Although communist and capitalist societies have divergent ideologies and goals, they have some things in common that are essential to their survival and success. One thing both societies need is an army of bureaucrats who are dedicated to keeping the machinery of government running as smoothly as possible within the parameters of the prevailing political direction. Put simply, their job is to keep the train on the tracks by enforcing existing policies and regulations. They are, for the most part, unelected public servants who have been appointed by the politicians in power to various posts within the governmental apparatus. These subordinate bureaucrats also have a great deal of power; their clout is derived from that of their masters, who are in fact the elite ruling class. Working primarily behind the scenes, they are able to exert influence in various ways. When regime change occurs, for example when a new president is elected in the US, these government officials often remain in their positions and continue to function as before. The names of most of these obscure but powerful functionaries are unknown to the general public, but they are entrenched and can be difficult to dislodge.
Writers’ Union of the German Democratic Republic
My introduction to governmental bureaucracy in East Germany came via a mid-level functionary in the Writers’ Union of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Eberhard Scheibner, who was in charge of that association’s Department of International Relations. My interactions with Comrade Scheibner—business-related correspondence and meetings—would span a period of eleven years. Scheibner was a loyal servant of the communist regime, so it came as no surprise when I saw the large amount of material he had contributed to my Stasi-file, directly and indirectly.
Early in 1975, as I was beginning to prepare for my first sabbatical leave at Oberlin College, I wrote to the First Secretary of the GDR Writers’ Union, Gerhard Henniger. In this letter I outlined the project I proposed to carry out in the GDR during my one-year leave; I also requested assistance from the Writers’ Union and their authorization to proceed. Eventually, I received a response to my letter from Eberhard Scheibner, the person tasked with handling international inquiries like mine. His letter was short and noncommital, little more than an acknowledgment of my inquiry. He offered to meet with me and advise me regarding the selection of authors, if I were to visit East Berlin. The last thing I wanted, of course, was to have Writers’ Union functionaries tell me which GDR authors should be included in my book. But, over the years Scheibner tried time and again to influence me, at times in threatening ways, in order to steer me and my work in the direction that would best serve the propagandistic interests of the ruling SED Party.
I traveled to East Berlin in September 1975 and met with Scheibner and other functionaries at the Writers’ Union headquarters. My Stasi-file contains a report with detailed information on that meeting and the nature of my undertaking. The author of the report is Captain Rolf Pönig, at that time an intelligence officer in the branch of the Ministry for State Security with responsibility for monitoring the cultural sphere of activity in the GDR. The report notes that I requested the following by way of assistance from the Writers’ Union: first, a document authorizing me to conduct and tape-record interviews with writers of the GDR; second, the use of an apartment in East Berlin, a base from which to carry out the project; and third, the home addresses and telephone numbers of the writers to be included in my book. In the end, the Writers’ Union agreed to provide me with one thing only, advice; however, it did not attempt to block my project which it easily could have done. In other words, I had its tacit support but—due to extreme caution on the part of Scheibner and his colleagues—I received nothing in writing indicating that I could proceed. This meant of course that it would be difficult to hold someone in the Writers’ Union accountable if something related to me were to go terribly wrong. CYA, always a necessity behind the Iron Curtain!
From Pönig’s report it is clear that the Writers’ Union functionaries were from the outset wary of me and the possible consequences of my project, over which they had little control. They were very eager to know the names of all the GDR writers I intended to include in my book, so Scheibner pressed me for that information, and then he asked me to provide them with a list of participants. According to the report, I was uncooperative and evasive: “In the discussion Dr. Zipser sidestepped all questions concerning which authors he wished to include in his book.” Pönig goes on to note for the record: “After the aforementioned discussion Dr. Zipser did not return to the Writers’ Union and also did not hand over as agreed the list with the names of authors.”
Eberhard Scheibner’s Report: June 18, 1976
GDR Writers’ Union functionary Eberhard Scheibner submitted a written report to the Stasi entitled “Memorandum on a Conversation with Dr. Richard A. Zipser (USA) on June 11 in Berlin.” The report has three sections, as follows:
I. Re Background:
This section provides information about me, my project, and my contacts with the GDR Writers’ Union from the beginning of 1975 to this point in time.
II. Course of the Conversation:
The June 11, 1976 discussion in Berlin, which came about as a result of our initiative, was supposed to produce more detailed information about the views and intentions of Dr. Zipser in connection with the project that has been described. It yielded essentially the following information:
1. Dr. Zipser promised—just like he did in our earlier examination of his work—to give us a list of the authors he has visited along with information on the envisaged literary texts.
