Astate can suddenly vanish, leaving familiar streets under new flags. All Europeans know that. But how can a country’s smell vanish? East Germany had its own unique and unmistakeable niff, its Staatsduft, if you like. It enfolded you as soon as you entered the frontier controls: Chinese cigarettes, the fumes of two-stroke cars, the smoke of brown coal briquettes, the whiff of the state disinfectant, Wofasept. Not unpleasant: almost a cosy fug. It didn’t need the portrait of Walter Ulbricht, the general secretary of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), to tell you where you were. Now the smell has gone, unforgotten by elderly noses but irretrievably extinct. There are plenty of Ostalgie museums in today’s united Germany, furnished with memorabilia of the German Democratic Republic, from twigs of barbed wire to Trabant gearboxes. But none, I think, has synthesised that Staatsduft and sprayed it around their exhibits. It’s easy to use it as a cheap metaphor and conclude that the GDR has evaporated as completely as its smell. Easy, but wrong.
As Katja Hoyer shows, a ghostly East Germany survives more than thirty years after its abolition. It exists in the resentment of older people at the ‘cancellation’ of their memories after lives of hard effort, some achievements and some joy in a country that was ‘more than a walled Stasiland’. It haunts regret for the lost security of an austere but universal welfare state, for comprehensive schools and for the GDR’s remarkable support for women in the workforce. And it questions the complacent German tendency to see clean breaks in history where there are continuities. That complacency ‘has made it tempting to see 1990 as a watershed moment that erased the GDR from the national narrative for good. Yet reunification is no more the end of history than the unification [the merging of north German states into one imperial Reich] was in 1871.’
But that second merging in 1990 was not a ‘union’. As the West German minister of the interior, Wolfgang Schäuble, put it, ‘this is not the unification of two equal states. There is a constitution, and there is a Federal Republic of Germany.’ In other words, West Germany annexed East Germany. It was an annexation with the democratic consent of the East German people. But even the 1707 Union between England and Scotland, in reality an ‘incorporation’, left Scotland with some constitutional identity and several important national institutions. The GDR was simply erased.
Travelling around Mecklenburg in 1991, in what had been the GDR six months before, was a disorienting experience. Again and again, I was reminded of Reconstruction in America, the traumatic aftermath of the Civil War. Here again was a sullen, defeated society. There had been no gunfire, but West Germany felt as victorious as the American North must have done in 1865. Here once more came the carpetbaggers, smart operators from Frankfurt or Düsseldorf pouring into East Germany to loot its collapsing industrial and service economy. While silent locals stood with their bicycles in the rain, gleaming black BMWs swept past carrying Treuhand officials on their way to privatise or close more state factories. As in the old South, a whole ideology justifying the power structure had been switched off, and its guardians – in this case, the SED, the National People’s Army and the immense web of the Stasi and its informers – found themselves out on the street. Since then the gap between living standards in the former East and West, though still 26 per cent in 2020, has narrowed. And yet, just as sophisticated Manhattanites despair at the South’s refusal to forget a past that would be better forgotten, West German ‘Wessis’ are unnerved to find how many ‘Ossis’ insist on remembering a disconcertingly ‘other’ life in that phantom Germany.
Hoyer starts her story with the fate of the KPD, the huge old German Communist Party that Hitler crushed in 1933. The KPD regarded itself as the party of Karl Marx, heir to the mighty tradition of German revolutionary socialism and therefore the senior working-class movement in the world. This sense of superiority, loudly voiced, explains the iron confidence of the group who built the GDR – and also the fury of Soviet and other communists who were subjected to patronising German lectures on how to construct a workers’ state. After Hitler took power, many members of the KPD fled to Moscow, only to become victims of Stalin’s purges a few years later. According to Hoyer, the German Operation – which targeted emigrants from Germany and Soviet citizens of German origin – arrested 55,000 people, almost 42,000 of whom were later shot. By the end of the Second World War, the KPD leadership in the Soviet Union had been reduced to a tiny group around Ulbricht. But, somehow, their terrified servility to Stalin didn’t quite extinguish their inner certainty that German communists knew best.
