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Arts and Letters

The Historian's Anxiety at the Guard Tower

Beyond the Wall: A History of East Germany

Katja Hoyer
Basic Books, pp. 496, $35.00


I was born four days after the establishment of the German Democratic Republic and have survived it (so far) by a period equal to more than four-fifths of its duration. It might therefore seem, in historical terms, to have been an ephemeral and unimportant, even anomalous, polity; yet it loomed very large in post-war European history. Germany, particularly Berlin, was where the two power blocs faced off most directly, and more than once it appeared as if a nuclear conflict might erupt over the German question. At the very least, the two Germanies were important proxies in a prolonged war of propaganda, in which East Germany was perpetually at a disadvantage.

Katja Hoyer has written a history, political and social, of the defunct republic from its beginning to its end, often through the stories of individuals that bring it to life in the mind of the reader. This method is always open to the objection that no reason or method for the selection of testimony is given, so that the reader is not sure how representative it is. One has to take the good faith of the author on trust. But it has the advantage that the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of ordinary people are given their due, and that the resultant history is not only a recitation of high politics or a kind of Euclidean geometry of abstract and theoretical social forces.

Hoyer is anxious to counter the simplistic view of the G.D.R. as having been a vale of totalitarian woe and nothing else. People made lives for themselves within the permitted parameters and were not always sunk in wretchedness. They had ambitions, loves, pleasures, satisfactions, disappointments, frustrations, consequent upon the human condition in all circumstances but the very worst.

There is no doubt that life improved in the G.D.R. after the end of the war, but given the state of Germany in 1945, people were willing to give thanks for small mercies. A tiny flat with a communal store of coal for heating in a block of hastily constructed and drab gray flats of Corbusian inspiration was a great advance or privilege when the alternative was living in the rubble. As the years went by, the standard of living undoubtedly rose and raw want disappeared. But even when more consumer goods became available, shortage was permanent and a way of life, though it was not as bad as in some other Eastern Bloc countries. Hoyer does not give much attention to the inherently deforming effects upon character of the allocation of goods in short supply by politicized bureaucracies rather than by impersonal market mechanisms (which no doubt exert some effects upon character of their own). The constant necessity to wheel and deal, to suck up to people in positions of authority, to pretend an enthusiasm one did not feel to obtain the most ordinary things is not much emphasized in the book.

Hoyer tells us that many people, perhaps most, were satisfied with the safe, undemanding, modest competence that the G.D.R. eventually provided, though on more than one occasion her informants tell her that life in the G.D.R. was, even at its best, a little dull. It is rather difficult to assess the truth of the claim of widespread contentment, given that expression of personal opinion was not exactly encouraged in a country in which at least one in forty adults was an informer and it was not unknown for spouses to inform on one another. Nostalgia, which many of her informants now feel for their life in the G.D.R., at least to some degree, is a poor guide to how things were experienced at the time, though it must be added that no one feels nostalgia for the very worst experiences. Therefore, life in the G.D.R. was not the worst possible.

Hoyer is of the “Yes, but remember the low rent, free health care, free childcare, free education, sex equality, and sporting achievement” school of thought about the former communist regimes. She seems to me to lack imagination when it comes to the significance of the facts and phenomena that she admits.

For example, the first leaders of the G.D.R. were members of the German Communist Party who exiled themselves in Moscow during the Nazi period. For once, “survivors” is an appropriate word. Three quarters of their fellow German communist exiles were murdered by Stalin; they lived in constant terror of arrest and execution, which they could do nothing to avoid. They knew that Stalin murdered untold numbers of his own people, too. What kind of a person would remain loyal to Stalinist “ideals” knowing all this, and use his loyalty, as did Walter Ulbricht, at whose urging the Berlin Wall was built, to achieve power themselves? How much free childcare was necessary to counterbalance this appalling record?

