89. Book Fair in Leipzig: March, 1985

On March 8, 1985, Cynthia Miller and I were chauffeured in a US Embassy automobile to Leipzig, where arrangements for the exhibit of the best books published in the US during 1983-1984 were already underway. That evening I met US Ambassador to the GDR Rozanne Ridgway, who invited the book fair team from the embassy to a gala dinner. Ambassador Ridgway also invited Cynthia Miller and me to ride with her to the restaurant in her US Embassy vehicle. It was a black four-door Cadillac sedan, long and luxurious, with American flags fastened to the sides of the front headlights. As we drove around Leipzig’s Ring Street with the flags fluttering proudly and attracting lots of attention, people stopped what they were doing and stared at the Cadillac. Undoubtedly, most of them had never seen an automobile like that. Another nice memory!

The next morning Ambassador Ridgway, Cynthia, and I attended the book fair’s opening ceremony and the reception that followed; there I met Klaus Höpcke, the powerful Deputy Minister of Culture in the GDR. Also present at the book fair was Eberhard Scheibner from the GDR Writers’ Union. Over lunch one day we continued our discussion of Helga Schütz, the German writer-in-residence program at Oberlin College, and the “Delegierungsprinzip” (delegation principle) I had been instructed to follow when we wanted to invite a writer from the GDR.

While in Leipzig I stayed in the drab, somewhat dilapidated Interhotel am Ring, which was just a short walk away from the Trade Fair House on the main market square, the multi-storied home of the Book Fair. When reading the file report on my activities in Leipzig, I noted without surprise that my telephone had been bugged: “As could also be determined operatively, ZIPSER attempted several times to make telephone contact with the holder of phone number: 32 39 43 Leipzig.” The file also reminded me that I had met (for the first time) with outspoken dissident writer and poet Lutz Rathenow, who was not permitted to publish his work in the GDR. After publishing his first book in West Germany, a collection of short texts critical of the GDR (Mit dem Schlimmsten wurde schon gerechnet / Already Prepared for the Worst), Rathenow was arrested in December 1980 and imprisoned for a month. Although he was under close surveillance by the Stasi, he and his friends managed to smuggle manuscripts into West Berlin and West Germany, to be published there. We had a dinner meeting that lasted several hours and were joined by Hans-Jürgen Schmitt, an editor with the West German Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag who had published several anthologies of GDR literature. For some odd reason, Schmitt is not mentioned in the file report.

As a result of the additional operative surveillance, it was determined that on 3/11/1985 ZIPSER met and had a several hour conversation in Leipzig with operatively known Lutz RATHENOW.

It was learned unofficially that ZIPSER characterized his conversation with RATHENOW, on which he took detailed notes, as very useful. According to comments ZIPSER made, their conversation had to do with books. RATHENOW expressed the view (among others) that more books by writers such as BUKOWSKI and UPDIKE [20th-century American authors, Charles Bukowski and John Updike] needed to be translated in the GDR. RATHENOW assured ZIPSER that on the part of GDR citizens there is great interest in the USA booth at the Leipzig Book Fair.

Before we parted company, Rathenow gave me an unusual present, a handmade book containing typewritten texts by eight younger oppositional writers who were unable to find a GDR publisher for all or some of their works. In the GDR and elsewhere in the Soviet bloc, banned authors reproduced censored and underground publications by hand and passed the documents from reader to reader. This clandestine self-publishing practice was known as samizdat; it was a key form of dissident activity, the purpose of which was to circumvent official state censorship. It was not without danger though, as harsh punishments were imposed on persons caught possessing or copying censored materials. I considered it an honor to be given an authentic samizdat literary anthology by Lutz Rathenow.

I had meetings with a number of other East German writers while in Leipzig, but these are not recorded in my file. I met Wolfgang Hilbig for the first time, had dinner with him and his significant other in the HOG “Paulaner” restaurant. Like Rathenow, Hilbig was a poet and prose writer who had remained staunchly defiant in the face of the oppression he experienced in the GDR. He, too, had been imprisoned for a short time in 1970, and later in 1985 he was granted a visa that enabled him to move to West Germany, where his career would flourish. Had I met Hilbig and Rathenow a year earlier, I would have been able to include them in DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter, but by March 1985 that book was finished and ready for the printer.

