Unofficial and Illegal Publications

In my snapshot on Literary Censorship in the GDR, I have highlighted and discussed the various forms and mechanisms of censorship that existed within East Germany as well as its ultimate goal in the cultural sphere—the stimulation of self-censorship. In their efforts to circumvent the near-perfect censorship process and to avoid prosecution or other suppression, GDR writers produced several types of unofficial and illegal literature, three examples of which will be discussed in this piece. These are 1) desk drawer literature; 2) samizdat (Russian: self-publishing), a form of clandestine or underground literature; 3) unauthorized and therefore illegal publication of books in other German-speaking countries such as West Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Drawer Literature

Drawer literature as a concept originated in the People’s Republic of China during the Maoist period (1949-1976). It referred to literature that had been written during this turbulent period but which for political reasons could not be published until years later, if at all. Schubladenliteratur is the German term for desk drawer literature, and it can be traced back to the end of World War II. After the war ended in 1945, some German writers who had been Nazi sympathizers during the Third Reich presented texts they claimed to have retrieved from their desk drawers as evidence that they were not collaborators but good democrats after all. [For more information on this topic, see Ernst Klee’s “Encyclopedia of People in the Third Reich. Who was What before and after 1945?” (Das Kulturlexikon zum Dritten Reich. Wer war was vor und nach 1945? Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 2007. 720 pp.)]

In the GDR the desk drawers contained a different sort of literature, texts by so-called dissident writers who were critical of their communistic society and government. These texts had no chance of being published in their own country and, if they were made public, might have landed their authors in prison. That notwithstanding, these desk drawers were not filled with oppositional literature written during decades of censorship in the GDR and just waiting to be published. One way or another, East German authors who produced Schubladenliteratur always managed to publish what they had written, usually in West Germany. In the late 1970s and 1980s many dissident GDR writers moved voluntarily or were forced to emigrate to the West, where their previously unpublishable writings found their way into print. Hence, most literary critics with a serious interest in the GDR would be hard-pressed today to name a single important work that emerged from storage in a desk drawer during the 1990s.


Samizdat was a form of dissident literary activity in the Soviet-ruled post-World War II communist countries in which individuals reproduced censored and makeshift underground publications, often by hand, and passed the documents from reader to reader. This illegal literature, secretly written then copied and circulated privately, was usually critical of the practices of the Soviet government; for this reason it was unpublishable and forbidden. My one and only encounter with Samizdat made in the GDR came at the Leipzig Book Fair in March 1985.

I turn to my Stasi-file to refresh my memory of what I have come to realize was a unique experience, something far more significant from a literary-historical perspective than I perceived at the time. A report in my file reminds me that I stayed in the drab, somewhat run-down Interhotel am Ring which was a short distance away from the Trade Fair House, the multi-storied home of the Book Fair. The file also reminds me that I had met (for the first time) with outspoken dissident writer and poet Lutz Rathenow, who was not permitted to publish his works in the GDR. He had published his first book illegally in West Germany, a collection of short texts critical of the GDR (Already Prepared for the Worst / Mit dem Schlimmsten wurde schon gerechnet). For this transgression Rathenow was arrested in 1980 and imprisoned for three months. From then on he was under close surveillance by the Stasi, but he and his friends continued to smuggle their manuscripts into West Berlin and West Germany, to be published there. We had a dinner meeting that lasted several hours and were joined by Hans-Jürgen Schmitt, an editor with the West German Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag who had published several paperback anthologies of GDR literature.

Before we parted company, Rathenow gave me an unusual present, a handmade booklet containing typewritten texts by eight younger oppositional writers who were unable to find a GDR publisher for all or some of their works. In the GDR and elsewhere in the Soviet bloc, banned authors such as Rathenow would reproduce censored and underground publications by hand, and then these documents were circulated among readers. The purpose of this clandestine self-publishing practice, a key form of dissident activity, was to circumvent official state censorship. It was not without danger, however, as harsh punishments were imposed on persons caught possessing or copying censored materials. I thought it was quite an honor to be given an authentic samizdat literary anthology by Lutz Rathenow. A few photos of this unique publication appear below.

