Paula Kirby on Life in the GDR.
I’m very pleased to be able to publish this online interview with Paula Kirby – a writer who lived and worked in Dresden, East Germany during the 1980s. During her time in Dresden, Paula was monitored by the Stasi, and she recently gained access to her Stasi file. Paula is currently writing a novel set in 1980s East Germany and she also regularly tweets about the GDR – you can follow her on Twitter @PaulaSKirby (and we think that if you’re not already following her on Twitter, then you really should be!). Here, Paula reflects on her experiences of living and working in East Germany.
Hi Paula! Thanks very much for agreeing to share your experiences with us. Could you begin by telling us a little about the time you spent living and working in East Germany?
Of course – I was there for two years, from September 1985 to the end of August 1987, teaching English in the Intensive Language Centre of the Technical University of Dresden. My students were predominantly men aged 35+ who were already well established in their careers and needed to improve their English, usually in preparation for a stint “building Socialism” overseas: common destinations for my students included Ethiopia, Libya and Iraq, where English would be more widely understood than German. For me, the allure of the GDR was curiosity, plain and simple: the chance to see and experience a country that had always intrigued me, but which I had assumed would always remain a mystery.
What did you expect life in communist East Germany to be like? Was the reality similar to how you had imagined it?
My degree subject was German and one of my Final Year modules had included the study of a few works of GDR literature; as a student I’d also made two or three day-visits across Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin, so I knew about the greyness and the strange sensation of stepping back in time by a couple of decades or so; I knew there wouldn’t be much in the shops; I knew East Berlin felt like an oasis of calm and tranquillity after the (equally but oppositely thrilling) spectacle of West Berlin. I had seen the Berlin Wall and knew that GDR citizens were not free to travel; and I had heard of the Stasi, of course, though I wasn’t sure how much of what I thought I knew was true and how much merely Cold War propaganda.
Nevertheless, the GDR was full of surprises. Shall I start with the good ones? Dresden was beautiful: literally breathtakingly beautiful, or at least, the city centre was. The half-finished suburbs full of hideous tower-blocks were as ugly in Dresden as they were elsewhere in the GDR, but much of the historic old town had been lovingly rebuilt after the war, and even the modern areas, such as the Prager Strasse pedestrian zone, where my flat was, were amazingly light and spacious, with dancing fountains and flower-beds bursting with colour, and people sitting outside at the street cafés, lapping up the sunshine while drinking coffee and eating cake. This was not what I had been expecting of a city behind the Iron Curtain!
Then there was Dresden’s astonishing cultural provision – It wasn’t just that there was an abundance of cultural offerings, but that the appreciation of culture clearly had mass appeal. The famous Old and New Masters art galleries were always busy, and I don’t think I ever went to a classical concert in the enormous Kulturpalast (‘Palace of Culture’) that wasn’t absolutely packed. And not just with the kind of people you might have expected to see in the West, where such things tend to be perceived as middle-class pursuits. In the GDR there was nothing elitist about going to a classical concert or opera: it was simply something enjoyable and stimulating that was accessible to all. Tickets for the newly re-opened Semper Opera House were only on sale once a week, from Monday lunchtimes, and people would start queuing before dawn, even in the depths of winter, in order to be sure of getting them. Cultural events were heavily subsidised so, even though the opera tickets were still fairly pricey in relation to average wages, they bore no resemblance to the obscene prices charged in the West; and other cultural events were truly affordable for all. This was something I loved, and I still think that life in the GDR was enormously enriched by it.
Another highlight of my time in Dresden were my interactions with friends, colleagues and students. One of my strongest memories is of laughter: whether in the classroom or staffroom, at a local restaurant or over a bottle of wine or whisky at home, we spent a huge amount of time laughing. Not that that, of itself, is anything particularly unusual: it just wasn’t what I’d been expecting of the GDR, which I’d assumed would be altogether grimmer in character. Also, in a society where there was simply no point spending your life in the pursuit of material gain because, no matter how much money you amassed, there was very little to spend it on, people had the mental space to focus on other things: like friends and family, going mushrooming in the woods, going for bike rides: the simple life. There was a simplicity and a warmth in the interactions I shared in that was quite delightful and very different in character from anything I’d experienced in the West – I suspect that plays a large part in many former GDR citizens’ nostalgia for those times.
