Dorothee Wierling. Geboren im Jahr Eins: Der Jahrgang 1949 in der DDR und seine historischen Erfahrungen. Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag, 2002. 591 S. EUR 34.80 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-86153-278-1.
Reviewed by Benita Blessing (Department of History, Ohio University)
Published on H-German (February, 2005)
With Geboren im Jahr Eins, Dorothee Wierling has written a unique history of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that is as breathtaking in its scope as it is stunning in its simplicity. She claims a modest point of departure for her research: how did members of her own age group remember their lives in the GDR (p. 7)? Yet Wierling's contribution to the literature on postwar Germany is considerably greater. Based on interviews with twenty former GDR citizens, all born in the years 1949 or 1950, and supported by extensive archive and secondary source research, the book examines the evolution of the first German socialist state by following the lives of its first citizens.
Wierling began this project with considerable experience in the complex methodology of oral history, having written together with Lutz Niethammer and Alexander von Plato the ground-breaking study of East Germans' memories, Die volkseigene Erfahrung. Eine Archäologie des Lebens in der Industrieprovinz der DDR (1991). As in that project, Wierling is an "outsider" as an interviewer here, having grown up in the Federal Republic, even if she notes her concurrent "insider" status as a member of the same generation as her interview partners. Building upon her previous work's methodological findings, Wierling is aware of the uses and limits of oral history. She is thus in an ideal position to create an oral history of the GDR. Her interview partners' memories help breathe life into written documents, such as SED communiqués, and suggest avenues for further investigation that archive sources alone might not capture. At the same time, Wierling recognizes that memories are more an interpretation of the past than a chronicle of it. She questions memories that are not accurate--such as one woman's false recollection that the Beatles played in the GDR--and evaluates the ways in which memories are presented--such as the man who insisted that, after a few years' residence in western Germany, he identified himself more with that part of the nation than with East Germany.
There is not one explicit argument that unites the study; rather, Wierling returns to recurring themes at each stage of the book. Of these themes, the family is most important to her analysis of life in the GDR, both literally and metaphorically. The book is organized chronologically, each chapter devoted to a time period in the GDR and the corresponding age of her interviewees: childhood, adolescence, adulthood. She begins her study with the first children of the postwar era as symbols of a peaceful future to their exhausted parents (p. 76). As these children became aware of the role they were to play in the creation of a new Germany, they did not resent the responsibility; instead, they sympathized with their parents as the victims of National Socialism who suffered considerably during and after the war (p. 57). Wierling argues further that the absence of a father in most of these children's families allowed the GDR-state to step in as a substitute father figure, to be respected but feared (p. 80). In contrast to this very political male actor, mothers represented the everyday lives of the families (pp. 90). In this manner, young GDR children grew up in households both ruled by politics (through the state-father) and sheltered from it (by the civil society-mother). As the GDR and its children grew into adolescence and adulthood, it became apparent that the state's attempts to control young people had largely failed. Here, too, the family played a major role, and Wierling's findings in this regard will surprise those historians convinced of the all-important role of the GDR state: Despite state-mandated curricula and extra-curricula organizations like the socialist youth organization Young Pioneers, the school never had the influence over young people that the family enjoyed. Important decisions like career choices were made between young people and their parents, not in conjunction with the state (p. 274). Parents were so important to such processes, in fact, that children without a mother or father had a difficult time coming to any sort of decision. The state had not replaced the family as the key educator in young people's lives, nor was it even able to substitute in the absence of parents.
The 1960s were an important decade for East Germans, and Wierling introduces those years as ones of transition for the postwar generation. Like the West, the East experienced the 1960s as a time of major political change--but the context was radically different in the GDR. 1961 saw the construction of the Berlin Wall, physically separating the GDR from the West. The following year introduced mandatory military conscription for all men, signaling the GDR's determination to proceed as a sovereign state. Wierling argues that this closure of the East led to young people's fixation on the West--a new type of Republikflucht (flight from the republic; the official terminology for escape from the GDR to the West), this time an intellectual, emotional excursion (p. 215). Wierling's interview partners associate those years with beat music, in particular the Beatles and, especially for the men, the Rolling Stones. Archive sources support those memories, with GDR authorities trying both to eliminate beat music by prohibiting it and to co-opt it by sponsoring GDR beat bands (pp. 217, 227). Here, the social tensions in the East and the West appear similar, with GDR critics complaining that the new hairstyles and fashion made it impossible to tell girls from boys (p. 222). But a 1965 youth demonstration against anti-beat measures, filled with arrests and police brutality, demonstrates that the fight against Western music influences was actually a struggle for the minds of young East Germans (pp. 220-221). Not until the 1970s did the GDR government acknowledge its inability to control young people's cultural consumption, finally conceding the purchase of at least some Beatles albums (p. 229). Notably absent in her interview partners' memories of the 1960s is a reference to one of the most dramatic events of 1968 in the Soviet bloc, the Prague Spring. Only for those young men serving in the army at the time and those families who lived on the Czech border was the threat of an East German invasion into Czechoslovakia even a fear. For most Germans, Prague was not an important reference point (p. 314). At the end of the decade, according to Wierling, the twenty-year-old state and its twenty-year-old citizens had reached an understanding. Young GDR citizens were ready to grow into adult GDR citizens, establishing careers and families in an increasingly prosperous society.
