The GDR Tomorrow

Rethinking the East German Legacy

by Elizabeth Emery (Volume editor) Matthew Hines (Volume editor) Evelyn Preuss (Volume editor)
©2024 Edited Collection XVI, 338 Pages


A unique experiment at the frontlines of the Cold War, the German Democratic Republic collapsed more than thirty years ago. But it did not simply vanish. Far from being a footnote in history, the state and its legacies continue to inform identities, politics, and culture today. Studies of surveillance and government control, individual agency and equal opportunity, informal networks, strategic alliances, and strategies subverting limitations on freedom of expression prompt us to rethink our conceptualizations of the GDR.
Introducing the work of a new generation of researchers, this collection applies such approaches to a wide range of examples from film, theatre, music, literature, radio, and law. The chapters explore and transgress temporal, national, and disciplinary boundaries. From these investigations emerges a pervasive pattern of informal, border-transcending spheres, subversive identity discourses, and effective agency. Drawing variously on concepts such as Eigen-Sinn, informal society, and alternative public spheres, the papers presented here highlight the relevance of GDR Studies looking forwards. More than a volume about just the past, The GDR Tomorrow holds implications for the future.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction: The GDR Tomorrow (Elizabeth Emery, Matthew Hines, and Evelyn Preuss)
  • The East German Project and its Democratic (Dis)Contents
  • Section I GDR without Borders: Transnational Perspectives
  • Briefe ohne Unterschrift: Transnational Identity in the GDR (George Gibson)
  • Butterfly over the Wall: Herz’s Madam Butterfly (1978) and Its Journey from the Komische Oper to the Welsh National Opera (Yundi Guo)
  • Section II German Democratic Aesthetics: Co-Authorship and Subversive Audiences
  • A ‘Productive’ Alternative to Socialist Realism in Peter Hacks and Heiner Müller (Matthew Hines)
  • Twofold Testimonies: Jewish Memory of the Holocaust in GDR Fiction (Anja Thiele)
  • Hollywood behind the Wall? (Dis)Continuities between Love Story (1970) and Die Legende von Paul und Paula (1973) (Evelyn Preuss)
  • ‘To Be Continued’: The GDR’s Memory Tomorrow
  • Section I Beyond 1989: Law and the Instrumentality of the Past
  • Socialist State Crime, Transitional Justice, and the Question of Individual Responsibility in Germany, 1984–1992 (Philipp Ebert)
  • Paul Merker: ‘Ein Moment kommunistischer Ungleichzeitigkeit’? (Alexander D. Brown)
  • Section II (N)Ostalgie: Future as History – History as Future?
  • ‘Wenn die Zeit endlos wär, so wie Sand am Meer … Wünsch ich mir ein Stück davon jetzt zurück’: (N)Ostalgie in East German Popular Music (Elizabeth Emery)
  • Objects of Love: Remembering Radio Berlin International in India (Anandita Bajpai)
  • Conclusion: GDR Studies Today and Tomorrow (Elizabeth Emery, Matthew Hines, and Evelyn Preuss)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index


Table 1 ‘Die Schatten werden länger’ Structure and Analysis. Table by author.

Table 2‘Willkommen im Club’ Structure and Analysis. Table by author.


We would like to express our gratitude to Professor Sara Jones, Dr. Debbie Pinfold, Professor Anna Saunders, and Dr. Joanne Sayner, the organizing committee of the GDR Today conference series, for their inspiration and support for this volume. The GDR Tomorrow is dedicated and indebted to them.

We would also like to convey our thanks to the many people who have made this volume possible: to the contributors, who have patiently and steadfastly accompanied the editing process over the past years; to the anonymous peer reviewers and readers, from whose comments and advice every paper has benefited; and to Dr. Laurel Plapp at Peter Lang for her ingenious guidance and her patience in a much-delayed publishing process. The editors of The GDR Today volume, which had collated papers from earlier conferences – Dr. Stephan Ehrig, Dr. Marcel Thomas, and Dr. David Zell – also deserve our thanks for sharing their experiences as we began this undertaking.

Without the generous support of several institutions, this volume would not have come about. The papers in The GDR Tomorrow were presented at three separate conferences in the GDR Today series. We thank, firstly, the host institutions: the Universities of Bangor, Newcastle, and Birmingham. The University of Birmingham’s Institute for German & European Studies (IGES) provided the funds to publish this volume, for which we would like to convey our gratefulness – in particular to the Institute’s directors at the time, Dr. Nick Martin and Dr. Klaus Richter. We are also thankful for critical funding, which the University of Oklahoma provided in the final stages of manuscript preparation.

Finally, we as editors would like to acknowledge the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the evolution of this volume. Several papers originally conceived as chapters for The GDR Tomorrow were lost, as the effects of the pandemic delayed and impeded the work of many researchers, including those whose work does feature here. We were not immune to the impacts of these years either and would, therefore, like to thank the volume’s supporters and contributors for their perseverance: their energy and encouragement made often challenging circumstances considerably easier.

We hope that the following papers provide a sample of the recent early-career scholarship within GDR Studies today and indicate trends that suggest trajectories and questions for research tomorrow.