There were some bad surprises too – the political propaganda I had been expecting, of course: just not that it would be quite so relentless. It was in the textbooks I was expected to teach from, it was on TV, it was in the newspapers, it was on banners draped above shops and offices, it saturated the endless staff meetings, it was even lit up in red neon letters on a block of flats near my home (“Socialism will triumph!”). The same goes for the bureaucracy: it wasn’t unexpected, but the extent of it and the frustration that went with it (and the number of times you would wait for hours to see an official, only to be curtly turned away because you didn’t have a particular form with you, or you did have the form but you hadn’t already waited two hours somewhere else to have it stamped by another official first …), these were things to which I eventually became accustomed but never reconciled.
While nearly all East Germans I got to know socially and professionally were warm and welcoming, an encounter with people in their official capacities was often stressful. Most shop assistants, waiters, post office clerks, ticket desk staff and even doctors’ receptionists often seemed to go out of their way to convey their low opinion of you and their resentment at having to engage with you. “Customer service” seemed an unknown concept, and to go shopping or to the local post office was to face an almost certain lecture on the many ways you had failed to live up to expectations. You would be scolded for not having wrapped your parcel properly, for not standing at the right place in the queue, for not stepping up to the counter quickly enough when it was your turn, for not having your ID ready to show, for not having the right change, for giving them too much small change, for speaking too quietly and, of course, for speaking too loudly. Such encounters were a constant test, it seemed: one we were all doomed to fail. In fact, of all the challenges of everyday life in the GDR, this was the one that ground me down the most.
How do you think your status as a foreigner (and particularly, your identity as a Westerner ‘behind the iron curtain’!) impacted upon your experiences in East Germany?
On a personal level, most people were friendly, curious, warm, helpful and eager to show off their home town and region. I did genuinely get the impression that most people I met broadly approved of what the GDR was trying to do, even if they were critical of some – or even most – aspects of the reality. The lack of freedom to travel was, of course, a very sore point: even Party stalwarts would privately admit to feeling resentful about this. Officialdom could be tricky, especially because the GDR was always seeking ways of getting hold of hard currency, and so there were certain things (notably hotels and international train travel) for which Westerners were required to pay in Deutschmarks. One glimpse of my British passport, and the demands for western currency would begin! All very well, but I was being paid in GDR Marks and, having only just graduated, had no western currency to spare. The university gave me an official document confirming that I was “building socialism in the GDR” and that the requirement to pay in hard currency therefore did not apply, but it didn’t always do the trick, and then the long circuit from one bureaucrat to another to another would begin all over again until I found someone who was willing to cut through the muddle for me.
For the same reason, travel to other countries within the Soviet bloc was difficult. (To be fair, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, it wasn’t straightforward for GDR citizens either.) I had a visa permitting me to travel between the GDR and non-socialist countries as often as I wanted, but no visa permitting me to travel within the Soviet bloc. These days travelling from Dresden to Prague simply involves a train journey of about two and a half hours. Back then when I wanted to visit Prague I was told I’d have to go to East Berlin (a two-hour train journey from Dresden) in order to get a visa to enter Czechoslovakia; but once I was there, the embassy refused to give me that visa because I didn’t yet have a visa to leave the GDR for another socialist state. For this I had to return to Dresden and apply to my local police station, after which I had to go back to East Berlin for my Czechoslovakian visa. And both visas had to be paid for in hard currency, of course. Even once all that was sorted out, the train journey to Prague took a good four hours because of the border – where, of course, the passport and customs officials were particularly interested in the passenger from the West…
I think generally, as Westerners living and working in the GDR, we fell between two stools. In some ways it worked in our favour: we could, after all, nip across the Wall to West Berlin whenever the urge for an orange or some real news became too strong, and we were free to leave permanently whenever we wanted. However, unlike lifelong residents of the GDR, we were entirely dependent on the products available in the shops. People who were permanently resident there often had allotments where they grew their own fruit and veg; or if they weren’t gardeners, they were good at, say, DIY and could repay the favour of a few kilos of soft fruits in the summer by being willing to fix a neighbour’s dodgy plumbing. Partly because of the poor supply situation and partly, too, because of the interminable bureaucracy, GDR life was eased considerably if you had “Vitamin B”, where the B stood for Beziehungen: contacts. But such contacts take time to build up, so we temporary residents were at a disadvantage: a disadvantage that would have immediately disappeared if we’d had enough Western currency, of course!
