In case you don’t know, I’ve been posting a bit on Twitter and over on Patreon. The following is one of the free posts I did there:
Stealing from @mc_ellis: “This is the City, Karl-Marx-Stadt. My name is Freitag, I plant microphones.” It’s time to talk about the pulps of East Germany!
(Only through 1963 or so; post-mid-60s is not just out of my area of knowledge but to cover the pulps of the mid-60s to 1990 would make this essay—which is promising to be long enough already—wayyyy too long.)
First, though, a reminder: I covered the history of the pulps in pre-WW2 Germany here. (The German term is “heftromane,” “notebook novels,” and English-language critics and historians usually call the heftromane “dime novels,” but what they actually were, were single-story pulps, so I’m going to stick to “pulps” when referring to them).
After World War Two was over, the Americans, British, and Soviets (and later the French) divided Germany into zones of occupation. The Soviet occupation zone became East Germany (hereafter “DDR”), a client/vassal state of the USSR, in October 1949.
Now, East Germany, like all the USSR client/vassal states, had substantial press restrictions and government censorship. The censorship began immediately and was inherited from the Soviets. Most American, British and western European literature and literary forms were regulated, discouraged, or forbidden.
Nonetheless, the East German readers still got pulps. (The impulse towards pulp fiction is a universal one, I think. American readers, Egyptian readers, Russian readers, Indonesian readers—everyone loves pulp fiction, and has since popular literature began appearing in the pages of cheaply-made magazines).
The most popular kind of East German pulps were “women’s publications.” These published things from “practical manuals” to serialized novels starring the heroines of international socialism. (This image is from one of the “practical” pulps, Frau von Heute (Woman of Today)).
The single most popular line of East German pulps was the “Roman Zeitung,” novels published in installments. In the 1960s they would include every genre, but in the late 1940s/early 1950s they focused on the history of the German workers’ movement. (The image below is from a 1960s issue of the Roman Zeitung line).
Regrettably, I don’t have much info on either the novels-in-installments or the women’s pulps of East Germany, despite their popularity. That is seems to be the way with the pulps: pulps written for women (and usually by women) are slighted by the (male) historians of the medium. You can find a lot written about American science fiction pulps, despite sf being the fifth- or sixth-most popular genre of American pulps. You will find little written about American romance pulps, despite their being the most popular genre of American pulps. (Pulp historians, like the pulp community itself, really need to get their stuff together and stop being such misogynists). (But then, the pulp community of collectors have an outsized & pronounced set of character flaws, so pulp historians likely can’t help but reflect those flaws. And, yes, I’m indicting myself along with the rest of the pulp historians).
So let’s shift to what I can talk about. The first East German pulp was Geschichten, die das Leben schrieb (Stories that life wrote; 14 issues, 1949-1951). Geschichten was a trip.
Geschichten alternated between real-life [sic] adventure stories, detective stories, and fighting-the-fascists-during-WW2 stories. Never respectable to the literary establishment, Geschichten published numerous big-name (for East German) authors, but every one of them wrote under pseudonyms. They weren’t slumming; they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to publish “respectable” literature if anyone knew they were writing pulp stories as well.
In its way Geschichten is paradigmatic of the DDR pulps: the editors and writers were caught between the ideological requirements of the government and the writers’ desire to play with the familiar genre tropes and the editors’ desire to give the reading audience what it really wanted, which were stories with the familiar genre tropes.
Take this one: “Slaves of the Green Hell.” An obviously pulpy adventure, with a great pulp title, but the story’s got a very awkward overlay of Marxism.
Or this one: “The Lemke Murder Case Solved.” A standard German mystery with a standard German police detective hero (ask me about the Nazi mysteries sometime), but the story tries to emphasize how solving the case is a communal effort (which is properly Marxist), not an individual accomplishment (individualism being a western capitalist element, per DDR Marxism).
Similar to Geshichten but much longer running was Die Neue Abenteuer (The New Adventure; ? issues, 1949-1950, 1952-1990). It was a mainstay of the DDR pulps—arguably the headliner of the DDR pulps from men, not unlike the USian pulp Adventure.
Abenteuer even had color interior illustrations from issue #100 onward, which was a rarity in the primarily black-and-white DDR pulps.
