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, as it had existed under the old regime, was doomed.

But was there any reason to regret the old system? I asked. Didn’t it involve state control, ideological, policing, and all the fettering of thought summoned up, in a word, by “censorship”? Herr Wesener and Frau Horn exchanged looks. Clearly there was a great deal to be explained to this foreigner.

Censorship exists wherever there is a selection process in the production of literature, they explained. Most of it takes place in the heads of writers, and what the writers fail to cut usually gets filtered out by editors in publishing houses. The censors in Clara Zetkinstrasse actually eliminated very little of the literature that reached them—on the average, a half dozen of the 200 to 250 manuscripts that they approved each year in the field of current East German fiction.

Formally, they never repressed anything at all. They simply refused to issue an official authorization slip for an objectionable text. Herr Wesener handed me one of the slips, a small printed form with his signature on the bottom. It looked unimpressive, until he explained that it alone could unlock the machinery of the publishing industry. For no printer would dare to accept any copy that lacked an authorization slip, and all printing plants were owned by the Communist party or the state. Was it fair to say, then, that the process of authorization (Genehmigungsverfahren) and censorship (Zensur) came to the same thing, and that the GDR had actually developed an airtight system of censorship, despite the provisions of its constitution?

Frau Horn admitted as much, although she did not feel happy with the term “censorship.” It evoked too many negative associations in the minds of the uninformed and gave them a bad reputation. In fact, she thought that by authorizing books she had promoted them. Many of the manuscripts that she shepherded through the bureaucracy would never have appeared in print had she not removed phrases that were certain to provoke the wrath of the Central Committee of the Communist party. A censor had to be familiar with the sensitivities of the men at the top of the Party and to have an ear for language that was likely to offend them.


For example, authors who spoke of “opponents of Stalinism” were sure to get in trouble. She made them say, “contradictors of their era.” Those who made explicit reference to the 1930s might kindle suspicions that they were alluding to Stalin’s purges. So she changed “1930s” to “during the first half of the twentieth century.” A phrase such as “The air is unbreathable in Bitterfeld” was suicidal for an author. It had to go, as did any use of the word “ecology,” which enraged some top Party leaders. “Critical” was another dangerous word. It suggested dissent. When Frau Horn saw a phrase like “a critical discussion of Soviet history during the 1930s,” she changed it to “a discussion of early twentieth-century history.”

For even “Soviet” could be seen as a provocation, at least after 1985, when everything that came out of the USSR looked suspicious to the Central Committee in the GDR. Back in the 1960s, the censors had to beware of all things American. Kurt Hager, the chief ideologist of the Central Committee, had opposed the publication of a translation of The Catcher in the Rye on the grounds that Holden Caulfield should not be allowed to serve as a model for socialist youth. (They eventually got the book past the Central Committee, and it had a great success among young readers, even though Hager thought that East German youth was supposed to admire “winners,” like their Olympic stars, rather than “losers” like Holden.) But after the advent of Gorbachev, the Soviet Union became by far the most delicate subject that crossed their desks. In fact, glasnost and perestroika remained taboo in the GDR until the “October revolution” of 1989.

All this sounded fascinating but also puzzling. Did the censors understand their task to be the protection of society against corruption and sedition or the protection of authors against the ire of the Central Committee? And why did the Central Committee loom so large in their work? Frau Horn and Herr Wesener exchanged another glance, and Herr Wesener said that he had better begin at the beginning.

I should understand that he and Frau Horn were committed to two causes, literature and socialism. They had both studied German at Humboldt University in East Berlin; and like many students they had hoped to pursue their literary interests by working in the Ministry of Culture. Soon after the Administration of Publishing and the Book Trade (Hauptverwaltung Verlage und Buchhandel) was established in 1963, they found themselves doing what I would call censorship. They did it willingly, because they believed that the GDR, unlike West Germany, was committed to certain values: socialism, humanism, antifascism, antiracism. They thought it right to keep books like Mein Kampf out of the country. They were good Party members, and they sympathized with the Party line at the height of the cold war, even when it took the form of slogans such as “No coexistence in the realm of the spirit. Truth is indivisible.”

