Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall, by Hester Vaizey

First-person accounts add complexity to popular notions of East Germany, writes Ulrike Zitzlsperger

October 16, 2014

Cover image: Hester Vaizey

On 9 November 2014 Berlin will be celebrating once again, this time commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. By October 2015 it will be a quarter of a century since the German Democratic Republic ceased to exist after 40 years as a separate socialist country. Inevitably, one thinks of the title of the controversial novella by Christa Wolf, one of the GDR’s (and Germany’s) foremost writers: what remains?

There is certainly no shortage of academic engagement with these four decades of German history – in relation to politics, the arts and literature, media, daily life, niche cultures, sexuality, the impact of the Berlin Wall and the GDR’s relationship with West Germany. Furthermore, every prominent anniversary that marks the fall of the Wall, the end of the GDR and German unification is greeted by overwhelming media attention.

Two films, in particular, steer retrospective public perceptions of life in the GDR: Florian Henckelmann von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006) depicts the destructive omnipresence of the country’s secret police, the notorious Stasi, while Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) is a clever play on what was and what might have been from an early 1990s perspective. Books that continue to shape the public imagination include Jana Hensel’s reminiscences After the Wall (published in German in 2002 and in English in 2004), and two works focused on the Stasi: Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (2003) and Timothy Garton Ash’s The File: A Personal History (1997). Books and films about the GDR tend to reflect a fundamental conflict: that of private lives and ambitions on the one hand, and the impact of politics and its mechanisms – including the Stasi – on the other.

In Hester Vaizey’s welcome study, this conflict is palpable. For some of the interviewees whose accounts inform her book, the Stasi was a real threat; others, while remaining more or less oblivious, were nevertheless influenced by its power. Her eight case studies, framed by an introduction to the history of the GDR and a conclusion that considers the impact of its demise, are about the experience of daily life for people who grew up in East Germany, witnessed the fall of the Wall at a formative age and went on to live in a country that shares a language, but not an ethos, with its predecessor.

For East Germans, “the whole fabric” of daily life changed for good after the fall of the Wall. The memories of each of Vaizey’s interviewees are distinct, governed by the principal factors that shape individual lives, whether religion, education or a particular concern such as the environment. These first-hand accounts confirm that there are as many versions of events as there are people being asked; Vaizey suggests that personal memories may claim a higher degree of authenticity than other sources about the past, tied in as they are with our attempts to make “sense of events subsequently”.

Each very readable set of memories of growing up in the GDR, experiencing 9 November 1989 and its aftermath, is discussed in context. What emerges is the sense of the extent to which having been East German has remained a defining factor in these people’s lives. More than anything else, those Vaizey interviewed speak of a perceived loss of qualities such as a sense of security, the appeal of a “shared mission” and a distinct antimaterialism. All this is a far cry from Ostalgie – cosy nostalgia for the GDR – and the products that come with it.

Many of Vaizey’s subjects contest the popular focus, in the years since 1989, on the Stasi and the GDR’s “dictatorial elements”. But alas, even here it is the accounts of encounters with the Stasi that stay in one’s mind for the sheer sadness they evoke. The problems experienced by Mario, outlined in the chapter “Feeling the Regime’s Wrath”, developed in distinct stages. Although being gay was not forbidden in the GDR, it was considered deviant, and inevitably singled people out for the authorities’ attention. Having refused the Stasi’s demand to inform on his partner in West Berlin, Mario endured an increasing number of restrictions, such as less and less meaningful jobs.

His life changed for good when he was captured while attempting to escape to the West via Hungary in 1987. Even more than physical brutalities and continuous harassment, it was the Stasi’s complete control over supposedly “private” lives (even its knowledge of one’s favourite foods or brand of toothpaste) that contributed to breaking people. Mario was released and allowed to move to the West later in 1987. But when the fall of the Wall is celebrated in November 2014, it won’t cater for his memories of November 1989: fear when the Wall fell that the Stasi might once more gain hold over him, and frustration at the ease with which those who had remained in the East were now able to cross the formerly impenetrable border.

To this day, Mario’s experience of the fateful year 1987 remains defining. He now works as a guide for visitors at the Stasi prison in Hohenschönhausen, where he was once an inmate, and his mission, he says, is “to raise awareness about the brutal side of the East German dictatorship”.

Being part of a Protestant congregation was another of the ways of being “different” – deviant in political terms – in the GDR. Katharina’s account offers a lively picture of what it was like to be one of 8 million Christians in a secular society. She remembers being an outsider at school and having to be careful at all times about what she said publicly; her education was restricted because of her and her parents’ beliefs. She later embarked on a career within the church. Growing up was marked by fear – yet membership of the church also afforded opportunities: to see through propaganda because one was not part of the socialist “success” story; to learn more about the West thanks to church-related visitors; to congregate and to organise. It is no coincidence that resistance to the regime happened to a large degree in spaces the church provided.

Like Mario, Katharina resents the fact that ex-Stasi officers and informers escaped punishment, although unlike him, and more in line with other interviewees here, her view of the past is balanced – “living in the system was not nearly as bad as outsiders generally seem to think”, she says.

What remains? For those who fit in to socialist society, the GDR offered the promise of security and opportunity, while those who did not fit in were often persecuted, forced to leave or to make do in a society of niches. And, as Vaizey’s book shows, growing up in the GDR has had an effect on the interviewees’ preoccupations even today. Their complex memories take some of the shine off 9 November 1989, an event all too easily simplified in the image of crowds dancing on the Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

What should remain is an acknowledgement of the varied life experiences that unfolded during East Germany’s existence, and Born in the GDR is a helpful contribution to an understanding of the complexities of life then and its consequences now. To associate being born in the GDR with Bruce Springsteen’s deceptively anthemic Born in the U.S.A. is far-fetched only at first sight; after all, the lines “nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go” work equally well in the shadow of the Wall.

Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall
By Hester Vaizey
Oxford University Press, 240pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780198718734
Published 9 October 2014

The author

Hester Vaizey, lecturer in modern German history and fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, grew up in a close-knit family in Dulwich, southeast London.

“My maternal grandmother had a huge influence on my interests and outlook: a most definite eccentric, she filled my imagination with her stories of working for MI6 during the Second World War. Her tales, and my grandparents’ house, overflowing with curious and surprising old objects, definitely made me interested in the past.”

What of her parents’ influence on her interest in scholarship? Vaizey points to her father’s “amazing work ethic, and my mother’s real talent for seeing many different perspectives in a situation – both of these attributes have rubbed off on me, helping me with my research.”

She says: “I still live in London, with my husband David and our one-eyed cat Bertie. Both provided immense support during the writing of this book – Bertie provided warmth and companionship on the days I was working at home, and David had a more cerebral input, discussing ideas, reading drafts and offering encouragement.”

Born in the GDR is the third of her feline-and-spouse-supported books. The first, Surviving Hitler’s War: Family Life in Germany, 1939-48, won the Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History in 2009. The second, Keep Britain Tidy and Other Posters from the Nanny State, grew out of her work as publishing co-ordinator at the National Archives.

Vaizey’s childhood, she says, “was pretty carefree, and revolved around going to Brownies, playing the trumpet in a brass band and singing in a choir. From the age of 11, I attended James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich, which offered a demanding but horizon-widening education.

“The history department there was fantastic, but it was particularly the formidable Elizabeth Wakely who taught me to interrogate the past. Two stern but ultimately brilliant German teachers – Helena Crompton and Charlotte Griffiths – meant that I spent more of my teenage years learning German vocabulary that I might have liked!” This was, she adds, “brilliant preparation” for studying under Sir Richard J. Evans as a history undergraduate at Cambridge. Moreover, “many of those German words proved very handy for both using the archives in Germany and for talking to East Germans about their experiences of life before and after the Berlin Wall fell.”

Vaizey took all three of her degrees at the University of Cambridge. “My father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all been to Cambridge (to Clare College, in fact), and aged 14, my father took me on a trip there to look around. I remember him punting me along the Backs and getting misty-eyed as he said that some of his happiest memories were being an undergraduate at Clare. My formidable history teacher had also been to Cambridge. I was probably influenced by all of this, but I remember being torn: watching the Boat Race in the April before I applied, I thought I would apply to whichever university won. Oxford won that year, so the Boat Race didn’t end up being the clincher in the decision!

As a fourth-generation Cambridge student, Vaizey found her undergraduate studies “pretty much as I expected. I enjoyed my graduate work a lot more - partly because the whole thing was a lot less pressurised than the undergraduate timetable, but also because I had more time to explore what I was interested in.”

On her decision to shift her research focus from Nazi Germany to East Germany, she recalls: “I’d been interested in the GDR ever since studying it as part of German A-Level at school, and through reading Anna Funder’s fantastic book Stasiland. When I was in Berlin doing research for my PhD, I got to know the man who ran the letter archive I used. He was from East Germany, and in our conversations I learned a lot about how the transition from communism to capitalism was felt in ordinary people’s lives after the Berlin Wall fell. These conversations made me curious to learn more.

“One of the reasons I chose to focus on Communist East Germany in this book is that I felt that there is just so much written on Nazi Germany and the Second World War. As well as my interest in the later period, I wanted to work on a subject that was less crowded. That said, I don’t think historians are running out of new things to say about the Third Reich. The more widespread adoption of cultural history certainly enables us to look at this period through a very different lens.”

Vaizey has worked at the National Archives since 2010, running the publishing department with her colleague Edward Field. “We don’t actually produce books in-house, but co-brand them with a range of publishing houses. We identify topics and material in our collection of potential interest to publishers, and then pitch the ideas to them.

“The book I’m proudest of working on is a book called Inventions That Didn’t Change The World by Julie Halls,” she notes. “Working with the author, I got to delve into the huge leather-bound design registers that contain beautiful illustrations of ideas that inventive, entrepreneurial minds of the Victorian era wished to patent. Some of the inventions we still use today; others (although hilarious to look at) have been consigned to history.”

She also runs Writer of the Month, a National Archives series showcasing the historical work of high-profile figures. “It’s been running since 2013, and we’ve had Antony Beevor, John Guy, Kate Adie, Lucy Worsley, Ben Macintyre and many others through the door. I love running these talks, as the speakers are so talented at bringing the past to life and demystifying the writing process.”

In her spare time, Vaizey has trained for open-water swims, marathons and triathlons, and is an ambassador for Acts of Hope School in Bangalore, “an educational initiative helping disadvantaged children in India. My work there involves setting up links between English schools and the school in Bangalore, as well as fundraising and sending student volunteers out to the school.”

Were a good fairy to offer her the gift of any skill or talent, Vaizey says she would ask for another string to her writing bow. “I definitely revere novelists more than writers of non-fiction. Although I’ve never really tried, I would love to have the creativity to write the kinds of stories that Iris Murdoch or Margaret Atwood have produced. And if the good fairy can arrange it, I’d like to be a judge of the Man Booker Prize, too, please!”

Karen Shook

Listen to our podcast interview with Hester Vaizey

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