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Life behind the Iron Curtain

12 December 2014

Michael Bourdeaux reads about the lives of East Berliners

Born in the GDR: Living in the shadow of the Wall
Hester Vaizey
OUP £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT670 )

IT IS hard to imagine what it must be like to have all the values you grew up with suddenly shattered, a seismic shift, almost without warning, under your feet. That was the destiny of some 17 million East Germans after 9 November 1989. No one could encapsulate the experience of a whole nation in one book; so Hester Vaizey, a Cambridge don, has selected a way of focusing complicated research and reducing it to one modest (but well produced) volume of 200 pages.

She has chosen to recount the story of eight people who were all young on the day the Wall fell. This has an advantage: most of the subjects lacked the experience to formulate a world-view, either for or against a regime where the Stasi ruled. They were simply children of their parents, and, to a large extent, were who they were in a society that was what it was - except that its days were numbered.

The eight are well chosen, for contrast of gender, parents' political background, and social privilege (or deprivation). The most valuable feature of these objective studies is that the author has not used this research as an opportunity for lambasting communism and praising the capitalism that succeeded it. The first subject, Petra, "wishes that politicians today were more open to learning from things that did work well in the GDR, rather than rubbishing everything about East Germany". Other subjects, such as Mario, who was unjustly imprisoned as a boy under the old regime, would reject that contention, but therein lies the fascination of the book.

Occasionally there are statements that lapse into banality. Peggy did not "feel relief or a sense of freedom at last" when the Wall fell - but she hardly would have done at ten years old, would she? One of the oldest subjects, Katharina, was born into a Christian family the year the Wall was built; so her whole spiritual formation focused on her beliefs. She suffered discrimination at school, but nevertheless became a pastor under the old system. There is more concentration on her domestic life than her public one, however, and it would have been interesting to have a much fuller account of the pressures she had to overcome. Nevertheless, she survived relatively unscathed, and is active as a pastor today.

The book is full of intriguing insights, and the documentation and bibliography are exemplary. 

Canon Michael Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Institute, Oxford.

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