Honecker emerged as an ambitious political player and became the shadowy mastermind behind the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, a crucial moment in twentieth-century history.
Author Nathan Morley brings to life the story of the longtime leader of the German Democratic Republic. Drawing from a wealth of untapped archival sources – and firsthand interviews with Honecker’s lawyers, journalists, and contemporary witnesses – Morley paints a vivid portrait of how an uneducated miner’s son from the Saarland rose to the highest ranks of the German Communist Party.
Having survived a decade of brutality in Nazi prisons, and frequently on the verge of being relegated to obscurity, he managed to overthrow strongman Walter Ulbricht at the height of the Cold War and reigned supreme over the GDR between 1971-1989.
However, by 1980, the Honecker honeymoon was on the wane as a decade of economic and social difficulties blighted the GDR. Then, as tumultuous changes swept through the Soviet bloc, everything in and around him collapsed in 1989. His health, his certainties, his ideology, his apparatus of power, and his beloved SED party.
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If you are interested in East Germany we can highly recommend our friends over at Radio GDR.
Katja Hoyer: Well, I think, first of all, a lot of the history that’s already out there is very academic. It tends to focus on particular elements of the GDR. Like, so say, for example, there are lots of books about the Stasis specifically, or about the Wall, or about the way that the regime was run. Um, but there are very, very few overall histories of the GDR that try and capture the whole thing. So that was one of my aims. I mean, that’s the title suggests I’m trying to go beyond the usual story. So normally the story is about how this is a, uh, country and a people that were sort of locked in by a wall. Um, and then we tell the story of 40 years or 41 years of, uh, suffering until they were liberated and people tend to forget that there was life going on behind that wall. And actually the vast majority of people had no intention of leaving the country. I mean, obviously, the story of those that wanted to is important, and I tell that as well. But I think on top of that, there also is another story to be had about what life was actually like in the GDR beyond the wall. Most people didn’t spend their day, every day thinking about where they’d rather be, but they just got on with their lives. And that’s kind of what I was trying to do with this, and I’m trying to do it through the voices of the people of East Germany. Rather than speaking about them, I was speaking with them, um, and trying to have their voices heard. So that, I think, is what makes the book different.
Ian Sanders: Absolutely. And that is very apparent in the interviews I do, is that people loved, they died, they got married. All of the whole range of experiences that people would have had in the west happened in East Germany. And I think people look at East Germany very much in hindsight, and they don’t look at it in the way that if you lived in East Germany, you did not know the war was going to come down in 1989, so therefore you would live your life to the best that you could. A lot of people had very little interaction with the security forces or anything like that. And I think your book is a great portrayal of what that lived experience was like in East Germany. Your book starts in 1918, so that’s almost 30 years before the formation of East Germany. Why do you start there?
Katja Hoyer: I think it’s important to understand where the GDR came from and also who founded it. Um, and the people who founded it, um, particularly Walter Ulbricht and Wilhelm Pieck who are the sort of key figures in that, um, have got a history that goes much longer. They didn’t just suddenly spring out of the earth in 1949 and founded a new state. Um, but they were Communists all their lives. They’ve grown up with certain experiences that they’ve had. And I think it was important to m trace those experiences because obviously, their own ideology and their own kind, uh, of way of seeing the world, and particularly seeing Germany, is formed and shaped by the experiences such as, say, the First World War, the kind of street battles in the 1920s in the Wiemar Republic. Vital Ulbrik, for example, becomes a Communist MP in Parliament and has heated battles with Joseph Goebbels and understands kind of the power of that propaganda from the Nazis and is really kind of really keen to make sure that that doesn’t get repeated and therefore goes over the top at the other end to try and sort of protect his little republic. Um, once it’s formed. And I think that’s really important. Also the fact that all of these communists then had to flee, um, or go underground, um, during the Nazi era from 1933, I think is important. They all come out of this, this kind of first half of the of the 20th century up to 1945, with an experience of intense persecution, being overprotective of themselves, being paranoid about the enemies that they have. And I think that really has an impact on the GDR later. So hence why I started a little bit earlier and trace back their steps from sort of their own origins, if you will, to when they found this um, new state, the GDR, in 1949.
Ian Sanders: I think it gives a great context as to their world view and their experiences. And as you say, there’s a lot of similar experiences amongst those early leaders of East Germany. So if we just fast forward a bit, um, and 1945, Nazi Germany is defeated. Gruppe Ulbricht arrives in what was then the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, to a Germany that’s been devastated and brutalized by the Soviet army.
Katja Hoyer: Yes. And the problem, I think, to start with is that this, uh, group of Ulbricht’s, or this task force, effectively, that Stalin sends back to Germany to set up new structures, given that, uh, Germany has been completely destroyed, it’s political structures have gone, it’s even simple stuff like nobody’s looking after sanitation, water supplies, food, all of that needs doing. Um, and Vitalbridge is among a group of ten men who get sent back. All German communists get sent back to Germany. The problem is they get sent back to a Germany that they don’t recognize, that they weren’t part of. So where most ordinary Germans, particularly civilians, have either spent the war in Germany and sort of being bombed, being brutalized by the Soviet army as it arrived, or actually being fighting for the men who were, um, of fighting age were off kind of experiencing very terrible things at the front line. And committing very terrible things at the front lines. Um, and here comes Grupo Albrecht, who sat out the war in the Soviet Union, not being part of any of that. And they basically come back to a people they no longer recognize in the country they no longer recognize, trying to set up things with them and encounter, of course, a lot of suspicion and hostility, given that they’ve sort of dodged the war at best, if not actually undermined it, basically because they’ve worked for the enemy. And that’s something that a lot of Germany doesn’t take lightly. So they come back to a fairly suspicious and hostile world where they try up new or try and set up new structures, effectively. And a lot of them, therefore, try to um, hide their Russian connections so that the existence of the Grupo Albert gets denied for years, um, it didn’t even happen. You’ve got um, the youngest member, for example, um, who later became quite a well known historian changing his first name. His name was Vladimir and he changes it to Wolfang. His mother had called him Vladimir because his mother had been a communist. And effectively he has to change it to Wolfgang because he doesn’t want to make it obvious that he spent so many years in the Soviet Union. And I think that’s quite remarkable that these people sort of come back and even though they admire the Soviet Union for what it is and what it does, don’t want to be associated with it uh, because they are frightened what the German people might think.
Ian Sanders: It’s little details like that that you’ve got in the book that I think bring it to life because as you say, you can find some very dry academic tomes out there that would cover uh East Germany. But some of the uh characters that you’ve discovered where you’ve got their personal accounts does breathe some real life to this. So the next stage in sort of like the formation of East Germany is this forced merger of the Socialist Party, the SPD, with the Communist Party of Germany, the KPD.
