Katja Hoyer was four years old in October 1989 when her father took her to the top of the Fernsehturm—the Television Tower—in East Berlin. It was supposed to be a holiday treat, but from the tower, Hoyer and her father could see police officers arresting protestors in the grey square below. Less than a month later, the Berlin Wall fell; less than a year after that, on October 3, 1990, the German Democratic Republic—known to the world as East Germany—ceased to exist. In the three decades since then, most prefer to pretend the GDR was merely an historical accident. In Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990, Hoyer offers a bracing corrective.
Beyond the Wall is a beautifully written, human-centred history of the nation of her birth. The photograph on the front cover encapsulates her approach. It depicts a young man nuzzling his blond paramour as they sit in a patch of grass in front of a massive green military vehicle—a tender, intimate moment unexpectedly captured. Hoyer brings life, color, and the stories of individual people into the history of a nation remembered almost entirely in concrete grey. Nearly every film and book about East Germany conveys a drab state populated by ashen-faced people and teeming with weasel-faced Stasi agents. The individual stories have been largely lost in the Cold War narrative.
This is in part because the Berlin Wall—which the East German government referred to as the “anti-fascist” (antifa) wall—was, for Westerners, the ultimate symbol of the half-century struggle between good and evil, encapsulated in books such as God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew and Elisabeth Braw’s God’s Spies: The Stasi’s Cold War Espionage Campaign inside the Church. When I visited Berlin for the first time, our German guide, himself born in the GDR, chortled as he pointed out something to us as we stared at the 1,207-foot Television Tower: when the sunlight strikes the panels of the tower, the light reflects into a highly-visible, nearly perfect cross. West Berliners dubbed the shimmering symbol “the pope’s revenge,” and not even a government attempt to paint over the reflective tiles could get rid of it.
The shimmering cross of light is a good metaphor, but Hoyer introduces a diverse cast of characters that defy the grey stereotypes, and Beyond the Wall is filled with fascinating snippets of Eastern German history. For example, one of the GDR’s popular songs was a ditty written by Louis Fürnberg in 1949 titled “The Party Is Always Right.” The chorus runs thus: “The Party / The Party, she is always right / And, Comrades, thus it will always be.” No wonder many of the friends and family members of those murdered in the purges persuaded themselves that the killings must have been justified, and stayed loyal even after those they loved were shot or shipped to the gulags. The leaders who survived often did so by betraying their friends.
Hilariously, the farcical elections held prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall showed overwhelming support for the ruling party. The 1950 election, Hoyer notes, produced 99.7% approval for the candidates on offer. Many GDR citizens referred to the electoral process not as voting, but as “paper folding.” Hoyer’s description of the electoral process reminded me of a story I heard told by former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney about drinking with Boris Yeltsin. Mulroney asked him how Russia could produce such precise election results; Yeltsin replied, “It’s important to bullshit accurately.”
Hoyer observes that a staggering number of German communists found themselves perpetually positioned between the pincers of totalitarian paranoiacs. Many who fled the Nazis found themselves targeted during Stalin’s purges, living under suspicion simply because they were German. Others, having survived being imprisoned by the Nazis, enjoyed their freedom only briefly before they were incarcerated again by the communists, under suspicion precisely because they had survived the war. Spies who had served the Soviet Union through the war and risked their lives as double agents were tortured, forced to confess, and killed. Ideology, it seems, is a dangerous business.
Early on, one of the primary opponents of the GDR’s socialist leadership was Stalin himself, who wanted a unified, neutral Germany and who was initially resistant to plans (advanced by men like Walter Ulbricht) to begin Sovietizing East Germany. In the so-called “Stalin Note” of March 1952, Stalin even offered the Western Allies the reunification of Germany in exchange for continued German neutrality (staying out of NATO) along with other concessions. Most have viewed this as a propaganda move, but Hoyer convincingly makes the case that Stalin was serious. It is a fascinating historical counterfactual to consider what might have been if the West had accepted his proposal.
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