“It has to look democratic, but we must have everything in our hands.” That sentence has become inextricably linked with East German politics. It was uttered in 1945 by Walter Ulbricht – founder and longtime leader of the misleadingly-named German Democratic Republic (GDR).
More than a decade later in 1961, Ulbricht, as chairman of the GDR’s ruling Socialist Unity Party, famously declared in his nasal Saxon accent that “no one has the intention of building a wall [in Berlin]”. Just weeks later, and metres away from where he’d spoken these words, the city at the forefront of the Cold War was cleaved in two.
In Beyond the Wall, East German-born historian Katja Hoyer reminds us that there was more to East Germany than the death strip between the two Berlins and the omnipresent Stasi spy apparatus.
In fact, for many East Germans, life was relatively comfortable and the average person’s worries were far more quotidian than the fear of political persecution. Exposed to western consumerism through television and radio, many hankered after proper coffee and Levi’s jeans, not to mention the ability to visit family in West Germany, more than they yearned for high-minded democratic rights.
In the preface to Beyond the Wall; East Germany, 1949-1990, Hoyer writes: “In the western imagination, East Germans wasted 41 years in a walled-off Russian colony, controlled by the Ministry for State Security, better known as the Stasi. What is there worth remembering?” As her book goes on to show, quite a lot.
Interspersing big historical events with stories of ordinary East Germans gives a much fairer view of this geopolitical anomaly than books that focus primarily on the state’s crimes, like Anna Funder’s 2002 Stasiland or innumerable cold war thrillers.
What’s more, the short-lived statelet offers plenty of interesting anecdotes – from the ‘Red Elvis’ Dean Reed, an American rock’n’roll singer who became a communist, moved to East Berlin and topped the charts across the Eastern bloc, to tales of a young Angela Merkel’s unauthorised hike through the Caucasus.
Hoyer is at pains to point out that, despite its many flaws, East Germany also offered an opportunity for people from modest backgrounds to enjoy stability after the devastation of two world wars and the economic turmoil of the interwar and post-war periods.
It also offered the prospect of socio-economic mobility, boasting the highest labour participation of women in the world, and a large proportion of people from working-class backgrounds going to university by the end of its existence – much more so than in the socially stratified West Germany.
The short-lived statelet offers plenty of interesting anecdotes
The dissidents and those who fled were a minority, while the majority simply made their peace with living in a country that seemed normal to them at the time, as Hoyer makes clear through deep dives into everyday life for East Germans over the course of its more than 40 years of existence.
Hoyer avoids moralistic explanations for East Germany’s collapse. Where some point to the intrinsic failures of socialism or blame the statelet’s fall on militaristic Prussians who were never properly German, such as in James Hawes’ 2017 Shortest History of Germany, Hoyer’s sober analysis suggests the significantly smaller, resource-poor East Germany, dependent on unpredictable Soviet largesse, never had much of a chance against its richer, more populous and western-backed brother.
Significantly longer than Hoyer’s previous book, Blood and Iron, this latest tome covers a well-trodden path, offering little that will be new to seasoned Germanophiles. But she covers the book’s territory, the period between 1949 and 1990, exhaustively – recounting not just the GDR’s tumultuous early years or its unexpected collapse, but also a number of mostly forgotten episodes.
One such episode is the unlikely friendship between the Bavarian leader Franz-Josef Strauss and second GDR leader Erich Honecker – a relationship that bought the embattled East German economy a few more years of life via credit.
In another chapter, we learn of the politburo’s internal bickering over how to respond to the popularity of the Beatles among the GDR’s youth, who were forced to listen to a quota of East German music, with Stasi men appearing at parties to check the playlist.
With the inclusion of original source material such as a charming translation of communist youth songs or descriptions of Trabant car manufacturing, it is hard to avoid a measure of Ostalgie. But Hoyer doesn’t shy away from describing the brutality and arbitrary injustice of this country that had to militarise to keep its best and brightest from fleeing.
In one particularly gruesome passage, Hoyer recounts the story of 24-year-old tailor Günter Litfin, considered the first person to be shot and killed by East German border troops while trying to cross the divided city of Berlin.
After Litfin is fatally shot in the back of the head in front of hundreds of West Berliners, the regime proceeds to attack his character in the party’s propaganda newspaper.
The early days of the GDR and its pre-history are probably the least-known part of the book, and also perhaps its most engaging. Many of the founding luminaries of the socialist state had fled the Nazis to the Soviet Union, where they lived among other German political exiles in Moscow.
The fact that their lives depended in large part on avoiding Stalin’s suspicions helps explain the obsessive paranoia of the GDR’s political elite, as well as their hostility to giving too much decision-making power to the same people who had enthusiastically supported the Nazis – the German people themselves.
To Hoyer, the surprise collapse of East Germany can largely be blamed on the inability of the aged Honecker to sense the winds of change brought by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost.
But reunification came more suddenly than anyone expected, and the Berlin Wall, known as the “antifascist protection barrier” in GDR regime parlance, stopped being a deadly border and suddenly became history – alongside East Germany itself.