8-1 | Table of Con­tents | DOI 10.17742/IMAGE.GDR.8-1.1 | Sil­ber­man­PDF

Marc Sil­ber­man | Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin – Madison

New Research on East Germany:
An Introduction

Over a quar­ter cen­tu­ry has elapsed since the end of the Cold War and the uni­fi­ca­tion of Ger­many, enough time for writ­ers, artists, schol­ars, and the gen­er­al pub­lic to have both remem­bered their pre-1990 expe­ri­ence and wit­nessed a series of con­tro­ver­sies in the retelling or rewrit­ing of that past. Now we are in the process of a gen­er­a­tional shift, not only in the sense of a young adult gen­er­a­tion with few of their own mem­o­ries of divid­ed Ger­many but also of a younger gen­er­a­tion of schol­ars whose knowl­edge about the two Ger­manys has been medi­at­ed by their old­er men­tors. I am one of those old­er men­tors and sus­pect that the next-gen­er­a­tion schol­ars are devel­op­ing new approach­es, sources, and method­olo­gies for research on the Ger­man past and present. I have repeat­ed­ly con­sid­ered and recon­sid­ered my own schol­ar­ly tra­jec­to­ry vis-à-vis East Ger­many both before and after uni­fi­ca­tion.[1] But I am con­vinced that our younger col­leagues, who­—for rea­sons of their own—are drawn to the Ger­man Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic (GDR) and what since uni­fi­ca­tion is known as east­ern Ger­many as an object of inter­est and even fas­ci­na­tion, have impor­tant things to communicate.

As co-chair with Janet Ward (Uni­ver­si­ty of Okla­homa) of the Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Com­mit­tee of the Ger­man Stud­ies Asso­ci­a­tion (GSA), I was in a posi­tion to help devel­op focused net­works of schol­ars with­in the orga­ni­za­tion. In 2014 I took advan­tage of the posi­tion to estab­lish a GSA Net­work on Ger­man Socialisms that would explore “GDR studies”—GDR-specific mem­o­ry stud­ies, close read­ings of “texts” from the GDR includ­ing lit­er­a­ture, cin­e­ma, art, music—and the broad­er con­text of social­ist tra­di­tions and resis­tances in Ger­many from its 19th-cen­tu­ry roots to its 20th-cen­tu­ry thinkers such as the left lib­er­tar­i­an Rosa Lux­em­burg or the Frank­furt School intel­lec­tu­als. The idea was to cre­ate not only inter­dis­ci­pli­nary col­lab­o­ra­tions but also syn­er­gies that go beyond a sin­gle state or geopo­lit­i­cal focus. The three coordinators—art his­to­ri­an April Eis­man (Iowa State Uni­ver­si­ty), lit­er­ary schol­ar Ben­jamin Robin­son (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty), and his­to­ri­an Eli Rubin (Michi­gan State Uni­ver­si­ty), all mem­bers of that younger gen­er­a­tion and all rep­re­sent­ed in this issue with contributions—went to work imme­di­ate­ly and devel­oped a series of linked pan­els for each annu­al fall GSA con­fer­ence since then. I was impressed with the breadth of par­tic­i­pa­tion as I mon­i­tored these suc­cess­ful pan­els and decid­ed to orga­nize a small work­shop at my home insti­tu­tion, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin in Madi­son, to pro­vide a forum for the next gen­er­a­tion of GDR schol­ars, specif­i­cal­ly those not in Ger­many, to dis­cuss their expe­ri­ences and their own new research from the out­sider posi­tion of being once-removed.[2] This yield­ed the idea for the cur­rent issue of Imag­i­na­tions.