How aware were you of the Stasi during your period of residence in Dresden?
I was aware of the existence of the Stasi, and I assumed they’d be at least a little bit interested in me, as a Westerner, but back then no one had any sense of the sheer scale of Stasi operations. My approach, especially in my first year there, was to be cautious but not paranoid: after all, I wasn’t spying, I wasn’t trying to foment revolution and I wasn’t a subversive element, so I couldn’t imagine they’d find anything of interest to them even if they were watching me.
That all changed after my then-partner Knut and I applied for permission to marry and for him to leave the GDR and live with me in the UK. We were never in any doubt that this would not endear us to the GDR authorities, and after that I was much more careful about what I wrote and said. We were quite certain that our letters and phone calls to each other would be monitored – and my letters and phone calls home as well – so I began to take the ‘invisible ear’ into account when deciding what to write and say.
Generally I think most East Germans adopted a similar kind of approach to the one I had taken in the early part of my time in Dresden: they would be somewhat cautious about what they would say, and to whom. Publicly people would repeat or even initiate all the slogans and stock phrases required of them, while perhaps taking a decidedly more sceptical tone in private. Among family and close friends people were sometimes surprisingly forthright about their true feelings, though many will have been devastated after the collapse of the GDR to discover the extent to which the Stasi exploited this too.
You recently requested access to your Stasi file. What motivated you to do this and what did this process involve?
For the applicant the process is quite straightforward,: simply complete the form on the website of the BStU, the Germany authority now responsible for managing access to the remaining Stasi files, and then wait. In my case, it didn’t actually take too long – I heard back within two months that there were index cards referencing me and that it was therefore likely there would be a file, and I received my copy of the full file just over a year after that. That may sound a long time, but the usual waiting time is currently at least two, sometimes even three years, simply because there are still so many new applications coming in and the documents can be spread over several different former Stasi offices, which makes tracking them all down a huge task. You also have to bear in mind the sheer size of the archive: some reports say that, if placed upright in a single line, the files would stretch for 80 miles, others that they’d stretch for 120 miles. Whichever is nearer the truth, the scale is truly staggering, especially when you consider that the population of the GDR was less than 17 million.
As for my motivation, I’d always known I’d do it one day. I had always wanted to get a clear picture of the kind of thing the Stasi were interested in, and the extent to which they had had me under surveillance. Most of all, I wanted to see whether I could work out who, if anyone, had been spying on me. I am fascinated by the notion of layers in relationships: the bits that are visible and the bits that are concealed. Was there someone I had thought of as a friend who had actually just been acting a role with me? If so, it would mean that the memories I had of my time in Dresden – my understanding of my own story, if you like – would be at least partially false. This is also a central theme of the novel I am currently writing.
The initial confirmation from the BStU that there probably would be a file on me was a bit of a shock, and had me reaching for the Remy Martin! Which was strange, really, because it was exactly what I’d been expecting (a Westerner who tried to marry a GDR citizen and leave with him: how could there not have been a file on me?), but that first letter from the BStU transformed the thought from the hypothetical to the real, and really did give me a jolt. By the time my file arrived I’d got used to the idea and, perhaps more importantly, had seen a copy of my former partner’s file so already had a bit more of a sense of the kind of thing it was likely to contain. I was still very curious to see it, but nowhere near as agitated as I’d imagined I would be.
