We’ve marketed the first themed reading week of German Literature Month IX as ex-DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), when in English it should be ex-GDR (German Democratic Republic). I’ll get it right in this post ….
Anyway, given that I nearly didn’t make it out of the GDR on the day I visited in 1980 – a border guard at Checkpoint Charlie decided to confiscate my passport, though thankfully only for 15 minutes (while he gave an impromptu lesson to his fellow guards about the watermarks in British passports) – I built a wall inside my head and tried never to think of it again. It was the kind of place best forgotten. When I did, I was subject to all the Western preconceptions: the people were miserable, hungry and oppressed. It wasn’t until I heard the author Titus Müller maintain that it was possible to have a happy childhood in the GDR that I began to understand that not everyone was miserable, hungry and oppressed … (at least not all the time).
So for this year’s German Literature Month I’m taking a look behind the Iron Curtain to see what life was really like.
Maxim Leo’s Red Love (translated by Shaun Whiteside) is the story of an East German family. It spans three generations starting with the wartime experiences of Leo’s grandparents, both of whom chose to live in the East, his parent’s marriage and their various conflicts with the state, and his own life right up to the Fall of the Wall and beyond.
Our family was like a miniature GDR. It was here that the struggles took place, the one that couldn’t be fought out anywhere else. Here ideology collided with life. That struggle raged for whole years.
You’d think that after 1989 the struggles would end. But no, the family fractured, and the book is Leo’s attempt to discover what went so badly wrong.
From the start the two sides of Leo’s family are divergent. Following his experiences as a 17-year old Jew, forced to flee the Nazis and fight with the French resistance, his maternal grandfather, Gerhard, becomes a convinced communist, and moves to the GDR to help build the state. He becomes an important personage, who brooks no argument in the family circle. His daughter, Anne, is loyal to the state, although she has her doubts. As a journalist, her words are subject to strict censorship and sometimes she knows that what is published is not true. Then she marries Wolf …
The only thing Wolf’s father, Werner, has in common with Gerhard, is that he chose to live in the GDR. It was an opportunity to reinvent himself. Because he had once supported the Nazi cause and had fought in the Wehrmacht. Two years as a prisoner of war had broken him and he needed a fresh start. The GDR provided that. However, he soon left his wife and two young children (one of whom was Wolf) to fend for themselves. This might not be the only reason why Wolf became an apolitical individualist, but it will have helped.
So Anne, daughter of a staunch communist, marries Wolf, an apolitical artist, in a country which tolerates no dissent. You can feel the tension and Gerhard’s blood pressure rising. Anne is torn between her politics and her conscience, her father and her husband, and sometimes pushes boundaries she shouldn’t. As does Wolf with his subversive art. They are lucky – they are buffered from the state’s worse excesses by Gerhard’s status.
Maxim, their child, observes the arguments between man and wife, parents and grandparents, all caused by a regime that at one point is described as being “in bed” with its citizens. He doesn’t fully understand. He just wants the happy childhood that Müller said was possible: to enjoy walks in the woods, swimming in the lakes around Berlin, happy family gatherings. He is 19 when the Wall falls, conflicted, resentful at not being allowed to pursue the education he wishes for, nevertheless, in a state of panic at the sudden turn of events. After all, the GDR is all he has ever known.
The impetus for writing the family biography coms after visiting Gerhard in hospital. A stroke has rendered him speechless. If Leo wants to hear the stories from his family’s past again, he is going to have to collect them for himself from interviews and archives (both familial and official). And so begins a retracing and a reevaluation. A journey of refamiliarisation and discovery. I’m not entirely sure if it’s a reconciliation.
The GDR has been dead for ages, but it’s still quite alive in my family. Like a ghost that can’t find peace.
It’s 10 years since Red Love was originally published in German. Hopefully the writing of the book and the intervening years have laid any residual ghosts to rest.
Red Love is an informative book with many surprises, such as a Stasi assessment of Wolf being “critical, not hostile” not enough to arrest him. (I thought the regime was harsher than that.) However, it didn’t answer the question of why the Wall fell. (Unfair of me to ask – East Germans most likely knew less than I did). So I turned to journalist Peter Millar’s memoir, 1989 The Berlin Wall: My Part in Its Downfall.
At the start of his career, the Irish journalist Millar worked for Reuters, and one of his earliest task was to run the bureau in East Berlin. It was a challenge. Beyond the politically obvious, Millar didn’t speak German. Still once he got his feet under the Stammtisch at the Metzer Eck, a pub frequented by a crowd of colourful locals, his German improved exponentially, as did his insights into the life of East Berliners. As a Western journalist, he was allowed to travel in and out of the country at will. As his career progressed from Reuters to The Sunday Times (via The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph), he covered developments not only in East Germany, but also in Poland and other areas of Central Europe. And yet he too was surprised by and almost missed the Fall of The Wall. (Which made me feel better because at the time I felt I had missed something blindingly obvious.)
His book, as can be inferred from its light-hearted title, is no heavyweight to read. It is full of journalistic anecdote, adventure, mishap, including his own arrest, interrogation by the Stasi and deportation from East Germany. Light of tone and irreverent when that is appropriate, but also, packed with well-informed insight, particularly about the history of the Wall and the impact of Gorbachov and Perestroika. From what Millar says, it was inevitable that the Wall would fall. But no-one was expecting it on the night of 9.11.1989. Just why did it happen then? Millar summarises:
I had committed the mistake of assuming that politics and logic would fuel the progress of history, instead of more potent factors: emotion and accident.
And accident it was! No wonder we were all surprised. And I’m still shaking my head even though I now know how that accident came about.