'Beyond the Wall' brings the GDR's contradictions to life

May 17, 2024
book cover and historical pic of Berlin Wall

Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949‒1990
By Katja Hoyer
London: Allen and Lane, 2023

What was known as East Germany, or the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) disappeared in October 1990, following the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989.

The GDR is often painted as a “walled-in, Russian-controlled Stasi land”. However British-German Historian Katja Hoyer's 2023 book Beyond the Wall: East Germany 1949-1990 presents a more interesting and contradictory picture of a state where socialist solidarity, secret police, central planning and barbed wire co-existed.

Hoyer traces the GDR’s birth on October 7, 1949, back to the interwar period in the Stalinist Soviet Union, where more than 41,000 Germans, including members of the German Communist Party (KPD), were murdered in Stalin’s 1936‒39 purges.

More pre-1933 KPD committee members were killed by Stalin than Nazi Germany’s Adolph Hitler.

The only remaining KPD leaders, William Pieck and Walter Ulbricht, survived the purges by showing their loyalty to Stalin. Subsequently, the Soviets put them in charge of the Eastern sector of Berlin and Germany after the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945 and the onset of the Cold War, led by Britain and the United States.

Cold War tensions led to the split of East and West Germany on October 7, 1949. The Socialist Unity Party (SED), a merger of the KPD and the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) ruled the GDR.

Stalin was reluctant to accept the formation of the GDR, preferring a neutral Germany as a buffer between the Socialist bloc and the Capitalist Western bloc.

The GDR was beset by contradictions from the beginning, being a Worker’s State dependent on Soviet support, including raw materials, to survive.

After Stalin’s death in March 1953 this contradiction sharpened during the June 16‒17 uprising — the result of worker’s discontentment with the inflexibility of SED leaders such as Ulbricht.

The June uprising was quickly suppressed and the Stasi — the GDR’s dreaded secret police formed in 1950 — was expanded.

Hoyer argues that despite the crackdown, the SED leadership did all it could to ensure that East Germans were at least gainfully employed and had their basic needs met. However the West German (Federal Republic of Germany-FRG) enclave of West Berlin offered an easy option of escape and by 1961 about 300,000 people were leaving the GDR each year.

It was in this context that the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961. Erich Honecker, a former KPD activist who survived 10 years in a Nazi Prison replaced Ulbricht as GDR leader in 1971.

In her interviews Hoyer is sympathetic to the GDR’s dissidents and those who attempted to escape. However, Hoyer also finds that many GDR citizens were content living in what she describes as a “gilded cage”. There was a high degree of working class social mobility, unemployment barely existed, housing was universally available and relatively cheap and abundant, and accessible childcare allowed women to enter the workforce at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world.

In Beyond the Wall Hoyer describes how by 1988 the average East German drank 142 litres of beer a year which, in contrast to popular belief about the GDR, showed that “for those who wanted a quiet life with the small comforts of home it was a stable place with few concerns or worries”.

However, the GDR would always be at an economic disadvantage compared to the FRG. The post-World War II, US-led Marshall Plan enabled the FRG’s economic miracle of the 1950s, while the GDR remained dependent on raw materials from the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries.

Beyond the Wall documents the efforts the GDR’s leaders made to ensure its citizens had what they considered the important consumer goods such as coffee. However, the poor economic situation in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc made the GDR’s situation worse. Despite increased Stasi surveillance, discontent bubbled over in October 1989, leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Many of the protesters were not trying to dismantle the GDR but reform it. However, they came up against the inflexibility of the SED regime led by Honecker.

Once the 1990 German reunification occurred, many realised that a reunified capitalist Germany had failed to live up to its promises. The GDR was effectively swallowed whole and many features, such as its extensive social welfare system were dismantled, privatised or scaled back.

This has caused much hardship for former East Germans and the country still suffers many divisions and inequalities based on East-West lines — often dismissed by West Germans as mere Ostalgie (East German Nostalgia).

This discontent manifested itself in the 2021 German elections, where more than a quarter of East German voters abstained. In the former GDR, die Linke (The Left) gained 7%, but disturbingly the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) gained 16%.

Hoyer argues that this shows that many citizens of the former GDR believe that the current political system doesn’t work for them. She argues that the GDR — which lasted longer than WWI, the Weimar Republic and the Nazi Third Reich combined — should not be dismissed by pro-Capitalist historian as “a country by Stalin’s grace, for his benefit and democratic in name only”, but an important part of German history.

More importantly, Beyond the Wall raises the question of how to understand a state which, for all its faults, attempted to build a society where people’s needs were placed before corporate profit, while rejecting its negative aspects such as the Berlin Wall and the extensive Stasi surveillance and repression.

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