Heaven or hell? Books look back on the German Democratic Republic

Stasi Hell or Workers’ Paradise? Socialism in the German Democratic Republic ― What Can We Learn From It?
By John Green & Bruni de la Motte
Artery Publications, 2009
50 pp.

Red Love: The Story of an East German Family
By Maxim Leo
Pushkin Press, 2013
272 pp.

Reviews by Barry Healy

November 16, 2014 -- Green Left Weekly -- The German Democratic Republic (GDR, or "East Germany") disappeared a quarter of a century ago after 41 years’ existence. The East German state is mostly remembered as “Stasiland”, as Anna Funder’s history of its secret police is called.

Yet, for all of its Stalinist failings, East Germany’s values still stubbornly retain many Germans’ endorsement, especially those of the eastern regions. In 2008, Der Spiegel surveyed young Germans nationwide and discovered that most defended what the GDR stood for.

This is usually dismissed as merely a form of nostalgia, but these two texts grapple with the fuller picture. What they recall are memories of when the fear of fascism could motivate whole nations ― and the promise of socialism inspired.

Husband and wife team Bruni de la Motte and John Green have personal links to the GDR. Born in Britain, Green studied in the GDR between 1964 and '68 and then worked on GDR television for 20 years.

De la Motte was born into a working-class GDR family in 1951 and lived there until the country’s demise. She now works for a British trade union.

Their short pamphlet was not written to defend the GDR, but to explain why people still hanker after elements of it.

They write that the GDR was not purposively created by the USSR after World War II. It was established in response to the Allies’ 1949 decision to create West Germany with a separate currency.

Most Germans in the west voted in referendums for socialisation of big industry, banks and utilities. The Allied occupation forces stopped these democratic decisions from being realised.

Despite being economically poorer and with a smaller population than the German Federal Republic ― West Germany ― the GDR managed to build a more egalitarian society based on a powerful “social wage”.

The GDR's constitution meant workplaces had attached medical facilities with doctors and dentists. Workplaces provided child care and assisted workers in finding housing.

Workers could only be sacked for serious incompetence or misconduct. However, alternative employment had to be offered. There was a social obligation to work and no unemployment benefit existed.

However, the Stalinist bureaucracy used control over employment to harrass oppositionists.

Newlywed GDR couples under 25 received an interest-free home loan from the state. Ninety-one percent of women between the ages of 16 and 60 worked and mothers received one month’s wage at the birth of a child to help buy essential items.

Green and de la Motte survey a large number of topics, from youth in the GDR to internationalism to women's rights. They demonstrate that, despite carrying the heavy load of the Stalinist bureaucracy, the GDR’s people achieved a great deal for themselves and could take pride in their social accomplishments.

Maxim Leo, who has won many awards for his memoir, takes a different approach, that of a multi-generational account of his own family. Via the mosaic, he creates a moving story of more than just the GDR.

Leo’s mother, Anne, was a Communist Party member while Wolf, his father. was a fiercely independent-thinking party critic. After the GDR’s destruction, Leo set about interrogating his parents, grandparents and their Stasi and party files to try to understand their varying levels of commitment to the GDR.

The combination illustrates the forces, refracted through the prism of one family, that drove German society in the 20th century, from the madness of Nazism to stultifying Stalinism.

Leo’s maternal grandfather, Gerhard, was a truly heroic anti-Nazi resistance fighter who fought as part of the French Resistance. After being captured and tortured by the SS, Communist partisans freed him in a daring raid as he was being transported to almost certain death.

He survived by the skin of his teeth, but some of his comrades were horrifically murdered by a Nazi commander who became a respected figure in West Germany. Gerhard said that he felt the Berlin Wall kept him safe from that monster and he staunchly defended the GDR government.

Anne found it difficult to criticise the party, even while she rebelled against its bureaucracy, because of her deep loyalty to her father’s heritage. Indeed, it is in the passages covering his resistance period that this book sparkles.

Leo’s paternal grandfather was somewhat different. He opportunistically shifted allegiance from fanatical Nazism to joining the Communist Party after the GDR's creation. In the process of reinventing himself, he abandoned his family. In his dotage, he expressed nostalgia for his Nazi youth.

