The GDR Today

New Interdisciplinary Approaches to East German History, Memory and Culture

by Stephan Ehrig (Volume editor) Marcel Thomas (Volume editor) David Zell (Volume editor)
Edited Collection XII, 292 Pages


The GDR Today promotes interdisciplinary approaches to East Germany by gathering articles from a new generation of scholars in the fields of literary and visual studies, history, sociology, translation studies, political science, museum studies and curating practice. The contributors to this volume argue that it is necessary to transgress disciplinary boundaries to escape the gridlocked categories of GDR scholarship. Exploring East German everyday life, cultural policies, memory and memorialization, the volume aims to reinvigorate the study of the GDR. Through the combination and juxtaposition of different approaches to East Germany, it overcomes intra-disciplinary conceptual binaries and revitalizes debates about the very concepts we use to understand life under late twentieth-century state socialism.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: The GDR Today (Stephan Ehrig / Marcel Thomas / David Zell)
  • Part I. Narrative Cultures
  • Memory in the Narratives of Christoph Hein – Christoph Hein in Narratives of Memory (Richard Slipp)
  • ‘Who is Heinz Stielke?’ Questions of Identity in Michael Kann’s Stielke, Heinz, fünfzehn (Elizabeth M. Ward)
  • Investigating the (Un)Translatability of the GDR (Mary Frank)
  • Part II. Reframing Cultural Heritage
  • Deconstructing Revolutionary Traditions: Stefan Schütz’s Kohlhaas (Stephan Ehrig)
  • Music, the GDR Military and the GDR Today in the Works of Walter Flegel (Tom Smith)
  • Agent of Socialism? The Knowledge of the East German Academic Librarian (Christian Rau)
  • Part III. Post-Wall Narrative Identities
  • The GDR in Ortschroniken and Heimatbücher after 1990 (Dirk Thomaschke)
  • Beyond Ostalgie: Villagers and Social Change in East and West Germany (Marcel Thomas)
  • Memory as Transmission: East German Families Remember the GDR (Hanna Haag)
  • Part IV. Memory Conflicts Re-Examined
  • Socialization, Downgrading and Othering: The Formation of Identity of Young ‘East Germans’ (Daniel Kubiak)
  • Classroom Memory Debates on the GDR (Marie Müller-Zetzsche)
  • Part V. History and Memory in Museums
  • (Re)Unifying Narratives: The Political Memory of Opposition at Museums of the GDR (Michaela Dixon)
  • Post-Ostalgie: How German Visual Culture Gradually Overcomes Binary Representations of Everyday Life in the GDR (Stefanie Kreibich)
  • ‘Modell DDR’: Performative Memory as Curatorial Practice (Susanne Wernsing)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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This volume would not have been possible without the support of various individuals and institutions. First of all, we would like to thank Debbie Pinfold (Bristol), Anna Saunders (Bangor), Sara Jones (Birmingham) and Joanne Sayner (Newcastle) for initiating and organizing the first conference of this series in Birmingham in 2014, which inspired this project and gave this volume its name. Debbie, Anna, Sara and Joanne have also offered vital support and input at several stages of the publication process, from the search for a publisher to the drafting of the book proposal. Furthermore, we would like to thank the Institute for German Studies at the University of Birmingham as well as the School of Modern Languages and the Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities at the University of Bristol for their generous financial support of the conferences and the publication of this volume. We are also grateful to the Bristol Institute for Research in the Humanities and Arts for their contribution towards the conference costs. Robert Vilain (Bristol) as series editor has been largely responsible for making this book as coherent as it is. Further, we would like to thank Tom Smith (St Andrews) for contributing the cover image, and Luisa Billepp (Potsdam) for her copyediting work. We are also grateful to the two anonymous reviewers whose comments helped to make this volume a much stronger book. Last but not least, we would like to thank all contributors to the conferences and this volume for their ideas, ambitions and trust in this project from the first conference to the printed volume. ← xi | xii →

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Introduction: The GDR Today

For the Berlin resident as well as the occasional visitor to the German capital, the cover image of this volume offers a familiar sight: the view from Frankfurter Tor in the east of the city to the TV Tower at Alexanderplatz in the centre.1 The photograph shows rush-hour Berlin at sunset, framed by the silhouettes of two iconic spaces of the city’s distinctive urban landscape on the horizon. Both the TV Tower and the housing blocks of Karl-Marx-Allee are well-known Berlin trademarks. The picture evokes associations with the ‘hip’ Berlin, the parts in the eastern part of the city which have become increasingly popular in the last decade, with the TV Tower as the epitome of the city’s pop cultural representation nationally and internationally. The light contrasts of the sunset play to Berlin’s image as a city of extremes; the cars stuck in traffic remind the observer of the oft-cited hustle and bustle of contemporary Berlin, a cosmopolitan city that never stands still.

