GDR History

Dr. Stefan Wolle interviewed about the »Leseland DDR« exhibition

Dr. Stefan Wolle, the author of the exhibition, tells us in the following interview why the GDR was a reading country and what can be discovered by young and old who embark on a journey through time to the reading country GDR while viewing the 20 exhibition panels with their texts, photos and videos. by Gesche Rintelen (23 Nov 2022)

The exhibition »Leseland DDR« is a contribution to the cultural history of the SED. It takes you through the world of detective stories, fairy tales and science fiction. Leseland DDR tells the story of people who did not want to be told what to read, who stood in line to get their hands on a rare book, and who secretly stuffed many a title from West German publishers into their pockets at the Leipzig Book Fair. The exhibition posters tell of literature from the Soviet Union, the writing workers of socialist realism, and they let us rummage through old cookbooks. The journey through time ends with the writers in the peaceful revolution and the GDR as a theme in contemporary literature.

We spoke with the author of the poster exhibition, Dr. Stefan Wolle. In the interview, he gives his personal insights into the exhibition.

Picture Leipziger Buchmesse 1988

Image source: © Klaus Mehner/


Can the GDR really be called a »reading country«?

The pictures, some of which can be seen on the panels, show that. There were often lines of buyers in front of bookstores, for example in front of the »Good Book« on Alexanderplatz in Berlin, where I worked as a bookseller in 1969 and 1971. This had to do with the shortage of sought-after books, on the one hand, but also with the low prices. People took what they got and first put it on their bookshelves at home.

What did books mean in the GDR?

Since the entire system was based on one theory, Marxism-Leninism, books were taken tremendously seriously. The censorship, which formally did not exist, was meticulous to the point of ridiculous. On the other hand, the state was very pedagogical. Art was supposed to be a productive force in building socialism. Writers were taken extremely seriously and at the same time treated like underage children.

How did the readers deal with it?

In authoritarian societies, literature is always a thorn in the flesh of the authorities. Book lovers are not necessarily rebellious subjects. But they are susceptible to critical thought. In addition, many readers got information about problems from works of fiction that were not in the official media. Readers also learned about the world in this way in the closed-off society of the Wall state.  

Which book from GDR times should still be read today?

I have to clear up a misconception here. The exhibition »Leseland DDR« is not primarily about GDR literature in the narrow sense. It's about books, book culture, publishers, libraries, the book trade and, above all, readers.

If you want to find out about GDR society, it is better to turn to books that were published either in the West or after 1989. There are a few exceptions, such as Erich Loest's »Es geht seinen Gang«.

Did you have a favorite author in the GDR?

At fourteen, Jack London was my favorite, at sixteen Stefan Zweig, at eighteen Ernest Hemingway, in my mid-twenties Robert Musil, Joseph Roth and Arthur Schnitzler. Today Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, and Philip Roth. But there are also enduring hits over the decades, like E.T.A. Hoffmann. I also like to return to my old favorites, either as readings or audiobooks. For example, I listened to Jack London's »Lure of Gold« again a few months ago. Very exciting!

The 20 exhibition panels on the display windows of the conference room at St. Wolfgang-Straße 2 can be viewed free of charge. Just a few steps away from the DDR Museum, the journey through time into the reading country of the GDR begins. A good opportunity in the pre-Christmas period to (re)explore the history of the GDR by looking at its literature. A warm welcome!

The exhibition »Leseland DDR« is published by the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship. The author of the exhibition is the historian and publicist Dr. Stefan Wolle, who is also the scientific director of the DDR Museum.

The book accompanying the exhibition »Leseland DDR« by Stefan Wolle can be ordered from Metropol Verlag.

The exhibition »Leseland DDR« is available in several language versions as a poster set for a small nominal fee from the Bundesstiftung Aufarbeitung. In addition, other formats and their foreign language versions are provided as print files. 

Collage exhibition posters »Leseland DDR«

Image source: © Bundesstiftung Aufarbeitung

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