With­out steal­ing thun­der from the con­tri­bu­tions fea­tured here, let me briefly sum­ma­rize some of the trends that I intro­duced as a point of depar­ture for the work­shop and oth­ers that emerged in the course of our intense dis­cus­sion and the sub­se­quent process of revis­ing the essays for pub­li­ca­tion. First, East Ger­many has become a his­tor­i­cal enti­ty, and GDR stud­ies has acquired a his­to­ry of its own, one that has bifur­cat­ed into Ger­man and non-Ger­man (espe­cial­ly Anglo­phone) schol­ars, with some­what dif­fer­ent objects of inter­est and crit­i­cal approach­es, medi­at­ed not only by dis­tance but also by our respec­tive schol­ar­ly cul­tures.[3] Let me detour slight­ly into my own his­to­ry as a schol­ar of GDR cul­ture. My first real encounter with East Ger­many was in sum­mer 1967 when I arrived as a 19-year-old under­grad­u­ate stu­dent for a year’s study at the Free Uni­ver­si­ty in West Berlin. East Ger­many for me was a vague place behind the Wall, a tan­ta­liz­ing but risky attrac­tion con­cealed by the Iron Cur­tain. In ret­ro­spect I recall that my stud­ies in Ger­man up until this point in the mid-1960s had nev­er intro­duced lit­er­a­ture from East Ger­many or even men­tioned much more than the fact of Germany’s post­war divi­sion. Indeed, I’m not sure I had read any­thing in Ger­man that had been writ­ten after 1933 except texts by those Ger­mans who had been exiled dur­ing the Third Reich, some­thing I soon dis­cov­ered I had in com­mon with fel­low stu­dents at the Free Uni­ver­si­ty. More­over, until the ear­ly 1970s West Ger­man and Amer­i­can lit­er­ary schol­ars tend­ed to see GDR lit­er­a­ture exclu­sive­ly as polit­i­cal pro­pa­gan­da pro­duced by state scribes.

This began to change for a num­ber of rea­sons, and in the course of the 1970s atten­tion turned increas­ing­ly toward lit­er­ary pro­duc­tion in East Ger­many owing to lack of access to oth­er kinds of infor­ma­tion or encoun­ters with the “oth­er Ger­many.” Lit­er­a­ture was regard­ed as an acces­si­ble doc­u­ment, a reflec­tion of or win­dow on social real­i­ty. One rea­son for the shift was that post­war lit­er­a­ture more gen­er­al­ly became an object of inter­est with the pas­sage of time. If my own edu­ca­tion in the 1960s had focused exclu­sive­ly on pre-1933 devel­op­ments, by the 1970s both schol­ar­ship and the teach­ing of con­tem­po­rary West Ger­man lit­er­a­ture was on the agen­da, and the inter­est in con­tem­po­rary West Ger­man lit­er­a­ture opened the door for a com­par­a­tive glance at post­war devel­op­ments in the GDR as well. More­over, the New Left cul­ture ini­ti­at­ed by the stu­dent move­ments in West Berlin, Paris, Milan, Berke­ley, and New York pro­vid­ed the seed for alter­na­tive approach­es to cul­tur­al life, includ­ing that of East Ger­many. Final­ly, in 1972 the pol­i­tics of détente or Ost­poli­tik led to the mutu­al recog­ni­tion of East and West Ger­many as sov­er­eign states, fol­lowed by the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty of West­ern coun­tries open­ing diplo­mat­ic rela­tions with the GDR. This recog­ni­tion, togeth­er with the regime change in East Ger­many in 1971, sparked con­sid­er­able inter­est in the West about GDR cul­ture and pol­i­tics in gen­er­al, even among polit­i­cal sci­en­tists and soci­ol­o­gists. This inter­est in fact grew and con­tin­ued more or less unbro­ken through the col­lapse of the East Ger­man regime in 1989 with West Ger­man and Anglo­phone schol­ars shar­ing sim­i­lar per­spec­tives in fair­ly reg­u­lar give-and-take.[4]

The dis­so­lu­tion of the GDR in 1990 changed the dynam­ics of the dis­course about this state and its cul­ture and, in a curi­ous sense, made the dis­course more real(istic) as the process of fig­ur­ing out was bleibt (what remains) sharp­ened our inves­ti­ga­tion of how it became what it was and why it failed. Fur­ther­more, because the GDR as a state con­fig­u­ra­tion no longer exist­ed, social-sci­ence inter­est migrat­ed into his­tor­i­cal schol­ar­ship. Noth­ing illus­trates bet­ter this dynam­ic process of nar­ra­tiviza­tion than the con­se­quences for Ger­man his­to­ri­og­ra­phy and the pol­i­tics of mem­o­ry after the fall of the Wall. His­to­ry and mem­o­ry are dis­tinct but relat­ed con­cepts, both based on nar­ra­tives and sub­ject to change as time pass­es and atten­tion shifts. After decades of divi­sion and Cold War com­pe­ti­tion, some­thing like a Ger­man iden­ti­ty was on the agen­da. Ger­man uni­fi­ca­tion was sud­den­ly pos­tu­lat­ed not only on the lev­el of polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tion but also as a shared iden­ti­ty: for the first time since the end of the Sec­ond World War being Ger­man emerged as a nation­al mis­sion. There were attempts to rewrite the lit­er­ary his­to­ry of both East and West Ger­many; polit­i­cal the­o­ries of mod­ern­iza­tion and total­i­tar­i­an gov­er­nance were recon­sid­ered; a wave of Ostal­gie (the sen­ti­ment of nos­tal­gia for the loss of East Ger­many) and some­times even West­al­gie (the counter-sen­ti­ment for the loss of a dis­tinct West Ger­many) washed over the cul­tur­al dis­course; and per­haps most sig­nif­i­cant­ly the van­ish­ing point of 20th-cen­tu­ry Ger­man his­to­ry began to shift from 1933 to 1989, with nor­mal­iza­tion and unit­ed Germany’s inte­gra­tion into a larg­er Euro­pean Union now the guar­an­tee that nie wieder Auschwitz (nev­er again Auschwitz) would endure. I have also worked on Holo­caust mem­o­ry in Ger­many, which has taught me first that how Ger­mans remem­ber their past is an object of deep scruti­ny, and sec­ond that the process of remem­ber­ing is more impor­tant than the prod­uct, with com­pet­ing views about the past rarely yield­ing sat­is­fy­ing results. I sus­pect a sim­i­lar vig­or may emerge for research on Cold War Germany.

