Thomas W. Goldstein. Writing in Red: The East German Writers Union and the Role of Literary Intellectuals. German History in Context Series. Woodbridge: Camden House, 2017. 318 pp. $55.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-78744-165-1; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57113-920-7.
Reviewed by Ryan Glauser (Freie Universität Berlin)
Published on H-Socialisms (January, 2019)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
East German Authors
Writing in Red: The East German Writers Union and the Role of Literary Intellectuals by Thomas W. Goldstein discusses how the East German Writers Union coped with dissent within the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Additionally, the union is seen as a means to examine the asymmetrical power relations between the GDR government and the union itself. Goldstein, thus, argues that the union is simultaneously a place of dissent and control, which depended on a member’s age, position within the union, and their lived experiences in relation to the power of the central GDR government.
Goldstein’s work combines several trends in East German and intellectual historiography. Firstly, the use of totalitarian studies, specifically Alf Lüdkte’s Eigen-Sinn (1993) (self-directedness or self-meanings) and Mary Fulbrook’s (Power and Society in the GDR: The Normalization of Rule? ) concept of normalization, emphasizes the roles of people in prolonging the GDR. Goldstein, however, notes that people constantly reevaluate their priorities and thoughts, thereby complicating totalitarian studies. Secondly, some recent studies have traced the mechanisms through which the GDR maintained itself for decades, then suddenly collapsed in 1989/90. These studies, according to Goldstein, neglect the link between the prolongation and collapse of the GDR, which Goldstein attempts to mitigate by delving into the history of the writers union as an example. Thirdly, Goldstein uses identity and community theories to explain the evolving identities within the union and their conflicting views of the GDR. Lastly, David Bathrick’s The Power of Speech (1995) and Pierre Bourdieu’s (Outline of a Theory of Practice ) institutional theory work together to question how writers balanced their artistic standards with the party line. By combining these trends, Goldstein attempts to explain “how an institution is a space to create group identity,... how and why certain ideas are adopted while others are not, how language is used, how values are produced and re-produced, and how and why institutional culture changes” (pp. 15-16).
Structurally, the book is split into eight chapters that follow a linear time frame starting in 1842 and ending in the 1990s. The first two chapters are meant to provide a longue durée of writers unions in Germany from 1842 until 1971 and the expectations writers had for unions, such as subsidizing foreign trips, protecting publication rights, and offering unemployment insurance. Chapters 3 and 4 center on the buildup to and effects of the Biermann affair (discussed below), which alienated many younger members at the expense of an increase in stability in the union. The long-term effects and the continued alienation of younger members until 1985 are the core of chapters 5 and 6. The overt and subtle repression, as well as the promotion of certain authors, comes to a head in chapters 7 and 8 due to events in the Soviet Union, namely glasnost. The last two chapters focus on the rapid and sudden collapse of the GDR through the eyes of East German writers and their differing opinions on the future of the East German Writers Union. By moving in a linear time frame, the complexities of union politics, the generational differences of East German writers, and the subtle political role held by the union in the GDR become apparent.
Prior to 1971, according to chapter 1, the East German Writers Union operated without much interference from the central GDR government. The union was small and politically inefficient, and its members openly supported the GDR government. As the union grew and matured, the central government, especially once Erich Honecker came to power in 1971, imposed new controls on the union, which led to the Biermann affair—discussed in chapter 2. In late 1976, Wolf Biermann, a politically critical songwriter, had his GDR citizenship revoked based on a political speech given in Cologne, West Germany, in November. Public dissent within the union split along generational lines. Younger members saw the Biermann affair as part of a dictatorship attempting to quash public criticism, while older members countered that the GDR brought stability after two destructive world wars. Expectedly, Honecker and the GDR government supported the older members by jailing some younger members, revoking travel visas, and hindering the movement of critical writers. According to Goldstein, “the most vocal critics of this generation were marginalized, and the trustworthy ones were handed the reins” (p. 125). Therefore, the Biermann affair created a significant split within the union that was hidden by the GDR government’s support of the older union members.
Throughout the rest of the book, this split widened and became more prominent due to government policies and corresponding—often hypocritical—inaction by the union leadership. In chapter 9, the acceptance and propagation of human rights in the GDR throughout the 1980s became one of these debates and policies. The central government wanted to use the new debates as a tool to push peace throughout the world, which would justify a radical restructuring of the GDR budget. The writers union was invited to produce works that promoted peace and freedom of speech. Crucially, neither the writers union nor the government could crack down on critical writers because of their dread of international repercussions. Former critics of the Biermann decision “utilized the forum created by the peace movement to criticize [the government’s] hypocrisy” (p. 150). Going a step further, Goldstein argues that the writers union “ultimately forfeited an opportunity to heal a painful rift, all but ensuring that tensions in the literary community ... would continue” (p. 151). In fact, these tensions did continue up until 1989, and helped lead to the collapse of the GDR.
At this point, the book loses momentum and raises more questions than it answers. Firstly, the collapse of the GDR is seen as an inability to adopt and adapt Soviet-style reforms to East Germany. In turn, these failures led many writers to openly call for reform, which fell on deaf ears, thus alienating a significant portion of the writers union. However, this analysis minimizes both the importance of local East German circumstances and the history of reform movements within the communist bloc, namely, the Berlin Uprising of 1953. Questioning local dynamics within East Germany in the late 1980s would have provided a broader and clearer understanding of the actions of the writers union and the reasons why the union followed the same fate as the GDR.
Secondly, the decision-making process in 1990 made by East German writers to either join the West German Writers Union or remain part of the East German Writers Union is neglected. Who joined the West German union and why? Was it primarily political dissidents? Were they searching for economic opportunities not available to them in East Germany? These are a few of the questions raised but not fully addressed by Goldstein. Importantly, all of them address the divide that existed within the East German Writers Union and tests whether this chasm remained after reunification.
Ultimately, Goldstein expertly picks apart the East German Writers Union during the GDR, but he falls flat on the legacy of the union after reunification. Throughout his book, the union was central to the lives of writers and their identity with the GDR, but these two themes are brushed aside as Goldstein’s analysis abruptly ends on January 1, 1991—the day the East German Writers Union was officially dissolved. Although the book abruptly ends and misses an excellent opportunity to extend many of its themes into the 1990s, Goldstein finishes by stating that “the union produced and hindered compelling artistic work, with both trends inherent in the nature of the organization” (p. 229). This paradox of hindering and encouraging artistic work often causes many scholars to trip, but Goldstein accepts them both as valid lines of research that need further research to properly question the place of the GDR and its unions in Cold War history.
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Ryan Glauser. Review of Goldstein, Thomas W., Writing in Red: The East German Writers Union and the Role of Literary Intellectuals.
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