The primary genres published in Abenteuer were adventure, mystery/detective, and science fiction. (As is always the case with the pulps, DDR pulp sf is overlooked in the USian and English reference books about DDR science fiction). Abenteuer ran many translations of Russian, English, French, and Japanese writers—and believe me, I would love to read the adventure, mystery/detective, or science fiction stories of 1950s Japanese Marxists and communists! This was twenty years before the Japanese Red Army, but even in the early 1950s Japanese communists were no joke. The adventure, detective, or science fiction stories they turned out must have been quite something.
Like Geschichten, Abenteuer’s authors tried to serve two masters: official DDR ideology and the pulp gods. In the early days, especially during the 1949-1950 Abenteuer series, the pulp gods were usually supreme. But in the second series, from 1952 onward, Marxism came first, pulpishness second. (Mostly. There were a few honorable exceptions).
In 1950 the DDR literary establishment cohered with formation of the Academy of Arts and the German Writers’ Union. Both established what was socially acceptable literature and what was “trash and dirt” literature. Neither had legal powers, but culturally both were very powerful, and both ruled the literary whisper networks.
In 1951, the East German government formed the Office of Literature and Publishing to (quoting here) “manage the publishing industry and facilitate the appearance of those texts commensurate with public policy.” All literature published in the DDR had to be approved by the Office.
So it was the 1950-1951 period when the screws really began to tighten on DDR pulp writers and editors and publishers. The government was formulating an official cultural policy on literature: how to make a “literature of the proletariat”? How to make a German literature that reflected Marxism? And the old pulps didn’t fit in either category.
1949-1950 by comparison was a golden age for the DDR pulps.
I’d say it was 1950 when East German audiences got the first proper “East German” pulps. Arguably the biggest of these was Kleine Jugendreihe (Small Series for Children; 300+ issues, 1950-1965). Stories in Children were written either by DDR authors or Soviet authors—no other foreign stories were allowed.
Stories in Kleine were almost entirely in the “KAP” mode: “krimi, abenteuer, phantastik,” or “mysteries, adventures, and science fiction.” Kleine’s title actually changed to KAP in 1965, and under that title it ran for 114 issues from 1965-1971.
Despite the genres published in both magazines, the stories in Kleine and KAP were…not as much fun as the stories in pulps like Abenteuer. The Kleine and KAP stories were usually too heavily freighted with Marxist ideology to really let loose in proper pulp fashion.
On 17 June 1953 a general strike-cum-uprising erupted in East Germany. (It didn’t end well, of course). The result of the uprising was to make the DDR government both more conservative and less heavy-handed—the government realized it couldn’t arbitrarily force the people to create the “accelerated construction of socialism,” but the government also put in place measures to prevent a repetition of 17 June.
One of these measures were the moralizing and anti-capitalist campaigns of the mid-1950s. These were government-backed and influenced most aspects of DDR culture. The pulps, like everything else, were forced to serve these campaigns.
So readers got Für Volk und Vaterland (For the People and the Homeland; 43 issues, 1954-1956). Homeland was published by the Ministry of the Interior and later by the “Verlag der Kasernierten Volkspolizei” (“Barracked People’s Police Publishing House”).
That’s right: a pulp published by the Ministry of the Interior. The stories were directly addressed to workers and the leaders of the “people’s police”, and were written to support the government campaigns.
The genres of stories in Homeland were mystery, military history, and war stories, and were supposed to be “real.” Interestingly, Homeland not only published DDR authors, it published Russian, Czech, and Chinese (!) authors. (I’d love to read the Chinese stories).
Obviously, the Chinese stories in Homeland had to be Marxistically correct. But Homeland’s published genres were unlike anything published in China during 1954-1956. Did the Chinese authors view Homeland as an opportunity to tell the real or fictional stories they weren’t allowed to tell at home? Did they view Homeland as merely an easy way to make some extra money * , or did writing for Homeland scratch a creative itch, fulfill a creative need that couldn’t be fulfilled under a regime even more oppressive and anti-creative than the DDR?
* At least, I’m assuming the East German pulps paid their authors. This hadn’t occurred to me until just now, but—maybe the East German pulps were purely volunteer, unpaid outlets? Was exposure all anyone got from writing from the DDR pulps? Answers on a postcard, y’all.