Katja Hoyer: Yeah and that is an interesting story. So that is normally covered by a lot of the more academic books because it’s a vital step in the political history of the GDR. So you had this long, long history now of the SPD. Which is some say the oldest, but certainly one of the oldest political parties in Germany and has been fighting for um sort of social reform mostly throughout its history. And there were always because it was such a broad church, because it was the only left wing party before the First World War, there were always communists in there and people like, uh, voter Ulbrick, for example, the founding father, if you will, of the GDR were actually in the SPD before the First World War and then changed to communism. Once a Communist party existed in uh the 1920s and now two parties exist. So you basically have the SPD uh reformed after the the Nazis had banded and then you’ve got the new Socialist Unity Party sed set up as uh a kind of more left wing socialist Communist party against that. But they realized that uh basically it was the division between those left wing factions that allowed in part at least allowed Hitler to come to power. Because the KPD and the SPD were so hostile to each other that they just couldn’t find it in themselves to form a coalition against the Nazis which could have been quite effective at um kind of preventing all the horrible fates that happened to the people that were in both of these parties afterwards. And so there’s a really strong argument to only have one left wing party um there. The problem is that they uh ballot the parties in west what was in the western sectors of Berlin and the SPD is really not all that keen on it and when they realize that, uh, if they kind of just asked them and had a ballad like, shall we put these two parties together? There’s a very strong possibility that that isn’t going to work out. And so they force this merger effectively. Nobody really knows what happened. The head of the SPD Corteval. Gets summoned to the Soviet headquarters, um, and when he comes back, he was quote a changed man. Nobody really knows what changed his mind, but suddenly the Sbd leader in the east, uh, was keen, and uh, the two parties get merged into one, which then basically means you’ve now got all of these SPD people like Social Democrats effectively in the Sed. Which causes actually quite some problems later for the Sed as well, because they’re never entirely keen. So when you get uprisings and things later, uh, it’s always the people that were once in the SPD will point this out and say, well look actually we’re SPD people, we’re not really here to uphold your system. So this isn’t as smooth as it’s often portrayed. Kind of they get forced into this, and now they’re locked in the party. They still have like an internal sort of faction later on within the uh, within the Sed.
Ian Sanders: So 7 October 1949, the German Democratic Republic is formed at ah, that point is there amongst the general population, uh, a uh, belief in building a different country to the west. There is, there significant support for the Sed at this point?
Katja Hoyer: Not so much specifically for the Sed, but I think people underestimate the impact of Nazism and also of the First World War. There are now people around who, if you’re say, like a middle aged person, at that point, you’ve literally known nothing but upheaval. And in hindsight, it becomes very obvious that a lot of this upheaval was caused by Germany itself, by its militarism, particularly by Nazism. Because that was the war that was much more keenly felt, um, at home as well. Because in the First World War, of course, Germany didn’t get um, occupied or bombed. Um, so everyone in Germany has had a dreadful time, and is trying to keen to avoid that again, basically, and to build a better Germany, whatever that means, is of course different for different people. But a lot of people are quite taken by the idea of building a genuinely better Germany with a better society that is fairer, and will avoid uh, sort of the excesses that have been there before. And if you follow communist logic in terms of what it actually means to be a capitalist country, you basically end up with this sort of staged system. So they believe that capitalism will automatically uh, expand, because it needs more market in markets, it needs more resources, it constantly devours things. So therefore it needs to expand. So you end up with imperialism. And imperialism in their view, because you’re fighting against other peoples, um, will lead to fascism. And so if you follow that logic, there are a lot of people in Germany at this point, in 1949, who believe that once you go down the capitalist free market route again, you will automatically end up with Nazism again. And for that reason, people find some people a lot of people found this idea quite attractive to set up a socialist state in Germany. So you get people actually moving over from the western zones. People like Battle West, for example, um, famous poet, um, left wing poet and, uh, theater dramatist, who, uh, actually move into the east at this point, um, and try and sort of build socialism together with the system that’s already there. That’s not to say that they believe in everything that the Sed does, but they believed in rebuilding Germany as a new place, as a different kind of Germany that hadn’t existed before. And I think the other thing that’s easy to forget is that socialists and Social Democrats had fought literally since the existence of Germany, since 1871. And you could go further back in the history of communism and socialism. They dreamt of this moment for like, decades, for generations. And here it was. Socialism would finally exist on German soil. So a lot of people feel like rolling their sleeves are rebuilding Germany and making it the best Germany that it can be. Uh, and for many people, that was a socialist one.
Ian Sanders: Yeah, because you hear this phrase building real and existing socialism. I’ve heard this phrase been coined by, um, I think it’s probably East German politicians that are coining this phrase. Things don’t necessarily go, as you said, as smoothly as they would have expected at this point. And in 1953, there’s an uprising, which, uh, starts in Berlin, but spreads across two other cities in East Germany.
Katja Hoyer: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, the problem that the young GDR had at this point is that, uh, um, they had to pay huge amounts of reparations. So, in contrast to the First World War, this time there wasn’t a fixed sum that people set. Um, so they wanted to basically avoid the pitfalls of the Treaty of Versailles. So it was decided that every power could take out of their zone, like what they wanted, effectively, um, could be material, could be actual money, it could be ongoing production, it could be what’s already there, and the Soviets go, Fine, that’s exactly what we’ll do. So where the west gets sort of martial aid and support, and Volkswagen being a classic example that’s rebuilt with British help, the opposite happens in the east. Um, and everything from private looting, where literally soldiers go into people’s houses and just steal things, um, all the way to systematic dismantling of whole factories. Train tracks get ripped out of the ground, copper cables do people dismantle like radiators from the wall. Not even entirely sure what they’re going to do with it, but it has to go to Russia and there’s whole train tracks going. And even in the early 50s, um, so 50, 51, 52 people still describe and I’ve spoken to people for my book with older people who started working around them. They were shocked to see that they were producing something and the Soviets would literally just rock up and take whatever comes out at the end of the assembly line, take it away. These people were working like virtually sort of 1213, 14 hours a day. And then they saw what they just produced being shipped off to the Soviet Union was they had very little and lived in kind of dilapidated housing that was half bombed still. And that was quite frustrating for a lot of people. And the regime responded because of the lack of things that they had. There was nothing on the shelves, basically. People were already working flat out. They responded by increasing the amount of working hours, um, regularly, without giving people more pay. So people effectively worked themselves nearly to death and weren’t actually receiving more even any adequate amount of money for it. So I’ve got one guy there, for instance, in the book, Heinz Yost, uh, who was a teenager at the time, uh, had learned a decent job and was looking forward to actually doing the job. And instead they put him in a room where he operated three machines at the same time in a shift system with asocial hours, and then earned 250 marks at the end of it a month, which was just about above minimum wage, but not anywhere near enough to have his own place. As he said, I couldn’t even have a girlfriend because I couldn’t afford to buy her things. So people got incredibly frustrated because this was supposed to be like this new brilliant utopia where everyone is equal and everyone has got enough, um, and there just wasn’t enough of anything. And people had been told that they can finally, especially the working classes, that they can finally have a really good education so that they can then have a well paid job and all the rest of it. And none of that was coming forth. Um, and the regime’s obstinacy was just incredible when you follow it sort of step by step. And at each step the workers were saying, we need to talk to Vital or break the leader and work something out. And he just flat out refused to talk to them. This is really quite astonishing scene. I describe it in the book as well, with the workers on the Stalin Alley, of all places. So the street in Berlin, the great big Soviet style boulevard that Ah had been built, was called after Stalin. The workers marched down this road onto the government buildings and demand to speak to Aubrey. And Orbrick is standing in the government building surrounded by angry workers still with their tools in their hands and everything. They couldn’t have made a better picture of like the German working classes. If they tried the people that he purported to speak for, um, and he just said to the people around him, or bricks who were trying to convince him to go out and speak to the workers, oh, it’s raining. They’ll just disperse again. It’d be fine. And of course, they didn’t. Um, and then it really erupts into a general strike on the next day on the 17 June 1953. And, uh, it ends quite badly, of course, being crushed by the Russians who basically declare a state of emergency and crushes uprising in a very bloody fashion. The exact number of deaths are still, um, disputed, but it’s in the dozens, um, and it basically ends very badly for all sides.
Ian Sanders: So Ulbricht is in quite a sticky situation here. And the workers uprising is not just the only problem he’s dealing with.
