Aktionsgruppe Banat Ad-hoc Collection at CNSAS
The Aktionsgruppe Banat Ad-hoc Collection reflects the type of cultural opposition represented by a group of Romanian-German writers, who founded together the literary circle Aktionsgruppe Banat and developed a neo-Marxist criticism of “really existing socialism.” The collection comprises two types of items: (1) manuscripts and other materials confiscated by the Securitate from these writers, (2) documents issued by the Securitate concerning their cultural activity, which the communist regime perceived as dangerous.
București Strada Matei Basarab 55, Romania 030167
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Provenance and cultural activities
The Aktionsgruppe Banat Ad-hoc Collection represents a rare example of cultural opposition in communist Romania based on a neo-Marxist ideological background. The literary group Aktionsgruppe Banat created during early 1970s, under the influence of the literature of the so-called “Vienna group” and the philosophy of the Frankfurt School,a literature containing a neo-Marxist critique of the “really existing socialism”in Romania (Bahro 1978). Their non-conformist literature and life-style attracted the attention of the Securitate, which from 1974 to 1975 opened informative surveillance files on most of the members of the group (although in some cases, such as that of William Totok, the surveillance activity had started earlier in less intense forms). After the arrest of three members of the group (William Totok, Richard Wagner, and Gerhard Ortinau) in October 1975, criminal files were also created against their names. The files issued by the Securitate during their surveillance and repressive activities against the members of Aktionsgruppe Banat comprise two types of items: (1) documents confiscated by the Securitate from these writers, such as manuscripts, publications, correspondence, and photos, and (2) items issued by the Securitate concerning their cultural activity, which the communist authorities perceived as dangerous due their critical attitude towards the regime. Paradoxically, although reflecting the repressive character of the Ceaușescu’s regime when dealing with non-conformist intellectuals and the Securitate’s strongly ideologised perspective, these files represent today a valuable cultural heritage. The Securitate gathered and stored a large number of cultural artefacts created by Aktionsgruppe Banat, and in some cases the single copy of a document is to be found in their files. Besides, although the documents created by the Securitate and its informers are a testimony to the secret police’s abusive intrusion into the private lives of those under surveillance, they are also a valuable historical document for researching the cultural activities of Aktionsgruppe Banat. Unlike most of the groups to be found in the Securitate files (especially those from the 1950s and early 1960s), which were in fact artificially created by the Securitate in order to accuse them of conspiracy against state security and to legitimise repressive acts, Aktionsgruppe Banat was a literary group which really existed and had a coherent ideological program.
In the early 1970s, the young Romanian-German writers Albert Bohn, Rolf Bossert, Werner Kremm, Johann Lippet, Gerhard Ortinau, Anton Sterbling, William Totok, Richard Wagner, and Ernest Wichner gathered to discuss and create literature in a non–conformist intellectual atmosphere. The non-conformism of this group of young writers named Aktionsgruppe Banat (Banat Action Group) was manifested not only by how they conceived literature, but also in their lifestyle influenced by the spirit of the 1968 student protests in the West (Petrescu 2015, 183). The publishing in April 1972 in the local newspaper Neue Banater Zeitung of the debates of the roundtable “In the beginning was the dialogue” (Am Anfang war das Gespräch), which defined their ideological and aesthetic programme was the official launching of the group (Wichner 2012, 431–432). Some of its members met before 1972 and had an early literary debut in the local German press. Most of them were attending the courses of the Faculty of Philology at the University of Timișoara and, at that time, their ages ranged between 17 and 21. Their meetings took place within the institutional framework of the Universitas student literary circle, which was organised under the auspices of the official local newspaper Neue Banater Zeitung.
The literature of this group of young writers was influenced by the work of Bertolt Brecht and the writers of the so-called “Vienna group” (die Wiener Gruppe), a literary movement that developed in post-war Austria, inspired by Dadaism, surrealism, and the philosophy of language, which promoted the so-called “concrete poetry” (Stoehr 2001, 304; Thiers 2016, 67). Neo-Marxist philosophers such as Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse also exercised a strong influence on the literary work of Aktionsgruppe Banat writers (Wichner 2013, 6). The neo-Marxist ideological background of their literary work distinguished this group within the Romanian cultural landscape of that time. They perceived literature as having an active role in society and proposed through their works a critical view on it based on their leftist credentials. According to Werner Kremm, the members of Aktionsgruppe Banat refused to write in the conformist manner of the official promoted literature. In Ernest Wichner’s view, the literature promoted by Aktionsgruppe Banat should “have woken up and shaken up all that was dusted, old and stuck from an ideological point of view” (Wichner 2013, 6).
