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GDR censorship: What East Germans were allowed to read

Rayna Breuer
November 7, 2022

The East German regime nurtured an educated and well-read society — but literature was heavily censored. A look at bookshelves in the GDR.

East German child's room in museum
A replica of a children's room in a GDR museum in Auerbach, GermanyImage: Hendrik Schmidt/picture alliance/dpa

It was said that the people of East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic (GDR), loved to read, from classics like Tolstoy's "War and Peace," Boccaccio's "Decameron" and Hugo's "The Wretched," to science fiction and reports about places that could only be visited in the imagination due to travel restrictions.

As in many other areas of social life, politics dictated literary choice, with the East German Communist Party controlling what was read.

The educated nation

To the outside world, the GDR presented itself as an well-educated nation, having coined the term "Leseland DDR" (Reading Nation GDR) to highlight a fondness for consuming literature.

Memorials to fabled German poets Goethe and Schiller in the city of Weimar were maintained, their works having been proudly presented as GDR cultural assets.

"What wonderful times those were for literature. Customers queued up in front of the bookshops and the book bazaars were overrun by literature lovers," writes Stefan Wolle, author and curator of the exhibition "Leseland DDR," which is organized by the Federal Foundation for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Eastern Germany.

"But on the other hand, what terrible times those were, when every printed word was subject to strict censorship," he added. "The party believed in the world-changing power of the word and at the same time feared — perhaps unduly — the effect of critical texts."

Looking back at German reunification

The ambivalence between nurturing literature on the one hand, and petty censorship on the other, is the focus of "Leseland DDR."

Casting a spotlight on everyday life in East Germany, the Berlin exhibit includes 20 panels and invites visitors on a vivid literary journey behind the Wall.

While the exhibition is partly about the country's writers, it also shows how citizens opened up the world to themselves through reading — including to the places they couldn't travel.

"The exhibition is a heroic story of the people who always found ways to get the literature they actually wanted to read," Ulrich Mählert, contemporary historian and staff member of the foundation, told DW.

Educating young East Germans

Every child's bookshelf in the GDR likely included volumes about Alfons Zitterbacke, or Alfi, a bright boy with daring ideas who wanted to become a cosmonaut. The stories survived the fall of the Berlin Wall and also became popular in the West. 

Alfi was a mirror into the GDR's youth policy, according to Mählert. "The educational message of the story is that no one can set out alone on the path to the cosmos," he says. "The individual is supposed to subordinate himself to the collective."

What ended up on the bookshelves of GDR youth was closely scrutinized.

Comics featuring Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge, gangster stories, or romance novels from the West, were considered immoral literature.

It was not uncommon for satchels to be checked at school: Anyone who smuggled in forbidden literature was noted in the class register — or the parents were called in for a talk.

In the immediate post-war period, Mählert says the GDR first banned Nazi literature. But soon books from the West that were not politically aligned with the regime, or literature by communist dissenters, were prohibited.

In some cases, the libraries collected the books in the so-called poison cabinet: Only with special permission could the literature be consulted.

Writers in the GDR 

Was GDR society reflected in its literature? Mostly not, according to Stefan Wolle, author of "The Ideal World of Dictatorship: Daily Life and Party Rule in the GDR, 1971-89," who contributed texts to the exhibition.

During that period, the authorities did everything to prevent literature from reflecting life in the GDR, Wolle says. Instead, writers were tasked with creating a reality "that doesn't exist at all."

Writers were supposed to serve socialism. They were courted by the authorities, but also punished if they strayed from the prescribed path.

Every book was scrutinized by the Ministry of Culture, with an especial focus on political statements.

But because there were no uniform standards, censorship was often unpredictable and subjective. In the end, if writers were more loyal to the government their books received high circulation. The opposite was true for authors deemed critical of the regime.

This led to some authors censoring themselves in order to have any chance at all of having their book published, according to Stefan Wolle.

Some writers, however, dared to at least touch on taboo subjects, including the celebrated Christa Wolf.

"We didn't have any debates about nuclear power plants or Chernobyl," said Wolle. "But books like 'Störfall' by Christa Wolf then filled this gap."

People read her books, he says, to become engaged in "public debates that should have existed but didn't."

'They Divided the Sky' by Christa Wolf

GDR literature in the West

The literature of Christa Wolf and other dissenting writers was received with enthusiasm by the West.

"A political standard was applied," said Wolle of perception of GDR literature west of the Wall. "What displeased the authorities in the GDR was good and interesting and was discussed in the feuilletons [culture section of newspapers]."

Although the GDR no longer exists, it lives on in the people who inhabited it, and in subsequent generations, Wolle believes.

"Through the books, films and stories, this country reproduces itself again and again," he said. 

This article was originally written in German.