necessary to bring the material up to date. However, in an effort to reflect the dramatic changes that had taken place in the area of censorship, I decided to include letters I had received in the spring of 1990 from GDR writer Helga Schütz and stage director Heinz-Uwe Haus. Their keen observations on the disappearance of state censorship in the GDR, on the insecurity of GDR authors at that point in time, and on the uncertain fate of writers whose work would no longer be censored or supported by the state, provided an appropriate conclusion to “The Authors Speak.”


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