Censorship was one of the GDR’s worst kept secrets. Everyone knew that the arts were censored, but the word censorship was still taboo.
The GDR’s leaders spoke instead of ‘planning’ cultural processes and ‘protecting’ socialist art, and they constantly reminded artists of their ‘responsibility’ not to damage the state or its reputation. Functionaries avoided the word ‘verboten’: when they did ban films or plays, they referred euphemistically to ‘administrative measures’ and ‘instructions’, and in most cases theatre managers officially took the decision to ‘cancel’ performances.
After the GDR collapsed, few people admitted to having acted as censors. Instead, the functionaries in charge of overseeing film, literature or theatre tended to argue that they had made things possible and had prevented worse excesses from taking place. This was not just to self-delusion, but reflects the fact that their roles included both the promotion and the restriction of culture. The GDR had a vibrant theatre scene, and some new plays were only staged because state and Party officials had taken a calculated risk. But this was scant consolation to those theatre practitioners who had their projects cancelled or banned, were unable to secure work, and found themselves subjected to Stasi surveillance and intimidation.
Why keep censorship a secret?
From the outset, the GDR’s leaders were determined to distance their state from Germany’s most recent past. They defined the GDR as an anti-fascist state that had make a conscious break with the practices of National Socialism. In the immediate post-war years, censorship was presented as an integral part of de-Nazification. Both the Soviet authorities and the Allies practised censorship openly, and cultural policy documents in the Soviet zone used the word ‘censorship’. It was the imminent establishment of the German Democratic Republic that forced censorship underground in 1949, and artists were initially slow to catch on.
In August 1949, Thuringia’s Education Ministry warned theatre managers not to refer to production bans. These belonged to the post-war state of emergency or – worse still – the Third Reich, not the new ‘democratic’ republic. Its constitution of 1949 even included a qualified form of the Weimar Republic’s ban on censorship, saying ‘Press censorship does not take place’. References such as this functioned as tokens of legitimacy, presenting the GDR as a state that had inherited Germany’s democratic traditions and was not simply a Soviet import. This was crucial because the GDR was in competition with West Germany, which consistently branded it a dictatorship.
How did this secrecy affect theatre practitioners?
In the GDR, theatre practitioners and other artists faced the worst of both worlds: they suffered all the controls of censorship, with none of the securities. Theatre managers, directors, dramatists and publishers were held personally liable for their work, even though productions and publications had been filtered through prior controls. So if cultural officials misjudged the political climate and a theatre production generated a scandal, the company would be left to face the music alone.
Whilst censorship scandals were never a capital offence in the GDR, the consequences could still be serious: as punishment for staging a play by Heiner Müller in 1961, the director B. K. Tragelehn was sent to work in a coal mine and was unable to direct for the next three years. After Faust I had provoked a scandal at the Deutsches Theater in 1968, one dramaturge noted privately that whilst censorship might not exist, the option of sacking those responsible did.
Worries and Power
The extent to which, despite de facto censorship, theatre managers and directors were held responsible for their work is clear from a production of Peter Hacks’s play Die Sorgen und die Macht (Worries and Power) at the Deutsches Theater in 1962-3. Many of the preliminary signs had augured well: a test production in a small mining town, Senftenberg, had passed without major incident; the Deutsches Theater had altered the script in line with official recommendations; and the Ministry of Culture was keen to have the play staged – actually significantly keener than the Deutsches Theater itself, which though that a play about a coal factory was unlikely to interest its mainly middle-class audience. So the director and theatre manager Wolfgang Langhoff and his actors were genuinely astonished and horrified when their production unleashed a barrage of criticism from high-ranking officials. Langhoff reportedly protested:
Many comrades helped during the previews. After attending one of the previews, Comrade Rodenberg did not express any reservations about the play; Comrade Axen agreed, saying that the play must be performed. […] In the theatre we were shocked. We expected praise; what we got was harsh criticism.[i]
Alarmed by the extent to which they had judged the political climate, officials sought to cover up their oversight by denouncing the production. This left the Deutsches Theater to bear the brunt of the ‘process of ideological clarification’, post-performance censorship by another name.
This process aimed to make the theatre withdraw its production and express public remorse. The central and local authorities pursued a twofold strategy: a largely rigged press debate in public and prolonged discussions with the Deutsches Theater in private.