Wolf instinctively rebelled against hypocrisy, perhaps responding to his father’s betrayal. His attitude towards East Germany was that it “was a dictatorship of civil servants who had betrayed socialism”. For Anne, however, there were “definitely big problems, but they could be overcome”.

“The GDR was always there in bed with us”, Wolf commented to his son, reflecting how politics dominated all aspects of life. It eventually led to the breakdown of the marriage.

For his part, Maxim’s attitude towards the GDR was “numb indifference”.

After the GDR’s collapse, each family member has struggled to cope. Wolf, who had lived as an oppositionist bohemian in the GDR, found the capitalist art market was not for him. Anne, who was active in the initial wave of democratic organising, fell into apathy. Maxim has found his feet as a bourgeois journalist.

Taken together, these two books offer an explanation of why the GDR had genuine adherents and why, eventually, Stalinism rotted out its soul, opening the way to capitalist restoration.

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From GLW issue 1033

German film deals sensitively with the human dramas in Germany’s East under the impress of the fall of the wall and life before. It is well worth exploring those films and what they suggest about post-Wall identity in people’s life worlds in the former GDR. Two key films are Berlin is in Germany (Hannes Stöhr, director, 2001) and Good Bye Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, director 2003). Becker’s film was a huge box office success and was nominated for a raft of awards, many positive probing reviews in the German press. One comparative study of the two films is Jennifer Kapczynski, Negotiating Nostalgia: The GDR Past in Berlin is in Germany and Good Bye, Lenin!. The Germanic Review 82 (1) (2007): 78–100.

You can watch Good Bye Lenin! in full on youtube, with English subtitles. Judge for yourself what the film is trying to say describing an ailing Christiane’s life (a dedicated member of the SED) as it collapses together with the wall and her son tries to shield her from the knowledge that her country has imploded: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZzQuRgaG24

Red Love is the translation of the original memoir by Maxim Leo, „Haltet euer Herz bereit“. Eine ostdeutsche Familiengeschichte (Karl Blessing Verlag, Munich 2009). You can read the first chapter “The Shop” online (http://goo.gl/Wcb3vL ) in English. It is in part a striking statement of split identity in the family Maxim describes, in a country now vanished. If you follow German, Maxim gives a brief interview here talking about this huge bifurcation in his life and what it has meant emotionally, intellectually, the uncanny disconnect with his youth in the GDR and how he tries to deal with that as a writer and human being: (http://goo.gl/kFekTS ).

We should all bear in mind that the powerful electoral base of the major left party in Germany today, Die Linke, is in the former East, in Berlin polling 18.5% and in all federal states of the former GDR at or above 20% in the last 2013 Bundestag election (nearly 24% in Sachsen-Anhalt). Their constituency is not simply voters afflicted by Ostalgia. Perhaps nowhere in EUrope is there such a clear social and historical political geography of radical left sentiment. This is the positive legacy of the GDR, certainly viewed critically today (esp. its authoritarianism) by many supporters of Die Linke, reaching into the German political present.

Lest we forget: Angela Merkel was very active in the FDJ (Freie Deutsche Jugend) in the 1970s and 80s, the youth wing of the SED (where she was a functionary), as recently (re)described in the controversial 2013 book by Günther Lachmann and Ralf Georg Reuth, Das erste Leben der Angela M. (Piper Verlag, not yet translated into English). Listen to biographical historian Reuth (in German) in a brief video speaking about Angela Merkel in the GDR and the great shift in her life (and thinking) in late 1989 and thereafter: http://goo.gl/Pbxa97 What Reuth says is controversial but also part of the ongoing discourse inside Germany today.

So people took very different paths – 'first life' (as Reuth’s title intimates),'second life' -- many different biographical trajectories flowing out of the collapse and incorporation of the GDR. Some of Ms. Merkel’s former associates in the FDJ elite think, vote and dream very differently from her today. One could wonder what an autobiographic memoir along the lines of Maxim’s book by Chancellor Merkel written with candor in detail might look like and reveal. Or how she views the book by John and Bruni if she’s seen it.