Yet what might escape the spectator of the image at first glance is that the picture in fact shows two spaces that are icons not only of Berlin, but also of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The TV Tower, completed in 1969, was designed by leading modernist architect Hermann Henselmann as a triumphant monument to the social and economic superiority of socialism.2 Similarly, the Karl-Marx-Allee, built as Stalin-Allee in the 1950s, also by Henselmann amongst others, and designed as the first example of the socialist future of urban life in East Germany, became a symbol of the conflicted ingratiation with the Stalin-led Soviet Union of the founding ← 1 | 2 → years.3 While the socialist regime that built these spaces practically disappeared overnight in 1990, the TV Tower and the Karl-Marx-Allee have now become memory landscapes as well as iconic parts of Berlin’s urban fabric. As tangible material spaces imbued with multiple meanings, they symbolize how the GDR has – if only subliminally – become an integral component of contemporary German life and culture, and how it still matters for an understanding of Germany today. Simultaneously, the fact that both urban structures appear today as essential parts of Berlin as a central European capital shows how its socialist past, just like Berlin, keeps changing. Ernst Bloch is often credited with the remark that ‘Berlin ist nicht, Berlin wird immer nur’ [Berlin never is, it always just becomes] – a quote which has perhaps become so well known precisely because it seems to perfectly capture the essence of Berlin.4 Karen Leeder has recently observed the ‘spectral existence’ of the GDR in post-reunification society, drawing attention to the ways in which multiple interpretations of the socialist past continue to ‘haunt’ the reunified Germany. She has used Michael Wesely’s long-exposure images of Berlin in the 1990s as a visual demonstration of the GDR’s spectral ‘afterlife’. In Wesely’s images, the ghostly impressions of demolished and newly constructed architecture in the capital of the reunified Germany capture the continued presence of the socialist past in the Berlin Republic.5 With our contemporary visual representation of Hermann Henselmann’s architectural traces on the cover of this volume, we argue that GDR scholarship needs to be firmly grounded in this understanding of East Germany as constantly changing and returning to haunt the present.

This recognition that the GDR is refusing to become a closed chapter in Germany’s twentieth-century history is important in a field that has ← 2 | 3 → long shown a peculiar obsession with the idea of closure.6 Since the late 1990s, it has become almost customary for volumes on the GDR to note, not without a hint of surprise, that the East German past ‘still’ matters in the reunified Germany. Like many of our colleagues who have written introductions on this topic in previous years, we can assert that the GDR remains far from becoming a ‘Fußnote der Weltgeschichte’ [footnote in world history], contrary to Stefan Heym’s famous prediction in 1990.7 Indeed, even almost three decades after German reunification, engagement with the GDR remains at the heart of society and culture in the reunified Germany. It is not only occasions such as the twenty-fifth anniversary of reunification four years ago that regularly spark renewed debates about how the East German past should be understood and commemorated properly.8 Prolonged debates about the ‘right’ memorials to the GDR on the one hand, and revelations about the Stasi past of high-ranking politicians on the other, also continue to trigger public discussions about whether the reunified Germany has truly ‘aufgearbeitet’ [worked through] the socialist past.9 Most recently, new divides have been opened up along the former Iron Curtain with the refugee crisis, as the East German past has been blamed for hostility towards refugees in the new federal states.10 Rather ← 3 | 4 → than passing into the distance over the years, the GDR remains central to debates about identity and shared cultural values in the Berlin Republic.

