The legacy of the GDR

A significant amount of oral history work has made it possible to trace the lives of East Germans “seen from below”. The devaluation of the GDR In the 1990s, there followed a reappropriation of identity by its citizens. The “other Germany” fuels an increasingly dynamic search.

Germany is celebrating its 30th anniversary of unification, which is still not 30 years of unity. The book by Élisa Goudin-Steinmann and Agnès Arp adds fuel to the fire of those who think that the GDR and the unification process are not distant memories, but long-term experiences that continue to exert a strong influence on the life of the entire German nation.

An oral history of the GDR

Far from the speeches made in the 1990s by the new “victors of history”, this work offers a story from below of the life of East Germans in GDRand during the thirty years that followed the disappearance of the second German state, founded in 1949 and officially absorbed by its big brother on October 3, 1990. The time that has passed – a generation – allows us to take a more peaceful look at this small state that only existed for 40 years, but which leaves its mark on the experience of a significant part of the German population, while the other part continues to ignore the past and the current existence of the East Germans.

Researchers Élisa Goudin-Steinmann (Germanist, lecturer at the Sorbonne Nouvelle) and Agnès Arp (historian, researcher at the University of Jena) place their work in the movement of rehabilitation of certain aspects of daily life in GDR through the revaluation of oral history studies. Indeed, the main material serving as the basis for this study consists of a corpus of biographical interviews, conducted in 2018 and 2019 with East Germans of all ages and backgrounds, who have in common that they have remained anonymous, and whose testimony has not been made public until now. A biographical summary appears at the end of the book for each of the twenty people interviewed at length.

The progress of the work is in line with the rehabilitation mentioned above. The period of strong devaluation of the East German heritage in the 1990s was followed by a reappropriation of an identity by citizens, ultimately transforming into a revaluation of acquired knowledge, traces of which could remain in current social practices.

The fourth and final part, finally, is devoted to an analysis of the GDR as the object of research: the authors show how the univocal approach of “dictatorship” imposed by official (West German) research policy has given way to more nuanced analyses which highlight other aspects and now also obtain some state subsidies.


Contrasting their findings with those who have definitively closed the “ex-GDR “, the authors ask the following questions:

What is the GDR today? How is this political, historical, memorial object expressed in collective, individual, family, official or unofficial memories, in media discourses, in the positions taken by political leaders, in scientific research? (p. 27)

To answer these questions, they cross-reference the testimonies of “ordinary citizens, those who were neither opponents of the regime nor officials of the regime” (p. 18), drawing on the concept ofOwner (here translated as “as for oneself”) developed by the historian Alf Lüdtke.

In doing so, they study these oral sources in the light of their in-depth knowledge of everything that has been written over the last thirty years on different aspects of the GDRThe narrative of life stories is pleasantly supported by references to scholarly writings on the issues raised, in a back-and-forth between popular history and academic research.

While by the end of 1989 most East Germans had already given up on a possible third way, the “devaluations” they suffered are understood primarily in the economic sense. The authors recall, through personal stories, to what extent a significant part of the population lost their jobs first and foremost, during the transition from a socialist planned economy that was running out of steam to a market economy whose primary objective was profitability and the conquest of new markets.

Through their life stories, the authors show to what extent this brutal break-up was able to stir up the feeling of devaluation of many East Germans, particularly due to the action of the Treuhand, a trust institution set up to liquidate the state-owned companies of the GDR under the guise of a “soft” transition. Between 1989 and 1992, the number of jobs in East Germany was halved (p. 61).

The authors also highlight the symbolic and financial damage linked to the liquidation of the past. Victims of the SED have never obtained legal and financial compensation in reunified Germany, whether they are border residents of the RFA forcibly displaced from the Wall after its construction in 1961, marginalized people or some victims of the Stasi. They break a taboo by giving the floor to a former Stasi officer who, if he is not the witness most likely to arouse empathy, is very qualified to analyze the economic disinheritance of the end of the regime that he experienced in its most intimate workings.

The women’s place

The passages devoted to “reappropriations” highlight the permanence of certain social practices that support the thesis of a collective identity. Anti-fascism continues to be perceived as an essential starting point for the existence of a German state; flowers are still offered to all women on March 8, International Women’s Day; children are still happy to submit to the rite of Youth Wealtha kind of secular communion inherited from the GDR.

To introduce the problem of the loss of social benefits of the GDRthe authors cite the title of Franck Castorf’s show at the Volksbühne in 1997: “Freedom makes you poor” (Freedom makes a gun). This introduction serves to put into perspective the exercise of a freedom that does not exist without an economic foundation. The analysis here does not avoid shedding light on electoral behavior, which differs in the East and the West, with high scores in the East for the AfD, the far-right party. This can be explained by the “economic and social trade-offs following unification.”

The revaluation at work clearly involves social practices inherited from the GDRthen the period of exclusion of the “second-class citizens” that East Germans have often felt like since 1990. The authors offer a synthesis of the different areas in which an Eastern specificity is still emerging: education, art, culture or the place of women, to cite the most salient.

An example is thought-provoking: even today, the performance of young East German women in mathematics remains much higher than that of their Western counterparts – a distant revenge for a country that had placed great emphasis on reducing inequalities between women and men, while at the same time, in RFAIt was not until 1977 that West German women were allowed to work without their husband’s consent.

New approaches

The last part of the work is devoted to the place of the GDR in research in the humanities and social sciences. The chronological presentation of the development in this area follows the same stages as those of the social development felt by the East Germans: the GDR was initially demonized as a typical example of dictatorship and the “lawless” state, a judgment that often continues to be the only analysis offered and cuts short any long-term vision.

Other approaches have gradually emerged, assessing in various ways the room for maneuver that citizens could actually have within the regime, between opposition, resistance and self-control. As the GDR moves away, it becomes possible to approach it more calmly by gradually filling in the gaps, by going beyond the stage of symbolic non-recognition.

This undertaking is perfectly accomplished in this work, which comes precisely from two non-German researchers. Their vision from the outside allows them not to be crushed by the weight of political correctness imposed by the West German research community. In this, they make an important contribution that will strengthen the interest that many French researchers have long had in the “other Germany”.