Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990 | History Hit

Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990

Katja Hoyer's book, 'Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990' is a fascinating new history of East Germany that paints a multilayered picture of a vanished country. It is our Book of the Month for April 2023.


Amy Irvine

31 Mar 2023

The reunification of Germany on 3 October 1990 marked the end of the division between the democratic West (FRG) and the communist East (GDR), which had persisted since 1949. However, while West Germans continued their lives as usual, the reunification brought about significant changes for East Germans.

Rather than establishing a new German state, West Germans considered themselves as the continuation of the state, with East Germany being an aberration resulting from 41 years of Soviet rule. The resulting changes in East Germany are often viewed positively, particularly with regard to improved living standards. However, East German-born historian Katja Hoyer’s book, Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990 – our Book of the Month for April 2023 – challenges this perspective and offers a revisionist history of the time.

Hoyer’s book examines all aspects of East German life, including politics and everyday experiences, and reveals that perceptions of life in the GDR and the consumerism of the West aren’t necessarily as we might expect. Here we explore some of the aspects of East German life that Hoyer covers in her book that demonstrate how the commonly held view of authoritarianism in the GDR may not tell the whole story.

The establishment of West and East Germany

Hoyer argues Germany’s formal division into two separate states in 1949 hadn’t always been inevitable. Initially, Stalin aimed to keep Germany unified and neutral. However, Moscow eventually deemed it necessary to establish a socialist state in East Germany as a buffer between the capitalist West and the socialist East. Indeed while the West was rebuilding and forming a partnership with the UK and Americans after World War Two, the Soviet Zone’s gradual nationalisation of the economy made establishing a separate socialist state increasingly desirable to the Russians.

The introduction of the Deutsche Mark in West Berlin on 20 March 1949 alarmed the Soviets, who responded by blockading all land and water traffic to the city from 24 June 1948 (until 12 May 1949 – the Berlin Blockade). The Allies respond by airlifting food and fuel from airbases in western Germany to Berlin until the Soviets restored land access due to fears of political upheaval from the Allied counter-blockade.

Two weeks after the end of the blockade, on 23 May 1949, West Germany was established as a state, soon followed by the creation of East Germany.

Berlin Airlift

Image Credit: Airman Magazine / CC

Stability and contentment

Whilst initially political events following World War Two created a sense of unrest, eventually the GDR provided East Germans with the stability they desired.

Hoyer explains that after years of political upheaval, war, economic turmoil and rapid political change, most Germans were exhausted and sought stability, a settled home life, and a future without war and economic disaster. Thus an anti-fascist, socialist one-party state like the GDR appealed to many East Germans.

During the 1950s, the GDR’s implementation of socialist policies, such as dividing large agricultural estates into smaller segments, had a negative economic impact. Millions of skilled workers left for the more prosperous West Germany, prompting the GDR to impose a closed border between the two states to ensure its survival, especially in Berlin where the construction of the Berlin Wall was deemed necessary.

However, by the 1960s, some stability and contentment were achieved. In 1967, Saturday work was abolished whilst pay remained the same, and just over half of all East German households owned a car (the two-stroke Trabant), contributing to a feeling of satisfaction. Although the stereotypical view of the German Democratic Republic is one of omnipresent Stasi, old-fashioned looking Trabants, food and travel restrictions, Hoyer argues that for those seeking a quiet life, the GDR provided a stable environment. 

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East German police car (Trabant)

Women’s rights

Rather than focusing on what East Germans lost by its Soviet occupation, Hoyer’s book shines a light on what the East gained that the West never had – in particular around women’s rights.

In 1989, the GDR had one of the highest rates of female employment in the world. This was mostly because state nurseries admitted children from birth and were open from 6am to 6pm, around the working day, enabling women to parent as well as have a career.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall, these services ended, making balancing work and parenting much more difficult – factors that continue to make juggling both harder than it needs to be today.

Social mobility

The GDR initiated several social engineering projects that gave East Germans a sense of progress.

Tens of thousands of young people from working-class backgrounds were encouraged to study and pursue higher education, offered leadership positions and awarded scholarships. Additionally, the extension of military service for those who attended university allowed people from all social classes to join the army, creating new opportunities for status, recognition and prestige.

Mixed perceptions

Undoubtedly the Soviet Union viewed East Germany as a pawn to advance its interests during the Cold War, and the authoritarianism and repression that were characteristic of the Soviet Union were also evident in the East German state. The pervasive presence of the Stasi secret police created an atmosphere of fear and unease that they then proceeded to exploit. Furthermore there were severe restrictions on political and personal freedoms.

Unsurprisingly, the insidious reach of the Stasi was a serious deterrent to any potential dissenters. It was common for families and friends to inform on each other, and criticising the regime to almost anyone was incredibly risky and could also be a potentially extremely dangerous thing to do. Fear of losing opportunities, being subjected to a sustained harassment campaign or even torture and imprisonment ensured mass compliance with the regime, despite the hardships it often created.

After the collapse of the GDR, the true extent of Stasi surveillance was revealed: the Stasi had been keeping files on 1 in 3 Germans, and had over 500,000 unofficial informants.

Stasi Records Archive in The Agency of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records

Image Credit: Radowitz / Shutterstock

In the late 1980s, the level of surveillance in East Germany was at an all-time high, yet the information gathered often went unused. This created a division in East German society, with some resenting the constant state of alert and politicisation of daily life, while others sought meaning and belonging in contrast to what they viewed as the superficial consumerism of the West.

Since reunification, many East Germans have faced high levels of unemployment, leading to a significant number rejecting traditional political parties and finding the current system unsatisfactory. Hoyer suggests that recognising the GDR as an important part of Germany’s history, with both positive and negative outcomes, would help further unite the nation.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian, journalist and the author of the widely acclaimed Blood and Iron. A visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, she is a columnist for the Washington Post and hosts the podcast The New Germany together with Oliver Moody. She was born in East Germany and is now based in the UK.

Her book, Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990, is published by Allen Lane / Penguin, and is available from 6 April 2023.

Amy Irvine