INTERVIEW WITH STEFAN HEYM-19.7.96
INTERVIEWER: This is roll 10277 on the nineteenth of July 1996. It's an interview with Stefan Heym in Berlin. Mr. Heym, I would very much like to start off, to ask you a question about the period quite soon after your return or your arrival in the GDR. Can you kind of describe to me the atmosphere in the GDR, in the early days of socialism?
STEFAN HEYM: Well, I think it was very strange to me at first, because I noticed that a great number of people here were not exactly for the system that had been established, while I thought that this system was a great hope, not only for Germany, but for mankind. And this contradiction was the first thing that struck me. Of course, I knew that this was part of Germany and Germany had not only been ruled by the Nazis, but it had been actually Nazi and that this mental condition couldn't have changed in a few years after 1945. So I took all that into consideration and tried to be as comfortable as I could under these circumstances.
INT: As the kind of the early fifties developed, how did that come... what developed there in terms of 1953?
SH: That's what I meant in what I said at first, that that part of mind that is (unintelligible) in the very beginning already, then came to the fore and became characteristic of the whole thing. Of course, June 1953 was the result of two developments. One was a normal development which I would call of economic conditions. If a government demands of its workers that all of a sudden they should produce ten per cent more and work and produce ten per cent more, at no additional pay, of course, then they are bound to run into trouble and especially if it's a government that claims to be a workers' government. But to me, I was surprised. I thought how is it possible that in a state that claims to be a workers' state, the workers demonstrate and strike against the workers' government. And of course there was also a second reason, it was not just a social question, not just economic, but it was also because only eight years had passed since the Nazi system was in power and there were many Nazis left, many people whose mind ran still along Nazi lines and that was the second reason that you had the outbreak here in 1953. And it was a very upsetting experience for me. All of a sudden I noticed realities that I hadn't seen immediately after I arrived. I arrived therefore - in German they call Rosine in dem Kopf - raisins in your brain and those were picked out very quickly in June '53. And I began to write about it almost immediately, trying to take a position, trying to find what was at the bottom of it and ultimately I wrote a novel on these experiences, 'Five Days in June' and so you still can read what I thought at the time in this book.
INT: One of the developments which came in the late fifties was another Berlin crisis and that crisis led to the kind of closure of the borders, but what were your fears of the West and in particular West Germany in the kind of late fifties, at the time when West Germany had started rearmament, what were your fears?
SH: There are two kinds of fears. Of course, West Germany was the outpost of the capitalist system, vis a vis the other system. And in so far it represented an acute threat. But a far more of a threat in effect that economically, they were superior over there and that the people in the East looked toward the West with what I might say longing. They would have liked to have the same comforts, the same goods, the same chances and they saw in what was called socialism at the time, a system that demanded of them sacrifices with nothing but promises for the future. And of course, there was the root of the trouble, that beset the whole system in the East all the time and it led to all these misuses of what was called Stalinism.
INT: What did you think about the people and what kind of reasons did the East Germans have to leave actually their country?
SH: Well, they wanted to better themselves, they wanted to have a better life and they thought they would get it in the West. That's why they tried to get there. And as long as the borders were open, it was relatively easy to get there. All you had to do is board a subway or board what they called the S-Bahn train, surface train, city train and you were in another world. And it was really a crazy system. Imagine, you go from socialism, in quotation marks, to capitalism in two minutes. And of course this formed the mind of people in Germany and led to the establishment of the wall. It was really thought that a foreman, a plant, in the East wouldn't know how many workers he still would have the next day, because part of his working force had left him, had left the East, had left the system in order to go over there. And of course, in West Germany, they made every effort that people who came from the East would get jobs and would get comfortable existence, that was part of the Cold War and part of the winning side of the Cold War.
INT: Then to kind of deal with those kind of situations, the border was closed, barbed wire was put along the side and the wall was built. What were your thoughts when that wall went up, what did you feel personally?
SH: Well, I knew that this wall was the result of a very bad situation. They didn't do it because they were fun minded or something like that. They did it as a necessity and I thought, what kind of system is it that can only exist by keeping them with force in their own bailiwick and the wall was the actual symbol of a defeat, of inferiority and I thought, all right, they have it and let's call it an improvisation that's only going to last as long as you had these economic short-comings and perhaps it gives you a chance here, gives the government a chance to catch up and produce enough for its people to be satisfied too and to eliminate the necessity for the wall. So I always had the attitude this wall cannot be permanent. If it's permanent, it's permanent defeat and also, of course, I knew that the German people, they're one and would tend to consider themselves as one and therefore they would consider the wall as an enforced imprisonment and I was right in thinking that way. And the whole system was at that time planted in history.
