Hermann Kant

Hermann Kant, the son of a factory worker and a gardener, was born in 1926 in Hamburg. In 1940 his family moved to Parchim, where he attended school and completed an electrician apprenticeship. In December 1944, he was drafted into the German army. He became a Polish prisoner of war, was imprisoned in Warsaw initially and later transferred to a labor camp. After being released from prison in 1949, Kant moved to East Germany, where he embraced communism and joined the ruling Socialist Unity Party. He finished his high school education in 1952 at the “Workers’ and Peasants’ Faculty” in Greifswald. From 1952 to 1956 he studied German literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin. After graduating, he worked until 1957 as a research assistant, then from 1957 to 1959 he was editor of a student magazine. In 1960 he became a freelance writer and a member of the GDR Writers’ Union.

            Kant is considered to be one of the more talented prose fiction writers of East Germany. His first novel, The Aula (The Auditorium, 1965), which is generally thought to be his most notable work, made him famous overnight in both East and West Germany. In this novel the author depicts what he experienced firsthand at the “Workers’ and Peasants’ Faculty.” The book became controversial in both Germanys, as Kant was criticized for misrepresenting the social conflicts and real conditions that existed in East German society.

            Kant belonged to an exclusive cadre of East German writers comprised of authors, besides Brecht, who found favor with the West German public. Let me name some of them: Anna Seghers, Arnold Zweig, Johannes Becher, Johannes Bobrowski, Peter Hacks, Stefan Heym, Christa Wolf, Jurek Becker, Volker Braun, Ulrich Plenzdorf, Heiner Müller, Sarah Kirsch, Günter Kunert, Christoph Hein, Uwe Johnson, et al. Hence, Kant achieved the goal almost all GDR writers had—to be read beyond the borders of East Germany and especially in the West.

            Kant was an ambitious man whose desire for power and prominence led him to become politically engaged in two significant ways directly related to his career as a writer: first, as an unofficial collaborator (IM) of the Ministry for State Security (MfS) and second, as President of the GDR Writers’ Union. As it turned out, these two activities were complementary.

            His informal involvement with the Stasi began in 1957 when the 31-year-old Kant was working as a research assistant at the Germanistisches Institut in Berlin. According to the record that his Stasi IM file provides, he was involved with the MfS in different ways from 1957 to 1976. Initially, he was registered as a contact person / Kontaktperson (KP), and as such he would meet regularly with Stasi officers and pass along information to them. In 1963 Kant became formally involved with the Stasi and was reregistered as a Secret Informant / Geheimer Informator (GI). Subsequently, his reports were filed under the code name GI “Martin”. His reliable reports earned him a position of trust and reregistration as a higher-level informant under the code name IMS “Martin”. Individuals with the IMS designation were in the upper echelon of informers; they were persons whose loyalty and trustworthiness had been tested and proven beyond a doubt. Kant reported on developments of possible interest to the MfS and situations that arose within the Writers’ Union. He also informed on his East and West German colleagues, on the behavior of persons the Stasi considered hostile to the SED regime and enemies of the GDR state, on the activities of dissident writers, and much more. After the collapse of the GDR, he on several occasions publicly denied having had any formal involvement with the Stasi, even though the evidence provided in his lengthy IM file clearly tells a different story.

            Kant’s motivation for collaborating with the MfS is unclear, but it is likely that several factors prompted him to agree to inform for the Stasi. In his study, Sicherungsbereich Literatur: Schriftsteller und Staatssicherheit in der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (Security Zone Literature: Writers and State Security in the German Democratic Republic, Berlin: Ch. Links, 1996), former GDR author Joachim Walther comments on the reasons why GDR writers and artists were willing to work with and for the Stasi: “A special factor in the readiness of writers and artists to collaborate with the Ministry for State Security was the belief in utopia, along with ignoble reasons like careerism, envy, craving for power, and need for recognition.” (10) Sara Jones, in her article on “Conflicting Evidence: Hermann Kant and the Opening of the Stasi Files,” writes: “The files themselves indicate that ideological commitment to the GDR and the socialist project, and the importance of Party discipline, were indeed key reasons for Kant’s decision to meet with the Stasi.” In addition, according to Jones, “The documents in Kant’s file contain hints that, over the course of his meetings with the officers, Kant may also have attempted to use his Stasi contact to express criticism.” (German Life and Letters, vol. 62, issue 2, pages 190-205, April 2009)

