Below is the complete text of a five-page report, prepared by the poet Uwe Berger, on my June 2 meeting with him at his home. “Main Department XX/7” appears in the upper left corner.
During the visit I had today (June 2, 1976) from Dr. Richard Zipser, assistant professor of contemporary German literature at Oberlin College, Ohio, USA, I was able to obtain some information and disclosures.
With regard to his current project, Zipser told me this: He wants to present 35 GDR authors in a publication containing an introduction, biographies, original texts in German (generated after the 8th Party Congress), and interviews. Originally, he only wanted to include 10-20 authors, but after consultation with our Writers’ Union he had to enlarge the circle. Literally: “What kind of consultation is that anyhow, with persons who know virtually nothing about literature and are not writers. All right—I will let them advise me and then do what I want.”
Zipser was cautious, but I got him to divulge what he meant by that. His book is not supposed to include assessments and judgments. But some authors—he did not want to name them, apparently prose writers Scheibner recommended like Görlich and Neutsch—had given him such bad, boring texts that these instantly stood out. He also talked about the wide variety of responses to his questions and described this as something positive, but I perceived his effort to focus here on deeper contradictions. Of course, everything without any evaluation on his part, just in the words of the authors, purely documentary, etc.
By the way, tips from authors about their peers have been very valuable to him, as with Schlesinger and me (from Sarah Kirsch).
On June 3, Zipser plans to meet with Volker Braun and Stefan Heym. Furthermore, he intends to have conversations with Christa Wolf, Günter Kunert, Rolf Schneider and other writers. He has surely already spoken with Berger, Fühmann, Hermlin, Jakobs, R. Kirsch, S. Kirsch, Kunze, Mickel, Morgner, Neutsch, Panitz, Plenzdorf, M. W. Schulz, Schütz, Wiens and Gerhard Wolf, who is making an original contribution—an essay on GDR poetry in the 1970s (so, evaluation after all). [Gerhard Wolf is not among the authors included in this book.] In addition, the names Becker, Claudius, Endler, Görlich, Hacks, Kant, H. Müller, Pitschmann, Schlesinger, Seghers, Erwin and Eva Strittmatter were mentioned.
Zipser said he wanted to find a publisher in the USA for his book, possibly a publisher associated with a prominent university (Harvard). If that doesn’t work out, he will approach a publisher he knows in Switzerland. The FRG is out of the question. I said that I am confident he will prevail. He murmured: “That could become difficult.” He immediately revoked that comment: apparently, he regretted having made it.
Zipser brought up the 9th Party Congress early on, when he spoke about the time frame of his publication. I asked if he had been able to concern himself with that as yet and what his impression was. He replied that he was only able to read up on it in the Spiegel. [This is a German news magazine that was published in West Germany and not available in the GDR.] However, in conversations with a number of GDR citizens, and not just writers, he encountered disappointment and resignation. People assume that their standard of living will not continue to develop as it has in the last ten years and above all, to be specific, because this does not please the Soviet Union which commands stiff prices from the GDR for energy. That causes “frustrations” and, consequently, conflicts. GDR citizens may be proud of their socialism, but they still have remained quite German, hardworking and proficient. And they don’t want to be cheated out of the fruits of their labor. For Zipser, the solid German way of doing things and this East European brand of socialism are also incompatible. The Germans have to remember who they are.
Zipser spoke as if he had not yet read my responses to the questionnaire he sent me some weeks ago. I replied to him in a soft voice and friendly way, seemingly thinking more about his tirades, that it remains to be seen how the standard of living will progress. Also, saying that one could view socialism in the GDR as a successful experiment for socialism in a Western European country. There are conflicts and disparities in the level of development in the capitalist world as well, so that is probably a principle of life. And by the way, I am against German isolation, this nationalism we had pushed to such an extreme in the past, and also against isolation toward the West (this last assertion to win him over again). Later Zipser declared that Helsinki was detrimental. I asked innocently, why; after all, Helsinki was positive. Zipser: “In and of itself, yes. But the Eastern Bloc exploits Helsinki, does not adhere to it, seeks to gain advantages for itself.” I showed my lack of understanding and Zipser backed off, apparently regretting that he had revealed so much. [Regarding the references to Helsinki above: The Helsinki Final Act, Helsinki Accords, or Helsinki Declaration was the final act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, held in Helsinki, Finland, between July 30 and August 1, 1975. Thirty-five states, including the United States, the Soviet Union, the Federal Republic of Germany, and the German Democratic Republic, signed the declaration in an attempt to improve relations between Communist Bloc and Western nations.]
