94. New Hampshire Symposia for the Study of the GDR

The first International New Hampshire Symposium for the Study of the German Democratic Republic was held in June 1975, at the 320-acre World Fellowship Center in Conway, situated in the scenic White Mountains. This annual week-long conference, which brought together scholars from the humanities and social sciences with an interest in East German studies, continued without interruption for twenty-five years. The goal of its founder and principal organizer, Lutheran pastor Dr. Christoph Schmauch, was to have a gathering of scholars—primarily from North America, West and East Germany—who would discuss and present papers on themes such as “Das Menschenbild in der modernen Literatur der DDR” (The Image of Humankind in Contemporary GDR Literature), 1975;  “Images of Revolution in the Culture of the GDR,” 1976; “The Role of the Writer in the Socialist Society of the GDR,” 1977; and “Human Needs and Wants in the Socialist Society of the GDR,” 1978. The overarching objective was to promote world peace and achieve greater understanding through the formal and informal exchange of ideas in this pastoral setting. From 1981 on, the conference proceedings were published each year in the series Studies in GDR Culture and Society (Washington University Press of America, 1980-1996), edited by symposium co-organizer Dr. Margy Gerber, who was a professor of German at Bowling Green University.

I, along with a small number of other scholars with a serious interest in GDR studies, shunned this conference, even though I was invited many times to present a paper there. The reasons for my boycott were as follows: I thought the symposium was helping to promote the socialist GDR state and society in inappropriate ways, for ideological reasons embraced by those in charge and some of the attendees, and that it was not critical of the SED-regime’s oppressive cultural policies and human rights practices. My other main criticism of the event was related to the “Delegierungsprinzip” (delegation principle), which the symposium organizers allowed the SED to practice in a way that was mutually beneficial. By permitting the GDR cultural officials to designate a number of participants each year, the organizers ensured that they would always have persons from the GDR on the program, such as writers, literary and other scholars, and even various types of government officials. These persons, who were handpicked and uncritical representatives of the GDR, had an important assignment to carry out at the Conway symposium: they were expected to deliver a pro-GDR message and try to transform as many attendees as possible into friends of the GDR. Their main targets were what one might call “naive” symposium participants, professors from the US with little direct experience or knowledge of the GDR. The GDR propagandists and apologists hoped these professors would come away from the symposium with a positive view of socialist East Germany that was unrelated to reality. And, they further hoped that the “naive” professors would carry that positive view back to their home campus and into their classrooms, where it would be communicated to their students. It was a very efficient and effective strategy, inexpensive as well.

In the spring of 1986, when Karl-Heinz Jakobs was the German Writer-in-Residence at Oberlin College, I experienced an instance of what I consider to be compromising behavior on the part of one organizer of the Conway symposium, an illustration of how eager those in charge were to please the architects and administrators of the GDR’s cultural policies. Here is what happened. I received a call from a Germanist colleague who had a keen scholarly interest in Jakobs and his writings. He asked me if Jakobs might be interested in attending and participating in the Conway symposium that had been scheduled for June 20–27. I checked with Jakobs, who indicated that he would indeed like to participate, information I passed along to the colleague who had inquired about this possibility. This professor then approached the organizer of the symposium and proposed that they invite Jakobs to attend. The request was denied. The professor reported to me that he was told that inviting an oppositional writer like Jakobs would amount to waving “ein rotes Tuch” (a red cape) in the face of the GDR cultural officials; it would be an unnecessary provocation.

The program for the Twelfth International Symposium on the GDR (1986) lists five participants from the GDR, one of whom was writer Wolfgang Kohlhaase (German Film Academy-Berlin). The others were Lothar Bisky (SED Academy for Social Sciences), Alfred Loesdau (SED Academy for Social Sciences), Karl-Heinz Röder (GDR Academy of Sciences), and Reiner Saupe (Humboldt University). They all presented papers, including one by Bisky on “Aspekte der Kulturpolitik der DDR” (Aspects of GDR Cultural Policy), and some served as discussants or session moderators as well. Why, one might ask, was a repressive state like the GDR invited to send delegates of its choosing to the Conway conference, persons (and here I exclude Kohlhaase) who would present and defend the SED-regime’s point of view on various issues? Why was the GDR given this opportunity to get its message out within the US, not only at the symposium but also in the pages of the conference proceedings?

The Ninth International Symposium on the GDR was held from June 17-24, 1983. The “Call for Papers” lists the topics of twelve seminars that comprise the program and the names of the professors serving as seminar organizers. It offers some additional information that should be of interest, namely: “Registration fee, Room and Board for the whole week, all-inclusive: $170 (This fee includes a $10 charge for a GDR participant’s travel fund.)” Given the low all-inclusive charge for a one-week stay, it seems likely that some anonymous organization was subsidizing the conference. Also troubling, at least to me, is the $10 each participant was being charged to support the participation of one or more unnamed persons from the GDR.

I cannot move on without adding that most participants in the Conway conference were not GDR apologists or sympathizers. For many, it simply provided an opportunity to learn more about East Germany while interacting with colleagues who were also interested in GDR studies; for some it was a place to present one’s research in the form of a paper and receive feedback; and others viewed it as an unusual kind of vacation with swimming, hiking, and cycling in a resort-like New England setting, even if one had to endure the pro-GDR propaganda.