The Stories of a Forgotten Nation

In American memory, the communist state of East Germany lingers as a risible Cold War relic, a regimented nation whose greatest accomplishment was the construction of a 96-mile-long wall in Berlin to prevent its beleaguered citizens from escaping to the West. How could anyone live a normal life, let alone thrive, in a state that ruthlessly surveilled its captive population and subjected them to constant propaganda?

The view that East Germans are a damaged people is widespread, even in today’s Germany. More than thirty years after unification, two-thirds of former East Germans still report feeling like second-class citizens. Even service as the head of state is no shield from condescension. Upon Angela Merkel’s retirement as German chancellor, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation marveled at her political rise and success despite the “ballast of her East German biography.” Meant as a compliment, the remark rankled the usually imperturbable Merkel. Katja Hoyer shares Merkl’s complaint about “judgments” that the life of an East German “before German unification didn’t really count … no matter what good and bad experiences one had.”

Katja Hoyer’s basic purpose in Beyond the Wall is to lift East Germany (officially the German Democratic Republic, or GDR) and its people out of the dustbin of history and document their experiences without reinforcing myths. At the same time, Hoyer doesn’t shirk from or excuse the GDR’s failings. Her narrative, based in large part on interviews with and memoirs of former East Germans, is engaging and insightful. Hoyer, who was born in East Germany and was a child when the Berlin Wall fell, has produced an indispensable history of the GDR, presenting a nation fraught with contradictions: a regime that slavishly emulated Soviet communism, yet also experimented with economic reforms; a small country that for decades hemorrhaged its best and brightest to the West, yet still had the highest standard of living in the communist world by the 1970s; and a state with a fearsome capacity to suppress personal freedom that also provided more access to its universities for the working class and more employment opportunities for women than West Germany. This history matters, Hoyer argues, not just for the people who lived it and for today’s Germany, but for all those who wish to understand the rise and fall of communism in Europe. The book is also useful to readers interested in learning how a nation behind the Iron Curtain attempted to offer its citizens some of the benefits of a free society, especially consumer goods, without sacrificing socialism.

East Germany emerged from the wreckage of World War II. Essentially, survivors built the nation. They included not only the Germans who endured the brutal Soviet conquest and postwar control of eastern Germany, but also a cadre of devoted German communists who fled the Nazis for the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The majority of these political emigres perished in Josef Stalin’s relentless purges. By 1945, only twenty-five percent of the Germans who had relocated to the USSR were still alive (many saved themselves by denouncing countrymen). Walter Ulbricht numbered among these fortunate few, and Stalin entrusted him with the building of a communist party and government in Soviet-occupied Germany. Ulbricht told his comrades, “It has to look democratic, but we must have everything in our hands.” According to Hoyer, both Stalin and Ulbricht initially wished to keep Germany unified, despite the division of the defeated nation into four Allied zones (Soviet, American, British, and French), with Ulbricht hoping to spread communism across all of Germany under his rule. Deteriorating relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, however, brought the Cold War and with it the creation of the GDR in the Soviet zone and the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the other Allies’ zones in 1949. (The division was replicated in Berlin, which lay within the GDR.)

Ulbricht, Erich Mielke (head of state security), and the ruling party (SED) soon proved they had learned well the ways of their Soviet patrons. A Stalinist purge eradicated allegedly disloyal SED members. Appropriation of businesses, industries, and land communized the economy and agriculture. On paper, the GDR set up a pluralistic party system with regular elections, but in practice, the SED controlled the majority of seats, and candidates from other parties could only get on the ballot if they acquiesced to the SED. Intent on proving the success of German communism, Ulbricht kept increasing work quotas while raising food prices at stores already suffering shortages. Soviet appropriation added to the regime’s woes. East Germany paid the highest price of postwar reparations to the USSR: Between 1945–53, the Soviets seized sixty percent of the nation’s productive output. (West Germany, in contrast, paid much less in reparations and benefited from the Marshall Plan.) By June 1953, workers had had enough. An estimated one million East Germans joined strikes and marches in 250 cities. The Soviets crushed the revolt and a wave of arrests followed, with Ulbricht using the crisis to again eradicate suspected opponents. Yet reforms also ensued. The communists eased the repression of religion and paused the collectivization of agriculture. Housing construction increased, shops were stocked.

The 1953 uprising and its aftermath reveal the paradoxical features of East German social, political, and economic development. Having faltered in their efforts to emulate the Soviet Union, the communist leadership responded by raising the standard of living and by offering incentives for upward mobility. Hoyer uses personal histories to show the tangible effects of these policies, especially for women. Christine Nagel said she had “never been happier in her life” during the years she and her husband and young children lived in a tiny flat in Dresden. Regina Faustmann became a chemical lab technician while still a teenager, taking pride in her work. By the mid-1950s, half of East German women worked; by 1970, two-thirds did. As Hoyer observes, it is tempting to disparage these opportunities as a ploy by the government to fill jobs. Yet “this is not only to underestimate the drive towards gender quality as an inherent feature of socialist ideology but also insulting to the women concerned.” The same point may be made about the vacations the government provided. State-owned ships took East Germans on cruises in the Baltic and across the Atlantic. (During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the aptly named Völkerfreundschaft [Friendship of the Nations] blithely passed through the US naval blockade on its way to Havana.) Yes, state-sponsored tourism was an attempt to show communism could keep up with the West, but that didn’t mean East Germans couldn’t have a fine holiday along the way. Sometimes the communist economy even outdid its rivals. Fifty-six percent of East German homes had refrigerators by 1970; only twenty-eight percent did in West Germany.

