103. Fragebogen: Zensur / Questionnaire: Censorship

My first sabbatical leave at the University of Delaware was in 1992-1993, and I decided to do more work on the topic of literary censorship in the GDR. The project I conceptualized in 1991 involved interviewing a large number of former GDR writers, a process that again was carried out with the help of a questionnaire and the postal system. My efforts culminated in a 341-page book entitled Fragebogen: Zensur. Zur Literatur vor und nach dem Ende der DDR (Questionnaire: Censorship. On Literature Before and After the Demise of the GDR), which the prestigious Reclam Verlag Leipzig published in the fall of 1995. In the foreword to the book, I provided some background information, set forth my objectives, and explained my methodology:

This book is linked to a project I undertook in the late 1980s, together with three co-authors. At that time our purpose was to examine the problem of “Literary Censorship in the German-Speaking Countries,” focusing on the period following World War II.  We completed this study in the spring of 1989—six months before the so-called “Wende” (turn in direction)—and it was published in two special issues of THE GERMANIC REVIEW (spring 1990 and summer 1990). In addition to serving as guest editor of both issues back then, I contributed the two articles that comprised the section on the GDR.

[. . .]

In the period following the “Wende,” I decided to prepare a more comprehensive, book-length study that would just document aspects of literary censorship in the GDR. The focus this time would be predominantly on writers who had lived and worked in the GDR until it collapsed in 1989, and they would be given an opportunity to express their views on censorship. Beginning with the academic year 1992-1993, I was at last able to dedicate myself totally to this project.

My book focuses primarily on a period of time encompassing the last twenty-five years [1945-1990] and is comprised of two major sections. In the first section, which is titled “Continuity in Change: Literary Censorship in the German Democratic Republic,” readers are introduced to the general problem of literary censorship in the GDR. The following issues, among others, are discussed here: Why was the practice of state censorship deemed necessary? What legal basis did the constitution of the GDR provide for it? What forms did censorship assume during the forty-year history of the GDR? How was it carried out, officially and unofficially, by various branches of government and other institutions? How did some writers contrive to circumvent censorship? In addition, the book delves into the sensitive and particularly difficult problem of self-censorship, the impact that censorship had on literary creativity and productivity (positive as well as negative aspects), and—last but not least—the question of how the writers perceive the censorial climate in unified Germany.

The second and much larger section of the book, which is titled “The Writers’ Responses,” gives the reader an insider’s view of how literary censorship functioned and how it impacted the writings and lives of the affected writers. In order to acquire firsthand information, I wrote at the end of 1992 and beginning of 1993 to approximately 240 GDR authors of varying ages and prominence. These writers represented the entire political spectrum that existed in the GDR, from the party loyalists to the so-called dissidents. I asked them to answer the following six questions, directly or in essay form:

1. How and to what end, in your opinion, did the various forms of literary censorship (e.g., state, ideological, juridical, and self-censorship) function in the GDR?

2. Did the practice of literary censorship influence your use of language, subject matter, or aesthetic position?

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

4. Have you ever practiced self-censorship? If so, under what circumstances and what motivated you to do that?

5. Which forms of censorship have you experienced since your departure from the (former) GDR or since reunification?

6. On the topic of literary censorship, do you have additional experiences or information that you would like to communicate here?

The reaction to my request was overwhelming. I received letters from over half of the authors I had contacted, and in the end more than 70 writers agreed to participate in my project. Some writers referred in their responses to texts they had already published on the topic of censorship (which are cited in the appendix to this book). However, a larger number of the contacted writers declined to collaborate on the project. The reasons for this were diverse. One could name, as an example, the somewhat understandable desire not to say anything that might contribute to further damaging the already tarnished image of the GDR. At times the suspicion was also voiced that my book would have to turn out very onesided, since the GDR and its writers would appear in a bad light. Many reactions also reflected the fear that the publication of an honest description of experiences with the GDR censorship could prompt former GDR publishers (especially those who had employed censorship abundantly in the past) to distance themselves from the authors in question. In some cases a publication also failed to materialize due to the plain and simple fact that I was unable to pay them an honorarium. On the other hand, some writers did not want to participate simply because they were angry about the developments that had led to the rapid demise of the GDR and then to the swift unification with the FRG. Many were bitter about the fact that they still had not found a publisher for their works in the new, unified Germany. Every letter that I received was informative [. . .]. (7-10)