This was censorship at its most insidious, not only because it was disguised as public opinion, but because the theatre was forced to cooperate with the destruction of its own production, to accept the role of a recalcitrant schoolchild who had been brought to reason, and to thank the Party for its help, patience and superior wisdom. Even after the authorities had systematically broken the actors’ opposition in a series of meetings, lasting up to ten hours, the GDR’s leader Walter Ulbricht claimed that the Party had not intervened. He presented Wolfgang Langhoff, one of the great twentieth-century German directors, a concentration camp survivor, and loyal Party member, as a sulky teenager. He said: ‘I know that Comrade Langhoff was angry with us for a while, even though we hadn’t done anything’; ‘[no one] intervened administratively in any way.’[ii]
Reducing the risks
Worries and Power shows that the regime’s denial of censorship exposed artists to considerable risks. These in turn encouraged caution and self-censorship. Directors wanted their work to reach an audience and knew that production bans would jeopardize their future stagings by reducing the authorities’ trust in them. While the same rules on responsibility and trust applied to writers, theatre practitioners were in some ways more vulnerable. Unlike literary texts, theatre productions could not simply be stowed away in a director’s desk drawer and pulled out again when the political climate had thawed. So companies had a strong incentive to participate in the charade of paternalism and pedagogy, to request the authorities’ advice, and to adopt their suggestions. For example, in 1965 the Berliner Ensemble’s manager Helene Weigel – Brecht’s widow – invited the Deputy Culture Minister to an early rehearsal of Volker Braun’s new play, saying that the theatre would like him to visit them. And when the Deutsches Theater faced its next major censorship controversy, over Faust I in 1968, its members consciously pursued a conciliatory line, in order to avoid a repeat of the stand-off that had occurred over Worries and Power.
Despite this evidence of conformity and compliance, signs of non-cooperation and even counter-censorship strategies emerged from the mid-1960s onwards. As the consensus about the need for de facto censorship began to crumble, the authorities could no longer count automatically on theatre managers to take responsibility for functionaries’ decisions. In 1977, the theatre manager Dieter Klein reportedly told members of the Volksbühne that local officials had warned him not to stage three of Heiner Müller’s plays. Local officials reprimanded Klein for his unusual candour, telling him ‘that these methods are not tenable, as they will be misinterpreted by members of the ensemble and will strengthen the aversion that some members feel towards the state authorities’. They added: ‘In future, the management of the Volksbühne must act more carefully in front of the ensemble, think through the arguments of the town council and represent them accordingly.’[iii]
Alluding to censorship
Some theatres even began to allude to censorship in their productions and thus to break the official taboo. At the Deutsches Theater in 1968, the director Adolf Dresen and his actors updated the ‘Walpurgis Night’s Dream’ scene in Faust I. In the original scene, guests at a Golden Wedding celebration present a series of satirical verses as gifts to Oberon and Titania, characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But at the Deutsches Theater, the actors presented the couple with a series of apologies from the absent guests, contemporary figures from the GDR cultural scene. This in itself was risqué, for it could be interpreted either as an indication that the GDR establishment would steer clear of the production, or as an allusion to the euphemisms with which theatres so frequently camouflaged instances of censorship. The Deutsches Theater wrote new satirical verses for the scene, using them to poke fun at East Berlin’s theatre critics, at dramatists who stuck to the Party line, and at productions that were dropped at the last minute before their premiere, supposedly for technical reasons. The actors decided not to perform the most controversial verse, which referred to the Prague Spring. Instead, they hummed the verse, and one of the actors bowed and said that the management had cut it – whereupon the audience burst out laughing. By performing their censorship of the verse, the actors gave free rein to the spectators’ imagination and allowed them to imagine even more subversive lines.
Also at the Deutsches Theater, the actor Eberhard Esche included references to censorship in his reading of Heinrich Heine’s nineteenth-century poem Germany: A Winter’s Tale in 1974. The most provocative lines went as follows:
Oh dear! here’s Censor Hoffmann too,
and he’s brought his official scissors!
The scissors are clicking in his hand
he’s wild, he’s foaming, he’s hissing —
he rushes up to you — there’s a snip —
alack! Now your best piece is missing.[iv]
The ‘Hoffmann’ in the first line referred to Heine’s publisher. This reference was wonderfully fortuitous for Esche, as the GDR’s Minister for Culture was none other than Hans-Joachim Hoffmann. According to a Party official, Esche accentuated the topical relevance of the lines by making snipping gestures in the direction of the royal box, provoking laughter and applause.
