Review of Beyond the wall: A history of East Germany by Katja Hoyer

I first met my friend Gunter at a scientific meeting on the Greek Island of Crete in 1986. He was from East Germany. I knew his published work at the time, and when I shared my unpublished data, he agreed to send me some Drosophila stocks that would advance my research.

At the meeting, he and the other scientists from behind the “iron curtain” had no western currency, so as to discourage defections. Collections were taken up for them among the western attendees to allow them to join the rest of us in the nearby town of Chania for an evening meal.

In the 1990s, Gunter hosted me for three visits in his hometown of Halle. By then, the Berlin Wall had fallen and Gunter had traded in his Trabant for a BMW. I returned the favor by hosting him for a seminar in my department, and later for a visit to Manhattan in 1998 when we went to the top of the World Trade Center.

I developed a fascination for East Germany during that time. I just finished “Beyond the wall: A history of East Germany” by Katia Hoyer. Having grown up in Oak Ridge Tennessee during the Cold War, I was familiar with the legendary repression in the “communist world,” but was fascinated to meet the people who grew up in the GDR and to visit their cities.

Beyond the Wall is a well-written and thoughtful history of East Germany. I had read some history of the GDR previously, but this book colored out a lot of details that helped me understand the context in which East Germany was founded and what life was like for its citizens.

At the end of WWII, about half the housing stock in Germany had been destroyed, making ca. 20 million Germans homeless:

“Ravaged by defeat, starvation, homelessness, grief and the victor’s violent retribution , the people in the Soviet Zone were restless and desperate. . . Nazi governmental structures had collapsed and free-for-all on the burgeoning black markets did little to rebuild societal norms and structures.”

In this context, it is easy to see why many in the Soviet zone welcomed any government. Walter Ulbricht, who became the First Secretary and de facto leader of the GDR, spent the war in exile in Moscow. He and his colleagues returned to the Soviet Sector of postwar Germany believing they held the high moral ground and ready to import the Soviet system.

The original division of Germany (and Berlin) after WWII allocated sectors to America, Britain, France and the USSR. Once the first three combined their administrations, the landmass of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) was much greater than that of the USSR-controlled sector (East Germany, GDR). Add to that, the FRG contained most of the remaining industry, black coal and iron. The GDR mostly had to rely on the USSR for energy, and eventually, to mined lignite, an inefficient and highly polluting fuel called “brown coal.”

Stalin was committed to extracting war reparations from the east. “In total, 60 per cent of ongoing East German production was taken out of the young state’s efforts [to the USSR] to get on its feet between 1945 and 1953.” The GDR paid three times as much in reparations as the FRG.

Not only physical capital, but human capital was re-allocated to fulfill a political agenda:

“Teachers, civil servants, politicians and even engineers and policemen were removed from their positions and replaced with inexperienced but ideologically less problematic individuals. This debilitating loss of expertise, alongside the large-scale relocation to the Soviet Union of specialist personnel such as scientists, meant that the young economy simply lacked the key personnel to succeed.”

And yet, the GDR’s Soviet overlords were initially ambivalent. Stalin, it seems, had envisioned a reunited but neutral Germany, and wasn’t enthusiastic about Ulbricht’s vision of a separate socialist German state on the model of the USSR. Only when his hand was forced by Adenauer’s push to rearm and join NATO did Stalin embrace the GDR as a western bulwark against a future attack on the USSR.

“The story of the GDR’s first decade as a brand-new social, economic and political experiment on German soil was one of missed chances. Contrary to many later depictions, the overwhelming sentiment of the East German population was not one of immediate resentment towards Ulbricht’s regime and envy of Adenauer’s but of relief and even enthusiasm. The majority of people who lived through the 1950s in the GDR remember the years of war, persecution in Eastern Europe, bombing, rape, chaos and captivity as horrific experiences which strongly contrasted with the sense of new beginning of the late 1940s and early 1950s.”

