Of Writers and Workers

The Movement of Writing Workers in East Germany

by William J. Waltz (Author)
©2018 Monographs XIV, 254 Pages
Series: German Life and Civilization, Volume 69


Born of the dream of fostering a new caste of writers from working-class ranks, the «Movement of Writing Workers» (Bewegung schreibender Arbeiter) offers a paradigmatic view of the successes and failures of attempts to implement a socialist cultural revolution in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The abstract tenets of Marxist teleology and state-sponsored programmes ascribed to «writing workers» a central position in the efforts to overcome class divisions, educational privilege and, ultimately, the distinctions between workers and intellectuals, art and labour. This study, based largely on original archival research, traces the historical background and development of this major cultural initiative. It undermines the notion of servile obedience to Soviet direction in East German cultural affairs and displays the discrepancies between the official rhetoric of the ruling communist party and the realities of popular cultural participation. While there existed over 200 «Circles of Writing Workers» in the GDR – also known as «socialist literary salons» – the four case studies featured here highlight their diversity and stake out the broad parameters of state-sponsored literary production in East Germany.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Theoretical Underpinnings: Between Myth and Reality
  • Chapter 2 The Question of Soviet Influence
  • I. The Nachterstedt Letter
  • II. The Wismut Letter
  • III. The Stalinstadt Letter
  • IV. The Bitterfeld Letter
  • Chapter 3 Cultural Heritage and Political Legitimacy
  • I. Traditions of the KPD and SPD
  • II. Stalinization
  • III. Revolution versus Gradualism: ‘Kunst ist Waffe’ versus ‘Persönlichkeitsbildung’
  • IV. Traditional ‘Folk’ Arts
  • Chapter 4 A Socialist Culture: According to Plan
  • I. The BSA: A Contested Field
  • II. The Case of Hasso Grabner
  • III. The BSA and Post-War Cultural Reception: The FDGB versus the Ministry of Culture
  • Chapter 5 Establishing State Structures and Consolidating Political Power in the 1950s
  • I. Realities of Rural Culture: The 1956 DKB Questionnaire
  • II. Realities among Writers: The DVS in the 1950s
  • III. The ‘Nachwuchs’ Problem and the Politburo’s Investigative Brigade
  • Chapter 6 Culture by Decree: The Twelve Point Plan
  • I. Impediments to the Plan
  • II. The Numbers: Inexact and Incomplete
  • III. Further Problems: Lack of Oversight, Undefined Goals and High Turnover Rates
  • Chapter 7 Klassenkampf and Volkskunst: Compromises and Concessions in the Early 1960s
  • I. The Schwerin Conference of Writing Workers and Farmers (1963)
  • II. The Second Bitterfeld Conference (1964)
  • III. The FDGB (Wolfgang Beyreuther) versus the Ministry of Culture (Hans Bentzien)
  • Chapter 8 Achieving Successes
  • I. Top-down Meets Bottom-up
  • II. Tapping Existing Tendencies
  • III. Of Amateur Writers and Writing Workers: The Semantics of Legitimacy and Identity
  • IV. Professional Profiles of Circle Participants
  • V. Circles in Factories: The Realities
  • VI. Professional Writers and the BSA: The Realities
  • Chapter 9 The District of Halle: Cradle of the BSA
  • I. Werner Steinberg and the Dessau ‘Majakowski’ ZSA
  • II. Edith Bergner and the Deubener Circle
  • III. Dr. Friedrich Döppe and the Buna Circle
  • IV. Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Bernhardt and the Leuna Circle
  • Chapter 10 On the Nature of Circle Work
  • I. Socialist Literary Salons?
  • II. Education and Integration
  • III. Constructing Socialism and the Dangers of Autonomy
  • Chapter 11 The BSA between Social Revolution and Popular Participation
  • I. Literary Standards
  • II. Circle Anthologies and ‘Welfare Dictatorship’
  • III. The Literary Yield
  • Chapter 12 ‘Unorganized’ Amateur Writers outside the State Fold
  • Future Research on the BSA
  • Appendix A
  • Appendix B
  • Berlin (24)
  • Cottbus (11)
  • Dresden (33)
  • Erfurt (22)
  • Gera (12)
  • Halle (50)
  • Karl-Marx-Stadt (21)
  • Leipzig (27)
  • Magdeburg (22)
  • Neubrandenburg (10)
  • Suhl (13)
  • Frankfurt/Oder (2)
  • Potsdam (30)
  • Rostock (20)
  • Schwerin (17)
  • Bibliography
  • Archival Sources
  • Interviews
  • Primary Published Sources
  • Journals / Periodicals
  • Secondary Published Sources
  • Index
  • Series index

