A typical East German apartment on display in the DDR Museum in Berlin, showing life in communist East Germany before reunification

The country that went to the wall

From its birth after 1945, to its death after 1990

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949–1990, Katja Hoyer (Penguin, £22)

I was lucky enough to catch the twilight years of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). As a Financial Times correspondent, based in Bonn, I made many trips to East Germany in 1988 and even more in 1989 as the Wall crumbled. It was easy, then, to pity and patronise the museum-piece country and its people. Many West Germans certainly did, whether it was the bombastic business types bringing the gospel of market efficiency, or progressive politicians who told “Ossi” jokes about their backward cousins.

I befriended many of those cousins as I wandered their soon-to-vanish land, and I found them to be generally more modest and self-effacing people than those of us raised in the more competitive and individualistic societies to the west. Katja Hoyer’s attempt to rescue the country of her birth from the condescension of history — to see it as more than a totalitarian blip defined by the Wall, the Stasi and its geriatric leaders — is a welcome correction. 

Hoyer, who was four years old when the Wall fell, succeeds in restoring some honour and fairness to the historical record, partly by her relentless emphasis on the unfairness of the East German experience. The post-war Germans who truly suffered for the sins of Nazism were mainly in the eastern Soviet zone, including the estimated two million women who were raped. 

After the Red Army’s orgy of violence, these same Germans had to genuflect to their Soviet masters for the next 45 years. Whilst Germans in the three western zones received Marshall Aid and occupiers who promoted democracy and market economies, those in the eastern zone saw one third of their industrial capacity carted off to a Soviet Union that regarded its slice of Germany as an entity that existed purely for its own economic and political convenience. 

Meanwhile, the few pre-war German communists in exile who had survived the Moscow purges of the 1930s and 1940s — i.e. the most compliant and paranoid of them were parachuted back into the country to run it. “It has to look democratic, but we must have everything in our hands,” as Walter Ulbricht, the poundshop Stalin who ran the country for the next 30 years, put it. Furthermore, the eastern zone had to make do with few natural resources (the famous exception being its dirty brown coal) and make room for most of the displaced German refugees from farther east. 

Author Katja Hoyer

Hoyer sometimes lays it on a bit too thick, implying, for example, that the east inherited little industry — despite Saxony/Berlin being just as much a pre-war German industrial heartland as the Ruhr in the west. Nonetheless, in its birth after 1945, and in its death after 1990, the East Germans certainly bore the brunt of adjustment pain. 

This is not just a hard luck story; it is also the story of a plucky little country that, despite its repressive politics, produced a distinctive way of life, a kind of dowdy communitarianism that by the 1970s and 1980s many felt attached to. It also had sources of pride, such as its extraordinary Olympic successes (only partly steroid-propelled) and the fact that by the 1970s, it was the richest and most efficient of all Soviet bloc countries. German hard work and technical traditions could not be suppressed forever. 

Hoyer brings all this to life in her vignettes of ordinary lives. The holidays in Bulgaria, the varieties of Trabant, homegrown stars such as the Puhdys (the East German Deep Purple) or the skater Katarina “Kati” Witt. She doesn’t shirk the dark side: the repression by Soviet troops of the 1953 workers uprising; the 300,000-plus a year who left the country for western freedom before the Wall was built in 1961 to stop them; the failures of the planning system; the Stasi mass surveillance system, one of the most comprehensive ever. 

I was in Germany long enough to witness the depressing spectacle of East German public opinion sliding from the brief euphoria that accompanied unification into a settled lament about their second-class citizenship. It is true that West Germany’s absorption of the east was not always sensitively handled but, like an adolescent who kicks against parental authority whilst enjoying use of the family credit card, many East Germans willed the ends of unification — the wealth and freedom — whilst remaining ambivalent about the means: the dissolution of their collectivist cocoon. 

It remained a mean, stunted land that most of its citizens were happy to abandon

Hoyer’s book ends with unification but, like many on the western left, she regrets that the best in that reticent, egalitarian culture was not preserved. Yet one of the GDR’s authoritarian legacies was the absence of a democratic culture that could incubate the idea of a different Germany. There was a brief flourishing of debate after the Wall’s fall, especially in East Berlin around Bündnis 90, but the majority of East Germans just wanted the quickest way to acquiring the life they observed next door (70 per cent could watch West German TV). 

The author rightly celebrates East German successes such as universal childcare, with most women working and rising in the professions before it was common in West Germany. She also notes the GDR had superior social mobility than West Germany, with more from working-class backgrounds going to university. This may be true, but partly out of necessity — the GDR lacked a landed or monied class and had a larger working class, proportionately, than the West. Moreover, you can be sure that the children of senior party members were not downwardly mobile. 

On the other hand, Hoyer barely mentions the authoritarian continuities from Nazi to communist regimes, nor the lack of any discussion in “anti-fascist” East Germany of German responsibility for Hitler and the horrors of total war and the Holocaust. 

At the end of the book, Hoyer comes close to an apologia. By 1988, she writes, “the GDR was a highly literate, highly skilled and highly politicised society, confident in its achievements and keen to move forward”, with most citizens not wanting to reunify with the West. This claim was disproved in the country’s only democratic election, in 1990, suggesting, rather, that it was a politically neutered place — indeed had been since 1933 — with politics reserved for a small elite happy to spout rigid, dishonest ideologies. 

When the crowds in Leipzig in 1989 swapped the slogan “we are the people” for “we are one people” it represented not so much choosing nation before class as choosing freedom before rigorous egalitarianism, with the marshalling of the human spirit it seems to require. 

For all the suffering of ordinary East Germans in the early decades of the state and their equivocal attachment to an East German identity in its final years, it remained a mean, stunted land that most of its citizens were happy to abandon. Yet as this necessary book (plus many recent films about East Germany) underlines, its memory is far from airbrushed from history. 

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