Protest without an Echo - 1968 in East Germany
Peter Huchel’s Winterpsalm [Winter Psalm] was one of the frosty farewell poems published by the politically unpopular editor-in-chief of the journal Sinn und Form [Meaning and Form] in 1962, shortly before he was fired. Motionless rivers, sinking light, dying dreams: Huchel’s metaphors of stagnation later proved prophetic for the future of the country as a whole, and they still illustrate what East Germans, unlike their counterparts in the West, associate with the number ‘1968’: not a new dawn, but prevention of a new dawn. Not student protests and sexual revolution, but the suppression of the Prague Spring before it had a chance to blossom.
On August 21st 1968 Soviet tanks, reinforced by Polish, Hungarian and Bulgarian troops, rolled into the Reform Communist Czechoslovakia of Alexander Dubcek. East Germany didn’t march in with them, but it celebrated the violent disciplining of its neighbour, during which nearly 100 Czechoslovaks died. It was the abrupt end of a brief summer of anarchy. East German intellectuals’ hopes of a new, revived Marxism that could have evolved from the arguments with West German fans of Marcuse (branded heretics by the orthodox party philosophers) and the Czechoslovak Kafka devotees (regarded with hostility by literary scholars who followed the Party line and who saw them as apologists of alienation) were dashed. The hordes of young East German pilgrims dwindled away; they had flocked to Prague as if to the Promised Land, to watch Hollywood films, to purchase jazz records, Western magazines, and above all the German-language newspaper Prager Volkszeitung. This published works such as the song Drei Kugeln auf Rudi Dutschke [Three Bullets for Rudi Dutschke] by the songwriter and poet Wolf Biermann, who had effectively been silenced by the East German regime.
The revolutionary tourists seized on hot commodities like this, and even if the East German customs officers at the border confiscated half their luggage they could comfort themselves with the thought of having smuggled over a little piece of the euphoria of the wild months between January 1968, when Dubcek took office, and his arrest by the KGB in August. So if nowadays people claim that the Prague Spring found no positive resonance in East Germany, this is only half true. What is true is that in March 1968 the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) was already attacking the reform-minded Czech Communist Party. At the same time the Stasi was noting a strong response among East Germans of solidarity with the Czechs. Students in East Berlin held vehement discussions about the lack of certain freedoms in the DDR, saying that these should be fought for and won as they had been in Prague. Many Party members and children of high Party officials protested throughout East Germany against the invasion by the Warsaw Pact soldiers; leaflets circulated with slogans like ‘Long live Red Prague!’, and within two weeks after the fall of Dubcek the East German police had a list of 1,075 agitators, around half of whom were arrested. The historian Stefan Wolle, born in the DDR in 1950, writes about the so-called ideological clarification process: ‘Seduced by the platitudes about honesty from their days as pioneers, many young people walked right into the trap set for them by the state security services. Some irretrievably ruined their future careers; others learned the tactics of how to conform without abandoning their ideals, while others still became cynics and careerists.’
With hindsight, it seems like a sick joke that it was Walter Ulbricht, of all people, who as East German leader fought so bitterly against the Prague Spring sympathisers. In the early Sixties, with his New Economic System, Ulbricht had aspired to a gradual orientation of the command economy to market conditions, similar to what Dubcek was now seeking. Ulbricht, however, had been thwarted by Brezhnev. Now he was doing everything he could not to reawaken the anger of Moscow. He was also afraid that the West German protest culture might find imitators in the East. The government in East Berlin was demonstrative in its support for the SDS (the Socialist German Student Union in the West) and the anti-Springer committees, while secretly demonising the student movement as petty bourgeois anarchy that was in fact hostile to the ‘theory of the working class’. In any case, Ulbricht had no time for intellectual permissiveness and had potential dissenters punished as a precautionary measure; in doing so he deepened the rift between the political classes and critical intellectuals.