| ix →


Figure 1. ‘Aufgabe und Arbeitsweise unserer Zirkel,’ ich schreibe 6 (1969), 16.

Figure 2. Cover page ich schreibe 6/1961: Anna Seghers and Herbert Warnke sign the DSV and FDGB co-operation agreement.


Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. The publisher apologizes for any errors or omissions in the above list and would be grateful for notification of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.

| xi →


This book was originally submitted as my doctoral thesis to the German Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2014. The people who have supported me along this path are too many to name or count. The project would not have been possible without financial support from the Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Studies at the Freie Universität, the UW-Madison DAAD Center for German and European Studies and UW-Madison Vilas Travel Grants. I owe thanks to the staff of the German Federal Archives, Berlin-Lichterfelde (especially Frau Baumann and Frau Gast); the Academy of Arts, Berlin (Herr Lux and Frau Horn); and, at the Archive of Writing Workers (SchreibART e.V.), Berlin-Schöneweide, to Jürgen Kögel, Britta Suckow and team. My advisor Marc Silberman deserves thanks for his patient and unwavering support as do the members of my defense committee for their valuable feedback. Above all I am indebted to all my friends and acquaintances in Halle/Saale who have informed my work over many years – both directly and indirectly – and to all my interview partners who graciously offered their time, memories and insights.

| xiii →


AJA Arbeitsgemeinschaft junger Autoren (Working Group of Young Authors)

ASA Archiv schreibender ArbeiterInnen (Archive of Writing Workers)

BAG Bezirksarbeitsgemeinschaft (District Working Group)

BPRS Bund proletarisch-revolutionärer Schriftsteller (League of Proletarian and Revolutionary Writers)

BSA Bewegung schreibender Arbeiter (Movement of Writing Workers)

CPSU Communist Party of the Soviet Union

DKB Deutscher Kulturbund (German Cultural League)

DSF Deutsch-Sowjetische Freundschaft (German-Soviet Friendship)

DSV Deutscher Schriftstellerverband (German Writers Union)

FDGB Freier Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (Free German Trade Union Federation)

FDJ Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth)

FRG Federal Republic of Germany

GDR German Democratic Republic

KPD Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (Communist Party of Germany)

LPG Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaft (Collective Farm) ← xiii | xiv →

MDV Mitteldeutscher Verlag

MTS Maschinen-Traktoren-Station (Machine and Tractor Station)

NSW Nichtsozialistische Wirtschaftsgebiet (Non-Socialist Economic Area)

NÖS/NÖSPL Neues Ökonomisches System der Planung und Leitung (New Economic System of Planning and Management)

RAPP Russian Association of Proletarian Writers

SED Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party of Germany)

SBZ Sowjetische Besatzungszone (Soviet Occupation Zone)

SMA Sowjetische Militäradministration (Soviet Military Administration)

SPD Sozialistische Partei Deutschlands (Socialist Party of Germany)

SW Sozialistische Wirtschaftsgebiet (Socialist Economic Area)

VEB Volkseigener Betrieb (Nationally Owned Company)

ZAG Zentrale Arbeitsgemeinschaft (Central Working Group)

ZfK Zentralhaus für Kulturarbeit (Central House for Cultural Work)

ZK Zentralkomitee der SED (Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party)