            Kant served as President of the GDR Writers’ Union from 1978 to 1990. In this prestigious position, as the top cultural functionary and spokesperson for members of the Writers’ Union, he had a great deal of power. Although Kant achieved notability as a member of East Germany’s cultural elite, his behavior while President of the Writers’ Union converted some of his colleagues into his enemies. His marriage to prominent actress Vera Oelschlegel (1971-1976) helped gain him celebrity status. But unfortunately, his angry public pronouncements and spiteful denunciation of writers who had stepped out of line alienated many of his colleagues and made him very unpopular. Ironically, the low point of his 12-year presidency occurred during the second year of his presidency and proved to be the defining moment of his career as a cultural functionary.
Rebellious prose writer Stefan Heym was at the center of a controversy that intensified in the spring of 1979. In May 1979, Heym was fined 9,000 West German marks for having published his novel Collin in the West without securing authorization from GDR officials and for neglecting to report the income he had received in foreign currency. This punitive move on the part of GDR authorities, meant to serve as a warning to all writers in East Germany, would only widen the divide that already existed between many GDR authors and the state. Eight prominent writers sent SED Party chief Erich Honecker a letter protesting the persecution of Heym and other engaged, critical writers. In this letter, which was published in the West German press, they asserted: “Increasingly, attempts are being made to defame or muzzle politically involved, critical writers or, as with our colleague Stefan Heym, to prosecute. The linking of censorship and criminal laws is intended to impede the publication of critical works.” (Protokoll eines Tribunals, ed. Joachim Walther, et al, Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1991, p. 11) SED leaders viewed this letter as a provocation and breach of protocol, of course, and decided to crack down on the oppositional writers in an unprecedented way, to teach them a lesson that no one would forget.

            On June 7, 1979, there was a special meeting of the executive committee of the Berlin Writers’ Union. The purpose of the meeting, which took the form of a tribunal, was to lend some legitimacy to the expulsion from the GDR Writers’ Union of Heym and eight other renegade writers, five of whom had signed the open letter of protest to Honecker. These writers were accused of illegal actions that violated the laws of the socialist GDR state, undermined the cultural policies of the SED Party, and damaged the public image of the GDR and its government. This “show trial,” at which Writers’ Union President Hermann Kant had the pleasure of accusing and denouncing his colleagues, constituted one of the most shameful events in the cultural-political history of the GDR. In an unforeseen and unwanted outcome, it would firmly establish Heym as East Germany’s foremost dissident writer, and it would also ensure Kant’s failure as a cultural functionary.

            What occurred at the infamous tribunal has been carefully documented in Protokoll eines Tribunals (Record of a Tribunal), which Joachim Walther and several of the GDR’s most famous authors co-edited in 1991. This slender volume contains documents that were discovered in the Writers’ Union archive after the GDR collapsed in 1989 and 1990; there are speeches and letters of some GDR writers accused of wrongdoing and GDR authors who came to their defense, as well as speeches and letters of some loyalist writers like Hermann Kant and some functionaries. A memoir I published in 2021, Remembering East Germany. From Oberlin to East Berlin (BookBaby: Pennsauken), presents excerpts from Kant’s keynote address, “Wir lassen uns von unserem Kurs nicht abbringen” (“We will not allow ourselves to be thrown off course”), an angry rebuttal of the assertions made in the protest letter to Honecker that reveals Kant’s malevolent character.

            Joachim Walther, in his preface to Protokoll eines Tribunals, comments on the purpose and Stalinistic nature of this tribunal: “It had the sole purpose of giving the verdict reached previously a pseudo-democratic appearance. The Party members of the [Writers’] Union were already brought into line beforehand, the majorities in the hall secured via the time-tested methods of communist exercise of power. However, the entire perfidiousness of the post-Stalinist cultural policy first becomes apparent when the accusers rise to speak—and with demagogy, hatefulness, and meticulously compiled insinuations the majority throws the nine ostracized writers to the wolves.” (p. 2)