But they felt a tug at their loyalties in the 1970s, when socialism in the GDR seemed to be increasingly indistinguishable from Stalinism in the USSR. They rallied to the liberal wing of the Party and argued for reforms during inner-Party debates. They were appalled by the rejection of glasnost and perestroika in 1985. And when the protests of 1989 came to a climax in the gigantic demonstration of November 4, they joined the crowd calling for a peaceful revolution. By then, they had come to identify with the authors whose works they had to censor, and they saw their own work as aimed against their ultimate superiors—the leading members of the Central Committee, known in the censorship office as “them.”

I had heard a lot of talk about “them” before. Everyone I met from the administration of the old regime had struggled against “them” as an undercover liberal within the Communist party. If I had had the opportunity to interview Honecker about what went wrong, I am sure he would have answered “them.” But Herr Wesener and Frau Horn did not seem to be especially intent on justifying themselves. They were trying to explain how they did their job and how censorship operated in the GDR until its abolition only six months ago. Far from challenging the system, they accepted its basic premises and did everything they could to make it work. But what were those premises?

“Planning,” said Herr Wesener. In a socialist society, literature had to be planned, like everything else. He handed me a copy of the current plan lying on his desk. It was an extraordinary document, seventy-eight pages long, entitled, “Thematic Plan 1990: Literature of the GDR.” It listed every work of fiction that was to appear in East Germany in 1990, and it was accompanied by an even more interesting document, a “Thematic Plan Evaluation” (Themenplaneinschätzung), which provided a general account of the year’s fiction for the consideration and approval of the Central Committee. I felt a little dizzy, holding a year’s output of “literature,” for a year that had not yet ended—in fact, a literary year that would never exist—within my own two hands. To help me get my bearings, Herr Wesener and Frau Horn gave me a tour of the institutional context in which “literature” took place, and then took me through all the stages of the process that is censorship.


The organizational chart above is my version of the bureaucratic machinery in the Clara-Zetkinstrasse, which processed all East German books before the revolution. Erich Honecker, as general secretary of the Communist party, and Kurt Hager, as head of the Central Committee secretariat for ideology, set the general line of cultural policy. In principle, it passed through the Politburo and down the line of command within the government. In practice it was usually transmitted through the Cultural Division of the Central Committee to the Publishing and Book Trade Administration (Hauptverwaltung) in the Ministry of Culture, and Honecker and Hager often intervened directly in the work of the literary bureaucrats.

Publishing and the Book Trade consisted of four divisions. Two of them concerned the economic aspects of literature: the allotment of paper and printing facilities, subsidies, pricing, and the general supervision of publishers and booksellers. The other two concentrated on the supervision of the literature itself, one specializing in nonfiction and one primarily in fiction. The fiction division was split into four sectors, one of which handled current East German literature. Frau Horn ran it, working with five other specialists (Mitarbeiter), whose functions included censoring. Herr Wesener directed a similar team in the sector of foreign literature.

It may be that some books began as a twinkle in an author’s eye. But in the GDR many were commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, and many were arranged by contract between publishers and authors. About two years before a publisher expected to put out a book, he would submit a project for it to the Publishing and Book Trade Administration. In one of the offices at Clara-Zetkinstrasse, an employee located at the bottom of the organizational chart would reduce the project to an index card. Herr Wesener had thousands of the cards in his files. He pulled one out, a printed form on cheap, gray paper with twenty-one rubrics: publisher, author, title, press run, and so on, all of them squeezed onto a surface fourteen centimeters long and ten centimeters high. Someone had filled in the relevant information and, on the back, had written a short paragraph about the general nature of the book, a translation of a volume of lyrics by the Czech poet Lubomír Feldek, which was proposed for publication in 1990:

Thanks to his ironic and laconic verses, the author has made a name for himself beyond the limits of the Czech language. He is a sensitive observer of social processes, which he is able to evaluate from a committed point of view. This would be his first appearance in the GDR.

Once it had accumulated a year’s worth of dossiers and index cards, the office began to prepare a plan. The leader of each sector would bring together representatives of the Writers’ League (Schriftstellerverband), publishing houses, bookstores, libraries, universities, and the Ministry of Culture in a committee known as the LAG (Literaturarbeitsgemeinschaft) in the case of the sector for fiction. The LAG would approve every book proposal, rather as an editorial board does for publishing houses in the West, except that it spoke for all segments of the literary industry and had a sharp eye for ideological issues.