Katja Hoyer: Well, he’s got lots of problems, really. It’s not just the population. It’s also the fact that the Sed, the other Sed members had told him that this was going to happen and do something about it. So they are all angry. Um, so you have people like Ellie Schmidt, for example, um, who, uh, bravely basically told him that this is all your fault. This would never have happened without your obstinacy. And later she gets expelled from the party for that. But immediately he can’t do that. He can’t expel all of them. So he’s got his own party, the inner sort of circle of the polyborough against him. On top of that, Stalin had died early in that year, 1953, in March. Um, and that was basically Aubreyt’s Guarantor for power. Effectively, he had Stalin’s trust in East Germany. And other people had long said, this man is useless. Let’s get rid of him. And now that Stalin has gone and his own inner circle is against and the people are against him, he’s got a real problem in China cling on to power. So the stasi is being expanded. That was set up in 1950 as quite a smallish undertaking still, that was constantly being kept in check as the people were founded at once expanded. But on the flip side, he also knows that, uh, what happened effectively is people being unhappy with working conditions and with the sort of amount of work that they have to do and what they get out of it. It wasn’t so much to try and abolish the entire state. What they were unhappy about is that in the west you have the economic miracle at the same time. So people have got relatives in the west and find out what’s going on there. And then by comparison, you’ve got this kind of horrific economic situation in the GDR and that’s what needed to change. So, together with the Soviets, he works out, um, a plan to basically increase living standards. Um, and again, there’s wonderful kind of documentation from the time of people say, suddenly all of these lorries appeared with tinned food and potatoes and all sorts of other things, which the Soviets couldn’t really afford to give away either. But if they realized that they needed to stabilize the situation in the GDR, and that was the way to do it. Um, so effectively, it’s kind of like a carrot and stick approach, if you will. So they beef up the security at one end, um, and then try and beef up the people, for lack of a bit of the other end.
Ian Sanders: Yeah. The economy of East Germany, they’ve nationalized all the industries. There’s also collectivization of agriculture as well. And I’m presuming that doesn’t go down well with the farmers.
Katja Hoyer: No, it doesn’t. Um, I mean, you can’t stand there and say you are workers in peasant state and then basically make life very hard for both of these groups and for farmers. It’s kind of what I was saying about ongoing production with the workers earlier. So when that gets taken away, the workers get very angry. The same is true for farming. If you don’t allow farmers to have their own kind, uh, of labor rewarded by the fact that what they harvest at the end of it is theirs to sell or to eat or whatever to do with, because it’s theirs, if you take that land away, they’ll be very unhappy. They effectively become like farm hands. They work on somebody else’s land, and then everything that they do gets taken away and redistributed in the way that the authorities see fit. And that’s, of course, very, um, unsatisfying. The other problem is that the GDR had actually, um, after the Second World War, when Germany lost a lot of land in Eastern Europe. Twelve to 14 million Germans were expelled from that, and many of them end up in the GDR. And they get given land as a means of having an income because they’ve just come with nothing from Eastern Europe. Um, so a lot of these newcomers, and they make up about a fifth or so of East German society, it’s a huge proportion, are actually now what they called new farmers. Noibawan? Um, so that’s like their only thing that they have in this new country. Well, not new country, but this new territory that they’ve just arrived ah, at is their new land. This is the thing that gives them a new home, a new existence, a sense of belonging. And if that is taken away from them again, that’s going to make them very unhappy. So they were among the groups, farmers in particular, who tried to leave East Germany very early on. They were part of these kind of really big, um, sort, uh, of early waves of people leaving, um, because they wanted to do their own thing, to have their own land. And that brings a lot of people against all Britain, against the regime. It’s all part of his building socialism kind of by force program, which he rolls out all the time. Whenever he gets a chance, he sort of um pushes ahead with that, whether it’s good for the country or not.
Ian Sanders: Yeah, but he’s quite rigid in terms of following the Stalinist ideology, which again, doesn’t make him hugely popular. And I think the other thing to remember at this point, the Berlin Wall isn’t built and the inner German border is still relatively porous in terms of being able to exit uh, the country.
Katja Hoyer: Yeah, absolutely. And certainly the easiest way is to go through Berlin. And that’s what most people did. You could literally within Berlin, walk from A to B, from one zone to the next on foot, without that being an issue. So there are many, many people uh, who would just travel to East Berlin, walk over into West Berlin and then leave into the west from there. And in West Germany there were um, refugee camps effectively set up for them, that would welcome them, would register them, and you would immediately because West Germany effectively claimed to speak for all of Germany. So it considered East German citizens, its own citizens. Um, it’s a bit complicated, the question of citizenship, but effectively, if you were German, you were German in their eyes. Um, so it was quite easy to go over, simply give them your details and then become a citizen there. So that was quite an attractive route that was still completely entirely legal and open. Um, and they couldn’t stop you from going.
Ian Sanders: In these sections of the book, you get introduced to some characters and I love the way that uh, Margot Feist first appears, who has a better known persona and appears later on um, in the book. It’s great, these little details of these individuals and their life and their stories and how they fit together. I mean we mentioned earlier the expansion of the Stasi. It’s sort of after that uprising that all Bricked and others get a bit jumpy about where they’re living and think, m, we’ve seen what happened in Hungary in 1956, we perhaps need somewhere a little bit more secure. And so um, there’s a little piece that you have in there about the first investigations into this new housing complex in Vandlets.
Katja Hoyer: Yeah, I mean the uh, elite lived in Berlin and Panko, um, which was kind of cordoned off, if you will, by the Soviets when they first moved in, because it’s a nice part of town, there’s lots of grand old bourgeois type, nice little townhouses and things. So they basically uh, make that a separate part of the city. Uh, it’s sort of walled and fenced in, um, for the Soviets initially, and then the elite move in. So they’re kind of collectively sometimes referred as the Panko Clique or the Panko Circle by West German politicians because they all lived in this kind of tiny part of Berlin. But as you say, they felt very insecure for all of the reasons. Um, you just. Mentioned and decided they need to move outside of Berlin in case there’s another uprising and they find a nice piece of land north of Berlin, the so called vault seedlong, sort of the forest settlement, um, in Vandlets, um, just sort of north of Berlin. Effectively, they start commuting, they move out into the countryside and then it takes them about half an hour or so when, uh, they get picked up with their chauffeurs in the morning from their houses, um, to get back into Berlin every day. And that’s what they end up doing. But this vice long is quite interesting from a psychological point of view because they were completely effectively, uh, removed from society with that. So they’re in the middle of nowhere in flat rural Brandenburg. Um, and yes, it’s nice and scenic. There’s a lake, there’s kind of fields around and things, and then a forest and so on and so forth. But effectively, they’re walled in. And this entire settlement is run by the Shazi. So we often think of the Shazi as a means of controlling the population. But actually, Eric Mule, who sets it up, ends, uh, up controlling the politicians as well. He runs the settlement, so it’s his soldiers, um, and staff that guarded everybody in this viole. Seedlong was vetted by and works for the Shazi. So you got people like Bakers and hairdressers and butchers. It’s like a little not city, but a little village basically set up for them. They are all starsy people. So guess what happens if you’re like, uh, I don’t know, all Briggs wife lotter, and you go to the hairdresser and the vadsi lung and the hairdresser is a starsy woman, and you sit there and you moan about something that happened yesterday in the last meeting of the Pollard borough. Well, she wouldn’t have been privy to that, but play a political meeting and she’s immediately going to pass it on to the Shahzi. So you end up with a situation where Murka knows absolutely everything about the elite as well, if they want something that isn’t available in the GDR. So, for example, um, pregnancy clothing kind of was always very hard to come by. So some of the women would ask, basically the stars, can you get that for us? And they’d get it into the buzz seed lung. For them, that’s something that Mirka M would instantly know about. He knew what exotic fruit they liked or what sort of hobbies they had if they had to have stuff imported for it. So it becomes quite a claustrophobic environment that a lot of the politicians really quite dislike. Um, so many of them do say that, uh, they actually didn’t like living there because it removed them so far from ordinary life and made them subject to stasi control to a point where they themselves try to escape from it sometimes. So Margaret Tornega, for example, famously, uh, gets a driving license and then her own car because she’s trying to get away from her security detail and then sort of just flees the scene when she can because she wants to throw off her shadow, as she calls it, static security that’s constantly around them.