Again, the author deals with the Stasi in a somewhat generous fashion—generous, that is, to the Stasi. It is true that, by the 1970s, the Stasi was not to be compared with the Gestapo in its methods. Nevertheless, it sowed fear, distrust, and paranoia throughout society, responses which were often often justified. This has been brilliantly captured in recent German films such as The Lives of Others. Life in the G.D.R. was like that of a fly in a spider’s web that had not yet been consumed by the spider.

Another striking defect of the book is its absence of international comparison. One would think from it that the regime of the G.D.R. was entirely sui generis, that its repressiveness was particular to its circumstances. But the Stasi were not very different in essence from the Romanian Securitate or the Albanian Sigurimi (the latter being the worst). This is important, because without the international comparison one might be left to think that the Stasi was some peculiarly German deformation rather than a natural consequence of the ideology that, with variations, the G.D.R. shared with the rest of the Eastern Bloc. And this in turn might encourage some to want to try the experiment again, but this time supposedly without the deformation peculiar to the German situation or character.

Some of the best pages of the book deal with the erection and subsequent maintenance of the Berlin Wall, as well as the western border defenses of the G.D.R. as a whole. The misery of the border guards is movingly described. But again, the author seems strangely oblivious to the fact that other communist borders with the west were also closely guarded. In Albania, searchlights scoured the coast at night for would-be escapees; not a single small boat was to be seen along that coast for fear of people fleeing the people’s paradise.

Even more strange is the failure to try to reconcile the efforts made to prevent people leaving with their alleged overall contentment with things as they were. Surely this should have suggested something to Hoyer? It is true that the desire to leave probably varied with social position, being particularly strong among those who had skills of use in West Germany, but it is notable that the G.D.R.’s population was smaller at the end of its forty years of existence than at the beginning.

Hoyer is probably correct in maintaining that the wall was a success, from the point of view of the G.D.R.’s leadership: by rendering it so much more difficult and dangerous to leave (I had a friend from Weimar who got out just in time), many people who would otherwise have left decided instead to stay and make the best of a bad job.

Sometimes Hoyer appears to have a bureaucrat’s sensibility. In enumerating the G.D.R.’s successes, she tells us that the percentage of students of working-class origin and of women in the workforce was for long far higher than in the Federal Republic, as if such statistics were sufficient in themselves to demonstrate superior progress unequivocally. It is, rather, as if the value of a country’s literature were to be judged purely by the annual number of books published. On these grounds, we might conclude that the literature of last year alone was worth more than that of the whole of the nineteenth century. Only a bureaucrat could think such a thing.

Hoyer is also impressed by the success of East German athletes, out of all proportion to the country’s population, almost implying that such success was a justification, or at least an extenuation, of the regime. Quite apart from the horrible and unethical sacrifices demanded of the athletes themselves, the worthless aim itself puts me in mind of Custine’s dictum in Russia in 1839 that tyrannies impose immense sacrifices to bring forth trifles. And it requires a peculiar cloth ear, above all in a German, not to recognize an echo of Nazism in an emphasis on the production of world-beating athletes, supposedly to establish the superiority either of a race or a regime.

By contrast, the politics of the regime are well described, including its attempts to escape Soviet tutelage. When Erich Honecker disagreed with Brezhnev over the G.D.R.’s desire for a rapprochement with the Federal Republic (nationality counts for something, even for a Marxist), Brezhnev brutally reminded him that, were it not for Soviet troops, his country would not even exist.

There is an interesting parallel between the situation of the G.D.R. in the late 1980s and the reunited Germany of the 2020s. Much of East German industry depended on imports of cheap Soviet oil, when the Soviets, themselves in deep economic straits, said that they could no longer supply it because they needed to sell it on the world market at the highest price they could get. This caused a severe economic crisis in the G.D.R., increasing discontent. The parallels with the situation of the Federal Republic after the invasion of Ukraine are not exact but are nonetheless interesting.

The author’s honorable aim is to remember the lives and rescue the past of those who lived in the G.D.R., as her parents did:

There were tears and anger, and there was laughter and pride. 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.

But this could have been written about Nazi Germany, at least until the apocalypse that its leaders brought about. It is true of practically all regimes. It is surely not what was most distinctive about the G.D.R.