- Interview by
- Ondřej Bělíček
When Germany reunited in 1990, people on both sides of the inner border were delighted. The promise was that, after decades of upheaval, Germans could develop in unity toward a bright future. The transformation of the former East was meant to lead it out of backward socialism and toward the delights of the market-capitalist West. This attitude toward the sunlit future also imposed a certain way of looking at its past. The reunified Germany’s history was to become a mainly West German story of successful recovery after 1945 — with the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East seen as the aberration.
Today, over thirty years after unification, things don’t look so rosy. The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is on the rise in the states of former East Germany, and many observers are delving into the GDR’s history to try to understand today’s developments. Is this state — its Stasi control, its suppression of democracy, its official anti-fascism — to blame for Easterners’ supposed “authoritarian attitudes” today? Or is the strength of this antisystemic party more to do with the transition that followed 1990?
Amid this debate, British-German historian Katja Hoyer’s new book Beyond the Wall has caused a sensation. Hoyer’s book does not replicate the image of an East Germany living in constant fear, but focuses on cultural development, social policy, leisure, and the everyday lives of ordinary people in the GDR. Her book is based on primary source research, but especially on interviews with ordinary citizens who lived much of their lives in the GDR.
Ondřej Bělíček spoke to Hoyer about the violent circumstances in which the state took form, its period of stabilization, its collapse, and the reasons why its history remains so bitterly contested.
After Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, communists and socialists had to flee to avoid death or imprisonment in the concentration camps. Many fled to the Soviet Union, but after Stalin grew suspicious of their presence, nearly three-quarters of exiles were later executed or died in the gulag. How was it possible to get through this storm? And how did the purges affect those who survived?
There were only three ways to survive. One way was to be young enough. I tell a story of Wolfgang Leonhard, who was a teenager when he came to Russia with his communist mother. He was deemed young enough to still be malleable by the Soviets. They could still get into his mind and Sovietize him. The other way to survive this purge was sheer luck. That was not a large group at all. The Soviets were very thorough in arresting people and getting rid of them. The third way was that you proved to Stalin that you were absolutely loyal, and that was very difficult to do. Lots of people started denouncing their friends and colleagues, but often that was still not enough, and they ended up detained.
In what category did two of the leading figures of the later-established GDR, Walter Ulbricht and Wilhelm Pieck, belong?
Ulbricht and Pieck belonged to that latter category. They basically worked very closely with Stalin during the war. For instance, they wrote propaganda in German and then tried to influence German POWs to change sides. They also went to Stalingrad and tried to convince the German soldiers surrounded there to join the Soviets. And because of that, they came out alive at the end while the vast majority didn’t.
So, their main quality was their loyalty to Stalin . . .
Yes, loyalty and also the ability to adapt ideologically. For instance, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact came in and Stalin and Hitler suddenly collaborated on splitting up Poland, they were happy to just accept that reality, while the majority of German communists continued to see Hitler as their enemy and didn’t understand how that came about. Pieck and Ulbricht just shrugged their shoulders and tried to find a way of justifying it.
When Ulbricht and Pieck came back to Germany after the war, what was their vision for Germany?
They had dreamed of a socialist Germany for a long time. They were fighting for that even before World War I. After 1945 they were given a piece of land in Germany and were told to build a new socialist state from scratch. Their idea was to build an anti-fascist state. But because they survived Stalin’s purges, they were also incredibly paranoid. They came out with the mindset that there were lots of enemies whom they had to crack down on — and so, from the beginning the methods of repression were part of the state. The Stasi was set up in 1950, just a few months after the GDR formed. Initially, the Soviets used Nazi concentration camps and just repurposed them for the Nazis, but also for lots of other people who fell into the vague category of being a political enemy.
In your book, you mention that Stalin’s interests in Germany were different to Ulbricht’s. What were Stalin’s main objectives regarding Germany after the war?
Stalin needed to rebuild his own country very quickly, because the Soviet Union had exhausted itself during the war. We must remember that over twenty million people from the USSR died during the war. The Soviets struggled, and they had to find resources from Germany and basically get reparations out of Germany. The problem was that when Germany was split into four occupation zones between the four victorious allies, they also decided that reparations would be taken from the zone that you’re in charge of. Stalin drew the short straw, because the zone that he occupied was mostly agrarian.