Ian Sanders: Milka has a file on Hanukkah as well. He must have a file on everybody just in case he needs some ah, blackmail material. And I think Hanukkah is an interesting character. He’s um, in charge of the Youth Organization of East Germany in the early days and he’s been imprisoned the entire war. I think he’s arrested in 1935 in Germany and he’s released in 45. So he spent his entire time in prison. And there is speculation that within this Milker file was some evidence of him cooperating with the Nazi authorities during this prison, uh, period. I don’t know whether you’ve found any uh, truth in that.
Katja Hoyer: Yeah, I don’t know if he had anything on Hanukkah’s own collaboration. But there is evidence that his father tried to bail him out because he was worried about I mean Hanukkah was still a young man at this point and his father was deeply worried that uh, yes, I mean they were communists as well in the Zarland and in West Germany. Really kind of working class community, quite radicalized politically. So it’s not that his father had objections to Hanukkah being a communist and trying to sort of not be Nazified, but he was deeply worried because they’d seen what happened to the other communists, um, who were all either locked up or driven out of the country or actively murdered or put into concentration camps. And so his father effectively wrote to the authorities and said that actually his son has now seen the error of his ways and he’s very happy in this new Germany that Hitler set up and can you let him go? Because a lot of communists did exactly that and were then let go, um, because they were effectively to the Nazis they could be reformed. It wasn’t an ethical kind of ethnical issue in their racist worldview, these people were still Germans. And if they could only be reformed by subjecting them to hard labor or kind of incarcerating them for, well then a lot of them were reintegrated into things afterwards. So that evidence. That letter, for example, is something that Muka kept, um, in a little red suitcase. It’s like he couldn’t make up a better Cold War story, um, together with other evidence that he had um, uh, supposedly um, sort of funded uh, bungalow or like a chalet for one of his sort of lovers or girlfriends, um, in terms of using um, estate money for that. So all of these sort of things that Mika could get hold of, he collected in case he ever needed to. There were a lot of policies of uh, Hanukkah’s that he was quite suspicious about mirka personally. Um, and so when the moment came, he would have used that uh, to either help topple Hanukkah or prove that he wasn’t, um, in the same campus he was.
Ian Sanders: And Hanukkah is recognized as a really good organizer because he is in charge of the planning for the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. So he’s moving up in status within that Pollock bureau.
Katja Hoyer: Yes, he is. And that’s an interesting thing. That both he and Albright so that the two leaders, effectively, who ran the GDR for most of its existence, that’s the one thing that they both had going for it is that they were very good organizers, um, in terms of kind of large scale organizations and events. What they lacked in charisma and kind of general, uh, ability, uh, or ability as leaders, um, they made up for in organization talent. Yeah. And the other reason why he was given the task is because, as you say, he was in charge of the Free German Youth, the mass youth organization that the vast majority of young people of teenagers were in. Um, and therefore, because it was supposed to have looked as if the East German population wants this wall, um, they felt they couldn’t just police that with, um, army or with security, um, personnel. They kind of needed citizens to do that. And what better way to do that than drafting the youth in to do it? So you’ve now got young people, um, sort of 14, 1516 year olds, um, in the shirts that the Free German Youth wore. They were quite distinctive. They were kind of this bright cornflower blue, and they were obvious wherever they went, they were immediately recognizable. Um, and so you’ve got all across Berlin, uh, the Free German Youth drafted in effectively to help quell any sort of, um, disturbances or any demonstrations or anything like that. So they were told to sit in bars and in pubs and on park benches and in cinema foyers and in all sorts of public spaces just to make their presence known to a create this idea that they were part of the building of the wall but B also to I mean, you can’t really shoot at them or anything. They’re kids, effectively. Um, so it’s quite a sort of thought through way of ensuring the visuals of this event, but also making sure that you have extra security there that is effectively a safe way to use. They were still incredibly worried about a NATO invasion that might follow the building of the wall, and that was one way of trying to counteract that. And that’s why Hanika was partially put in charge of this entire process. It was his organization talent, but also the fact that he could summon basically, the youth of East Germany to help him out.
Ian Sanders: Yeah, because they were being quite clever there in trying to portray this as this is the citizenship or the population of East Germany doing this, it’s not the security forces. So there’s also quite large involvement from uh the combat group of the working classes, which is sort of like a workplace militia that has uh been formed in East Germany as well. And they’re on the front line just behind the uh barbed wire too.
Katja Hoyer: Yeah. And they’re an interesting group actually. I found that kind of researching them quite psychologically, quite interesting because it’s entirely voluntary. So nobody forced you to join the comfort of the average class. Um, so this is uh one of those things where I was quite intrigued by people would do that and I think the other like I mean you do, you did get benefits for that. So if you joined it uh you would get better pensions, for example. Not massively, but it was like a little bonus kind of to show the appreciation of the state for that. But really I think what the appeal was it’s a bit like um having the cadets when you’re younger. It’s like the one thing you do after work where you have a little adventure, you get to roll around in the mud, you get to fire weapons and stuff like that. And I think it’s that thing that got most people involved in it. It’s the sort of idea that you’re like a weekend soldier, effectively, but um you can’t be drafted or anything. So it’s kind of a safe way of playing at being in the military as opposed to really being in it. And some of these people were very ideological as well. So they sort of joined for reasons of they genuinely thought they were doing the right thing, um, and were effectively keen to get involved with the building of the wall. And you have those people on shift systems in Berlin as well, helping out because again, they’re civilians. And that made it safer compared to sending the actual um, army out to support the building of the wall. So you have these waves of defense effectively for it and you’d have to get through an awful lot of civilians at first, if there was any kind of western comeback from that.
Ian Sanders: Now after the building of the Wall, the East German government’s belief is if they can get reasonable living conditions in the country, then most people will be able to live with the wall. So what is the sort of standard of living like in that sort of early sixty s and into the 70s? Is it improving considerably at that point for the average East German?
Katja Hoyer: Yeah it is because of that belief, um, that effectively we’ve walled people in now, you’ve got to make it worth being in that place. Certainly by the 1970s, actually late, late 60s, I’d say, you have reasonable living standards. They’re the highest in the entire communist world. So it’s easy to forget sometimes because people tend to sort of see all of Eastern Europe and Russia, including Germany, as one block. Um, and yes of course compared to West Germany, it doesn’t reach the same standards, but neither do like most countries in the world. I mean, West Germany has got incredibly high living standards at that point. And of course, East Germans compare themselves to that and they see what their Western relatives have. But at the same time, all the basics are in place, so nobody is starving at this point. People have got education, subsidized rents, housing is getting better because they’re building a lot. Um, these kind of ugly blocks that people associate with both East Germany and Eastern Europe were actually quite desirable living at the time. Most people had never, ever lived in a flat that had central heating or um, I don’t know, like water, uh, even running water toilets that weren’t sort of halfway down the stairs, or even outside, that kind of thing. So for the vast majority of people, uh, if you had, say, children, and you were married, you were given priority, you ended up with, yes, a little flat somewhere in a hideous block, but it was somewhere that you could live quite comfortably. Things like fridges and radios and those kinds of things are becoming more widespread, uh, and also kind of available. Yes, expensive, very expensive compared to the normal everyday, uh, products, but nonetheless more affordable for people. So by the end of the 60s, people feel like it’s moving almost. And that was a universal view that I got from pretty much everybody that I talked to, is that they really felt the sort of mid, late 60s were a time of immense progress. People got obsessed with the space age and technology being moved forward. And there’s a real sense that Berlin is being transformed. For example, the Alexander Platts with its TV tower, all of those kinds of things work together to give people the impression that, uh, it’s moving forward and they’re getting there.