When the war ended, Stalin had no wish to establish a communist puppet state in one part of Germany. On the contrary, he wanted Germany to remain a helpless single territory under Allied occupation, whose infrastructure, factories and expertise he could plunder for reparations. He sent the Ulbricht Group back to the ruined city of Berlin in 1945 to support the Soviet occupation forces and rebuild some semblance of civil administration. But the group had a different dream. They hoped gradually to convert the Soviet Occupation Zone into ‘the first socialist state on German soil’. It was a hope passionately shared by hundreds of left-wing exiles returning from the West, democratic socialists and radical liberals as well as communists. In the first years, Ulbricht and his team moved cautiously, appointing to office proven anti-Nazis of all political backgrounds, but – if possible – not communists. ‘It has to look democratic,’ Ulbricht told his followers, ‘but we must have everything in our hands.’
This theme, as Hoyer shows, dominated the politics of the GDR from before its foundation in 1949 until its extinction in 1990. Its leaders knew they were expendable. The Soviet Union affected to regard the communist regimes in other European satellites as ‘authentic’ and permanent. But communism in East Germany was ultimately up for sale. If the West accepted a deal for reuniting Germany as a safely neutral country, Moscow would leave Ulbricht and the SED to sink or swim in the ocean of free all-German elections. And sink they would. But, only three years after the war, Stalin had to change his mind on Germany. By introducing the hard-currency Deutschmark into their zones in 1948, the Western Allies had in effect completed the economic partition of the country. Stalin’s Berlin Blockade failed to stop the process and, as a West German state emerged in 1949, he felt compelled to let Ulbricht and his party found a German Democratic Republic in the Soviet zone.
A totalitarian police state soon took shape. Its purges, involving ‘farcical procedure’ – dummy elections for pre-allocated seats – and its gagging of free expression are grimly described by Hoyer. ‘The party, the party: it’s always right!’ went the SED anthem. An eager, obsequious Stalinism reigned. But then, in March 1952, Stalin suddenly went behind Ulbricht’s back. The ‘Stalin Note’ proposed a reunified neutral Germany with all-German elections. Hoyer, unlike most contemporary writers, thinks this wasn’t just propaganda: Stalin meant what he said. Konrad Adenauer, the West German chancellor, was appalled for much the same reasons as Ulbricht but – unlike him – was free to say so loudly. The Western powers swiftly rejected the Note. Though Hoyer doesn’t go into this, a divided and occupied Germany suited them far better than a single large country unrestrained by membership of any military pact.
Ulbricht must have been relieved. His response was to loosen, slightly, the regime’s grip and to limit its repressions, austerities and finally its ever increasing ‘work norms’. These changes were widely seen as a sign of weakness; the consequence was the working-class rebellion of June 1953, which exploded in Berlin, spread throughout the country and was suppressed by Soviet tanks. But the uprising enabled the SED regime to warn the Moscow leaders that undermining its authority would lead to chaos that might threaten the whole Soviet order in Central and Eastern Europe. Some Germans have even fancied that Ulbricht deliberately provoked the 1953 revolt in order to save his own neck. Hoyer doesn’t go that far, but remarks that ‘it was ultimately one of the great ironies of German history that Ulbricht’s neglect of the wishes of his people, accompanied by a staggering degree of arrogance and stubbornness, secured not only his own political survival but also that of his state.’
An unrelenting programme of collectivisation and censorship soon resumed. So did flight to the West. By 1961, the GDR had lost three million people, especially from the skilled and highly educated elites, almost all of them escaping through the open border between the Allied sectors of Berlin. Hoyer writes of this period as a decade of ‘missed chances’. She asserts that, ‘contrary to many later depictions, the overwhelming sentiment of the East German population was not one of immediate resentment towards Ulbricht’s regime and envy of Adenauer’s but of relief and even enthusiasm.’ The hideous experiences of the years of war and defeat ‘contrasted with the sense of new beginnings of the late 1940s and early 1950s’. Workers appreciated the respect and security offered by the new state, while the young transferred easily from the Hitler Youth to the Free German Youth, finding ‘both familiarity in ritual and new excitement in the change of morality and values’.