This rift had opened up before 1968, but for many writers, artists and filmmakers it now became unbridgeable. The 1960s in East Germany must be imagined as a prevented spring awakening, a bitter struggle between the reactionary die-hards and a new generation of emancipated leftists. They didn’t want to abolish their state, they wanted to criticise it. In doing so they did not feel bound by any false loyalty – unlike those old Communists who had survived Hitler’s concentration camps and owed Big Brother gratitude, or the belated anti-Fascists who had believed in Nazism and were now bound to Party discipline by their bad consciences. The East German leadership loved this kind of submissiveness. It was deaf and blind to the confident style of state allegiance demonstrated by its young critics.
This blindness was especially apparent in the semi-official interpretation of Volker Braun’s Gedicht Jazz [Poem Jazz] of 1965. ‘The piano dissects the corpse Obedience,’ Braun had written; ‘The saxophone breaks the shackle of the score’. Of course, poetry like this, celebrating the untamed, contradicted the ideal of art as something systematic and disciplined. The prominent critics who were let loose on Braun were promptly scandalised: jazz was not a suitable metaphor for the Socialist state. This was already obvious in the fact that jazz had no score, but more importantly there was no conductor!
This kind of dull aggressiveness in dealing with ‘creative artists’ became the standard political style in the 1960s. It is an irony of history that it was at precisely this point that so many strong-willed thinkers appeared on the scene. Ernst Bloch and Hans Mayer had already been scared away to the West when Volker Braun, Heiner Müller, Adolf Endler, Günter Kunert, Peter Hacks, Sarah Kirsch and Karl Mickel fell into disfavour. They produced vexatious texts that offended against the doctrine of Socialist realism, considered desirable by less sophisticated minds within the Politbüro.
The unhappy climax of the defensive war against all independent thought was the eleventh plenum of the Central Committee of the SED in December 1965, later infamous as the ‘slate-cleaning plenum’. At this meeting dozens of new Defa films, such as Kurt Maetzig’s Das Kaninchen bin ich [I Am the Rabbit], were subjected to a dressing-down for being insufficiently partisan. Stefan Heym, Wolf Biermann and Robert Havemann, among others, were put in the stocks. And Werner Bräunig’s debut novel, Rummelplatz [Fairground], which caused a sensation recently when it was published posthumously, was completely annihilated before it was even completed; only Christa Wolf dared to give an improvised speech in its defence. Unimpressed, the pundits raged against everything which seemed to them suited to ideological ‘diversion’. Western television, free rhythms, long hair. They castigated Beat music as a weapon of the West for the demoralisation of the East, and fired back with all the anti-art battle cries of the time: decadence, scepticism, nihilism, formalism, anarchy, pornography…
In order to understand the furore that surrounded the 11th Plenum it must be understood that this was a surrogate war. Originally, the SED had wanted to use the Plenum to distance itself from the New Economic System. However, because the most important proponent of this idea after Ulbrecht – Erich Apel, the head of the State Planning Commission – had shot himself shortly beforehand, the economy could not be a topic on the Plenum’s agenda. The opponents of reform therefore transferred to literature and art their craving to get even with the reformers. The fact that it was Erich Honecker who staged the Cultural Plenum indicates the continuity of the ideological terrorisation that led to Wolf Biermann being stripped of his citizenship in 1976 – surprisingly late, in fact – and the exodus of large numbers of dissidents. A writer really had to have an absolute belief in Socialism to be able to bear the ubiquitous censorship, having their work evaluated by loyal party members and being dictated to by them.
Reiner Kunze satirised these ideological impositions at the time in the mocking poem Das Ende der Kunst [The End of Art]: ‘you may not, said the owl to the capercaillie, / you may not sing to the sun, / the sun is not important. / the capercaillie took the sun out of his poem. / you are an artist, / said the owl to the capercaillie. / and it was nice and dark.’
Following the suppression of the Prague Spring, Kunze resigned from the SED. It was almost another ten years before he decided that things had become unbearable and fled from the shady Socialists to West Germany. However, the more profound reasons for his departure, like those of many other intellectuals, were rooted in the fateful 1960s. This was the time when, at least in intellectual terms, the DDR sealed its own doom.
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Translated by Charlotte Collins
Evelyn Finger grew up in East Germany. She is an editor with the features section of Die Zeit.
Copyright: From Die Zeit – Geschichte (2), 2007.
Goethe-Institut, Fikrun wa Fann May 2008
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