Ian Sanders: Yeah, you’ve got some great stats in the book. I mean, one of the ones I picked out, uh, was the fridge one, which in 1970, I think 56.4% of households in East Germany had them, versus 28% in West Germany.
Katja Hoyer: That was the one thing that they were very pleased with. They made huge progress on.
Ian Sanders: Yeah, they were very good at fridges. But uh, as far as telephones in the home, it’s sort of not, uh, so good. 50% West Germany, 6% East Germany.
Katja Hoyer: Uh, that never changed either. It’s really interesting how, I mean, I’m sometimes surprised when I describe my experience of the GDR in the late eighty s, and the things that I remember from it, and then other people in Britain who are much, much older than me say, oh yeah, that was my childhood, was like in the 60s. So these things, particularly telephone, they never catch up with them. You had most families still without a telephone in the late 80s. Absolutely.
Ian Sanders: And I think that’s where people forget the context, is they look back in hindsight, whereas the living experience in a lot of Western countries was not hugely different to, uh, the lived experience in East Germany. I mean, one of the stats that stands out is around car ownership, because by 1988, more than 50% of households had a car which was on a par with the UK at the same time. And all you hear about car ownership in East Germany from most people is, oh, you had to wait ten years, or whatever for a car, which, okay, was true for a new one, but there was a lively trade in second, uh, hand ones as well, and they weren’t cheap to get. But then, neither was a car in the UK to, uh, buy.
Katja Hoyer: No, exactly. And I think, um, once again, there’s a comparison, of course, to West Germany, which Germans are always obsessed with cars. And of course, when you compare it to West Germany, you end up with people in West Germany, on average, having more cars and better cars than the Treband, which most people had in East Germany. But nonetheless, as you say, people focus on the waiting time. So you imagine basically, somebody sitting there, 18, saying, I want a car, so I’m now going to apply to have a car and I’ll have it when I’m 28, and, um, then spend my entire money on it. That’s not how this worked. First of all, if people knew that you were going to be 18 at some point, you apply for that car when that child’s like, eight. And eventually that’s how it worked. Um, on the one side, or you bought a car and then, as a lot of people did, immediately applied for the next one. And then you knew by the time that the ten years were over, your used car is still going to be worth probably the same amount of money you’re going to pay for the new one, sometimes even more. You can sell that on and you get the new one. So there were ways around that. And these cars lasted forever as well, because they were so simple, um, in terms of their mechanics and the way that they could be fixed quite easily. So people knew all the tricks. They carried little toolkits around with them. They looked after these cars because they were treasured. And people kind of, um, valued them as a bit of freedom, effectively, to M, move from A to B whenever they wanted and how they wanted to go on holiday and things like that.
Ian Sanders: Yeah, I think one of the other areas that people highlight about East Germany is the efforts to ensure gender equality and encourage women to try and take part at all levels of society. And the difference there between the gender balance versus, uh, West Germany is massive and it’s a cause of friction with unification, uh, as well.
Katja Hoyer: Yeah, it really is. I mean, this is often brushed aside, um, as like a sort of workforce issue, as if, yes, the GDR was always short on everything, including workers. Um, but this isn’t an effort to just try and get more people to work. People forget that this is an actual part of socialist ideology, is equality, in the sense that you have gender equality as well. So even when you look at the 1920s, the first female politicians are all, um, sort of communist and socialist and SPD people as well, because there’s a genuine effort, the ideological effort, to make that work. By the end of the GDRs in the 1980s, nearly every single woman is in work. So you’ve got work ratios of over 90% of women that’s full time for, uh, the vast majority of them. Whilst, of course, that isn’t a ratio that we’ve got now, never mind at the time, in western countries, because of childcare issues largely. I mean, there are, of course, many women who want to focus on being mothers, um, and want to stay at home. That is something that the GDR also allowed. So it isn’t, as again, many people claim, a case that you were kind of dragged off to a workplace, to a factory, if you were trying to look after your children. That existed, particularly in religious, um, context. So in the small Catholic communities, for example, that existed, that was actually still a thing, and people did that, and it was possible to do, but the culture was changed to a point where it just became normal. Women would just grow up, or girls would just grow up expecting to learn a job or to go to university or whatever it is that, um, they wanted to do, and then basically end up in a full time position, just as men did. And I find that really interesting as well. When you look at how men and women interacted in the workplace, there’s this sort of sense of camaraderie of working together as equal colleagues. And yes, that takes a while to set in, because in the in particular, men were effectively the problem, and other women, um, because society needed to change. So there was still this kind of expectation that you should look after your children, and if you don’t, you’re a bad mother. And all of the things that we still recognize today as kind of obstacles, um, against women going to work. But it became, across the time, more normal. And then once the first generation of girls kind of grew up with their mothers working. So my mother, for instance, worked full time, and I never even considered that, and still does, actually. I never considered that, uh, um, a weird thing. So you kind of grow up basically as a child, largely in childcare, or going to sort of clubs and things after school. You come home with your own key when you’re like, six, but it’s just a thing that just happens, and you look after yourself. You learn how to cook your meals and stuff, and you get on with things. Um, and that’s, I think, something that changed society quite a bit over time, um, as well. And people forget that very different lifestyles were set up as a result of that.
Ian Sanders: So how much dissent is going on in East Germany in the 1970s? Are there independent organizations who are questioning how the country is run?
Katja Hoyer: There are. It’s largely in the context of church groups, mostly, um, because they are. But there are, of course, people within the churches who oppose the secularization of society and the kind of quite aggressive way in which this is done. So churches, for example, receive very little state money to be rebuilt, even where they’re bomb, damaged and need rebuilding for historical reasons alone. Um, and they also have the means of organizing themselves, because these communities, of course, exist, and it’s easier to organize any sort of resistance within that. They often work together with West German organizations of the same communities. So if you have, say, Protestant resistance groups, they tend to forge links with West German groups of the same, um, ilk, and then, um, organized resistance, for example, also getting people out of East Germany and into West Germany. But this is very much the limited, at that point, of that community. Um, so you don’t find the sort of mass unhappiness and kind of willingness to go onto the streets or to do anything amongst the wider population to the same degree that you saw either 1953 or later in the this is why I’m quite uneasy with drawing that connection as well. People tend to put 1953 and 1989 in a line and sort of say, well, look, people were unhappy then to the point where they nearly troubled the state. And that happened again in 1989. And you sort of just wonder what happened in a decade in between. Um, in many ways, it does go a little bit quiet, because, as I said earlier about the 1953 uprising, it was largely about, um, conditions in the GDR. And if you make them livable, the vast majority of people, even when they’re unhappy with things, don’t want to leave the country. I mean, you’ve got this now. People are unhappy about the energy crisis, not being able to afford their bills. They don’t like the government. There’s all sorts of things that people aren’t happy about, but very few people pack their bags and go, right, fine, I’m going to live in a different country, then. And I think that’s sort of the situation you get in the as well there’s. General Grumbling yes, people are unhappy with things. Um, but at the same time, it isn’t enough to tip things over into active, kind, uh, of mass resistance. And it’s interesting as well that the opposition groups get quite frustrated with that. So you hear this from them saying, how can people just be happy with having a little garden and their little lives and just get on with things? When there’s all of this stuff like democracy and all of this kind of stuff that is wrong with the country. So it’s hard to mobilize mass resistance when people are reasonably well fed and they’ve got sort of lives worth living.
