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How two writers created work within a world of censorship, flight, and regime

Exploring sound and silence in the poet Elke Erb and novelist Anna Seghers’ collections

By Katarina Kelsey

An exhibition has recently closed at the Akademie Der Künste in Berlin called Erlesene Bibliotheken Artists‘ Libraries. It showcased book dust jackets on their journey from uncensored to censored, dedicated first editions, manuscripts, and books from the libraries of artists (including George Grosz and John Heartfield). This portrays the book as a ‘workshop’ in itself: where ideas are annotated after publication, marginalia drawn in, and parts scored out, with the books’ contents ‘frequently rewritten’ through deletions and additions.


As a largely historic, retrospective exhibition, it explored the politics of printing and collecting in a country that lived under Fascism, Communism, and a split capital. Two writers’ collections, those of Elk Erb and Anna Seghers, stood out, exemplifying what print can do when the writers are in exile and under occupation. To publish and collect books under censorship and party control is like having moments of noise and moments of silence. Viewing such work retrospectively is like having the volume alternately blasted and cut off – it’s hard to experience a middle ground. The moments of noise are exhilarating: an affirmation of voice, idea, and agency. The moments of quiet are frightening: of censorship and of flight. 

Christa and Gerhard Wolf in their study in 1996 © Roger Melis

Elke Erb (born 1938) was a poet and translator who lived in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the artistic district of Prenzlauer Berg in East Berlin. She published her work both legally in the East and unofficially in the West of Germany. Deemed subversive, her activities were monitored by the Stasi, the East German state police, who were responsible for suppressing opposition, largely through a network of informal civilian spies – one of her close literary colleagues was later exposed as one of the unofficial and informal collaborators.

On display were her collection of Samizdat (Russian for self-published) magazines, which were unsanctioned and uncensored. Samizdat publications would share manuscripts that were unpublishable due to censorship in the Soviet Union, as well as circulate political essays – including feminist zines and both far right- and left-wing anti-communist magazines. Erb’s collection features poetry, illustration, and art; they are rough, bright, and zine-like, and they draw out the banal of seditious publishing – where unsanctioned expression is enough to force you outside of state defined society.

In your eyes, is it an it, a this

with the accent, the aspect, the accessories 

of your own?


even the pronoun it show too much 


(Haven’t we learned to articulate 

beyond murder?)

– From Remembered by Elke Erb, translated by Rosemarie Waldrop

Anna Seghers (1900-1983) was a novelist and essayist. As a communist, born into a Jewish family, the 1930s and 40s were spent on the move, fleeing Nazi persecution. In 1934 she fled the Nazis from Germany, via Zurich, for Paris, taking her library with her. After the fall of Paris in 1940, she was forced to move again to unoccupied Marseilles. In 1941, when the South of France fell to the Germans and she was refused entry into America due to her communist affiliations, she finally settled in Mexico until 1947.

This was Seghers busiest time, communicating extensively with friends and colleagues in a scattered literary scene through letters – even though the postal service was unreliable, disrupted, and censored. Having been a founding member of Bund proletarisch-revolutionärer Schriftsteller (Association of Proletarian-Revolutionary Authors) in Germany in 1928, when she moved to Mexico, she founded the cultural societies The Heinrich Heine-Club and Freies Deutschland. Seghers’ activity, desire for community, and action echo Elke Erb’s opinion that writing is not for “describing, but changing.”

However, when Seghers returned to Germany in 1947, she found a country destroyed by war. She settled in East Berlin in 1950 and became president of the East German Akademie Der Kunst. Seghers was also a highly accomplished during her lifetime, receiving Nationalpreis der DDR and the Stalin Peace Prize. Despite this, while in Germany, Seghers fell silent in defence of some of her colleagues and former exiles who were unacceptable to the regime, such as Walter Janka. She “would choose cohesion over resolving political splintering... it can be said that in exile Seghers remained loyal to her political friends and ideals.”

“And then suddenly, after some three hundred pages, everything stopped. I never found out how it ended. The Germans had entered Paris. The man had packed up everything, his few belongings, his writing paper, and left me alone looking at the last, almost empty page.”

– From Transit by Anna Seghers, translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo

Coming from different literary generations, Erb and Seghers’ experiences with the German regime cannot be compared. There are comparisons, however, in their experiences and authorship under the GDR.

Samizdat in East Germany was essential for writers, as an “unofficial publishing network which developed in Berlin and in a number of other cities... not simply a response to censorship, but part of a much larger project: the development of an alternative existence.”

Erb inhabits this alternative existence within her work. She wrote prolifically, boldly, and experimentally, using the masculine form to write about herself. In an interview, when discussing the choice of masculine suffixes in her poetry, she stated “I hadn’t thought about this feminine (-in) ending, I didn’t pay attention to it. Too bad that it doesn’t work the other way around, that you begin with the feminine ending... I believe that the decisive question in the GDR was not man or woman, but rather: What kind of power structure is this? What is wrong with the body politic? Then you are more likely to come up against a hierarchical order, and it subjugates both sexes.” In the same interview, she batted away all attempts to situate herself as an influence for other female poets, stating that there were “almost no women” in what her interviewer described as the “unofficial journal scene.” Erb concluded: “but then again I can’t really say anything about it because I wasn’t with them.”

Anna Seghers via Wikimedia Commons

On the one hand, Erb’s resistance to ally herself with other women and within a feminist movement may be unsettling. Her resistance, however, to any such sub-categorisation as a female writer, at a time when defining yourself was one of the few acts of freedom available to you, is radical in itself. Erb’s poetry also evades such concrete categorisation, becoming what Christa Wolf describes as “language material... in place of real material.”

Both writers had to balance their self and their work under oppressive regimes and censorship. Whilst Erb could work within a creative scene, Seghers longing for community was, in a quiet way, a criticism of the society she lived in:

“Most of all I like to write on a ship or in a crowded cafe, and those are two possibilities which, as everyone well knows, do not exist in Berlin... If I had enough peace her in Berlin – unfortunately I do not have it because every week, every day comes with new superfluous things – then I would certainly work every day... as a person ought to do” – Anna Seghers

The exhibition showcased the importance of the works these writers chose to surround themselves with, as well as the importance of collaboration. Whilst Seghers belonged to the literary establishment and Erb to a literary underground, both writers believed their work could enact change. Erlesene Bibliotheken Artists‘ Libraries highlights this, showing that such work could not be done alone.

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