1955 was a big year—perhaps the central year—for the DDR pulps. DDR readers not only got a wave of new government approved pulps, they got some hero pulps, whose focus on the exploits of one or two individuals was at odds with the government emphasis on collective, not individual, actions. Hero pulps were a major tradition of pre-WW2 German pulps, but the DDR government had discouraged them for the first few years of its existence. But for whatever reason, in 1955 that changed—this, despite the fact that 1955 was the first year of the DDR’s Committee on the Fight Against the Poisoning of Our Youth Through Smut and Trash, whose remit was to purge the DDR of “smut and trash literature” (i.e., popular literature, including dime novels).
The first of the three hero pulps, and the most controversial and among the most successful of any DDR pulps, was Fahrten und Abenteuer von Pitt und Ursula (Actions and Adventures of Pitt and Ursula; 10 issues, 1955). As you might have guessed from the title, Pitt und Ursula was a children’s pulp about a pair of siblings, Pitt and Ursula.
Pitt and Ursula are spunky younglings who live in an East German village and have adventures (alongside their pet dog) including and not limited to catching an arsonist, uncovering a poacher, and discovering the hiding place of a West German spy plane.
You know—the usual adventures of East German kids. However.
Pitt und Ursula was published to counteract the effect of the USian comics that were flooding the DDR schools and barracks. (Which comics those were, I’ve been unable to discover. I’d like to think they were E.C. horror comics, but they were probably Uncle Scrooge, Katy Keene Fashion Book Magazine, and Batman #92 featuring Ace the Bat-Hound).
(German pulps were flooding the DDR, too, naturally—and those pulps contained advertisements which were anti-DDR propaganda. But Pitt und Ursula was specifically about USian comics).
But the DDR government thought that Pitt und Ursula was a little too close to USian comics, a little too individualistic, and was a bad example for DDR youth. Neither Pitt nor Ursula were Young Pioneers, after all, or wore the Pioneers’ uniform. (Gasp!)
So what was supposed to be a 14-issue series got cancelled with issue #10 by order of the government. The same thing happened to the science fiction pulp Abenteuer aus weiter Welt (Adventures on Distant Worlds; 18 issues, 1955-1956)—it was too close to the comics it was supposed to negate.
The government pumped out another Ministry of the Interior pulp: Zur Abwehr Bereit (Ready to Defend; 33 issues, 1955-1956), which featured war stories and spy stories, with with numerous translations from Russian, Czechoslovakian, and Hungarian authors.
I’m not sure if these genres were published in Czechoslovakia or Hungary in 1955 and 1956. It’s certainly possible—don’t sleep on the Czech pulp tradition! (Hungary, on the other hand, is the undiscovered country from whose bourn no English-language pulp researcher returns, that I’ve found. Plus looking at Hungarian makes my eyes bleed, so I have a hard time translating it). If those genres weren’t published in either country in ’55 of ’56, we’re looking at the same situation as with the Chinese authors in Homeland.
The second hero pulp…well, this is going to require some context. (Oh, don’t groan, I know how much y’all love context).
Naturally, the leading men and women of German circuses became celebrities, and equally naturally, the German pulp industry published pulps about these celebrities. (What I call the “celebrity pulps” will make for a good future Twitter lecture or Patreon post, I think). So as early as 1919 you’ve got German celebrity pulps about circus star (and film superstar) Eddie Polo and circus star, cowboy, and Nazi Billy Jenkins.
Celebrity pulps about circus stars sold well to pre-WW2 German audiences, and after the war ended there were circus stars in the DDR—circuses were popular in the DDR—so it wasn’t much of a leap, in 1955, to decided “Hey, why not make a celebrity pulp about one? Julius Jäger (1889-1952) isn’t alive to bother us about exaggerating his exploits—let’s use him!”
Jäger was a circus star under the name “Cliff Aeros;” he founded a circus of his own, the Zirkus Aeros, in 1942. (The Zirkus Aeros is still performing today). So the celebrity pulp about him was Cliff Aeros – der Menschliche Sternschnuppe (Cliff Aeroes – the Human Shooting Star; 16 issues, 1955-1956).