2. When asked about his impressions of our literature, Dr. Zipser commented that, despite the complexity and diversity in the literary output and in the aims of our GDR authors, he can perceive at the same time a continuity in the literary design and development. He concurred with my view that the years after the 8th Party Congress in particular have led to a further enrichment of the literary scene in the GDR, the originality of which thereby distinguishes it noticeably from, for example, the literature of the FRG.
3. Without being asked, Dr. Zipser expressed the thought that there was also another way he wanted to act in the future on behalf of GDR authors, so as to make them known in the USA. He considered it quite possible that in the future additional writers could join the ranks of those GDR authors previously invited to universities in the USA (Christa and Gerhard Wolf, Günter Kunert, Ulrich Plenzdorf, Heiner Müller). He would like to try approaching eight American universities, in order to explore their interest in hosting and financing a reading tour of GDR writers; in doing so in that way, he thought that after the first successful attempt up to four GDR writers could be introduced annually in the USA. Dr. Zipser promised to inform us, should the implementation of this project become a possibility.
4. Dr. Zipser commented that he probably would return to Berlin for a while in January 1977, in order to resolve the legal issues related to the texts he had selected.
From Dr. Zipser’s statements (he also asked about the possibility of spending some time teaching at a university in the GDR), one can conclude that he is interested in long-term contacts with the GDR, especially in the area of literature and cultural policies. But as long as an end product of his work (like, for example, the publication he has announced) is not publicly available, it is very difficult for us to assess the nature of his activity. We therefore proceeded initially on the assumption that the book project he described, the purpose of which is to popularize GDR literature, could be beneficial. And we have done everything within the confines of the previous consultation sessions to prevent a distortion both of the views of our writers and the portrayal of our literature through the submitted texts (e.g., via instructions to use texts that are already published; to gather authorizable written responses to the questions instead of uncontrollable tape recordings, among other things). In connection with the suggestion Zipser made in II/3 above and to avoid leaving the initiative for possible additional projects up to the USA representative, the question arises whether—as long as there is no evidence on hand of negative activity on the part of Dr. Zipser—we should maintain a loose advisory contact as we have done up to now or whether an attempt ought to be made to reshape the present noncommittal contact into a stronger influential contact that is in our interest and have the Writers’ Union play a more active official role with proposals and demands from our side. (Irrespective of that, we have already submitted proposals to the GDR Embassy in Washington for initiatives of our own concerning the stimulation of invitations to GDR authors.)
We request, as a matter of principle, clarification of this question: What position is the Writers’ Union to take vis-à-vis “private” USA contacts who show up, in the interest of preserving optimally our ability to exert influence in the future.
Reports on the Reception at Cynthia Miller’s Residence
Early in 1985, I received a telephone call from Cynthia Miller, USIA Public Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in East Berlin, who was serving as cultural attaché. Ms. Miller invited me to come to the renowned Leipzig Book Fair in March and preside over a special exhibit the embassy was putting together on “The Best Books in America: 1983-1984.” This was the first time our embassy had participated in the Leipzig Book Fair and it wanted the presider to be someone who was knowledgeable about the GDR and its society, fluent in German, and not affiliated with the US embassy or the US government. It sounded like it would be a terrific experience and—best of all—it would reconnect me with the GDR and many East German writers. I accepted with great pleasure and anticipation.
Shortly before my departure for East Berlin, Ms. Miller asked me to provide her with the names of some GDR writers I would like to see again before heading to Leipzig. She was planning to have a cocktail party and buffet dinner in my honor at her residence in Berlin Niederschönhausen, an upscale neighborhood where many diplomats lived. The social gathering not only gave me an opportunity to reconnect with some writers I knew well, it also gave Ms. Miller an opportunity to expand her contacts with writers in an informal way. She decided, as a courtesy and gesture of good will, to add Eberhard Scheibner’s name to the guest list.
In my file there are four reports on the March 7, 1985 reception at cultural attaché Cynthia Miller’s residence. Two of these reports, both dated March 9, 1985, are similar in content and clearly based on the information IMB “Pedro Hagen” (Fritz Rudolf Fries) communicated to his Stasi-handler Gerhard Hoffmann when they met on March 8, 1985. The other two provide some new information and insights that obviously came from the other informant present at the party, Eberhard Scheibner, who is referred to as “die Quelle” (the source). An abridged version of the longer of the two reports dated March 9, 1985, appears below. Here Scheibner plays a much more prominent role than he did in the report Fries made on March 8, as he takes me to task and vigorously defends the GDR and the practices of its Writers’ Union. Much of this is fictional, but it certainly makes Scheibner look like an ultra-loyalist functionary, exactly how he wished to be perceived by the Stasi and his supervisors.