Instead, it is within the academic sphere that discussions about the socialist past seem to have lost some of their momentum. Without doubt, the GDR is still a prominent topic of research that produces thought-provoking studies, and there is no indication that interest from researchers and funding bodies is receding. However, in recent years, a feeling that everything has been said about the GDR has taken hold among scholars. After long ideological battles over how to conceptualize socialist East Germany, which drove an unparalleled boom of scholarship in the two decades after reunification, a growing degree of consensus seems to have been reached. Over the last two decades or so, scholars have made significant progress in challenging the image of the GDR as a totalitarian Stasiland that dominated the years immediately following reunification.11 Since the late 1990s, they have increasingly turned away from a focus on the repressive state apparatus and have instead begun to explore everyday life and GDR culture in its full complexity.12 This new research has helped to counter simplistic top-down approaches and reveal the inherent tensions and contradictions ← 4 | 5 → in socialist society. In the mid-2000s, the so-called Sabrow Commission recommended that more prominence be given to everyday life in public commemoration and scholarly portrayals of the GDR, which marked the inclusion of this new consensus in official attitudes towards the socialist past.13 More recent volumes have increasingly used memory as a lens through which to examine the GDR.14 They have thus not only firmly established a necessary counter-perspective to the often one-dimensional approaches to East Germany which dominated the early 1990s. They have also encouraged a fruitful engagement between past and present in our understanding of socialist East Germany and its afterlives.

However, as a consequence of this emerging consensus, research on the GDR seems to have lost some of the revisionist drive and dynamism that characterized it during the first two decades after reunification. Now that everyday life has been integrated into histories of dictatorship, now that the heavily politicized ideological battles about the East German past have largely been put to rest, what is there left to do? More recently, the task of the scholar has been to explore nuances rather than find new grand narratives. While publications in the 1990s and 2000s coined new terms to describe life in East Germany at an astonishing rate, the last prominent study to introduce an innovative concept into the study of the GDR was Mary Fulbrook’s 2009 exploration of the idea of ‘normalization’.15 It might be seen as indicative of a sense of disorientation and loss of purpose ← 5 | 6 → that the 2015 Annual Conference of the German Studies Association in Washington, DC, ran a seminar entitled ‘GDR Historiography: What’s Next?’. Have we run out of things to say about the GDR? Is the GDR, to quote Richard Schroeder, ‘ausgeforscht’ [researched to exhaustion]?16

This volume contends that this is certainly not the case, but that GDR scholarship is facing a critical juncture that demands a rethinking of some of the frameworks which have so far defined the field. In order to recover its intellectual drive and relevance, we argue, research on the socialist past in Germany needs to start asking new questions that reach beyond the old paradigm of dictatorship and everyday life. As Stephanie Eisenhuth, Hanno Hochmuth and Konrad Jarausch have shown, the perennial criticism that the GDR has been ‘researched to exhaustion’, which has resurfaced more prominently in recent years, is a result of the inward-looking character of scholarly debates about East Germany in the last two decades. The close focus on debates about the nature of dictatorial rule originally fuelled research on the GDR and made it particularly relevant in a post-Cold War world. Now that the dust of the ideological battles over the ‘right’ interpretation of Germany’s socialist past has largely settled, it becomes evident that the narrow focus on these debates has also left the field disconnected from other research areas and trapped in a circular discussion of the questions that once defined it.17 The most recent high-profile attempt to revive scholarly debates on the GDR is particularly illustrative in this regard: Dierk Hoffmann, Michael Schwartz and Hermann Wentker’s paper outlining future directions of GDR research, which sits at the heart of the ← 6 | 7 → 2016 volume Die DDR als Chance [The GDR as an Opportunity], recommends further research into many themes that have long been at the heart of scholarly debates, such as the dictatorial state apparatus and the relationship between the two Germanies. Despite the authors’ opening remarks suggesting that new research questions are needed, the paper inadvertently falls back into a rhetoric of closing ‘Forschungslücken’ [research gaps] in the hope of finding more definitive answers to the same old questions.18

Such attempts to merely revisit old debates will do very little to revitalize scholarship on East Germany. Instead, we are building on recent demands to use the GDR as a case study for broader questions about the most recent past in Germany and beyond. As Thomas Lindenberger has stressed, now that there are hardly any ‘gaps’ left and our image of the GDR is becoming more fixed in memory, a new generation of researchers needs to rediscover the GDR as a ‘Fall’ [case study] for broader research questions:

Was mehr denn je das Innovative in der Forschung ausmacht, ist nicht das einzelne Untersuchungsobjekt, sondern die wissenschaftliche Fragestellung und mit ihr das über die SBZ und die DDR hinausweisende Erkenntnisinteresse. […] Wie bei Themen der Frühen Neuzeit oder des 19. Jahrhunderts muss auch bei der DDR jede neue Forscher-Kohorte, von einem umfangreichen wissenschaftlich und kulturell überlieferten Vorwissen ausgehend, immer wieder diejenigen Fragen und Erkenntnisinteressen neu entdecken und formulieren, die für ihre Zeit am bedeutsamsten und aufschlussreichsten sind.

