22. Expatriation of Wolf Biermann: November, 1976

The expulsion in November 1976 of famous dissident writer/singer Wolf Biermann triggered events that brought the period of liberalization and intellectual optimism to its unofficial end. The GDR government had permitted Biermann to embark on a concert tour in West Germany that November. While he was on the tour, they “expatriated” him and did not allow him to return to his home in East Berlin. This unexpected and cruel solution to the Biermann problem prompted outrage among GDR writers and artists. Twelve of the GDR’s most distinguished authors (Erich Arendt, Jurek Becker, Volker Braun, Franz Fühmann, Stephan Hermlin, Stefan Heym, Sarah Kirsch, Günter Kunert, Heiner Müller, Rolf Schneider, Christa Wolf, and Gerhard Wolf) and a prominent sculptor—men and women who had previously pushed for more liberal cultural policies from inside the system—reacted by publishing in the West a letter asking the regime to reconsider its decision. In the days that followed, more than a hundred other writers and artists added their names to the petition. The leaders of the SED Party, at first surprised by this unusual display of opposition, soon returned to the offensive. The loyalist/opportunist majority within the GDR Writers’ Union was mobilized to condemn independent-minded colleagues, many of whom were then expelled from the Party. Those protesters who refused to recant were publicly denounced, encouraged (directly or indirectly) to leave the country, or even placed under arrest, as in the much publicized case of Jürgen Fuchs. By the end of 1977, such talented younger writers as Bernd Jentzsch, Thomas Brasch, Reiner Kunze, Sarah Kirsch, Hans Joachim Schädlich, and Jurek Becker had departed for the West. The GDR authorities, aware that the Biermann case had precipitated a major human rights crisis, insisted repeatedly that this confrontation would have no important consequences, that the less restrictive cultural policy endorsed by SED Party First Secretary Erich Honecker in 1971 would continue to obtain. A few concessions were indeed made, but in May of 1978 seven leading authors (Franz Fühmann, Stefan Heym, Günter Kunert, Ulrich Plenzdorf, Klaus Schlesinger, Rolf Schneider, and Christa Wolf) were excluded from participation in the national GDR Writers Congress in Berlin, evidently to prevent them from speaking out. In June 1979, nine “rebellious”authors (Kurt Bartsch, Adolf Endler, Stefan Heym, Karl-Heinz Jakobs, Klaus Poche, Klaus Schlesinger, Rolf Schneider, Dieter Schubert, and Joachim Seyppel) were reprimanded and expelled from the Writers’ Union. In addition, they were barred from making public appearances and from publishing their work either in the GDR or in the West—i.e., deprived of all means of earning their living as writers. And with the departure of Günter Kunert for West Germany in the fall of 1979, the list of GDR authors living in exile grew even longer. [For more information on the Biermann crisis, its major causes and effects, see William Treharne Jones’s review-article, “East German Literature, Problems of Communism (March/April 1978), 71-77, which I have cited in the section above.]