Activists in the GDR opposed the state but did not wish for the unification of Germany

8.10.2019
Molly Andrews has done research with activists of former East Germany and found out that they wanted to renew their country and not to be a part of the West.

After the opening of the Berlin Wall, Molly Andrews interviewed 40 East German activists who had fought against the oppressions of state socialism and who were responsible for the political changes which had led to the fall of the wall. 

Since that time, she has continued her longitudinal study with a sub-group of the original participants – returning again in November for the 30th anniversary of the opening of the wall - talking with them about their ideas of what it means to be East German, and exploring the significance of the political rupture of 1989 over time.

Andrews has just arrived in Helsinki to begin her one-year tenure as the Jane and Aatos Erkko Visiting Professor in Studies on Contemporary Society at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. As Professor of Political Psychology at the University of East London, Andrews has conducted research in Great Britain, South Africa, the United States and East Germany, always exploring how people construct their understanding of the political world, and how those ideas connect to action over time.

- During my year at the Collegium, I intend to write a book on the relationship between history, narrative and identity, Andrews states. - I wish to explore how those who have created revolutionary change in former East Germany reflect on their political engagement over time and the dynamics of intergenerational dialogue in a particular moment of heightened social upheaval.   

With the term ‘GDR activists’ Andrews refers to opponents of the government who wanted to transform the German Democratic Republic (GDR) into a better country, to live in and develop the state towards democracy, away from the politics of oppression. The activists were striving for a new kind of GDR and were not advocates for the unification of Germany.

Losing your home country

Molly Andrews’ research demonstrates the complexity of the meaning of national identity in the context of losing one’s country.  One example is that of Wolfgang Templin, the man Erich Honecker once called ‘the number one enemy of the State.’ Prior to 1989, like many other dissidents, Templin had been forcibly exiled to the west. He describes his reaction to hearing about the opening of the Berlin Wall in November 1989:

“I was ecstatic… the fall of the Wall for me meant that I could go back into the GDR rather than get out of it “.

Immediately he and his family moved back to Berlin.  When Andrews interviewed him twenty years later, Templin reflects that “the hopes and the visions of 1989 have still not been realised.”

Andrews’ work, and the complexity of the experiences expressed by those in her study, challenges the more widespread view of euphoria often associated with the opening of the Berlin Wall.

Equally, it undermines the Hollywood version of morality tales such as Academy Award winning “The Lives of Others” (Das Leben der Anderen) which romanticises life amongst the Stasi.  When Andrews interviewed her participants in 2012, she asked them for their reactions to the film. One of them had even published an article on the film, entitled “Kitsch on the highest level.” 

- Most of the project participants felt offended by the film’s depiction of East Germany and the Stasi, its secret police, Andrews says.

 According to them, the filmmakers had simply not done their homework; the Hollywood scenario which framed the film would simply not have been possible in the structure which actually existed. 

Andrews has also discussed with her participants their feelings about the way in which life under state socialism has been represented in the GDR museums which have appeared in former East Germany.   For the most part, they have avoided these places, feeling that they do not genuinely engage with what life was really like, but instead are designed to amuse the museum-goer, as they gently mock the citizens of the former state.

- With exhibitions highlighting East German nudist colonies, Spreewald gherkins, Trabants, and unstylish clothes, they do not engage in a meaningful way with what it meant to be East German, and indeed what the lingering legacy of that identity is now.

In her inaugural lecture “The Promise and Limits of Political Forgiveness” on Tuesday, 22 October at 17.00,  Andrews will explore the complexity of political forgiveness in the context of East Germany, where there is still widespread disagreement  on key questions such who has the right to forgive whom, for what, how long the window for the opportunity of forgiveness stays open, and even why these questions matter, not only for individuals but for the whole of society.   The lecture will be held in the Festive Hall of the Language Centre (Fabianinkatu 26, 3rd floor).