Stefan Heym, 28. 9. 1987, Berlin, East Germany

Questions to the narrator


Location Berlin, East Germany
Date 28. 9. 1987
Length 15:04

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For many years you've been a senior member of the East German Writers' Union, a well-known writer in this country. Since 1979 you fell out with the authorities over a book of yours. Could you tell us what happened, why did your relationship with the authorities come to an end?

Well when you talk of falling out, I've had problems with them for many many years before that. But in 1979 I published a novel called “Collin” which deals with a certain section of the history of the GDR and certain complications which they had, and the book was not published here, and they didn't like very much my publishing it in the west, and so I was tried in court for publishing the book in the west without permission, governmental permission.

… was the heresy, what was it they objected to?

That's what I tried to tell you, it covered part of the history of the German Democratic Republic, and it was a part which was not officially talked, being talked about. And so anyhow there was this trial and I was sentenced to a fine of 9,000 marks, that’s about £3,000 at present rate, official rate I would say, and afterwards the Writers' Union of which I was a member of long standing, kicked me out, that is the vote was of course forced but ever since that time…

How does that happen, there is a vote taken, they say Stefan Heym.

Yeah, the thing is the Presidium of the Writers' Union put the motion and the, the great thing was that about I would say 30% of the members did not vote for the motion of the Presidium, that is already I would say a miracle in this part of the world, or at that time, in ’79, it was a miracle.

So what is now your situation?

My situation. My situation is that I'm living here and working here and writing here and I'm being published in this country but not with my latest titles, five books of mine are forbidden here, but aside from that I'm living perfectly comfortably and as you see I'm talking to BBC, not to BBC to ITV I think it is, or Channel 4 let's call it, and here at the Brandenburg Gate and over there the police are standing and looking at us and you see how much freedom we have, or I have.

So between officialdom and dissent there is quite a grey zone, in which.


Creative people can operate.

Yeah, that's right, and I think this so, is increasing, it's increasing, it's getting broader now, the development of the last years and Gorbachev is having a quiet effect on this country too I would say.

Yes. Do you feel that glasnost is coming to East Germany at all?

No, no, not at the moment, but I think in the long run economic and other developments will force the GDR government to accept some of the features of glasnost at least.

What are the main obstacles to the spread of glasnost, to the spread of changes…

Well, that you never know where it stops, you see. You permit this and you permit that and then people get fresh and they say we want this too, we want that, and then you cannot stop them, and before you know it your whole setup has changed you know and they want to avoid that. This is the, this is the problem of glasnost, (overtalking) you know. If you're starting in with democracy, you never know where democracy ends.

What are the main taboos for a writer here, are there still taboos, and...

Ah well you see things have changed in the arts you can do now in contrast to 10 years or 20 years ago, you can do now pretty much anything you like in music and painting, you can paint the craziest stuff, and it will be exhibited officially and you can make a music that is absolute caterwauling and it will be produced and even applauded. The only exception is literature. If you write things that are pertaining to the status of the present time and that describe certain truths that are not liked officially then you might get into trouble. So far as, as your work has not been published, you won't have much other problem. The other thing is that unfortunately a lot of writers have left the country, you see have gone west and we have lost a lot of talent, I regret that very much.

But many people still say that the best German literature today is East German literature. Should one speak of an East German literature, or of a German literature as such?

Well there is German literature as such, and East German literature is a part of it. You see. And a distinct separate part of it, because we have a distinct separate set-up in the country, it's different from West Germany, and since literature always pertains to what is socially in a country, the social affairs, social status, therefore we have a GDR literature, in other words the themes are different, the treatment is different from West German literature.

Could one say paradoxically that the existence of censorship and the whole problem of self-censorship gives the writers here to their writing some extra edge?

I was coming to that, I, my feeling is that (interruption)

Repeat your question.

Could one say paradoxically that the existence of censorship and of self-censorship gives the East German literature an extra edge, an extra sharp edge?

I was coming to that, you see if you are a writer in the west, you can write practically anything you like, and nobody gives a good goddamn, it doesn't make any difference what you write. Of course, it's being read and people smile at it, are entertained by it, but it has very little political effect. In this part of the world it's entirely different. The writer here has more weight, his word counts, that's why you have censorship because his word counts, and because politicians must take seriously what the writer writes. Therefore it's a lot more fun to work as a writer in this part of the world, in this so-called Socialist part of the world.

But that means that the writer has a political role as well, or a broader social role.

Yes, that's right.

That is an interaction between politics and literature, that's what makes it.

