In 1989, cracks in the Berlin Wall finally laid plain the terror, brutality, misery, poverty, and meaninglessness of life in East Germany for anybody willing to take a look. Yet historian Katja Hoyer says the unqualified celebration of the victory of the Western – free, capitalistic – way of life blinded us to the true reality of East Germany (German Democratic Republic, GDR). According to Hoyer, we unthinkingly ignore the relative normalcy of life most people enjoyed when they came to terms with authoritarianism. The crux of the issue, however, is what one considers “normal.”
In her latest book, Beyond the Wall, Katja Hoyer invites us to stop brushing the history of East Germany to the dark corners of our minds, where all failed dictatorships lay, and make an effort to actually see the other side. If we are willing, she promises, we will not find the gray, faceless mass of socialist victims passively waiting to be liberated from their meaningless existence, but people who lived lives in “full color.” Yes, there was “oppression and brutality” as well as “tears and anger,” from which Hoyer does not shy away. But most people (about 90 percent of them, according to her) were not directly persecuted, and eventually accustomed themselves to East German socialism and its “gifts.”
They were homeowners, building families in state-distributed apartments. Women worked while their children were cared for by extensive childcare services. People had careers, went on holiday cruises, joked about their politicians. They lived, loved, worked, and grew old. Even the artistic scene was a buoyant affair that merely required side-stepping some censorship in creative ways. In other words, East Germans found a way to live even under the Soviet boot, and life was not as terrible and dull as we might think.
Hoyer’s reviewers in The Economist, The Parliament Magazine, The Guardian, The Compact, The Telegraph, and others, sing in a commending chorus. As James Jackson puts it in The PM, the “book reveals an East Germany far more dynamic than the cold war caricature often painted in the West.”
Beyond the Wall portrays East Germany as a country that struggled back to its feet after the yoke of Nazism and World War II. After the rate of brain drain was stifled by a physical wall with guns on it, the country became more stable. Hoyer suggests the German Democratic Republic could have even flourished, if only the professionals, intellectuals, and skilled people hadn’t left, lured by higher pay and luxuries like bananas on grocery shelves in the West. After the rise of the wall, however, most people “came to terms” with the regime as part of their reality. They accepted the deal – stay out of politics, keep your head down, take what we give you, and everything will be well. Life will be “normal.
Consider the “dynamism” and the “normality” of life Hoyer speaks of from the perspective of those who did not accept the deal to surrender their mind, soul, and dreams (a few among the 4 million who ran away between 1945 and 1989). The Atlantic gave them a voice back in 1961. Their stories capture what “normal” means, even apart from imprisonment and subjection to “political education” that some of them faced.
Hans, a carpenter, was sick of wasting his trade on making ugly, bad furniture, which he found offensive. Since free enterprise was a great misdemeanor against the state, he saw all honor and passion being sucked out of his profession.
Dieter, who refused to attend mind-silencing lectures on Communism in which he didn’t believe, was held back from training necessary to pursue his dream of becoming a laboratory technician. He might have had better chances if he accepted the “patriotic duty” offered to him by an officer, holding a file folder with Dieter’s name on it, to watch and report on certain patients and fellow workers. Fortunately, he knew better.
Ursula, who was passionate about literature, found work as a clerk for a publishing house. But she found herself warning creative and truthful writers to stop submitting their novels and stay out of trouble. She could only publish dull, socialist ‘realism.’
Ilse, a real estate agent who loved to help people find houses, refused a government job with higher pay, free insurance, and a pension. Why? Because he could not lie to desperate people by promising a bright future with free apartments and playgrounds which he knew for certain would never materialize.
Georg, a doctor, received hints about treating the “unreliables” (people with the wrong politics). He couldn’t enjoy his work with the massive bureaucracy on his shoulders and an imbecile of a boss. Georg finally had enough when his son was rejected from university owing to his father being a “bourgeoise.” The boy, officials said, needed “cleansing” through manual labor.
This is what “normal” life looked like in GDR. From Hoyer’s perspective, these runaways could have been carpenters, laboratory technicians, writers, real estate agents, and doctors living meaningful, colourful lives in East Germany, just with slightly lower pay than across the wall. Pursuing these goals was possible if you followed the Party line. But these “normal” totalitarian lives came at the cost of silencing their minds, their judgment, their creativity. The price of survival was your honor and their dreams.
It is your judgment, creativity, standards, and ideas that had to be sacrificed to survive under a socialist regime. What would be left of “you” in that shell, leading a “normal” life in the GDR?
This bargain (of which Hoyer speaks fondly) implies exchanging obedience for rewards such as state-built apartment or a trip on a state-financed cruise. People take these meager handouts, built on the back of some to keep the illusion of progress to others, and cherish whatever little they receive. Those who don’t want anything more from life than coasting through with occasional fun might even celebrate the state-planned existence. But anyone who still had a spark in their soul and refused to extinguish it was likely shot in a desperate attempt to climb the twelve-foot-tall wall, for a glimpse of life on the other side.
Like the Berlin Wall, Hoyer’s account falls flat. There is no redeeming of the socialist experiment. Nothing was “normal” about the totalitarian life in socialist GDR, if by “normal” we mean pursuit of human happiness and fulfilment. We should be morally outraged against “normalizing” the dull existence that authoritarianism brings to those who at least manage (or care) to survive the purges.
Even if Hoyer has the excuse of being a historian filling in some missing, if irrelevant, details, the reviewers celebrating the “holistic” historical account deserve our unqualified condemnation. As critic Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk pointed out, “If a book like this about the Nazi period came out, there would be an outcry.” Beyond the Wall deserves the same.