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Beyond the wall

The Lost History of East Germany

Katya Hoyer argues for a closer look at the triumphs and travails of everyday life under socialism.

Photo by Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A painting of a Trabant car bursting through a wall in post-unification Berlin, August 1993

At the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, Katarina Witt, the figure skater once dubbed “the most beautiful face of socialism,” took to the ice to perform a routine set to Bizet’s opera Carmen. Dressed in a black and red flamenco-inspired suit, Witt outperformed her rivals, including American Debi Thomas, who was also skating to Carmen. Triumphing in the “Battle of the Carmens,” Witt became the second woman in Olympic history to collect back-to-back gold medals in figure skating. 

Her performance was no accident of history. In its 40-year existence, East Germany dominated the Olympic Games. Despite its small size—the country’s population never rose past 19 million—the German Democratic Republic won 519 medals, including 192 gold. Due to an infamous doping scheme paired with broad-based fitness programs that East Germans remember fondly, the GDR still ranks among the top medal-winners, even 30 years after it disappeared from world maps.

Beyond the Wall: A History of East Germany
by Katja Hoyer
Basic Books, 496 pp., $35.00

That uncomfortable union of illegal steroids and broadly accessible social programs captures something essential about the GDR’s paradoxical nature. It was one of the strangest countries to have ever existed, a jewel box of contradictions. Desperately impoverished, at least compared to its West German twin, East Germany was also an engine of social mobility. Citizens were spied on by its infamous secret police—the Stasi—at the same time that East Germany achieved unparalleled gender equality in the workplace. Imprisoned behind a fortified border by an authoritarian regime, East Germans were among the most vocal citizens on earth, sending millions of petitions to their central government.

These contradictions are beautifully captured in Beyond the Wall: A History of East Germany, German-British historian Katja Hoyer’s second book. While most people continue to think of East Germany as “a grey, monotonous blur—a world without individuality, agency or meaning,” Hoyer contends that it is well past time to recognize its distinctive society and culture. Doing so not only acknowledges the personal experiences of million of East German citizens but also gives us an opportunity to think more capaciously about what, if anything, might be worth salvaging from twentieth-century socialism. Crafting an expansive and generous history of East Germany, Hoyer brings long-standing academic scholarship to a broader audience, explaining how the GDR evolved over its 40-year existence, the triumphs and travails of everyday life under state socialism, and why so many East Germans continue to pine for the country they have lost. 

While East Germany was a product of Germany’s postwar occupation, its roots stretch back to the origins of socialism. Germany, after all, is the land of Marx and Engels. The two socialist thinkers published the Communist Manifesto during the revolutionary year 1848, a cri de coeur against grotesque inequality and exploitation that still resonates with readers nearly two centuries later. In 1875, two socialist workers groups merged to form what would become the German Social Democratic Party, or SPD, the oldest socialist party in existence as well as Germany’s governing party today. Suppressed during the nineteenth century, the SPD became the country’s largest parliamentary bloc in the years before World War I.

But World War I caused a schism in the party, and radical, anti-war members broke off to found what became the German Communist Party. When the SPD took power at the end of the war, it collaborated with far-right paramilitaries to hunt down renegade Communists, including the new party’s leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who were both murdered on January 15, 1919. While the Communist Party survived through the years of the Weimar Republic, the SPD remained mortally hostile to it. And when the Nazi Party came to power in 1933, its first order of business was rounding up Communists and sending them to purpose-built concentration camps, where many of them perished. The lucky ones fled Germany, crossing the border before they could be arrested. Some went West. But many traveled East, to Moscow, where what would become the core of the East German government waited out the war.

Hoyer begins her story in the cauldron of Stalin’s Great Terror, which lasted from 1936 to 1938 and claimed around one million lives. Many of the German Communists who had sought safety in the USSR were purged: arrested, tortured, sent to the Gulag, or even murdered. Those who survived were a Stalinist core, including Wilhelm Pieck, who would go on to become the GDR’s first president, and Walter Ulbricht, who would become the first secretary of the East German Socialist Unity Party.

Berlin fell on May 2, 1945; the remains of the Thousand Year Reich six days later. The Red Army occupied Germany’s eastern reaches. The western parts were divided among France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Governance of the Soviet zone soon fell into the hands of German Communists. Ulbricht, who arrived in Berlin with his Soviet patrons, remarked to an associate, “It must look democratic, but we must control everything.” Hoping to capitalize on the postwar popularity of the SPD, the Soviets forced a merger with the Communist Party, creating the Socialist Unity Party, or SED, which would govern East Germany for 40 years. But when the SED suffered humiliating results in the 1946 polls, winning less than 50 percent of the vote, leaders resolved never again to hold free elections.  