The booklet has a large wraparound cover made of heavier weight paper. The cover has a black ink woodblock image of two human faces, a woman and a man, and the artist’s seal. Inside the cover, stapled together, one finds a table of contents followed by nine texts, the first of which is “A Letter from Prague” (“Ein Brief aus Prag”) dated January 1984. Although the author of the letter is not identified, it is likely it was written by Rathenow who is listed as the author of the final literary text. The writers who contributed the other literary texts are Lothar Trolle, Stephan Ernst, Elke Erb, Raja Lubinetzki, Johannes Jansen, Eberhard Häfner, and Katja Lange. Rathenow was hounded by the East German secret police in the years leading up to reunification, but since 1990 he has garnered considerable acclaim as a writer. Erb and Lange (now Lange-Müller) have also established themselves as mainstream writers in today’s unified Germany.

Illegal Book Publications

It was illegal for GDR authors to publish their works in countries other than the GDR—in German or in translation—without first securing official approval from the government authorities. But from time to time frustrated and defiant writers, such as Lutz Rathenow, would proceed to do just that. Their willingness to break the law usually had evasion of censorship as its purpose, but it could also be for ideological or financial reasons. West German publishing houses were eager to publish books by high-profile GDR writers, especially those who were considered controversial. However, before a work could be considered for publication in the West, it would have to be submitted to an East German publisher and from there undergo the censorial review process. If a work was cleared for publication in the GDR, the East German Copyright Office would then assist its author with the legal and bureaucratic work associated with a book being licensed for publication in the West.

Let’s consider the case of German-Jewish writer Stefan Heym, the GDR’s most famous and widely read author, who had emigrated from Germany to the US in 1935 and later become a US citizen. Heym was able to establish himself as a freelance author, writing in English. His first novel, Hostages (1942), was a bestseller, and his novel The Crusaders climbed to sixth place on The New York Times list of best sellers. In 1952, he wrote a letter to President Eisenhower protesting the Korean War and the fascistic policies of the American government. He then decided to move back to Europe with his American wife and requested asylum in communist East Germany. In 1953, the GDR government restored his former German citizenship, enabling him and his wife to move to East Berlin.

Heym’s political activism intensified in the GDR and before long SED Party officials came to regret their decision to repatriate him. His first major conflict with the GDR authorities occurred in 1956 when his novel about the June 17, 1953 mass uprising of workers in East Berlin, 5 Days in June (5 Tage im Juni),was published in West Germany and in English translation but rejected for publication in the GDR. The fact that Heym’s novel was banned in East Germany underscored how dangerous his fictional recounting of history was in the minds of the GDR’s leaders.

Heym continued publishing his books in Western countries, both in German and in English translation, and these publications earned him large sums of hard currency that GDR authorities were eager to share in accordance with a formula the state had established. Heym resisted, and in 1969 he was convicted of violating the GDR’s currency exchange regulations after publishing his novel Lassalle in West Germany. In 1979 he was again convicted of breaching the GDR’s currency exchange regulations, this time in connection with the publication of his novel Collin in West Germany. This violation resulted in his expulsion from the GDR Writers’ Union and a major confrontation with government officials that would eventually involve eight prominent writers who supported Heym and, for so doing, would also be expelled from the Writers’ Union. Facing prosecution for alleged currency offences, Heym wrote to me (in English) in late April of 1979: “If you’ve been following the news, you may have noticed that there’s trouble brewing in this place—I am going to be prosecuted on a trumped-up charge of violation of foreign currency rules, in reality, because I refused to ask the GDR authorities for permission to have my books printed abroad if they’re forbidden here.” A few months later, Heym was tried and fined 9,000 West German marks for having published his novel in the West without securing authorization from GDR officials and for neglecting to report the income he had received in foreign currency.

East German writers like Stefan Heym who published books illegally in Western countries, and in the process violated the GDR’s foreign currency regulations, faced a series of possible penalties and punishments. The most drastic of these included imprisonment, house arrest, expatriation, and exile—punishments reserved for the most troublesome and persistent dissenters. Serious offenders might also be denied the privilege of publishing or reading, lecturing, and performing in public. They and their families might even be threatened with bodily harm or openly harassed by the secret police, if they were too prominent to silence in other ways; this is precisely what Günter Kunert and Christa Wolf experienced for “misbehaving” in the late 1970s. Lesser penalties included expulsion from the SED Party, expulsion from the local and/or national Writers’ Union, the denial of visas for travel to the West, and the publication of one’s books in ridiculously small editions. In Heym’s case the punishment amounted to little more than a cautionary slap on the wrist, since GDR authorities did not want to stem the flow of hard Western currency into their coffers. However, in many instances the punishments for illegal publication had dire personal and professional consequences for the affected writers. For examples, see my snapshots on Bernd Jentzsch, Sarah Kirsch, and Reiner Kunze.

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