Of further importance, it seems to me, is what Zipser had to say during our four-hour conversation about Heym’s book, Five Days in June: namely, it is not a book that confronts the GDR; yes, it criticizes, but provides constructive criticism in terms of socialism; it could foster a “Communication between Top and Bottom” in today’s GDR society. Publishing it in the GDR could only stimulate independent thinking.
I replied that we are very in favor of independent thinking. This is a stated pedagogical goal of our school system. In my opinion, real thinking does not end in solipsism, but rather in the perception of what is general and what is common.
Zipser agreed with me, arguing however that one also has to teach young people to have a critical relationship to the world around them. I replied, asking if he does that at his college. Immediately after that came the surprising, rather emphatic answer: “When my students graduate from college, they are thinking human beings who are opposed to the Vietnam War, who say to themselves that one must be in favor of socialism.” Prior to this, Zipser had explained to me that in the USA countries like Sweden and Austria are also considered to be socialist countries.
When I asked Zipser for his opinion on why people in the USA, but not in the FRG, were interested in my writings, he avoided answering. The things I write about were difficult to sell and were seldom translated. I expressed my desire to emerge from a certain isolation; even in the Soviet Union none of my books has been translated yet. Zipser replied that, without flattering me, he was surprised to hear that. He had been taken with my writings when he first read them recently and also wants to contribute in a modest way to making them well-known.
Zipser is not an Austrian, he is a native-born US citizen. He speaks very good German with an American accent. I estimate that he is 35 years old. He has studied in Freiburg, Munich [Mainz, not Munich] and Vienna. He has a pretty good knowledge of the literature of German-speaking countries and is a relatively serious scholar. His devious propaganda, the direction of which he revealed to me, is therefore all the more forbidding. Not to be underestimated as well, on its own, is the psychological impact when a bright, friendly man “from over there” takes a fervent interest in an author. As he said: “I visited with Rainer Kirsch for days.” Or: “Christa Wolf and I always have such pleasant chats that we don’t get right down to business.” Naturally, the “multifaceted picture of GDR literature” that Zipser wants to present in a nonjudgmental way will not be truly objective. Naturally, he will try to cobble together a broadly-based rebellion, and somehow label those who do not fit in. Nevertheless, the advantage for us would remain having a voice abroad, albeit only in German and thus just for specialists.
We must not attach all too much importance to Zipser’s commitment to “fairness,” remarkable as it is in itself. Tape recorded interviews were conducted with about 10 authors, among others with Hermlin, Kunze, Wiens, the transcriptions of which are to be presented to the authors. At the end of his visit with me Zipser pointed to his large knapsack and remarked that today he also had a tape recorder with him. It is not impossible, it seems to me, that at some time it will be secretly running in somebody’s place.
Regarding Oberlin College, I learned additionally that there is a foundation there, which provides funds for inviting writers from German-speaking countries (with one exception up to now they all came from the FRG and Austria). Zipser has, in his own words, “academic freedom,” which means that the content of his courses is of his own choosing, not dictated to him, although he has to discuss his general concept with his supervisors.
Zipser didn’t want to admit to a special fondness for certain GDR authors, with the exception of Sarah Kirsch and me, which for certain was a tactical act of politeness. In our conversation his affinity to authors at the “right of center” (as Zipser stated at one point) became quite apparent to me, hence to Plenzdorf and the Wolfs, to Rainer Kirsch, Mickel and Endler (“great ability”), Kunert, Kunze (“very interesting”), Hacks and Müller (“pillars of GDR dramatic art”). Personally, he was impessed by Hermlin, Fühmann, Wiens. On the whole, he has a higher regard for the poetry than the prose of the GDR.
Before I departed, IMV “Uwe” gave me a volume of his poetry entitled Lächeln im Flug (Smiling in Flight, 1975) and inscribed it as follows:
For Dr. Richard Zipser
as a memento of
which for me was
6/2/1976 Uwe Berger