In East Germany, Allied victory in World War Two merely replaced one dictatorship with another. In 1949 Germany was divided, as the British, French and American zones merged into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), while the Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). That partition would last until 1990. Predictably, it was Germany which took longest to escape from Hitler’s shadow.
The GDR was governed by a one-party dictatorship, under the supervision (though not the day-to-day direction) of Moscow. Stalin denied Marshall aid to the Eastern Bloc, fearing it would loosen his grip on Eastern Europe, and the GDR’s economy recovered far more slowly as a result. Envy of Western living standards led to an uprising in 1953 which had to be put down by Soviet troops. Many East Germans, however, had already found a more effective method of undermining the regime: emigration to the West. During the 1950s, more than three million GDR citizens did just that, most of them the sort of young, skilled workers whom the GDR could least afford to lose. By 1961, the rate of emigration had reached 3,000 per month.
It was for that reason, above all else, that the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. Berlin, lying deep within the GDR, had itself been carved up in 1945; West Berlin was a capitalist island surrounded by the communist East. On the night of 12 August 1961, the border was closed all the way round West Berlin – not to trap its inhabitants, who could travel freely to West Germany and beyond, but to deny that ability to East Germans by refusing them entry. A stand-off between US and Soviet tanks at Checkpoint Charlie ended with both sides pulling back. John F. Kennedy, while publicly denouncing the Wall, preferred it to a war, and was well aware of its propaganda value. So the border remained closed, and up went the Wall itself. It would remain for twenty-eight years, and claim the lives of at least two hundred individuals as they attempted to escape.
The immobilised East Germans were kept in line by one of the largest secret police forces in history: the Ministry of State Security, or Stasi. Established in 1950, the Stasi’s job was to locate dissent and silence political opponents, acting as the ‘sword and shield of the party’. It employed 90,000 full-time workers and, more importantly, roughly 200,000 informants, known as ‘unofficial collaborators’. The informants’ impact was huge, especially on a psychological level; they operated within companies, schools and even within families. Many citizens simply kept quiet and declined to protest, as those who did had their homes bugged and their every movement recorded. The Stasi kept detailed records of everything they recorded, creating a vast archive of intelligence.
Today, the archive is open to the victims of Stasi surveillance. More than 1.5 million former GDR citizens have taken the opportunity to see their files since reunification. They usually have to wait at least two years to do so. Many Stasi files were shredded or manually torn as the GDR fell to pieces in 1989; 16,000 sacks of shredded papers passed into the hands of the German government after reunification. Ever since, efforts have been made to piece together as many of these documents as possible, often revealing the names of informants.
Further evidence of the Stasi’s wrongdoing can be found in their infamous prison at Hohenschönhausen, in Berlin’s outskirts. Right up until reunification, Hohenschönhausen housed political prisoners and opponents of the regime, often detained without trial and subjected to psychological – and sometimes physical – torture. Former inmates now offer very personal tours of the prison, showing visitors the interrogation rooms, listening equipment and the standing and padded cells used to inflict mental torture.
This Sunday marks a quarter of a century since the Wall was opened. While many Germans who lived through reunification can scarcely believe that twenty-five years have elapsed, young people in Germany today were not even born during the GDR’s lifetime. (A Cold War-era joke was that reunification would occur in 2009, when the GDR would turn sixty and so be allowed to travel to the West). It is for that reason that the work done by contemporaries to educate German citizens is so indispensable, especially as much of our knowledge of the Stasi comes from its victims.
History has so far been kinder to the compliant majority in East Germany than to those who failed to resist Hitler’s dictatorship. Indeed, some in the former GDR have shown signs of Ostalgie – ‘nostalgia for the East’ – in a way which would be condemned as outrageous if applied to the Third Reich. Such nostalgia arises partly from the downsides of reunification, which include high unemployment, compared to the fully-employed if stagnant GDR economy, as well as problems adapting to a newly diverse society. But some saw simpler pleasures in the East, and sentimentalise the scruffy, low-key world of the GDR, with its little delights such as Trabant cars and hat-wearing traffic light men.
One whimsical expression of Ostalgie was the 2003 film Good Bye Lenin!, in which a woman in the GDR falls into a coma just before the Wall comes down. When she wakes up, doctors warn that a shock could kill her – so her children attempt to hide reunification, and set up a miniature GDR in her flat, with amusing consequences. A much more sober view of the GDR, however, is provided by the Oscar-winning drama film Das Leben der Anderen (‘The Lives of Others’). Displaying the Stasi at its worst, the film portrays the GDR in a strikingly realistic fashion, while telling a compelling story of power and human nature.
For many Germans the revelation of the GDR’s crimes has been shocking and disturbing, yet moving and stimulating. For those with an interest in history and politics, a visit to Berlin is essential. Before then, ‘The Lives of Others’ is a good place to start