As a teenager growing up in Australia I had only a faint knowledge of the GDR. The images and news reports of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 appeared distant and remote. In the 2000s, films like The Lives Of Others and Goodbye Lenin increased my awareness of East Germany but it wasn’t until a trip to the former GDR in 2017 that my interest was truly piqued.
That year a band that I performed with were invited to play the Wave Gotik Treffen Festival in Leipzig, one of the largest Goth culture festivals in the world.
The festival has been running post re-unification since 1991. The first attempt at running it was in Potsdam in 1987 but was a small affair as the GDR laws meant that this kind of festival was (unsurprisingly) illegal.
During that trip I met and spoke with some former East German citizens who had grown up and played music in the GDR. I was intrigued and moved by their stories and felt that I needed to learn more. I didn’t want to have a voyeuristic interest in a country that I knew nothing about and I also wanted to be respectful of the people who had lived in the GDR. I wanted to try and get a balanced view as it is often looked upon with rose tinted glasses through Ostalgie as much as it is demonised in western media.
Following is a list of books on the GDR in English that I have found and read that paint various views of the GDR and also other countries in the Eastern Bloc. I have many more to find and read so this list is by no means complete. The list is not in any order other than the order I read the books in.
As with most people my first foray into the GDR through literature was with Anna Funder’s Stasiland…
Stasiland –Anna Funder (2003)
On my last day in Leipzig I visited the Stasi Museum housed in the former Stasi Headquarters “Der RundenEcke” (The Round Corner). Naturally I wanted to buy a book to take away with me to read more and one of the few books they had for sale was Anna Funder’s Stasiland published in various languages. I’d heard of the book but didn’t really know anything about it. I picked it up and read the author’s biography and felt slightly cheated and disappointed to find that the author Anna Funder was from my hometown of Melbourne – the great Australian Cultural Cringe strikes again.
I needn’t have bothered where Anna Funder was from as it was an absorbing introduction to the GDR and the Stasi through interviews with former residents whose lives had been affected by the Stasi as well as interviews with former members of the Stasi as well.
Stasiland on Amazon.
The Berlin Wall – Pierre Galante (1965)
This book is a fascinating read as it was written in 1965 – only 4 years after the Wall went up. For that reason it has a certain gravitas and yet holds an air of optimism as to what the future of divided Germany might be like. Pierre Galante was a Parisian journalist who was working at the time for Paris Match.
The book details the life of professional cyclist Harry Seidel and his attempts to burrow tunnels under the Wall to help his wife and four month old child and other East Germans escape to the West. The book is written in an undeniable sixties style that bizarrely reads as part Peyton Place, part The Great Escape yet is a great snapshot of what was a fairly newly divided Germany.
This one may be quite hard to track down. As far as I can tell it was only ever published once in hardcover in 1965. Check on Amazon here.
Red Love: The Story Of An East German Family – Maxim Leo (2009)
Born in 1970, journalist Maxim Leo grew up in East Berlin and trained as a Chemical Laboratory Assistant at the Academy Of Sciences of the GDR .
Red Love is an engaging first hand account of growing up in East Germany. Throughout the book Leo attempts to uncover and discover the truth about his family by interviewing them and accessing their Stasi and party files.
His mother was a Communist Party member while his father was a fierce critic of the party. A generation up, his maternal grandfather was an anti Nazi resistance fighter whose friends were killed by a Nazi Commander who later became a prominent figure in West Germany. For this reason he was a loyal supporter of the GDR. His paternal grandfather however was an opportunist who switched allegiance from the Nazi party to the Communist Party after the creation of the GDR.
The book goes on to detail how each of his family members have fared after the collapse of the GDR.
Leo’s style of writing makes for an intriguing journey through the eyes of one East German family. Available on Amazon.
Two Views – Uwe Johnson (1966)
Another book written during the early days of the Berlin Wall, this time a fictional novel about a couple in 1961, who embark on a relationship on either side of the Wall. The chapters are alternately told by each character to give the “Two Views”. This is definitely not a Mills and Boon romance more of a bleak and hopeless tale of two disparate people. It’s quite a slow read but I woulddefinitely recommend it, as it is a great snapshot of a Berlin divided in the Sixties.
Uwe Johnson himself is an interesting character. He was born in Pomerania but grew up in the GDR. He studied German Philology in Rostock and then Leipzig but was suspended from study due to his lack of support for the Communist Regime. Hi mother moved to West Berlin in 1956, which meant he was forbidden from working a normal job in the East.
He ended up moving to the West himself in 1961 where he joined the writers group Gruppe 47 – a group that gave young German writers a platform for the renewal of German literature post WW2. In 1964 he wrote reviews of GDR television programs boycotted by the West German press. They were later published in 1987 as Der5. Kanal (The Fifth Channel). Sadly there is no English translation of the book.
In 1967 the political commune group Kommune 1 was formed in his apartment (whilst he was away on a trip to the US).
In 1974 he moved to the British seaside town of Sheerness in England where he lived until his death in 1984.
Here is a link to a great BBC article from 2015 asking why a leading East German novelist moved to a small British seaside town:
Book available on Amazon.