Back in their offices, Frau Horn and Herr Wesener would incorporate the committee’s decisions and its general observations into drafts for the plan. The plan itself was an important, secret document, which went before the Central Committee. It had to be prepared with care, by means of consultations among the specialists in all the sections and mutual criticism of drafts. In the end, the plan was the responsibility of the deputy minister for publishing and the book trade, Klaus Höpcke. Höpcke had to defend it before the Cultural Division of the Central Committee and anyone else in the Party, from Honecker on down, who might be offended by a book.

The Cultural Division consisted of about fifteen ideologists directed by Ursula Ragwitz, who, I gathered, was something of a dragon. Once a year, Höpcke would take the plan from each of his five sectors, and march over to “Culture” in the Central Committee, where he would do battle with Frau Ragwitz. The censors could not tell me how much blood was shed in these encounters. All they knew was that Herr Höpcke would return with decisions, always verbal and never with any accompanying explanation: Stefan Heym is out next year; Volker Braun is in, but only with an edition of 10,000; Christa Wolf stays, but only with a reprint of a work that appeared in West Germany last year.

Herr Wesener and Frau Horn then had to relay the decision back to the publishers. “This was the hardest part,” Herr Wesener explained, “because we could never give any reasons, when there was trouble with a book. All we could say was ‘Das ist so.’ ‘That is what they decided.’ ” There were ways of getting around “them,” however. When the Central Committee put off an edition of Doctor Zhivago, the staff at Clara-Zetkinstrasse came back with a report that a complete edition of Pasternak’s works was about to be published in West Germany. In order to protect the GDR market from clandestine imports, they persuaded the committee to permit Zhivago right away. They always left about forty places free in the plan for GDR fiction, so that they could squeeze in late proposals and have some room for improvisation. If they knew a book would be “hot” (“hot” was a catchword used in the office, in opposition to “quiet”), they left it out of the plan and slipped it in afterward. Of course, they always had to get clearance from someone in the Central Committee. But they could take late proposals to individual members and thus avoid the group dynamics in which the members of the Cultural Division tried to outdo one another in demonstrating their militancy by turning down books.

Finally, with Klaus Höpcke’s help, they got to know some of the quirks of Frau Ragwitz and her group. They phrased the plan in a way that would flatter the preferences of certain people while avoiding their “allergies”—for example, the unacceptable terms mentioned by Frau Horn, “critical” and “ecological.” Their basic technique was to hide difficult books in a mass of ones that presented no problems and to disguise the difficulties by neutral wording. Although the ideologues in the Cultural Division were wise to such tricks, they could not easily spot unorthodoxies in a document containing hundreds of plot synopses and thematic overviews.

When a particularly difficult proposal came to her office. Frau Horn would draft its entry for the plan herself, after consulting several veteran coworkers. They would begin with the question, “How much heat can we permit in the plan?” If a book looked too explosive for the current climate of opinion, they would postpone it for a year or two. “Let some grass grow first,” they would say to one another. But after putting their heads together, they usually came up with a formula that seemed likely to get past Frau Ragwitz, who in the long run desired nothing more than “quiet” herself. Newcomers could not be entrusted with “hot” items. It normally took them two years to learn the ropes—and above all to master the basic principle of the GDR bureaucracy: always keep your mind fixed on the positions above you in the pyramid, and always bend with the force of centralization.

I began to think that Frau Horn spent more time censoring the documents produced in her office than the books themselves. But she assured me that she also blue-penciled literary texts. Once the project for a book had been incorporated in the plan and the plan had been approved by the Central Committee, she notified the publisher, who notified the author, who completed the text. The publisher then sent the text to another writer or literary scholar for a critical review and produced a report of his own. Both reports came to her office along with the final draft of the book, and she kept them on file in case there should be a difficulty anywhere within the Central Committee, which could demand to see the text and the surrounding documentation at any time. At that point she began to exercise censorship in the strict sense of the term—a line-by-line vetting of a finished work.