There wasn’t much industry or infrastructure. I think that his idea was therefore to rather have a unified Germany that was demilitarized and neutral, from which he would be able to draw resources. He was interested especially in the industrial heartland of the western borders of the country. Also, he had a strong fascination for Germany despite everything that happened. He liked German culture and talked about Beethoven, Goethe, and Schiller. So, he had a certain respect for Germany that he didn’t show to other nations in Eastern Europe — nations he considered fellow Slavic people — that he wanted to come under the Russian yoke. I think for Stalin, there was a difference between East Germany and the other Eastern European bloc countries. Stalin, and you see this with Vladimir Putin today as well, considered Slavic regions of Europe as a part of the natural sphere of influence for Russia.
Could we say that this was the main thing that influenced the dire economic situation in the GDR after the war?
It’s part of a range of factors. West Germany got aid from the Marshall Plan from the United States and was allowed to be rebuilt. The bigger factor is that West Germany didn’t have its industry taken away and didn’t actually pay much in reparations to the West. The vast majority of what was paid for World War II came out of the poorer quarter of the country — East Germany. So there was an imbalance in the burden.
Secondly, because East Germany had few natural resources, it struggled to be independent and couldn’t deal with the West because the latter basically said that the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG; West Germany) is going to be the only Germany that anybody deals with. If anybody thinks about having trade with East Germany, then West Germany won’t trade with them — it was called the Hallstein Doctrine. This was enough of a threat to basically impose an embargo on the GDR. So, it was fairly isolated with a limited range of resources.
Thirdly, ideological choices made it worse. For instance, the collectivization of agriculture proceeded very quickly. Right or wrong, the landowners who had been there before knew what they were doing, whereas once you split the land up into smaller units and gave it to smaller farmers, or to people who’d never been farmers before, you give them a kind of size of land that doesn’t really work, because it’s too small — the agricultural sector collapses. They made these ill-considered choices that made the situation in the GDR worse.
These problems escalated into the situation in 1953, when there was an uprising in East Germany. Who did it involve?
When the two states (GDR and FRG) were founded in 1949, people were enthusiastic to just get going. They just wanted the country to settle. At that point, all the borders were still open, so people could leave when they wanted. But lots of people also chose to stay and some even came over to the East from the West. There was a genuine enthusiasm among parts of the population, particularly younger people, to roll their sleeves up and build up something new. That very quickly turned out to be an illusion, because they just didn’t have any building materials. People worked harder and harder and nothing ever came of it. The salaries weren’t rising at all. Even what they actually got in terms of salary, they couldn’t buy much with because the shelves were empty. The supply problems were very acute. This built up into frustration with the situation.
On top of that, the government had basically established a dictatorship and was cracking down on dissent. People didn’t have any means of expressing their anger and their dissatisfaction. Eventually this boiled over to a point when the general strike was announced in Berlin on the Stalinallee, where the workers put their tools down and marched toward the government building. Walter Ulbricht refused to come out and talk to them. There’s this one scene that I describe in the book where one of his colleagues says to him: “You know, Walter, you need to go out there and speak to people. They’re incredibly angry.” And he just looks up at the sky and goes: “Oh, it’s raining. I’m sure that they’re just going to go home.” That just shows how stubborn they were. They didn’t want to interact with the population or even accept that there was a problem in the first place. And that’s why a million people ended up the next day demonstrating on the streets on June 17, 1953. There was a lot of violence against individuals representing state power. Eventually, the Soviets were called in and a state of emergency was declared. Soviet tanks brutally suppressed that uprising. At least fifty-five people died, which created even more anger and fear among the population. They now knew what would happen to them if they did that again. So, there was an immediate kind of sense of fear and intimidation, which is why the dissent was crushed so quickly. People just went back home, because they were frightened.
How did the leadership of GDR reflect on this event?
The state knew that it couldn’t just carry on the way that it did, and it realized that it couldn’t just dictate to people what it wanted to happen without listening to their anger in some way. It’s the mindset that stayed in the GDR for the rest of its existence. The officials of GDR were very aware of the times when people got angry and then tried to respond to that before it would boil over again. While the GDR was, of course, a dictatorship, the government made an effort to appease the populace wherever it could and created a way of life that was worthwhile, because it was aware of what would happen if it didn’t.
