Why studying the GDR still matters today – The GDR as Lived Experience

In their introduction to the volume The GDR Today: New Interdisciplinary Approaches to East German History, Memory and Culture (2018), the editors Stephan Ehrig, Marcel Thomas, and David Zell ask if GDR studies has run its course. While current research on the GDR (including the aforementioned volume) proves otherwise, there is still room for incorporating GDR Studies into the German Studies curriculum. In teaching the GDR, there seems to be a canon of cultural production (be it literature or film) that either depicts the GDR as a state of oppression as seen in the film The Lives of Others (dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) or through the lens of Ostalgie, as seen in Good Bye Lenin! (dir. Wolfgang Becker, 2003). This leads to what I call an exoticizing of the GDR and its culture on the one hand and an oversimplification of what the East German state was on the other hand. In order to understand contemporary German culture and history, one has to continue examining the factors that shaped GDR legacies and resist such exoticization. In this short reflection, I would like to suggest two ways of diversifying our teaching and study of the GDR.


Today there are a number of texts by a younger generation of East Germans who grew up in the GDR (for an overview see Bahr and Lorek, 2016), which present a more complex picture of GDR life. One example is Jana Hensel’s 2002 autobiographical book After the Wall. However, this developing canon still remains primarily white and only focuses on white East Germans. Texts featuring non-white experiences in East German literature or in literature about East Germany are rarely included in reading lists for courses or are the target of research. Nonetheless, those texts exist and inform about various lived experiences, such as those of Black East Germans. Autobiographies by Black East Germans not only expound on the narrative of the Black German experience as a whole, but also challenge the narrative of what it means to be East German. Additionally, in order to understand how structural racism works in today’s Germany, it is important to not only consider the history of Black West German lived experiences but also the history of Black East German life. The Black East German canon contains, among others, work from Gerd Schramm’s Wer hat Angst vorm schwarzen Mann (2013), Andre Baganz’s Endstation Bautzen II: Zehn Jahre Lebenslänglich (2010), Detlef D. Soost’s Heimkind, Neger, Pionier (2005), and Abini Zöllner’s Schokoladenkind: Meine Familie und andere Wunder (2003).

In addition to Black East German experiences, other People of Color of non-European descent also lived and worked in the GDR as so called Vertragsarbeiter (contract workers), students, refugees and children (most famously the Schule der Freundschaft [SdF] in Stassfurt). Studying their lived experiences through histories or cultural products provides not only insights into complex transnational encounters and exchanges with countries in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, but also sheds light on the practical implementation of international solidarity as a concept of success and failure in East German political and private life. Some of the texts in this canon are Ibraimo Alberto’s Ich wollte leben wie die Götter. Was in Deutschland aus meinen afrikanischen Träumen wurde (2014), Stefan Canham and Phuong-Dan Nguyen’s Die Deutschen Vietnamesen (2011), as well as the edited volume Mosambik – Deutschland, Hin und Zurück. Erlebnisse von Mosambikanern vor, während und nach dem Aufenthalt in Deutschland (2005). Additionally, documentary films have proved to be a great medium for teaching everyday life experiences. They provide instructors and students with access to witnesses in order help undergraduate students connect with new and unknown lived experiences and perspectives. Some example are: the Webdoku Eigensinn im Bruderland (2019) about the lives of migrants in the GDR; Claudia Sandberg’s documentary film Películas escondidas. Un viaje entre el exilio y la memoria (2016) about DEFA’s ‘Chile’ films; and the production Omulaule heisst Schwarz (2016), a documentary by Beatrice Möller, Nicola Hens, and Susanne Radelhof; Christoph Schuch’s documentary Namibia – Return to a New Country – Namibia – Rückkehr in ein neues Land (1997) about Namibian children sent to the GDR as refugees. Including those voices into the teaching of German cultural history expands commonplace narratives about the GDR by considering the complex lives of people informed by race, gender, cultural, and generational divide.


In Socialist Modern: East German Everyday Culture and Politics (2009), Katherine Pence and Paul Betts suggest that the GDR was “a uniquely modern state,” thereby challenging a more singular idea of modernity as part of liberal capitalism (3). This research has inspired scholars to not only look differently at political, cultural, and social structures within the GDR, but also to consider the private aspect in order to understand ways of living in the GDR. GDR popular culture is a particularly rich resource in this regard because it can shed light on previously undervalued dimensions of GDR life. A detailed retrospective description of daily life, which comments upon various components of GDR socialist modernity and innovation, takes place in Thomas Brussig’s Das gibts in keinem Russenfilm (2015). But material produced by the DEFA film studios and GDR television also introduces viewers to different meanings of socialist life, while offering contemporary critiques towards the state as people were living it. For example, this has already been studied in the so-called banned films, those censored DEFA films that only came to light after the wall came down (for a full list, please see the DEFA Film Library’s Themes and Genre section). Further use of genre cinema, avant-garde cinema, and television may expand on this approach to studying the GDR. East German media not only gives insight into the society from within but also challenges the narratives of an oppressed society that was silenced to challenge the states’ political and social issues.

