By Katja Hoyer

Basic Books. 476 pages. $35. ISBN 978-1-5416-0257-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Think East Germany. Think the Berlin Wall, think the Stasi. I suspect that for many people that really would be the reaction, if there was a reaction, to a reference to the now non-existent German state. It’s over thirty years since it collapsed and German reunification absorbed the land and its citizens. Memories are short and people might well look puzzled and wonder why anyone would want to write about it. Or at least write about it in a way that doesn’t paint only a bleak picture of informers, restrictions on movement, a lack of consumer goods, and a political system that essentially acknowledged just the Communist Party, whatever name it might masquerade under.

The Socialist Unity Party (SED) purportedly incorporated representatives from other organisations, such as the German Socialist Party (SPD), but Katja Hoyer says that “Summing up the mission to rebuild a government in Berlin, Ulbricht told his disciples, ‘it has to look democratic, but we must have everything in our hands’ ”. Walter Ulbricht was the head of the German Communist Party (KPD), returning from exile in Moscow. He had left Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933 and eventually moved to Russia in 1937. He had survived the purges that had claimed the lives of other German communists who always thought they would be safe in Russia. Some had even been handed over to the Gestapo as a goodwill gesture when the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in 1939.

Interestingly, though Ulbricht and his followers wanted to establish a new country as something distinct from what became West Germany, Stalin wasn’t keen on the idea. He would have preferred a united Germany neutral from any control by another country, and with only limited military capability. Did he think that a Communist Party working within a democratic system might be able to establish sufficient popular appeal to be in a position to influence policy? Events were soon to change his views. By 1948 the Berlin Air Lift, the Communist take-over in Czechoslovakia, and other factors, had led to the onset of what became known as the Cold War.

The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was established in October 1949, just a few months after the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). It’s worth noting some significant facts. The GDR had a population of 18.4 million, the FRG had 50.4 million. The Western Allies, and especially America, gave economic aid to West Germany, whereas the Soviets claimed reparations, stripped factories and businesses in the East, and moved materials and machinery to Russia. To add to the problems faced by East Germany there was the arrival of thousands of German-speaking refugees expelled from parts of Eastern Europe when the War ended. Hoyer also notes that “the East was largely agrarian while the West had the industrial heartlands”.  Economically, Eastern Germany was always likely to lag behind the West.

There’s no doubt about East Germany having a much more restrictive regime than the West. Hoyer, throughout her book, introduces personal case studies which illustrate how the social, economic and political realities impacted on individuals. One such case was that of a Lutheran pastor and a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a supposedly legitimate political party in East Germany. When he criticised the SED authorities “and their ever-tightening political apparatus”, he was arrested, charged with “incitement to boycott”, and sentenced to five years in prison. In Hoyer’s words, “the first constitution, which looked democratic, provided only an illusion of civil rights and basic freedoms”.

The Party purges that took place in Eastern Europe in the early-1950s also affected East Germany, and it was around this time that the Stasi (Ministry for State Security) was established, with Erich Mielke as its deputy head. He would later become Minister for State Security and exhibit “a neurotic need to control”, hence the extensive files that his organisation compiled not just on alleged dissidents but also on top Party officials like Ulbricht and Erich Honecker. Mielke had spent time in Moscow in the 1930s, had been in Spain during the Civil War, and had learnt methods of investigation and interrogation from the NKVD.

The first Five Year Plan was launched in 1951 but the difficult economic circumstances resulting from Russian acquisition of resources, an idealistic but impractical distribution of land between farmers, and a potato beetle blight, worked against its success. People were able to leave East Berlin without problems at that time, and thousands took advantage of the open access to West Berlin and then West Germany. Professionals and skilled workers were at the forefront of the exodus. Those who were left behind didn’t hide their dissatisfaction with food rationing and poor wages, and Berlin and other parts of the country experienced what became known as the June Uprising in 1953.

Russian troops and tanks soon suppressed the demonstrations, with 55 people killed and 1500 arrested. There were more arrests once order was restored and 20 executions were carried out. It’s of interest to note that Hoyer states that “While the uprising itself was a spontaneous event born out of the frustration over workload and pay, it was additionally stoked by the West”. She adds that “West German agents, aided by American intelligence, also planned and undertook further action………to destabilise the political situation in the GDR following the uprising”.  