Elizabeth Emery, Matthew Hines, and Evelyn Preuss

Introduction: The GDR Tomorrow

bin ich schon zu früh hier

oder bin ich schon zu spät

– Gerhard Gundermann1

Wenn man den Osten als soziales Experiment betrachtet, eine gerechtere Welt zu schaffen, dann ist das ja gar kein schlechtes Ziel,

und zumal gemessen an der Welt, in der wir jetzt leben,

ein Ziel, das durchaus sinnvoll erscheint.

Also wäre es nur konsequent zu fragen: Warum hat das nicht geklappt?

Oder ist die Idee verkehrt?

Wenn man aber zu dem Ergebnis kommt, dass die Idee so falsch ist,

dann wäre ein bisschen Analyse ganz interessant,

auch um für heute etwas zu lernen.

– Andreas Dresen2

Die DDR in mir ist nicht einfach verschwunden, nur weil das Land nicht mehr existiert.

Was mich durch sie immer noch bestimmt, ist die Abwesenheit von Selbstverständlichkeit.

– Claudia Rusch3

The GDR Tomorrow seems an oxymoron. The German Democratic Republic formally dissolved more than thirty years ago, yet its memory is vivid in the post-1990 FRG with new museum openings and new scholarship written, and its echoes resonating in cultural production loudly and clearly. If the fall of the Berlin Wall signifies the end of a failed experiment, it should provide closure. Yet we continue to replay it, as if something were still open – to debate, to explore, and to question. In November 1989, western journalists asked the East German comedian Peter Ensikat whether the fall of the Wall would mean the end of socialism. Suggesting that the opening of the East German border entailed the end of socialism, the question already represented a perspective on the GDR that came to determine western discourse for the following decades. Indeed, the fall of the Wall for many seemed to signal the end of history altogether.

Francis Fukuyama’s celebration of the liberal democracies and their free-market capitalism as The End of History came to encapsulate the neoliberal doctrine of ‘no alternative’, which, according to Philip Ther, not only put an end to discussions about alternative political options, but also generated a pessimistic outlook of lower wages and social spending cuts in one country after the next.4 Timothy Snyder describes ideologies that manipulate constituents with ‘a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done’ as ‘the politics of inevitability’ and ‘politics of eternity’.5 In the latter, ‘time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats’ in a life without agency.6

In response to the journalists’ questions, however, Ensikat offered a different interpretation of the fall of the Wall, and answered: “Jetzt fängt vielleicht der Sozialismus überhaupt erst an, ein Sozialismus zu werden” [socialism is perhaps only now starting to become socialism].7 Setting past and future into correspondence as he read the opening of the Wall as a new rather than a lost opportunity, Ensikat captured the original impetus of the 1989 revolution, whose proponents had in many cases sought to democratize socialism rather than abandon it. Daniela Dahn, for example, refers to events in autumn 1989 as a ‘déjà vu’ because the roots of the protest movement, she argues, could be found in the GDR’s own antifascist impetus, which lent the populace a ‘verinnerlichte Zivilcourage’ [internalized civil courage].8 While the GDR no longer exists as a state, the dimensions of its political project and their implications for our own future draw public and scholarly attention to its legacy.

In stark contrast to the ‘no alternative’ neoliberal ideology, the GDR’s promise of utopia constantly trained the focus on the time yet to come as a space in which alternatives could unfold. This future vision was designed to remedy and replace a cataclysmic past, hence its political discourse suspended the GDR between the legacy of the past and a utopian future in which the ‘Aufbau des Sozialismus’ [construction of socialism] would be achieved. The East German national anthem summarizes the temporal tensions that came to characterize political discourse in the opening line ‘Auferstanden aus Ruinen und der Zukunft zugewandt’ [resurrected from ruins and oriented to the future]. These temporal tightropes are not confined to state ideology but also characterize much of East German culture, especially in its most thoughtful and subversive moments, such as Christa Wolf’s quotation of William Faulkner in her novel Kindheitsmuster [Patterns of Childhood]: “Das Vergangene ist nicht tot; es ist nicht einmal vergangen. Wir trennen es von uns ab und stellen uns fremd” [The past is not dead; it is not even past. We separate it from ourselves and pretend it is foreign].9 Today, one might view the demise of the GDR as the reopening of its utopian visions, flinging history wide open once again to resist the conception of the future as without alternative.


XVI, 338
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2024 (February)
GDR (German Democratic Republic) German Studies Eigen-Sinn and individual initiative
Oxford, Berlin, Bruxelles, Chennai, Lausanne, New York, 2024. XVI, 338 pp., 4 fig. col., 2 fig. b/w, 2 tables.

Biographical notes

Elizabeth Emery (Volume editor) Matthew Hines (Volume editor) Evelyn Preuss (Volume editor)

Elizabeth Emery is a fourth-year PhD student at the University of Bristol. Her thesis explores articulations of nostalgia within popular music from the former GDR after reunification with a specific focus on the approaches of the bands Silly, Karat, and Rammstein and their reception histories. Matthew Hines is a Teaching Associate in the German Section at the University of Cambridge. He studied Modern Languages in Oxford, Munich, and Birmingham. He is currently preparing a monograph based on his doctoral research into early GDR literature entitled Writing a New Society: Aufbau in GDR Literature 1949–1962. Evelyn Preuss teaches at the University of Oklahoma. She is currently finishing her PhD on the politics of East German film aesthetics at Yale University. In addition, she is working on a project examining different globalizing tendencies, their relationship to the local, and their political potential. She has published on film, media aesthetics, architecture, history, and policy.


Title: The GDR Tomorrow