“Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990” by Katja Hoyer (published by allen lane)

A whole lot more than Trabants, the Stasi and barbed wire

Historian and journalist Katja Hoyer's fat book offers an overflowing history of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), better known as East Germany, integrating just about every fact we might need to know with first-hand accounts from citizens about how they experienced the four decades of a now-vanished communist country that was neither democratic nor a republic.
21. May 2023 8:41

The GDR was founded on October 7, 1949 in the wake of the defeat in World War Two, and then vanished from sight on October 3, 1990 as the Iron Curtain collapsed and the country was merged into its western neighbour. Author Hoyer, who was born in East Germany, was five years old when the Berlin Wall came down and she grew up in provincial eastern Germany. Now the German-British writer lives in Sussex, England, and specialises in modern German history. Her earlier book is “Blood and Iron, The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871- 1918”, an account of the Second Reich.

Hoyer’s aim now is to save the GDR from being written off as a chilling “footnote in German history”, a miserably grey country synonymous with unflinching totalitarianism. Such an approach is, she writes, ahistorical: the all-pervasive Stasi surveillance captured in films such as “The Lives of Others” (2006) or the killings at the Berlin Wall are certainly part of the GDR story — but there was more to it than that. It was also a place where people “lived, loved and grew old… went on holidays, made jokes about politicians and raised their children”.

She tells how many German communists fled the country in the 1930s to escape Adolf Hitler’s thugs, with Moscow a favoured destination. The Soviet Union seemed something of a promised land and a great adventure to the unemployed and destitute of Germany, as well as to idealist intellectuals.

However, a paranoid Joseph Stalin, seeing an imminent German invasion of his country, began to see Hitler’s agents everywhere. His so-called  German Operation arrested 55,005 people, of whom 41,898 would be shot and 13,107 received long sentences. More members of the German Communist Party, the KPD, died at Stalin’s hands than at Hitler’s.

Stalin’s communist utopia turned out to be a dystopian hell. If you had been in an early Nazi concentration camp, you were at the top of his list of suspicious individuals. The logic was that if you had escaped Hitler’s clutches you must have given the Nazis something in return, perhaps to infiltrate the Soviet Union.

The arrest and murder of tens of thousands of Germans in the USSR led to suspicion, denouncements and betrayal that left deep scars on those German communists who survived, scars they would take back to their home country after the Second World War. While German communists in Moscow may have had limited success in helping Stalin win the war, afterwards they stood on the right side of history, ready to return to their fatherland as victors.

With 70 percent of the German Communist Party membership of 1933 eradicated, the bulk of the German communists had evaporated. What remained was the ideological segment, a group of Sovietised ideologues who sought to create a replica of what they had found in Russia in the country they had once called home.

The year 1945 became collectively remembered in Germany as Zero Hour, or Stunde Null, but while Stalin may not have shown a keen interest in modelling the Soviet Zone of Occupation, his “unwanted child”, in his own image, the Germans he allowed to live and return there did. Ten men in particular reflected all the differant skills the Soviets felt they needed in Berlin to build an “anti-fascist” Germany.

These were expert propagandists, pedantic bureaucrats with organisational skills, likeable, genuine, down-to-earth working-class types and a representative of the new generation who had undergone a full communist education, practically from birth. The group was a micrcosm  of the remnants of the communist enclave in Moscow and it had an unwavering pro-Soviet leader in Walter Ulbricht.

He and his men seemed to have an impossible brief – to restore order and begin to build trust and stability among the 16 million East Germans ravaged by defeat, starvation, homelessness, grief and the victorious Russians’ violent retribution: wanton acts of cruelty, rape and murder.

This group had to build governmental structures with suitable candidates as mayors, councillors and in other public positions. “It has to look democratic but we must have everything in our hands,” Ulbricht told his disciples.

The author takes us through the arrest of aristocrats, land reform, the banishment of “class enemies”, the round-up of key physicists, chemists, engineers and scientists to be removed to the Soviet Union, and the dismantling of East German industry, laboratories, train tracks and art. It was a systematic hollowing out of industry, science and culture, with gradual nationalisation of the economy. While the post-war West was beginning to rebuild, the East was subject to plunder.

Hoyer is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in London and a Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London. She is a columnist for the Washington Post and has written for History Today and the BBC’s History Extra. Thirty years on from the momentous 1989-1990 she returned to her homeland and has drawn on what is described as a vast array of unseen interviews, letters and records to write a definitive history of the “other” Germany.

Her rich work is lauded as counterintuitive, revealing not the country dismissed again and again as a freak or accident of the Cold War. Rather, this East Germany is not the walled-in, Russian-controlled “Stasiland” where the citizens suffered from constant surveillance and intimidation at the hands of the Ministry for State Security, but was a place where people shaped their own destinies and lived lives in “full colour”. In her telling it is a far cry from that image conjured by the western imagination.

East Germany’s leaders, she recounts, may have been propped up by the Red Army, and dependent on the Soviet Union for critical raw materials (in particular, oil), but they concurrently sought to navigate an independent path at home and on the international stage. While Hoyer’s telling is largely a political history, it is no mere dry narrative. Interspersed are interviews with everyday East Germans, teachers, accountants, factory workers, police, border guards and so on, how they lived, with insights into, for instance, the role of women, childcare, social mobility, sporting success and doping, the food they ate and the clothes they wore, especially the clothes that they wanted to wear.

It was a brutal dictatorship that oppressed and literally walled in its citizens, and the book does not shy away from these darker aspects. However, by the end the ordinary working people had a reasonable standard of life, with cars, fridges, affordable accommodation, ample childcare, television and entertainment not dissimilar to the West. It was not perfect, and Hoyer tells it all, at great length.

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