So, why do GDR studies matter now? By bringing in different examples of the many lived experiences of GDR cultural and social life, we will enrichen ongoing debates about and interrogations of Germaneness, identity, and shared values in contemporary Germany. By studying GDR material and literary culture alongside other canonical texts, students will be able to learn and discuss different ideas of societies and lived experiences without putting one over the other.


Katrin Bahr and Melanie Lorek. “Ja, wohin gehen sie denn?”- Die ‘3. Generation Ostdeutscher’ zwischen Suchen und Finden am Beispiel des 1.5 Generationskonzepts.” In Die Generation der Wendekinder: Elaboration eines Forschungsfeldes, eds. Adriana Lettrari, Christian Nestler, and Nadja Troi-Boeck. Wiesbaden: Springer, 2016. 255–77.

DEFA Film Library. https://ecommerce.umass.edu/defa/films?category%5B%5D=28


“This post was simultaneously published on the Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum (DDGC) Blog edited by Regine Criser and Ervin Malakaj.”

Traveling Mozambique: Family History and Search for Traces

“For all of us there is a twilight zone between history and memory; between the past as a generalized record which is open to relatively dispassionate inspection and the past as a remembered part of, or background to, one’s own life.” Eric Hobsbawm

It is June 5, 2018 and I am preparing for a one-month research trip to Mozambique. While I have planned this trip as part of my dissertation on the Cold War relationships between Mozambique and the GDR, I chose to take along my father, who had worked in Beira, the fourth largest city in the northeast of the country, during the 1980s on the construction of the railroad line Beira-Dondo. As part of his contract, he brought his wife and his two daughters along. Our family stayed in Mozambique for two years before returning to the GDR in 1984. What would he recall after all those years? Would he be able to remember the places he worked? Would those places still look the same, will they have vanished, or changed completely? And what would I remember, as I was only three years old when we left for Mozambique. Although he had shown us slide after slide in the 1990s, those images and stories had faded over time. Would I remember anything? I decided to bring some of these photographs with me in the hopes of locating some of the places from my childhood.


In the early morning, we arrive in Maputo. As the capital of Mozambique, it is our first stop. All East Germans arrived in Maputo first, stayed there for a couple days before departing to their final destinations. Although it is winter season, the air is hot and humid. I catch myself thinking, “thank goodness I did not choose to do field research here in the summer”. We settle into the apartment, and then take a walk through an upper-class neighborhood. We travel through the fenced and highly-secured embassies, passing women selling fruit and vegetables on the street. I can feel my father’s happiness returning after all those years, as well as his eagerness to explore the city. His excitement is contagious; I cannot wait to explore the country with him and rediscover all the places from the photos.

Looking for Rubi

copyright Katrin Bahr

One of the most intriguing photographs I bring with me is of a building with a sign that reads RUBI. Once the tallest building in Maputo, it is located on a corner along the Avenida Samora Machel. Illuminated, the big four red letters resemble an advertisement. Beyond receiving the photo from my father’s collection, I am unfamiliar with its details. Similarly, all my father remembers is that it was taken in Maputo. I know tracing down images without any details would be a difficult task, but I am nonetheless hopeful. One day, after finishing some research in the Arquivo Histórico de Moçambique, we see a small park with a craft venue in the middle. Suddenly, I freeze, trying to contain my excitement. There it is: my RUBI building. Its colors had faded but the structure of the building is still intact. RUBI’s discovery motivates me to look for more places, buildings and signs corresponding to my photos. Over the next two weeks, as we travel to Beira, Dondo, Mafambisse, Messica, Chimoio, Manica and Machipanda, I take my own photos of places, buildings and signs I discover. In doing so, I myself restage moments of family-time my father captured and change narratives.