But Soviets also knew that they couldn’t continue their policy toward East Germany like that, didn’t they? They decided to send more provisions and changed their behavior toward the GDR.
Yes, and the year before his death Stalin had tried one more time to unify Germany. In 1952 he sent the “Stalin Note” to the West and tried to offer, one more time, the unification of a neutral and demilitarized Germany. It didn’t happen, and he was stuck with East Germany. After Stalin’s death, the uprising in East Germany happened, and Khrushchev, who stepped up after Stalin, then realized that he needed to make sure that the GDR actually functioned. Two things happened. Firstly, as you mentioned, the Soviets brought supplies into the GDR. Secondly, they told Ulbricht that he could not continue as he was and he needed to make sure that the state worked and that he made an effort to take people with him.
In your book you mention that the “new course” was established in this period, which meant opening up economically, culturally, and socially. At the same time the repressive apparatus grew more powerful. Was the situation in East Germany stabilized at this point?
Throughout the 1950s the government tried to open to the world. Western music was allowed, for example. There was an attempt to reform the youth movement to make it more modern. But the state also cracked down really harshly on dissidents. The Stasi got enormous resources. The main problem for the state is that so many people left. Every time they increased these repressive measures, lots of people just turned their back on the state and went to West Germany. The inner German border was closed, but Berlin was still open. People could basically go to East Berlin and then walk over to the West. In August 1961 the wall was built and that actually stabilized the state. It’s often seen as the ultimate act of repression, locking people in, and it was that. At the same time, this forced the state to make life worthwhile within. Once it locked people in, there was no other choice. The government had to make sure that people had a reasonably decent life, because otherwise they feared that they could face an uprising again.
Lots of money was invested in education and housing policy. Hundreds of thousands of flats were built. They were also keen to make the cities look different and to create a sense of optimism and progress. That’s when the famous TV tower in Berlin was built, and the Alexanderplatz was modernized. It gave people a feeling that there was real scientific progress going on there as well as social progress. Women were encouraged to go to work. Childcare was built up. For many East Germans this felt like the first time since World War I that they felt some stability in their lives. Lots of people I spoke to said that the 1960s felt like a time of stability.
When you write about the gender and class aspects of GDR policies, you argue that the women had much more opportunities in work and education than, for example, women in West Germany. You mention that this was a deliberate policy by GDR. What specifically did the women you interviewed for your book remembered the most from this period of time?
If you were in your late teens or early twenties in 1960s, you had grown up with this instability in the 1950s and then in the 1960s things stabilized and you were basically already in a world that told you it’s normal for women to work, which wasn’t the case in the West.
Of course, if you were a woman in West Germany and you wanted to become a firefighter, that was in theory possible. But in practice, few women did. You’d be looked at funny and be treated very strangely in the workplace — if you even got the job in the first place. It was economically very difficult for women in the West in general, but particularly in West Germany, to have a job and a family at the same time, because the childcare just didn’t exist on that scale. So, for women it was a decision to work up until they had children and after that they stayed at home until the children went to school. Being a housewife was the normal thing to do, while that wasn’t the case in East Germany and in many of the other Eastern European countries. Women were encouraged to go back to work again very early after they had children, and the childcare was provided. But this was perceived as something ordinary.
The women I interviewed didn’t remember this as something special. But from a historical point of view, it was. It was the state that encouraged this: it encouraged women and people from lower social classes to continue their studies and go to university. The resistance often came from parents who were afraid that their children wouldn’t succeed and thought that they should do a proper job for their social class and gender. This policy worked very quickly, and the GDR ended up having the highest rate of female employment in the world by the end in 1989. Over 90 percent of women were in full-time employment.
I think this is also related to how Eastern European women didn’t understand the Western feminism at that time.
Yeah, and vice versa, actually. There were lots of West German feminists who said that this isn’t feminism, because it wasn’t actually done by the women themselves and that it was a policy that came from the top.
The class aspect of this is also really important. As you mentioned, there were families who experienced a groundbreaking moment as their children embarked on university education, marking an unprecedented milestone in their family history. That must have been a really significant change for them. And compared to West Germany this was also a unique situation.
