'Born in the GDR' offers a more nuanced portrait of life in the former East Germany

Hester Vaizey profiles eight residents of the former German Democratic Republic, revealing that many former GDR citizens have complicated feelings for their erstwhile country.

Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall By Hester Vaizey Oxford University Press 320 pp.

When Robert was 15 years old, he lost his country.

Robert grew up in the German Democratic Republic, also known as the former East Germany, and when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and East and West Germany united in 1990, the world that Robert had known for his whole life was gone. Many people in the West assume that the end of the socialist regime represented a huge relief for people like Robert, but in reality, although he appreciates the freedoms afforded in the new Germany, he remembers his former life in the GDR fondly.

Robert is one of eight former GDR residents interviewed for Hester Vaizey’s new book Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall. In her book, Vaizey, a lecturer at Clare College in Cambridge, attempts to dispel what she calls the polarized view of the GDR, where the former East German state is painted as either an idyll worthy of nostalgia, or an oppressive regime whose citizens withered under constant surveillance and suppression of free thought. Vaizey’s book argues that the truth is far more nuanced, and her reporting reveals that many former East German citizens have complicated feelings for their erstwhile country, as well as for the new regime that replaced it. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, some ex-East Germans still harbor resentment because their country was absorbed into West Germany with no regard for the GDR’s morals or traditions, a resentment compounded by high unemployment rates and smaller social safety nets than those available under the GDR. Vaizey’s book is a compelling portrayal of a citizenry’s memories of a disappeared country, memories that are often far more nuanced than outsiders can imagine.

To locate subjects for her book, Vaizey placed notices on mailing lists and bulletin boards and pushed leaflets under doors in the former East Germany. She devotes one chapter to each of her eight characters, who range from former Ossies – the slang term for East Germans – who miss the old regime, to former political prisoners whose lives were effectively ruined by the Stasi, the GDR’s secret police. The book opens with a chapter about Petra, a socialist student who became a Communist Member of Parliament at age 25 after reunification in 1990, and who believes that the current government could learn lessons from the GDR and what worked in that society. Later in the book, we meet Mario, a young man who refused to inform for the Stasi, tried to escape East Germany, and ended up imprisoned in Hohenschonhausen, the Stasi prison in East Berlin, where he suffered from depression and deprivation.

But many of the people interviewed for Vaizey’s book reported far more moderate experiences. Vaizey interviewed former GDR citizens such as Lisa, who did not spend much of her childhood thinking about West Germany or what she missed out on, as well as Peggy, a woman who values the freedoms inherent in the new Germany but who also feels that the GDR ultimately promoted social and economic equality and that the new Germany is too focused on material goods.

The relationship between East and West Germany continues to be a popular topic in the reunified country, and one that manifests itself in a variety of spheres, ranging from differing attitudes in East and West about immigration, to the fact that many East Germans were taught Russian in school instead of English, putting them at a disadvantage in today’s economy. Vaizey’s book is important because it provides a wide array of perspectives on this topic – an array that’s representative of the perspectives I’ve encountered in Germany so far. I moved to Berlin four months ago, and in that time the topic of reunification and the relationship between East and West Germany has come up frequently, ranging from a woman on a tram who told me that her heart split in two when Berlin split, to a West German who flatly said he didn’t think the two Germanys should have reunited, to a couple who posited that Nudossi, the East German version of Nutella, is better than its Western counterpart. Vaizey’s book provides a much more comprehensive examination of all these different viewpoints than other works on the subject, such as Anna Funder’s "Stasiland," a similar book about the experiences of ordinary citizens in the GDR.

While Vaizey’s book is an important and engaging read, it is clunky on the sentence level; she would have benefited from a harsher and more discerning editor. But still, the subject matter alone makes this book worth reading. Vaizey writes in one chapter that it’s a miracle that all her subjects grew up in the same country, considering their vast array of experiences. It’s essential to understand the full scope of this array, especially since division and reunification still have a profound effect on today’s Germany.

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