After World War 2, “Germany” was divided into 2 different countries — the German Democratic Republic (die Deutsche Demokratische Republik) and the Federal Republic of Germany (Die Bundesrepublik Deutschland). The former was dubbed “East Germany” and the latter “West Germany.” The GDR was an officially communist country under the close scrutiny of and in close proximity to the Soviet Union. The Federal Republic was a democratic nation, and a close ally of the US. The history of these two nations and the history of the dissolution of the Soviet Union are stories that are being fiercely debated right now. The fall of the Berlin Wall directly precedes the birth of most of the people in our class, and so most students never knew this two-state Germany, and know only the triumphalist narrative that celebrates the destruction of communism and the triumph of democracy in the region.
As a baby-boomer who was the child of Republicans, I grew up thinking “East Germany” was a scary place — a kind of German-speaking Soviet Union, where everyone hated Americans. But I was interested in German language and literature. My college boyfriend convinced me to study German, because that’s what real intellectuals did. So I started. My boyfriend went to Hamburg for a junior year abroad and I visited him there. We went to Berlin in the January of 1974. We visited East Berlin during that trip, because my boyfriend had become a Marxist and was very excited to show me the GDR.
I have written about that first experience, which was extremely negative. Years went by. I married a different man. But my interest in German remained, and as it happened, the GDR offered summer school courses for teachers of German for very low prices, and a senior colleague suggested I go to one to improve my German. For a grand total of $250 I was able to attend a seminar for 3 weeks. That sum of money covered room and board as well as classes and excursions in Weimar, where my favorite German authors once lived. I was very nervous about going. I stocked up on pharmaceuticals, and tampons, took a train over the border, and held my breath. This was the summer of 1985. My teacher was also my roommate in a house owned by an architect and his wife. Everyone was incredibly nice — except for the Yugoslavian poet who wanted to know why the stores were open 24 hours a day in the US, and why everyone insisted on eating steak. I had a tough time explaining President Reagan to my Polish friends who were attending the seminar. “But isn’t he just a really bad actor?” one of them asked. “And wasn’t he in a space movie with a monkey?” someone else said. It was a strange experience trying to represent American politics in a foreign language, and the interactions that I had with my Polish friends, my teacher, and the many artists I met during my stay in Weimar got me wondering if East Germany was really as “bad” as I’d been hearing.
Perhaps my most startling memory was when I left Weimar by train and arrived in Frankfurt, which was in “West” Germany. Frankfurt was and is a big commercial metropolis. I walked into the train station and encountered an absolute barrage of ads, people trying to sell me things, and stores selling rolex watches, expensive suitcases, and diamonds. I think I realized for the first time, how much we live in a society that is all about buying and selling things. I have never forgotten that shock — that feeling of being absolutely buried in commodities. I think that was my first awareness of living under capitalism.
The second time I went to the German Democratic Republic, I went to Berlin. There though a chance research connection, I met and spent significant amounts of time with a man who was an SF/Fantasy editor. He introduced me to a number of amazing writers. I got to experience that once again the place for political discussion and critique was happening in the world of that kind of writing. It was great. These writers were using sf and fantasy tropes to imagine utopian worlds as well as nightmarish scenarios. As usual, SF/Fantasy had an active fan community who met frequently and communicated via magazines and comics and newsletters.
Then the Wall came down, and all the publishing houses that published those wonderful writers closed down because the government that subsidized them no longer existed, and none of those writers could get published.
My last visit to Berlin was right after the Wall fell, and there was a McDonalds’ going up on every corner.
I worry that the more complex history of the GDR is being buried under a kind of rhetoric that does not do justice to the people who lived there, who actually believed in socialist ideals (like my teacher did), and who hoped for something better after the Wall fell. “They” had propaganda but “we” have propaganda too.
As a writer, I feel that it is important to share what I saw of the GDR from my own small perspective.
The unwillingness of many Berliners to part with the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall testifies, in my humble opinion, not only to a wish to celebrate freedom, but also a concern with preserving the complicatedness of the past. The nostalgia for the Wall and for the GDR (sometimes called Ostalgie) is a symptom of a deeper awareness that the truth of the past is somehow eluding these overly simplistic accounts.