ZSA Zirkel schreibender Arbeiter (Circle of Writing Workers)

| 1 →


The First Bitterfeld Conference (1959) marks a watershed in East German cultural history. The presence at the conference of some 300 ‘writing workers’ among the 680 politicians, functionaries, writers, librarians and members of socialist worker brigades highlights the most significant and lasting outcome of the conference: the birth of the Movement of Writing Workers (Bewegung schreibender Arbeiter, BSA).1 Otto Gotsche later recalled: ‘Die historische Konferenz, die einen Wendepunkt in unserer kulturellen Arbeit einleitete, begann. Die Geburtsstunde der Zirkel schreibender, malender, musizierender Arbeiter, einer neuen Etappe des künstlerischen Laienschaffens, hatte geschlagen.’2 As the centerpiece of what came to be known as the Bitterfeld resolutions (Bitterfelder Beschlüsse) and Bitterfeld Path (Bitterfelder Weg)3 the BSA was an experiment unique in the history of German literature.4 Under the banner ‘Greif zur Feder, Kumpel! Die sozialistische Nationalkultur braucht dich!’ the movement was envisioned ← 1 | 2 → as playing a central role creating a new socialist culture as the ‘Herzstück der Volkskunstbewegung’.5 As the nexus of the relationship between writers and workers, the BSA occupied a central position in Marxist teleology. An examination of its initial visions and lived realities provides illuminating insights not only into the cultural policies of the East German state but also into the motivations and self-understanding of leading SED functionaries and local actors.

Research on the BSA during its existence was sparse. West German scholars took little notice of the movement,6 while in the GDR a literary scholar claimed that by the 1970s the Bitterfeld Path was ‘scheinbar in Vergessenheit geraten’.7 Post-Wall literary studies, typically reflecting Cold War biases, reached erroneous and uncritically recycled conclusions, propagating stereotypes and misunderstandings of life under Soviet rule in the Eastern Zone. In the early 1990s Günter Rüther proclaimed the movement dead upon arrival for failing to produce a new national literature, summarizing briefly: ‘Bitterfeld wurde zu keinem zweiten Weimar’.8 Manfred Jäger describes the ineffectuality of the Bitterfeld campaign as a ‘Kampagne, die ins Leere stieß’.9 Wolfgang Emmerich’s literary history of the GDR describes the BSA as an ‘exotisch anmutende massenkulturelle Initiative’.10 Others have emphasized the movement’s lack of autonomy, viewing it as a means of ‘collective’ text production firmly embedded within ← 2 | 3 → the ruling mechanisms of control,11 and more recent scholarship has raised the question of Soviet influence over the Bitterfeld campaign.12

Yet contrary to these offhand dismissals, the Bitterfeld Conference initiated a movement which was alive, ‘in einer Vielfalt und Stärke, die unsere Erwartungen weit übertrifft’.13 Already in 1984 Zimmermann recognized that, despite the authoritarian nature of top-down party directives, the Bitterfeld campaign resulted in anti-bureaucratic dynamics and nascent democratic tendencies.14 More recently von Richthofen has shown that, despite the dictatorial overtones in cultural life, functionaries successfully mediated between the interests of participants and the demands of the state, concluding that cultural life in the GDR ‘was subject to grass-root influences and thus developed a high degree of autonomy.’15 The posited top-down bureaucratic hierarchy was indeed pliable and dependent upon individual actors and local factors. Although created and nurtured by the state for political purposes, the successes of the BSA relied upon the initiative of its participants, as manifested in its literary productivity. At a colloquium on occasion of the movement’s twenty-fifth anniversary in 1985 functionaries claimed that more than 200 active circles of writing workers (Zirkel schreibender Arbeiter, ZSA) had published over 650 anthologies and that individual writing workers had published some 350 monographs.16 Research in the 1980s determined that nearly all professional writers in ← 3 | 4 → East Germany had at some point in their careers been associated with a circle of writing workers.17 Examples of prominent writers beginning their careers in a ZSA include Volker Braun in ZSA Schwarze Pumpe,18 Angela Krauss in ZSA Berlin-Chemie19 and Wolfgang Hilbig in ZSA Altenburg.20 Professional writers who mentored circles included Christa and Gerhard Wolf in Wagonbau-Ammendorf,21 Brigitte Reimann at Schwarze Pumpe in Hoyerswerda22 and Peter Hacks providing occasional ‘künstlerische Betreuung’ in the ZSA Berlin-Pankow.23 The stability, longevity and influence of the movement extended beyond its thirty-year existence, with one source claiming nearly one-fifth of all ZSA continued meeting after 1989/1990.24 Understanding the discrepancies between these cursory dismissals of the BSA and its vitality in practice as testified to by participants and documented by primary sources highlights the difficulties of describing the nature of East German state. The master narrative remains contested.25

