Red Love – the story of an East German Family
Pushkin Press £16.99 Pbck
This is a much praised family documentation and winner of the European Book Prize.
Leo was only 19 when the Wall came down, so hardly experienced it as an adult, but like many of those who grew up and lived in the GDR, he can’t get it out of his system. In order to (re)discover what life was really like in the GDR he interrogates his parents and grandparents about their experiences. Theirs was a generation fractured by war and its aftermath. His parents, however, grew up in a privileged environment, as one grandfather, although German-Jewish, was a veteran of the French Resistance and a top Party journalist. His daughter, Leo’s mother, was a member of the Party and imbued with a belief in the socialist system, until she becomes completely disillusioned. Ironically, the author’s father – an anarchistic artist who chafes under the GDR’s ‘provincialism’, becomes equally disillusioned, but by the consumerism and materialism of the new united Germany.
Leo’s portrait of the GDR is like an exercise in describing someone by beginning with their every little wart and scar, detailing every failing and weakness, to end up unsurprisingly, with a very ugly portrait. His is a description of a 1984 dystopia, in which nothing relieves the oppression of state and Party interference in everyday life apart from fleeting escape into one’s personally-carved niche. Even a truth can become an untruth if there is deliberate and serious omission. As with the film ‘Life of Others’, which was shot almost entirely at night time, as if the GDR never experienced sunshine; this book, too, is entirely in negative colours.
It is as if the author suddenly realised after almost 20 years since the GDR’s demise, that he didn’t really know the country in which he’d spent his youth. It is clear from his own comments that although he spent his boyhood in the GDR, his head was always in the West: he loved western music, clothing and flashy cars and despised everything at home, so he hasn’t really taken a full cognisance of that society, only noted its shortcomings and frustrations. He thus felt the urge to ask his parents and grandparents questions he’d never bothered to ask before, but he has filtered out anything positive they might have said and only listed the negatives. Did his parents not experience some episodes of fun, relaxation and enjoyment? It is as if Leo instinctively knew that publishers would only be interested in a book that confirmed all the prejudices and clichés. In this context, it is interesting when he tells the story of his six weeks in hospital after a car accident. The car that hit him apparently had a false number plate, so it must have been a ‘Stasi car’. While in the hospital the doctors only allow his parents to visit him once a week “to prevent his becoming over-excited”. The room he is in is on the ground floor and the windows are barred. ‘Westerners,’ he tells us, in a very revealing sentence, ‘loved that story because it was exactly the way they imagined the GDR.’
Virtually all small children in the GDR went naked when swimming outdoors and relished the freedom of such naturalness, but Leo was ‘forced’ by his parents to do so. The children’s Young Pioneer groups become, in translation ‘troops’ and it’s ‘no fun’; ‘there are constant appeals [a mistranslation of ‘roll-calls’] and processions’. This is a caricature; most children, in my experience, loved the Young Pioneers because they could do all sorts of exciting activities with their mates, outside the parental or school remit.
By relating his grandfathers’ tales of the Nazi period, alongside that of his parents in the GDR, he also tacitly accepts the present German establishment narrative of the ‘two totalitarianisms’, as bad as each other. In fact, the stories told by his grandfather, Werner, who was a member of the Hitler Youth, makes the Nazi period sound more fun for a young boy than the GDR was for Leo himself.
His two grandfathers, one Jewish, the other ex-Nazi, both became firm supporters of the GDR state, but in an example of Leo’s invariably snotty and patronising attitude even to his close relatives, he writes that they ‘could never unmask the great dream as a great lie because the lies they needed to live would have been exposed at the same time’. And later, he is amazed that they never became disillusioned with their failed paradise because, ‘They [his grandparents and parents] saw the poverty, the lies, the claustrophobia, the suspicion’. One wonders if Leo has ever seen real poverty in his life. It was internationally verified that the GDR had the highest standard of living within the socialist world and while few could be described as ‘extremely well off’ there was certainly no poverty as compared with that in the Third World or in many parts of the materially well-off West.
The author is very much, one feels, an egotist, someone who couldn’t or wouldn’t attempt to fit into a collective or identify with collective endeavour. He betrays a singular lack of sympathy with those who sacrificed and devoted their lives to this attempt to build a new, anti-fascist and socialist Germany.
When his grandfather, as a privileged pensioner, manages to wangle things so that his grandson can accompany him on a memory trip to France, instead of sympathising with those who have no such relatives with the right connections and who are unable to travel to France, he despises them. He takes the Mickey out of his compatriots, as rather stupid provincials, by pretending to be a rich Western visitor to their country.
And adds: ‘Even the photographs of France that I hand in to be developed at the stationery shop in Karlshorst look somehow bleached on the East German paper. I find everything stupid and ugly, and I quite enjoy playing the part of the global traveller, letting the hicks back home feel a little of my contempt.’
His schooling in the GDR is summed up as, ‘Listless teachers wrote the tables [for rote learning] on the board, listless pupils wrote them in their notebooks, listless parents signed off the classwork. That was socialism as it reached me. Phrases in table form.’
And again: When he is not selected by the school to take his A-levels [he admits his grades are not the best] he says: ‘For the first time I felt the power of this state, which could simply determine what path one’s life could take.’ Wish I’d thought of that argument when I wasn’t allowed to go to a grammar school (my IQ grade in the 11+ was apparently not sufficient).
At times it is not just a one-sided and jaundiced perspective, but downright inaccurate. He talks about ‘the boundless hatred of Israel in East German propaganda…’ I challenge him to produce any examples of this. While the GDR made no secret of its support for the Palestinians in their struggle for justice, it was scrupulous in its reticent and fact-based criticism of Israel.
Not even the GDR’s greatest supporters would suggest that the country was a paradise or that there weren’t serious problems and shortcomings, but it was country attempting, in a hostile world environment, to build a different type of society. If Leo had focussed his attacks on the bureaucracy, the intolerance of petty officials or the party’s dominance of so many areas of life that would not be contentious, but his dystopic portrait, plus the obligatory Stasi tales, hardly give the reader a fair or holistic picture of the GDR. The ubiquitous Stasi state demonisation is also a coarse distortion as most ordinary people would have had no contact at all with the Stasi during their lives. The fact that around a third of ex-GDR voters have successively voted for the successor party to the old GDR’s SED, indicates that many of his compatriots would not share Leo’s picture.
Many have talked and written about the ‘Schere im Kopf (‘scissors in the head’ or self-censorship) that existed in the GDR, but in this book we have, I would argue, a prime example of the same phenomenon.
The translation, by Shaun Whiteside, while commendable, reveals at times an ignorance of the era, e.g. the 1951 World Youth Festival in Berlin becomes a ‘World Fair’. Markus Wolf is described as ‘head of espionage’, when he was in fact the head of the GDR’s counter-espionage unit.
It is unsurprising that the book has won widespread praise in the West because it reiterates the uni-dimensional image of a totalitarian regime, constantly peddled by the victors. Many other, much more differentiated, life stories have been published but are not translated. However, one that is in English is Edith Anderson’s ‘Love in Exile: An American Writer's Memoir of Life in Divided Berlin’ (Steerforth Press). It is no rosy-tinted view but a much more accurate picture of a complex reality.