Dom Carlos Hotel

copyright Katrin Bahr

Our second stop is Beira, the city we called home for two years. The airport is small. In comparison with Maputo, everything seems more provincial. As soon as we sit in the car that brings us from the airport into the city, memories begin to resurface for my father. We drive along a bumpy-sandy road, passing people on bikes and a modern Chinese hotel complex. My father is shocked at how much has changed and repeatedly comments that the city “did not look so run down in the 1980’s”. We pass the Dom Carlos Hotel where new incoming East German families had stayed until they were able to move into their assigned houses and apartments. The next day, we visit the Dom Carlos while taking the “Macuti neighborhood” tour. One of the pictures I have with me is of a hotel and was taken by one of my father’s colleagues. It depicts the modern architectural building sometime in the early 1980’s, painted blue, and surrounded by trees. Once a hotel on the rise in Beira and a destination for many foreign aid workers, today it stands abandoned and in an unsettled owner-and-property situation. Even the attempt to put some fresh paint on the walls does not prevent the hotel from looking like ruins. The roof and windows are absent, and the outside walls are plastered with cell phone advertisements.

copyright Katrin Bahr

My Memories

When it comes to abandoned places, I am the first one who wants to take a closer look and explore the inside. I am curious to see if I would remember anything there. I step inside, and immediately I am drawn to a painting on the wall, amazed to see that it is still in full display, completely untouched. I would imagine that in Germany this type of abandoned building would have already turned into a graffiti project. As I take a picture of the painting, I remember that I had gone through some photos earlier showing East German families celebrating Christmas at the Dom Carlos Hotel. Later on, back in our hotel, I go through my digital collection and locate the image I thought I remembered seeing. It is a photograph my father had taken during a Christmas get-together at the hotel. East German families and their children sit in the lobby, gathered around a table with an illuminated, plastic Christmas tree. Someone is playing the accordion while others unpack their presents and take pictures. Looking at both images, one can decipher the beauty and destruction of the hotel over the passage of time. It is both fascinating and odd that the only piece that survived it all, is this painting; it is as if it holds on to the memories of that time—those now forgotten and buried in rubble.

copyright Katrin Bahr

My Mother

Over the next days, I still wonder if my memory of Beira was constructed through the photographs from the 1980’s. I receive an answer to this question once we visit our old home. Driving along a road at the shore, I am surprised to see that our former house is closer to the beach than I expected. I had also pictured the neighborhood differently with only one side of the street spotted with houses. The other side—I imagined—must have been just bushland with banana plantations. Right there, I realize that my memories are misled and made up from the stories my mother had told me. The entire street consists of terraced houses which have been there since the Portuguese occupation. Respectfully approaching the current tenants, we explain to them that we lived “here in this house”. I ask for permission to take a picture of me standing on their balcony, the very same way my mother once stood there being photographed by my father. The shade-giving papaya tree at the house’s front was taken down and replaced by a small palm tree. The house still looks the same despite its barred windows having undergone some color changes. Now, the garage is closed off and the small gate replaced by a larger one. The house continues to host families who work for the Caminhos de Ferro de Moçambique (CFM), the railroad company my father worked for.

My Father’s Happy Place

copyright Katrin Bahr

We then go further into the country to stop at different project sites my father worked at. My father worked for the CFM in Beira and occasionally traveled throughout the country for work assignments. With difficult road conditions en route to projects and security measures at the project sites, these assignments sometimes took days and weeks to complete. For this, he had to leave the family behind. Therefore, we only heard the stories about these places and later saw photos he took. I realize the importance of documenting his return journey once I see his reaction to these places. I begin to restage the photos of him in the same locations today. This means placing him into pictures—a reversal, as he had photographed his daily work and family life behind the camera. I choose two older pictures I have of him and restage them.

The first one is a reenactment of a 1983 photograph at Ifloma—a wood factory one-hundred-fifty miles from Beira—in Messica. My father had worked here for several months, though he cannot remember the details of when the picture was taken. He surmises: maybe a quick stop after a long workday on their way back to Beira or the project housing they stayed in. The image seems a little bit off since the other person in the photo either did not want to be photographed or did not realize that a photo was being taken. He is bending down, distracted by something. To reenact the picture is easy since only the car and the shoes seem to be different. Later, when I compare the two pictures, I realize that my father has always worn checkered shirts.

My Father’s Defeat

copyright Katrin Bahr

The second photograph I take of my father is connected to a longer story at one of his work sites. In Beira, my father and I have permission to join construction workers from the CFM in Dondo on their repair and maintenance machine to the Pungue Bridge. One of the best visually documented projects, I heard stories of its construction, bombing, provision and final repair. It feels natural to go and see the bridge today. When we hear that the organized trip with the CFM fell through, we try to get to the bridge ourselves on a dam through the sugar cane fields in Mafambisse. Unfortunately, a regular car is only able to get you so far. So, the picture I take in comparison with the one from the 1980s portrays both, pride and defeat. Pride—after finishing the project of reconstructing the bridge, and defeat—as we are not able to get to the bridge on our own. I again realized how important it was for my father to revisit these places when I talked to him on the phone the other day. I asked him how, after a month of being back in Germany, he reflects on it. His first sentence is: “We could have made it!” It had really bothered him to not be able to visit the Pungue Bridge again.