Initially, there were hopes that a neutral, democratic Germany could be reunited. But as the logic of the Cold War took hold, those hopes curdled. A Western currency union, the Berlin blockade, and finally the founding of a West German state turned an independent East Germany from a socialist pipe dream into reality.

While the country was grounded in anti-fascist rhetoric and the egalitarian ideals of communism, the East German government suffered from what historian Andrew Port has termed a “siege mentality.” Led by men traumatized by decades of violence at the hands of the SPD, the Nazis, and the Soviets, convinced that they were ruling a hostile, fascistic populace, the GDR “never stopped looking for monsters under its bed.” After a workers’ strike rocked the country in June 1953, the state slowly but surely grew its security apparatus, until the Stasi was the largest police force per capita that the world has ever seen.

The country also suffered an economic stillbirth, which Hoyer tenderly excavates in the opening chapters. The sandy plains of Brandenburg were never the wealthiest part of the German Reich, lacking the rich mineral deposits that made the western Rhineland one of Europe’s industrial powerhouses. Adding insult to injury, the Soviet Union squeezed the country for reparations to make up for the devastation of World War II. While West Germany reaped the benefits of the U.S. Marshall Plan, Soviet forces plundered the eastern zone. From kidnapping engineers and scientists to stealing art to dismantling whole factories and shipping them east, the Red Army made the GDR pay. The economic drain made it hard for Ulbricht and his lieutenants to fulfill the promise of socialism to provide stable work and an adequate standard of living.

High work quotas and a lack of opportunity in East Germany’s early years convinced millions to move westward. The flight of technical experts was particularly concerning to East German authorities. After receiving a first-class education at East German schools, they could then cross the border, where they were granted automatic West German citizenship and could earn a much larger salary than in the socialist republic.

Indeed, migration proved an existential threat to the young country. In the 1950s, the GDR slowly hardened the “inner-German” border separating the two countries. The government moved “unreliable” residents out of the border zone in what was dubbed “Operation Vermin,” erected barbed wire, planted land mines, and more. But Berlin, which was still in theory under Allied administration, remained accessible to East Germans. Eventually, Ulbricht decided to stanch the flow. On August 14, 1961, the Berlin Wall began to go up, dividing the capital and cutting off East Germans’ last route to the West. Remembered today as one of the greatest human rights violations of the Cold War, the militarized border ironically stabilized East Germany’s domestic situation, as well as relations between the two countries. “With the ideological divide cemented,” Hoyer writes, “a period of calm set in.” 

That calm led to decades of relative stability and comfort when “East Germans’ lives improved enormously.” Ulbricht’s government began to focus less on rapid industrialization and more on consumer staples and adequate housing. Household appliances that we take for granted today became commonplace in the 1960s. Whereas only 6 percent of homes had washing machines at the start of the decade, over half did by the end. The same for refrigerators: Over 50 percent of East German households had them in 1970, while only 28 percent of West German homes did. Under Erich Honecker, who ousted Ulbricht in a 1971 palace coup, these trends picked up steam. The number of East Germans with a car nearly doubled between 1970 and 1975. By 1980, almost every home had a television. 

The GDR also made good on its commitment to social mobility. In a self-professed “workers’ and farmers’ state,” the grip of the aristocracy was smashed and working-class Germans were elevated into the upper echelons of society. Around a third of East German university students hailed from the working classes. In West Germany, that figure was 3 percent. The military and secret police, ironically, also provided new opportunities. In the GDR’s final year, some 60 percent of army officers were working-class recruits.

Gender too was part and parcel of East Germany’s drive to social equality. Communism had long preached gender equality. In Germany, the Communist Party had been a long-standing ally in the push to legalize abortion. Although Ulbricht’s regime espoused conservative social mores in its first years, the regime took its commitment to women’s equality seriously, enshrining equality of the sexes in the 1949 constitution. Over the decades, the state slowly made good on that promise. It liberalized divorce laws, legalized abortion in 1972, and developed a generous social safety net to provide for mothers.

These programs were effective. By the early 1980s, over 90 percent of women were employed—more than anywhere else on earth. They occupied all manner of positions, from doctors and factory workers to professors and judges. By the time Ronald Reagan appointed America’s first female Supreme Court Justice, around 50 percent of East German district and regional judges were women. In the United States today that figure is only 30 percent. East Germany far outpaced West Germany (and most other countries) in affording women social, economic, and political opportunity.