Stalin’s Nose: Travels Around The Bloc – Rory Maclean (1993)
Not necessarily about the GDR but Stalin’s Nose is a surreal and whimsical book written by British/Canadian travel writer Rory Maclean about his (fictional) journey through the former Eastern Bloc with his Aunt Zita and her pig Winston in a Trabant.
Stasi State or Socialist Paradise? The German Democratic Republic and What Became of It – Bruni de la Motte (2015)
This small book starts with the words “Much has been written about how awful the German Democratic Republic supposedly was… this book is an attempt to provide a more balanced evaluation and to examine GDR-style socialism in terms of what we can learn from it.”
I was looking forward to getting the balanced view that this book promised but before the end of the first page of the introduction it takes Anna Funder’s Stasiland to task stating that “there is neither the space here nor the inclination to detail the numerous basic errors and profound misinformation her book contains. It reflects the pre-conceived mindset of an outsider who had only visited the GDR, fleetingly, once and who grasped with both hands the opportunity of providing the Stasi horror story that Western publishers were more than happy to print.” Bias aside, I did enjoy reading it and find it an interesting alternate view to that portrayed in Stasiland.
It became quite clear early on though that this book was leaning more to the side of socialist propaganda. The author Bruni de la Motte was born in the GDR and now works as a national negotiator for a British Trade Union. Her British husband who co-authored the book studied in the GDR between 1964-1968 and worked for GDR television for 20 years. They do state that the book is not written as a defence of the GDR but more as an explanation as to why people miss elements of it.
The authors cover a variety of topics from women’s rights to youth in the GDR, and go on to detail the social accomplishments the people of the GDR managed to achieve under Stalinist rule.
Available on Amazon.
Seduced By Secrets: Inside The Stasi’s Spy-Tech World – Kristie Macrakis (2008)
Benjamin Fisher of the International Journal Of Intelligence and Counterintelligence hailed Seduced By Secrets the “best book” on the Ministry For State Security.
Author Kristie Macrakis is renowned for her work in the history of espionage and science and technology and Seduced By Secrets is an exhaustively detailed look at the technology and techniques employed by the Stasi.
Some of the key players featured include East German double agent Werner Stiller aka Peter Fischer who traded communism in the GDR for capitalism in the US and Dr Gabriele Leinfelder who was spying for the East in her position in the West German Intelligence Soviet Division. There are also chapters on the bizarre Smell Science the Stasi used (vacuum sealing people’s scents) and the more sinister use of radioactive substances to track objects and people.
The Year The World Changed: The Untold Story Behind The Fall OF The Berlin Wall – Michael R. Meyer (2009)
Before being the chief speechwriter for the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, Michael R Meyer was a journalist for Newsweek for two decades.
Between 1988 and 1982 he was the bureau chief for Germany, Central Europe and the Balkans and wrote more than 20 Newsweek cover stories on the fall of Communist Europe and the re-unification of Germany.
Written in 2009, The Year The World Changed is an incredible first hand account of the events that led to the revolutions of 1989. As the bureau chief Meyer was there when then revolutions in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland took place as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The book also highlights the fact that it wasn’t the Bush/Regan/Thatcher/NATO alliance putting pressure on the region that caused the ultimate fall in the region, but that it was the individuals within the region who actually put the pressure on from within and caused the change that spread throughout Eastern Europe in 1989.
A gripping read with excellent first hand accounts and interviews.
Memories Of A Nation is a brilliant book on the history of Germany from the last 800 years seen through different objects, people and buildings. Certain chapters deal with the DDR.
The House By The Lake: One House, Five Families and a Hundred Years of German History – Thomas Harding (2017)
This is an engrossing book about the history of a house built by a lake on the outskirts of Berlin and the five families who have occupied it over one hundred years.
The author’s grandmother was a resident of the house. He traces the history of each of the families and how the changing face of Germany in the twentieth century impacted on the house and those who lived there.
It is of particular interest to anyone interested in East Germany as the house was cut off from the lake by the Wall and therefore left stranded in the DDR. During this period the occupant was a Stasi informant. The massive scope of detail in this book about the families and the political situations that forced people from the house makes for an enthralling read.
Shock Waves : Eastern Europe After The Revolutions – John Feffer (1992)
In 1992 John Feffer conducted hundreds of interviews with activists, policy makers, unionists and scholars in the Eastern European region. It’s a book definitely of the time that is interesting and also slightly depressing in it’s reserved look at the possible hopeful outcomes for the region. As well as featuring the former East Germany it also features the former Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria.
A fairly detailed and academic read but definitely worth it for the historical snapshot it gives of the possibilities of the future for the region.
Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams – John Feffer (2017)
John Feffer’s follow up book to Shock Waves written 25 years after that book.
Feffer revisits many of the people he interviewed in his first book. The first part of the book deals with the opportunities that many people feel were lost following the fall of the Iron Curtain and how the dreams of hope that people had at the time have long since faded. The second part deals with the optimism that many have for the future of the region against the odds they are facing.
Aftershock is an important look at the current state of Eastern Europe.