Wow – so what kind of information was contained in your file? Were there any surprises? What have you learned from reading it?
There was less in both my own file and that of my then-partner, Knut, than I’d expected, but as I read and digested what was in there, it became clear that we weren’t talking about a “Lives of Others”-style round-the-clock surveillance, but merely the gathering of what might later become the evidence for the prosecution, so to speak. The crimes of which they suspected us were, in Knut’s case, being likely to try to leave the GDR illegally; and in mine, espionage, passing on secret information and – I still can’t quite say or write this without laughing – people-trafficking! And they clearly weren’t interested in anything that might suggest we were not guilty – so no wonder both of our files were relatively short.
The first thing that struck me was that it was clear from both files that they never for one moment gave any consideration whatsoever to granting our application to marry. It clearly never crossed their minds that our relationship might be genuine, even though it is also clear they were monitoring our letters and phone calls, and would therefore have had evidence enough to show that it was. They could have turned the application down right at the start, rather than leaving us in suspense for over a year.
Knut had already been under surveillance before our application, simply because he had the “wrong” friends: two who had emigrated legally to West Germany, and two others who had attempted to escape and had been caught and imprisoned. These four friendships alone were enough to bring him to the attention of the Stasi. Not only that, but to earn him the Stasi code-name of Karzinom: Carcinoma. That, I think, shocked me more than anything else I found in either of our files. The sheer malevolence of that code-name blows any notion of a cold, unemotional, detached state-machine out of the water and suggests real hatred towards those the state considered its enemies. However, my own code-name was Stachel, which means “thorn”, as in “thorn in our side” – and I rather liked that!
In my case, the Stasi had created various index cards with my details on them even before I arrived in the GDR (there were 20 on me in all), but there is little record in my file of any active interest in me before Knut and I submitted our application to marry. Two or three notes make it clear that the Stasi occasionally debriefed an IM (unofficial informer) about me in my first few months in Dresden, but since the file doesn’t go into detail about what was said, I assume they had nothing of interest to tell.
The second thing that stands out in both files was how jumpy the GDR was about our having any contact whatsoever with the British Embassy in East Berlin. I had quite a lot, of course – I generally dropped in there for a decent cup of tea and to read the British newspapers whenever I was in Berlin, and the embassy was also a good source of data and statistics about the UK that proved useful for my teaching. The letter below, which was written in December 1986 and sent between Stasi departments, noted my contacts with the British Embassy, suggested they should be viewed in the light of increased espionage activity on the part of the NATO states, and asked the recipient to consider assigning an IM (unofficial Stasi informant) to me. There is no formal record in my file of this having been done, though there are a few observation sheets from June 1987 that suggest it might have been:
Naturally, once Knut and I had submitted our application to marry and for Knut to join me in the UK, I visited the embassy more often. I had several meetings with officials there, all of them very friendly and positive and, of course, I always told Knut afterwards what had been said. It came as no surprise, of course, to find this information recorded in Knut’s Stasi file, but what was extremely odd was that the file claims it was Knut who had been to the British Embassy and had these discussions with the Consul and others there, which is entirely untrue. Was this a deliberate distortion of the facts in order to make the case against him as damning as possible, or a genuine misunderstanding by the Stasi? I will never know.
Despite its fearsome reputation today, the Stasi was capable of almost farcical incompetence, something which becomes clear from a copy of a second letter that I found in my own file, as shown below. This letter was dated February 1988, and was sent between Stasi divisions in Dresden. It related to something that had happened seven months earlier, in June 1987, when an official at the British Embassy in Prague had been on a visit to Dresden and had, of course, been trailed by the Stasi. According to the letter in my file, he had been seen entering my flat at 6.13 pm, but “no further information concerning the duration of the visit is available”. On the basis of this, the letter asks the recipient to try to investigate the nature of the relationship between the embassy official and me, and the possibility of using me to report to them on his activities:
There is so much about this that is just breathtakingly inept! First, the letter refers to my still being resident in Dresden in February 1988, but by the time it was written I’d been back in the UK for nearly six months, since my GDR visa had expired at the end of August 1987. Secondly, the letter was written less than a month after the GDR had finally deigned to tell Knut that our application to marry and for him to leave had been turned down, so it is safe to say it would have been a particularly unpropitious time to ask me to do the Stasi a favour.