We focus a lot, specifically in Germany, on the fact that this came at the expense of middle-class people, and it did. Only two kids were usually chosen from each class to go on to do their pre-university qualification and then go to university. So, if you were from a middle-class family and there was another kid in your class who was from a working-class background, who was also clever, the state would prefer the kid from the working-class background. The same goes for people who came from dissident or oppositional backgrounds. If you were a child of local pastor or priest in your town, you’d also struggle to get to university. On the one hand there was a disadvantage for those people, but at the same time there was an advantage for working-class people who were now deliberately encouraged to go to university. These things are important, because they allowed social reshuffle in East Germany, which didn’t happen in the West at this time.
One of the main ideological products of East Germany was sport. Why was sport so important for the government in the GDR?
The politicians became quite obsessed with it, because it’s one way in which you create a kind of feeling of belonging to a state. And especially to the state that is totally artificial. Sport was a way of creating this kind of sense of belonging to a state that only exists because of political reasons. It’s similar to when you support a football club. You don’t necessarily have to be born into it, but once you start following the team and you want them to win, you become very attached to that particular club. East Germany poured a lot of money into sports. The dark side of this story is the doping, which is something that is widely known about the GDR. But at the same time, you can’t dope your way to the success that the GDR had. You can’t just pick somebody off the street and give them a shot of anabolics and then expect that this will bring you success. That’s not the way this worked.
There was a really extensive program, where they picked up kids quite early in kindergarten or in primary school where they basically realized that somebody was very good at something or had kind of the right physique. They’d enroll kids for a particular sport that would suit them, and then the kid would have a very hard physical training several times a week and take part in competitions. This was all state sponsored, so it didn’t cost people much money. It also gave people an opportunity to achieve things, especially to women, who gained confidence in these things. And even if you didn’t kind of make it to elite level, sports stayed with you throughout your entire life. For instance, at university, they wouldn’t allow you to pass each semester unless you’d done many hours of sports. Sports clubs were attached to companies, and they’d often have their own football team or different kind of facilities where people could do sport after work. It was just a part of life in the East Germany.
And they were quite successful at it . . .
Yeah, I mean, that’s an understatement. Throughout the 1980s GDR either won or came second in every single Olympics — winter or summer. That is quite impressive for a state that’s only got sixteen million people. Doping certainly played a role in this enormous success, but it wasn’t the only thing that helped GDR win trophies and medals.
Yes, but also doping wasn’t just something that happened only in GDR, right? It was something that happened also in the West.
Yes, it did indeed, because they were equally obsessed with the idea of the Cold War being part of the sport as well. I think the difference is that young women in particular were given these things, sometimes without their consent, or without their knowledge. And the result was often that their bodies were permanently damaged by something that they hadn’t actually chosen to take. While, I would imagine most Western athletes were well aware of the fact that they’re taking something that gives them an advantage over other athletes.
In the early 1970s, Walter Ulbricht was succeeded as general secretary by Erich Honecker. Today, people remember Honecker as a symbol of a bureaucratic and rigid Communist system. But as you mentioned in your book, at the beginning of his era, he was the one who managed to lead the country to its main prime era, when the GDR was the leading country of the Communist bloc and recognized by the world. How did people you interviewed remember Honecker and the time when he was the leader of the country?
I think the issue with Honecker is that he was in power for such a long time — nearly twenty years. People tend to remember him as the old guy that he was in the late 1980s — confused, very ill, and not really there anymore. When he came into power in 1971, many people felt exactly the same about Walter Ulbricht. He had by that time been in power for twenty years and there was a sense that he wasn’t really on top of things anymore. He was also ill and died shortly afterward.
When Honecker came into power, there was a real feeling that power was being handed down to a new generation. Honecker had also been in charge of the youth movement for a long time. There was a sense that he would change things in the GDR, and that a new era was coming for the young state. On top of that, it helped that Honecker didn’t have a huge public profile. Many people didn’t actually know who he was in the first place, so they could project certain things onto him. In the early 1970s you had a real sense that economically the GDR was being stabilized, and the other countries were beginning to accept it. The GDR was able to be acknowledged by over two hundred countries in the end. It was seen as a normal state by the world. It had the highest living standards in the Communist bloc.