The report covering my activities at the Leipzig Book Fair begins with my arrival in East Berlin on March 6, 1985. This seven-page document is dated March 29, 1985 and labelled top secret. As one reads the report, it becomes apparent that the Stasi and the GDR authorities were interested most of all in ascertaining the “real” purpose of my visit to Leipzig. Other topics covered are the March 7 reception in my honor at Cynthia Miller’s residence; my insistence on again inviting Helga Schütz to be writer-in-residence at Oberlin College and my stubborn refusal to involve the GDR Writers’ Union in the selection process; and, surprisingly, my view of President Ronald Reagan’s arms buildup. Excerpts from the March 29 report are cited below.

Main Department XXBerlin, March 29, 1985

Top Secret5 copies made

No. 252 / 85


On the GDR stay of the operatively known American Germanist Dr. Richard ZIPSER

As a result of the operative surveillance of Dr. ZIPSER initiated during his stay in the GDR, in the period from 3/7 until 3/17/1985, the following activities and operatively relevant behavioral patterns of Dr. ZIPSER were observed. (personal data known)

[ . . . ]

As was learned privately and confidentially, ZIPSER made the following assertion regarding the purpose of his stay in the GDR: The actual reason is not his official assignment to serve as the person in charge of the USA booth at the Leipzig Book Fair, but rather the transferal of his contacts with GDR writers to staff members at the USA Embassy in the GDR. Over and above that, he is supposed to use his position as presider at the US fair booth to facilitate forging new contacts to GDR writers and introduce these persons at once to a staff member of the USA Embassy or make the writer aware that the Embassy is interested in having a conversation with him/her. And so, for example, ZIPSER asked an unofficial source directly if he/she would be interested in continuing their conversation with the American contingent. If so, he would then notify Embassy Counsellor Cynthia MILLER. Ms. MILLER would then get in touch in the near future and they could make whatever arrangements they wish. But ZIPSER would recommend that the source not visit the USA Embassy, which he says is guarded like a fortress. He would suggest that the source arrange to get together with MILLER and meet her “by chance” in a café. The source let ZIPSER know that this decision would be his/hers to make.

Since the time span of the Leipzig Book Fair, where he [Zipser] is relatively tied down, is not sufficient for the transferal of all the contacts he has to GDR authors, he is contemplating paying another much longer visit to the GDR this year, probably in the summer. He plans to combine this with the expansion of his own personal knowledge of GDR literature and writers. In his opinion there have been all sorts of changes in the GDR literary scene since his last stay. Writers who at that time were well known and played a major role, he says, are no longer there and have left the GDR.

In the meantime a new generation of writers has come of age; he would like to get to know them through their literary works as well as personally.

[. . .]

Unofficially, it was possible to learn the following about the nature of ZIPSER’s activity and this college in Oberlin. At the college in Oberlin, according to ZIPSER’s account, there is a foundation that is governed by a committee. ZIPSER is chair of the German Studies Department and has five colleagues. His department has also been assigned to teach Soviet literature. For this reason, two of his colleagues are said to be Slavicists. Each year they are able to invite guest writers from German-speaking countries. In accordance with this possibility they are interested not only in having German-speaking authors from the FRG, Austria, and Switzerland among their guests, but also GDR authors. Up to now that had always worked well, he says, so there were no difficulties with invitations and residencies of GDR authors Volker BRAUN, Ulrich PLENZDORF, Jurek BECKER. [Volker Braun was never German Writer-in Residence at Oberlin College. The initial reference should be to Christa Wolf.]

[. . .]

Privately and confidentially, it became known that ZIPSER—after consultation with USA Embassy representatives (presumably Cynthia MILLER)—commented in the presence of an unofficial source that, whether he wants to or not, he would again have to invite GDR writer Helga SCHÜTZ to visit the college in Oberlin because the committee insists on it, even if it involves provoking the GDR.

In case SCHÜTZ is denied permission to travel by the GDR, he says, this would constitute proof that writers in the GDR are restricted in their personal freedom, that the GDR is thereby violating human rights and forcing the college to fall back on just the GDR writers living in the West and former GDR writers.