The significance of this book, and in my view the same thing can be said of DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter (GDR Literature During the Thaw), is that it documents an important aspect of the GDR’s literary life and literary history. Also, it presents insiders’ views on how literary censorship actually functioned and affected writing in East Germany, at a point in time when all of this was still fresh in the writers’ minds. I was fortunate to be able to do a study that no one else will ever be able to do and produce a book that scholars interested in GDR literature and/or the topic of literary censorship should find increasingly interesting and useful.

Originally, a new and very small German press, Forum Verlag Leipzig, founded in 1989 as the GDR was collapsing, was going to publish Fragebogen: Zensur. In 1994, I sent them the completed manuscript, which the publisher assigned to a young freelance editor from West Germany, Thomas Gallien, who was working on several book projects for the Forum Verlag. In December 1994, Gallien was kind enough to inform me that the Forum Verlag had been experiencing serious financial difficulties and was likely to declare bankruptcy early in the next year. He was able to have me released from the contract, so that my book would not be tied up in the bankruptcy proceedings, and I would then be free to negotiate with another publisher. Gallien also worked on special projects for the venerable Reclam Verlag Leipzig and proposed that we try to place the book with them. He presented the project to the chief editor and executive officer, who were in favor of publishing my book, but it also had to be approved by the editorial board of the other Reclam Verlag in Stuttgart, which was in the process of acquiring Reclam Leipzig. The final decision was to be made at a joint meeting of chief editors and executives in late January, which was going to be held in Leipzig. One can imagine how happy I was when Gallien called me in late January and said jubilantly, “Reclam macht’s!” (“Reclam’s going to do it!”) Reclam hired Gallien to work on the book with me and he did a magnificent job. I was and remain deeply grateful for his intervention on my behalf at the Forum Verlag, for his advice and assistance, and for the support he gave me at every stage leading up to publication.

In October 1995, the Reclam Verlag sent each author who had contributed to Fragebogen: Zensur a copy of the book. I received letters from many of these former GDR writers, most of whom were pleased with the outcome of my project. However, one writer—the Halle poet, Heinz Czechowski—was angered by the complaining and whining some of his colleagues had done in their essays about the difficulties they had been experiencing as writers in the market-oriented publishing world that existed throughout unified Germany. On October 11, 1995, he had this to say in the first paragraph of a letter addressed to the Reclam Verlag Leipzig:

Liebe Kolleginnen und Kollegen des Reclam Verlages,

heute erhielt ich das Buch FRAGEBOGEN ZENSUR, das ich begierig – dabei Puccinis TURANDOT hörend – verschlang. Leider, leider ist mein Eindruck mehr als zwiespältig – müsste ich es rezensieren, würde ich es in satirischer Form tun. Diese armen Unschuldshäschen, die nun an der Marktwirtschaft scheitern. . . Ich glaube, verzeihen Sie mir bitte, das Beste ist noch mein Gedicht NACHTRAG, weil es in alle möglichen Richtungen offen ist und keine Antwort weiss auf all diese Fragen.

Dear Colleagues at Reclam Publishing,

Today I received the book QUESTIONNAIRE: CENSORSHIP, which—while listening to Puccini’s TURANDOT—I eagerly devoured. Sadly, sadly, my impression is more than ambivalent—if I had to review it, I would do it in a satirical form. These poor innocent bunnies who now are struggling as a result of the market economy. . . I think, you will excuse me please, that the best is in my poem ADDENDUM, because it is open in all possible directions and offers no answer to all these questions.

