There’s a stirring film clip available on YouTube shot inside the West German Bundestag on November 9, 1989. Seek it out to watch the moment stunned Bonn deputies learn East Germans are surging over the Berlin Wall, that formerly deadly and implacable border. As the jubilant applause fades, a lone voice spontaneously begins the Deutschlandlied, the national anthem. The first word is Einigkeit—unity. Other voices join in, all rise, and Haydn’s melody fills the air like a swelling movie soundtrack. At long last, it appears, a murderous regime has fallen, the most grievous wound of a war 40 years past will be salved, and Germany will be a single nation once more.

It happened so blindingly fast. The Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) was dissolved less than a year later, its nationalized economy sold off for parts, and 16 million citizens in the east were absorbed into the 62-million-strong west.

No one can mourn the repressive GDR. Its demise was a triumph—liberty’s victory over tyranny—made all the sweeter for its bloodlessness. Given this, how to regard Beyond the Wall? Its author, Katja Hoyer, is an excellent historian, born in East Germany and based now in the UK. Her first book, Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871–1918, dispatched with the woke view of Otto von Bismarck as an evil colonialist, to describe, in a sprightly and entertaining manner, his unparalleled political skill. But the ruling cadre of East Germany included not one hero. In seeking to redeem some aspects of her native land, Hoyer weaves into Beyond the Wall the experiences of private individuals, to give, she writes, color to “a caricature of the monochrome world of communism.”

One senses that Hoyer, age four at time of the Wall’s fall, is attempting to humanize the lives and struggles of the adults who brought her up—her parents, her grandparents, and the teachers she admired. She aligns herself with former German chancellor Angela Merkel, who was irritated by West German colleagues for dismissing the 35 years she spent in the GDR “as if this life before German reunification didn’t really count…no matter what good and bad experiences one had.” Hoyer has produced a vividly detailed book that nonetheless commits a grave sin against history—the sin of omission.

East Germany might easily never have come into being in the first place. Stalin, emerging victorious from the war, didn’t believe that Germany—culturally, linguistically, and historically alien to him—belonged naturally in the Russian sphere of influence. His ultimate goal, after extracting massive reparations, was to establish Germany as a united, demilitarized state that would be incapable of ever again posing a threat to Russia. In the interim, he tapped Wilhelm Pieck and Walter Ulbricht, sole surviving members of the Weimar-era German Communist Party (KPD) politburo, to administer the Soviet zone of occupied Germany. While most of the 8,000 German Communists who fled to the east after Hitler’s rise were executed or exiled to Siberia during Stalin’s Great Purge, Pieck and Ulbricht demonstrated enough amorality and fanatical loyalty to stay alive. Ulbricht even tra-velled to Stalingrad in 1943 at the tail end of the cataclysmic battle to urge starving German troops, via giant radio speakers rolled up to the front lines, to lay down arms and join the resistance to Hitler. At supper afterward, the supervising official, one Nikita Khrushchev, chuckled, “Well, Comrade Ulbricht, it doesn’t look as if you have earned your dinner tonight. No Germans have surrendered.”

Stalin reluctantly agreed to the establishment of the GDR in October 1949 only after his erstwhile allies—France, the U.S., and the UK—founded the Federal Republic in their zones. Ulbricht, now general secretary of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), a merger of the Communists and the Social Democrats, immediately minimized the democratic elements of the new nation’s constitution and established a Soviet-style nomenklatura at the top. Stalin kept his options open. Hoyer sides with those who believe that the Soviet leader’s offer in March 1952—to allow for the reunification of Germany in lieu of the Federal Republic joining NATO—was genuine. Ulbricht and company escaped being kicked to the curb when West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer turned the offer down.

Hoyer argues that to a population exhausted by war, stability—peace, secure jobs, and food—mattered most, which made the introduction of Ulbricht’s dictatorship of the proletariat relatively smooth even among “those whose instincts were naturally opposed.” The new regime promoted itself as “anti-fascist,” a message that targeted young people in particular. Erich Honecker (fresh from a decade in Nazi prisons) used a familiar framework—marches, torch processions, and mass gatherings—to convert those ages 14 to 25 to the new ideology. While the regime ejected former adult Nazi party members from professional posts, ranking former members of Hitler Youth could still be leaders of Free German Youth (FDJ). The FDJ’s distinctive blue shirts with a bright yellow rising-sun emblem would be part of the GDR to the very end.

But for many citizens, the infant Communist state held little appeal, and by the thousands, dissatisfied doctors, engineers, academics, and skilled workers crossed the still-open border in Berlin to make new lives in the West. It required the construction of what West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt called the Schandmauer, the wall of shame, in 1961 to establish a modicum of stability in the GDR. Escape attempts continued—hundreds were killed trying to flee the country during the next 28 years. But those who remained had no option but to make the best of it. Large-scale building projects replaced bombed-out city blocks, providing modern flats for hundreds of thousands. Numerous East German families were able to buy a washing machine and a television, as well as go on a summer vacation for the first time. Yearslong waiting lists formed to get a car—the two-stroke Trabant, nick-named “Trabi.” By 1965, 8 percent of East Germans owned an automobile, by 1988 just over half of all households had one, slightly behind West Germany and on par with the UK.

