65. Nine Writers Expelled from GDR Writers’ Union: June, 1979

The Collin controversy mentioned briefly in the previous section, with rebellious Stefan Heym at its center, intensified in the spring of 1979. The SED leadership could not ignore his defiant transgressions and moved to punish him in a way that would discourage other writers from following his example. In May 1979, Heym was fined 9,000 West German marks for having published his novel in the West without securing authorization from GDR officials and for neglecting to report the income he had received in foreign currency. But this punitive move on the part of GDR authorities, meant to serve as a warning to all writers in East Germany, would only widen the divide that already existed between many GDR authors and the state. Eight writers—Kurt Bartsch, Jurek Becker, Adolf Endler, Erich Loest, Klaus Poche, Klaus Schlesinger, Dieter Schubert, and Martin Stade—sent SED Party chief Erich Honecker a letter protesting the persecution of Heym and other engaged, critical writers. In this letter, which was published in the West German press, they asserted: “Increasingly, attempts are being made to defame or muzzle politically involved, critical writers or, as with our colleague Stefan Heym, to prosecute. The linking of censorship and criminal laws is intended to impede the publication of critical works.” (Protokoll eines Tribunals, ed. Joachim Walther, et al, Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1991, p. 11) SED leaders viewed this letter as a provocation and breach of protocol, of course, and decided to crack down on the oppositional writers in an unprecedented way, to teach them a lesson that no one would forget.

On June 7, 1979, there was a special meeting of the executive committee of the Berlin Writers’ Union in the famous Red City Hall. The purpose of the meeting, which took the form of a tribunal, was to lend some legitimacy to the expulsion from the GDR Writers’ Union of Heym and eight other renegade writers—Karl-Heinz Jakobs, Rolf Schneider, Joachim Seyppel, and five of the eight who had signed the open letter of protest to Honecker (Bartsch, Endler, Poche, Schlesinger, Schubert).  These writers were accused of illegal actions that violated the laws of the socialist GDR state, undermined the cultural policies of the SED Party, and damaged the public image of the GDR and its government. This “show trial,” at which Writers’ Union President Hermann Kant had the pleasure of accusing and denouncing his colleagues, constituted one of the most shameful events in the cultural-political history of the GDR. In an unforeseen outcome, it firmly established Heym as East Germany’s leading dissident writer; he became even more resolved in his crusade for more rights and greater personal freedom in the GDR, and he had no desire to move back to the West. For more than a decade, until the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the GDR, he would remain a persistent and consistent critic of the SED Party and its policies.

What occurred at the infamous tribunal has been carefully documented in Protokoll eines Tribunals (Record of a Tribunal), which Joachim Walther and several of the GDR’s most famous authors (Wolf Biermann, Günter de Bruyn, Jürgen Fuchs, Christoph Hein, Günter Kunert, Erich Loest, Hans-Joachim Schädlich, Christa Wolf) co-edited in 1991. This slender volume contains documents that were discovered in the GDR Writers’ Union archive after the “Wende” (“Turn” or “Turnaround”) in 1989 and 1990; there are speeches and letters of some GDR writers accused of wrongdoing and GDR authors who came to their defense, as well as speeches and letters of some loyalist writers like Hermann Kant and some functionaries. Following are a few excerpts from Hermann Kant’s keynote address, “Wir lassen uns von unserem Kurs nicht abbringen” (“We will not allow ourselves to be thrown off course”), an angry rebuttal of the assertions made in the protest letter to Honecker which unveils Kant’s despicable character:

“With growing concern,” so the eight write – they are Kurt Bartsch, Jurek Becker, Adolf Endler, Erich Loest, Klaus Poche, Klaus Schlesinger, Dieter Schubert und Martin Stade – they followed the development of our cultural policy with growing concern. One is allowed to doubt the sincerity of even this first sentence, if one assumes that these authors would know how we react to letters that are made public via foreign satellites. Whoever uses Western press agencies to deliver his mail cannot expect that the addressee will read it without any suspicion—the suspicion for example that the letter writers are not at all concerned about the discussion with him, but concerned instead about bringing themselves up for discussion once again.

[ . . . ]

“Increasingly,” it is said there, “attempts are being made to defame or muzzle politically involved, critical writers, or as with our colleague Stefan Heym, to prosecute.”

One will have to give somewhat more attention to this sentence. Ultimately, it describes the direction of that “development of our cultural policy,” which the letter writers “are following with growing concern.” It goes in the direction of defamation, muzzling, and criminal prosecution, and increasingly at that. I find that defamation, in any case, is done by those who attribute this tendency to our cultural policy. And “muzzled” is certainly not the most accurate label for authors whose book publication numbers in the GDR land them on bestseller lists in the West. “Muzzled” is certainly not really true, if one can voice the most divergent opinions in front of hundreds of writers and if one finds discussion partners from Berlin to Oberlin in Ohio. Given the “travels” of this literature, the expression “muzzled” misses the mark. It is defamatory.

[I was astonished to find Kant’s reference to Oberlin, Ohio, in the above paragraph of his speech. Obviously, he expected everyone present to know what he meant—and I take it as a compliment that Oberlin had become so well known among writers in East Berlin and throughout the GDR, from the visits of Christa and Gerhard Wolf, Ulrich Plenzdorf, and Jurek Becker, and from my extensive contact with authors in the GDR.]

[ . . . ]

We also immediately see in the following sentence from the eight letter writers several defamatory assertions: “The linking of censorship and criminal laws is intended to impede the publication of critical works.”

The expression “censorship” is taken, ladies and gentlemen; it is not necessary to explain that to educated people. Whoever calls the governmental steering and planning of the publishing sector censorship is not worrying about our cultural policy, he does not want it.

[ . . . ]

Dear colleagues, I do not at all enjoy making angry speeches here, but one has to take on certain challenges.

Joachim Walther, in his preface to Protokoll eines Tribunals, comments on the purpose and Stalinistic nature of this tribunal:

It had the sole purpose of giving the verdict reached previously a pseudo-democratic appearance. The Party members of the [Writers’] Union were already brought into line beforehand, the majorities in the hall secured via the time-tested methods of communist exercise of power. However, the entire perfidiousness of the post-Stalinist cultural policy first becomes apparent when the accusers rise to speak—and with demagogy, hatefulness, and meticulously compiled insinuations the majority throws the nine ostracized writers to the wolves. (p.2)