For GDR schol­ars, a sec­ond sig­nif­i­cant change in approach con­cerns access to infor­ma­tion and peo­ple. First and fore­most I am refer­ring to archives. Although it has tak­en years to sort things out, the GDR was a bureau­crat­ic state in the Ger­man tra­di­tion, which means that writ­ten doc­u­ments were pro­duced in mul­ti­ple copies, filed away, and saved for pos­ter­i­ty. Beyond the issues of data pro­tec­tion, pri­va­cy, and of course the files of the secret police or Stasi, this has pro­duced a moun­tain of doc­u­men­ta­tion that grad­u­al­ly became acces­si­ble after 1990 and pro­vid­ed insight into the often con­tra­dic­to­ry process­es of deci­sion-mak­ing that char­ac­ter­ized all cul­tur­al (not to say polit­i­cal) activ­i­ty. As a result, the nego­ti­a­tions that had dis­tin­guished East Ger­man life in all domains become ever clear­er: strain­ing against the Nation­al Social­ist past, against the cap­i­tal­ist oth­er of the omnipresent West closed off by the rein­forced bor­der, and against an increas­ing­ly inef­fec­tive par­ty-state. Indeed, we found in our work­shop dis­cus­sions that we often returned to the con­cept of Eigensinn (lit­er­al­ly “obsti­na­cy,” but ref­er­enc­ing the exer­cise of soft pow­er by the regime that sought the con­sent of its sub­jects, who were eigensin­nig or insis­tent about their auton­o­my), a con­cept pop­u­lar­ized by his­to­ri­an Alf Lüdtke (1991) but also one that we saw as uncrit­i­cal­ly fram­ing every dis­cus­sion about the GDR with­in the con­fines of pow­er pol­i­tics and accom­mo­da­tion.[5] The fetish of pow­er in GDR historiography—especially that sur­fac­ing among col­leagues in Ger­many, who tend to ignore non-Ger­man-lan­guage scholarship—clamors for a dif­fer­ent con­cep­tu­al space with its own tem­po­ral­i­ty to grasp the real­i­ty of life expe­ri­ence between ideals and real­i­ty or between cen­tre and margins.

The fall of the Wall and the dis­so­lu­tion of the intra-Ger­man bor­der brought not only mobil­i­ty in both direc­tions but also the pos­si­bil­i­ty of spon­ta­neous face-to-face com­mu­ni­ca­tion with East Ger­mans; for schol­ars, this means access to poten­tial infor­mants and wit­ness­es. With the end of the Cold War and what we call the Ossi/Wes­si-men­tal­i­ty and its ensu­ing iden­ti­ty com­pe­ti­tion, a new kind of priv­i­lege emerged for the non-Ger­man schol­ar. Sud­den­ly we, as out­siders, were inter­roga­tors and con­ver­sa­tion­al part­ners whom the East Ger­mans often pre­ferred pre­cise­ly because we were not West Germans—possibly because we were seen as less prej­u­di­cial toward them, or per­haps because we had a dif­fer­ent sense of fair­ness and respect. On the oth­er hand, some of us also encoun­tered more recent­ly the oppo­site: mem­bers of the old­er East Ger­man gen­er­a­tion who resist shar­ing their knowl­edge and insights pos­si­bly out of fear that they are being exploit­ed because of their iden­ti­ty as GDR witnesses—in oth­er words a cir­cle-the-wag­ons defen­sive­ness to pro­tect the mem­o­ry of “our GDR.”

