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Telling the story of life in communist Germany
A recent book gives voice to the people who lived through the DDR
Brigitte Fritschen was born in 1944, in Waldenburg near Breslau (now Wrocław in western Poland), and was still a baby as the war drew to a close. Nonetheless, the events that were to unfold as the town was ransacked by the advancing Red Army would leave a lasting mark on her life. There were only women and old men left in the street where she lived with her mother and grandparents. Some of the women were pregnant, many had small children. Brigitte’s mother too tried to survive without her husband as he had been captured on the Eastern Front.
She had heard horror stories about rape from villages further to the East. Worse, she had been told about how the Soviets would slit the throats of any German child they could find. Her blood ran cold as she thought of her little Brigitte. In their desperation, the women in the neighbourhood gathered all of their children in one room and guarded the door with their lives. Brigitte was one of the youngest of the dozen or so children in this ‘nursery’, as the women began to call it. Day and night the mothers sat in front of the door and waited in fear. When the Soviets finally arrived, their guard proved futile. A young soldier barged his way past them with his rifle and entered the room. Brigitte’s mother froze in terror as the door slammed shut between her and her baby daughter.
There was silence. The women held their breath and listened. Would the man cut the children’s throats? Some couldn’t endure the tension any longer and cried for help. But who might have come? There were only Red Army soldiers in the streets outside. Behind the door, in the nursery, it was still dead silent. Finally, the women could not stand it any longer, and they opened the door. The young man had not cut a single throat. Instead, he knelt in front of the little beds and was sobbing bitterly. He cried and cried. The women stared as his tears continued to flow.
“Eventually, my mother carefully tapped him on the shoulder. He had his arm around one of the babies. He turned around and tried to explain, using gestures and expressions. He said the word ‘Haus’ and then again and again ‘Mama – Mama – Mama’ and then the German word for ‘tree’.”
In his despair to be understood, the young soldier showed a rope and a noose with his hands. Germans had hanged his mother. He had also had a little sister – he mumbled the English word “sister – sister” – who had been the same age as the little girl he now held in his arms. The Germans had hanged her too.
This moving passage comes from Katja Hoyer’s Beyond the Wall and provides a little illustration of why the book attracted such praise. Published earlier this year, Hoyer’s most recent book is a narrative history of East Germany, told in part by the people themselves, the author being one. Although too young to really remember the DDR, Hoyer brings herself into the final chapter as an infant bemused by her father’s stunned realisation that the whole thing is about to come down.
As a child I visited East Germany, which seemed like a bleak and frightening place. We holidayed in West Berlin but while there we took the opportunity to cross the Wall; I was 8, and I vividly recall seeing the crosses where people had been shot trying to escape. I also remember very officious looking border guards, with stern faces and scrunched up mouths, and the cheery American soldiers who posed with us for a photo at Checkpoint Charlie.
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We found the goose-stepping funny, because of course that was something we associated with the endless war films which still dominated British culture in the 1980s. As Orwell famously observed, goose-stepping is intrinsically amusing to the British, because they have never had to fear their military.
In my childish mind there was perhaps a sense that East Germany, the evil side, was in some way the spiritual successor both to Prussia and the Third Reich – authoritarian, militaristic and hostile. Even the film Top Secret, one of the many Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker comedies we used to enjoy as children, deliberately confused the two, the American rock star stuck in communist East Germany then getting caught up with the French resistance. The film showed a land of Olympic female shot put winners with six o’clock shadows, crappy little cars you had to wait a decade for, and a terrifying wall to keep the prisoners in – and compared to the gigantic toy shop that was West Berlin, I was not sold.
I suppose that’s how the country is largely remembered in the British imagination, a land of border fences and spying, The Lives of Others and Goodbye Lenin. When the British aren’t comparing everything to Nazi Germany, they occasionally stray out into other historic analogies by comparing things to East Germany, not surprising in a surveillance state such as ours (these rather dubious comparisons obviously intensified under lockdown).
This is no doubt grating to East Germans themselves, but perhaps more grating is the sense of disdain often felt in the western half of Germany; for East Germans, their country simply ceased to exist in 1990 as it was gobbled up by its larger, richer, more glamorous neighbour, and has been regarded as a failure ever since. For that reason, Hoyer’s book is both enjoyable holiday reading and an important historical record for an ageing cohort of people who lived under the old system. To have one’s story told, in a sense, is to avoid annihilation.
Despite the similarities between the two totalitarian systems, East Germany almost defined itself as the anti-fascist state, and its origins lie in a group of communist exiles who fled from Hitler to seek safety in the Soviet Union. Inevitably, their story was almost comically bleak; 17 senior German Marxists in Russia ended up being executed by Stalin, suspected by the paranoid dictator of secretly working for Germany. Even some Jewish communists were accused of spying for the Nazis - which seems to a rational observer unlikely. As Hoyer writes, ‘More members of the KPD’s executive committee died at Stalin’s hands than at Hitler’s’.