Whatever the truth of that, not much ‘relief and enthusiasm’ remained by the summer of 1961. The outflow across the Berlin border had become a torrent, terrifying not only the GDR regime but the West. America and Britain made fine propaganda out of these crowds rejecting communism with their feet. In reality, they dreaded the possible implosion of the East German state, which would create a chaotic power vacuum, inviting Soviet armed intervention and uncontrollable escalation towards nuclear war. After the shock of 13 August 1961, when Ulbricht closed the border and erected the first barriers of the Berlin Wall, there was an eruption of rhetoric and a theatrical moment when American and Soviet tanks went nose to nose at Checkpoint Charlie. But Adenauer and President Kennedy ‘reacted sluggishly … The West German people showed concern but no powerful civil unrest emerged, while the East German population remained largely quiet in the weeks and months that followed. As cruel as it had seemed on a human level, from a political point of view, the Berlin Wall served to calm the situation in Berlin.’ That may sound cold-hearted. But it’s an accurate judgment, though Hoyer also quotes the agony of Berliners, who were the real victims of this wretched event. The Wall was soon overgrown by wreaths of hypocritical propaganda. (I remember a British trade union delegation in the GDR congratulating ‘the German comrades’ for building ‘a wall to defend socialism against West German neo-Nazi saboteurs’. Their embarrassed hosts swiftly changed the subject.)
The Wall stabilised the East-West confrontation in Germany, to the well-concealed relief of the Western powers. In East Germany, the New Economic System changed course towards the consumer. Modern housing schemes were built, fridges became almost universal and the small but inimitable Trabant in its featherweight Duroplast cladding (synthetic resin stiffened with Soviet cotton waste) puttered along the roads. With the frontier secured, there was a feeling in the SED leadership that the Stasi could be safely reduced in size and function. But Erich Mielke, its grim micromanaging boss, invented a threat he named ‘politico-ideological diversion’, and used it to expand the Stasi to a core staff of fifty thousand (not counting its horde of ‘unofficial’ informers), a hundred thousand at its peak. There was no relaxation in popular culture either: the prudish Erich Honecker, in charge of youth and already seen as Ulbricht’s successor, ‘repeatedly called Western culture “decadence of the worst sort” and even began to manipulate crime figures to exaggerate the degrading influence American and British pop music supposedly had on decent young East Germans’.
Leonid Brezhnev, now in charge in the Soviet Union, dreaded meetings with Ulbricht, who lectured him for hours in his whining Saxon accent. He distrusted Ulbricht’s growing interest in cultivating contacts with Willy Brandt’s Social Democrats in West Germany, a turn sharply contrary to Soviet policy. But he got on famously with Honecker and an understanding grew between them that Ulbricht’s rigid self-certainty had become a liability. Ulbricht was finally evicted in 1971, but not before his prime minister, Willi Stoph, had met Brandt twice, at Erfurt (East) and Kassel (West), without first getting Soviet approval. A few years later, Brezhnev plunged the GDR into crisis by nearly tripling the price of Soviet oil and then withdrawing its guaranteed delivery. Reduced to burning inefficient brown coal for energy, East Germany began a frantic search for hard currency from the West. Political prisoners were sold to West Germany for an average of 96,000 Deutschmarks (around £30,000) a head. And in May 1983 came one of the weirdest episodes of Cold War history, which Hoyer describes with relish. Alexander Schalk-Golodkowski, an East German minister, met West Germany’s most fearsome anti-communist politician, Franz-Josef Strauss, in a Bavarian country house and struck a deal that led to a credit stream to the GDR worth billions of marks. In return, Honecker quietly relaxed some border controls. A rush of inter-German business agreements followed.
West Germany, from 1982 led by the Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl, talked about a peaceful relationship between two German states. Nobody guessed that reunification and the death of the GDR were only a few years away. After 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev’s astonishing grants of civil freedom in the Soviet Union encouraged opposition groups in East German cities to act more openly. For the last time, Moscow was undermining the GDR leadership – but now because Gorbachev was urging Honecker to relax and reform. Honecker, as blandly confident as Ulbricht that German communists knew best, ignored the suggestion. But his party comrades did not. As mighty protest demonstrations began in the autumn of 1989, they threw him out. One day, when she was a little girl, Hoyer’s father took her to the top of the Fernsehturm, East Berlin’s iconic television tower, for a treat. But that day was 7 October 1989. Katya stared down at a crowd massing far below, ‘like little ants’. A moment later: ‘And look! There are police cars everywhere!’ That brought her father over. ‘His face went white. He recognised the armoured vehicles as belonging to Paramilitary People’s Police units. Many of the people I was pointing at were protesters. “Katja, come quick, we need to go.”’ The Wall fell, the SED died of shock, the Stasi was abolished as crowds stormed its buildings, and in 1990 the people, rejecting the democratic but separate republic favoured by most opposition leaders, voted to be absorbed into West Germany’s federal republic.