The members of Aktionsgruppe Banatalso believed that “really existing socialism” could be improved through their activity (Bahro 1978; Interview with William Totok). One of their main concerns was to foster freedom of expression in the literary milieu in which they were active. In this respect, they tried to push the limits of censorship by displaying non-conformist behaviour and proposing for publication texts that were in contradiction with the official cultural policies. As Ernest Wichner wrote retrospectively, Aktionsgruppe Banat had a strong influence on the young people with which they interacted: “This group also created a spiritual climate different from the societies of other young people in Timișoara, which led many to meditate on their own life project, to become emancipated from the university or state authorities, to think on their own, and take seriously the results of their own thoughts” (Wichner 2013, 8). Another feature that individualised this literary group was their practice of writing literary texts collectively. Thus, although many of the literary works of this collection were created by individual authors, some of them are collective writings of the group.
The group was named Aktionsgruppe Banat in 1972 by Horst Weber, the editor-in-chief of the Romanian-German language newspaper Die Woche (May 2018). The members of the group assumed this identity because it emphasised its active spirit and involvement in changing social reality through literature (Wichner 2013, 7). The fact that the group assumed also a regional identity was in contradiction with the official cultural policies of that time, which promoted national homogenisation. Yet, they aimed to avoid limiting their audience to the Romanian Germans and promoted a literature that was in accordance with European cultural trends at that moment.
According to Gerhardt Csejka, editor in chief of the German-language cultural magazine Neue Literatur, the strategy of Aktionsgruppe Banat, conceived mainly by Richard Wagner, the leader of the group, was to carry out hold their meetings and carry out their cultural activities openly because they assumed that their ideological background was not in contradiction with the official ideology. However the communist regime in Romania turned towards nationalism during 1960s and the Marxist-Leninist component of the discourse became secondary. At the same time, their way of conceiving Marxism was influenced by the Western neo-Marxist school and this it was in contradiction with the dogmatic reading of Marxism in the official ideology of the Romanian Communist Party (Iorgulescu 2006, 418).
Aktionsgruppe Banat was launched during a short period of “closely-watched relaxation” in communist Romania, which lasted from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, with reverberations until mid–1970s (D. Petrescu 2010, 15). This period of relative cultural liberalisation was characterised by intense cultural connections with the West, which made Western cultural products such as publications and vinyl records with Western pop and rock music available to Romanian consumers. Cultural institutions enjoyed more autonomy in their relations with the political factors, and censorship became less strict. This liberalisation explains how the members of Aktionsgruppe Banat managed to publish some of their non-conformist literary works. For example, the collage of texts of Aktionsgruppe Banat published by the cultural magazine Neue Literatur in 1974 contained word plays hinting at Ceaușescu’s dictatorship and at the censorship and the wooden language of that time. Although many of their works entail a subtle criticism of Ceaușescu’s Romania, Aktionsgruppe Banat did not aim to openly oppose the regime and they do not consider themselves dissidents (Petrescu 2015, 131).
The July Theses, launched by Ceaușescu in 1971, produced a gradual deep change in the cultural policies of the regime during the 1970s. This shift brought a return to Stalinist practices: political control on cultural institutions became stronger and censorship more and more strict. In this context, the activity of Aktionsgruppe Banat drew the attention of the Securitate after several notes provided in the period from 1973 to 1974 by informers from the same academic milieu. These informative notes gave the secret police well-documented analyses of their texts and explained the hidden meaning of the word plays as criticism and ironic assessment of Ceaușescu’s political regime (ACNSAS, I 210 845, vol. 2, 1–15). These notes also depict in detail the discussions that took place during the meetings of the group and its public performances, the reaction of the public, and generally the atmosphere created around the young writers. Because these informers came from the Romanian-German literary milieu, their informative notes represent complex interpretations of Aktionsgruppe Banat literary works.
The Securitate considered that the Marxist credentials displayed by the members of Aktionsgruppe Banat were a strategy to disguise their subversive activities. In fact, the secret police officers had such a poor knowledge of Marxism that they were not able to evaluate the genuine character of Marxist allegiance of the Aktionsgruppe Banat writers. Due to their complex ideological ground, their subtle criticism of the Ceaușescu regime, and last but not least, due to the fact that all these complex texts were written in German, the case of Aktionsgruppe Banat represented a great challenge for the Securitate. Thus, the case of Aktionsgruppe Banat illustrates the limits of this relative liberalisation and its gradual retreat in the context of a shift in the cultural policies of the Ceaușesu regime.
