Next on my list of corrupt East German writers is Uwe Berger, a mediocre poet whose writings never achieved the recognition in the GDR or abroad that he was convinced they deserved. After rereading the sections of my Stasi-file that present his reports, letters, or information about him, I have to present him as someone who was skillful at achieving his ends by deceit or guile—i.e., a manipulative and cunning person. He also could behave in a spiteful manner vis-à-vis his writer colleagues, even persons who had done nothing whatever to provoke him. I will provide examples of his malicious behavior later on.
After World War II Berger began his literary career working for publishing houses in Berlin, from 1949-51 for the Volk und Wissen Verlag as an editorial assistant and from 1951-55 as an editor for the Aufbau-Verlag. After that he launched his career as a freelance writer which, from both an artistic and a financial point of view, was not very successful. The need to supplement his income from book sales prompted him to perform remunerated work as an evaluator of book manuscripts that publishing houses were considering for publication. His experience as an editor had prepared him well for this type of work which in time he would carry out on a large scale, mostly for his former employer, Aufbau-Verlag. Berger’s political convictions and his opportunistic mentality motivated him to ingratiate himself with both the SED-loyalist literary establishment and the Stasi. He worked for the Stasi from 1970 to 1989 under the code name IME “Uwe;” the IME acronym indicates that he could be trusted to carry out important special assignments.
As a book manuscript evaluator, Berger had a great deal of power; he was in a position to harm with a stroke of a pen those writer colleagues government authorities regarded as troublemakers, oppositional or adversarial parties. He could also punish enemies, reward allies, and sideline accomplished rivals like Günter Kunert. Berger wrote in an evaluation that Kunert’s writing definitely had a “counterrevolutionary quality” to it, implying that his famous colleague was an enemy of the state. He did not shy away from accusing fellow GDR writers of “closet fascism.” In the case of dissident songwriter-singer Bettina Wegner, who Berger thought was not sufficiently loyal to the state, he proposed of his own volition that the Stasi discredit her by labeling her lyrics “tampon poetry” in book reviews. Berger’s critiques of manuscripts were often sharply critical and caustic, unnecessarily so, reflecting the sadistic pleasure he derived from denouncing and defaming other authors and their writings from behind the shield of anonymity. Many fellow writers were unwitting targets of his wrath, in addition to the two mentioned above; for example, Sarah Kirsch, Uwe Kolbe, Monika Maron, Franz Fühmann, and Lutz Rathenow. [For more on this topic, see Philip Oltermann’s book, The Stasi Poetry Circle (London: Faber & Faber, 2020), 65-70.]
IME “Uwe” was a totally reliable unofficial collaborator, working under the direct authority of Generalmajor Paul Kienberg, head of the Main Department XX of the Ministry for State Security. Main Department XX was responsible from 1964 on for securing and controlling the state apparatus, culture (literature and art), and opposition. His excellent performance as Stasi informant and manuscript evaluator for publishing houses did not go unrewarded. In 1973 he was named to the Executive Board of the GDR Writers’ Union; he was the recipient of several remunerated GDR book prizes; and, in 1982 the Stasi rewarded Berger for his outstanding service by handing him the silver Brotherhood in Arms medal, a military honor usually reserved for individuals in the armed services. His ongoing work as an informant was lucrative; he received a handsome fee for each meeting with his handler and for each report he submitted.
Unquestioned, apparently, was Berger’s loyalty to the GDR State, which is puzzling for two reasons. First, he did not have the underprivileged proletarian background the communists preferred in their Workers’ and Peasants’ State, nor did he come from a “progressive” family; his father had been a bank director at the Deutsche Reichsbank in Berlin. Second, for some mysterious reason he never became a member of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), something persons who wanted to advance within the GDR establishment were expected but not required to do. In 1982, despite these serious deficiencies in his pedigree, the Stasi put Berger in charge of a hybrid creative writing initiative called the Working Circle of Writing Chekists (a reference to the Bolshevist secret police, the Cheka).
Members of this unique poetry circle, according to Oltermann, were Stasi trainees, young soldiers, border guards, and propaganda officers. From spring 1982 until winter 1989, they gathered once every four weeks for two hours in the House of Culture inside a fortified compound in the Adlershof district of Berlin. The Chekists were college-age recruits in the Feliks Dzerzhinsky regiment of the Ministry for State Security (the Stasi), secret policemen in training. They were also aspiring poets who were enrolled in a creative writing class led by Stasi informant Uwe Berger, a loyalist lyric poet who taught his students that poetry had to arouse emotion and elevate the desire for victory in class warfare. Berger told his students that he wanted all of their poems to sound like “The Internationale,” the inspirational anthem of the socialist movement (cf. Oltermann, 136.). The GDR State, which proudly called itself a country of readers (“Leseland DDR”), believed firmly in the power of literature as an ideological weapon.