Some readers will be annoyed by Hoyer’s book, finding it too lenient to the GDR. But she knows what she’s talking about. It’s just that her perspective, her selection of what mattered in that country, is Ossi rather than Wessi. There was always a difference of perception between an East German resident and a Western visitor. Primed with the free media’s coverage of killings on the Wall, shortages of consumer goods and the Stasi’s omnipresence, the visitor entered the GDR through concrete obstacles and barbed wire and past silent but contemptuous armed guards slowly checking documents – all confirming a hostile environment. Then the traveller from London or Paris or Bonn set off down grey, dimly lit streets, passing banners with ponderous slogans and the occasional ruin. Nothing contradicted expectations of a bleak dictatorship supported by an omnipresent secret police.
But if you lived in the GDR, this perspective wasn’t available. Approach to the border zone was strictly forbidden. Above all, you couldn’t make an instant comparison with capitalist countries: they were barred to you, apart from the bewitching advertisements on West German television. Instead, you and your family – perfectly well aware of the dictatorship and its power – probably found a way to live in security and modest comfort. The Stasi, the barbed wire, the sloganising and leaden censorship were kennelled at the back of your mind, to be thought about as seldom as possible. That meant you could be quite proud of the GDR’s sensational sporting achievements (not all on drugs), and of reports that some East German products had reached ‘world standard’ (not all true).
Looking at East German society in that ‘stable’ period after the Wall, Hoyer sees two groups. ‘The smaller one was deeply unhappy and felt oppressed, exploited and suffocated by the politicisation of many aspects of life. But the vast majority of people had come to terms with living in the GDR.’ She uses the same slippery phrase to describe the 1980s: ‘Overall, most East Germans had come to terms with the system they lived in. It wasn’t always easy … But for those who wanted to live a quiet life with the small comforts of home, it was a stable place with few concerns or worries.’ True, but that has to be set against the fact that when East Germans saw what seemed a real chance to overthrow the regime – in 1953 and in the demonstrations of 1989 – they seized it. As Hoyer herself notes, ‘the new East German state could certainly not lean on the widespread support and compliance of its citizens in the way that the Nazi regime had been able to.’ That is the reason the Stasi had to be so vast, far larger in its domestic operations than the combined Gestapo and Security Service had been. In spite of the Stasi’s recruitment of an army of ‘unofficial collaborators’ by threat or blackmail, people were markedly less eager than their Hitler-era grandparents to denounce their neighbours.
Hoyer and Frank Trentmann are both German historians; both teach at universities in London and write in English. Hoyer is by birth and sentiment an Ossi; Trentmann is sturdily a Wessi from Hamburg. Both rely heavily on the memories of individual witnesses to illustrate their texts – often to devastating effect. But there’s much that divides them. Hoyer writes a more or less linear narrative. In Out of the Darkness Trentmann does something different and extraordinary. He has composed an account of recent Germany that is not primarily political or economic or social, but moral. He sets out his method confidently. He is following Weber’s distinction between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility. His book, he says at the start, follows three moral concerns: conscience, compassion and complicity. Conscience was ‘weaponised’ in Nazi Germany by widespread ‘holy’ oaths to Hitler and to the Volk. Compassion, the eye that looks outwards rather than inwards, shrivelled. ‘Learning once more to see with the eye of compassion, after the Nazi years, was an enormous challenge.’ Complicity, at first massively denied, has never ceased to be argued over. How can the concept relate to individuals? ‘How do you assess the moral significance of a collective wrong where the contribution of an individual is marginal because several million other people are involved?’
Collective solipsism, the inability to recognise the experience of others, is a theme Trentmann follows through the eighty years of his story. It scarcely affects young Germans today. But in the 1960s, when I lived in Germany, people would say: ‘In Hitler’s time, at least there was no crime!’ The dreadfulness of the war was about what happened to Germans, not what others might have suffered. As Trentmann skilfully shows, when an awareness of the scale and horror of Nazi crimes gradually became unavoidable after the end of the war, Germans were more concerned with the implications for themselves – are we guilty? How do we expiate? – than with the victims. The need for ‘self-amnesty’ spawned a grotesque tribe of moral expedients. The perpetrators themselves were proud of remaining ‘hard but decent’ in spite of their terrible duty (Trentmann gives a figure of 200,000 active participants in mass murder, and notes that ‘the number of people who suffered serious consequences for refusing to commit murder was tiny’). Other explanations included original sin, state capture by a clique of demonic psychopaths, and the idea that the war had been a cosmic ‘struggle for the purity of the human soul’. As time passed, the Cold War began and Adenauer set out a policy of generous compensation and support for Holocaust survivors and the state of Israel. Slowly the mood softened. By 1949, ‘guilt gave way to shame, and prosecution [of Nazi crimes] to amnesty.’ In the same way, ‘private guilt had given way to public liability’ as the first cheques went out to victims.