From mid-1970s until late 1980s, the members of Aktionsgruppe Banat received special attention from the Securitate, which opened so-called “informative surveillance files” (dosare de urmărireinformativă) on most of its members. Apart from documents regarding the Securitate’s internal communication, informative notes, and transcripts of tape-recorded private conversations, these files comprise also original documents and copies of documents such as literary manuscripts, letters, photos, and clippings from newspapers and literary magazines.
The “informative surveillance files” represent the most important part of the Aktionsgruppe Banat Ad-hoc Collection. The creation of these files reflects the logic behind the functionning of the Romanian secret police. As Katherine Verdery argues,when evaluating and carrying out operations on an individual, the Securitate paid special attention to their social network (Verdery 2014, 187). The social network of a person was a key element in evaluating both the dangerousness of those under surveillance and the usefulness of possible informers. The features of this network and the interactions of a person with it determined their ability to access valuable information, to influence others, and to articulate solidarities. Concerning this last aspect, the Securitate was not able to break the solidarity among the members of the Aktionsgruppe Banat, although the secret police tried to transform some of them into useful informers (Petrescu 2015, 132). Following the network of personal relations between the members of the group and its sympathisers, the Securitate developed “informative surveillance files” that were strongly connected one with another.
These files reflect the Securitate’s perceptions of and actions against the members of Aktionsgruppe Banat. The Securitate gathered and archived those documents perceived as proofs of the subversive activity of the group, following a strongly ideologised view on society and individuals. Consequently, these files tend to overrate the oppositional character of their activity by emphasising only those aspects perceived as dangerous for state security. This is the effect of an inner contradiction within the Securitate’s activity since “the secret police was called simultaneously to acquire factual knowledge (through surveillance, recordings, etc.) while subordinating it to the truth of ideology (which entailed deciding who is a spy, a traitor, etc. based on theory and ideology)” (Poenaru 2013, 117).
Besides the “informative surveillance files,” the Aktionsgruppe Banat Ad-hoc Collection comprises also the so-called “criminal files” (dosare penale) on the members of the group arrested in 1975. The “criminal files” are the result of the Securitate’s criminal investigations on those committing political offences. After gathering plenty of information on Aktionsgruppe Banat’s literary activity, which the Securitate considered to have a “subversive” content, in October 1975 the secret police arrested three members of the group (William Totok, Richard Wagner, Gerhard Ortinau) and the literary critic Gerhardt Csejka, who played a key role in supporting the young writers (Wichner 2013, 7). The criminal files in the Aktionsgruppe Banat Ad-hoc Collection comprise documents regarding the Securitate’s internal communication, minutes of the interrogations, arrest warrants, search warrants, and various documents confiscated from those under investigation in order to support the accusation. In the period from July to October 1975, the houses of some members of the group were attentively searched by the Securitate who confiscated a large number of manuscripts, letters, audio tapes with recordings of the group’s performances, and publications.
After a week of interrogations at the Securitate headquarters in Timișoara, those arrested were released due to the fact that the local authorities wanted to avoid the international protests that sentencing a group of writers for political reasons would have caused (Totok 2001, 47–48). William Totok made several official complaints about the abusive confiscation of his manuscripts, which had been taken by the secret police without mentioning them in the official minute of the Securitate’s search. He received back most of the documents in 1977 (Totok 2001, 88–89). However, many of the original documents confiscated in 1975 from the members of the group, their translations into Romanian, and copies of the originals are still part of the Aktionsgruppe Banat Ad-hoc Collection.
After 1989, the files created by the Securitate on the activity of Aktionsgruppe Banatwere inherited by the SRI (Romanian acronym for Romanian Intelligence Service), the Securitate’s successor. Law no. 187 of 1999 established CNSAS (Romanian acronym for National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives), the institution that was in charge of carrying out transitional justice in Romania, including making the Securitate’s files accessible to citizens. Since its establishment, CNSAS has gradually received into its custody from the SRI the files created by the former Securitate. The Securitate’s files regarding Aktionsgruppe Banat have been accessed both by the members of the group and by researchers. Documents from these files have been published online by William Totok and some of them have been displayed in exhibitions thematising the activity of the group.
Description of content
The collection is made up of two categories of items: 1. documents confiscated by the Securitate from the members of the Aktionsgruppe Banat literary group, such as manuscripts (of novels, short writings, and poems), correspondence, photos,and publications considered to be subversive, and 2. documents issued by the state authorities, especially the Securitate, concerning the group’s cultural activity, such as reports, instructions, interrogation minutes, transcripts of tape-recorded private conversations, translations of the literary texts, and informative notes of the Securitate’s informers, which relate about the activity of the Aktionsgruppe Banat writers and analyse their works.