And it gets funnier: when I read this letter in my file I hunted out my 1987 diary and turned to my entry for the day of the embassy official’s visit. Not only had he not been alone when he visited me, his companion was an official from the British Embassy in East Berlin. Given the extreme concern about my contacts with the British Embassy that is apparent in the rest of my file, I am quite sure that the presence in my flat of officials from not one but TWO British Embassies would have left the Stasi hyperventilating, if they’d only known about it! And since both officials entered my flat quite openly and together, I can only assume that whoever had been given the task of trailing the official from Prague that day had taken a very narrow interpretation of his instructions and had seen no reason to mention the existence of a second visitor.
Even more amusingly, my diary reveals that we were only in my flat a very short time before walking to the restaurant of the Interhotel right next to my apartment block, where we spent several hours in full view of anyone who cared to see us, in animated discussion about the GDR, the CSSR, Gorbachev, perestroika, glasnost, the GDR elections and much more besides. One of the very reasons the GDR built so many Interhotels was to make it easy for the Stasi to keep an eye on Western visitors, so really, we couldn’t have made things any easier for them if we’d tried. Yet they still managed to miss all the interesting bits. I am irresistibly reminded of this, possibly the best commercial of all time.
Today, the topic of East Germany still clearly holds a great deal of interest for you. You regularly tweet old photographs and snippets of information about the GDR. What is your aim in doing this?
I just want to give people a glimpse inside a land that few of them will have seen for themselves and which is now gone for ever. I want to give them something that takes them beyond the stereotypes and the clichés and gives them a more rounded sense of a real country where real people led real lives that, in many respects, weren’t so very different from our own. A country where, just as in the West, children played on swings and struggled with their homework, and grown-ups had to buy petrol and scrub the bath and peel potatoes; where, it is true, there were few luxuries and many frustrations, and where non-conformity could be dangerous, but where people also tried to get on in their careers, raised families, had friends round for supper, built sandcastles, swept the front path and baked cakes …
There’s no hidden message in my tweets and I actively avoid giving my personal opinion in them wherever possible. I’m not interested in either demonising or sanitising the GDR. I just want to convey a sense of what it felt like to live there: sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always real.
I think it’s unfortunate that today, so many people seem to want to deal exclusively in black and white. While there were aspects of the GDR that were, in my view, inexcusable, and I would never wish to downplay the persecution of those who dared to express thoughts and pursue goals that did not conform to the state ideology, it was not (for most people) the relentlessly grim and terrifying place of Cold War propaganda; and while there was also a great deal that I remember with fondness, nor was it the paradise on Earth that many of the Ostalgiker would have us believe. The reality was far more varied, far more complex and, above all, far more interesting. That’s what I try to convey through my tweets.
A lot of your tweets relate to everyday life in the GDR. Why do you think it’s important for people to know about everyday life under communism, as well as focusing on the ‘high politics’ of the Cold War?
Any study of an era that excludes the daily experiences of the people who lived in it must inevitably be incomplete, and why should anyone with any interest in the subject be satisfied with that? But for me the main motivation is quite simply fascination with the subject. The GDR existed until less than 25 years ago. Less than 25 years ago, it was right on the front line of the Cold War. Less than 25 years ago people risked being imprisoned or even shot simply for trying to leave their country: and this just 600 miles – a couple of hours’ flight – from London. This is very recent history, and for those of us in the UK, very local history too. Before the fall of the Wall the GDR was shrouded in mystery because the Iron Curtain put it beyond reach. It seems ironic to me, and also rather sad, that it largely remains shrouded in mystery because in the rush to reunification so much seems to have been erased from view.