Access to archives and to indi­vid­ual cit­i­zens of the GDR has pro­duced to some degree the bifur­ca­tion of Ger­man and Anglo­phone schol­ar­ship men­tioned above, a third insight that con­cerned us in the work­shop. The essays gath­ered here share an inter­est in every­day life that emerges both from care­ful exam­i­na­tion of pri­ma­ry source mate­r­i­al and from encoun­ters with those who expe­ri­enced life in East Ger­many. Oral-his­to­ry inter­views, visu­al archives, or ethno­graph­ic excur­sions aim at retriev­ing the notion of autonomous agency from the claws of total­i­tar­i­an­ism. While post-Wall his­to­ri­og­ra­phy in Germany—including in the fields of lit­er­ary, cul­tur­al, cin­e­mat­ic, and art history—has been dom­i­nat­ed by a focus on total­i­tar­i­an con­trol, pow­er dif­fer­en­tials among elites, and dis­si­dence, this new research by a group of out­siders reg­is­ters a com­mit­ment to pur­su­ing ques­tions about the microstruc­tures of accom­mo­da­tion, East-West exchanges, and quo­tid­i­an behav­ior below the lev­el of offi­cial media and polit­i­cal claims. By exam­in­ing the ambi­gu­i­ties and com­plex­i­ties of every­day life, these con­tri­bu­tions enrich the con­cept of Eigensinn and explore instances of how peo­ple in the GDR—real, fic­tion­al, cinematic—engaged in every­day life through sol­i­dar­i­ty and indif­fer­ence, par­tic­i­pa­tion and oppo­si­tion. A shared goal among these con­trib­u­tors is to expose traces of this life expe­ri­ence: accu­mu­la­tions and rem­nants of the past, aes­thet­ic struc­tures of lay­er­ing and re-inscrip­tion, and cul­tur­al prac­tices that became habits. This endeav­or also points to an issue that may char­ac­ter­ize future work on the GDR, that is, the need to attend to vari­ant tem­po­ral­i­ties that typ­i­fied East Ger­man expe­ri­ence: the desire to rule over time, the need to escape from (present) time, the func­tion of tem­po­ral non­syn­chrone­ity (Ernst Bloch’s con­cept of Ungle­ichzeit­igkeit). Less obvi­ous but equal­ly dis­tinc­tive: we GDR researchers are also teach­ers out­side of Ger­many, and con­vey­ing our ideas to stu­dents who have lit­tle or absolute­ly no knowl­edge of Ger­many as well as to col­leagues from oth­er fields who are not Ger­man stud­ies spe­cial­ists forces and invites us to devel­op a less provin­cial and more inter­na­tion­al approach to the mate­r­i­al we study.

A final con­sid­er­a­tion, one that did not dom­i­nate our work­shop dis­cus­sions but that strikes me as a sine qua non for the direc­tion of future research: glob­al­iza­tion and migra­tion have led to a shift in social struc­tures and his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness. Ger­many is now an in-migra­tion nation, and hyphen­at­ed Ger­mans can no longer be pressed into a once unques­tioned nation­al cat­e­go­ry. The plu­ral­i­ty in the means of access to the GDR past are going to under­mine any attempt to estab­lish a mas­ter nar­ra­tive of the Cold War and East and West Germany’s role there­in. A nation­al approach to Ger­man uni­fi­ca­tion that sees it as an exclu­sive­ly Ger­man issue—which dom­i­nat­ed the dis­course of the 1990s and still to a large extent today—ignores the Euro­pean and glob­al prac­tices of pow­er pol­i­tics, eco­nom­ics, and cul­ture. There are obvi­ous­ly nation­al dif­fer­ences in the recon­struc­tion of the past, but we will be encoun­ter­ing increas­ing­ly par­al­lel and over­lap­ping accounts, which may bring about a par­a­digm change in the way we con­struct the post­war Ger­man nar­ra­tive. GDR cul­ture was not an island unto itself, and cer­tain­ly since the end of the Sec­ond World War the idea of autonomous nation­al cul­tures has been on the retreat. While the GDR may seem to be an excep­tion, with its bound­aries hav­ing mate­ri­al­ized into fences and the con­crete of the Berlin Wall, it too was sub­ject to dia­logue, exchange, and com­pe­ti­tion both inter­nal­ly and externally.

