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"To the Base – against Self-Satisfaction": Erwin Strittmatter’s Contribution to the Discussion at the Bitterfeld Conference [Excerpt] (April 24, 1959)

In April 1959, a literary conference was held at the cultural palace of the Bitterfeld Electrochemical Kombinat [combine] in the GDR. At the end of the conference, writers were given two demands: to encourage workers to engage in literary activities, and to deal more strongly with Socialist reality and thus overcome the opposition between workers and the intellectual elite. Erwin Strittmatter, one of East Germany’s best-known writers, underscored the second demand a few days later in Neues Deutschland. He called upon writers to discover new subject matter of immediate relevance in industrial and agricultural enterprises through direct contact with the world of the workers, and to give it literary shape in the spirit of Socialist Realism.

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Hans Marchwitza often said about himself: “I should be spending more time at my desk, but I am too curious about everything that is happening in the Republic.” Such a love for today and the future is something I would wish for many of our young writers. We are not curious enough. I am not talking about old wives’ curiosity; sometimes we have no lack of that. I am not talking about the curiosity that is characteristic of the researcher and investigator. In our Republic, people are continually changing, and they in turn are transforming their environment, namely in a forward direction. Everyday, heroic deeds are being accomplished in the din of the factories, the dust of construction sites, and in the expansive fields of the agricultural production cooperatives. And the heroes are, as Eduard Claudius says, people by our side. Do we see them? Have we coined the poetic phrase “hero of labor”? No, our politician comrades coined it, and they were often much more poetic than us.

Why are Meetings Boring?

We complain that our meetings of the Writers’ League are not interesting enough, that they are boring. Why are they boring? Because we are not full of experiences gathered during outings and excursions. The Berlin league, in particular, has a done a lot of experimenting. They had the material come to them, so to speak. They invited people who were well acquainted with practical matters out there and had them recount what was going on in the world. Occasionally, we heard about outrageous events that called out for artistic treatment. We listened to these events, clicked our tongues, and said: terribly interesting, but unfortunately we have our work and don’t know what to do first. We thus acted like bureaucrats and allowed ourselves to be taken captive by the work that happened to be on our desks, without realizing what would have been important to deal with. We overlooked the larger context. That can never be the right way for us to arrive at an improved literature that is close to the people.

A few weeks ago, we tried something new. Seven or eight writers who look after brigades of Socialist labor and work in them came together. Suddenly it became clear that a meeting did not have to be boring by any means. Even after the end of the meeting, some stayed and exchanged their discoveries and experiences. I’ve said it many times, and I say it again: he who has contact with our reality, with our people, in short, with our current and future readers, need not search desperately for themes and outlines for a new work.

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