1 Chronik des künstlerischen Volksschaffens. 1958–1962. Teil I (Leipzig: Institut für Volkskunstforschung beim Zentralhaus für Kulturarbeit, 1968), 52; Hörnigk terms the BSA the ‘eigentliches Zentrum der in Bitterfeld gefassten Beschlüsse’, Therese Hörnigk, ‘Die erste Bitterfelder Konferenz: Programm und Praxis der sozialistischen Kulturrevolution am Ende der Übergangsperiode’, in Ingeborg Münz-Koenen, et. al., eds, Literarisches Leben in der DDR 1945 bis 1960: Literaturkonzept und Leseprogramme (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1980), 222; Schiller states the main goal of Bitterfeld was ‘eine Literatur der schreibenden Arbeiter zu schaffen’, Dieter Schiller, ‘Kulturdebatten in der DDR nach dem XX. Parteitag der KPdSU’, Hefte zur DDR-Geschichte 74 (2001), 27.

2 Cited in Manfred Jäger, Kultur und Politik in der DDR: 1945–1990 (Köln: Edition Deutschland Archiv, 1994), 87.

3 On the ambiguity of these terms see Schiller, ‘Kulturdebatten in der DDR nach dem XX. Parteitag der KPdSU’, 19.

4 Peter Zimmermann, Industrieliteratur der DDR: Vom Helden der Arbeit zum Planer und Leiter (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1984), 27.

5 Hanns Maaßen coined this term at the First Conference of Writing Workers on 8 June 1960 in Karl-Marx-Stadt. Andreas Leichsenring, ‘Den Werktätigen Stimme geben. Diskussionsbeitrag auf dem Kolloquium “25 Jahre ZAG”’, ich schreibe 1 (1986), 10.

6 For an exception see Gerd Eversberg, ‘Die Bewegung schreibender Arbeiter in der DDR’, Ästhetik und Kommunikation 13 (1973), 36–54.

7 Hörnigk, ‘Die erste Bitterfelder Konferenz’, 196.

8 Günter Rüther, ‘Greif zur Feder, Kumpel!Schriftsteller, Literatur und Politik in der DDR. 1949–1990 (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1991), 90.

9 Jäger, Kultur und Politik in der DDR, 88.

10 Wolfgang Emmerich, Kleine Literaturgeschichte der DDR (2nd edn, Berlin: Aufbau, 2000), 130.

11 Simone Barck, ‘Ein ganzes Heer von schreibenden Arbeitern?’, in Simone Barck and Stefanie Wahl, eds, Bitterfelder Nachlese: Ein Kulturpalast, seine Konferenzen und Wirkungen (Berlin: Dietz, 2007), 141–64.

12 Annette Schuhmann, Kulturarbeit im sozialistischen Betrieb: Gewerkschaftliche Erziehungspraxis in der SBZ/DDR 1946 bis 1970 (Köln: Böhlau, 2006), 212. See Chapter 2 for a detailed discussion of the question of Soviet influence.


XIV, 254
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
East Germany Socialism Cultural revolution schreibende Arbeiter Bewegung schreibender Arbeiter
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018. XVI, 264 pp., 2 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

William J. Waltz (Author)

William J. Waltz completed his PhD at the University of Wisconsin—Madison in German Studies and is currently an Adjunct Professor of German in western Michigan. He previously worked in Halle, Germany as a USIS English Teaching Fellow. This book is the result of his research fellowship at the Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Studies at the Free University, Berlin (2010–2011).


Title: Of Writers and Workers
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