Within Walls: Private Life in the German Democratic Republic

January 13, 2011

The German Democratic Republic, its life and demise, has garnered its fair share of academic attention over the past 20 years. Moreover, popular films such as Good Bye, Lenin! and The Lives of Others have contributed to the continued public interest in life under (and after) communism, arguably fostering awareness of life in a totalitarian state but also feeding a host of generalisations.

Paul Betts' Within Walls is an outstanding and timely study that provides, inasmuch as this will ever be possible, an insight into daily life in the GDR that may help to rectify existing preconceptions based on popular cinematic and documentary interpretations. Among other distinguishing features, it is the author's skilful contextualisation of 40 years of GDR history that makes his analysis so exciting. He refers, wherever applicable, to National Socialist, Soviet and West German practices and thereby provides a more rounded impression of the rules, obligations and also ideological trends that dictated the private lives of citizens of the GDR from 1949 until its demise.

Within Walls is divided into two parts; one is concerned with "secret societies, public institutions and private lives" and analyses the workings of the Stasi, the reality of Christian subculture and the role of divorce; the other, "domestic ideals, social rights, lived experiences", looks at the importance of interior design, neighbourhood justice, citizen petitions, the amazing complaint culture and, finally, "photography and domesticity". All these chapters show the individual's sense of obligation towards the omnipresent state. The precarious split between public and private lives and the acute awareness of that split were, as Betts shows, ultimately at the heart of this socialist society.

The chapter concerned with divorce is among the most impressive. It shows that even the most private matters inevitably turned political and therefore public. In a state dominated by collective social interests, the personal became political when public rhetoric began to cloud private reasoning - that is, as long as the state took an active educational interest in its people. In reality, of course, this relationship was strained. By the 1970s and 1980s, perceptions of private spheres began to shift, as Betts illustrates from linguistic patterns in documents.

The chapter "Building socialism at home" draws on a case study in (surprisingly bourgeois) material culture, furthering the depiction of the state as a force that sought to "stylise the socialist self and to 'deprivatise' home life as an outpost of socialist civilisation". The focus lies here on major domestic-culture exhibitions held in 1953 and 1962 and on etiquette books. Shifts in ideology aside, it becomes clear that the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 allowed the GDR to focus on issues other than consumerism in its competition with Western ideals.

What emerges from Betts' study of court cases, Stasi files, memoirs and photographic records is the complexity of private life in the GDR, which was concerned as much with self-defence against an overpowering state as with "political assertion", as much with the establishment of "counter-identities" as with that of "socialist personalities" - and this goes some way to explaining why the memory culture associated with the country is still so complex and at times contradictory. Within Walls is an eye-opening book that will be a necessary companion to any study concerned with the reality of socialist life in East Germany.

Within Walls: Private Life in the German Democratic Republic

By Paul Betts. Oxford University Press. 336pp, £35.00. ISBN 9780199208845. Published 28 October 2010

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