The importance and impact of this trip differed for me and my father. I desired to see places my father had worked at and revisit the city we lived in. In sum, I was searching to validate my memories. What made the trip so special was that I was able to do this with a close relative – my father – who had lived and worked there. I was able to see the places in photographs and listen to the narratives from the photos he had shown me; they had fascinated me ever since. Furthermore, I also learned new things about my father. Not only that he’s been wearing plaid shirts since at least the 1980s, but also his gratitude of being able to visit Mozambique one more time. He never talked about going back, but I know now that it had been on his mind for an entire year since he left.

For me, the trip resurrected memories that I heard from my parents but was only now able to place into a geographical and social context. It is a family history that creates its own narrative separate from that of the collective. It is an individual approach of retracing (East German) history. Using private photographs as a visual narration aid is not just a tool for documenting personal lives; it is a powerful agent of historical change and challenges prevailing narratives that go beyond times and spaces, bridging past and present as a continuing story.

I would like to thank Feling Capela who inspired me to write this story down.

Coming to Terms with the GDR Past – Ein Nachruf

Coming to Terms with the GDR Past: Thoughts on the Case Andrej Holm and the Student Occupation of the Institute of Social Sciences at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in January 2017

This article will discuss the occupation of the Institute of Social Sciences (ISW) at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU) with a focus on how students at the Institute positioned themselves with respect to the accusations against Andrej Holm.

But first, what was the nature of the accusations and why were they made? From September 1, 1989 to January 31, 1990, Andrej Holm (academic staff for urban studies at HU) was ”Hauptamtlicher Mitarbeiter” in training with the East German Secret Service (Stasi). After reunification, he became active in the squatting scene in Berlin and began studying social sciences at HU (1990-1997). His dissertation (2004), which dealt with aspects of gentrification in the Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, made him one of the most important scholars and experts in the field of social inequality in the city. In 2016, the left-wing party DIE LINKE wanted to use his expertise and named him State Secretary for the newly inaugurated Berlin Senate.

Copyright by Anne Grieger, Protest gegen Inhaftierung des Soziologen Andrej H.

During the nomination process, however, Holm’s involvement with the Stasi became a media topic, starting with the fact of his involvement and then moving on to the way he handled his past when filling out his personal information when he started his job at HU.[1] Due to public pressure and a request for his resignation from Social-Democratic Berlin Mayor Michael Müller, Holm resigned from the position in January 2017. At the same time, HU looked into whether or not his statements should also lead to his dismissal from his job and on January 18, 2017, the president of the university announced that Holm was being fired.

In direct response, 200 students and activists occupied the ISW). Being members of the institute as students and employees, during the occupation, we found ourselves oscillating between solidarity, responsibility to our instructors and colleagues, missed chances to get involved, alliances and gainful employment. While the occupation was underway, we mostly tried to engage by organizing events on topics that were related to the issue or participated in discussions and talks.

The media, however, portrayed the students as naïfs who did not know what they were talking about with regard to the Stasi, the GDR and the “Unrechtsstaat” (a derogatory, post-reunification term for the East German “unjust state”). One critique that kept appearing in the comments was that the students were displaying naïve, uniform solidarity with a former member of the Stasi—that they were left-wing extremists who had learned nothing from the past and were therefore ridiculing the victims of the GDR.

But a closer look at the events and the students’ involvement reveals a different image. A roundtable discussion organized by the Robert Havemann Foundation in January was well attended by ISW students. In our opinion, most of the students who attended wanted to hear directly from Holm regarding how he would position himself and what he had to say about the accusations. There was a heated discussion as to whether to accept his statements or to believe historian Ilko-Sasch Kowalczuk, who argues that Holm had not forgotten his past but rather did not want to remember, and what doing so would mean for Holm’s integrity and students’ trust and faith in their assistant professor. The students’ desire to engage in that discussion was not met that day (they were made to wait outside for a long time) and the university did not initiate a discussion in the weeks that followed. As a result, students from the ISW and other institutions both within Humboldt and at other Berlin universities initiated discussions outside official university spaces.

