Willkommen to the GDR! A warts-and-all history of East Germany
The reunification of Germany on October 3 1990 ended 41 years of division between the democratic West (FRG) and the communist East (GDR). But while West German lives “continued as before,” writes Katja Hoyer, for East Germans reunification “triggered a wave of change whose force, direction and pace were uncontrollable. It was sink or swim.”
Drawing a line under both German states in 1990 was never going to happen. West Germans were too wedded to the idea of 1945 as their “zero hour”, the point at which the tender shoots of democracy grew from the ashes of the Second World War. Proud of West Germany’s prosperity and political stability, they saw it as the continuity state and East Germany as the anomaly.
Yet the process of dismissing the GDR as a footnote in German history is, for Hoyer, “ahistorical”. Like her, millions of Germans alive today “neither can nor want to deny that they had once lived in the GDR”. The system was far from perfect, but along with the “tears and anger”, “oppression and brutality”, there was “laughter and pride”, “opportunity and belonging”. Hence her decision to write a new “warts and all” history of the GDR that places it firmly in the wider German narrative.
A German-British historian born in east Berlin, Hoyer set out to chart every aspect of her vanished country, “from high politics to everyday life”. She begins, however, with the tragic story of German communists trapped in the 1930s between Hitler’s Scylla and Stalin’s Charybdis. Having fled to Soviet Russia to escape Nazi persecution, 40,000 were arrested on Stalin’s orders – suspected of being Hitler’s fifth column – and executed. Incredibly, more senior members of the German Communist Party (KPD) died at Soviet hands than Nazi.
This might have caused survivors like Wilhelm Pieck and Walter Ulbricht to re-think their commitment to Soviet-style communism. Instead they doubled down by denouncing former comrades and aiding the “cleansing” of their party. When Russia signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in August 1939, Pieck and Ulbricht rapidly switched their narrative from anti-Nazi to anti-imperialist. It changed again when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941. “After the purges,” writes Hoyer, “KPD internal cleansing and the ludicrous ideological U-turn following the Hitler-Stalin pact, the inner circle of the communist enclave in Moscow had boiled down to a fanatical core.”
Having convinced Stalin of their loyalty, Pieck and Ulbricht were sent back to Berlin at the end of the war to reform the German communist party. It quickly became the dominant force in the Soviet Zone as opponents were either suppressed or, in the case of the social democrats (SPD), absorbed into a new Socialist Unity Party (SED) that would control East German politics for the next four decades.
Germany was formally divided into two states in 1949. But it was not inevitable, says Hoyer, because Stalin’s initial strategy was to keep the Germany unified and neutral. Yet the gradual nationalisation of the economy in the Soviet Zone, while the Western zones were beginning to rebuild and enter into a constructive partnership with their Anglo-American occupiers, meant that a separate East German socialist state became increasingly desirable for the Russians. Alarmed by the influx of the new Deutsche Mark into west Berlin, the Soviets tried to blockade all land and water traffic to the city. The Western Allies responded with a spectacular airlift – flying a total of 277,000 supply planes into the German capital – until road and rail links were reopened. The final straw for Stalin was the proclamation of a new constitution for the Western zones on 23 May 1949, thus creating the Federal Republic of Germany. He responded by allowing Pieck, Ullbricht and Grotewohl, the former SPD leader, to found the rival German Democratic Republic on 7 October.
The willingness of most east Germans to live in a one-party state was because they valued “stability and unity over pluralistic discussion”. This was also true in the West. “Germans were exhausted,” writes Hoyer, “and the majority wanted little to do with politics… Since 1914, there had been little respite from ideology, war, economic turmoil and rapid political change.” What the German public wanted more than voting rights was “food on the table, a restored roof over their heads and a future without war and economic disaster”. The appeal of a genuinely anti-fascist, socialist Germany so shortly after the demise of the Nazis should not be underestimated.
The trade-off did not really work for the GDR in the 1950s because its socialist policies – breaking up large agricultural estates into tiny segments, for example – had disastrous economic consequences. By 1961, with millions of skilled workers migrating to the more prosperous West Germany, the imposition of a closed border between the two states – particularly in Berlin where a “Wall” was constructed – became vital for the GDR’s survival.
Thereafter, Ullbricht’s attempt to build a settled and prosperous society was not unsuccessful. Saturday work was abolished in 1967 and pay remained the same. By 1988, thanks to the introduction of the two-stroke Trabant, just over half of all East German households owned a car, a figure only slightly behind West Germany’s. Even the decision to impose extended military service for those who attended university had the positive effect of opening up the army to all social classes. “The prestige that came with rank and degree,” notes Hoyer, “would have been out of reach for the vast majority of them without the social engineering the GDR engaged in.” Her own father – an air force officer – was a beneficiary.
Since reunification, East Germans have faced high unemployment – as high as 20 per cent in 2005 – and a lack of opportunity. Many have turned their backs on mainstream political parties. Their disillusionment is “not an indication that they are lost to democracy”, insists Hoyer, but rather proof that “the current system doesn’t work for them”. It would certainly help if West Germans saw the GDR as an important chapter in the national story – with good and bad outcomes – and not simply an enemy to be overcome.
It is not an easy message to get across, but Hoyer is uniquely placed to do it. Just four-years-old when the Berlin Wall fell, and now resident in Britain, she shares the frustration of Angela Merkel, the former German chancellor, when details of her early life in East Germany are dismissed as irrelevant. It helps that she’s a historian of immense ability whose early promise has been more than fulfilled with this brilliant follow-up to her debut Blood and Iron. Exhaustively researched, cleverly constructed and beautifully written (in her second language), this much needed history of the GDR should be required reading across her homeland.
Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990 is published by Allen Lane at £25. To order your copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books