Joachim Walther

June 12, 2020, 9:20 AM. My East German friend and colleague, Heinz-Uwe Haus, sends me a link to an article that appeared in the “Cultural Enjoyment” section of the online Berliner-Zeitung (Berlin Newspaper). The article is entitled “Der Zuständige – zum Tod von Joachim Walther” (“The Person in Charge—upon the Death of Joachim Walther). Written by Ines Geipel on May 19, 2020, it announces the death on the previous day of former GDR author Joachim Walther and pays tribute to him. Geipel, an author and professor who spent the first thirty years of her life in the GDR, collaborated with Walther on various projects over a fifteen-year period. From 2001 to 2005, they set about collecting texts that 100 or so writers had been unable to publish in communist East Germany and established an Archive of Suppressed Literature in the GDR (Archiv unterdrückter Literatur in der DDR). They then began publishing some of the texts from the archive in a book series entitled The Concealed Library (Die Verschwiegene Bibliothek); ten volumes appeared in print between 2005 and 2009. The material in the archive led them to undertake yet another project, the publication of a co-edited book entitled Die Gesperrte Ablage: Unterdrückte Literaturgeschichte in Ostdeutschland 1945-1989 (The Locked Storage: History of Suppressed Literature in East Germany 1945-1989. Düsseldorf: Lilienfeld Press, 2015).

Joachim Walther (b. 1943) had a distinguished and multifaceted career in East Germany initially, and later in unified Germany, as freelance author, editor, scholar, researcher and chronicler of the relationship between GDR writers and the Stasi. In 1996, he published his landmark 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). This 888-page book documents and analyzes how the Stasi went about implementing and enforcing the SED Party’s cultural policies in the realm of literature, how it monitored and tried to influence and control GDR writers. Walther, who worked as an editor for the publishing house Buchverlag Der Morgen Berlin from 1968 to 1983, had been forced to resign from that position due to his bold opposition to censorship and related issues. He began working on this meticulously researched documentary work shortly after the reunification of the two Germanys in 1990 and was given full access to the secret police files of all former GDR writers. His government-financed assignment was to use those documents to determine the nature of the relationship and level of collaboration between GDR writers and the state secret police agency. He was the only author to have direct access to all of this highly confidential information; he was indeed the “person in charge.”

In the introduction to Sicherungsbereich Literatur, 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) He confirms my own conviction that high-level SED Party officials and Stasi officers overestimated by far the importance of literature in their society and the power of free speech; and that explains why they went to extraordinary lengths to suppress freedom of expression.

When Sicherungsbereich Literatur was published in 1996, I immediately purchased a copy and spent a couple of hours browsing through it. At one point, I skimmed through the index from A to Z, looking for the names of writers and other persons I knew. When I reached Z, I found “Zipser, Richard 533, 544, 546, 589, 598.” Five references to me, incredible! I then proceeded to read the reports below from or about those informants, who were also referred to as unofficial collaborators (IM=Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter): Uwe Berger, Fritz Rudolf Fries, Anneliese Löffler, and Paul Wiens. The first of these is meant to illustrate the form and content of an informant’s report.

[Uwe Berger: alias “Uwe”]

1) The lyric poet Uwe Berger, alias “Uwe,” handwritten on August 11, 1976: “June 22, 1976. In accordance with instructions, I called Sarah Kirsch. I told her that Dr. Richard Zipser had mentioned her twice in his conversation with me. Specifically, he said she had recommended me, and that she and I are GDR authors of the literary genre that is his favorite. Sarah Kirsch answered cautiously. ‘When he was at my place, I gave him a number of names; yours was also one of them. He had asked me whom else I might be able to recommend.’ We then exchanged a few unimportant sentences. I tried to find out about her opinion of Zipser. But she only agreed with me when I said it might become a very valuable book. She thanked me for my call and waited for me to end the conversation. The motivation for my call was weak. Further initiatives of this sort could make Sarah Kirsch suspicious. My friendly rapport with her remained intact.” (533)

[Fritz Rudolf Fries: alias “Pedro Hagen”]

In 1978 monthly meetings were held. [Stasi officer Gerhard] Hoffmann noted that the collaboration had become significantly more trustful; the IM would occasionally report “of his own accord,” for example about Sarah Kirsch and the American literary scholar Richard Zipser. In 1979 “Pedro Hagen” was re-registered as an IMV [a higher level of informant than IM and IME]. Report on meeting of March 6, 1979: “The IM was open-minded, interested, also provided information unreservedly on the issues that were raised.” (544)

At the next meeting on March 12, 1981, “Pedro Hagen”—who in the meantime was re-registered as an IMB [a higher level of informant than IMV]—received the cover address “Käthe Martin,” to which he was supposed to send a postcard from every place he stayed in the USA. In addition, he was handed 500 West German marks in an EG-container and given instructions on how to go about opening and destroying the container. The IM acknowledged receipt of the 500 West German marks in writing. After his trip it says in the evaluation meeting report of May 19, 1981: “He initiated activities in the USA that enabled him to proceed as instructed and demonstrated perseverance, e.g., in the efforts he made to contact Dr. Zipser.” (546)

[Anneliese Löffler: alias “Dölbl”]

After “Dölbl” had written reader’s reports in the summer of 1978 on Günter Grass (“Der Butt” [“The Flounder”]) and Klaus Poche (“Atemnot” [“Shortness of Breath”]) and delivered reports on the USA Germanist Richard Zipser as well as Franz Fühmann and on some of her students, her report file breaks off abruptly with the reader’s report dated August 13, 1978 on Poche’s novel, without any reference to archiving or completing that piece of work. This would suggest that the remaining parts have been destroyed, so that it is not possible to make a reliable statement about the duration of IM “Dölbl’s” informant activity beyond the year 1978. (589)

[Paul Wiens: alias “Dichter” / “Poet”]

According to the name index of his report file, he provided information from 1967 on about (among others) Bella Achmadulina, H.C. Artmann, Amfried Astel, Rudolf Augstein, Jurek Becker Wolf Biermann, Heinrich Böll, Nicolas Born, Volker Braun, Heinz Czechowski, Hilde Domin, Adolf Endler, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Efim Etkind, Konrad Franke, Fritz Rudolf Fries, Barbara Frischmuth, Franz Fühmann, Lew Ginsburg, Peter Gosse, Peter Härtling, Stephan Hermlin, Stefan Heym, Walter Janka, Uwe Johnson, Gustav Just, Heinz Kahlau, Rainer Kirsch, Sarah Kirsch, Lew Kopelew, Ludvik Kundera, Günter Kunert, Reiner Kunze, Alain Lane, Jurij Ljubimow, Erich Loest, Frank-Wolf Matthies, Christoph Meckel, Karl Mickel, Irmtraud Morgner, Heiner Müller, A. W. Mytze, Bulat Okudshawa, Fritz Pleitgen, Ulrich Plenzdorf, Boris Polewoi, Hans Werner Richter, Andrej Sacharow, Klaus Schlesinger, Christoph Schlotterer, Peter Schneider, Hans Georg Soldat, Alexander Solshenizyn, Erwin Strittmatter, Klaus Wagenbach, Joachim Walther, Berta Waterstradt, Christa Wolf, Gerhard Wolf, Richard Zipser and other German, French, Hungarian, Yugoslavian and Soviet authors. Moreover, the poet was also an informant in his private life: In his IM-file there are private letters from the year 1972 to Irmtraud Morgner, to whom Paul Wiens was married from 1971 on, with the notation: “from ‘Poet,’ hand over at meeting.” (598)

After reading the passages above, which made me more certain than ever that I had a Stasi-file, I decided to give Joachim Walther a call. I wanted to see if he could cast more light on my situation and also seek his advice on how best to proceed. While I had not met him, we had corresponded from time to time in connection with my GDR censorship projects, so I had his telephone number. I placed the call, we had a good conversation and I learned some things that were quite helpful. Walther told me it was very likely that I had a file, but he had not seen it. Furthermore, he said that my name appeared frequently in the files of GDR writers he had reviewed and he cautioned me about writing another book on GDR authors before I had gained access to my own file. As it turned out, that was excellent advice, as I realized when I read my file.

One day, as I was thinking about Sicherungsbereich Literatur (Security Zone Literature) and what a magnificent contribution it makes to our knowledge and understanding of one of the darkest aspects of GDR history, it occurred to me that I should look for references to other US Germanists in the index to Walther’s book, just out of curiosity. In the 1970s and 1980s, the number of US Germanists with a serious interest in GDR literature was not too large, and over the years I had become acquainted with most of them. With the help of US publications such as Studies in GDR Culture and Society, collections of papers presented at the annual New Hampshire symposia on the German Democratic Republic, GDR Bulletin, and GDR Monitor, I made a list of colleagues who had been active in the area of GDR studies in the 1970s and 1980s. When I completed that exercise, the list had more than thirty names on it. I then proceeded to look up each of those names in the index to Walther’s book, hoping to find references to some of them. To my surprise and bewilderment, only one US Germanist is cited in that index: Richard Zipser. I have done a great deal of thinking about that and have come to this conclusion: There was only one US Germanist who had engaged in what the Stasi considered to be subversive activities in the GDR, and only one had been considered an enemy of the GDR state. Today, as before, I am proud of the fact that the vast majority of the GDR writers I knew and worked with on various book projects in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s viewed me and my work on East German literature in a very different—i.e., positive, light.