Okay, you didn’t deserve to see that.
Cliff Aeros describes the titular hero’s adventures as he travels the world with his circus, triumphing over the most difficult stunts, outwitting the cleverest of scoundrels, and bringing proper Marxist justice to the oppressed masses. Some of the issue titles of Cliff Aeros were “A Dying Man Flies to Heaven,” “The Trip with Crocodiles,” “Aeros at the Bullfight,” and “A Leap Through the Bayonet Tire.”
Cliff Aeros was perhaps the most successful of the DDR hero pulps to thread the Scylla & Charybdis of “Marxist collective action” and “Western pulp individualism.” Cliff Aeros is the lead character, but everyone on the circus does their part and gets their moment in the spotlight. It really is like the Circus of Crime, only, you know, devoted to Marxist justice rather than capitalist crime.
1956 continued these trends.
Another government pulp came out: Der junge Patriot (The Young Patriot; 7 issues, 1956), published by the Gesellschaft für sport und Technik, one of those “popular” DDR organizations that people were “encouraged” to join. In this case the Gesellschaft had very close ties (i.e., took direction from) both the DDR Army and the ruling Socialist Unity Party. Issues of Patriot alternated between WW2 war stories and dramatized episodes from the history of the international labor movement. In the second issue, for example, the story dramatized a factory workers revolt in Thuringia against the short-lived Wolfgang Kapp government.
And another hero pulp came out, this one the greatest, most successful, most domestically controversial, and generally most paradigmatic of all the DDR pulps: Abenteuer des fliegenden Reporters Harri Kander (The Adventures of Harri Kander, the Flying Reporter; 15 issues, 1956-1958). (There was a trial run for Kander in the non-fiction magazine Flieger-Revue #3 (1956), and the response was sufficiently positive for Kander to get his own pulp later that year).
Harri Kander is a German pilot who deserted from the Luftwaffe when World War Two began and joined the Maquis in Holland [sic]. This got Kander on the Gestapo’s List, but Kander continued to fight the Nazis during the war. Kander and his resistance gang stole Luftwaffe planes and used them to carry messages between the Allies and the resistance; Kander and his gang shot down Nazi fighters in mid-air combats; Kander and his gang even flew to England to make sure a vital message reached London in time.
All of that was in the first three issues of Harri Kander.
In issues #4-6, the situation changed, as the stories leapt forward to the post-war environment. Kander, his best friend Walter Winter (great name!), and his wife Katarina travel to Canada and meet up with Canadian communists, travel to the Soviet Union, and then return to the DDR and become “flying reporters,” uncovering capitalist corruption in Canada (issue #4), undoing the foul schemes of the running dog capitalists in the U.S.S.R. (issue #5), and helping the Vietnamese resistance against the French colonialists during the Anti-French Resistance War (issue #6). Harri, Walter, and Katarina don’t solve crimes in issues #4-6; the stories aren’t mysteries. The stories are Reporter Adventures, a time-honored genre in the USian dime novels and pulps and slicks, but one which for various reasons never caught on outside of the U.S.
(The best of the Reporter Adventures genre was Jerry McGill’s radio program Big Town (1937-1954), featuring star newspaperman Steve Wilson; Wilson also appeared in four movies in 1947 and 1948 and in a DC comic, Big Town, from 1951-1958. I bring this up because each episode of Big Town began with the stirring words, “The freedom of the press is a flaming sword! Use it justly! Hold it high! Guard it well!” I think of those words every time I see the DC press corps and t.v. talking heads “interview” Trump or a member of his administration, and I want to cry.)
Issue #7 of Harri Kander had, on its cover, the words, “In this issue we have met the desire expressed by many readers to resume the events interrupted in the third number.” Inside, the story leapt backwards to World War Two and resumed describing Kander’s exploits during the war. The rest of the series was about Kander and his Maquis pals fighting the fascists inside occupied France, fighting the fascists inside “the Allies’ Stalingrad,” and taking part in the “struggle of the righteous Communists” who aided the Allies during the Normandy invasion.