East German authoritarianism, that is to say, was not as rigid as Cold War–era histories have made it out to be. Of course, elections were neither free nor fair: Citizens were presented with a preselected list of candidates of which they could either approve or disapprove. But they had other ways to communicate with the government. Petitions, known as Eingaben, were a common way for East Germans to express discontent. Every year, hundreds of thousands of these letters flowed into the central government, so many that scholars have termed the country a “grumble Gesellschaft” (grumble society).

And there are notable moments when East German activists were able to change government policy. Historian Josie McLellan, for instance, documents how ordinary citizens were able to preserve the country’s famed tradition of nude beaches (known as free-body culture or FKK), even in the face of state opposition. My own book on LGBTQ politics in postwar Germany documents how successful the East German gay and lesbian movement was. By the middle of the 1980s, East Germany had a legitimate claim to being among the most queer-friendly states on earth, far outpacing conservative West Germany.

But social and economic progress was not enough to save the country. An aging leadership, still fretfully on the lookout for enemies foreign and domestic, remained rigid and unable to adapt. As the security services played whack-a-mole with new activist movements, the economic stress of the 1980s overwhelmed the GDR’s command economy. The violent contradictions of East German rule, of an authoritarian state that proudly proclaimed itself an anti-fascist democracy and a guardian of human rights, proved too much for it to handle. It was caught in what historian Mark Mazower has called “the paradox of the Party.” By sweeping away old privileges and leveling the playing field, by educating its populace and providing a basic standard of living, the party had “cast doubt upon its own existence.” The GDR had achieved what it set out to do, but by the 1980s, it had outlived its usefulness.

On November 9, 1989, thanks to the flubbed rollout of a more liberal emigration policy, East Germans flooded through and over the Berlin Wall and into the West. It was the end of the regime. But, as Hoyer aptly explains, the GDR did not simply vanish, even after it formally ceased to exist on October 3, 1990. No, its footprint remains everywhere, from the reunified country’s generous childcare to the frightening popularity of the far-right Alternative for Germany in the former Eastern lands to the Cold War kitsch that tourists can still buy in Berlin.

To Hoyer, the GDR’s spectral presence is evidence of Ostalgie, nostalgia for the East. It proves only that many retain fond memories of the country of their youth, even if few “East Germans long for a return to GDR socialism.” Dismissing the GDR’s socialist legacy in this way, especially in such an exciting narrative that restores the drama of East German history, strikes me as too simplistic. It evades the question of why we should care about East German history at all. 

Of course, for Hoyer the answer is simple. East Germany is, quite simply, part of German history and the country she grew up in. To ignore it, or to understand it through Cold war clichés, would be to misunderstand German history as a whole. But for those who do not have an emotional attachment to the country, East German history must offer another appeal. The most obvious is that the GDR provides a striking case study in the history of socialism.

The warnings that the country offers are all too clear and are recounted in uncountable histories. But what Hoyer brings to life is that the GDR actually achieved remarkable progress on a host of social and economic fronts in its short life span. It is precisely because of those triumphs that the country won the approval and even admiration of some of its citizens. If, as we Americans are fond of saying, most politics devolves to “It’s the economy, stupid,” then there are good reasons why East Germans would look back on their small state fondly. As Mary Fulbrook, one of the most esteemed historians of East Germany, insists, there was “also a ‘normality’ about the history of the GDR that needs to be recaptured.”

To recognize the GDR’s “normality,” to comprehend what it did well, is not, of course, an argument to return to authoritarian state socialism. Rather it highlights that there is something about socialism that East Germans miss and something about neoliberal capitalism that is profoundly alienating. Many East Germans feel cheated by the unequal way that reunification was carried out—jobs cut, welfare slashed, and public property auctioned off. Since 1990, social mobility has ground to a halt: Germany now ranks near the bottom for opportunity, worse than the U.S. East Germans miss not only “the sickly taste of the bright-green peppermint liqueur consumed in secret behind the sports hall during a school disco” but also the meaning and tangible benefits that came from the socialist project. To take seriously the history of the GDR means to think about socialism “beyond the wall,” as Hoyer asks us to do, and to recognize where it succeeded as well as where it failed. Perhaps, then, from the wreckage of state socialism, we might find our way to a more utopian future.