INT: At that kind of period, the tension in the city, the tension between East and West was dramatically rising, did you ever see there was a possibility of a kind of nuclear war during that period and...
SH: (Interrupts) I was worried about a nuclear war...
SH: I not only saw the possibility of nuclear war, I feared it very much, not I thought that either side would be foolish enough to start with it. But if they started a military conflagration, it would automatically lead to nuclear warfare, because one side would be defeated in the beginning and then it would answer by atomic bombs. It was quite clear, either one. And I was worried about it. After all, you know, I was living only once too, you know and I didn't want to die in an atomic war nor did I want my family to die or the other people to die and I knew that there would be a holocaust unequalled ever. And perhaps the end not of Germany or the end of Europe, but the whole world, that was all in the cards. And I'm very, very relieved that it didn't come to that, but the situation Germany was so that the danger existed.
INT: To move a very short kind of period onwards and kind of concentrate on what happened in the sixties, after the wall was erected. You already mentioned there was some hopes, did you feel that there was a possibility now to more freely express yourself, to write what you wanted under this government in the GDR and how far were you actually censored?
SH: I was censored very heavily, of course. And I tried to avoid censorship by publishing some of my works, the works that were forbidden here, in the West. And I relied on the fact that the Western publishers would see that those books somehow would also be transmitted to the people in the East. Naturally, there was a certain traffic between East and West, people above a certain age could travel and could bring, smuggin books and did smuggle in books. My were being smuggled very much. And then of course you had television, you had radio and the texts would be transmitted and people would talk about it on the air and in the East they would know what was said in the West. That was the real silliness of the war. You could not isolate one part of a country from the other, as long as you had electronic media. And you did have those and they were used. The whole thing was an example of psychological warfare and as I'd done psychological warfare during the World War Two, I knew about it and I knew what you could do with it and I knew what would happen.
INT: In that period in 1975, some kind of changes occurred during the eleventh plenum, what was happening at that time?
SH: Well, the eleventh plenum actually was an attempt to turn back history and to avoid the development, to stop the development that was coming about. At the eleventh plenary session of the Central Committee, the General Secretary of the Party, Herr Honecker, attacked a number of writers and scientists outright and spoke of a conspiracy in which we were involved to change the system. He said that we denied the leading role in that system of the working class and wanted to establish a government in which the intellectuals, especially writers and scientists, would be the top group and the ones who were exerting power. There was actually no such conspiracy. There were a few people who thought that we should have more democratic rules of the game in the East too, because that would only further socialism, not block it. So the whole thing was an absolute mess intellectually and the attacks of course failed, failed to stop us from thinking and failed to stop the people from looking at Western television and Western radio and trying to get over there. But this was an attempt to turn back the years.
INT: What did you obviously were reacting to that, what kind of devices did you and other writers employ to get around these kind of new constraints?
SH: Well, as far as my person is concerned, I used a meeting of the Writers' Union to answer the Honecker attack and that was my public. They gave me the opportunity to speak there, because they expected I would buckle down and beat my breast and said I was guilty. I did the contrary. But that was my own individual action. Actually, I don't think that I was the only writer who did not buckle under. There were quite a few and other people too. And resistance developed from then on. In other words the eleventh plenary session of the Central Committee did not at all achieve its purpose.
INT: Just briefly into that, what did you actually say in your speech, what did you talk about in your speech and what were your outlines?
SH: Well, I said that what Honecker accused me of was not true, that I had said and done and written quite other things as he claimed I had said and done and written. And by proving Honecker wrong, I defended myself and defended, I think, the attempt at freedom that was on its way.
INT: The sixties are also very much a kind of period where a lot of things happening and also what is happening is the events in Czechoslovakia and previous to that, the '68 situation, is the development in Czechoslovakia under Dubcek and what did you think were Dubcek's aims and how far did you agree with what was going on there?
SH: Well, I must say that the eleventh plenary session and what I said and what other people said against it and the whole country that showed there was no isolated, was not just a German Democratic Republic issue or a German issue. But it went through all of Europe, including the Soviet Union even. and Czechoslovakia in '68, the attempt to create a socialism with a human face was another moment when the new development showed and proved itself very influential in the development of minds and of course, people here in the German Democratic Republic hoped very much, or many people hoped very much that the Czechs would succeed and that socialism with a human face would be the new form in Europe that would also influence the West, especially since in the West too, you had a strange revolutionary development, in France and in Western Germany and today still, the acht und sechzig, '68 or the people who participated in the '68 events influenced to a certain to a certain extent the general development. So in '68 was one of those crucial years. This is by the way very interesting. Certain years in post-war history were breaking points of history and you can practically date history by years.