That's right, and of course it also puts a certain responsibility on the writer you see, and you were, before we were talking about self-censorship, there exists something like that, you know for years I have not written certain things because I felt that they are better not said. The government felt that much more be better not said you see, there was a difference. Today I feel that we should say everything and I am saying pretty much everything I want to say.

Now coming back to this difference between the situation in the 50's and today, how would you contrast the situation, how was the situation then?

Yeah, what do you call the 50's, before or after the 20th Congress? You see that is a great big difference, that's a great big jump, and

Well before and after, then.

Well before the 20th Congress things were pretty tight, you see, and there were also a lot of things that a writer did not know at that time, the 50's, in 1956 the 20th Congress uncovered a lot of developments that were important for the whole Socialist world, the death of Stalin meant a lot, and then the

The death of Stalin which incidentally had some repercussions here in Berlin in 1953.

1953 yes, it was indirect the effect of the death of Stalin, and we had this, some people called it an uprising I think it was a strike, counter-movement of the workers against certain measures that the government took, I have written a novel about it “Five Days in June” came out in England too, you can read it, it gives the problem of the time. But even when I wrote that book there were things that I did not know, about the inner workings of the apparatus, the inner workings of history I might say. So

How does one account for the fact that the GDR…
Since 1953 however, there have been crises in various East European countries, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia, in Hungary. East Germany has been relatively stable. How does one account for that fact?

You see that structure behind me? What is that, how do you call it?

I call that the Wall.

No. That's the Brandenburg Gate. And that's part of the wall. Behind Brandenburg Gate is the West. And that is the answer to your question. If you are that close to the west, there are certain things you cannot do as a government. So therefore the East German government didn't make a number of mistakes that the Poles made, Czechs made, and so on. On the other hand, the people here were more satisfied after, after these events of 1952, er 1953, that made the government very careful in the demands they made on the workers and so on, there was not that much dissatisfaction as you had for instance in Poland. On the other hand, you didn't have, mustn't forget these are Germans. And the Germans unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, are accustomed to putting their hands to their – to how do you call it ‘Hosennaht’ in English – to the seam of their trousers and to stand straight and say at your orders please, you see. And this is an old German trait and you have to, you have to count that too you see, the German

It is precisely

The Germans accept orders more readily than other people.

But there is precisely here a rehabilitation, there is precisely here a rehabilitation of the German past or the German tradition, so is it that the authorities think they can use this German tradition for socialism, to make socialism work better?

Well, well I no I don't think so, I think that the government made a mistake in its earlier period, in destroying a certain number of things which they could have left safely you see, that statue of Frederick the Great on the street on which we are standing now which has now been put up again, that was taken down, or the City Palace of the Kings of Prussia was completely destroyed, although the war had left part of it standing. They could have reconstructed it and they are very sorry, and now they are reconstructing some of the old buildings, some of the old streets of East Berlin and are very proud that they have and that they can do it. And I think that is all to the good. I think socialism is a continuation of the previous history of the country, and you cannot just break up everything and break off everything and start completely anew, this is nonsense because people, people grow in the cause of history and they are based on history, their mind, their thinking is based on history, and if socialists do not take that into account they are damn fools and not socialists.

Yeah but they are mainly German. Now how much are people here in their thinking about German history, how much are they in touch, influenced by the debates going on in the other Germany, among writers, among intellectuals in the other Germany?

Of course, you see, German history is double-faced you know, there are good things in it and some very bad things you know, I think of Auschwitz and so on. (interruption)

Repeat your question.

Now how much are people here in their thinking about German history, German culture, influenced by debates going on in West Germany among intellectuals in West Germany? How much of an interaction is there between the two Germanies, culturally?

You see German history is double-faced, there are good things in it. And very bad things, talking of Auschwitz, Second World War, Hitler and so on. That is still with the people, you cannot get rid of your past that easily. And the two parts of Germany have taken a different course in trying to live down that history. Still, of course, it's one culture, and of course there are influences that cross from this side, from the East German side to the West Germans. And from the West Germans to here. You mustn't forget that the electronic media, television, radio, cannot be stopped here at the Wall, where we are standing. Goddam electric sparks come across you know, and everybody in the GDR except around Dresden, looks at West German television, gets West German news. And so the influences are very natural. West German television doesn't reach Dresden, that's why the people there don’t see it, and that's why you also have a slightly higher rate of people trying to leave Dresden than the tendency is to leave the rest of the GDR

Are you saying that watching West German television.

That's right

makes people think twice before leaving because what they see is not.

