Fuss: How comfortable was life in the ‘cold’ GDR?

German historian Katja Hoyer has created an international sensation with her book beyond the wall, Published in Dutch as Behind the wall. In England, the book by Hoyer, a fellow at King’s College London, became a bestseller. German version subtitled in podcasts, radio and newspaper interviews (including NRC May 5).

It is only clear that German critics were not interested in such a new history of the GDR. Criticism from the German media was almost without exception harsh. A Editorial Commentary Inside Glass Says Hoar the Dark [in de geschiedenis] ignores or glosses over’ and characterizes his book as ‘feel good History rather than critical analysis’.

A critic In the left magazine Der Freitag Hoyer accused a “naïve positivist view of history that believes that the retelling of stories is already historical science”. According to the critic, the author ‘does not take historical facts seriously’ and ‘happily repeats SED propositions’: views of the ruling Communist Party in the GDR.

In South German Zeitung The critic notes The book was ‘absolutely disappointing’. As the daughter of an ‘officer of the National Volksarmerie and a teacher’, it is not surprising that Hoyer concludes that life in the GDR was ‘reasonably comfortable’. Hoyer’s parents were good slaves to the regime, and the reviewer suggests that the “too comfortable” verdict was ridiculous for anyone who didn’t join the dictatorship.

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For many Germans this ‘new history’ is more a history of their own lives than history, so the debate is fierce. Hoyer wants to show that not everything in the GDR is grim, gray and corrupt, and illustrates this through interviews with GDR citizens. In NRC Hoyer said he wanted to “politicize” the past and map both the “ugly and good qualities of the GDR”.


Born in 1985 in Küpen, East Germany, Hoyer responded to the wishes of many Germans in the former GDR states, who considered it important to recognize certain aspects of the GDR’s existence. For example, accessible housing for all or women’s labor force participation, which was higher than in West Germany. The feeling is that things are not better in West Germany, that West Germans don’t know everything better. On the other hand, in the states of the ‘old’ Federal Republic, the consensus was that all aspects of GDR life were contaminated: there could be nothing ‘good’ about dictatorship.

Hoyer seems to have anticipated some criticism of his book. In his foreword in 1990 East Germany’s ‘right [verloor] Own history must be written, because history is written by the ‘conquerors’, i.e. the West. In his foreword, Hoyer quoted Angela Merkel, who, in one of her last speeches as chancellor, said her East German ancestry was often nothing more than “ballast” which she skilfully shirked. No one thought that the first 35 years of Merkel’s life were more than ‘ballast’, that those 35 years had shaped her and simply could not be erased.

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The fact that the narrative about East Germany is still largely determined by West Germans can be discerned from the statistics of a recent report: less than 8 percent of leadership positions in the German media are held by East Germans. In universities, only 1.7 percent of administrative positions are held by East Germans.

Dirk Ochmann, a professor of literature in Leipzig, wrote about the continuing disparity between the old East and West Germany, which has been at the top of the German bestseller list for months. In his book East. Eine Westdeutsche Erfindung Oshman argues that no one in Germany was discriminated against like the East German man. Speaking with a Saxon accent to protect them from social stigma, she reduced her children’s pocket money and omitted their East German birthplace from her resume.

‘Political experiences in the East’, Oshman writes, ‘are repeatedly invalidated in the West because they can only be experiences of totalitarianism’. These ‘authoritarian experiences’ are used to explain why the far-right AfD has been so successful in the ‘new’ federal states. The peoples of the East are accustomed to dictatorship and are not yet ready for pluralistic democracy.

Biggest flaw

The main shortcoming of Hoyer’s book is that it does not bridge the gap between the everyday experiences of the people interviewed and the analysis of the functioning of a regime. How is it possible that his interviewees and a significant portion of GDR citizens did not experience repression? Because even if they didn’t agree with the dictatorship, the state got everything from them. From nursery to university, media and culture were all dictated by the Communist Party.

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With Hoyer, the party, the Stasi, and the Wall soon fade into the background, for example, being locked up in one’s own country as some kind of impractical side effect. The construction of the wall in 1961 forced the government to slightly improve living conditions to keep imprisoned citizens happy, Hoyer says. That is why, in 1970, more homes in the GDR than in West Germany had a refrigerator, according to Hoyer, vacations were well organized, and even trips to the Baltic Sea were possible. By the end of the 1960s, the GDR was dominated by ‘prosperity and optimism’ and ‘pride’, Hoyer concludes; A somewhat too rosy summary.

His critical plan undermines Hoyer with such optimistic assessments. For example, Hoyer finds that alcohol consumption in East Germany was twice as high as in West Germany in the GDR, but he explains this as follows: ‘Most East Germans did not drink to forget their worries, but because there were very few things to worry about.’ Alcoholism was a particular problem in the East German states.

in one pieceGuardian Katja Hoyer responded to criticism of her book in Germany last week, which she called ‘condescending’. That’s at least partly true. But by calling East German culture ‘cool’ in the title of the essay, he makes it too easy for his critics.

Ferdinand Woolridge

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