The Good Old Days

When the East German regime collapsed last winter, it did not come crashing down with a great bang. Power simply seeped out of the state apparatus, leaving the machinery intact but without enough energy to set its gears in motion. This situation lasted seven months—from December 3, 1989, when the Politburo and the Central Committee of the Communist party resigned, to July 1, 1990, when the currency and economic union went into effect and the German Democratic Republic began to be absorbed into West Germany.

During that transition period, people continued to go about their business, and bureaucrats showed up for work; but those in command had nothing to do, because the system had no voltage. It stood there, strangely inert, like a stage set or a ghost town. You could visit it, poke around inside its institutions, and interview the last of the apparatchiks, who would disappear soon after the GDR was formally incorporated in the Federal Republic of Germany on October 3, 1990.

On June 8, 1990, I took the overhead railway from West Berlin to the Friedrichstrasse Station on the other side of the Wall and walked into a Kafkaesque edifice at 90 Clara-Zetkinstrasse: the headquarters of the East German censorship. There, only six months earlier, a platoon of bureaucrats had been hard at work, vetting the texts of all the books published in the GDR.

Strictly speaking, censorship had not existed in East Germany. It was forbidden by the constitution. But every book had to receive an official authorization known as a Druckgenehmigung before it could be printed. The censors issued the authorizations; and they did not do so until they had gone through an elaborate procedure, which consisted of three stages: informal negotiations with publishers about works submitted by authors or works to be commissioned; approval of proposals for those works by the Central Committee of the Communist party; and a line-by-line blue-penciling of the finished texts by the censors themselves. Two of the censors, Hans-Jürgen Wesener and Christina Horn, offered to explain the mysteries of this process in a tour of the premises at Clara-Zetkinstrasse. I had met them a few weeks earlier; they had assured me that they were willing to talk and I was certainly eager to listen. Having studied the censorship practiced by the Old Regime in France, I wanted to learn how it worked in a modern police state.

Herr Wesener poured the coffee. We were sitting in the main office for East German fiction, a drab room furnished in plywood and plastic, like most of the offices in the bureaucratic wasteland of the GDR. They no longer vetted books, Herr Wesener explained. Now that the revolution had put an end to censorship, they tried to help the publishing houses put their affairs in order while preparing for the onslaught of the market economy in July. Not that many of the publishers would survive once books from West German publishers began to flood into bookstores in the East. Literature,…

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