File Zipser March 9, 1985
Regarding the reception of the Press and Culture Counsellor of the Embassy of the USA in the capital city of the GDR, Cynthia Miller, on 3/7/1985 at 6:00 p.m. in her residence, 1110 Berlin, Platanenstrasse 98.
As became known unofficially, some of the invited persons were, among others
Hermann Kant President of the Writers’ Union of the GDR (WU)
Rudi Strahl Member of the Executive Committee of the WU
Eberhard Scheibner Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Fritz Rudolf Fries Member of the Executive Committee of the PEN Center of the GDR
and the operatively known writer, Ulrich Plenzdorf.
The names of other persons who received invitations could not be determined as yet.
Eberhard Scheibner, Fritz Rudolf Fries and his wife, and Ulrich Plenzdorf and his wife accepted the invitation.
The unofficial source was unable to discern other persons from the literary domain of the GDR.
In addition to the parties named above, 5 other persons not known to the source attended this reception.
After ca. 1½ hours another married couple came to this reception; they were introduced simply with the comment that they are old friends of Mr. Zipser.
In his personal conversation with Zipser, the source asked Zipser to explain what has become of his scholarly work on GDR literature. Zipser claimed back then—1977/78—that he wanted to write a comprehensive book on GDR literature and GDR writers. He spent several months in the GDR, but up to now no one has read even one printed line written by Mr. Zipser, which is very strange indeed.
As a result of this questioning, which obviously was embarrassing for Zipser, he attempted to explain in a very roundabout way that the American publishing house planning to bring out his work had changed owners several times and, despite assurances during the interim, his manuscript was not published. According to Zipser’s statements, this has to do with the American Nordland Publishing Company. (No information on this publisher is available to the source.)
Zipser indicated further that his book will be readily available in May 1985 and he will have a complimentary copy sent to all participating GDR authors as well the Writers’ Union. This scholarly work is going to be published in 3 volumes, 2 volumes of which will contain the texts from the 45 GDR authors and 1 volume the interviews he conducted with GDR writers.
Zipser mentioned in passing that he is well aware that there will also be people in the GDR who will not be pleased with his book, but he is an American and wrote the book from this point of view.
Zipser stated additionally that the actual reason for his visit to the GDR is that he has been appointed and installed as director of the USA booth at the Book Fair in Leipzig. He stated, with regard to what the USA would display at its booth, that he did not yet know any details about this. However, the USA would not be putting political books on display, but rather fiction primarily, children’s books, history and science books.
Zipser attempted to attack the Secretary of the Writers’ Union of the GDR, Scheibner, by questioning why the writer Helga Schütz was not permitted to accept his invitation to visit Oberlin.
Comrade Scheibner countered, telling Zipser that it looks very odd and Zipser has lost his credibility as regards his integrity of purpose vis-à-vis the GDR, since up to now after 8 years there is still not one line written by him to be read on GDR literature and its writers, and since in the past he only invited writers—with one exception—who established themselves through oppositional types of behavior vis-à-vis the GDR, and that if Zipser is seriously striving to have good relations with the GDR he has to respect certain principles that are in force in the GDR; for example, how the GDR does not allow someone to dictate which writers it has to send somewhere, since the delegation principle prevails in the Writers’ Union.
This reply made Zipser very uncomfortable and he tried in turn to explain why he would have to persist with the invitation to the writer Helga Schütz. Zipser then indicated that there is a foundation at his institution, Oberlin College, which is governed by a “democratic” committee. This committee, he said, has decided to invite German-speaking writers from both German states. Thus, they have invited (among others) the FRG writer Gert Hoffmann and the Swiss writer Adolf Muschg, and now the governing committee wants just to bring Helga Schütz to the USA and no other writer. If the GDR does not permit Helga Schütz to travel, Zipser asserted, the GDR is not going to be represented.
At that point Comrade Scheibner told Zipser that nobody in the GDR would be upset by this. Zipser’s institution must adjust to the fact that the Writers’ Union makes such determinations in the GDR or it is senseless to continue dealing with one another.
On top of that, Comrade Scheibner once again pointed out to Zipser that he had contact with 45 writers during his last stay in the GDR, some of whom were far more important and more representative than Helga Schütz.
At that point Zipser repeated once again, stubbornly, that he will renew the invitation to Helga Schütz with a concrete deadline for permission to make the trip, since he could not afford to have another cancellation on short notice, otherwise he would not receive funding approval for any more GDR authors.
Comrade Scheibner pointed out to Zipser that he would not influence or alter the position of the Writers’ Union through his stubbornness. As long as no printed line written by him is available, he remains noncredible. When his books have appeared in print, it might be possible to continue the conversation.
