Censorship of the Arts in the German Democratic Republic

The German Democratic Republic (GDR/East Germany) was well known for its censorship of ideas that threatened the state, this included art, cinema, literature, poetry and ‘problematic’ political ideas such as pro-Western or pro-capitalist thought.  Examples of art that was censored included work that complained about the standard of living of East Germans, problems with pollution, the suggestion that East Germans are ‘uncivilised’ through extreme violence or delinquency, portrayals of alcoholism, suicidal depression and drug use, anything that encouraged resistance to the state, fleeing the GDR for West Germany as well as subjects considered “crude” by authorities such as homosexuality and pornography.  Furthermore, art that was considered abstract or avant-garde was also censored by the state.

Censorship in the GDR generally followed a similar pattern to what other Eastern Bloc nations such as the Russian SSR did during this time period in order to control the flow of information to their citizens and by extension control ideas.

The complete censorship of these ideas in the GDR was achieved despite the constitution stating in article 9, section 2 of the original 1949 version that “censorship of the media will not occur”.  This was removed in the 1968 revision to state:

  • “Every citizen has the right to freely and publicly advance his or her opinion in accordance to the principles of the constitution.”
  • “The freedom of press, broadcasting and television is warranted.”

However despite this official and unofficial censorship occurred throughout the entire history of the GDR, the fact that it was a one-party dictatorship meant the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) could use the excuse of national security or public decency in order to implement censorship on a wide scale on society.

Censorship of all art, culture and media was achieved through a two step system which ensured nothing was missed, firstly everything had to go through ‘outer censorship’ which was publishers.  They would analyse the submitted work to ensure it wasn’t a threat to the state socialist ideology and recommend changes to the author.  After this the publisher would then analyse the work for ideology hostile to the current government ideology.  The second level of the censorship was from the government itself, the Büro für Urheberrechte (Bereau of Copyright) and the Hauptverwaltung Verlage und Buchhandel, HV (Head Office of Publishing and Bookselling Trade) would then decide if a work would be only published in the GDR or if it was to be allowed to be sold internationally.  The latter would also decide upon the level of censorship to implement.

Alongside this the SED party would also censor ideas within all parts of GDR society, this effected everyone.  SED members were put in key positions in businesses, government departments and trade unions to ensure party ideology was not being challenged.  This was often directed by the Politburo itself.

Resisting censorship carried different punishments depending on how severe the state deemed it, the very least someone who had dissented could expect was an official warning but could go up to bans on publishing, house arrest and in more extreme cases deportation to West Germany. However, depending on the connections an artist had they could expect more lenient treatment in getting their work published if they knew the “right” people, the opposite being true if they had “bad” connections.

Censorship of the press was extremely widespread and was taken very seriously by the ruling SED party, guidelines were released several times a week from the public relations office to the press in order to frame the current issues of the day in a way that didn’t challenge the socialist ideology or the ruling SED party.  Journalists were seen by the SED party as a function of the state rather than independent reporters who could frame a story as they pleased, this was largely done through a state approved journalist courses at the Karl Marx University in Leipzig.  Only those who at the end of their studies were certified to uphold the socialist ideology of the state were certified to be journalists.  Furthermore, collectivisation of journalists within the state with the GDR Union of Journalists (Verband der Journalisten der DDR, VDJ) ensured there was little dissent by offering many advantages to members, the VDJ had roughly 9,000 members (around 90 percent of all journalists in the GDR).  The VDJ also operated its own journalism school in Leipzig.

Television and radio was used to influence information control in the GDR, Deutscher Fernsehfunk (DDF) and Runderfunk der DDR (state radio) were completely under state control until the late 1980s when some market competition was permitted.  The flagship news programme Aktuelle Kamera (Current Camera) was one of the main propaganda tools of the GDR government.  However many people still tuned into West German TV and radio stations, this led to a campaign from the Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth) to “Blitz contra Natosender” (“Lightening against NATOs transmitters”) to encourage young people to remove or point aerials away from the West.  The GDR government also jammed signals from popular international broadcasts such as the BBC.

Print newspapers were also under the ruling SED party’s control, German newspaper Neus Deutschland (ND) was the official newspaper of the party and replaced Das Volk in 1946.  ND editorials supported the SED party line even contradicting itself if party line changed.

One of the main instruments of censorship in the GDR was the Stasi (Ministry for State Security).  The Stasi would target those deemed to be a threat to the state, this included ordinary citizens, artists and journalists and would punish them if necessary.  The 2006 German film Das Leben de Anderen (The Lives of Others) is seen as a plausible portrayal of how Stasi censorship worked in the GDR and although fictional can at least give an idea of it.

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