These documents were archived by the Securitate taking into account the institution’s operative interests and bureaucratic rules into two categories of files: files focused on surveillance of persons (the so-called “informative surveillance files” – dosare de urmărire informativă) and files concerning the criminal investigation of political detainees by the Securitate, the so-called “criminal files” (dosare penale).
- grey literature (regular archival documents such as brochures, bulletins, leaflets, reports, intelligence files, records, working papers, meeting minutes): 1000-
- manuscripts (ego-documents, diaries, notes, letters, drafts, etc.): 10-99
- photos: 0-9
- publications (books, newspapers, articles, press clippings): 10-99
Stakeholder(s) of the collection
Geographical scope of recent operation
Place of founding
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Creator(s) of content
Important events in the history of the collection
- completely open to the public
Totok, William. 2001. Constrângerea memoriei. Însemnări, documente, amintiri (The constraint of memory: notes, documents, memories). Iași: Polirom.
Wichner, Ernest, eds. 1992. Ein Pronomen ist verhaftet worden. Die frühen Jahre in Rumänien. Texte der Aktionsgruppe Banat. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Author(s) of this page
- Petrescu, Cristina
- Pintilescu, Corneliu
Archives of the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives (Arhiva Consiliului Naţional pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securităţii - ACNSAS), I 210 845, vol. 1–2; P 054927; I 233 471.
Andreescu, Gabriel. 2015. Existenţa prin cultură: Represiune, colaboraţionism şi rezistenţă intelectuală sub regimul comunist (Existence through culture: Repression, collaborationism, and intellectual dissent under the communist regime). Iași: Polirom.
Bahro, Rudolf. 1978. The Alternative in Eastern Europe. London: New Left Books/Verso.
Kienlechner, Sabina. 2010. “ ‘Unter dem Einfluss der bürgerlichen Ideologie:’ Die ‘Aktionsgruppe Banat’ in den Akten der Securitate.” Sinn und Form 6: 746–769.
Iorgulescu, Mircea. 2006. Convorbiri la sfârșit de secol: Editura Fundației Culturale Române (Conversations at the end of the century: The Romanian Cultural Foundation Publishing House). Bucharest: Editura Fundației Culturale Române.
Petrescu, Dragoș. 2010. Explaining the Romanian Revolution of 1989: Culture, Structure, and Contingency. Bucharest: EdituraEnciclopedicǎ, 2010.
Petrescu, Cristina. 2015. “Aktionsgruppe Banat Reconstructs Its Past, II: Secret Police Archives and Transitional Justice,” ArhiveleTotalitarismului 23, 3–4: 131–144.
Poenaru, Florin. 2013. “Contesting Illusions: History and Intellectual Class Struggle in Post-Communist Romania.” PhD diss., Central European University.
Thiers, Bettina. 2016. Experimentelle Poetik als Engagement: Konkrete Poesie, visuelle Poesie, Lautdichtung und experimentelles Hörspiel im deutschsprachigen Raum von 1945 bis 1970. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag.
Totok, William. 2001. Constrângere amemoriei. Însemnări, documente, amintiri (The constraint of memory: Notes, documents, memories). Iași: Polirom.
Stoehr, Ingo Roland. 2001. German Literature of the Twentieth Century: From Aestheticism to Postmodernism. Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer.
Sterbling. Anton. 2008. „Am Anfang war das Gespräch“. Reflexionen und Beiträge zur „Aktionsgruppe Banat“ und andere literatur- und kunstbezogene Arbeiten. Hamburg: Krämer.
Verdery, Katherine. 2014. Secrets and Truths: Ethnography in the Archive of Romania’s Secret Police. Budapest: CEU Press.
Wichner, Ernest, eds. 1992. Ein Pronomen ist verhaftet worden. Die frühen Jahre in Rumänien. Texte der Aktionsgruppe Banat. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Wichner, Ernest. 2012. “‘Aktionsgruppe Banat’ die erste und letzte deutschsprachige Dichterschule in Rumänien,” Études Germaniques 3: 431-441.
Wichner, Ernest. 2012. Introduction to La început a fost dialogul. Grupul de Acțiune Banat și prietenii: poezii, proza, polemici (In the beginning was the dialogue: Banat Action Group and friends: poems, prose, polemics), edited by Corina Bernic and Ernest Wichner, 6–8. Iași: Polirom.
Petrescu, Dragoș, interview by Pintilescu, Corneliu, November 12, 2017. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection