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Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990

Hoyer, Katja. Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990. Allen Lane, UK, 2023. ix + 449 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Acknowledgements. Index.

 

KATJA HOYER’S new book is not the first attempt to write a popular history of the East German state in English, but it is certainly one of the most widely received. Hoyer is an influential journalist and public historian, and the book follows on from the success of her 2021 history of the Kaiserreich, Blood and Iron. Beyond the Wall is part of a slew of recent TV series, novels, and films that take the GDR as their subject and have appeared in English in either original or translated form. The prestige of the publisher and the fanfare surrounding the book serves as evidence not only of Hoyer’s growing fame as a public historian, but also of a growth in interest in the German Democratic Republic itself in the UK, where it was published first, a month before the German edition.

Over 3 decades have passed since the GDR dissolved into the structures of its West German rival four days before its forty-first anniversary, on October 3rd, 1990; soon, the gap between now and then will be longer than the GDR’s lifespan. That the East German state only existed for four decades, Hoyer argues, does not justify reducing it to a mere ‘footnote’ of German history: the GDR, after all, lasted longer than the ‘First World War, the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany combined’ (p.5). Indeed, for a long time, historians of the GDR argued that it was its longevity that made it such an interesting research subject. This was a state that began life, after all, as a devastated occupation zone, populated in no small number by German refugees from the East and subject to extensive reparations: few at the time saw a future for what one German historian famously described as ‘Stalin’s unwanted child’.[1] Seen in this light, forty years seems rather a long time; and yet, as long as the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) continues to exist—it shows no sign of going away 73 years into its existence—it seems logical to assume that the history of the GDR will increasingly be folded into broader histories of democratic Germany, the Cold War, or twentieth century Europe. How then are we to explain the recent flurry of attention devoted to a disappeared state?

Hoyer’s text is undergirded by the claim that the contemporary conjuncture is one ripe for the study of the GDR. In her introduction she argues for a reckoning, claiming that contemporary Germany is ‘supremely uncomfortable with the GDR as a chapter of its history’ (p.3). To blame for this is the Cold War, which created ‘simplistic images of the Other on both sides of the Iron Curtain,’ images which have endured in the newly unified Germany. The three decades that have passed since the fall of the wall, however, now afford us ‘new opportunities to study East Germany with emotional and political detachment’ (p.7). Her key task in the book is to provide readers with the balance that she sees as lacking in contemporary accounts of the East German state, going beyond what one noted historian of the country once described as the ‘stasi-centric’ view.[2]

In short, Hoyer is looking for balance. It is not an original quest. Historians have been proclaiming the death of the dreaded ‘Cold War binary’ for many years and will probably continue doing so for quite some time. Many scholars of the GDR have sought to provide accounts that reflect the full reality of life within the East German state, interpretations which go beyond the depiction of a grey, stultified, totalitarian surveillance state populated by simplistically constructed ideal-type victims and collaborators. It is for this reason that some historians have criticised Hoyer’s work for ignoring or not fully acknowledging the academic work that precedes her. In English, scholars such have Paul Betts (who isn’t referenced in the text) or Mary Fulbrook (who is, extensively) have done a great deal to shed light on what was and wasn’t exceptional about life in the East German state. And yet Hoyer is writing for an altogether different audience here; although she does seek to engage with the scholarly literature, this is not a work geared toward the academy, and it is fair that such a work is granted some leeway in this regard. This has not always been forthcoming: while the book has received positive reviews in the UK and boasts a heavyweight set of recommendations on its dust-jacket, reviews in Germany have not been so kind; perhaps encapsulated by the description of one noted historian of GDR foreign policy, who described the book disdainfully as a “pure nuisance.” [3]

Hoyer’s proclamations about the timeliness of the text are worth interrogating further here. Scholars have investigated the history of the GDR from a stated position of dispassionate empiricism almost from the very moment of its collapse, and it isn’t exactly clear what makes this moment any different. Can we be said to living through a historical moment that affords cool-headed detachment? While it would be comforting to think that historical divisions have a half-life—that they tend to dissipate over time—history itself tells us that this is not the case. Rather, historically-rooted enmity ebbs and flows with contemporary politics, sometimes seeming to completely disappear, others rushing back to the fore in response to contemporary events or the nefarious manipulation of demagogues. From the vantage point of 2023, it is difficult to argue that Cold War divisions have disappeared, but might conversely be seen to have cranked up since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In Germany itself, the legacies of German division are arguably at their most disruptive moment since the early 1990s.

If anything then, Hoyer’s book—and the impassioned responses it has generated—seem not to be the product of an era of distanced detachment but rather a sharpening of the debate regarding the East German past. As she herself points out in her conclusion, the legacies of German division are proving stubbornly persistent. ‘Take a map showing patterns of almost anything in Germany’ she points out, ‘from voting, vaccines acceptance and obesity to language use, attitudes towards Russia and wine consumption. Like an afterimage that will not fade, the GDR’s imprint on Germany refuses to dissipate’ (p. 418). In making this intervention, Hoyer’s text is probably best understood as corollary to the recent wave of polemical works which criticise the shape and form of German unification since 1990, the most notable example of which is Dirk Oschmann’s Der Osten: eine westdeutsche Erfindung, a text which has caused a stir in Germany by arguing that East Germans remained straightjacketed by an imaginary which depicts them as deviations from a West German norm. Conflict regarding the legacies reunification is not only taking place within the seclusion of the ivory tower, but fuels an atmosphere of discontent in the former states of the East which finds expression in a resurgent wave of support for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, who are polling above the SPD in some polls this year.

It would be unfair, however, to describe Hoyer’s text as a polemic. As a popular history, the book does not really advance a distinct hypothesis, although its overall aim is clear. By presenting an image of the GDR divorced from what she sees as the crude Cold War parody of a grey, secret police state, Hoyer hopes to reflect the accurate reality of life within the state and correct some of the myths that have emerged regarding it. Despite the critiques levelled at her, Hoyer is not an apologist for the SED. She is evidently at pains to be measured. In the often-polarising world of GDR studies, however, balance is an often slippery object, and Hoyer frequently misses her mark.

While she argues that the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, for example, made the GDR ‘a prison’ for some, Hoyer also points out that for many others, it meant no longer ‘worrying about the lack of doctors, dentists, scientists and builders’ who were disproportionately represented among those who had moved West in the years prior to 1961 (p.178). Similarly treated is the infamous practice of the “selling” of political prisoners and others who sought to leave the GDR to the West, a trade worth millions of West German marks. Hoyer notes that this was an ‘act of economic desperation’, but criticises those who have described the practice as human trafficking, noting West German complicity and prisoners’ own agency in the practice (p.278).

At times, these attempts at measure slip into difficult territory. Discussing the case of Oskar Brüsewitz, a Lutheran Pastor and who had moved to the GDR from the West and a known critic of the regime who committed suicide by self-immolation in 1976, Hoyer claims that “[he] was a broken man who had suffered too many tragedies to integrate into communities in East and West Germany’ (p.285). While she acknowledges that the state reaction—an article was published in the Neues Deutschland questioning Brüsewitz’s sanity—was overblown, she seems to share some of its conclusions, and later strays close to blaming West German media coverage of Bruesewitz’s funeral for the heavy Stasi presence at it (p.286). In general, the book suffers at points from a level of speculation unwarranted in a serious historical work: at one point she ruminates on the motives of Ida Siekmann, a 58-year-old widow who lived in one of the houses that straddled the Berlin wall and died jumping into West Berlin shortly after it was built. The fact that Siekmann had not moved to West Berlin prior to the construction of the wall, Hoyer writes, ‘indicate that her motivations for the jump were far more likely to be of a private rather than a political nature’ (p.183).

It is easy to see how such claims have angered those who remain convinced that the history of the GDR ought to serve primarily as a sort of simplified fable of the evils of totalitarianism. Although her engagement with the existing scholarly literature is thin, her arguments are often well reflected in it. Twenty years of historical work on the state have revealed many GDR citizens were able to live perfectly functional, happy lives; that many of its social provisions provided people with comfort and safety nets that they lost in the transition to capitalism; that in many respects, the GDR was more advanced in terms of women’s rights that the FRG. This is not news to GDR scholars, but it will be for many audiences, especially in the UK, Hoyer’s primary one. Likewise, Hoyer sheds light on many fascinating episodes of the history of the East German state which would otherwise have remained siloed away from popular audiences in the English speaking world, such as the 1977 coffee crisis. Her text will upset many commonly held assumptions regarding the GDR; take the Trabant, for example, which became a symbol of the poverty of the socialist consumer offer post-1990. Hoyer convincingly demonstrates that, on the contrary, the car gifted many thousands of GDR citizens the mobility afforded in the capitalist West at a fraction of the cost: despite waiting times, levels of car ownership in the GDR were comparable to Britain in 1988 (p.197).

A critique of more substance is that Hoyer has failed to incorporate the findings of thirty years of research on the GDR in a deeper, more fundamental sense. By providing ‘both sides’ on its most controversial questions, she avoids producing structural explanations for almost anything that happened in the GDR, locating the source of many of the GDR’s ills in the missteps and idiosyncrasies of its leaders, Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker. Deeper triggers, or indeed the structural determinants of such decisions—what one scholar of the GDR had called its ‘political epistemics’[4]—are left unexplored.

It is not that Hoyer seeks to obscure the darker sides of the GDR, which are tackled here head on. The issue, rather, revolves around how one theorises the relationship between dictatorship and everyday life. Elsewhere, Hoyer has argued that oppression and the mundane in East Germany ‘exist[ed] side by side and…don’t need to be juxtaposed’. This is an argument that harks back to one of the most influential ideas to permeate GDR studies, the notion of a ‘niche society,’ popularised by Günter Gaus, Bonn’s first Permanent Representative in the GDR. Gaus argued that the GDR was a society of ‘niches,’ characterised by several pockets of depoliticization in which GDR citizens were supposedly able to escape a totalitarianized social sphere.

Countless scholars since have disproven Gaus’ theory, showing that it is difficult, if not impossible, to locate areas of GDR daily life that were left untouched by the politics. In this sense, the GDR was different to the capitalist West only in the content of said politics. Hoyer seems to follow Mary Fulbrook’s oft-cited claim that many East Germans saw themselves capable of living ‘totally normal’ lives, but fails to interrogate the implications of said normality. The point here is not that life in the GDR was ‘normal’ if one could escape or ignore the politics; it is rather that it is the norm, in modern industrial societies, that everyday life is subject to politicisation. In that sense, to understand everyday life in the GDR in its fullest dimensions, one does need to juxtapose the coexistence of dictatorship and normality, or, more specifically, illuminate the entanglement between dictatorship and everyday life.

There is a natural retort to this, of course, that a popular history that engages with such deeper questions ceases to be just that and becomes something else. But that then raises another tension: Hoyer is presented here as a historian, and she now has an academic position and Kings, University of London. On the surface, the book displays many of the hallmarks of an academic text. Hoyer conducted several interviews, with both regular citizens and some important SED functionaries, as well as archival research. Neither appears to have been particularly systematic, however, and both the interviews and the archival work serve mostly to add colour rather than a rigorous pursuit of a research question. Archival sources are referenced in a way that would make them nigh on impossible to check. Is this, then, a work of popular history or journalism, or a historical monograph by a scholar which deserves to be taken seriously? This reviewer would lean toward the former. But the furore surrounding the book is indicative of on ongoing issue in academia, which is frequently hostile toward attempts to popularise its subjects, often abandoning any pretence of genuine public engagement in the process.

No historian’s biographies are incidental to their work, but Hoyer’s is particularly relevant, and to her credit she does not shy away from it. Born in in the GDR in the mid-1980s, Hoyer’s father was in the air force and her mother was a schoolteacher. She grew up in Wilhelm-Pieck Stadt Guben, a town that straddled the Polish border. On one occasion in the book, she uses her early memories as a primary source, discussing visiting Berlin’s Television Tower in October 1989 only to encounter a birds-eye view of protests that terrified her father. Hoyer thus belongs to the generation that is now gaining the epithet Nachwendekinder or Wendekinder: those who were children or teenagers when the wall fell, whose primary memories of the state in which they born was the chaos that it left in its wake in the 1990s. Hoyer’s call for nuance and distance have come up against the facts of her own biography: her critics have been quick to dismiss her as parroting the lines of ‘true believers’ like her parents; one German newspaper used the fact that she thanked her mother for driving her to meet former SED leader Egon Krenz for an interview to headline a critical review with the words ‘Driving with Mummy for Coffee with Egon Krenz.’[5] Hoyer’s biography is relevant, then, but such criticisms feed into an established pattern which privileges ‘unbiased’ West German researchers’ or East German dissidents’ voices over all others, simultaneously adding weight to Hoyer’s claims that Ossis remain unfairly disparaged in the national debate.

 

There is another sense in which the timing of this book is interesting. Published in 2023, it was presumably being written in the dying days of the chancellery of perhaps the GDR’s most famous Kind, Angela Merkel. Hoyer doesn’t hide her enthusiasm for the former CDU-leader. Merkel, who moved to the GDR from the FRG as a child when her father took up a pastorate at a church in Templin, serves as a sort of golden thread for Hoyer’s argument: she opens the text channelling ‘Merkel’s frustration with the way her early life in East Germany is still dismissed as irrelevant’ (p.3) and finishes by using Merkel’s choice of music at her leaving ceremony—Nina Hagen’s Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen—as evidence of the apolitical nostalgia for the GDR that she claims many East Germans feel. References to Merkel’s life appear throughout, whether via her fondness for important Western jeans (p.289) or her tourist trips to the Soviet Union (p.367-9).

 

For Hoyer, Merkel appears to be a sort of avatar for the way in which the GDR could and should be remembered in Germany, and elsewhere. Merkel was not shy of criticising the East German state, but resisted attempts to be defined by it and narratives which reduced her childhood to a cautionary tale of the dangers of growing up in a totalitarian state. Indeed, Merkel’s renown as a politician, which led to a generation-defining political career, stands in stark contrast to the prevailing sense that East Germans—socialised by evil Marxist-Leninists to be hostile to democratic processes—have acted a sort of brake on German democracy itself. From the viewpoint of 2023, the end of Merkel’s reign seems to have marked a waypoint in the history of the Federal Republic, signalling the end of a period of relative stability in favour of growing rancour. Such a chronology oversimplifies much and ignores many continuities, of course, but it is difficult to escape the sense that Germany today is defined by a renewed and pervasive sense of division and unease. Hoyer is right that the East German story ‘deserves a place in the German narrative’ (p.7); the question, of course, is how this is to be done. This is a book, one suspects, that will not provide any definitive answers.

 

 

[1] W. Loth, Stalins ungeliebtes Kind. Warum Moskau die DDR nicht wollte (Berlin, Rowohlt, 1994).

[2] P. Betts, Within Walls, Private Life in the German Democratic Republic, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010)

[3] http://www.sehepunkte.de/2023/07/38095.html

[4] A. Glaeser, Political Epistemics: The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism (Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2011).

[5] https://taz.de/Buch-ueber-DDR-Geschichte/!5931542/