3. Meeting at the GDR Writers’ Union: September 11, 1975

Early in 1975, after my sabbatical leave had been approved, I followed the Wolfs’ advice and wrote to the First Secretary of the GDR Writers’ Union, Gerhard Henniger. In this letter I outlined the project I proposed to carry out in the GDR, while on sabbatical leave; I also requested assistance from the Writers’ Union and authorization to proceed. Eventually, I received a response to my letter from Eberhard Scheibner, the person in charge of their International Relations Department. His letter was short and noncommital, little more than an acknowledgment of my inquiry. He offered to meet with me and advise me regarding the selection of authors, if I were to visit East Berlin. The last thing I wanted, of course, was to have Writers’ Union functionaries tell me which GDR authors should be included in my book.

I travelled to East Berlin in September 1975 and met with Scheibner and other functionaries at the Writers’ Union headquarters. My file contains a report with detailed information on that meeting and the nature of my undertaking. The author of the report is Captain Rolf Pönig, at that time an intelligence officer in the branch of the Ministry for State Security with responsibility for monitoring the cultural sphere of activity in the GDR. The report notes that I requested the following by way of assistance from the Writers’ Union: first, a document authorizing me to conduct and tape record interviews with writers of the GDR; second, the use of an apartment in East Berlin, a base from which to carry out the project; and third, the home addresses and telephone numbers of the writers to be included in my book. In the end, the Writers’ Union agreed to provide me with one thing only, advice, but it did not attempt to block my project. In other words, I had its tacit support.

However, from Pönig’s report it is clear that the Writers’ Union functionaries were from the outset wary of me and the possible consequences of my project, over which they had little control. They were very eager to know the names of all the GDR writers I intended to include in my book and pressed me for that information, then asked me to provide them with a list. According to the report, I was uncooperative and evasive: “In the discussion Dr. Zipser sidestepped all questions concerning which authors he wished to include in his book.” Pönig goes on to note for the record: “After the aforementioned discussion Dr. Zipser did not return to the Writers’ Union and also did not hand over as agreed the list with the names of authors.”

From the beginning and concluding sections of this report, I learn just how important Christa Wolf’s and Ulrich Plenzdorf’s support for my book project had been. Without their involvement and intervention on my behalf, especially at the outset, I doubt that the GDR authorities would have permitted me to proceed with the interviews and gathering of materials for my book, a process that went on for more than three years. In his preamble to the report, Pönig writes:

On Oct. 13, 1975 the Secretary of the Writers’ Union, Comrade Henniger, briefed the undersigned on the following modes of behavior on the part of writers Christa Wolf and Ulrich Plenzdorf:

During her 1974 stay in the USA, Christa Wolf made the acquaintance of USA citizen Dr. Zipser, assistant professor of German at Oberlin College, Ohio USA.

After returning from the USA, she told the Writers’ Union about Dr. Zipser and said she had the impression that Dr. Zipser was among the progressive USA citizens. Therefore, it would behoove the GDR to support his project involving the publication of a reader on GDR literature.

As a result of Comrade Henniger’s consultation with Comrade Prof. Held, it was decided to grant Dr. Zipser advice and support in accordance with his request, if and when he calls on the Writers’ Union. Comrade Henniger also made Christa Wolf aware of this decision.

The concluding paragraphs of Pönig’s report contain some surprising and, for me, confusing revelations:

On Sept. 14, 1975 Comrade Henniger received a letter from the author Christa Wolf, in which she complained that despite its prior promise of support the Writers’ Union turned Dr. Zipser away. Christa Wolf sent a carbon copy of this letter of complaint to Comrade Prof. Held and an additional copy to Stephan Hermlin. [Hermlin, an influential member of the Writers’ Union, was one of the most prominent and powerful authors in the GDR.]

In Comrade Henniger’s consultation with Christa Wolf resulting from her letter, Christa Wolf explained that she did not personally speak with Z., but rather the state of affairs described in her letter had been related to her by Ulrich Plenzdorf.

Comrade Henniger explained that Christa Wolf called him several days later and declared that she was retracting the letter of complaint, because the allegations Plenzdorf communicated to her are apparently untrue and do not correspond to the facts.

Since Plenzdorf is currently in the FRG for the purpose of shooting the film version of his play “Die Neuen Leiden des jungen W.” [“The New Sufferings of Young W.”], it was not possible to have a discussion with him. During his 1975 reading tour in the USA, Plenzdorf spent some time in Ohio USA., among other places.

In the next meeting of the Executive Council, Comrade Henniger intends to announce that Plenzdorf lied to Christa Wolf.