At the conclusion, as goodbyes were being said, Zipser approached Comrade Scheibner and told him that he had thought about his arguments and the Writers’ Union ought to give him suggestions as to which writers he could invite to the USA. Then Comrade Scheibner replied that he would take note of that and present it to the executive committee of the Writers’ Union.
Leipzig Book Fair: March, 1985
On March 9, 1985 US Ambassador to the GDR Rozanne Ridgway, Cynthia Miller, and I attended the book fair’s opening ceremony and the reception that followed; there I met for the first time Klaus Höpcke, the powerful Deputy Minister of Culture in the GDR. Also present at the book fair was Eberhard Scheibner from the GDR Writers’ Union. Over lunch one day we continued our discussion of Helga Schütz, the German writer-in-residence program at Oberlin College, and the “Delegierungsprinzip” (delegation principle) I had been instructed to follow when we wanted to invite a writer from the GDR.
The report covering my activities at the Leipzig Book Fair begins with my arrival in East Berlin on March 6, 1985. This seven-page document is dated March 29, 1985 and labelled top secret. As one reads the report, it becomes apparent that the Stasi and the GDR authorities were interested most of all in ascertaining the “real” purpose of my visit to Leipzig. Other topics covered are the March 7 reception in my honor at Cynthia Miller’s residence, my insistence on again inviting Helga Schütz to be writer-in-residence at Oberlin College and my stubborn refusal to involve the GDR Writers’ Union in the selection process. Excerpts from the March 29 report are cited below.
Privately and confidentially, it became known that ZIPSER—after consultation with USA Embassy representatives (presumably Cynthia MILLER)—commented in the presence of an unofficial source that, whether he wants to or not, he would again have to invite GDR writer Helga SCHÜTZ to visit the college in Oberlin because the committee insists on it, even if it involves provoking the GDR.
In case SCHÜTZ is denied permission to travel by the GDR, he says, this would constitute proof that writers in the GDR are restricted in their personal freedom, that the GDR is thereby violating human rights and forcing the college to fall back on just the GDR writers living in the West and former GDR writers.
. . . ZIPSER emphasized, during his conversation with Comrade SCHEIBNER, that even in the future he does not intend to coordinate with the GDR Writers’ Union when inviting GDR writers to visit the USA.
The Delegation Principle
What was the delegation principle and how did it impact the process of selecting and inviting GDR writers to visit Oberlin College as Max Kade German Writers-in-Residence? In brief, the delegation principle was a procedure that would enable Writers’ Union officials to pre-select authors from the GDR for institutions with guest writer programs, including Oberlin College. Here is how it was intended to function in practice. When our German faculty was prepared to invite an East German writer for a residency at Oberlin College, I was supposed to inform the Writers’ Union via Scheibner of our intention with adequate advance notice. They would then send us the names of two or three suitable authors and we would be able to pick the one we liked best. Of course, this procedure was unacceptable to our faculty. We were not prepared to allow GDR functionaries to participate directly or indirectly in the selection process—but other US colleges and universities did.
What prompted the GDR Writers’ Union to create the delegation principle? The short answer to this question is: Oberlin College’s visiting German writer program. From the ideological perspective of the SED authorities who were responsible for the GDR’s cultural policies and activities, the first four GDR writers we invited and hosted—Christa Wolf, Ulrich Plenzdorf, Jurek Becker, and Bernd Jentzsch—were not good representatives of the GDR. The GDR needed to ensure that US universities and colleges would not just have oppositional East German writers visiting their campuses, but also a significant number of writers who had a positive view of the GDR state, political system, and society. The delegation principle was East Germany’s way of addressing that problem, and it also enabled Writers’ Union officials to reward some unremarkable authors for their steadfast support of the SED Party.
Final Thoughts on Eberhard Scheibner
It would be easy to dismiss Scheibner as a faceless East German functionary who posed no real danger to anyone, but that would be a terrible mistake. For as a mid-level government bureaucrat, it was his job to implement and vigorously enforce often harmful cultural policies, restrictive regulations, and punitive measures. The Helga Schütz case is a perfect example. The Writers’ Union used her as a pawn to punish Oberlin College for inviting and bringing to its campus the “wrong” writers, something that could have been avoided if we had simply asked for their advice and assistance as I had been instructed to do. Although Eberhard Scheibner was not a writer, he was very involved in the GDR’s literary sphere. His deplorable behavior while serving as director of International Relations at the Writers’ Union has earned him a place in my special rogues’ gallery, where he is in the company of corrupt GDR writers.