The WW2 issues of Harri Kander were enormously popular in the DDR, as the many many many veterans of the war found it easier to identify with Harri Kander the WW2 veteran rather than Harri Kander the Flying Reporter, the hero of the Russian Revolution [sic] and the Spanish Civil War. The war issues of Harri Kander were East Germany’s first serious attempt to acknowledge the reality of the German veterans of the war and the country’s first real attempt to show how these veterans contributed to the building of the DDR’s socialist reality.
(Of course, those people used to be Nazis, so fuck’em—let them live miserable lives and die alone and forgotten).
But all was not well with Harri Kander. The portrayal of a heroic defector from the Luftwaffe did not sit well at all with elements in the DDR government, especially in the military. Harri Kander was banned from the barracks of the army and the people’s police, and anyone caught reading or disseminating an issue of Harri Kander faced serious jail time. The army’s official magazine, the Armee Rundschau, published ferocious attacks against the pulp, and military higher-ups lobbied to prevent Harri Kander’s publisher from continuing publication of the pulp. In Saxony many copies of the pulp were withdrawn from newsstands by order of the police. In the end, in 1958, despite Harri Kander’s overwhelming popularity and huge sales numbers (300,000+ an issue, from an overall population of about 18 million), the pulp was cancelled by order of the government.
I mentioned The Young Patriot up above. Its last issue had a spy story—a distinct change from the war stories and workers’ movement stories that Patriot usually featured. By order of the government, Patriot was cancelled with its seventh issue. What replaced it was Broschurereihe Technische Abenteuer (Brochures of Technical Adventures; 29 issues, 1958-1962), which would later become Kleine Erzählreihe (Small Series of Short Stories; 43 issues, 1962-1966), which would eventually become Meridian (94 issues, 1966-1981).
Brochures would absorb not only The Young Patriot but Harri Kander. Brochures’ genre was war stories, spy stories, and eventually crime and police stories; the latter would become the primary genre of Kleine Erzählreihe and Meridian. Accompanying the war stories and spy stories in Brochures were numerous technical details and illustrations and blueprints of “sophisticated,” cutting-edge weapons and spy technology. The mass production in the DDR of technologically-“advanced” consumer goods is thought to have facilitated a general understanding of the science and technology behind these “sophisticated” weapons and spy devices—but in a number of issues “sophisticated” actually meant “science fictional in the James Bond gadget way.” The James Bond books, of course, began in 1953, with the Bond films beginning in 1961. The government of East Germany, like the governments of the U.S.S.R. and the rest of the Soviet client/vassal states, were well aware of the Bond novels and films, and the high-tech weapons and devices in Brochures can be seen as one of the Eastern Bloc’s responses to Bond.
(Another such DDR response to James Bond was Alexander from Das Unsichtbare Visier—but Alexander and Das Unsichtbare Visier are subjects for another time and a different essay).
(Although Brochures fed its readers a steady of diet of war stories and spy stories and police/crime stories, the pulp’s final form, Meridian, always had room for mainstream mimetic fiction and science fiction, publishing both German sf as well as translations from Russian, Polish, and Bulgarian).
(And let me tell you, you ain’t read nuthin’ until you’ve read Bulgarian science fiction. Oh, the laughs they had!)
1958—we’ve hit the final stretch of the essay, folks, never fear, don’t tl;dr on me now—also saw the debut of the longest-running (and in that sense most successful) of the DDR pulps: Die Blaulicht (The Blue Light; 390+ issues, 1958-1961, 1962-1968, 1969-1990). (“The Blue Light” being the flashing lights of police cars as they swung into action).
For its first five years The Blue Light was a publication of the Ministry of the Interior and showed “real life” police and detective cases, solved—of course—by the “people’s police.” The stories were narrated with an overtly ideological and pedagogical bent. But in 1963 publication of The Blue Light was taken over by the publisher Das Neue Berlin. At the time, the main author of The Blue Light stories and the de facto editor of The Blue Light was Gunter Prodöhl. Prodöhl—a court reporter by trade—favored a different genre of story for The Blue Light: crime stories from the world outside the window. The higher-ups at Das Neue Berlin agreed that a change in direction for The Blue Light was a good idea * and ran with it.