Exploiting the desire for secrecy
Some theatre directors and dramatists even found ways of turning the regime’s denial of censorship to their advantage in practical terms, most ingeniously by taking the official reasons for production bans at their word and seeking legal redress through the courts. When East Berlin’s local authorities forced the Volksbühne to drop its production of Moritz Tassow in 1966, the dramatist Peter Hacks sued the theatre for breach of contract – a ploy that was only possible because the Volksbühne was officially responsible for the decision to drop the production. The Ministry for Culture’s lawyer conceded that Hacks had a case, but stated that it would be new legal territory and the court’s decision could not be predicted. In his view, the political risks outweighed the legal benefits of creating a precedent: the Volksbühne would need to prove that it was objectively impossible to perform the play in the GDR, which would open up a whole raft of questions concerning cultural policy. On the lawyer’s recommendation, the Ministry grudgingly offered Hacks financial compensation if he dropped the case. But Hacks held out for a higher sum and thereby missed his chance, for the court eventually ruled against him in 1970, after the initial Western interest in the case had subsided.
The more effective counter-censorship strategies were less audacious. By publicizing their plans and announcing premieres at the earliest possible opportunity, theatres could threaten to make censorship public. This approach became increasingly effective in the 1970s, as the regime became more reluctant to ban productions because of the damage that prohibitions caused, both to its relations with writers and theatres and to the GDR’s international image, at a time when it was seeking acceptance as a ‘normal’ nation state. Instead, officials attempted to limit the damage caused by subversive productions. When the Volksbühne staged Georg Büchner’s play Leonce and Lena in 1978 as a thinly veiled attack on the GDR leader Erich Honecker and his ageing Politbüro, officials simply stopped sales of part of the programme and sought to limit the number of performances.
Opposing the secrecy of censorship
Even though writers and theatres had found ways of exploiting the regime’s denial of censorship, some would still have preferred overt censorship. In 1987, East German writers began to voice their dissatisfaction with artistic censorship openly and explicitly. Their most urgent complaints concerned the performance of contemporary drama: the writer Irina Liebmann argued that a new play hardly had any chance of being tried out on stage, and the dramatist Christoph Hein complained of ‘the silence on our stages’.[v] Following discussions amongst dramatists at a workshop in March 1987, Liebmann proposed to create an ‘Authors’ Theatre’ that would be entirely independent of the authorities. A group of dramatists drew up a paper calling for the appointment of a censor with the duty to justify his decisions and for the promulgation of censorship regulations. The paper thus broke the taboo on the discussion of GDR censorship, arguing that overt censorship would be preferable to the status quo. By canvassing support for the regulation of censorship, the paper also paved the way for stronger demands. Just months later, at the Writers’ Congress in November the writers Günter de Bruyn and Christoph Hein famously called for the abolition of censorship, and Hein quoted directly from Liebmann’s paper in his speech.
So even though some GDR dramatists and theatre practitioners had found ways of turning the regime’s denial of censorship to their advantage, or of subverting censorship in their art, opponents of censorship argued that they would fare better if it were practised openly. Or, better still, if it were not practised at all. The existing system represented the worst of both worlds: artists had to comply with unofficial censorship, but were still held personally liable for their work. Overt censorship would not only have reduced the pressure for them to exercise caution and self-censorship, but would have forced censors to justify their decisions in public. If censorship decisions were open and transparent, then they could be challenged. As a first step towards the abolition of de facto censorship, Liebmann’s supporters therefore called for its legalization.
[i] ‘Gedächtnisprotokoll über eine Aussprache mit Schauspielern des Deutschen Theaters am 29.10.1962’, 5.11.1962, BArch DY 30 IV 2/2.026/68.
[ii] ‘Stenografische Niederschrift der Kulturberatung’, BArch DY 30 IV A 2/2.024/3.
[iii] ‘Rechenschaftslegung in der Volksbühne am 15.7.1977’, LArch Berlin C Rep. 902 4576.
[iv] Heinrich Heine, Deutschland: A Winter’s Tale, trans. and introduced by T. J. Reed, 2nd edn (London: Angel, 1997), p. 159.
[v] Irina Liebmann, ‘Diskussionsvorschlag zur Gründung eines Theaters der Autoren’, 10.3.1987, AdK Rainer-Kirsch-Archiv 326, quoted in Laura Bradley, Cooperation and Conflict: GDR Theatre Censorship, 1961-1989 (Oxford: OUP, 2010), p. 235; Christoph Hein, ‘Literatur und Wirkung’, in X. Schriftstellerkongreß der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, ed. Schriftstellerverband der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, 2 vols (East Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau, 1988), II, pp. 225-47 (p. 239).