Some concessions were made in 1955 when work quotas were eased, pensions increased, certain travel restrictions lifted, and “repression of church life” toned down. But it didn’t stop the flow of people using the open frontier in Berlin to leave for the West. However, 1959 was the year that “saw the lowest numbers of citizens leaving the GDR since its foundation a decade earlier” and “those who left the country were still mostly landowners, industrialists, business owners, middle-class tradespeople and intellectuals”. Living standards for those who stayed “began to rise as the average monthly income had nearly doubled between 1950 and 1960”.

There were still problems with housing, but the situation was slowly easing in that area: “Workers in particular did not mind so much that their flats were small and that they had a limited choice on the shelves of grocery shops”. They’d never had decent housing previously, nor a wide choice of consumer goods, and things were clearly getting better. Generally, working people were offered new opportunities to widen their experiences and broaden their education. Hoyer says, “They were respected by the state, even became its focal point, rather than being treated as a nuisance, to be placated at best, suppressed at worst.”

Hoyer may not meet with approval from some quarters when she makes statements like that, or when she writes about the crisis that erupted in 1961 when Khrushchev “demanded that Berlin be made a neutral city”, seeing it as “a splinter in the heart  of socialist Europe and a security risk due to the open border”.  What happened was not necessarily greeted with dismay by the West : “The stalemate of the Berlin crisis made  Ulbricht’s long-standing ambition to close the last open passage between East and West palatable to Washington, Moscow and Bonn”. No-one wanted a showdown over Berlin.

Hoyer is not denying the horror of the Wall and the tragedies that occurred when people still tried to get to the other side. She’s simply pointing to the political realities of the time. My own experience of the Wall was in the 1970s when I was in West Berlin, and it seemed strange to be in a city divided in that way. I went through to East Berlin one day for a brief look around and experienced the close passport check, and what I took to be the atmosphere of suspicion, though that may have been my imagination working overtime. Novels and films from the West tended to describe East Berlin in a grim, hostile way.

Erich Honecker was the man responsible for Youth Affairs in the Central Committee and frowned on what he saw as the corrupting influence of Western culture which he considered “decadent”. But it was easy for East Berliners, in particular, and East Germans generally, to tune in to West German TV and radio programmes. The 1960s, with its explosion of pop music and related activities, was bound to have an effect on young people in the East. In an effort to maintain the loyalty of the young to the East German system many rules and regulations relating to music and dancing were relaxed. The popular dance The Twist had been forbidden but the ban was lifted: “If the youth wanted beats, Beatles and bass, they could have it”, so the message went.

The hardliners in the Party hierarchy, like Honecker and his wife Margot, weren’t happy with what they saw as “the invasion of consumerism and Western lifestyles through music”, but had to go along with it on the whole, while making their disapproval obvious. It does occur to me to recall that responses to pop music, long hair and the like, were not always positive in England in the early-1960s. There were plenty of conservative-minded people who fulminated against “youth culture”, jeans, beatniks, pop music, liberalisation of censorship, a lessening of deference to authority, and anything else they considered a deviation from the narrow world they lived in. 

Hoyer sums up the period by saying “Repressive measures in East Germany were scaled back and the regime began to concentrate on creating a better economy and society. 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”. And she sums up: “None of this takes away from the national and personal cataclysm of division in Berlin and Germany, but it complicates the picture. The early 1960s were a time of both tragedy and progress as the GDR was always more than the Wall in its capital”.

Just as a matter of interest the reference to “first modern flats” inclined me to reflect on the fact that my mother was still living in a damp mid-nineteenth century two-up, two-down house in an industrial town in England in the early-1960s. It didn’t have a bathroom and the toilet was in the backyard. She was offered a flat in a tower block when the house was condemned and demolished.  

There is, of course, no getting away from the intrusions into private lives by the Stasi. Erich Mielke had built up an empire of agents and informers. He had developed a theory called “politico-ideological-diversion” (PID) which suggested that “ideological erosion of the citizenry” was taking place through “Western music, dance, consumer items and politics…….Anything and everything could be construed to be politically or ideologically corrosive”. PID was Mielke’s “justification to look for subversion everywhere – in people’s family connections to West Germany, in their tastes in music, in their views on any given issue, in their conversations and in their lifestyles. In other words, it allowed the Stasi to become the invasive superstructure that would make it infamous the world over”.