Shift­ing atten­tion from the nation­al sug­gests a coun­ter­strat­e­gy to the epis­te­mol­o­gy that estab­lished and has sus­tained GDR schol­ar­ship since the 1970s. Tied to con­cepts of the nation, nation­al cul­ture, and nation­al iden­ti­ty, dis­cus­sions in both the East and the West have focused on defin­ing the qual­i­ties and dis­tinc­tive­ness of East Ger­many, its dif­fer­ence being var­i­ous­ly qual­i­fied as pro­duced by post­war, social­ist, and/or Cold War poli­cies. While we can­not ignore the nation­al dimen­sion, I insist that nation­al speci­fici­ty is a dialec­ti­cal ref­er­ence point for the larg­er inter­na­tion­al or transna­tion­al con­text. The very found­ing of the GDR, for exam­ple, harks back to the Sovi­et Union and the Com­intern, and ten­sion between nation­al ambi­tions and inter­na­tion­al com­mit­ments sur­faced both in pol­i­tics and cul­ture. More­over, the GDR always strug­gled with the issue of whether it was com­mit­ted to a mod­ern, inter­na­tion­al­ist form of social­ism or whether it was the true inher­i­tor of a human­is­tic Ger­man tra­di­tion. Of course, this had a spe­cial res­o­nance because of Germany’s his­to­ry of nation­al­ism and racism as well as its sta­tus as one of the birth­places of social­ism. Thus, the per­spec­tive from the out­side on the part of younger researchers such as those con­tribut­ing to this issue looks at the West as well, trans­form­ing the GDR into a refrac­tion lens or mir­ror for com­par­a­tive East-West stud­ies. This is how we need to repo­si­tion East Ger­many and to iden­ti­fy blind spots of past approach­es that have failed to con­tex­tu­al­ize it beyond the bound­aries and tem­po­ral­i­ty of the GDR.

Works Cited

Lüdtke, Alf. Herrschaft als soziale Prax­is. Van­den­hoeck & Ruprecht, 1991.

Port, Andrew I. “The Banal­i­ties of East Ger­man His­to­ri­og­ra­phy.” Becom­ing East Ger­man. Social­ist Struc­tures and Sen­si­bil­i­ties after Hitler, edit­ed by Mary Ful­brook and Andrew I. Port, Berghahn, 2015, pp. 1-30.

Sil­ber­man, Marc. “Read­ings and Mis­read­ings? The GDR and the GSA.” Ger­man Stud­ies Review vol­ume 39, num­ber 3, 2016, pp. 611–20.

Sil­ber­man, Marc. “Too Near, Too Far: My GDR Sto­ry,” “Ein­mal alles von Anfang an erzählen”: The Social, Polit­i­cal, and Per­son­al Dimen­sions of Sto­ry­telling, edit­ed by Kristy Boney and Jen­nifer M. William, forth­com­ing 2018.


[1] For details on my tra­jec­to­ry as a GDR schol­ar, see Sil­ber­man, “Too Near, Too Far.”

[2] The work­shop “New Research on East Ger­many” took place on April 1, 2016, at the Pyle Con­fer­ence Cen­ter on the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin cam­pus in Madi­son. I wish to thank the Cen­ter for Ger­man and Euro­pean Stud­ies (and Direc­tor Pamela Pot­ter), the Cen­ter for Euro­pean Stud­ies (and Direc­tor Nils Ringe), and the Depart­ment of Ger­man (and Chair Jolan­da Van­der­w­al Tay­lor) for their finan­cial support.

[3] Andrew Port has char­ac­ter­ized three phas­es of GDR his­to­ri­og­ra­phy since uni­fi­ca­tion in 1990: a first phase focused on the total­i­tar­i­an insti­tu­tions and struc­tures of pow­er, a sec­ond phase of social his­to­ry begin­ning in the mid-1990s inter­est­ed in var­i­ous social groups, and a third phase of cul­tur­al his­to­ry set­ting in after the turn of the mil­len­ni­um that has focused on sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ences of ordi­nary East Ger­mans (Port, “The Banal­i­ties of East Ger­man His­to­ri­og­ra­phy” 1-2).

[4] For an extend­ed dis­cus­sion of how this devel­op­ment pro­ceed­ed in North Amer­i­ca, see Sil­ber­man, “Read­ings and Misreadings?”

[5] See Rubin’s ref­er­ences to Lüdtke in this issue, espe­cial­ly his end­notes 5 and 7.



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