The poem “Nachtrag” (“Addendum”), dated November 26, 1994, which Czechowski references immodestly in his letter, has censorship as its theme and serves as a splendid conclusion to his contribution to Fragebogen: Zensur. It  summarizes the entire dilemma in which writers in the GDR found themselves and recalls one of the worst aspects of GDR cultural policy.


Ich bin aus dem Kontext genommen. Wieder
Stelle ich mir die alten Fragen: doch
Weder ich noch Gott weiss eine Antwort.
Der alte Wein in neuen Schläuchen?

Es fällt mir schwer, mich auf das Eigentliche
Zu konzentrieren. Was aber ist
Das Eigentliche? So fragte ich mich schon
Vor wievielen Jahren . . . Ach.

Es gibt keinen Fortschritt für einen,
Der sich verinnerlicht hat. Mein Leiden
An der Natur ist kontinuierlich: Ich
Habe vor der Zensur nichts zu verbergen.

Doch die Zensur existierte und existiert.
Keine Antwort ist auch eine Antwort.
Die Dinge haben sich sublimiert. Wer alles sagen kann,
Sagt überhaupt nichts. Stundenlang

Schreie ich gegen die weisse Wand, doch die
Gibt keine Antwort. Ein echoloses
Schriftstellerleben, wer
Erträumte es nicht? Jeden Morgen

Stehe ich auf, um das weisse Papier zu beschreiben. Doch wer
Kauft mir ab, was ich schreibe? So
Verzweifle ich letzten Endes doch
An meiner Fähigkeit, die Natur

Zu begradigen, und
Zensiere immer noch mich. Jeder Schritt
In meine mir immer fragwürdiger werdende Zukunft
Ist begleitet von Wörtern, die mir

Immer fragwürdiger werden. Und meine Fragen,
Die ich an meine Freunde richte,
Harren noch immer der Antwort. Allmählich
Verklärt sich mein Blick in der Verzweiflung.

Niemals eine Antwort bekommen zu können. Noch immer
Zensieren sich meine Freunde selbst.
Für ihre Vergangenheit, der sie brachgelegt haben,
Finden sie, wie auch ich, keine Sprache. Das

Ist es, was mich verzweifeln lässt
An meinem sich abwärts neigenden Leben,
In dem ich keine Antworten mehr finde auf Fragen,
Die längst verjährt sind, denn auch die Zensur

Hat ihre Sprache verloren. Geblieben ist aber
Immer noch diese vergebliche Suche
Nach einer Stimme, die sagt, was sie meint,
Und die dennoch gehört wird . . . (82-83)


I have been taken out of context. Again
I ask myself the old questions: but
Neither I nor God knows an answer.
The old wine in new vessels?

It is difficult for me to concentrate
On the essence. But what is
The essence? I already asked myself that
How many years ago . . . Oh.

There is no progress for someone
Who has internalized himself. My suffering
From the natural world is continuous. I
Have nothing to conceal from censorship.

But censorship existed and exists.
No answer is also an answer.
Things have been sublimated. Whoever can say anything,
Says nothing at all. For hours on end

I scream against the white wall, but it
Does not give an answer. An echoless
Writer’s existence, who
Did not imagine it? Every morning

I arise to fill the white paper with words. But who
Is going to believe what I write? So
I despair in the end after all
Of my ability to straighten out

The natural world, and
Keep on censoring myself. Every step
Into my ever more uncertain future
Is accompanied by words that to me

Become increasingly questionable. And my questions,
That I pose to my friends,
Are still awaiting answers. Gradually
My vision is transfigured in the despair.

Never being able to receive an answer. My
Friends still continue to censor themselves.
For their past, which they have left fallow,
They, as well as I, find no language. That

Is what causes me to despair
Of my downward trending life,
In which I find no more answers to questions
That long ago became invalid, for censorship

Has also lost its tongue. Still remaining though
Is this futile search
For a voice that says what it means,
And that nevertheless will be heard . . .