Hoyer is particularly keen to assert that the authorities did their best to improve “upward social mobility for those from humble backgrounds……access to university for working-class students was not only made possible through financial and structural support but also encouraged”. And she adds that “by 1967 around a third of university students in the GDR came from working-class backgrounds while it was only 3 per cent in West Germany”. It would be useful to know what the figure was for the United Kingdom in 1967. Hoyer also has some interesting comments to make about how conscription was often tied to access to higher education. By agreeing to extend the length of time they served in the armed forces a man or woman could qualify for further education: “The way the state saw it, extended military service was fair recompense for extended education”.

I was amused when I read that. I was due to do my two years National Service in the British Army in 1954 when I was 18, but signed on for a further year, served most of my time in Germany,  and was discharged in 1957.  I can’t recollect that there was ever any question of it qualifying me for further opportunities in education beyond what I’d had when I left school at 16. I’m not suggesting that I’d have wanted to live in the GDR, and doubt that I’d have been welcome there. I liked listening to  American jazz, reading what I wanted to read (mostly American novelists and poets), going where I wanted to go, and watching mostly American films in the local cinemas. It’s just intriguing to look back at how different systems functioned.  And who benefited from them.

There is some irony in the fact that certain of the American writers I was interested in found it difficult, because of their political views, to get their work published in the United States during the McCarthy years. A few of them had been imprisoned and blacklisted after being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).   But they were published by the English-language Seven Seas Books in the GDR.

Walter Ulbricht resigned in 1971 and Erich Honecker took his place as First Secretary of the Secretariat of the SED. Hoyer says that “Despite the many remaining problems, the 1970s were a high point in East German living standards and many people experienced the decade as a time of relative material comfort and stability……Subsidised rents…..only cost them a fraction of their salaries. Fridges, TVs and washing machines had become everyday items”. All that has to be balanced against the presence of the Stasi, travel limitations, and the fact that East Germany was still in many ways ultimately controlled from Moscow. And people were dissatisfied even though they appeared to be better off than before. Life in the East continued to seem drab when compared to what was on offer in the West. According to Hoyer, the GDR was “wandering through its third decade without a clear sense of direction”.

The degree of dependence on Russia became evident in the early-1980s when it was made clear to Honecker that East Germany would no longer be able to rely on Soviet credit and there could be no further guarantee of a stable supply of oil : “This was a huge blow to Honecker. His country had banked on an annual delivery of 10 million tonnes of oil contractually agreed with the Soviet Union”. The inevitable soon happened and a deep economic crisis developed. Despite wages and prices being kept “artificially stable” the selection of goods in the shops began to diminish, this at a time when the wider access to TV in East Germany made it evident just how much more was available in the West. Finally, Honecker applied to West Germany for financial assistance and was given one billion Deutschmarks in credit through West German banks.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, and Hoyer has an interesting paragraph where she writes that, despite its problems, “the GDR felt like a stable country with comparatively high living standards. By design there was full employment and the subsidised rents, food, cultural offerings and childcare meant that there were few existential concerns”. It might well be asked why, if things were functioning reasonably well for many people, the Wall  had ceased to have any real meaning in terms of keeping East and West Germany separated. Reunification became inevitable. It was all tied up with events in Russia, where Gorbachev had instigated wide-ranging reforms, and how other Iron Curtain  countries like Poland,  Hungary, and Czechoslovakia reacted to them.

Hoyer carefully tells the story of what happened in East Germany, but she does point out that not everyone wanted to abolish the economic and political system in its entirety. Writers like Christa Wolf and Stefan Heym (both often out of favour with the Party leadership, though they weren’t enthusiasts for what West Germany offered) “argued for the retention of an independent GDR“, and there were “many East Germans who genuinely believed in the GDR’s socialist ideology”. She makes it clear that reunification did not benefit everyone in what had been Eastern Germany. The old and the unskilled were often left behind. On a trip to Germany a few years after reunification I got the impression that some West Germans looked on people from the East as little more than a burden and resented having to financially support them.   

Beyond the Wall is a stimulating account of how East Germany came into being, the difficulties it encountered, and how it finally collapsed. I can imagine that those who will only think of the Berlin Wall and the Stasi when the GDR is mentioned, and like their history in black and white, will not welcome Katja Hoyer’s more liberal approach to the history of the country. But her work is well-researched and backed up with useful facts and figures as well as intelligent interpretations of events. Reading it I was reminded of a couple of lines from a poem by the Scottish writer, Edwin Morgan : “Deplore what is to be deplored/and then find out the rest”.