Ian Sanders: But one of the little, uh, stories you’ve got in here, I loved, and I hadn’t heard about this one, and there’s many in here that I hadn’t heard about, but this one really tickled me was the coffee crisis.
Katja Hoyer: Yeah, that is interesting because Germans love coffee. I mean, this is one of those things that, uh, denotes stability, comfort, homeliness to people. And they have a little ritual, a bit like, I suppose, afternoon tea in Britain is kind of one of those things that you have to have your coffee, your coffee and cooking in the afternoon. It’s just as part of civilized life for people. And when there was a worldwide coffee crisis, actually, I should say in the 70s, for a number of reasons, and it became incredibly expensive to buy on the world market. And obviously, coffee doesn’t grow in East Germany or in Germany, full stop. So it had to be bored for hard currency on the world market. And this is something that, when it runs out, uh, people get really, really unhappy about. And the regime are very worried that, uh, when they do have a coffee crisis in the, uh, there isn’t even normally people got used to the idea that there are shortages. So you just ran around different shops until you found a packet of coffee somewhere. And when that became impossible and there literally was no coffee, the regime starts thinking we need to do something about it. And their first instinct is to create a sort of zapped coffee out of all sorts of horrible things, like Chickery and barley. I mean, this happens in the west as well, I should say. People will remember, older people often remember this horrible coffee mix, uh, that you could get, but at the same time, Germans just won’t have it. People sit there and they call it like Eric’s Brew because of Hanukkah’s policies. And it’s just disgusting. And so they basically set out to try and find a solution. And the solution is to find another communist, uh, or socialist country that can grow coffee on their own soil and will then be able to trade it for other things, rather than having to pay hard currency for it. And they get onto the idea that Vietnam needs help. Um, after, uh, the Vietnam War had only just finished 1975, the last soldiers get drawn out. The country is in absolute tatters. So the GDR thinks to itself, we can help a fellow brother socialist state here, but at the same time, they can grow coffee for us. And they go over there and plant coffee plants. And it’s a huge undertaking. Um, it’s quite a thing to do. Like, coffee needs really specific conditions. To grow in. Um, and so they go over there and build like entire irrigation systems and coffee plantations. They set up schools and things so that the communities can move entire to the regions where they can grow coffee. Uh, the problem is that coffee plants take quite a while to grow and to produce their first yield. And the first yield was due in the early 1990s. And you effectively end up with the first result of this massive undertaking coming through when the GDI had already collapsed. Uh, and now Vietnam is one of the largest coffee producers in the world. It’s one of their key industries, um, and so you could argue it’s one of the most successful aid projects that’s ever happened. Uh, but it was too late to benefit the GDR and people had to continue to drink, uh, either terrible coffee or wait until their kind western relatives sent them some.
Ian Sanders: The irony, the irony, that’s a great story, but it sort of underlines how East Germany can’t operate in isolation and neither can the other communist bloc countries amongst economic changes that are going on in the world. And for East Germany, it becomes more and more difficult to actually finance the projects and the work they’re doing to try and keep the population happy. So in the early eighty s, the East German government began to realize that actually we are struggling to balance the books here.
Katja Hoyer: Yeah, that’s right. I mean they had tried different things like as you say, they needed other countries and so they thought they could build like a socialist, uh, sort of trade community worldwide. If only. The problem is that of course, most of the socialist countries, um, were themselves developing countries and so you end up with not a particularly strong trade network and they were trying to do things like getting workers over and training them from those countries to try and build a stronger network. So for example, they set up a huge cement plant, uh, in Cuba, which is still the largest in south and Latin America and things like that, to try and build sort of industrial economies. But of course, again, this is a long term project and they realized it wouldn’t bail them out short term, and so they think they need to get money from elsewhere. The problem was that at that point, poland was collapsing economically and politically because of their upheavals that they had with, uh, the solidarnos movement, um, and various other, um, economic issues, which itself sprang from shortages of food and particularly meat. Um, so the west looks at the Eastern bloc and goes, nah, there’s way too much upheaval, it’s probably going to collapse very soon, let’s not invest anything. And the GDR has got a huge credibility problem in terms of securing funds and loans from somewhere. And again, this is often built up to a huge thing. But all western countries borrow money. The difference is that they. Can borrow money because the banks will basically give them money because they know they can get it back. You can’t do that if you’re a socialist country. Your fellow socialist countries, uh, are all as struggling as you are, so they’re not going to lend you any money, not even the Soviet Union at that point. They kind of have their own issues to deal with in the 80s as well, with Afghanistan and lots of other things, but you end up with not being able to borrow any money. And that is a problem. So they turn to West Germany, of all places, um, and say, well, look, you know us, we’re fellow Germans. We’ll pay your money back. Um, and it’s interesting that, of all places, Francis Strauss, who used to be the kind of the Cold Warrior in the west, a kind of senior politician who fulfilled lots of roles for the time, but is a Bavarian arch. Bavarian arch, Cold Warrior basically ends up contacting Hanukkah and says to him, shall we meet up? And we can surely arrange something.
Ian Sanders: France. Joseph Strat. He’s very right wing. He’s known for his right wing views. So he’s the last person who you think would want to help East Germany.
Katja Hoyer: No, that’s absolutely right, and very anti GDR as well. So there’s constant sort of sniping. So for example, there’s one incident where, um, and this happened a lot as well, where a man collapsed at the inner German border of a heart attack, not in small part due to the very rough way in which these German border guards would handle people crossing over from the west. There were, I think it’s something like 300 and something people who actually died of heart attacks at the inner German border. And Francis of Strauss, when this happens, says that they murdered him. They practically murdered him, and is one of the people that is leading that sort of propaganda charge, um, against East Germany. So he does seem an unlikely figure, and yet, um, he does approach, uh, contacts, basically, in East Germany to, uh, try and broker a deal. And um, out of those negotiations comes a deal of 1 billion Deutsche marks.
Ian Sanders: What I found surprising in the book, and I hadn’t realized this was how Hanukkah is having phone calls with helmet. Ah, Cole. And you’ve got a brilliant transcript of a call of them together. And it’s like a couple of buddies, um, chatting away. It’s bizarre. Um, I found that absolutely fascinating. But he eventually visits West Germany in 87. I always remember these photos because Cole’s a big guy and Hanukkah’s not a big guy, and the contrast between the two is bizarre.
Katja Hoyer: Yeah. And people were, uh, I think also envisioning them as almost like representations or personifications of their countries, respectively. I mean, the GTI is much smaller in every category that you want to look at it, um, than the west. But yes, I think this is what worried the Soviets, like, throughout, basically, I think, Germans never got over the fact that there are other Germans on the other side of that divide. And no matter how the political differences panned out, there was still, I think, always a sense that, uh, you can speak the same language, you kind of know what the other one’s talking about. You get it. And especially with Call and Hanukkah. Hanukkah was originally from the Zarland, just a few kilometers away from where Hanukkah was, where Call was born. And there’s an astonishing episode when they first meet, um, where basically Call says to him, if we talk in dialect, nobody will understand what we’re saying. We can get rid of our handlers, because, uh, their sort of dialects or accents were, if they spoke in the local dialect, we’re not too far removed from one another. Um, so there is that. On the flip side, though, Call is also, I think, one of the, um, mold of politicians who were, uh, in the context of the Cold War, probably quite, um, robust, if you want to call it that. He belongs to that sort of group, like Thatcher in Britain at the same time, Reagan in the US. Um, sort of this triangle of anti communist, um, staunchness, if you will, but yet he can’t, as you say, from the telephone transcripts and things, he can’t quite get away from the fact that he wants to make relations with East Germany better. At the same time, I think they both reached a point at this stage. And you said at the beginning that people didn’t know that the war was going to fall in 89, and they didn’t. They’d reached a point where they sort of accepted that there was going to be a different Germany at the other side of the Iron Curtain, and there needed to be a way of those two Germanies to be neighbors, um, trade with one another, potentially make financial deals and all the rest. Try and bring the other system down, which is effectively what happened earlier.