Only two of the nine-strong German politburo survived life in Russia, one of these being Walter Ulbricht, the goatee-bearded veteran of the failed 1919 German revolution and communist party chairman in Berlin in the years before the Nazis came to power.
The war had brutalised the eastern part of Germany far more than the West. It suffered the revenge of the Red Army, including the then largest mass rape in history, and the forced expulsion of millions of Germans from further east (including Hoyer’s grandfather, who had walked from East Prussia). The country was utterly shattered.
From the start the Soviet section had huge disadvantages, not just in terms of raw materials or industry – western Germany has historically always been richer - but in having a patron in Russia. While the Americans boosted their allies through the Marshall Plan, the Soviets continued to plunder Germany; when they learned of uranium in Thuringia they simply turned up and took it, using locals as forced labour.
‘In total, 60 per cent of ongoing East German production was taken out of the young state’s efforts to get on its feet between 1945 and 1953,’ Hoyer writes: ‘Yet its people battled on. As early as 1950, the production levels of 1938 had been reached again despite the fact that the GDR had paid three times as much in reparations as its Western counterpart.’
After the war, so-called ‘Antifa Committees’ formed across the Soviet zone, ‘made up of a wild mix of individuals, among them socialists, communists, liberals, Christians and other opponents of Nazism.’ Inevitably, a broad and eclectic left front was taken over by communists who soon crushed all opposition.
And as with many regimes, state oppression grew worse over time. ‘By May 1953, 66,000 people languished in East German prisons, twice as many as the year before, and a huge figure compared to West Germany’s 40,000. The General Secretary’s revival of the “class struggle”, officially announced in the summer of 1952 as part of the state’s “building socialism” programme, had escalated into a struggle against the population, including the working classes.’ The party was also becoming dominated by an educated elite, as happened in pretty much all revolutionary regimes.
Protests began at the Stalinallee in Berlin on 16 June 1953, where builders marched towards the House of Ministries and ‘stood there in their work boots, the dirt and sweat of their labour still on their faces; many held their tools in their hands or slung over their shoulders. There could not have been a more fitting snapshot of what had become of Ulbricht’s dictatorship of the proletariat. The angry crowd chanted, “Das hat alles keinen Zweck, der Spitzbart muss weg!” – “No point in reform until Goatee is gone!”’
The 1953 protests were crushed, the workers smeared as fascists, but three years later came Khrushchev’s famous denunciation of Stalin, which caused huge trauma to communists everywhere. ‘The shaken German delegation went back to their rooms to ponder the implications of what they had just learned.’ By breakfast time, ‘Ulbricht had pulled himself together,’ and decreed the new party line. Stalin, it was announced ‘cannot be counted as a classic of Marxism.’
Today, maps of Germany still show a clear divide in religious belief and attendance, a legacy of a system which installed an all-encompassing ideology which actively sought to replace religion. In July 1958, Ulbricht even passed a ‘bizarre’ and invasive set of ‘Ten Commandments’ for the population, instructing them that ‘Thou shalt always work towards the international solidarity of the proletariat and of all working people as well as for the inseparable bond of all socialist countries’ and ‘Thou shalt do good deeds for socialism, for socialism leads to a better life for all working people.’
It also declared that ‘Thou shalt raise your children in the spirit of peace and socialism to become well-rounded, confident and physically strong people’ and ‘Thou shalt live a clean and decent life and respect your family.’
As Hoyer writes: ‘The religious connotations of this biblical set of moral and social rules were deliberate. Ulbricht was not merely setting out a series of guidelines but he was also prescribing a new lifestyle to his compatriots.’
The paradox of communist Germany was that it remained more culturally conservative than its capitalist equivalent, hostile to the decadence that followed liberalism.
From 1958, 60 per cent of music played in venues had to be produced either in the DDR or other communist states. ‘In the coming decades, many a drunken teenager would giggle tipsily at the uniformed man who turned up at their party around midnight to ask if the correct ratio of capitalist and communist music had been adhered to.’
The state newspaper Junge Welt ‘declared that Western music was simplistic and deliberately seductive to keep the masses sedated and stupid.’ It denounced the songs of Elvis Presley as ‘daft, stupid and brutal.’
Ulbricht ‘even publicly denounced the Beatles shortly after in a speech,’ saying ‘Is it really the case that we have to copy all the crap that comes from the West? I think, comrades, with the monotony of the “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” and what not, yes, we should put an end to it.’
