Fifty years of Cold War gave us the Soviet Union and communist States as our enemy. We learned all about repression, the horrors of one Party rule. What else did we need to know about the German Democratic Republic (GDR), indelibly imprinted as ‘Stasiland’ by Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold? The question ‘what was it like living in a communist society?’ seemed redundant. Katja Hoyer’s Beyond the Wall: East Germany 1949-1990, published this year, gives us a full and different cultural and political history, a revealing and compelling picture of daily life on the other side of the iron curtain.
Anyone looking at today’s world from an historical perspective is drawn to asking ‘who’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. That is part of the fun for historians, to some degree similar to the pleasures of outguessing a police procedural on TV. More taxing is exploring the past as ‘another country’, trying to get inside the heads of the natives, asking ‘what was it like living then’ and ‘how did people think’? Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII’s court in the early 16th century is a masterclass in doing just that.
It was more than a decade after the disintegration of the Soviet Empire in 1990-1991 that film-makers began to portray life in East Germany as like - even if not quite like - life anywhere else. Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 bitter-sweet comedy Good Bye Lenin! is a mother- and-son story. The mother, Christiane Kerner, spends eight months in a coma after a heart attack. Meanwhile the Berlin wall comes down and Chancellor Helmut Köhl steers Germany towards re-unification. To avoid a sudden shock, her family goes to any length to keep from her the new political and social reality. The humour is gentle with an underlying sadness. It’s political satire - by a West German director - but you get a feel for East German society.
Beyond the Wall addresses the social and political life of the GDR, a State that lasted barely forty years, providing a fascinating response to the ‘what was it like’ question. Katja Hoyer, born in East Germany and a graduate of the University of Jena, visiting research fellow at Kings College, London, writes with journalistic flair and an historian’s skills. Alongside the rewards of painstaking archival research, the book offers an attractive mix of interviews so that most chapters grow out of brief biographies of named individuals and their family life. You come away feeling you’ve learned something that you should have known before.
Hoyer’s first thesis is that the post-war division of Germany was far from inevitable. It was Walter Ulbricht, an uninspiring but determined communist ideologue, who was the main architect of the GDR. After 1945, he worked his way up to the position of Chair of its State Council which he held from 1960 until his death in 1973, though he wielded considerable power as Deputy Chair of the Council of Ministers from 1950.
Stalin was opposed to the creation of two Germanies. Hoyer writes that he had a genuine respect for German culture, literature and art, believed that the German people had become entranced by Hitler and were not ‘inherently warlike’. At the end of World War II in talks with Ulbricht in 1945, Stalin sought German unity: a unified, neutral, defanged Germany with its borders defined by the allies at Potsdam, a buffer between the Soviet Union and NATO. Ulbricht wanted a sovereign State with himself as President. Stalin reluctantly accepted a fait accompli in 1949 when representatives from the eleven Parliamentary Councils of the three Western Occupied Zones approved a State constitution for West Germany and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was born. The German Democratic Republic was created from the Soviet zone.
West Germany’s Hallstein Doctrine, cutting off all diplomatic and economic relations with countries that recognised East Germany, forced the GDR into economic dependence on the Soviet Union (which of course had initially extracted huge reparations). Ulbricht’s regime’s survival of an early, often forgotten, uprising in 1953 was also dependent on brutal suppression by Soviet military power.
Rebuilding East Germany after the War was a colossal physical and human task. It took ten years to clear all the rubble from Dresden after blanket bombing by the Allies. In the mid-1950s there was a permanent shortage of people to fill professional jobs. From 1955-1957, years of economic crisis, an average of 300,000 left for the FRG each year; such was the reaction to the pressures created by Ulbricht’s push to build socialism. By November 1989 the GDR had a population of 16 million against the FRG’s 62 million.
Ulbricht was ideologically committed to, and invested in, equality between male and female workers. Average incomes doubled in the 1950s. By 1955 half the workforce were women. A third were women in the FRG and, by 1970, the gap had grown to 66% in the GDR against 27.5% in the FRG. Hoyer insists that upward mobility for workers, especially women, should not be dismissed as a cynical move: “this is not only to underestimate the drive towards gender equality...but also insulting to the women concerned”. But by 1961 three million East Germans, 7,500 doctors, 1,200 dentists, 33% of its academics and hundreds of thousands of skilled workers, had “turned their back on Ulbricht’s ‘workers and peasants state’. 80% of them via Berlin”. The brain drain had to be stopped – by force.
Construction of the Berlin Wall began on 13 August 1961. Most of the deaths in No-Man's land came in the first few months after its completion. Hoyer describes the daily life of the border guards and the phenomenal growth of the Ministry of State Security, the Stasi, from 1,100 staff in 1950 to 43,000 by 1970 with its own burgeoning paramilitary force, the Dzerzhinsky Guards Regiment.
In 1971, Erich Honeker - who had spent many years in Nazi prisons - took over from Ulbricht, continuing his attempt to plough a communist furrow outside Soviet control.
The GDR came out top of the communist world for consumer goods though with typically poor housing. Like a smelly old dog, the East Germans fell in love with the ‘Trabi’, the only car they could buy; the Trabant was a two cylinder, 26 horse-power ULEZ nightmare, slow and noisy. Even with a waiting list of many years, by 1988 half the GDR population had a car, making the percentage of car ownership much the same on both sides of the wall.
In Beyond the Wall, Hoyer provides many more revealing statistics, telling vignettes and unexpected snapshots of daily life. But she risks being condemned as a ‘leftie historian’ rather than a worthy apprentice to Hilary Mantel’s brilliant storytelling. Dwelling on what is usually omitted makes for balance, for good history. Today, in a polarised world, we badly need her kind of historical consciousness when considering our enemies, and friends.
I visited Honeker’s East Berlin in 1980. Out of the bright lights and vibrant life of the FRG into drab, empty streets, lunch in a dark wood-paneled restaurant, a surfeit of surly waiters arrayed around the walls. At her retirement ceremony in 2021, Angela Merkel asked the Bundeswehr band to play a 1970’s song by the East German singer Nina Hagen: “Du Hast den Farbfilm Vergessen (You have forgotten the colour - film), a gentle poke at the drabness of the GDR. The song ends: “You forgot to bring the colour film, good grief. All the blue and white and green will later not be true”. It brought tears to her eyes as she recalled her youth in East Germany. History is best written in technicolour, not grey, and not in black and white.
See TheArticle 04/11/2023