I am also fascinated by the apparent split personality of the GDR: for me, and I think for many others who lived there too, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. There was much that I loved and valued and feel nostalgic for; but also much that I hated and am glad has gone.
That’s interesting – so what do you think about the legacy of the GDR today, and the notion of Ostalgie? Do you think it is true to say that there is still an East/West divide evident in Germany today?
I think the East/West divide is still very marked in Germany today, in all sorts of ways: a variety of reports suggest that incomes are still markedly lower in the East; unemployment higher; life expectancy shorter. And, according to this Gallup poll, people in the East feel they are having a harder time of things in general. It was interesting to see the results of last year’s Bundestag election too: while the results overall gave the right-of-centre CDU victory in most areas, both West and East, the image below showing the proportions of second votes for the far-left Die Linke party indicates far higher support in the East. I know that friends of mine in the East still feel that West Germans look down on them and, for instance, that they are at a disadvantage when competing for jobs or contracts in the West. The divide is most certainly still there.
As for Ostalgie, this comes in a variety of forms, I think. Humans are prone to nostalgia, of course, and nostalgia isn’t known for sharpening the accuracy of our memories: how many of us don’t secretly hold to the view that our childhood summers were sunnier and our Christmases more snowy? But I suspect that, in the case of the GDR, nostalgia is being exacerbated by the feeling among some former citizens that the world they grew up in hasn’t just been left behind by time but has been deliberately destroyed.
The most conspicuous kind of Ostalgie is the pure, un-nuanced version, which simply holds that everything damals (“back then”) was better. There are countless such groups on Facebook, where, if you were to believe everything you read, you would be convinced that everything damals tasted better, no one went without anything, the queues and the patchy supply situation only made shopping more interesting, the Trabant was the best car in the world, industrial pollution didn’t harm anyone, people rarely fell ill, national service in the army was the best laugh ever, and people who fell foul of the Stasi must have done something to deserve it. I have even seen a number of comments suggesting that we shouldn’t make such a fuss about people shot at the Wall, because they knew what the risks were and had only themselves to blame. Everything was for the best, in the best of all possible GDRs.
Personally, while sharing the nostalgia for some aspects of the GDR (if offered a trip in a time machine, I would set the dial firmly for Dresden 1985 and zoom back there like a shot; not because it was so wonderful, but because it was so interesting), I have little patience with those who are determined to whitewash history so completely.
However, there is also a more nuanced form of Ostalgie which I think is more defensible and represents a much more serious challenge to the reunified Germany. One of the enduring resentments felt by many in the East is that, whereas what they wanted was a genuine unification – a new Germany comprising the best aspects of both republics – what actually happened felt more like a takeover, or even a conquest. There was an assumption on the part of West Germany that everyone in the East accepted that the West was superior in all respects; and I think that assumption was largely false. There were many things about the GDR that much of the population genuinely valued: low rents, full employment, state childcare, good schools. It wasn’t that most GDR citizens despised socialism and longed to be plunged into full-on capitalism: what many of them wanted was not primarily a higher standard of living but more personal freedom. And while reunification has given them that, it has also brought with it a whole raft of problems that were unknown in the GDR, where virtually no one needed to worry about not being able to afford the basic necessities, and where there wasn’t the endless pressure to consume, consume, consume. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that some people in the East feel alienated in the new Germany, or that Ostalgie groups regularly talk about having had their Heimat (‘Homeland’) taken away from them.
Finally, I should, of course, add that Ostalgie is far from universal. There are some who were treated appallingly by the GDR state and who hate every reminder of it; and many more who have embraced the freedoms and opportunities brought by reunification that they would never have experienced under the old GDR regime. As with most things about the GDR, the Ostalgie phenomenon is more complex than it may at first appear.
Many thanks, Paula!