            In 1975, I spent most of November in Berlin, where I kept busy meeting with East German writers, interviewing them and gathering texts and other materials from them for a book project on GDR literature in the 1970s. My first meeting with Hermann Kant, according to a note on the cassette containing the interview we tape recorded, was on November 26, 1975. Am Tierpark 65, Apt. 15/05, 1136 Berlin was his address—a good address, as the Germans sometimes say. We met at his apartment, which was located in a modern high-rise building that had been built in the post-WW II period. After my host greeted me, he guided me through his nicely appointed dwelling that was decorated with a fashionable mixture of antique and modern furniture. It was on one of the upper floors of the building and had a magnificent view of the Tierpark, Europe’s largest animal park. Kant was a gracious host and a good conversational partner. From his demeanor and the questions he asked, I could tell that he was genuinely interested in my project. In the parlor, the room in which we conducted the tape recorded interview, a table had been set for refreshments that would soon arrive. Then came a surprise: Kant’s maid—yes, his maid!—entered the room pushing a tea cart with coffee, tea, and an assortment of pastries. She was wearing a black blouse and skirt along with a white apron, just like the waitresses in Berlin coffee houses wore. I was stunned! Cleaning ladies, housekeepers, and maids were not often found in private homes in the GDR, which liked to think of itself as a classless society—something it definitely was not. After we enjoyed the refreshments, our interview went smoothly. Kant was an experienced interviewee and answered my questions in a straightforward, forthcoming manner. When we were finished, I was extremely pleased with the way the visit and interaction with Kant had gone. Of course, I had to think a while about his maid and how he managed to reconcile her with his socialist beliefs. That unexpected encounter made quite an impression on me!

            In November 1979, Hermann Kant made a lecture tour to the US and visited the University of Minnesota, the University of Kansas, and several other colleges and universities. He was accompanied by Petra Teutschbein, cultural attachée at the GDR Embassy in Washington, DC. At these institutions Kant met with groups of faculty and students, discussed and read from his own work, explained the concept of socialist realism, clarified the role of the writer and the function of literature in a socialist system, and also gave interviews when asked. He was President of the GDR Writers Union and this was his goodwill tour, organized by Ms. Teutschbein.

            Hermann Kant was not invited to visit Oberlin College, which he was very eager to do and would have done at his own expense—that is, with financial support from the GDR Embassy. In fact, Petra Teutschbein called me from Washington, DC and requested formally that our German Department invite Kant to give a talk and reading. When I told her we did not have the funds for his honorarium, travel and other expenses, Ms. Teutschbein indicated that the embassy would cover all expenses related to this trip. When I then told her that we still could not invite Kant to visit and speak at Oberlin College, she of course asked why. I told her to ask Kant that question because he will know why. Kant wanted very much to join the ranks of other prominent GDR writers who had visited Oberlin—Christa Wolf (1974), Ulrich Plenzdorf (1975), and Jurek Becker (1978)—but I was not going to let that happen. Party loyalist and chief inquisitor Hermann Kant most definitely did not belong in their company.
At the conclusion of my snapshot on Corrupt GDR Writers, I promised “to put a bright spotlight on prominent prose writer Hermann Kant, who in my view was the most despicable scoundrel of all.” I am going to conclude this piece by explaining how I arrived at that determination, in consultation with my writer friend Jurek Becker. One afternoon in the spring of 1978, when Jurek was German Writer-in-Residence at Oberlin College, we walked together to the US post office on Main Street. Inside, in the lobby, Jurek immediately noticed a large poster with ten passport-like photos of men on it. We read the bold heading together, FBI TEN MOST WANTED FUGITIVES, and then I explained to Jurek what this was all about. He had never seen anything like it and was intrigued by this unfamiliar specimen of Americana. As we were walking back to our offices in Rice Hall, I asked Jurek if he would be able to put together a hypothetical TEN MOST WANTED GDR WRITERS list, based on despicable behavior. First place on the list would be reserved for the most despicable scoundrel. Yes, reader, you know exactly how this is going to end, but you don’t know why. Jurek rose eagerly to the challenge and prepared a list of the ten baddest actors among GDR writers. Each one was ranked from 1 to 10, and of course Hermann Kant had captured first place. I was rather surprised by this and asked Jurek to tell me how he had concluded that Kant was number 1, second to no one, in this category. What separates Kant from the other bad actors, he told me with conviction, is that he is a really talented and accomplished writer. Hence, he doesn’t have to behave the way he does to get ahead. That makes his behavior doubly despicable. So be it!

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