Under Ulbricht, the GDR became one of the most efficient and ruthless police states that ever existed. As West Germany recovered and East Germany languished, the brain drain from east to west became unsustainable, resulting in the Berlin Wall. The wall was built, not to prevent invasion from the west but to prevent escape from the east. But its perception among citizens of the GDR was paradoxical:

“The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 was undoubtedly a human tragedy that broke families apart, split a city in two and brought misery and even death to those wishing to cross it. Vocal protests in Berlin notwithstanding, there was surprisingly little pushback against the drastic measure within the GDR itself in the early 1960s. Many former East Germans remember this period as a time of stability. . . . The most abiding memories many East Germans have of this time are shaped by the large-scale building projects, new professional opportunities especially for women, families obtaining their first cars, going on their first holidays and moving into their first modern flats.”

Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, the GDR leadership struggled to balance rigid Soviet orthodoxy with changes western culture (music, clothing, hair styles) that their youth embraced. When forced to choose, too often the government erred on the side of repression:

“ . . . it was the ever-present, systemic fear that the survivors of Nazism and Stalinism, who had built socialism in the GDR, had baked into its very foundation. The terror of subversion, itself a product of police states that had gone before, sat so deep within the very heart of East Berlin that neither Ulbricht nor Honecker ever really found the courage to face and overcome it. Like a child who never grew out of the night-time terrors of infancy, the GDR never stopped looking for the monsters under its bed.”

The relaxation under Honecker was intended to bring a measure of comfort to the people, but since many of the goods coveted in the GDR were imported from the west, it only served to heighten the dissatisfaction and frustration of citizens in the east:

“Buying truckloads of American jeans or allowing people to obtain Western washing powder in Intershops merely increased the desire for more and sharpened the perception that the GDR was at best a half-hearted imitation of the West, at worst a jealous onlooker. The material comfort Honecker imported for East Germans may have temporarily increase happiness and life satisfaction but it also sowed the seeds of doubt in people’s minds and left the GDR wandering through its third decade without a clear sense of direction.”

By 1980, the writing was on the wall for the GDR. Honecker and his advisors knew that the business model for East Germany was failing and the country was headed for bankruptcy. Soviet natural gas and oil that had been subsidizing its energy economy were being cut off and now the GDR would have to fall back on brown coal, which is, pound-for-pound, far less efficient. To generate sources of western currency, East Germany pursued a robust traffic in exchanging GDR citizens for West German marks. With the ascendency of Gorbachev, Honecker was free to negotiate with West Germany. Meanwhile, GDR citizens were tiring of the stagnation and backwardness of their country’s economy. By the late 1980s, public protests proliferated across the country, which were amplified by western media.

The collapse of the GDR was rapid. The Berlin Wall and all other barriers to free movement across the East German border were breeched in 1989, and within a year, a reunification agreement between East and West Germany was in place. However, it was not a merger of equals, but rather an assimilation of East Germany in the West.
“Yet East Germans have not been asked to return to something they were once part of but to blend into a West German state that had evolved without them after the Second World War. While there are common cultural, linguistic and social roots, what had grown from them since 1949 had diverged significantly in East and West. It is telling that many East Germans tend not to use the word ‘reunification,’ but instead speak of a Wend or Wendezeit, and era of transformation. While West German lives continued as before, for East Germans 3 October 1990 triggered a wave of change whose force, direction and pace were uncontrollable. It was sink or swim.”

It’s important to remember that Germany only became a single country in 1871, so the 40 years of the GDR represent a third of the time the nation of Germany had existed by 1990.

Overall, my appreciation of the lived existence for many or most East Germans is more nuanced because of this book. The for most of its citizens, the GDR wasn’t a Gulag or a North Korea. Probably because it was situated at the border with the west and shared that border with a country comprised of Germans, the East German government was under greater pressure to adapt than its overlords further east. I recommend this book if you want to understand modern Europe and 20th century European history.