The restriction and hindrance of travel by GDR writers and other creative artists would then provide conclusive and convincing arguments for the supposed proof of human rights violations in the GDR at the European Cultural Forum to be held in Budapest, Hungarian People’s Republic, in November 1985. [This gathering was linked to the Helsinki Accords or Helsinki Declaration, the final act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe held in Helsinki, Finland, on July 30 and August 1, 1975. Thirty-five countries, including the US, 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. Ten years after the signing of the Declaration it was Hungary’s turn to host—for the first time a Soviet bloc country—the European Cultural Forum in Budapest, a gathering of delegations from the countries that had signed the Declaration. This conference and earlier conferences held in Belgrade and Madrid were designed to monitor compliance with the Helsinki commitments. The theme of the Budapest event was freedom in culture and art, which formed the third “basket” of the Helsinki Accords. The conference promised to be an interesting one, since the censorship that was practiced overtly or covertly in the Communist bloc countries was contrary to the principles of the Helsinki Accords, thus offering an easy target for the Western delegations.]

[ .  .  . ]

In connection with a statement by members of the PEN Center USA, who in the beginning of this year spoke out against the space armament of the Reagan administration, ZIPSER was asked by a source for his opinion on the position of these USA writers as well as on Reagan’s arms policy in general.

With regard to that question, ZIPSER said it might well be that some writers or professors at his college are involved in this way. But there is nothing organized. He personally is not concerned about this issue. He is an academician and trusts that his government will ably solve the problem.

ZIPSER left the GDR on 3/17/1985.

The report concludes with four recommendations on how to control and monitor my GDR-related activities in the future, which are cited below.

For the purposes of reconnaissance and precautionary prevention of ZIPSER’s hostile plans and intentions connected with possible further stays in the GDR and the deepening or the addition of contacts with GDR writers, the following measures are being recommended:

1. Since ZIPSER emphasized, during his conversation with Comrade SCHEIBNER, that even in the future he does not intend to coordinate with the GDR Writers’ Union when inviting GDR writers to visit the USA, one should check and see to what extent on the part of the Writers’ Union the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can be informed about this issue, in order to prevent additional official stays in the GDR by ZIPSER.

2. Through the Main Directorate for Reconnaissance one needs to check and see to what extent conclusions can be drawn about the nature of Oberlin College in Ohio/USA, ZIPSER’s place of employment, in connection with possible undercover activities of this institution as well as about ZIPSER’s role there.

3. During ZIPSER’s possible further stays in the GDR, private or upon invitation of the USA Embassy, operative control measures will be activated and carried out.

4. In connection with ZIPSER’s assertions that he is not interested in questions of disarmament and in this regard has complete confidence in the Reagan administration, one needs to check and see if–through appropriate targeted comments by unofficial collaborators and in the Writers’ Union of the GDR–ZIPSER’s reputation can be so damaged that even adversarial forces will avoid further contact with him.

In an attachment to my file from the central archive, labelled Ministry for State Security, Main Department XX, 2 staff members, No. 976, Z i p s e r, Dr. Richard, 2nd card, there is an interesting note regarding the “real” purpose of my March 1985 trip to East Berlin and Leipzig:

Main Department XX/7/Info. 462/85, from 6/10/1985:  Z. presided over the USA publishers’ collective book stand at the spring 1985 Leipzig Trade Fair; while doing so he was supervised by Cynthia MILLER. ZIPSER’s assignment was to renew his personal connections and contacts with GDR citizens and introduce these individuals to MILLER. Furthermore, he was to siphon off persons from the cultural sphere and gather information on alleged violations of human rights by GDR state agencies, which is needed for the European Cultural Forum in Budapest where delegations from the countries that signed the Helsinki Accords will gather. (Central Archive 9721)

Clearly, the Stasi and the GDR authorities had concluded that I was working for a branch of the US secret service, but that was simply not the case. However, it is true and certainly understandable that Cynthia Miller was eager to meet some of the East German writers and artists I knew, and of course I was eager to reestablish contact with as many writers as possible during this short visit. While in Leipzig I had dined (separately) with two East Germans who worked at the US Embassy and were helping Cynthia Miller at the book fair, as recorded in the file report dated March 29, 1985, but this was not an attempt to siphon them off, as stated in the above note. Also, the assertion that I was gathering information on alleged human rights violations by GDR state agencies is based on an assumption that is not grounded in fact, but bold leaps of this sort occur throughout my file.


%d bloggers like this: