54. 8th GDR Writers Congress: May 28-31, 1978

In 1977, in the wake of the infamous Biermann affair, a number of gifted GDR writers—Bernd Jentzsch, Thomas Brasch, Reiner Kunze, Sarah Kirsch, and Hans Joachim Schädlich—were permitted or forced to depart for the West. Government authorities, embarrassed by the exodus of these prominent authors, were anxious to stop the westward flow of literary talent. Hence, in a conciliatory move aimed at avoiding further adverse publicity, they granted Jurek Becker’s request for a special two-year visa, enabling him to move to West Berlin and visit Oberlin. However, the cultural-political atmosphere continued to deteriorate in the GDR, especially in East Berlin, and the liberal tendencies that were present during the first five years of the Honecker era (1971-1976) disappeared altogether by the end of 1979. The “Berlin Spring” ended with the expatriation of Biermann, and the ensuing public protests by rebellious writers and artists convinced SED Party leaders that a crackdown was necessary in the cultural sphere. In the spring of 1978, seven preeminent GDR authors (Franz Fühmann, Stefan Heym, Günter Kunert, Ulrich Plenzdorf, Klaus Schlesinger, Rolf Schneider, and Christa Wolf) were barred from participating in the GDR Writers Congress, not only to prevent them from focusing attention in that forum on the Biermann crisis and its aftermath, but also to send a stern warning to other writers.

The 8th GDR Writers Congress, which took place during my second stay in Berlin as an IREX scholar, was orchestrated to reinforce in GDR authors’ minds and have them reaffirm the close relationship between East German literature and socialism. SED Party loyalist Hermann Kant was elevated to the position of President of the Writers’ Union, replacing the ailing and frail grande dame of GDR letters, Anna Seghers. The theme of the Congress, introduced by partisan prose writer Erwin Strittmatter in his opening address on May 28, set the tone: The Responsibility of Writers in the Struggles of Our Time. He did not mention or allude in any way to Biermann’s expulsion or incidents related to it, nor did SED leader Erich Honecker when he addressed the 300 assembled delegates later that day. Kant delivered the keynote address, and in it he acknowledged the taboo subject of expelled colleagues. But none of the other speakers mentioned by name any of their departed colleagues; they followed Honecker’s lead. The Congress concluded with an official declaration of loyalty to the State, further stressing the role that writers were expected to play. In the end, the 1978 GDR Writers Congress simply reflected the cultural-political climate of the day, which did not tolerate open discussion and debate. The message was clear: GDR writers were expected to toe the Party line, be loyal to the State, and refrain from criticizing actions or policies of the SED leadership.

Siegfried Pitschmann, a prose writer from Rostock who had come to Berlin for the Writers Congress, certainly got the message. He and I had arranged to meet in the lobby of Hotel Unter den Linden on May 29, 1978, at 9:30 a.m., so he could give me the revised transcript of the interview we had tape recorded in Rostock back in June of 1976, for publication in DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter. Pitschmann was obviously intimidated by what he had heard Honecker, Kant, Strittmatter and others say on the first day of the Congress, so he decided not to give me the typewritten sheets he had brought to Berlin. The surveillance report in my file captured our brief meeting and conversation that morning:

9:35 a.m. a male person [Pitschmann] emerged from the elevator and looked around the lobby in a searching manner.
“Eagle” stood up and quickly approached this male person. They greeted each other eagerly with a handshake. The male person pulled several typewritten sheets out of his coat pocket and said something very similar to this: “I can’t give these to you, not the way they read now.  Changes have to be made. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to that earlier, and I won’t be able to do it in the near future either since I’m travelling to the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics]. The content won’t be changed, but the form and some minor details are in need of revision.” “Eagle” then indicated that he would be departing on the 15th, whereupon the male person replied that he would be returning from the USSR on the evening of the 16th. It could also be overheard that “Eagle” arranged to meet with the writer Pitschmann in the evening hours. After that the male person put the typewritten sheets back into his coat pocket and declared that he would finish correcting what he had written while in the USSR. They then said goodbye.

According to the surveillance report, Pitschmann and I met again that evening, at approximately 8:00 p.m. We sat at a table in the lobby of the Hotel Unter den Linden and had an animated conversation, presumably about his refusal to give me the interview he had revised before coming to Berlin and now claimed he needed to revise further. The report also mentions that Pitschmann gave me a book he had published in Aufbau Publishing House’s bb-Reihe (a series of inexpensive paperbacks) in 1973. It is a volume of his short stories entitled Männer mit Frauen (Men with Women), and Pitschmann identified three texts that he wanted me to publish in DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter. He inscribed the book as follows:

“Für Richard Zipser mit besten Wünschen für seine Arbeit –“
[“For Richard Zipser with best wishes for his project –“]
S. Pitschmann
Berlin / May 78

Pitschmann never sent me the revised transcript of our interview, which—given the way he had behaved during our two meetings in Hotel Unter den Linden—did not surprise me. I received a letter from him in the second half of August 1978, explaining why he had decided to withdraw the interview. The original text of that letter appears below, followed by my translation of its body into English.

Siegfried Pitschmann
DDR  252  Rostock 22
Stockholmer Strasse 4

Rostock, d. 10. August 1978

Dr. Richard Zipser
102 Shipherd Circle
O b e r l i n,  Ohio  44074

Sehr geehrter Herr Dr. Zipser,

nach langen und gründlichen Überlegungen, die auch mein – nicht aus Unhöflichkeit oder Nachlässigkeit geschehenes – Schweigen und offenkundiges Zögern erklären, möchte ich Sie so freundlich wie dringlich darum bitten, meinen Beitrag für Ihre geplante Arbeit nicht zu verwenden, das heisst ihn aus dem Buch zu streichen.

Zwar ist es richtig, dass ich vor nunmehr wohl drei Jahren ganz in Übereinstimmung, ja auf Anraten der Leitung des Schriftsteller-verbandes der DDR gerne bereit war, Ihre Unternehmung über unsere zeitgenössische Literatur zu unterstützen und Fragen – so gut es ging – zu beantworten – wie ich ja auch noch im Mai diesen Jahres grundsätzlich derselben Meinung schien, und doch sehe ich in der Tatsache, dass ich jetzt meine Auskünfte zurückziehe, keinen Bruch irgendeines Abkommens. Ich bitte Sie, die folgende kurze Begründung zu bedenken und zu akzeptieren.

1. Zwischen dem Erscheinen meiner letzten Arbeit und dem künftigen mutmasslichen Termin, an dem etwas neues in die Öffentlichkeit kommt, besteht ein allzu grosser Zeitabstand: es ist mir einfach peinlich, in der ganzen Zwischenzeit immer nur Theoretisches über Schreiberei abzuliefern.

2. Damit in Zusammenhang steht nach wiederholter Püfung die Feststellung, dass meine Antworten auf Ihre 14 angenehm konkreten  Fragen überaus “wolkig”, geschwätzig, also unkonkret wirken. Nicht, dass ich den inneren Kern mancher Aussagen – die ja lange zurückliegen – zurücknehmen möchte, agesehen davon, dass ich sie heute vermutlich differenzierter, überlegter oder modifizierter formulieren würde – aber ich halte sie nun einmal für völlig ungenügend und unnütz und damit auch irreparabel, zumal bei einer echten “Bearbeitung” am Schreibtisch die ursprünglich von Ihnen geplante Spontaneität zerstört würde. Und selbst das vorgegeben, käme doch wieder nur Gerede heraus, statt eines Literatur-Textes wieder einmal nur Reflexion über Literatur – und dagegen ist meine Abneigung inzwischen geradezu unüberwindlich.

Kurz: Ihnen sowie mir wäre mit einer – autorisierten oder nicht autorisierten – Publizierung kein guter Dienst erwiesen, und deshalb bitte ich Sie nochmals darum, davon abzusehen.

Ihrem übrigen Vorhaben wünsche ich trotzdem gutes oder nützliches Gelingen, indem ich mit freundlichen Grüssen verbleibe



Siegfried Pitschmann

Dear Mr. Zipser,

After prolonged and thorough deliberations, which will also explain my silence and patently obvious hesitancy that are not the result of impoliteness or negligence, I would like to ask you in a friendly yet urgent way not to use my contribution in the project you have in the works, in other words to delete it from your book.

It is indeed true that now more than three years ago I was completely in agreement and prepared, acting upon the advice of the GDR Writers’ Union, to support your undertaking on our contemporary literature and to answer your questions—as well as possible—and in May of this year I also seemed basically to be of the same opinion, and yet I do not think the fact that I am now withdrawing my pieces of information amounts to a breach of any contract. I ask you to consider and to accept the following brief justification.

1. The time interval that exists between the publication of my last work and the probable date on which something new will appear in the public arena is much too long: it is simply embarrassing to me only to be providing theoretical thoughts on writing during the entire interim.

2. Related to that is the realization, after repeated examination, that my answers to your 14 agreeably specific questions come across as extremely “cloudy,” loquacious, hence unspecific. Not that I would like to take back the inner core of certain statements which of course were made a long time ago, except for the fact that today I probably would formulate them in a more sophisticated, discreet, or modified way—but right now I consider them to be completely insufficient and useless and as such irreparable, particularly by substantial editing at my desk which would destroy the spontaneity you originally desired. And even by doing just that, the result would only be idle talk again, instead of a literary text, once again only reflections on literature—and my aversion to that at this point is virtually insurmountable.

In short: Publishing this material—with authorization or without authorization—would do a disservice to you and to me, and I therefore ask you once again to refrain from doing so.

For the remainder of your project I nevertheless wish you a good or useful outcome, while remaining with kind regards



Siegfried Pitschmann

Since I had the original transcript of our tape-recorded interview, as well as the tape cassette, Pitschmann was clearly afraid that I might proceed to publish it without his authorization. I did not do that, but I did publish the above letter in the section of the book focusing on him, under the heading “Anstatt eines Interviews” (Instead of an Interview). Today, with objective distance and the much greater knowledge I have about what took place at the 8th GDR Writers Congress, I can understand Pitschmann’s fearful reaction. I also realize how very fortunate I was that he was the only one of the 45 writers represented in DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter who decided to withdraw the interview.


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