Underground Anthology: Penpushers, Informers, and Censorship in East Berlin

By Jesse Allen

Edited by Elena Murphy

Image Credit: Graffiti on the west side of the Berlin Wall offers a glimpse into East Germany, 1989, photograph, https://catalog.archives.gov/.

He was sick, for sure, but he was sick in a very particular way, a way that allowed him to see more than others, that provided him with a special knowledge and an enormous wealth of impressions which he couldn’t give up.

Ulrich Plenzdorf 

In the letter sent January 20, 1974, by Ulrich Plenzdorf, Klaus Schlesinger, and Martin Stade, both established names and up-and-comers of the East Berlin literary scene were invited to pen a short story to be included in an anthology, under the working title Berliner Geschichten (Berlin Stories). It was up to the writers themselves to decide on genre, style, and the specific concerns they wanted to address in their work. There was to be no compromising their artistic visions. There were simply two constraints, one temporal, the other geographic; each story would have to take place between the end of the war and the present, and be set in the capital city of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The financial risk was to be shared amongst the participants, all of whom would have the chance to read each other’s contributions. Each writer would have an equal say when it came to important decisions and the freedom to withdraw from the project at any stage. Most radically, it was the organisers’ express intention that the anthology be printed without any changes or corrections from the publishing editors, thereby circumventing the state censorship apparatus entirely.

Unsurprisingly, the initiative came to the attention of the infamous Ministry for State Security – better known as the Stasi. An internal report from March 1975 describes a group of writers whose ‘ideological positions against the Kulturpolitik of the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany)’ would see them ‘struggle to have their written works published’ through official channels. This was an act of defiance. The anthology attacked the system of privilege and corruption which had taken root in the GDR. It lamented the narrow-minded and heartless dogmatism which fuelled the organs of the state. Most damningly, it exposed the supposed freedoms of East German citizens as a mere mirage, the kind that might only last ‘as long as a festival.’ It was clear to the Stasi officers that they would have to act; it was only a question of waiting for the opportune moment.

From the very beginning, the GDR had aspired to Germany’s historic epithet, das Land der Dichter und Denker (the Land of Poets and Thinkers). Literature was viewed as an immensely powerful socio-political force. Accordingly, the Party took a keen, controlling interest in its development and dissemination. Yet, the best writers speak to the problems and contradictions of the society around them – problems and contradictions which, according to the Party’s line, were no longer a reality under SED rule. From this tension arose an uneasy modus vivendi, a system of ‘repressive generosity,’ in which authors who adhered to the doctrine of socialist realism – and kept any critiques of the state to themselves – were rewarded and honoured for their work. Renegades faced censorship, imprisonment, expulsion from the Party, or even the prospect of exile.

Construction on the Berlin Wall began in 1961. Shut off from the West, East German literature turned inwards, entering a decade of marked ‘introversion.’ Many writers used their work to address the failings of their homeland. Far from seeking to undermine socialism, most authors believed that by critiquing the socialist state, they could help to reform it. However, the censors in the Ministry for Culture made no such distinctions, and the number of books which could not be published rose steadily over this time. 

In contrast, the early seventies were defined by a new optimism. Alongside a suite of other political reforms – including a ‘comprehensive environmental law’ and extended maternity leave – First Secretary Erich Honecker declared an end to all ‘taboos in the field of literature or art’ at the Eighth Party Congress in 1971. This message was reaffirmed during the Seventh Writer’s Congress in 1973, conducted under the aegis of the Writer’s Union (SV), the intermediary between authors and the Party. Plenzdorf was one early beneficiary of this paradigm-shift. His distinctly modern and critical novel, “The New Sorrows of Young W.” – which reimagined Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s classic in the GDR – enjoyed success in both the East and the West. Plenzdorf, Schlesinger, and Stade would later liken the subsequent period of literary experimentation to student protests in West Germany and the Prague Spring. Yet growing unease within the SED, fearful of where all this free expression might lead, prompted a concerted expansion of Stasi surveillance networks. In this climate of uncertain, but unmistakable optimism, three authors had decided to test the limits of their newly heralded freedoms.