While it didn’t compare with life for a middle-class family in the West, people weren’t starving. They didn’t have to spend all that much on their rent and everyday things, culture and so on, which was all subsidized and extremely cheap. There was at no point a sense of economic fear in the way that people often experience in the West, where you don’t know whether you’re going to keep your job or whether you’ll be able to pay your rent or your mortgage. That just didn’t exist. More progress was also being made in culture. For example, in 1973 there was a huge festival in East Berlin, which around eight million attended, including lots of people from Western countries. Honecker made a deliberate effort to not to be too invasive and he let people talk with their Western visitors freely. Even the West German TV was present and was surprised that East Germany was not as stuffy and backward as they’d imagined. There was a real sense that maybe progress and reform was on its way as some kind of third way between socialism and capitalism. It was only later, when things didn’t change in the way that people expected, that people became very disaffected with Honecker and his government.
I guess that this golden era ended with the oil crisis that destabilized the whole Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union.
Yeah, and indeed the whole world. I mean that was part of the problem. The whole world needed oil, gas, and energy more widely. The Soviet Union decided, because of its own economic issues, that it would be better to sell all of that to the rest of the world, where prices had gone up, rather than supply the Eastern states from their bloc. The GDR had in the meantime converted its entire economy to work basically on Russian oil and gas, so that was a huge blow, and Honecker said that very openly to the Soviets — that they’re destabilizing the GDR.
How did Honecker react to this situation? What was the plan to save GDR and why didn’t it work out?
Well, the main problem was that the GDR’s entire existence depended on the Soviet Union. The country realized it needed a way to become more independent of the Soviet Union. The first move was to invest in other socialist countries outside the Soviet orbit. One of the really close relationships that comes out of that was with Vietnam. When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the GDR government decided that Vietnam might become a good partner, particularly for coffee, which was a permanent problem in the GDR. Coffee doesn’t grow in the climate that we have in Europe, so it had to be imported from somewhere else. The main idea was that if you could import it from a socialist country, you could trade against other things rather than using currency. The GDR invested huge amounts of money to become one of the largest coffee exporters in the world. They wanted to import raw coffee beans and then roast them and process them and sell the coffee as different brands. The problem was that all those coffee plants that they were planting in Vietnam actually only started to produce coffee in 1991, when East Germany didn’t exist anymore. In the meantime, Vietnam has become the world’s largest coffee exporter.
Another way was to try and get closer to West Germany. The idea wasn’t necessarily to form a friendship as such, but to normalize relations and trade. That suited the West, because the GDR had cheap but very qualified labor, so they produced a lot of stuff there. East German companies sold their stuff basically to the West. The classic example is the furniture. Lots of the furniture that appeared in West German catalogs was from East Germany. It created a decent revenue stream. The idea was to create a longer and lasting relationship with the West, which the Soviets didn’t like that much.
In your book, you also mentioned that the networks for the dissident groups were set up during the 1980s. What kind of dissident activities are we talking about, and how successful were they?
The dissident network started under the auspices of the church. Nowadays it’s easy to forget how difficult it was to organize these things without the internet and mass media. You needed structures, contacts, and to be able to communicate without the state knowing what you are doing. The churches were ideal starting points for those things. Over the years it became detached from that as ever-more people became unhappy with how the state was run. So, you get different organizations doing different things. One example was the “Environment Library” (Umweltbibliothek) in Berlin, which was set up with lots of literature that had been banned, and people could go there and read stuff that wasn’t available. It was quite a small thing, but the Stasi panicked and overreacted and arrested people, including the actual pastor, whose church this was in.
It made things worse for the state. Lots of artists and intellectuals, like the singer Wolf Biermann, who was later forcefully expelled to West Germany and not allowed to return, signed a petition to revoke that decision. This sparked a real sense of outrage. Resistance, opposition, and dissident actions were growing on all sorts of levels. Another example is the environment. The deteriorating environmental situation started to worry people. It was present in West Germany, where there were big demonstrations against nuclear technology. But this movement was also present in East Germany, because of the way that the country had to fall back on coal after the Soviets stopped delivering enough gas and oil. There were all these environmentalist movements going on at the same time. All of these things grew separately, and at the end of the 1980s they came together as large street demonstrations.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Germany was unified once again a year later, people must have been ecstatic at the time. But after a few years, the first cracks were beginning to appear in the story of the transformation. How did people that you interviewed remember the transformation from communism to a market economy?