Erich Honecker, who replaced Ulbricht as party leader in 1971, was even more hardline, and ‘had adherents of youth subcultures condemned as ‘indolent’, ‘long- haired’ and ‘scruffy’. While Ulbricht had been on holiday in 1965, Honecker called an extraordinary meeting of the Secretariat of the Central Committee and ‘effectively reversed many of the freedoms the youth had been given two years earlier, even withdrawing licences to play certain types of music.’ Honecker had proclaimed that ‘our GDR is a clean state. In it there are immovable goal posts of ethics and morality, for decency and good manners.’
The West was also alluring because it was far richer, the Federal Republic enjoying per capita income three times that of its eastern neighbour. Naturally, many were keen on getting there, and border guards were no exception:
‘Some 2,100 KGs, People’s Police, border guards and soldiers also used the proximity to the border and their ability to stroll into the Western sectors of Berlin to defect to the FRG altogether. An image of four KG men guarding the border crossing at the Brandenburg Gate on 14 August 1961, which had been taken to be used as propaganda, was quietly buried in the archives as all four of the young men on it had disappeared into West Germany.’ Hardly a great advert for the system.
There was a similar problem with East German attempts at organised holidays. When the Fritz Heckert left Rostock on 3 January 1962 to take 400 guests to North Africa, the passengers were all checked first, but after a visit to Casablanca, ‘the crew noticed that twenty-four passengers were missing. They had arranged flights back to Europe via the West German consulate, a journey that received widespread coverage in the West German media. When another three guests went missing in Tunis, the captain received orders to return home immediately, even though a heavy storm had been brewing over the Mediterranean.’ Unfortunately, the ship was ordered to make its way across the Bay of Biscay just as a terrible storm began, its request to dock denied.
West and East had become more separated as the years went on; surprisingly, the two Germanys had fielded joint Olympic teams well into the 1950s, while the earlier constitution had opened the way towards unity. The new 1968 constitution explicitly referred to the GDR as a ‘socialist state’ and ‘mentioned the word “socialism” 145 times within its 108 articles.’
The border became physically more solid and concrete – literally in the case of the iconic wall, put up in 1961 – but far more militarised on the eastern side. Such was ‘the psychological pressure that East German border guards deliberately built up during questioning’ of people entering the eastern zone that an estimated 350 people died of heart failure just trying to cross. Even the western-born Honecker chose not to attend his mother’s funeral in Saarland when she died in 1963, and again when his father passed away six years later.
But the border was effective: ‘Over 5,600 people tried to swim, float, surf or propel themselves to West Germany via ‘State Border North’, as the official jargon called the boundary in the Baltic Sea. Only 913 were successful. The rest were either arrested by the 6th Border Brigade Coast, had to abort their attempt or drowned.’
As the economy floundered, severe cuts had to be made to social programmes, and to all governments departments – except one, Erich Mielke’s Stasi, heavily influenced by the Cheka and its programme of ‘sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and deception.’
Economic freedom steadily declined as the East diverged from the West. ‘Ulbricht had tolerated the entrepreneurial remnants that still lingered in parts of the economy – in 1971, there were still over 11,000 independent businesses, self-employed people and semi-private enterprises which accounted for nearly 40 per cent of the production of consumer goods in the GDR.’ By 1972, almost all had been nationalised.
Worse still was the attack on freedom of association. Christopher Caldwell once called this the ‘master freedom’, from which all others stem, and so – even more than freedom of speech – the one that authoritarian regimes clamp down on. From now on, any East German citizen could form or join a club, but only ‘under the leadership of the proletariat and its Marxist-Leninist Party’.
So it would last, seemingly forever, or at least it seemed forever when I was a child. Yet just three later it all came crashing down. On 13 November, 1989, four days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, elderly Stasi boss Erich Mielke addressed the East German People’s Chamber which, despite being a member for 31 years, the notorious secret policeman had never once addressed.
Once the most feared man in the GDR, Erich Mielke was now nearly eighty-two years old and looked it. Ignoring his notes, he rambled through well-worn political platitudes. It was immediately obvious that he no longer wielded the fear and control that had allowed him to stay in power for so long. When Mielke told parliament, “We have, comrades, dear deputies, an extraordinarily high degree of contact with all working people,” laughter filled the chamber. Now insecure and defensive, his speech became incoherent as he tried to engage an audience that had lost all respect.
A deputy interrupted him to take issue with his repeated use of the word “comrades”, which had clearly been second nature to him since he had joined the youth wing of the Communist Party as a teenager in 1921. “Not everyone who sits in this chamber is a comrade,” came the much-applauded intervention.
Now completely flustered, Mielke stuttered, “That’s just a question of formality. I love – I love everyone, all humans.” With the raucous laughter that accompanied these ramblings, the spell of the Stasi was broken.
East Germans were free at last - but there was a price to pay.
Part two will be published on Thursday.
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