BEYOND THE WALL: A History of East Germany, by Katja Hoyer
Only one place in the former Soviet bloc has a word that denotes nostalgia for the mostly unlamented Empire. The place is eastern Germany, and the word is Ostalgie. A string of small Ostalgie shops in the former East features the old communist brands of pickles and mustard — as well as models of the smoke-spewing Trabant cars — for those who long to reminisce about the bad old days.
Indeed, the days were plenty bad. Alongside 300,000 Soviet troops, the Ministry for State Security, the dreaded Stasi, deployed 100,000 employees, far outnumbering the Gestapo’s 40,000. Their combined presence could not save the German Democratic Republic from vanishing like Atlantis in 1990, under the pro-democracy movement that swept the Soviet Union.
In the face of this disappearance, the East German-born historian Katja Hoyer has written “Beyond the Wall,” an exhaustive — and, at times, exhausting — attempt to restore the lost state to the historic significance she feels it has been denied.
Hers is a tall order: to excavate the human and the worthwhile from the rubble of a police state. “There was oppression and brutality, yes,” she acknowledges, but, “there was opportunity and belonging … The citizens of the G.D.R. lived, loved, worked and grew old. They went on holidays, made jokes about their politicians and raised their children. Their story deserves a place in the German narrative.”