How did a censor go over a novel or a collection of essays? Did she tick off items from a questionnaire or work from an established protocol? Frau Horn explained that she paid special attention to certain “sensitive points,” such as defense, protest movements, Church dissidents, and references to the Soviet Union. She never allowed statistics about environmental conditions or provocative references to the Berlin Wall. But she no longer worried when she ran across accounts of crime and alcoholism in the GDR. Such subjects used to be forbidden, because they concerned social diseases that were deemed to be peculiar to bourgeois society. But taboos had shifted in the 1970s—subtly and without any pronouncement by the state. She kept track of them by holding her finger to the wind, for censorship was ultimately a matter of “Fingerspitzengefühl,” or sensitivity to the ideological atmosphere.

It also seemed to be matter of protecting one’s own skin, although the censors described it as if it were above all an attempt by them to promote freedom by taking liberties wherever the system left them some room to maneuver. When asked if they could get burned by permitting something too hot, they explained that their procedures had built-in safeguards. They could justify their decisions by the reports they received from the publishers; they diluted their responsibility by spreading it out among their colleagues; and they were always covered by their boss, Klaus Höpcke.

They also covered him. They understood the pressures on his office, which served as a funnel for all the books produced in the GDR each year. If the Central Committee was unhappy with what went on in the office, it did not need to punish Höpcke personally. It could cut his allotment of paper. Paper was scarce in East Germany, and he had to find enough of it to supply the entire book trade, despite the competing claims of newspapers, magazines, and many other industries. Because they sympathized with Höpcke’s endless struggle for paper, the censors tried to help by keeping things quiet and by diverting the noise away from him. On a few occasions, they even approved difficult texts without informing him, so that he could plead ignorance if he were summoned before the Central Committee. Herr Wesener signed the authorization to print Christoph Hein’s outspoken novel Der Tango Spieler,* and kept the decision to himself, in order to provide his boss with what was known in Watergate Washington as deniability.

The book did not denounce the regime openly, but it showed how Stalinism insinuated itself into private lives, making victims even of people who did not oppose it and doing so inadvertently, more by bumbling and mishaps than by a fiendishly efficient program of repression. The main character, a history instructor at Karl Marx University in Leipzig, agrees to substitute for a piano player in a student cabaret. He is sent to prison, because unbeknownst to him the students add some political lyrics to his music. And he gets his job back in the end, because his replacement mistakenly mouths the wrong Party line while attempting to speak up for the regime during the Prague Spring.

Höpcke was willing to let a few books of this sort—the kind that kept their criticism implicit and wrapped in a protective cover of irony—seep through the bureaucracy and into the body politic. As a consequence, he became something of a hero, not only to his subordinates in the censorship office but also to some of the publishers and writers I met in East Germany. They described him as a hard-boiled, hard-line journalist who took over the Administration of Publishing and the Book Trade in 1973 with the worst possible ideas about imposing order on intellectual life. But the more time he spent battling the Party bureaucracy, the more sympathy he developed for independent-minded authors. By the 1980s, he had become an expert at slipping unorthodox books past the Central Committee. Two of them nearly cost him his job.

Günter de Bruyn’s novel Die neue Herrlichkeit caused so much offense at the top of the Party that it had to be withdrawn from bookstores and pulped—only to be reprinted with Höpcke’s blessing once things had quieted down. It describes the play of passions in a socialist rest home, echoing themes from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. But behind the sentimental intrigues, it exposes the system of privileges that set the apparatchiks apart from the rest of East German society. The novel’s antihero, a pampered son of a high official and an ambitious mother, withdraws to the rest home in order to complete his doctorate. There he encounters love, in the person of an undereducated village girl—and abandons it, in order to pursue the diplomatic career that his parents have prepared for him at the summit of the social order.

Hinze-Kunze-Roman by Volker Braun produced an even greater scandal, because it built apparatchik privilege into the heart of its plot, an account of the ideological give and take between a high party official and his chauffeur. The official is an obtuse Party stalwart, whose orthodoxies are undercut by the driver, a quick-witted and disabused man of the people. The East Germans did not have to look hard between the lines to find sociopolitical satire in the book; so Höpcke tried to orchestrate its reception in order to soften the shock. He made phone calls to well-placed friends in the press and even wrote a review himself. But someone within the Central Committee denounced the novel as an “intellectual bomb.” Höpcke was called on the carpet and given a formal censure. He managed nonetheless to hold on to his position by taking the blame and bending with the wind. And a few years later, at a meeting of the East German PEN organization in February 1989, he supported a resolution condemning the arrest of Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia.

