His writing caught the attention of Bertolt Brecht and the author and politician Johannes R. Becher, who became mentors and helped promote his works. In 1962 he won the Heinrich Mann Prize for essay writing, the first of more than a dozen awards he collected throughout his lifetime, which also included honorary doctorates from Allegheny College and Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
The East German government allowed him to serve as a guest professor at the University of Texas in 1972 and at the University of Warwick in England in 1975.
But as the government became more restrictive, his works became more critical. In 1976, he was among the first artists to sign a petition protesting the East German authorities’ decision to revoke the citizenship of the singer and songwriter Wolf Biermann, a friend of his, who had criticized what he saw as the distortion of socialism by Soviet-style bureaucracy.
Although Mr. Kunert and a dozen of the other most prominent signatories feared they would be prevented from publishing, their only formal punishment was to have their membership in the Communist Party revoked. But they suffered indirectly under repressive tactics that included shadowing by the secret police and smear campaigns.
In an open letter published in 1977 in the West German weekly Die Zeit, Mr. Kunert wrote that the East German government was deliberately driving critical artists into emigration. “According to the American principle of love it or leave it, the removal of critical artists is seen as a painful amputation of a diseased member of society,” he wrote.
Two years later he fled to the West, where he continued to write, supporting his art with commissions for radio plays and television scripts. A self-declared “cheerful melancholic,” he focused his criticism on capitalism and raised awareness about the environment, long before fears of climate change became widespread.
Mr. Kunert is survived by his wife, Erika Hinckel, and a stepdaughter, Lore Reimann. His first wife, Marianne, died in 2013.