The German Democratic Republic and the United States initiated full diplomatic relations on September 4, 1974. In the mid-1970s, after establishing an embassy in Washington, DC and joining the United Nations, the GDR was finally able to gain the international recognition it had long sought. From the platform of its embassy, the GDR began to systematically develop a network of sympathizers comprised chiefly of academicians from universities. The object was to identify persons, professors and doctoral candidates working in the general area of German studies, who were interested in the GDR and sympathetic to its socialist form of government. In the effort to create a fifth column, two groups were targeted: first, intellectuals from the far left—i.e., would-be progressives who viewed the GDR with its brand of communistic socialism as a model society; and second, professors who could be cultivated in various ways and transformed into advocates for all that the GDR represented and cherished.
The GDR Embassy played an important role in this nationwide propaganda effort, by organizing lecture/reading tours for East German authors loyal to the SED Party and by disseminating pro-GDR materials in a remarkably effective way. 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. These writers would be rewarded for their loyal support and, while visiting the US, they would be expected to help expand the network of GDR sympathizers that had already been established at some institutions of higher learning. This eventually led GDR authorities who were overseeing activity in the cultural sphere to formulate and implement a practice based on the so-called delegation principle (Delegierungsprinzip).
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 GDR Writers’ Union officials to pre-select authors from the GDR for Oberlin College and other institutions with guest writer programs. 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 of our intention with adequate advance notice. The Writers’ Union 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.
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.
Christa Wolf (1974) was undoubtedly viewed as an unfortunate choice, since her controversial novel The Quest for Christa T. (1968) had been condemned by government officials and was eventually banned in the GDR. Her novel is a subjective account of everyday life in a repressive society that does not tolerate persons who question socialist beliefs and the way of living in a socialist state that expects all its citizens to conform. Christa T., an introspective young woman, is shown to be a victim of this restrictive society. Wolf’s subject matter, her use of bold new narrative techniques, and her blatant subjectivity in the portrayal of Christa T. represented a major departure from the GDR’s officially sanctioned style of writing known as socialist realism.
Ulrich Plenzdorf (1975) was also someone the GDR Writers’ Union would not have selected to send to Oberlin, if we had invited them to recommend a few writers for our consideration. His most famous work, The New Sufferings of Young W. tells the story of a young revolutionary in a socialist society, Edgar Wibeau, who rebels against the conformity that was so prevalent everywhere in the GDR. While he is not against socialism per se, Edgar is in favor of almost everything the SED Party officials and others in positions of power were against. However while Plenzdorf—like Christa Wolf—is critical of various aspects of GDR society, he—like Wolf, once again—has nothing explicit to say about politics in the GDR or the SED Party. This, along with their international prominence and popularity throughout East Germany, probably explains why they were allowed to come to Oberlin. In both instances, we issued the invitation directly to the author, and they then sought and secured permission to visit Oberlin with their spouses.
Jurek Becker (1978), the third author from the GDR to visit Oberlin, was as famous but more controversial than his two predecessors. He was very outspoken and not afraid to express his views on such topics as problems in GDR society and his country’s oppressive system of government. His criticism of the SED leadership and their violation of human rights brought him into conflict with the GDR authorities on numerous occasions. In November 1976, Becker became embroiled in a major conflict with the government when he—along with eleven other GDR writers—publicly protested the forced exiling of dissident poet-singer Wolf Biermann. In the ensuing months, he resigned from the GDR Writers’ Union, was thrown out of the SED Party, and also barred from making public appearances and publishing his writing in the GDR.
Before the end of June 1977, Becker’s novel Sleepless Days had been completed and submitted to the Hinstorff Verlag in the GDR and the Suhrkamp Verlag in the FRG. Initially, Becker was assured by the editors at Hinstorff that they would be able to publish the novel. But later on, when he steadfastly refused to make certain recommended changes, it became clear that his novel would not appear in his own country. Becker maintained that he—unlike some of his colleagues—could not live and write in one Germany, only to be published and read in the other. In December 1977, Becker quietly moved from East to West Berlin, and from there he came to Oberlin in February 1978. He was in possession of a unique two-year exit visa that enabled him to go back and forth from the West to the East, where his two teenage sons were living. At that time, he was the only East German writer to be permitted such freedom of movement. The GDR authorities and Becker had reached a tacit agreement that he would not use the West as a platform for mounting hostile attacks on the SED regime, not if he wanted to keep the special visa that provided a unique solution to their Becker problem. Since he already had this visa, GDR officials were not involved in any way in his decision to accept our invitation to become the eleventh Max Kade German Writer-in-Residence, which I delivered by hand in the fall of 1977. Years later I would learn that the GDR authorities were angered by our selection of Becker for a residency at Oberlin College, considering it an affront.
Bernd Jentzsch (1982), our fifteenth German author in residence, was far and away the most controversial GDR writer to visit Oberlin. When I met Jentzsch in November 1975, he and his family—which included his mother—were living in Wilhelmshagen, a town situated on the outskirts of East Berlin. Jentzsch led a quiet life until the fall of 1976, when his fortunes took a dramatic and unexpected turn. That fall, when he was in Switzerland preparing an anthology of Swiss poetry, he learned about the expatriation of prominent poet-singer Wolf Biermann and the expulsion of fellow writer Reiner Kunze from the GDR Writers’ Union on the order of GDR government authorities. Stunned and angered by the harshness of these actions, he spontaneously demanded that the regime reverse its decision. He wrote a scathing and detailed open letter to head-of-state Erich Honecker, submitting it for publication to several newspapers in the GDR, in the FRG, and in Switzerland, without considering possible negative consequences. The reprisals against Jentzsch, his family, and his friends were not long in coming. His open letter was not published by any GDR newspapers but turned over to the Stasi, which promptly indicted him for “hostile agitation against the State.” Faced with the prospect of a mock trial and two to ten years of imprisonment, he decided to stay in Switzerland. His wife, her brother, his son, and even his pensioned active socialist mother were harassed, humiliated, and ostracized by the GDR authorities.
Our decision to invite Jentzsch to spend three months at Oberlin College as German writer-in-residence infuriated government and Writers’ Union officials in the GDR, especially since the previous GDR writer to visit Oberlin had been outspoken regime critic Jurek Becker in 1978. Functionaries in the GDR Writers’ Union would soon formulate and seek to implement the delegation principle, a procedure that would enable them to pre-select authors from the GDR for Oberlin College and other US institutions with guest writer programs, such as the University of Texas and the University of Iowa.
Helga Schütz (1985), a prose and screenplay writer who was definitely not a troublemaker and not in any way controversial would, ironically, be the first to fall victim to the delegation principle. Acting on my recommendation in the fall of 1984, the German faculty at Oberlin College decided to invite her to be the 18th Max Kade German Writer-in-Residence during the spring semester of 1985. I did not expect her to have any difficulty securing permission and a visa for the trip to the US, but—as luck would have it—the unexpected happened. In mid-January 1985, just a few weeks before the beginning of the spring semester, we received a heart-wrenching letter from Schütz. This letter, dated December 31, 1984, bears testimony to the cruel and inhumane nature of the Writers’ Union functionaries and higher authorities in the Ministry of Culture. Cited below is a portion of the letter’s first paragraph, which I translated from German into English.
Today this year is coming to its end, a year rich with experiences, a year full of hope and plans, so that I have lived and worked during this time contentedly and happily—almost offensively so. I had plans for Oberlin, first and foremost, for the months with you at the College. It seemed to me that everything was moving forward and going well—until the day before Christmas. I found a telegram in my mailbox, telling me to visit the Writers’ Union. There, too, I still did not sense that anything was wrong. I thought that perhaps a signature was missing or a precise travel date. I had always presented your invitations right after their arrival and expressed my strong interest. Things turned out differently—I was informed that there was no interest in my residency in Oberlin and that the exit visa would not be issued. The justification got lost in a nebulous exchange of words from which it was just possible to glean that you were always selecting the wrong writers for Oberlin (Wolfs, Plenzdorf, Jurek Becker, and Bernd Jentzsch) and that the Writers’ Union does not expect sending me to Oberlin would benefit the GDR in any way. I was stunned, regretted right away that I had let myself engage in a verbal exchange, wanted to leave just then, as the man from the Union advised me to use illness as the reason for cancelling my residency with you. I cannot tell you how I felt at that moment. Afterwards I crept through the streets like a lowly insect and, with what remained of the positive mood I had stored up over the last months, I prepared the Christmas celebration for our family. I then sat down over the holidays and wrote a letter to the Minister of Culture, wherein I tried to explain to him that I was being deprived of many important experiences and that I had for months been preparing myself mentally for Oberlin. . . .
Why did the GDR Writers’ Union and, presumably, higher authorities treat Helga Schütz so harshly? In retrospect, I think they were very angry about our earlier selection of two outspoken dissident writers, Jurek Becker in 1978 and Bernd Jentzsch in 1982, who in their view did not appropriately represent the GDR. They apparently decided to use Helga Schütz to punish us for selecting oppositional writers as representatives of the GDR, and that also would explain why they waited so long to deny her visa application. They knew we would have difficulty finding a replacement for her on such short notice, but fortunately we were able to do so. As I would learn in March 1985 while attending the Leipzig Book Fair, the Writers’ Union was determined to participate in our selection process by pre-selecting writers they viewed as suitable for a residency in Oberlin. In accordance with a newly established delegation principle, they wanted us to contact them when we were ready to have a writer from the GDR; they would then either make the selection for us or propose two or three writers for our consideration. This would enable them to reward loyalist writers and at the same time ensure that the GDR would be represented by authors who were supportive of the SED Party’s decisions and actions in the cultural domain. Needless to say, my colleagues and I at Oberlin College rejected the delegation principle, but some other US institutions of higher education with visiting writer programs of various types welcomed this “input” from the Writers’ Union.
In the fall of 1985, the German faculty at Oberlin College again invited Helga Schütz to be German Writer-in-Residence, just as I had said we would do in my March 1985 conversations with GDR Writers’ Union functionary Eberhard Scheibner at the Leipzig Book Fair. We proposed that she spend approximately three months in Oberlin during the spring 1986 semester, from mid-February to mid-May, and asked her to let us know by no later than the end of October if she would be able to accept the invitation. Predictably, her application for a visa to travel to the US was again denied, so I proceeded to contact Karl-Heinz Jakobs, a prominent GDR prose writer who had been living in West Germany since 1977.
Karl-Heinz Jakobs (1986) was one of the most vociferous of the writers who had protested the expatriation of dissident GDR writer/singer Wolf Biermann in November 1976. His harsh criticism of the ruling SED Party had led to his dismissal from the Berlin Writers’ Union as well as from the executive committee of the GDR Writers’ Union, and finally to expulsion from the SED Party in 1977. Because of his deteriorating relations with the GDR authorities, he was given a three-year “visa” and asked to leave the country for that period of time. When it expired in April 1984, the visa was extended for four more years; however, Jakobs decided not to return and stayed in West Germany.
Although restricted in some ways by this special arrangement, just as Jurek Becker had been after moving to West Berlin, Jakobs increased his commitment to confronting the problems of the communistic GDR directly. Our choice of him as a substitute for Helga Schütz was probably viewed as a provocation by officials in both the GDR Writers’ Union and the Ministry of Culture. For Jakobs, much like the two GDR writers in exile who preceded him—Bernd Jentzsch and Jurek Becker—had evolved into an outspoken critic of the Honecker regime, the GDR state, and its brand of socialism. I like to think that the GDR authorities, when they realized that we had chosen Jakobs to be our spring 1986 German writer-in-residence, regretted their decision to deny Helga Schütz this opportunity. From their perspective, she surely would have been a far better representative of the GDR than dissident writer Jakobs.
Eventually, the Helga Schütz story had a happy ending. The German faculty at Oberlin, appalled by the way she had been mistreated by the GDR authorities, resolved to keep inviting her and not to invite any other writers from the GDR until she had visited Oberlin. Two years later the GDR authorities finally relented and approved her visa application, so in the spring of 1988 Helga Schütz became Oberlin College’s 21st Max Kade German Writer-in-Residence. With the unwitting assistance of oppositional writer and SED regime critic Karl-Heinz Jakobs, we had managed to thwart the delegation principle!