It’s a really varied picture. There were lots of people who were relieved it was over, and they could form independent companies and make decent money. But there were also lots of people who felt that their world had fallen apart, and they weren’t sure what was going to happen to them — and nobody could tell them.
I think one of the issues was that Helmut Kohl, the West German chancellor, overpromised what was going to happen and said to people that it’s all going to be really quick, there won’t be unemployment, there won’t be any issues, the state will invest and make sure that nothing bad is going to happen economically. And that didn’t happen. It’s true that the state invested a lot of money into East Germany after 1989, but it also allowed all of the state-run companies to be rapidly privatized in a haphazard manner. There was a lot of corruption involved. Some companies would be just let go for literally one mark. Then West German investors would come and dismantle these companies and use what they just bought for nothing for their own purposes, but all of the jobs, infrastructure, and the economy itself kind of crumbled under that. There was a real sense of disillusionment. People dreamed of this Western thing for so long and didn’t really know what it was. Their image of the West consisted of what they saw in TV adverts, films, and so on. It was an unrealistic idea of what life actually was like in the West. They realized that all of that may be true, but it also comes with economic risks and uncertainty. There was no one who told them what to do anymore. All of a sudden people lived in a world that brought high unemployment and high risk with its opportunities.
So, for lot of people in East Germany the idea of living a “Western life” has completely failed?
I’m not sure everyone wanted a rapid merger with the West. Lots of people were actually quite worried about that. Even among the dissidents and the opposition leaders, there were people who didn’t want to completely give up what they had in the GDR and would rather reform the way the GDR worked than join the West. There were lots of people who thought some stuff in the GDR was very good, including the education system and childcare, for example. I think there was more of an expectation from the West that people from East Germany wanted the same thing that they had in the West, because of the way that they voted in 1990 and also the way they acted in 1989 with the mass demonstrations. They thought that it meant that they just wanted to be part of the West. I’m not sure that it was ever a realistic expectation to just say to somebody who’s like forty and who lived their entire life in GDR to suddenly become part of West Germany as if they had always lived in that system. People from East Germany had assumed that there would be some sort of dialogue when Germany was unified and that some things would just stay the same.
You mentioned that there were some promises made by Western politicians to the East Germans that the future will be bright, and in the early 1990s there was a huge support for the mainstream political parties. But now it seems like the region of former East Germany is completely disconnected with mainstream party politics. Can we say that the rise of Alternative für Deutschland is the reaction to these differences between East and West, especially on the economic scale, or is it too simplified?
Well, I think it’s important to remember that they don’t have a majority in the East at the moment. They don’t have more than 30 percent in each region. That’s still a minority of the population of votes for them, even if they are the largest party. But I think that part of the success of the AfD is the backlash against a feeling that the current political setup in Berlin isn’t working for them. It’s not that they want the GDR back at all. They are actually saying the opposite. They’re saying that they were on the streets in 1989 and fought a dictatorship. And that’s what they think they are doing again.
What do they mean when they say that they live in a dictatorship? European Union?
There is some Euroscepticism, but not everybody who votes AfD thinks that. It’s a really complex thing with many factors playing out there. It seems to me that they’re just generally unhappy with the status quo. Everybody finds a different thing that they’re pinning this on. For some people the problem is the Green Party. For other people it’s the European Union. Others think that the main problem is the foreigners and refugees in the country.
You get a really broad range of things that people think are responsible for the dissatisfaction that they’re experiencing. I think that the main problem that you have in the East, although this is an issue also in the West, where the AfD has also made huge gains recently, is that there is this layer of identity that comes with it. The AfD finds it relatively easy in East Germany to come up with an East German identity to create this kind of “us against them” attitude. And it taps into the collective experience of East Germans about what happened after 1990 rather than what happened before. It’s a means of creating a kind of collective sense of saying that “we’re on your side.” But it’s more a means to an end rather than the root of the problem, which is more in the economics and the feeling of not being heard, not being represented in politics, being ignored, being looked down upon. It’s the same in other countries like France or Britain, but in Germany there is a specific dimension to this.