Denazification, by questionnaire and tribunal, was soon over. Trentmann emphasises the different approach of the two Germanies. The West asserted that it was the ‘continuing’ German state, the legal successor to the Third Reich with all its crimes and responsibilities. The East defined the German Democratic Republic as a new socialist state of German workers and peasants, with no ancestry in the fascist-imperialist state that had usurped power until 1945. In the first years, under Allied military courts and tribunals, the proportion of public officials purged in the Western and Soviet occupation zones was about the same. But – once the Cold War had more or less brought denazification to a halt – the number of old Nazis re-hired in the new West German state became a global scandal. ‘Max Brauer, the Social Democratic mayor of Hamburg, put it bluntly … “95 per cent of the German people had worked in one way or another with the Nazi regime. With just 5 per cent, though, it is not possible to build a state.”’
It would be decades before younger Germans emerged from the national solipsism of their parents and recognised the suffering wreaked by German fascism on other peoples. When they did so, not least through moral repugnance at the creation of the West German army and through the appearance of active ‘atonement’ movements, the way opened to wider empathies. ‘By the 1990s, German responsibility for the Holocaust had become a civil religion that defined national identity.’ Less obviously, Germany’s xenophobic provincialism – aimed almost as much against strangers of ‘German stock’ as against foreign immigrants – began to melt. Some of the best sections of Trentmann’s book record the shocking and enduring local hostility towards the Vertriebenen – the twelve million destitute Germans expelled after the war from their homes in Central and Eastern Europe who fled into both Germanies. (Trentmann isn’t rude enough about the unrepentant politics of the expellee leagues, demanding German repossession of their lost ‘Heimat’.) Assimilation seemed to take a generation to happen. By the end of the century, most Wessis, if not the sullen Ossis, had grown used to the permanent presence of millions of foreign workers and other immigrants. In 2015, Angela Merkel dared to say ‘Wir schaffen das!’ – ‘We can manage this’ – as she opened the gate to a million refugees. It was an empathy too far for many of her compatriots. ‘For many refugees, foreign journalists and humanitarians at home, it made her a saint. Germany, it seemed had … re-emerged as the moral beacon for the world … For others, it was reckless, a threat to national integrity, law and order.’ But Merkel showed what moral milestones Germany had passed. Could any previous chancellor, even the great-hearted Willy Brandt, have taken that risk? Unthinkable.
Trentmann’s moral history is enormous (more than eight hundred pages), but never heavy-going: he is a gifted and intelligent writer. It’s also enormous in its scope. Even changing attitudes to dogs and cats are given a section. But he is surprisingly dismissive of the impact of the 1967-68 student movement. That rebellion of the young certainly failed to transform West Germany into an ultra-socialist republic of councils. But – writing for myself as a witness – it did banish hierarchical stuffiness from many German institutions and unleashed a fearlessly critical spirit into daily life. As one British academic said to me, ‘it’s made Germany habitable.’ Surely a moral achievement.
Was Germany a ‘beacon’ of conscience and compassion when it rearmed in the Cold War, joined fighting in Kosovo and supplied tanks to Ukraine? These events marked the nation’s reluctant return to complicity in the behaviour of fiercer states. The Gaza war has set this German government before agonising choices, between the sacred rights of free speech and the equally sacred principle that the maintenance of the Israeli state is a fundamental component of Germany’s ‘raison d’état’. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations, much smaller than those in Britain in spite of the country’s huge Muslim population, have been discouraged, and in a few places banned. The far-right AfD, nervously evading the taint of antisemitism, aims its abuse at Islamic extremism and Muslim immigrants. Trentmann concludes that ‘since the Second World War, Germany has accumulated formidable moral capital.’ But a brutal and dangerous world is all too eager to help it spend that capital and waste it.
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