From the moment Berliner Geschichten began to take shape, Plenzdorf, Schlesinger, and Stade were under no illusions that they would be able to keep the project’s existence a secret for long. Standing in their way was the ‘shield and sword’ of the Party, a meticulous, sophisticated, and devastatingly effective secret police force which permeated every facet of cultural life in the GDR. The Stasi presided over a vast reservoir of information. Its dossiers ultimately occupied around 180 kilometres of shelf space which it harnessed to suppress internal ‘enemies’ of the state. Indeed, Schlesinger already had his own file; he and his wife, the singer-songwriter Bettina Wegner, had been under surveillance since February 1975, as part of the directive Operativer Vorgang ‘Schreiberling’ (Operation Penpusher). The Stasi had already acquired a copy of the first manuscript by the time the activities surrounding the anthology were given the name Operativer Schwerpunkt ‘Selbstverlag’ (Operation Self-Publisher) in November of the same year.

Tapping phone calls and wiring apartments were common methods of surveillance, but the most insidious weapon in the Ministry’s arsenal was its expansive web of inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (unofficial collaborators) or IMs. These informers were the Stasi’s eyes and ears, tasked with observing people of interest and reporting back to their handlers. Richard Zipser, an American writer who briefly became involved in the Berliner Geschichten anthology, observed that IMs – while not on the official Ministry payroll – could nonetheless be rewarded for their loyalty with a range of privileges and favours. Operation Self-Publisher drew on an array of such collaborators who, according to an interim report dated to November 28, 1975, had successfully ‘infiltrated the close circles’ of the authors. ‘Andre,’ ‘Karl,’ and ‘Büchner’ were amongst those monitoring Schlesinger; the former was also in contact with Stade. Wegner had her own constellation of observers, among whom were ‘Vera,’ ‘Pergamon,’ and ‘Steinhopf.’ Other IMs were tasked with isolating the writers who had been invited to contribute to the anthology. A meeting report from December 15, 1975, details that the IM ‘Martin’ convinced Uwe Kant to withdraw his story and distance himself from the project and its organisers.

Thus, the Stasi planned to break up the anthology from within. Such tactics were the forerunner of what would come to be known as Zersetzung (decomposition) operations, wherein hostile groups were dissolved by sowing distrust and exploiting internal fractures – all without any overt action on the part of the Ministry itself. In a similar vein, the Stasi instrumentalised the SV in its war against the anthology. Another IM, this time the vice-president of the Writers Union, Hermann Kant, was key to this effort. Whether from political conviction or opportunism, Kant vowed to pursue the destruction of Berliner Geschichten ‘without reservation’, alongside other members of the SV leadership. Officials sought to convince would-be participants that the project was doomed to fail. One aspiring author was even allegedly told that contributing to Berliner Geschichten would spell the end of his literary career in the GDR.

Stade gave voice to the growing frustration of the organisers in a fiery letter delivered to the SV Secretariat on February 3, 1976. In particular, he argued that the accusations made against the anthology – that it was a danger to East German literature and an affront to the Writers Union – were ‘devoid of all logic.’ With over two decades of SV membership, Stade felt duty-bound to promote ‘new paths and methods’ of storytelling, and to express – in a mark of loyalty, not sedition – criticism of the party-state when it was required. In fact, it was those who sought to undermine the project who were the real traitors in Stade’s eyes. The Union had come to a crossroads: it could uphold its supposed purpose of supporting writers and fostering the kind of literature upon which progress could be built, or it could capitulate to the censorious paranoia of the Stasi. It seemed, Stade was sad to conclude, that for all the promises of 1973, the SV had definitively sided with Macht (power) over Geist (spirit).

