Report by Aoife Ní Chroidheáin.
On the 8th of April 2022, I had the pleasure of hosting a roundtable discussion, poetry reading and exhibition in New College and the Taylor Library, Oxford. These events were the culmination of my doctoral research so far on the ‘unofficial’ literary scene of East Berlin in the 1980s. My D.Phil. thesis, entitled ‘Dangerous Creations: Power and Autonomy in East Berlin’s “samizdat”’, investigates the ‘subversive’ literary scene of the GDR in the 1980s through in-depth case studies of three individual East Berlin magazines: Mikado, Liane and Ariadnefabrik. As my Leverhulme Doctoral Centre scholarship is focused specifically on the theme of ‘Publication beyond Print’, I have been working closely not just with archive material, but also with those who once created these magazines.
The aim of this roundtable discussion was twofold; to bring together the artists and writers with whom I had been working as part of my DPhil project in order to continue discussions about the unofficial magazines of the GDR; and secondly, to venture broader conclusions about the afterlife and cultural significance of the unofficial scene today. The day-long roundtable featured six thematic panels, each consisting of a speaker followed by an open Q&A session. The first half of the day offered a theoretical overview of unofficial creativity in the GDR and the culture of ‘samizdat’, while the second half of the roundtable was dedicated to the hearing from the ‘Zeitzeugen’, the artists and writers from East Germany’s literary bohemia.
In bringing together key international scholars of the GDR unofficial scene, along with writers and artists, and researchers of Russian samizdat, the roundtable facilitated cross-cultural and inter-disciplinary dialogue as we compared the potentially transnational forms that literary creativity and subversion took in the repressive East German state.
The whole event was rounded off by a view from 2022 – over thirty years after the fall of the wall – in the form of a poetry reading by Uwe Kolbe at the Taylor Institution Library. Kolbe, who was previously a co-editor of unofficial magazine Mikado and whose career as a writer spanned the latter years of the GDR and continues today in the Berlin Republic, was excellently placed to comment on the ways in which GDR creativity found its place in reunified Germany after the Wende and beyond.
A further dimension to the roundtable event and poetry reading was a small exhibition of Taylorian library holdings relating to the theme of the discussions. Displayed in the Main Lecture Hall of the Taylor library where the poetry reading took place, the exhibition presented works by each of the writers, artists and academic speakers involved in the conference event. The display included issues of the original ‘samizdat’ magazines Liane and Entwerter-Oder which had been generously gifted to the library by their editors, Heinz Havemeister and Susanne Schleyer (Liane) and Uwe Warnke (Entwerter-Oder). It also displayed, for the first time since its acquisition, the Uni/VERs magazine collection which is also housed in the Taylor Library.
Overall, the works on display showcased almost 40 years’ worth of artistic practice and scholarship. Building on the dynamic history of GDR studies at the University, the exhibition offered a tangible view of the scholarship to date, while also marking the beginning of the exciting new chapter of GDR literary archive-building at Oxford.
I am very pleased to announce that the papers from the roundtable discussion, along with a rare selection of photographs and unofficial magazine images, and poetry by Uwe Kolbe and students of the University of Oxford will all be featured in the forthcoming edited volume, entitled ‘Dangerous Creations: Papers from a Roundtable Discussion’, in collaboration with the Taylor Institution Press.
There are several people and organisations without whom this roundtable event would not have been possible. I am immensely grateful for the support of my doctoral supervisor, Prof Karen Leeder who has been a generous mentor throughout this entire project. I am also very appreciative of the encouragement and support of the German Subject librarian, Emma Huber. I would like to thank the Oxford in Berlin Partnership, the Leverhulme Doctoral Training Centre, the Taylor Institution Library, the Bodleian Library (particularly colleagues in the Bibliographical Press), the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, and New College, all of whom supported the project in various ways.