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.”