A country vanishes – “Beyond the Wall”

A country vanishes – “Beyond the Wall”

Countries that have ceased to exist hold a certain fascination. Especially when this has happened to a neighbouring country within one’s own lifetime.

Katja Hoyer’s “Beyond the Wall” tells the story of the GDR – the short-lived attempt to create a socialist republic in East Germany. Historian and journalist Hoyer was born and raised in the GDR herself and has interviewed a wide range of ordinary East Germans about their experiences in that strange, little country.

In the West, the GDR is often viewed as just another example in the long line of socialist experiments that ended up as inhumane dictatorships. And especially in Germany, Hoyer has been criticized for adding nuance to this narrative. But along the way, she actually dispels quite a few myths.

Katja Hoyer

For example, it was somewhat surprising to me that Josef Stalin was not the architect behind the hard-line brand of East German communism. From the beginning, the otherwise tyrannical Soviet leader wanted East Germany to be a purely temporary construct until the eventual reunifications of the two Germanies. The actual culprit was the GDR’s first leader, Walter Ulbricht, described by Hoyer in an almost purely negative light. The Soviet Union did not tighten its grip on the GDR until 1954 when West Germany became a member of NATO (the parallel to Putin’s Russia in 2024 is obvious).

Hoyer repeatedly highlights that the GDR was a “small” country and therefore deeply dependent on outside help. While the Allies supplemented West Germany’s economy with Marshall Aid, the Soviet Union, in return for its support for the new regime, demanded large sums in war reparations. This contradictory construction made it difficult for the actually hardworking GDR to get economically back on its feet after the war.

Throughout the book, one is reminded that the entaglements of global politics (of which there were many) were not the main concern of the ordinary GDR citizen. After the horrors of the World War, their primary focus was to create a society that would provide basic necessities like food, clothing, and housing. While the leaders of the superpowers fought for the right to define the new world order, millions of East Germans were content to simply dream of a car, a television, and a refrigerator – consumer goods that would eventually be provided by the East German factories.

In the West we have an understandable focus on the Stasi secret police’s brutal crackdown on any dissenting voices. But it’s worth remembering that many ordinary people worked hard to rebuild East Germany as a functioning society. The real tragedy was that leaders like Ulbricht and later Honecker isolated themselves in a dream world of socialist visions – completely out of touch with the real needs of their population, as seen in the dramatic popular uprising on June 17, 1953.

The construction of the Berlin Wall stands for many as the physical manifestation of the “Iron Curtain” between East and West. And Hoyer tells the terrifying stories of divided families and the many East Germans killed in escape attempts. But ironically, the wall had the desired effect: the ordinary citizen experienced a stabilization of society when the destructive flight of skilled labor to the West ceased.

Hoyer also presents some surprising statistics: While the GDR’s economic development was erratic at best, the little country also had its share of successes: For example, access to higher education and gender equality far surpassed that of the West.

The establishment of the new German Federal Republic in 1990 is described in the West as “reunification” – in Germany (especially in the former East), the more neutral term “die Wende” (the change) is often used. Many former East Germans – including former Chancellor Angela Merkel – did not percieve the GDR as being reunited with its western neighbor – but rather assimilated, its former existence all but written out of history.

Katja Hoyer’s book is a fascinating and nuanced attempt to give the GDR its history back.

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