Life During Cold Wartime in East Berlin
BEYOND THE WALL: A History of East Germany, by Katja Hoyer
Only one place in the former Soviet bloc has a word that denotes nostalgia for the mostly unlamented Empire. The place is eastern Germany, and the word is Ostalgie. A string of small Ostalgie shops in the former East features the old communist brands of pickles and mustard — as well as models of the smoke-spewing Trabant cars — for those who long to reminisce about the bad old days.
Indeed, the days were plenty bad. Alongside 300,000 Soviet troops, the Ministry for State Security, the dreaded Stasi, deployed 100,000 employees, far outnumbering the Gestapo’s 40,000. Their combined presence could not save the German Democratic Republic from vanishing like Atlantis in 1990, under the pro-democracy movement that swept the Soviet Union.
In the face of this disappearance, the East German-born historian Katja Hoyer has written “Beyond the Wall,” an exhaustive — and, at times, exhausting — attempt to restore the lost state to the historic significance she feels it has been denied.
Hers is a tall order: to excavate the human and the worthwhile from the rubble of a police state. “There was oppression and brutality, yes,” she acknowledges, but, “there was opportunity and belonging … The citizens of the G.D.R. lived, loved, worked and grew old. They went on holidays, made jokes about their politicians and raised their children. Their story deserves a place in the German narrative.”
Impressively researched, “Beyond the Wall” is unsparing in its descriptions of the Red Army that rolled back the Third Reich’s forces. “Komm, Frau,” was the infamous and chilling phrase the “liberators” used as a prelude to sexual assault.
Hoyer also draws sharp portraits of the hardened German Communists, who had spent the war in Moscow and were now dispatched by Stalin to construct a state according to the Kremlin’s plan. “It has to look democratic,” the bespectacled political leader Walter Ulbricht confided to his comrades, “but we must have everything in our hands.” The Stasi chief Erich Mielke perfected the art of breaking critics through sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and worse. Soon, the former Nazi concentration camps filled with Germans deemed dangerous to the new order.
Hoyer’s lens is primarily on geopolitics, but her narrative kicks into a different gear when she lingers on the individual lives of East Berliners, many of whom she interviewed for the book. In the early 1950s, Regina Faustmann, a 16-year old from Brandenburg, abandoned her dream of becoming a seamstress to work in a chemistry lab at a tire manufacturer. She stoically accepted her fate. Hoyer characterizes her as “typical of a young generation of Germans enthusiastic about rolling up their sleeves and playing their part in rebuilding their country.”
The State provided compensations. “There were social activities and music,” Hoyer notes, “but also serious work to help rebuild Germany, such as scrap-metal collection. It felt good to be part of a collective effort.” Of no threat to the big wigs in the Politburo, the Reginas of the East did indeed rebuild their wrecked country. Peace was better than war, a job — even work at a tire factory — was better than going hungry.
Still, until 1961, there was an escape hatch: Berlin remained an open city, and 2,000 East Germans crossed into the Western sector every day with no plans to return. In August 1961, however, the G.D.R. became an actual prison state when soldiers laid down 30 miles of barbed wire and concrete to create a barrier unironically named the “Antifascist Protection Rampart,” a.k.a. the Berlin Wall.
Over the course of the Cold War, East German guards shot and killed more than 100 people for attempting to scale the rampart. Hoyer describes an increased sense of optimism after the number of households with washing machines, stereos and televisions increased in the 1960s and details adolescent memories of the “spontaneous jam sessions and heated political debates” that took place at rock ’n’ roll festivals such as “Red Woodstock” in the early 1970s as well as the somewhat less oppressive political and economic atmosphere that prevailed by the time of Ulbricht’s death in 1973. But none of these improvements stopped the flow of thousands of Germans who often risked their lives — sometimes by digging tunnels — to get to the other side of the wall.
It bears repeating, far more forcefully than Hoyer does, that her former state deemed so many of its citizens “enemies of the people” not for preferring Pall Mall cigarettes, but for criticizing a system that jailed its critics.
In the 1980s, Moscow, under the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev, began a major withdrawal of the Soviet soldiers and tanks that had assured the Stasi regime’s survival for 40 years. Even as the rest of the Eastern Bloc loosened Stalinist economic strictures, the East German leader Erich Honecker defiantly proclaimed, “Good luck, dear comrades, with your perestroika, but we will walk our own path.” That path led straight to the proverbial ash heap of history on Nov. 4, 1989, when 500,000 protesters gathered in and around Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. They were not demanding sleeker cars, just the human right to come and go.
“Winning the Cold War seemed to have proved alternative models of life wrong,” Hoyer blandly notes, suggesting a moral equivalency with the flawed but democratic West German government and letting a pitiless police state off lightly, as an “alternative model.”
Angela Merkel, a daughter of the East who reached the pinnacle of power in the newly united Germany, displayed her own Ostalgie, as Hoyer points out, when — for her farewell ceremony as Chancellor, in late 2021 — she requested the military band play “You Forgot the Color Film,” the hit punk rock song from her G.D.R. youth.
So given the brutal reality of the Stasi state, why the undercurrent of Ostalgie in “Beyond the Wall” and in those shops selling kitschy reminders of a failed system? It’s surely not the 280 watchtowers that eventually rose over the hideous wall that some Germans in the East miss; rather, it may be the guaranteed full employment in a society where everyone — save the ruling Party apparatchiks of course — was equally poor.
Unprepared for the competitive capitalism of the West, some have turned to the Alternative für Deutschland, the far right anti-immigrant party whose strongest support comes from the East. But it is more than a case of “it’s the economy, stupid.” Many among the older generation long for deeper acknowledgment of their suffering and of their contribution to the Federal Republic of Germany, which seemed to have swallowed them whole.
“The G.D.R. made antifacism its foundational dogma,” Hoyer writes, but gave “insufficient attention … to the thorough investigation of the Holocaust.” Such tepid descriptions are among this important book’s weaknesses. Had East Germany done its own hard work, instead of ducking behind the sham antifascist label, it might today feel less the aggrieved victim of history, and thus be less prone to support the first far right party in the Bundestag.
Hoyer makes a strong case for paying the vanished state its historical due. But her well-told stories of valiant East Germans are a tribute to human resilience under brutal conditions — not a credit to the state itself.
Kati Marton is the author of 10 books, including “Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America” and “The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel.”
BEYOND THE WALL: A History of East Germany | By Katja Hoyer | 475 pp. | Basic Books | $35
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