'Their experiences need to be understood': What was life like for East Germans?

The Local
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'Their experiences need to be understood': What was life like for East Germans?
A man walks along the former Berlin Wall in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

On our Germany in Focus podcast, The Local interviewed author and historian Katja Hoyer on her new book on how East Germans lived, and what the fall of the Berlin Wall meant to them.


Hoyer’s forthcoming book “Beyond the Wall: East Germany 1949-1990” delves into how East Germans were affected by the Mauerfall on November 9th, 1989. Without following any ideological agenda, Hoyer said she wanted to shine a light on people's lives and how they influenced broader German history.

“(In the GDR) people did develop different lifestyles, a different society,” Hoyer told The Local.

“These experiences need to be understood, rather than rejected or dismissed out of hand.”

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Just a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hoyer, who grew up in East Germany herself, recalled being assigned essays on “Why did Socialism fail?” at school.

She noted how much her own teachers grappled with the topic, “after asking virtually the opposite question 10 years ago,“ she said in an interview on The Local’s Germany in Focus podcast released on Friday November 11th.

‘Identity linked to the GDR’

After the fall of the Wall, many in Germany rejoiced at the Vaterland coming together again – far sooner than they had expected – many also felt left behind, unsure of what the very different future held, said Hoyer.

“A lot of people were also really concerned about their own personal future because they didn’t know what was going to happen to their jobs, what was going to happen to their livelihood and to their entire situation,” said Hoyer.

The East Germans who tended to be the most affected were those in public service roles, such as teachers and soldiers, and also “people who’s entire identity was linked to what the GDR did,” said Hoyer. 

Female factory workers or engineers, for example, had grown accustomed to reliable jobs and free childcare.

When the Wall fell, “that seemed to dissipate quite quickly and women in particular were hit quite hard with issues like high unemployment,” said Hoyer.

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Two different societies, one country

Hoyer's book, which will be released in April 2023, also looks at sociological differences between the former East and West which are still at play. For example, women tended to have children earlier “which lead to completely different generational breaks and younger parents doing parenting differently", she said.


Too often, the shared experiences of East Germans are cast aside as part of a darker chapter in German history. But Hoyer said that the way East Germans lived for four decades needs to be recognised as they still impact German society today.

She said: “I think that in 1990 people initially just assumed that East Germans would stop being East Germans and just rejoin everything that had happened in West German in the last 41 years kind of needlessly and seamlessly.”

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