What was the Stasi trying to achieve with its poetry program? Why did it set up the circle and how was it planning to use it? As we know, the GDR state went to great lengths to maintain complete control over its citizens, and the Stasi’s surveillance of civilians and spying on individuals was instrumental to this effort. The secret police were vigilant and paranoid watchdogs, who kept an eye on everything that was going on in their country. But, as Oltermann reports, the Stasi wasn’t just gathering information on civilians. It was also looking in on itself, particularly in the turbulent 1980s. The officers were made to share offices, so they would always be able to watch one another closely. Who, though, was watching the watchdogs, especially when they left their desks and were out of sight? Oltermann explains: “The Stasi needed someone to watch the watchers when they let their guards down. It had to find a method to take the temperature of their emotions when they were dreaming, to gaze into their hearts to identify any desires that could grow into a temptation, to X-ray their souls for deviant fears and aspirations. It had a job for Uwe Berger.” (89) With his appointment as poet-in-chief at the Adlershof House of Culture, Berger’s career as a spy did not come to an end, it just headed in a new direction that drew upon his career as a writer and editor. In October 1982, he resumed his activity as a collaborator and penned a series of short profiles of his students. As a skillful interpreter of poetry, he would be tasked with finding out what was hidden behind each aspiring poet’s mask, what was really at the bottom of his soul, and—of course—passing that information along in detailed reports to his Stasi handler.
Uwe Berger’s literary career began in 1949 and concluded when he died in February 2014. He was a state-sponsored GDR writer and, as such, the creator of unremarkable, mundane literature. In Oltermann’s words, “Berger’s poems were more often than not just a mirror that deprived reality of all enchantment, making the ordinary look only ordinary.” (57) Although he had slipped into obscurity in post-Wall Germany, there was an attempt in Berlin to set up a new poetry prize in his name two years after his death. However, due to objections by his former colleagues and contemporaries from the East German literary scene, the prize was renamed (cf. Oltermann, 180-81). Looking back, what was his major achievement? Over a period of twenty years in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was collaborating closely with the Stasi, he proved himself to be one of the most productive informants on the GDR’s literary scene. Sadly, that is his legacy.
- FIRST REPORT FROM IMV “UWE”: JUNE 4, 1976, 32-37;
- SECOND REPORT FROM IMV “UWE”: FEBRUARY 11, 1977, 65;
- THREE LETTERS AND A RESPONSE FROM UWE BERGER: 1993-1994, 337-39;
- JOACHIM WALTHER’S SICHERUNGSBEREICH LITERATUR / SECURITY ZONE LITERATURE, 342-43.
Since this material is available in its entirety in the above-mentioned book, which is a companion piece to this one, I am going to offer here only a selection of pertinent quotes with brief commentary. This should suffice to give readers additional insight into Berger’s deplorable modus operandi and his lamentable mindset.
FIRST REPORT FROM IMV “UWE”
Below are some comments Berger made in the first report to his Stasi handler; note the sarcasm and the attitude of patronizing superiority, which are typical of IMV “Uwe.”
Regarding an unflattering remark I made about the GDR Writers’ Union: “Zipser was cautious, but I got him to divulge what he meant by that.”
Regarding my assertion that the standard of living in the GDR is not going to improve in the future because GDR citizens are being cheated out of the fruits of their labor via the high prices the Soviet Union charges for energy: “I replied to him in a soft voice and friendly way, seemingly thinking more about his tirades, that it remains to be seen how the standard of living will progress. Also, saying that one could view socialism in the GDR as a successful experiment for socialism in a Western European country. . . . And by the way, I am against German isolation, . . . and also against isolation toward the West (this last assertion to win him over again).”
Regarding my comments on a novel by Stefan Heym that was banned in the GDR: “Of further importance, it seems to me is what Zipser had to say . . . about Heym’s book, Five Days in June: namely, it is not a book that confronts the GDR; yes, it criticizes, but provides constructive criticism in terms of socialism; it could foster a ‘Communication between Top and Bottom’ in today’s GDR society. Publishing it in the GDR could only stimulate independent thinking. I replied that we are very much in favor of independent thinking. This is a stated pedagogical goal of our school system.”
Regarding interest in his writings in the USA and the FRG: “When I asked Zipser for his opinion on why people in the USA, but not in the FRG, were interested in my writings, he avoided answering. The things I write about were difficult to sell and were seldom translated. I expressed my desire to emerge from a certain isolation; even in the Soviet Union none of my books has been translated yet. Zipser replied that, without flattering me, he was surprised to hear that.”