Ian Sanders: Yeah. But towards the end of the 80s, uh, uh, the winds of change are blowing. Solidarity has been legalized again, and is moving towards elections in Poland. And the sort of civil rights movement we were mentioning before becomes more burgeoning as people are becoming more dissatisfied with life in, um, East Germany. Would that be a correct analogy? I mean, what is triggering the growth in the civil rights movement at the end of the Think?
Katja Hoyer: People are just generally getting unhappy with the way that nothing is changing. Um, that’s the thing that came out of most of my interviews, was that people were saying they made all sorts of reasonable suggestions reforming the political system, making it more democratic, um, opening the GDR up, uh, easing, uh, restrictions in terms of traveling to the west, which had been happening step by step, but not fast enough. Um, people wanted to see their relatives, and they actively said, and this is still even once the walls open, people are, like, driving past the border guards saying, we will come back. Stop worrying about it. This isn’t the point. Um, so there was a sort of expectation that the GDR would move into the modern age, and Hanukkah isn’t the man for that. I mean, as you said, he was, yes, one generation on from Aubreyt, but nonetheless, somebody who’d, like, gone through the 1920s and the 1930s and experienced all of that. He was a man who was very, very out of touch. He was also very ill and getting increasingly sort of frail physically and psychologically. And he really was like orbreak before, in 1953. And there’s a connection here in that sense, unwilling to accept that change needed to happen. Uh, and most of the groups all the way into 1989 aren’t asking for the GDR to be abolished, or even for socialism to be abolished. They’re asking for reform. That includes the civil rights, uh, groups, most of them as well, who, um, were actually once it becomes obvious that unification was on the cards, many of them are actually worried about what’s going to happen to the things like we were saying earlier about women’s, um, position in society and things like that. So you basically have a situation where it’s not so much the actual conditions, it’s more the fact that people can live with them for now, if there’s a sense that they are changing and they’re not changing, and it’s that obstinacy that most people get very annoyed about. I spoke to one guy who stood in the last, um, municipal elections in 1989. They’re quite famous or infamous for the, uh, kind of outbreaks of descent. And he stood in that election for the Liberal Party, and he said, basically, you were set as a candidate. So people literally just ticked off the list of candidates, and that was it by way of electing. So there was no way they could not have elected him. But what you had to do is you had to face the electorate beforehand, and they were allowed to kind of voice concerns or say the things that they wanted you to change for them once you’re in power. And he said, it was so hostile. It was basically you were stood there in front of a room of people and they were just saying, what about, um, living conditions, housing, traveling to the west. People were concerned about the environment. That was a big thing that came out of the 1980s, particularly as East Germany was still burning a lot of coal, um, because the Soviet Unions had sort of reduced the, uh, gas and oil deliveries and so on and so forth. All of these things he was suddenly faced with. And he said, okay, I’ll try and go and change it. But people were angry at that point, and there wasn’t really a way to go back and things were moving forward, which they weren’t.
Ian Sanders: That just underlined some of the great stories that you’ve got in this book. I mean, the interviews that you’ve done and the little stories, unknown stories, certainly stories I’d not heard are great. One of them is, uh, you have quite a bit of detail about Angela Merkel and uh, her experiences and a sort of surreptitious trip across the border into Poland while Solidarity is forming and great stuff like that. But my absolute highlight of the book is a four year old, Katya Hoya appears in the narrative.
Katja Hoyer: Yes, I’m one of my own witnesses.
Ian Sanders: Fantastic. Fantastic. Now, what was your family’s experience of East Germany? Were they migrants, uh, from the Eastern Territories? What were they doing? What was their life? What were their jobs?
Katja Hoyer: Well, my family, I think, is pretty typical. If you had to list all of the kind of characteristics of a typical East German family, that we probably met them. So three of my four grandparents were from those Eastern Territories. So, um, basically one of them, my grandfather, came from East Prussia, the other one from the Sudden Land. And one of my grandmothers came from, uh, Pomerania. So just over the border into what is now, um, Poland. And one was from Saxony and had sort of already lived there. But they were part of that kind of huge group of people who traveled from the east and continued to talk about their experiences as well throughout the time. Basically, even to me, they were still talking about what it was like to live, say, in East Prussia, for example. So that stayed with them through the whole time. Um, uh, and they were, like many people, basically given opportunities to improve their lot. And therefore my grandparent generation is typical, I think, for that time as well, and that they were grateful for those opportunities and lived sort of reasonably satisfied lives within the GDR without being overtly political. Um, so they were not kind, uh, of socialist in an ideological sense, but were happy that because they came with nothing, um, and were given apprenticeships and things like that, and could sort of start doing things that suited their skill sets. So, for instance, my grandmother from Pomerania wanted to become a shop assistant, um, and was told that actually, um, you’re quite bright and we need women in sort of other parts of society. And was basically told to go to university and start studying, um, uh, to become a teacher. And she effectively then, well, not university, there were teacher courses basically set up. Um, and you end up with a generation which my grandparents belonged to, which were sort of reasonably satisfied with their lot and were quite happy with things, how things were going, and worked hard and kind of just lived their lives. And my, um, parents, my dad wanted, um, to think originally become a chemist or study physics. One of the two, and was, like all men told that, yes, you can do that, but only if you go and sign up to become an officer in the People’s Army first, because then you get better access to these places of study. So he became an officer in the, um, uh, air Force of the people’s, um, army, and then stayed there because he quite enjoyed it, um, but also found it more and more, um, difficult to live with the politics that came with, uh, that, as I described in the book as well. Um, and my mother became a teacher, um, and effectively, again, was kind of when she grew up, with her parents being both sort of working class people, so they both worked in factories. Um, and she was, again told you’re quite bright, do something different with your life. And against the wishes of her parents, we saw that as some sort of you want to better yourself and you want to move away from your heritage and what are you doing? This happened a lot. Uh, her teachers and her basically worked together to make it happen, against the fact that my grandparents weren’t all that keen for her to go to university.
Ian Sanders: How did your family fare in the vendor as far as the changes there? And you cover this in the epilogue of the book, you’ve got the Trihand, who is selling off these factories, and there’s high unemployment in uh, the former East Germany following reunification, certainly in the following years from then, yeah.
Katja Hoyer: Um, and that, again, they were, I think, pretty typical. So my, my dad had to leave the army because the Bundesha were only taking certain amounts of people over from East Germany, and usually not the officers and the higher ranks, due, um, to the sort of fear of politicization of them. He was offered that he could have stayed, but with the caveat that he would have basically have been posted anywhere in Germany, effectively. Um, certainly quite a long way away from where we lived and feared that he’d have to enroute or uproot his entire family just, uh, to stay maybe another two years or so, as a lot of people did. They were given sort of time contracts. Um, so he left, um, and struggled quite a bit in the find jobs, because, again, once the system had gone, if you weren’t any shape or form like part of that, and even if it is just within the army, which he was conscripted to to start with, um, more or less, um, basically you ended up having difficulties being employed afterwards. Um, and not least because so much industry was dismantled, so many of the companies that existed were just sold off and dismantled and taken to the west. And you got huge unemployment, um, throughout the early 2000s in East Germany. So he kind of just went from one job to the next, all very precarious, um, employment, and ended up working for a company that maintains, um, electronic gates. So like sort of automatic doors and things like that. And that’s what he still does. He’s effectively a white van man, uh, driving around fixing things, which he loves. Um, but it’s obviously a bit of a different thing to do compared to what he was used to doing. And uh, my mother had to retrain effectively. She had to go to university again, um, which was quite hard for her at the time. She had to continue to work. Had two small children at home, me and my sister. Um, and was at the same time having to go to, uh, university again to study and retrain effectively how to be a teacher, which she’d already been, um, previously, which, again, lots of people found very frustrating. I’ve talked to other people and they said they were just crying day in and day out because they’d done the same job for like 20 years and were suddenly told that’s worth nothing, um, and start again, or do something else and end up in kind of temporary work for the rest of their working lives.