To demonstrate that the repressive GDR could also provide opportunity to citizens, Hoyer offers up the experiences of Gero Vanselow, a refugee boy from the Pomeranian town of Stolp (now Slupsk in Poland), who with his widowed mother survived on turnips and sparrows caught with mouse traps in the lean years after the war. Relieved that after the mid-1950s he never went hungry again, he dream-ed of becoming a pilot like his father, who was shot down in 1945. Gero was rejected for a flying role by the Nationale Volksarmee because he had distant relatives in Cologne, whom he had never met. Undeterred, he asked for a ground role. After he enlisted, his superiors found him affable and clever, and he was able to access the officer ranks once he completed the engineering degree at Leipzig he was offered. He rose to become a lieutenant colonel.

Hoyer maintains that Gero, and most East Germans like him, “knew little of the vicious power struggles that played out…in Berlin, and fewer would have cared if they had.” Of course, the Soviets continued to call the shots. In 1971, an aging Ulbricht felt so proud of providing the Communist world’s highest living standards to East Germans, he lectured Leonid Brezhnev on how to do Leninism right. The Russian leader quickly replaced him with Honecker. The new leader sensed that young people, three decades removed from the depredations of war, would need more than the occasional torch march to make life bearable. In 1978, to answer a youth craving for genuine Levi’s, the regime purchased a million pairs of jeans directly from the U.S. manufacturer to sell at a reduced price. But the fanatical Honecker also drastically ratcheted up state surveillance, making East Germans the most spied-upon people the world has ever known.


By the 1980s, despite the Stasi’s grip, pacifists and environmentalists in East Berlin began pushing for reform. Across the GDR, young people delighted in wearing T-shirts printed with Mikhail Gorbachev’s face and the words “glasnost” and “perestroika.” When Honecker told Gorbachev, “we will walk our own path,” the Russian leader had a welcome excuse to wash his hands of his rigid German comrades. Yet it took change elsewhere to relegate Honecker and his odious confederates to the dustbin of history.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl later said that the first stone was removed from the Berlin Wall at the Pan European Picnic held near Sopron in Hungry in August 1989—an event that is the subject of The Picnic: A Dream of Freedom and the Collapse of the Iron Curtain, by Matthew Longo, an American political scientist now teaching in the Netherlands. During this giant, open-air party, a wooden gate on the border between Austria and Hungary was opened as a symbolic gesture of European friendship. Hundreds of East Germans, tipped off beforehand, took the opportunity to make a dash for freedom, while the Hungarian border guards stood by passively.

Without the courage of Miklos Nemeth, an economist and the last Communist prime minister of Hungary, the picnic would likely never have happened. In his book’s strongest chapters, Longo recounts how Nemeth navigated the minefield of Hungarian-Soviet relations and domestic Hungarian politics, to bring about reform and independence—all the while worrying about a reprise of the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Longo spent many days conversing with the grandfatherly Nemeth at his country cottage near Lake Balaton and looking over his private notes. It’s hard to argue with the author’s contention that Nemeth’s role in history deserves more attention than it has received heretofore.

Longo also profiles the Pan-European president, aristocrat Otto von Habsburg, final crown prince of Austria-Hungary  and a member of the European Parliament for the Bavarian Christian Social Union, as well as his social opposite, a 26-year-old firebrand with wild black hair: Viktor Orban, a leader of Hungary’s Alliance of Young Democrats.

It’s unfortunate that Longo did not confine himself to illuminating the kaleidoscope of characters who brought the picnic to life and the event’s aftermath—the permanent opening of the Hungarian border a month later, after which the East German apparatchiks could no longer maintain their police state. Instead, in the final section. Longo assesses the events of 34 years ago through a personal prism—his opinion of the current state of European society. “I no longer view the fall of the Berlin Wall as marking the straightforward triumph of democracy over authoritarianism,” he writes. “Nor do I associate the West cleanly with freedom.” Visiting Berlin on the 30th anniversary of that unforgettable night of November 9, 1989, Longo felt uncomfortable “commemorating walllessness at a moment in which new ones were everywhere being built.” While calling out the walls between Israel and Palestine, along the U.S.-Mexico border, and around the EU, he is particularly condemning of Orban—“the man who once declared Soviets Out!”—for constructing the wall along Hungary’s southern border with Serbia to block migrants.

Certainly, Orban’s shift to illiberality is a fascinating transformation, but the author’s musings at the conclusion of The Picnic arrive like ants among the sandwiches. His presentism—imposing today’s attitudes on the events of the past—is as grievous a transgression as Hoyer’s insufficiently critical view of the land of her birth, and rather more obnoxious.

Photo: AP Photo/Edwin Reichert

We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link