* I mentioned that The Blue Light had been temporarily cancelled in 1961. The cancellation was due to the construction of the Berlin Wall and the closing of the borders with West Germany. When The Blue Light resumed in publication, there was a conflict between the generalized German setting of the stories and the government’s requirement that stories no longer portray crimes as being committed in the “state of workers and peasants.” Prodöhl saw this difficulty and, inspired by both the real world he saw in his day job and by the approach of Marvel Comics **, came up with an alternative for The Blue Light’s writers.
** Even after the 1961 closing of the borders with West Germany, USian comics continued to flood into the DDR. In 1963, when Prodöhl and the publishers at Das Neue Berlin were revamping The Blue Light, USian comics were still making their way over the border into the DDR in great numbers, as part of the US government’s propaganda and subversion campaigns against Communism and the DDR. Marvel Comics’ output was included in these campaigns.
Now, at the time of the 1963 Blue Light revamp, Marvel had been publishing The Amazing Spider-Man for several months. The Amazing Spider-Man was arguably the best expression of the formula that Stan Lee would later articulate, that Marvel’s comics should take place “in the world outside your window.” Issues of The Amazing Spider-Man made their way into East Germany; while Spider-Man was far from the best-selling comic in 1963—Dennis the Menace, Archie, and Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories were—but the US government wanted superhero comics to convert East German youths to the way of capitalism, and Marvel gave them Spider-Man alongside Fantastic Four.
I don’t think it a coincidence that Gunter Prodöhl was an advocate for the “world outside the East German reader’s window” approach at a time when Spider-Man was doing just that for American readers—not when it’s reasonable to conclude that Prodöhl would have been exposed to Spider-Man. I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to conclude that Stan Lee, Cold Warrior—seriously, check out Marvel comics in the Sixties, nearly all the heroes are staunch anti-Communists—influenced East German culture via Gunter Prodöhl and The Blue Light.
Getting back to The Blue Light—these ADD-driven side notes are going to be the death of me; I’ll end up driving off a cliff because I’ve just mentally connected two things that are wholly irrelevant to what I was previously thinking about, and I’m distracted enough by the new connection that I ignore the fact that I’m driving along a cliff face—Marcello Anselmo described the new, Prodöhlian pulp:
Among the hundreds of protagonists that the series has hosted there is certainly no shortage of good inspectors and successful criminalists to which, however, we must add a people made up of criminals, capitalist businessmen, young “asocial” and other marginal figures typical of the criminal consumer literature. The series represented a sort of literary gymnasium both for professional writers, screenwriters and for policemen, prosecutors and judges with literary ambitions, but also for workers, workers and more rarely peasants, who in particular in the 60s were able to publish stories or even novels, when not to embark on a truly successful career in the cultural landscape of the DDR.
The Blue Light’s circulation was around 195,000 copies per issue, although as always the circulation numbers don’t reflect the number of actual readers. As in the US, but even more so, readers in the DDR passed issues of The Blue Light around to friends, to fellow workers in factories and on farms, and to fellow policemen and soldiers in various barracks. The Blue Light’s cultural penetration was much deeper than its circulation numbers reflect. It inspired an eponymous television show (1959-1961). ***
*** The Blue Light (the television show–which used Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme song as its own theme song–I wonder if Mancini ever knew he’d been ripped off by the East Germans?) was heavily influenced by the West German police tv show Stahlnetz, a Dragnet-like tv show which ran from 1958-1968. But Gunter Prodöhl was the head writer for The Blue Light (the tv show), and he ensured that the show stuck relatively closely to what worked in the pulp.
The t.v. show followed an Army lieutenant, an Army captain, and an inspector of the “people’s police” as they investigated smuggling cases, clandestine emigration cases (before the construction of the Berlin Wall clandestine emigration to the West was a major concern in both the tv show and the pulp), domestic fraud against DDR citizens and government institutions, and crimes committed by DDR citizens or Western spies.
After 1963 the situation for men’s pulps changed. (It’s my understanding that women’s pulps kept on keeping on, unchanged]. There was generally a greater emphasis on crime and police fiction and a de-emphasis on other genres, combined with a consistent intrusion of Marxist ideology into the storytelling. It’s not that the DDR pulps hadn’t ever been intruded upon in this fashion, or non-Marxist. But post-1963 the story telling was fully subservient to the ideology, and it showed.