Academic journal article Studia Politica; Romanian Political Science Review

Glasnost in the GDR? the East German Writers Congress of 1987

Academic journal article Studia Politica; Romanian Political Science Review

Glasnost in the GDR? the East German Writers Congress of 1987

Article excerpt

Introduction

Across the Communist world, writers congresses could be restive affairs. While each state had powerful mechanisms to curtail dissent, as critical intellectuals writers often pushed the boundaries of the sayable and sometimes directly criticized state decisions, including at the national congresses of each country's official writers association. Demands to end state censorship, for instance, were voiced in 1956 at the Polish Writers Union's congress1, as well as in 1967 at congresses for the Soviet Union of Writers2 and the Czechoslovakian Writers Union3. The Hungarian Writers Congress in September 1956 declared support for reformist leader Imre Nagy, helping to spark revolution4, just as statements at the 1967 Czechoslovakian congress contributed to the Prague Spring5. Yet in contrast to these examples, authors in the German Democratic Republic seldom used their writers congresses to criticize government actions. Several delegates at the Fourth Writers Congress in 1956 did question the ruling Socialist Unity Party's (SED) restrictive cultural policies, but they refrained from commenting on non-literary issues6. Indeed, if by the 1980s critical intellectuals in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary tended to be more anti-Communist and "anti-political", their GDR counterparts often remained committed socialists, even through the revolutions of 19897.

These tendencies could be seen in East German writers congresses, whose content had become predictable by the late 1980s. Held every four to five years, these were part business conference, part propaganda showpiece where prominent authors gathered to discuss literary issues and demonstrate support for the SED. Seldom did any hint of turmoil emerge from these meetings, an outcome owing to the careful monitoring of all aspects of the planning, including delegate selection, by the SED and its secret police, the Ministry for State Security (MfS or Stasi)8. In 1987 the Tenth Writers Congress was to be no different. As with previous iterations, it would begin with a brief opening ceremony and a perfunctory vote on the schedule, followed by the reading of a welcome by SED head Erich Honecker and a keynote speech by Hermann Kant, president of the East German Writers Union (Schriftstellerverband der DDR or SV). Before the congress opened on 24 November, there was little evidence of anything amiss. Perhaps the presence, for the first time at any artist congress in the GDR9, of the Western media should have been a cause for concern, but it was hoped that by limiting access to the plenary sessions, foreign journalists would merely witness a chorus of pro-SED acclamations.

Yet when the congress began, hints of turmoil surfaced immediately. At the start of the first session, First Secretary Gerhard Henniger, the SED's top man in the union, asked delegates for comments on the schedule. This was pure formality, with attendees expected to nod their approval. But on this day the silence was broken by Horst Matthies, a 48-year-old author from the Rostock district whose critical views had drawn Stasi attention over the years10. Rising to speak, he proposed a change. He was concerned key problems would not be addressed in the plenum, arguing that the congress "considers too little that there are burning problem areas for us all, whose meaning for our work simply forbids that they might come up only in one of the workgroups on the side"11. He shrewdly used Honecker's presence to strengthen his case, stating,

"...I am not really mistaken if I assume that these comrades have not therefore come to us because they want to ensure our approval and thanks for the clever policies for the welfare of the people, but rather because they require the input of all the creative forces of our people, including writers, in the search for the cleverest solutions for our policies, and in some measure would like to inform themselves firsthand about our worries, our problems, and our further thoughts"12. …

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