Ian Sanders: It must have been an exciting and exhilarating time, but at the same time, really a frightening time, particularly for people of an older age who had all they’d ever known had been East Germany. And that almost like comfort blanket that they’d had.
Katja Hoyer: Yeah. And people tend to reduce that to the economic level. So they say things like, ah, so, and so much money has already been invested in East Germany and why are you not grateful? And all the rest of it. Um, when actually, as you say, it’s that psychological component as well. And particularly the devaluing of work, I think, is something that people really struggle with. And I think, again, this has really strong echoes now. So when you have kind of take the luggage handler crisis at airports at the moment when you have people working for very little money, very hard work that they have to do, um, and you don’t get recognized for what you do. Simply, you’re an asset, you’re a number on somebody’s spreadsheet an overhead to, uh, a large company that doesn’t even know you exist at the bottom end. And that just didn’t exist in the GDR. You were part of these work brigades, for example, that work together to achieve the targets. If you achieve the targets, you’d be recognized. There would be like, celebrations. You got medals, even, for that kind of thing. You could be a hero of labor was one of the kind of recognitions that you got. And people were just used to the idea that their life was their work. Like, you would identify with your job. That was really a part of who you were. And that suddenly went so even if you got a new job, um, it wasn’t the same. You weren’t part of kind of this really closely connected group of people anymore. That after work you didn’t have a beer with, or you even go on holiday with, or whatever. People were very close with their work colleagues, um, because it was seen as a collective thing to do. And yes, a lot of people were bored with their work as well. But nonetheless, it was safe. It was kind of if you were happy with your life, you were okay. Um, and that safety and security, I think, was something that was lost, and also the sort of communal aspect of life in the GDR. And it’s very hard to explain to people who haven’t lived with it and experienced it to get that across without making a political point, which I’m not so trying to explain what was lost to people without saying the GDR was the best place ever. That really isn’t the point. But it’s trying to understand what it was that made these people’s lives, what they were, um, and what they then felt that they’d lost. And that wasn’t going to be replaced by having a telephone in your house or, I don’t know, having internet from, from the, the sort of mid 1990s onwards, and so on and so forth, because they’re two different things, basically. Rebuilding the country, um, physically, and trying to merge east and West German societies together. Yeah.
Ian Sanders: And I think it’s an important differentiator between the experience of the other countries of like Warsaw Pact countries, whereby Czechoslovakia okay, for a while it remained as Czechoslovakia. It was no longer the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia. It was Czechoslovakia. Whereas with East Germany, the impression I get some of the, they were subsumed or forced into having to be like West Germany. There was a lot of talk at the time of unification, I remember, of a third way between communism, capitalism, uh, of West Germany, and another way of running the country. And I think you touched on that slightly with some of these, um, civil rights groups being fearful of what would happen with reunification.
Katja Hoyer: Yeah. Because the expectation in the negotiations, and this is openly said from the western side, was that we have a system here, uh, we have a constitution, we have a market, um, economy. And what we’re negotiating about isn’t merging those two together, but how we can integrate your system into ours. And it just becomes like absorbing it, basically, into the system that already exists. There was absolutely no negotiation from the western side on how that could work, and whether there was maybe, as the SPD suggested, for example, in West Germany, whether there was a way to um, amalgamate the systems rather than just absorbing the GDR. I think it’s also often a misreading of that election in 1990. So the first, um, East German election that was free, um, in 1990, came up with, um, sort of majority for the parties, for the coalition of parties that suggested a really quick unification that was just absorbing East Germany into west Germany. But the problem is that basically, politicians had promised a number of things. Like hall basically was saying that there will not be any unemployment and you can immediately have access to the welfare system if anything goes wrong. And all the rest of it. I think people had a very, very different idea in 1990 what was going to happen. And you can see that in, for instance, the turnout at the time. So the turnout was incredibly high in East Germany to that election because people want to change. And then you see that drop throughout the 1990s. People get disaffected, they get angry because the stuff that they’ve been promised hadn’t materialized. And this isn’t about material safety alone. Um, and I can’t stress that enough, because that is always the comeback I get when I say things like that. But there’s unemployment benefits or this, that, and the other. That isn’t the point. People have lost what they’ve failed to be the dignity of their labor and their work to a system that they didn’t understand before they entered it. They were sold West Germany as something that they saw on television, in adverts, in the way that propaganda was bringing it into the east. And then the reality of it, which comes with risks and which comes with pitfalls, wasn’t what people were expecting. And I think that is an issue that needed more communication and more work on that rather than kind of just get on with it. Um, it is what it is.
Ian Sanders: You lose your job, you lose that sense of identity. And I guess identity is one of the other things here, is you’re suddenly the citizen of another country.
Katja Hoyer: The overwhelming thing that people were saying was, I believed in it, but I also saw that things needed to change, that it couldn’t go on like that. That’s the phrase that I hear a lot people realize, even the ones that were really pro GDR, uh, because I didn’t speak to politicians as much. The only politician I spoke to was actually Greg Ogisi, and Igon crense. But by and large, I talked to kind of ordinary Germans who weren’t like functionaries or party officials in the sense that they were really invested in that particular system. But even those who were vaguely pro socialism still said they realized that things had come to a dead end and something needed to give. But they didn’t agree with the way that all of the kind of progress that had been made on a social basis. Take, um, uh, women in the army, for example. That’s something that had started in the GDR. And then the Bundesfair was, by its own constitution forbidden to have women in the army. So they were all just sacked. All the 2000 women that worked in the National People’s Army were literally just sacked without any kind of conversation about that. What could have been done to try and, um, find some sort of solution for, uh, that many that the childcare suddenly disintegrated. And yes, there was still more than in West Germany, but not to the level where everybody could just have a childcare place. So many women ended up suddenly at home. They were previously, I don’t know, like a chemist or, um, I don’t know, lab technician or whatever they did. And that was their identity as much as it was for the men. And suddenly they end up being at home with two small children to look after and nothing else to do. And they just don’t get that lifestyle because they can’t live it. They don’t want to live it. And they were very unhappy. So female unemployment rises even more sharply, uh, as a statistic than general unemployment. And all of these things, I think people find difficult to get their heads around.
Ian Sanders: The book is called beyond the Wall east Germany 1949 to 1990. It’s by Katia Hoyer and is published by Alan Lane. There will be links in the episode notes and if you buy the book on those links, you are helping to support Cold War conversations. Don’t miss the episode extras such as videos, photos and other content, just look for the link in the podcast information. The podcast wouldn’t exist without the generous support of our financial supporters. And I’d like to thank one and all of them for keeping the podcast on the road. If you’d like to help the project, just go to coldwarconversations.com. Um, donate. The Cold War conversation continues in our Facebook discussion group. Uh, just search for cold war conversations in Facebook. Thanks very much for listening and see you next weekend. Thanks for listening right through to the end. I really appreciate it. Um, and maybe check out our store and see if you can find the ideal gift for the Cold War enthusiast in your life. Just go to coldwarconversations.com store. Thanks for listening.