One last roll of the dice took place March 19, 1976. In the rooms of the Writers Union on Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, Plenzdorf and Schlesinger – Stade could not attend due to illness – met with Kant and four other SV representatives for a final showdown. The two authors would argue their case: that writers deserved the freedom to create and publish their work unencumbered by state censorship, and that silencing critical voices was a betrayal of the principles upon which their state was supposedly founded. However, it swiftly became apparent that the meeting’s outcome was a foregone conclusion. If it was ever to be published in the GDR, the anthology would have to be censored, an ultimatum which the organisers simply could not accept. This signalled the death knell for Berliner Geschichten, and served as a cautionary tale for any errant writers wanting to challenge the strictures of the Party.

Therefore, hope gave way to disillusionment. For a time, the GDR was seen by many as the ‘better’ of the two German states for writers, and for artistic freedoms in general. From 1976 onwards, this fundamentally ceased to be the case. The Stasi now had a template for dealing with literary troublemakers which they would use to great effect. The name Operation Self-Publisher was, of course, a misnomer. The intention of the authors had only ever been to keep Berliner Geschichten away from censors who could tolerate no nuance or ambiguity. Far from serving as the basis for a political ‘platform,’ Schlesinger wrote that it would facilitate ‘a deeper form of artistic communication’ for its many authors, from which literature as a whole in the GDR only stood to ‘profit.’ The anthology which he, Plenzdorf, and Stade hoped to create may have been critical of the regime, but it did so with pure intentions; without addressing the problems of today, there could be no hope of a better tomorrow. Therein lay the power of writing. It was a power the Stasi could not understand, and therefore feared. For this reason, Berliner Geschichten was sentenced to become a mere footnote in the cultural history of the GDR.

Nonetheless – although it could scarcely have been imagined in 1976 – there came a day when poets and thinkers from both sides of the Wall were once again united. After two decades, Berliner Geschichten was at last published by Suhrkamp Verlag in Frankfurt am Main. It contains eighteen short narratives dealing with life, hope, and anxiety in East Berlin; none of which – for sheer intrigue and absurdity – surpass the story of the anthology itself.


Primary Sources

Plenzdorf, Ulrich, Klaus Schlesinger, and Martin Stade. 1995. Berliner Geschichten – ‘Operativer Schwerpunkt Selbstverlag’ – Eine Autoren-Anthologie: wie sie enstand und von der Stasi verhindert wurde [Berlin Stories – ‘Operation Self-Publisher’ – An Author Anthology: how it arose and was prohibited by the Stasi]. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag

Secondary Sources 

Gieseke, Jens, and David Burnett. “The Unofficial Collaborator: A New Type of Informer.” In The History of the Stasi: East Germany’s Secret Police, 1945-1990, 1st ed., 77–95. Munich: Berghahn Books, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qd0h6.7.

Goldstein, Thomas W. “THE ERA OF NO TABOOS?: 1971–76.” In Writing in Red: The East German Writers Union and the Role of Literary Intellectuals, NED-New edition., 69–96. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt1wx914w.8.

Herminghouse, Patricia A. “Literature As ‘Ersatzöffentlichkeit’? Censorship And The Displacement Of Public Discourse In The GDR.” German Studies Review 17 (1994): 85–99. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40574998.

Lewis, Alison. “The Secret Lives and Files of Stasi Collaborators: Reading Secret Police Files for Identity and Habitus.” In Secret Police Files from the Eastern Bloc: Between Surveillance and Life Writing, edited by Alison Lewis, Valentina Glajar, and Corina L. Petrescu, NED-New edition., 27–55. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt1kzccdr.7.

Lieskounig, Jürgen. “THE WRITING ON THE WALL: THE DEVELOPMENT OF EAST GERMAN LITERATURE.” Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, no. 75 (1990): 65–76. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41802615.

Quint, Peter E. “Confronting the Past: The Stasi Files.” In The Imperfect Union: Constitutional Structures of German Unification, 229–44. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rrrn.19.

Zipser, Richard A. “Reading My Stasi File.” Colloquia Germanica 39, no. 3/4 (2006): 367–82. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23981834.