At no time was there just simple partisanship. Instead, we had exchanges about the GDR that felt rewarding, given that students had occasionally discussed the Institute and Humboldt University’s GDR legacy and that the ways that GDR ideology had shaped scholarship at Humboldt University had been addressed rarely and only through the engagement of a few people. Students and colleagues with whom we had usually discussed contemporary politics, exams, the conditions of academic employment or bars in the Berlin’s Neukölln neighborhood suddenly started to talk about their own or their parents’ lives and the related questions of identity.

How much of the GDR have we inherited through our parents? At a historical moment when the state is drawing new borders between people of different origins, students were discussing the circumstances under which their parents found the courage to resist, escaped or invented ways to get their needs met. And how much courage do we show by comparison? We wondered how we could make these stories—our stories—more accessible to us and how we could come to terms with our own past. Is it enough to only engage with our own family history? How can we gain access to our parents’ Stasi files and what purpose would doing so serve if the people who were affected cannot talk about how they experienced it and what for them seems true or false when reading those files? What else needs to be known and researched? What would a critical analysis of the Marxist-Leninist history of the Institute look like?

We are the children of SED (Social Democratic Party) members, Stasi informants, civil rights campaigners, convicted political refugees and correspondents; West Germans, East Germans and migrants with more than one passport and identity; parents and children who grew up in different states where they were also recognized differently. Those few days marked the first time we recognized the similarities we all share through our experiences with the GDR. Yet it also became clear how differently we all perceive our world and our environment as we discussed why it is so important for some of us to call the GDR an Unrechtsstaat while others feel that such a classification misrepresents the GDR and delegitimizes their own family history. One thing we have in common is that none of us want to legitimize or glorify the wall’s death toll, the prisoners or the arbitrariness of the state. The simple comparison of Unrechtsstaat und Rechtsstaat, however, easily leads us to a rash assignation of the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany) as a Rechtsstaat that also glorifies a nationalistic perception of the FRG. It also silences unconstitutional paradoxes, exclusions and the discomfort and critique of such comparison. The students developed ideas for new term papers and theses regarding questions of identity and statehood and interdisciplinary dialogue and cooperation projects.

So, is it true that we and the students of the ISW do not know what the GDR was like? That may be so. We have a lot of questions. We and the students know that our knowledge is situated and that experiences shape our perception. We occupy a white perspective and racist and colonialist ideas structure our thinking. Critically questioning our own thinking pattern is an ongoing process. That is why we reject simplified arguments that suggest continuity without ruptures—such as between the young man who once worked for the Stasi and the person who is Andrej Holm, scholar and State Secretary who has ideas for monitoring the real estate industry using the existing laws. We reject the sweeping condemnations of people who spurn public debate or are dismissive of protests against the nearly incomprehensible, legally thin reasoning behind a dismissal that, moreover, misses the point of academic integrity and honesty.

With the help of both a critical methodology and the teaching scholars at the ISW and other institutions, we have learned nuanced and critical ways of examining individual biographies and historical placement in terms of both individual and collective memory. The study taught us to critically analyze political and administrative decisions in different political systems. Democracy theories, the vulnerability of state power and the danger of populist movements are all part of the curriculum. We learned to analyze facts before passing judgments. Taking a closer look at the “university from below”[2] program, one has to acknowledge that coming to terms with the GDR as a political construct has become a main focus. It shows a willingness to critically confront the ruling system of the GDR and to make well-informed (rather than generalized) assessments of lived experiences such as those of Andrej Holm. We know that a complex question needs to be understood in its context and that the answers we find are more likely to raise additional questions than to generate easy answers.

[1] By failing to note explicitly that he had worked as a ”Hauptamtlicher Mitarbeiter” Stasi employee, Holm did not provide accurate information on his position within the organization when the university hired him in 2005. The question of the usefulness of such questionnaires in the retrieval of East German biographies has only been a matter of peripheral discussion and cannot addressed here due to limited space.

[2] http://univonunten.blogsport.de/

Views and opinions expressed in blog posts and other publications on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions of other members of the Third Generation Ost network.

Relaunch and New Blog!

Welcome to our new blog! Since the beginning of the Third Generation network initiative, we have connected with different scholars in the US and abroad. We are also working on new projects and have been busy with our own research. Now that the foundation for our network is set, we would like to try new avenues.

The idea for this blog came out of a trend we have observed in recent years, in which scholarship and perspectives about the GDR are more and more disconnected from what is happening in present-day Germany and from the people itself who experienced this time. For this reason, we will use this blog to provide information about new projects, to share thoughts on recent discourses and present exciting research, and fresh ideas that go beyond the boundaries of time, space, and generations without losing sight of its subject. The blog is intended to be a loose form of academic and non-academic dialogue, welcoming a broader audience of people who would like to contribute to this subject.

Please enjoy, share and comment!