Berlin Stories: An Illegal Anthology Project

In November 1975, during my first lengthy stay in East Berlin, I became involved unwittingly in an illegal anthology self-publishing initiative called “Berlin Stories” (“Berliner Geschichten”). As I have mentioned elsewhere, officials at the GDR Writers’ Union were very suspicious of me and wary about the project I had proposed and begun carrying out on GDR literature in the 1970s. Therefore, the East German secret police (Stasi) were keeping an eye on me, monitoring and writing file reports on my activities, and also keeping track of the persons with whom I conferred and had contact. As I would learn many years later, my 400-page Stasi-file was a work in progress from 1973 to 1988.

A 15-page informational report in my Stasi-file, compiled from a number of unidentified sources and dated January 7, 1978, discloses that I first attracted attention operatively in 1975. It then goes on to explain why the secret police became interested in me: “ZIPSER’s 1975 stay in the GDR coincided time-wise with the activities of SCHLESINGER, PLENZDORF and STADE related to the realization of their ‘Berlin Stories’ anthology project, which was hostile to the SED Party.” I discover that on November 10, 1975, the Stasi had sent a report to SED Party officials at the highest level on a subversive initiative spearheaded by three oppositional writers: Ulrich Plenzdorf and his good friends, Klaus Schlesinger and Martin Stade. These writers were quietly and without authorization assembling an anthology of short stories to be published under the title “Berliner Geschichten.” Each of the stories was to focus on a societal, political, or other problem that its author was concerned with as a writer. The plan was to offer the anthology to an East German publishing house and to insist that it be published without editorial revisions—i.e., in its original, uncensored form. Furthermore, as I learned from informal conversations with and among the three editors, if the anthology were rejected for publication in the GDR they were prepared to offer it directly to a West German publisher, without the approval of the GDR Copyright Office. Many GDR writers had been asked to participate in this unauthorized and therefore illegal project, so before long the Stasi and the GDR Writers’ Union officials heard about it from some of their informants. Working together and using various kinds of threats, they were able to block this ‘dangerous and subversive’ self-publishing initiative in January 1976. Ironically, I was a beneficiary of their action, since several writers gave me the short stories they had written for the “Berlin Stories” anthology to publish in my book, GDR Literature During the Thaw (DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter, 1985). The section of the informational secret police report on “Berliner Geschichten” concludes with the following observation: “Due primarily to his connection to PLENZDORF and SCHLESINGER, one can assume that ZIPSER has received detailed information on this undertaking. After it was certain that the anthology was not going to come into being, SCHLESINGER demonstratively handed over his contribution to ZIPSER.” As I can recall, that is precisely what happened, but how did the Stasi learn about it?

My anecdotal Berlin story has a happy ending: Twenty years later, in 1995, Suhrkamp Verlag in Frankfurt am Main published a paperback edition of Berliner Geschichten. The anthology had three editors: Ulrich Plenzdorf, Klaus Schlesinger, and Martin Stade. The book also relates what had happened back in 1975/76 when three enterprising authors launched a bold self-publishing experiment that had to be stopped by the Stasi—yet another Berlin story!