Höpcke’s courage won so much respect among some East German authors that in the debate about censorship in the Writers’ Congress of 1987 both sides claimed him as one of their own—a “partner,” as several of them put it, rather than an opponent of literature. They simply disagreed on what literature was, or should be. To Hermann Kant, the president of the Writer’s League and a member of the Central Committee, literature was a social system, involving the Party, the Ministry of Culture, publishers, booksellers, reviewers, and all the other institutions mediating communication between writers and readers. To Christoph Hein, it ought to be an affair between writer and reader, and the intermediary bodies impeded communication: they were so many instances of literature “behind closed doors”—or, in a word, censorship.

To the actual censors, people like Herr Wesener and Frau Horn, the “closed door” variety of literature belonged to their daily work. And no one made it work better, in their opinion, than Klaus Höpcke. He worked within the intersecting circles of politics and culture, where everyone knew everyone else. If he thought a book might cause a scandal, he prepared its reception by well-placed phone calls to his former cronies in the press. Book reviewing hardly existed in the GDR, but books were mentioned in newspapers and sometimes on the radio or television. Höpcke knew how to determine the way they were mentioned, and to keep them from being mentioned at all. He could do wonders over drinks or dinner in apartments (the political elite knew better than to meet in restaurants, where the walls might contain listening devices and the waiters might be agents of the Stasi). It was a matter of knowing how to “speak through the flowers” (durch die Blumen reden), a game of suggestions and innuendoes which everyone knew how to play, because everyone had an interest in keeping it going, even the members of the Central Committee.

The game proceeded smoothly as long as the players could keep it to themselves. Occasionally, however, there was outside interference, usually in the form of an article in the Western press about some heresy that everyone in the East had managed not to see. Then the Central Committee had to sit up and take notice, Höpcke had to take action; and the book had to be pulped or the author expelled from the Writers’ League, as happened to Stefan Heym and a half dozen others in 1979. But no one would be sent to a prison camp. In fact, there was even a play element in the repression. When the Stasi officers mounted a twenty-four-hour watch outside Stefan Heym’s house, he brought a tray of coffee to them in their trucks.

The game also worked because the players constantly changed places. A top censor in Publishing and the Book Trade often became a director of a publishing house or a journal or even turned into an author and an officer in the Writers’ League. The career of the last East German minister of culture, Herbert Schirmer, typified the way paths crossed within the cultural-political elite. He began as a bookseller, took up cultural journalism, shifted to a publishing house, worked for a while as a free-lance critic and writer, moved into museum administration, and finally, having cultivated the right people in the Christian Democratic party, rose through regional politics to the top position in the Ministry of Culture in the coalition government formed by the CDU in March 1990.

To a Westerner, this cultural system looks like a monopoly, designed to make literature the preserve of a closed cultural elite. To the East Germans I interviewed in 1989–1990, it seemed less objectionable than a system driven by the profit motive. Herr Wesener and Frau Horn claimed that literature in the West suffered from a more insidious system of censorship than the kind that they administered. In their view, the Western publisher is a censor, and he desires nothing more than to suppress good literature in order to get rich on trash. Planning looks more rational to them, not merely as a way of allocating resources but as an agency of Bildung (cultivation). To its defenders, therefore, the literary system of the GDR derived its strength from the good, old-fashioned, Prussian qualities of culture and thoroughness. Those were precisely the qualities that made it so oppressive, in my own view. By mixing socialist doctrine with the Prussian bureaucracy, the East Germans had created a perfect system for stifling literature while at the same time persuading themselves that they were stimulating it.

But then I was an outsider. Perhaps it was impossible for me to get inside the censor’s way of understanding censorship. As I walked away from the Clara-Zetkinstrasse, it seemed to me that there was no escape from the system for someone who accepted its premises. Planning and Prussianism left little room for maneuver. But well-intentioned bureaucrats like Herr Wesener and Frau Horn made the most of what there was, and they succeeded in making some remarkable books available to readers. In fact, there was not one system, but two: a formal structure, where planning ruled supreme, and a human network, where people bent the rules. Those people had names and faces and something to say, not only for themselves but also for the strange world that they inhabited on the other side of the Wall.

Copyright © 1991 by Robert Darnton

This Issue

May 16, 1991