[More than ever, what makes for innovative research is not the individual subject of research, but the scientific research question and its interest in relevant findings beyond the Soviet Occupation Zone and the GDR. […] Similar to early modern or nineteenth-century studies, every new cohort of GDR scholars has to start from a comprehensive existing body of scientifically and culturally passed-down knowledge, yet always rediscover and reformulate the questions and research interests that are most relevant and insightful for its time.]19 ← 7 | 8 →

Dorothee Wierling has put forward a very similar line of thought, encapsulated in the pointed remark that the GDR only has a future as a relevant topic of historical research ‘wenn sie Neugier auch bei denen weckt, die sich eigentlich nicht (mehr) für sie interessieren’ [if it also provokes curiosity among those who are not actually interested in it (anymore)].20 In fact, there is no shortage of suggestions for new research perspectives aimed at such broader questions. Eisenhuth, Hochmuth and Jarausch have outlined three areas for future research: broader explorations of the GDR’s place in the twentieth century, further studies on the GDR’s embeddedness in transnational networks and a closer investigation of change within the forty years of socialism.21 Lindenberger and Wierling have added further ideas, such as using the GDR to explore the nature of European modernities or to investigate processes of othering in Cold War Europe.22 For historians, these suggestions offer a useful agenda, and many of these issues are indeed picked up by the contributions to this volume.

Nonetheless, we want to go a step further and suggest that a broader interdisciplinary re-examination of the concepts used to describe life under socialism is needed to revitalize GDR scholarship. Approaching East Germany from the perspective of the present, this volume questions the binaries which have so far framed scholarship on the GDR – dictatorship and everyday life, state and society, past and present – and invites discussions about alternative frameworks. Its contributions showcase research undertaken by scholars associated with The GDR Today, a growing network of early-career researchers of GDR memory, history and culture. The network was established around a series of international conferences held ← 8 | 9 → in Birmingham, Bristol and Bangor between 2014 and 2017.23 The aim of these conferences was to explore how the GDR can remain relevant as an object of research almost three decades after reunification. Featuring papers from a wide range of disciplines, the three conferences not only demonstrated that interest in East Germany remains unabated; they also revealed the emergence of a generation of scholarship which explores a new language to conceptualize the GDR. In many ways, the papers presented at the conferences pioneered approaches to the East German state that cut across the categories and concepts that have traditionally been used to analyse life under socialism. They have thus suggested ways in which GDR scholarship can move beyond its traditional, inward-looking debates and ask broader questions that are relevant to other areas of research.


XII, 292
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (November)
German Democratic Republic East Germany GDR history GDR memory GDR culture
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018. XII, 289 pp., 6 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Stephan Ehrig (Volume editor) Marcel Thomas (Volume editor) David Zell (Volume editor)

Stephan Ehrig is a Teaching Fellow in German at Durham University. His PhD thesis examined the reception of Heinrich von Kleist in GDR literature and theatre at the University of Bristol. He has previously published in the Kleist Jahrbuch and Literaturkritik and his monograph Der dialektische Kleist was published in March 2018. Marcel Thomas is Departmental Lecturer in Twentieth-Century European History at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He completed his PhD at the University of Bristol in 2017. His thesis, «Local Lives, Parallel Histories: Villagers and Everyday Life in the Divided Germany», is the first comparative study of how East and West German villagers experienced and navigated social change in their localities in the postwar era. He has previously published in the Journal of Urban History and the European Review of History. David Zell is Research Associate at the Institute for German Studies, University of Birmingham. He was awarded his PhD in German Studies at the University of Birmingham in 2018, with a thesis titled «Major Cultural Commemorations and the Construction of Cultural and Political Identity in the GDR, 1959–83». He has also contributed to the Significance of the Centenary project, an interdisciplinary, cross-sector series of workshops bringing together museum practitioners and academics from several British universities to contextualize, compare and convey the significance of centenaries.


Title: The GDR Today