As Wierling moves her interview partners and the GDR into the 1970s, the theme of family again helps her explain the everyday struggles and triumphs of GDR citizens. She devotes a sub-chapter to the fascinating relationship stories of her interview partners, providing us with an intimate glimpse into love in the time of socialism. Her interview partners' memories of romance have a bourgeois feel to them: young couples met on the dance floor, took long walks together, met each other's parents (pp. 369-371). They married young, in partial response to their parents' memories of unstable family situations in the immediate postwar era. By finding a partner with whom they could begin a family, young people in the GDR of the 1970s marked their entrée into an adult world that they accepted rather than questioned. Freshly married, women longed for children despite the difficulty of balancing motherhood with professional responsibilities (p. 402). Wierling's material suggests that GDR women's "double burden" of work and family continued even after their children were grown: in the interviews, it is women who recount memories of their small children. Even in narrating the past, men removed themselves from childrearing (p. 413).
The end of the 1980s was a time of political upheaval for the GDR, and the omnipresent sense of uncertainty was reflected in Wierling's interview partners' lives (p. 492). It is hard to know how many of the personal and professional crises, from divorce to career upheaval, were merely typical life events in thirty-something adults, and how many of them were the at least partial results of a society undergoing dramatic changes. In any case, the interview partners often intertwined their memories of the Wende with their own transformations. These accounts are occasionally the proud narratives of individuals who mastered their new private and public life situations after 1989. More often, the memories are bittersweet and sadly touching, stories that anticipate eventual disappointment with the pre-Wende optimism of a better society. As Wierling notes, this postwar generation remained behind in the GDR after the fall of the Berlin Wall (p. 493). In 1990, the eastern German author Christa Wolf asked "What remains?" in an essay she began over a decade earlier.
Wierling's interview partners provide disheartening insight into that question. Frau Mohr was skeptical that life after 1989 held many advantages for her, except for the fact that her Monday evenings were now free: previously she had attended Party meetings, whereas she now could take a gymnastics class that helped strengthen her back (p. 517-519). In Frau Mattern's ruminations about life lessons, she stumbled through a surprising remark about her values: "I am punctual and honest ... that is the most important thing there is" (p. 525). For a generation born into a state that would eventually run out of time, such statements connote desperate attempts to reinstate order onto a life and society that had slipped out of reach. Father-state was gone, and mother-civil society had disintegrated, leaving the first postwar generation orphaned and dazed.
In a book of more than 560 pages, it is perhaps unreasonable (especially for the reading audience) to expect that the author address even more questions. Still, after reading the memories of Wierling's interview partners, I was left wanting to know more about why she selected these particular individuals. Did she exclude other potential interview partners? How did she decide that these twenty people best represented their generation? I was especially intrigued by her decision to include Freya Klier, whose own significant work on GDR youth (Lüg Vaterland, 1990) is not mentioned at all. Additionally, Wierling could have included more analysis of the gender questions she mentions at regular stages in the book. She is convincing in her assessment of observable differences between this generation's young men and women--from taste in music to divisions of labor. A more rigorous examination of the origins and implications of these gender disparities, however, would offer further nuance to her descriptions of life for that generation.
By viewing each historical era through the eyes of the first postwar generation, Wierling is able to depict a more nuanced GDR than the one often described in more traditional historical treatments. Her interviewees are not helpless subjects of an SED dictatorship; they are active participants in the construction of their society and their personal experiences. Wierling presents her audience with a near complete picture of her interview partners' lives, from their parents' hopes and dreams in giving birth to postwar children, to their confusion and disillusionment when, as adults with families and careers, they are forced to reorient their lives after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Geboren im Jahr Eins is an important, thoughtful, and welcome study that offers scholars of GDR society a balanced account of the everyday experiences of East German citizens.
. See Christa Wolf, What Remains and Other Stories (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
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Benita Blessing. Review of Wierling, Dorothee, Geboren im Jahr Eins: Der Jahrgang 1949 in der DDR und seine historischen Erfahrungen.
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