Living in the shadow of the Wall

Published by The Daily Mail (2nd January, 2015)

Born in the GDR by Hester Vaizey (OUP Oxford)

As the daughter of a Protestant vicar brought up in East Germany, Katharina was treated as an outcast at school. Teachers would taunt her if she gave incorrect answers — and once, when she refused to remove a crucifix in class, the police were called to reprimand her.

Yet belonging to a church also meant contact with Christians in the West, along with precious parcels of clothes such as jeans and trainers. Incredibly, the number of blouses posted from West to East Germany was double the number sold in shops in the supposed Socialist nirvana. These second-hand items showed again how Katharina’s family deviated from the system, her parents refusing even to vote in rigged elections or enrol their child in government youth movements.

Katharina was dismayed by the failure to punish the Stasi spies and their creepy informers who made her family’s life so difficult. Yet after the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, she was embarrassed to see her fellow citizens rush to buy Western goods and get ripped off by West Germans exploiting their naivety in commerce. ‘There was a lack of freedom,’ she concludes. ‘But living in the system was not nearly as bad as outsiders seem to think.’

Her story is one of eight simply told by Cambridge historian Hester Vaizey. Their reflections are so varied it is hard to believe they all lived in the same society — from the young woman who fitted in quite happily, through to Mario, a gay man jailed in solitary confinement after trying to escape and so brutally harassed his life was wrecked for ever. Mario’s Stasi file was 2,000 pages long — and in it he discovered his best friend had informed the police about his activities.

This highly readable book gives great insight into the complexities of divided Germany and the sudden lurch from socialism to capitalism. Today Mario gives prison tours to remind people of the chilling nature of dictatorship. Yet others feel angered by the dominance of West German culture, annoyed by capitalist materialism or saddened by how history has designated everything about their former homeland to be bad.

As the author says, depictions of life in East Germany tend to be polarised, with an oppressive land overshadowed by secret police at one extreme and a benevolent welfare state at the other. In this little gem of a book, ordinary people explain the many degrees of nuance that lay between these two clichés.

Vaizey points out that five years after German reunification, a range of T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan ‘I want my wall back’ sold out rapidly.’ She has delivered a fascinating glimpse into the lives of others.

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