Regarding my person: “He has a pretty good knowledge of the literature of German-speaking countries and is a relatively serious scholar. His devious propaganda, the direction of which he revealed to me, is therefore all the more forbidding. Not to be underestimated as well, on its own, is the psychological impact when a bright, friendly man ‘from over there’ takes a fervent interest in an author.”
Regarding the focus of my book project: “Naturally, the ‘multifaceted picture of GDR literature’ that Zipser wants to present in a nonjudgmental way will not be truly objective. Naturally, he will try to cobble together a broadly-based rebellion, and somehow label those who do not fit in. Nevertheless, the advantage for us would remain having a voice abroad, albeit only in German and thus just for specialists. We must not attach all too much importance to Zipser’s commitment to ‘fairness,’ remarkable as it is in itself.”
Regarding my fondness for certain authors: “Zipser didn’t want to admit to a special fondness for certain GDR authors, with the exception of Sarah Kirsch and me, which for certain was a tactical act of politeness. In our conversation his affinity to authors at the ‘right of center’ (as Zipser stated at one point) became quite apparent to me. . . . On the whole, he has a higher regard for the poetry than the prose of the GDR.”
FOLLOW-UP TO FIRST REPORT FROM IMV “UWE” (NOT IN ZIPSER FILE)
By way of follow-up to the above, Uwe Berger submitted another report to his Stasi handler, handwritten on August 11, 1976. This is not in my file, but the text is presented in Joachim Walther’s book, Sicherungsbereich Literatur (Safety Zone Literature), so as to illustrate the form and content of an unofficial collaborator’s report. He writes:
“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)
SECOND REPORT FROM IMV “UWE”
Uwe Berger’s next report, to Captain Pönig in Main Department XX/7, contains trivial bits of information that are not of any importance. However, if you read this report, note that Berger decided to refer to himself here in the third person, as the source (“die Quelle”) rather than using a pronoun as he had always done before. He may have started doing this, here and elsewhere, to attract attention to his elite status as an informal collaborator on special assignments, a superior informant with an unusual or specialist skill or knowledge. In his professional life as a writer and also in his secret career as a Stasi informer, he had an insatiable appetite for recognition.
THREE LETTERS AND A RESPONSE FROM UWE BERGER
In 1993 and 1994, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the two Germanys, I received three letters from the lyric poet and cunning Stasi informant, Uwe Berger (IMV “Uwe”). All three are related to my request for some information on his personal experience with censorship and views on censorial practices in the former GDR, which I eventually received and in 1995 published in Fragebogen: Zensur (Questionnaire: Censorship). Bear in mind that at this point in time I did not yet know that Berger had been an informant and, more importantly perhaps, Berger probably did not think I would ever discover his dark secret.
In his letter of January 7, 1993, just as in the 1976 and 1977 reports from IMV “Uwe” that are in my file, Berger’s hypocritical and opportunistic nature is on full display. There is an exaggerated attempt to flatter me in the first paragraph, as he makes reference to the “pleasant conversation” we had when I visited him at his home in June 1976, then some positive comments about US citizens in general (“openminded interest” and “absence of petty-mindedness”), and finally the evocation of Ronald Reagan’s phrase “a meeting place” (“Ort der Begegnung”) and its symbolic extension—first to the US Embassy in East Berlin and then to all of Berlin as meeting places of East and West. He also mentions that he visited the residence of the US Ambassador to the GDR on Independence Day in 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1989, possibly in an effort to establish himself as a “friend” of the US. Now, what is Berger trying to accomplish with this overly complimentary letter, what does he want from me? His next letter, dated August 5, 1993, provides the answer: my assistance.
He begins this letter by wishing me much success with my project on literary censorship in the GDR, to which he is going to contribute without honorarium. He then makes reference to the cultural situation in Germany, where financial support for publishing is hard to come by. Due to this “situation,” he says, he has not been able to place his manuscripts with any German publisher. So he asks if I see a possibility, even a slight one, to get them published in the USA. The texts in question are poems from the years 1989 to 1993, he notes, which he does not want to have “put on ice.” This is very important because he wants to prove that his work did not begin and end with the GDR.
On the day after Christmas 1994, Berger wrote another letter to his “friend” in Delaware, Richard Zipser. This time he expresses gratitude for the opportunity to contribute to Fragebogen: Zensur (Leipzig: Reclam, 1995, 56-60) and, with incredible hypocrisy, indicates that he was pleased to have life in the GDR behind him (“was Gott sei Dank hinter mir liegt” / “which thank God lies behind me”). My 2022 rereading of Berger’s responses to six questions I had sent him in 1992 about his personal experience of censorship in the GDR confirms that I gave him a convenient way to again portray himself as a victim, something he may actually have come to believe.