Uncovering East Germany’s English voice

A new research project in the East German Studies Archive is revealing that the GDR produced a vast range of publications in English. The Archive holds almost 2,500 individual items in English, ranging from journals, magazines and booklets to literary works. Some are one-off publications, others belong to series that ran for many years. They are evidence of a huge industry involving writers, editors, translators, designers and publishers. To employ so many people to communicate in English (and other languages not represented in the Archive) shows a state willing to commit significant resources to reaching out to the world, particularly the West.

Some of the GDR’s English-language publications were ‘easy wins’. Foreign Affairs Bulletin, for example, consisted simply of translations of articles that had already been published in newspapers such as Neues Deutschland, printed on inexpensive paper and with only black-and-white photos. The series Documents on the National Policy of the GDR contained translations of legal documents and politicians’ speeches, again published very simply. In sharp contrast, though, other publications contained articles written from scratch and were designed eye-catchingly with glossy paper, colour photos and coloured text. In this category, the Archive has 130 copies of GDR Review from 1978-1990. Even for the earlier issues of this magazine, the entire front cover was devoted to a colour photo and at least half the photos inside were in colour.

In terms of subject matter, too, the Archive’s English-language holdings are diverse. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is an emphasis on politics. The booklet series Our Point of View, for example, set out the GDR’s position on international issues such as nuclear weapons or EEC intervention in Poland in 1981. Implicitly supporting the GDR’s politics were several series giving facts and figures in areas such as industry and agriculture. Similarly, the First-hand Information booklet series presented specific social issues, such as women’s rights, education and healthcare, in the context of GDR socialism. Culture and leisure were also well represented. Alongside GDR Review with its features such as film reviews and recipes, the Archive has several copies of GDR Culture. Issue 5 of this magazine, for example, reported on topics including artistic activity in Gera and the youth radio station DT 64. Travel, too, features strongly in the Archive’s holdings, reflecting the GDR’s efforts to attract tourists and their foreign currency.

The project has now achieved its first milestones by creating a detailed catalogue of the Archive’s English-language holdings (available here) and setting up a Twitter feed (@East Archive). The next steps will involve pursuing some of the research questions raised by the materials, including who translated these publications, how the publications responded to national and international developments and who read them.

For more information about this project, contact Dr Mary Frank.

2 thoughts on “Uncovering East Germany’s English voice

  1. Do you have the Seven Seas publications ? I seem to recall they did Christopher Hill’s “Peoples History of England” Also, works by British Academic working in GDR were published, Dave Morgan for instance. I’ve got a Pergamon Press (Maxwell) published a GDR yearbook & I have it on my shelf. I spent some time at Greifswald Uni in mid 70s.

    Michael Hindley MEP for Lancashire East 1984-1999

    • Yes, we have a couple of Seven Seas publications, but our English-language holdings are generally journals rather than literary works. We have ‘Thinking it Over: 30 Stories from the German Democratic Republic’ (1977) and Christa Wolf’s ‘The Reader and the Writer: Essays, Sketches, Memories’, also from 1977.

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