As early as April 1974, at the time when I first became interested in GDR literature, Joachim Walther had an important influence on my own work. His third book was a volume of conversations with East German writers which he published in 1973 under the title Meinetwegen Schmetterlinge (For All I Care, Butterflies). Christa and Gerhard Wolf, who were both in residence at Oberlin College that spring, had brought with them a small library of GDR literary works which they intended to use in their colloquium and then donate to the College upon their departure. Walther’s book was one of the first they gave me to read and discuss with them, since his interviews with fourteen authors and his conversation with himself provide a splendid introduction to GDR literature from the perspective of insiders. Each interview has an informal tone and format, as Walther roams from one topic to the next. The writers respond to his questions directly and openly, presenting their views and convictions without being dogmatic. They talk about the craft of writing, how they actually go about it, what they hope to accomplish as writers, and they also mention some things that please and aggravate them. I read this book more than once, from cover to cover; the information in it was very useful to me when I began to design the project I would begin carrying out in 1975-1976 while on sabbatical leave. I decided that I wanted to do a project on GDR literature that would involve living writers who were active in the 1970s, with whom I would be able to interact in various ways. One way of interacting, reflecting Walther’s influence, would be by conducting an interview with each author, something I hoped to do in person. I would also ask each interviewee to provide me with a literary text dealing with an issue in GDR society that was of current concern to him/her as a writer. These texts would supplement the information presented in the interviews, and together this material would give readers a comprehensive overview of GDR writing in the 1970s and the issues that were of concern to writers of different political persuasions. My project eventually culminated in a three-volume, 840-page book written entirely in German and published in 1985. The title is DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter (GDR Literature During the Thaw). I am indebted to Joachim Walther for inspiring me through his own work on “Butterflies” to undertake and bring this documentary book on an important period in GDR literary history to fruition.

I regret that I never had an opportunity to meet and converse at length with Joachim Walther, whose research interests and work as a scholar overlapped with mine in many areas. He was interested in documenting and exposing acts of suppression and repression by the GDR’s SED regime. He actively opposed all forms of literary censorship, the banning of books, the harassment of intellectuals who dared to criticize governmental actions, and the harsher punishments that were meted out to dissident writers by government officials and the Stasi (e.g., house arrest, imprisonment, forced exile). He wanted to chronicle all of this for future generations, so what actually happened in communist eastern Germany between 1945 and 1990 would not be forgotten. In post-unification Germany, from 1990 to the present day, there have been many attempts by former GDR authorities and GDR loyalists to suppress the truth and rewrite history and literary history, to sugarcoat the indisputable historical record and present the criminality of the SED regime and its servants as understandable and acceptable. Joachim Walther was a person of extraordinary integrity and determination, who was unrelenting in his pursuit of the truth. For uncovering the truth and presenting it in an unvarnished, objective way—time and again during his fifty-year career as a writer—, we who are opposed to dictatorships are deeply indebted to him.

On June 12, 2020, I received a second announcement of Walther’s death, this time from my publisher in Berlin, Christoph Links, who sent out a general message to persons associated with Ch. Links Publishing expressing his sorrow. (I should note that Links is a former East German citizen and the person who was responsible for the publication of Walther’s monumental work, Security Zone Literature.) Although no response was expected, I immediately sent the following message to Links:

Dear Christoph Links,

I am also deeply saddened to learn that Joachim Walther has died at such a young age. In 1974 I read his book of interviews with writers, For All I Care, Butterflies, which prompted me to become involved intensively with GDR literature. I had great admiration for him and his standard book, Security Zone Literature. With this exhaustive documentary work he left behind something important for mankind. You too can be very proud of this permanent contribution to German history.

Kind regards,

Richard Zipser

On July 7, a Tuesday, I was pleasantly surprised to receive the following message from Christoph Links, who had been away on vacation during the second half of June:

Dear Richard Zipser,

Last Friday, on the occasion of the urn burial, we bid farewell to Joachim Walther with a dignified funeral service at the Luther-Cemetary here in Berlin. While doing that I tried to pay tribute to his lifetime achievements in a short speech at the end of which I quoted from your email. His wife and son were very interested in that and asked me to forward the email to them, which I have done in the meantime. So you were present after all at our ceremony.

With kind regards for old times’ sake,

Yours,

Christoph Links