The People’s State (book review)

My friend Gunter grew up in the German Democratic Republic (“East Germany”). He eventually established himself as a professor at the Genetics Institute at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenburg, He first came to my attention through a series of papers he published in the early 1980s that I read as a postdoc. Then, in the summer of 1986, I got to attend a meeting on the Molecular and Developmental Biology of Drosophila, sponsored by the European Molecular Biology Organization on the island of Crete. There, I met Gunter in person, where he shared with me some unpublished data that helped advance my research at the time. He later sent me some useful fly stocks, for which I included him on a publication from my lab.

After the wall fell, I visited Halle three times and Gunter hosted a graduate student from my lab for two months. During my visits, I was regaled with many stories and jokes about the GDR time, and came back with a bunch of pictures of Trabants, the iconic East German car, which were still fairly common in the streets and driveways in Halle. On one trip, I stayed three weeks. Before the trip, I tried to teach myself a few German words and phrases. When Gunter picked me up at the airport, he warned me “When you are in town, you must not try to speak German.” When I asked why, he explained that the people might think I was Russian and wouldn’t want anything to do with me, whereas if I spoke English, they’d know I was American and they would be friendly. I developed a fascination with the GDR.

I just finished reading “The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker” by Mary Fulbrook. As the title suggest, it covers the history of the GDR from its beginnings as the Soviet sector in the Germany divided at the end of WWII to its collapse at the end of 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. Fulbrook’s focus is how life was experienced by the residents of the GDR over this 40 year period. According to many of them, they led “perfectly ordinary lives” in what Fulbrook describes as a “participatory dictatorship.”

The form of government in the GDR has been described as a communist dictatorship. A dictatorship it certainly was, under both its presidents, Walter Ulbricht and Eric Honecker. But the GDR was a socialist state, and never progressed to the Marxist apotheosis of communism. According to Marx, the transition from socialism (where the state owned the means of production) to communism would be marked by the withering of the state. In the GDR, the state only grew stronger and more intrusive during the 40 years of its existence. In particular, the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, spied extensively on GDR citizens and enlisted hundreds of thousands to spy on their neighbors.

Fulbrook has clearly done her research from original sources. The text is chock-a-block with numbers and quotes (translated into English) of ordinary citizens. She covers education, health care, housing, consumerism, youth and gender. That said, she frequently opens her arguments by conceding the repression of the GDR state in all aspects of its citizens lives, but then pivots to saying that things weren’t as bad ‘as some believe.’ She does go on to explain what she means by this, but I found this frequent resort to anonymous beliefs off-putting. Perhaps it’s her way of announcing a contrarian approach to each topic, but I felt like the data ought to speak for themselves.

GDR citizens did avail themselves of a mechanism to communicate complaints to their government. By law, this correspondence and each government response was archived, and Fulbrook provides many anecdotes based on these archives to illustrate her points. One woman, for example, writes to complain that her family of seven has to live in a two-room flat. While the complaints were extensive and very real, the fact that tens of thousands of citizens took the trouble speaks to a genuine idealism for the future of the socialist state amid the daily challenges of housing and food, work and education.

The oppressive experience lives constrained by limited opportunity in the GDR made me think of life as a Black person in America. To be a Black citizen in post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow America meant both de jure and de facto governmental constraint on freedom and opportunity. While White Americans may have smugly congratulated themselves on the freedoms denied those behind the “iron curtain,” there wasn’t a whole lot of daylight between the lived experience of the average GDR citizen with poor roads, limited transportation, risky jobs and environmental pollution and the lived experience of racial minorities in contemporaneous America.

Fulbrook’s writing is clear and engaging, qualities not consistently found in history books. She doesn’t let scholarship get in the way of a good story. If you’re interested in what life was like for people on the other side in post-war Europe during the Cold War, this is a good place to start.