(overtalking) No but you see West German television, I think the East German government might as well make a slight, could even pay some money to West German television, because it helps to keep people satisfied and quiet, you see. The entertainment value of West German television is a little higher than that of East German television. Although now, in the sign of glasnost they are making real efforts and I must say the, the operetta, musicals, and all this kind of stuff and jazz and rock music, all that is now in the GDR very much up and coming, we have had Bob Dylan here the other day and I think about 100,000 people streaming there to listen to the fellow and things like that

So, there is a great influence of western culture, and particularly West German culture but perhaps less contact with neighbouring Poland or Czechoslovakia?

Yes (overtalking) to a certain extent, but you see some of the interesting things that develop over there in the eastern, our eastern neighbours reach here, don't worry about that, and especially now when you have all these new developments in the Soviet Union that comes here very fast and thick and one of the, one of the people most watched here and best liked here is Gorbachev.

But during Solidarity there was not great enthusiasm here for.

No, not at all, because there is a lot of resentment on the part of the Germans towards Poles, I don't know why and perhaps because Poles came here in droves to buy in the GDR and they came with a lot of money and there was a lot of black marketeering here, and people resented that, and the Poles came over from Warsaw and from their cities to buy out the scarce goods in the GDR. So there was some anti-Polish sentiment, and when Solidarity developed there was not much sympathy for it. And the other thing is that we didn't have the same conditions here that produced Solidarity, not that our trade unions have any kind of interest in the minds of the people, they don't cause that, they are not a very, a very good organisation or really, they don't do what the trade unions should do. But it wasn’t necessary because workers are not exploited to the degree that workers were exploited in Poland, and therefore there was no such strong feeling for Solidarity. So I think we have enough…


Stefan Heym (1913–2001)

Stefan Heym

Stefan Heym was born in Chemnitz, Germany, on April 10, 1913; he died in En Bokek, Israel, on December 16, 2001. Heym was a German writer and one of the most important writers of the GDR. From 1994 to 1995 he was a member of the PDS in the 13th German Bundestag. He also held US citizenship for a time.

Stefan Heym was born with the name "Helmut Flieg" to a Jewish merchant family in Chemnitz. He became involved as an anti-fascist at an early age and was expelled from his hometown's high school in 1931 under pressure from the local National Socialists for his anti-militarist poem Exportgeschäft, which had appeared in the Social Democratic daily Volksstimme on September 7, 1931. He passed his school-leaving exams in Berlin and began studying journalism there. After the Reichstag fire in 1933, he fled to Czechoslovakia, where he took the name Stefan Heym. In 1935 he went to the United States on a scholarship from a Jewish fraternity, where he continued his studies at the University of Chicago. From 1937 to 1939 he was editor-in-chief in New York of the German-language weekly Deutsches Volksecho, which was close to the Communist Party of the USA. After the newspaper ceased publication in November 1939, Heym worked as a freelance writer in English. His first novel, Hostages, published in 1942, was already a great success.

From 1943 Heym, now an American citizen, took part in the Second World War. As a member of a psychological warfare unit, he followed the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. After the end of the war, Heym headed the Ruhr Zeitung in Essen and was subsequently editor of the Neue Zeitung in Munich, one of the most important newspapers of the American occupation forces. Because of his pro-Soviet stance, Heym was transferred back to the United States at the end of 1945. Heym left the army and worked again as a freelance writer in the following years. Heym left the U.S. in 1952 at the same time as Charlie Chaplin, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann, left-wing intellectuals and artists who were induced to emigrate during the McCarthy era. He first moved to Prague, from where he moved to the GDR in 1953.

In the GDR, Heym was initially given privileged treatment as a repatriated anti-fascist émigré. He worked as a freelance writer and also published for newspapers and magazines. Stefan Heym was awarded the GDR's National Prize for Art and Literature in 1959.

Conflicts with the GDR leadership arose as early as 1956 when, despite de-Stalinization, the leadership refused to publish "Der Tag X" (later titled "Five Days in June"), Heym's book about the popular uprising of June 17, 1953. Tensions intensified beginning in 1965, when Erich Honecker fiercely attacked Heym during the 11th plenum of the SED. In the same year, Heym was banned from publishing. In 1979 he was convicted a second time for unauthorized publication in the Federal Republic of Germany - this time for "Collin" - and expelled from the GDR Writers' Association.

Stefan Heym supported the civil rights movement in the GDR in the 1980s. As early as 1982, he spoke out in favor of German reunification under socialist auspices.

Heym gave several speeches at demonstrations during the peaceful revolution in the fall of 1989. In the years following reunification, Heym was highly critical of what he saw as the disadvantages suffered by East Germans in the course of their integration into the Federal Republic and insisted on a just socialist alternative to what was now all-German capitalism. In October 1995, Heym resigned his mandate in protest against a planned constitutional amendment in connection with the increase in parliamentary allowances for members of the Bundestag.