von-bernuth20th Century Literature, East German & Soviet Culture & Politics

I have spent the better part of my professional life studying cultural issues associated with the ideological and political history of German communism. Though questions of politics and literature fascinated me from the beginning (my first article was on Solzhenitsyn’s One Life in the Day of Ivan Denisovitch, and I took a very early interest in German exile literature), it was almost by chance that I came across the subject of my first book, German Writers in Soviet Exile, 1933-1945. Because I had been to the Soviet Union several times before entering graduate school at Stanford University, and minored there in Russian literature, when the time came I hoped to find a dissertation topic that would allow me to work in Moscow for a full year. An oblique reference in a Soviet archival guide to “editorial materials” related to the German exile periodicals Das Wort and Internationale Literatur led to a successful application to the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) and the entirely unexpected – and to this day rather inexplicable – access to these unpublished materials. The year that I spent in Moscow was followed soon after by another IREX fellowship, this time to the German Democratic Republic, where I spent six months gathering additional archival material in what turned out to be the first and last time that I was permitted access to any archives located in the GDR.

Following the publication of German Writers in Soviet Exile in both English and German, in 1983 I received a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung, which for several months coincided with a second IREX grant to East Berlin. Even though I was then finishing up a second book, Lukács and Brecht, since the completion of German Writers I had intended to attempt something of a sequel to it dealing with the Soviet occupation of Germany from 1945 to 1949. This time, however, access to all East German archives was denied me (as I found out later, on the basis of a ban imposed by the Ministry of the Interior). I used my stay instead gathering published, but rare, primary material from the occupation years and conducting extensive interviews with East German cultural and political figures from the early fifties. Some of these, with Walter Janka, for instance, attracted the attention of the secret police and played an important role in the decision to deny me the opportunity to return to East Germany under the auspices of IREX from 1984 to 1989. My last research visit to the GDR, again without access to the archives, took place in spring 1989. That fall, just as I was completing work on The Politics of Culture in Soviet-Occupied Germany, 1945-1949, the wall fell. In 1990 and 1991, then, I was able to work extensively with archival materials held in Potsdam and in the former SED archive in Berlin and to incorporate this information into The Politics of Culture. The monograph was published in 1993.

At the time, Russian archival collections were just becoming available to scholars. Though The Politics of Culture did not focus on the Soviet Military Administration (SVAG), and could not have in the absence of access to the files of the occupation administration and to other Soviet offices, agencies, and party departments, the meticulous reconstruction of the origins and development of cultural policy in the zone naturally shed a great deal of light on Soviet objectives and intentions. But it was already clear to me then that much work remained to be done. For the fact is, little serious research on the Soviet zone of occupation can afford now to ignore the Russian archives. There is good news and bad news in all this. The good news is that such work is not impossible; the bad news is, trying to do it still remains more of a theoretical than a practical possibility. This is due not just to the usual difficulties of working in Russian archives, but reflects as well the challenge of dealing with an enormous quantity of material.

With the support of the Volkswagen-Stiftung, in the coming years I intend to continue gathering relevant material related to the Soviet occupation of Germany held in the National Archives in Washington, in various formerly East German archives (SED, secret police, and so on), and in a number of Russian archives in Moscow for a book or books dealing more specifically with Soviet politics and cultural policy in Soviet-occupied Germany. I hope to develop the narrative further to cover the years 1950 through 1956.