Completing unification means the GDR’s history, with its “good and bad experiences,” to use Angela Merkel’s phrase, must no longer be suppressed or dismissed.

The book details other little-known examples of East Germany devising innovative measures to solve the problems incurred by a communist economy. A chronic shortage of hard currency prevented the regime from importing sufficient coffee to meet domestic demand during a worldwide coffee shortage in 1977. How to cope with the volatility of global markets? In 1980, East Germany struck a deal with Vietnam: East Germany would provide the machinery, technicians, and resources necessary to plant thousands of hectares of coffee trees; Vietnam would export fifty percent of the resulting bean production to East Germany. “This project was hugely successful, perhaps one of the most effective aid projects ever conducted,” Hoyer writes. Today, Vietnam annually exports beans with an estimated value of $3 billion. Ironically, East Germany never received its promised coffee. The trees didn’t mature until 1990, the year of German unification.

As stated earlier, Hoyer does not use the GDR’s accomplishments to paper over its failings. Despite enjoying a higher standard of living than that of other communist nations, approximately 2.7 million East Germans moved to the West between 1949 and 1961. Most said they did so for a better life (half were under the age of 25). The ceaseless migration of skilled workers, professionals, and young people stymied economic growth and the loss of experienced farmers caused food shortages such as the one contributing to the 1953 uprising. By 1961, Ulbricht and the SED confronted an existential threat: the continued population loss in the small nation (around 17 million people in 1960) would cause an economic collapse and social upheaval. The construction of the notorious Berlin Wall (coupled with the closed border with West Germany) stanched migration, though at a high cost. Maintaining a large army and border security force robbed the regime of productive workers.

Erich Mielke, head of the state security force (known as the Stasi, an abbreviation of its German name), used the Wall as a reason to expand the Stasi’s already formidable surveillance apparatus. The Stasi attempted to block Western cultural influences such as consumerism, music, even dance. Claiming the West was carrying out “politico-ideological diversion” against East Germany “allowed the Stasi to become the invasive superstructure that would make it infamous the world over.” Mielke also authorized a spree of arrests after the Wall went up. By the end of 1961, 18,000 East Germans had been convicted of “crimes against the state.” Most of all, the closed border and the Wall tragically exposed the fundamental flaw of communism, the denial of individual liberty. East Germany was not unique (how many communist nations have open borders?), but the ugliness and deadliness of the Berlin Wall were hard to ignore. During the Wall’s 28-year existence, some 140 people lost their lives attempting to surmount the barrier.

Yet liberalization also occurred alongside the intensified repression, again showing the tensions within German communism. The stability provided by the Wall gave the regime an opportunity to modernize its economy and partake in international commerce. The GDR became, for example, a major exporter of toys by the 1980s. Economic reforms diminished central planning by giving more autonomy to state-owned industries. Ulbricht, who was not known for his wit or charm (NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria once declared him to be the biggest idiot he had ever met), memorably phrased the reforms as, “We have little plaster, so we’ll have to think faster.” In other words, lacking in natural resources, East Germany had to develop advanced industries and technology.

But radios, toys, and vacations were not enough to save German communism. Hoyer aptly summarizes the contradictory condition of the GDR by the late 1980s: “The inflexible structures of government and the lack of public discourse, transparency and accountability that came with them had long been at odds with the dizzying speed of social reform. The GDR was a highly literate, highly skilled and highly politicized society, confident and proud in its achievements and keen to move forward.” But one particular decision to move forward proved fateful. The unexpected announcement from an East German official on the night of November 9, 1989, that the checkpoints in the Berlin Wall would be opened to East Germans at first appears to be a blunder of epic proportion. How could the regime’s leaders not see that even one night of access spelled the Wall’s end? Yet the decision was consistent with the regime’s past actions. With peaceful demonstrations occurring across East Germany (120,000 gathered in Leipzig on October 16 to demand reform and free elections), leaders hoped to placate their restive subjects by giving them a small measure of freedom. Tellingly, the government also wanted to rid the nation of perceived troublemakers: border guards were ordered to stamp passports so that the holders were ineligible for return. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of East Germans seeking to pass, the guards had to abandon any effort at passport control and stand aside. The GDR’s days were now numbered.

Hoyer closes with a trenchant observation about the absorption of East Germany into the West German state and economy in October 1990. To see unification as a restoration of the German status quo is to see West Germany as the benchmark of normalcy. Instead, she urges, we should look at the merger as a step toward German unity, a process still underway more than thirty years after the Wall fell. Completing unification means the GDR’s history, with its “good and bad experiences,” to use Angela Merkel’s phrase, must no longer be suppressed or dismissed. With Beyond the Wall, Katja Hoyer has helped bring that history out into the open.