This past November marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – a signal world event, the impact of which still galvanizes at 20 years removed. Though a popular reference point used to mark the beginning of the end of Eastern European communism and the sudden end of the unnatural division of Germany, the actual significance of the razing of the Wall was, and still is, largely symbolic.The opening of the border between West and East Germany was just one of several events that snowballed into the collapse of Eastern bloc communist states, a series of events so complex and dense that it falls outside the scope of this review.
That Was the GDR, a sort of people’s history of East Germany, made for German television in the early ’90s, rightly skirts any attempt to parse the history of these momentous events, for the most part (its coverage of the lead up to the collapse is at once cursory, and incredibly dense, if that makes any sense). On the one hand, it’s a matter of perspective – filmed in 1993 (but released now for the first time on DVD), close enough that the dust really hadn’t fully settled on events, That Was the GDR doesn’t have the proper distance to allow for historical assessment. But it’s also a matter of focus – the six hours of run time here could have been exhausted just by trying to untangle the complicated dynamics of 1989, and without the proper context, they’d be even more impenetrable.
Instead, That Was the GDR focuses on the 40-year lifespan of East Germany, on the sometimes bizarre, but usually just depressing, history of life under the SED, the East German communist regime. The six individual episodes hone in on the typical and specific aspects of a recounting of the life of a nation – from the tumultuous birth of the East German state in the immediate aftermath of World War II; through its troubled economic convulsions and stagnations under the yoke of the Soviet Union; to the establishment of a Big Brother network of political police under the notorious Stasi.
Though each episode presents a narrative account of major political and economic events, moving the history forward year by year and decade by decade, the really draw is the social history aspect. Compiled from interviews with East Germans from all walks of life, from all strata of society — from the communist elite down to the harried farmers, from former soldiers to hairdressers — these stories form the heart of the series and are the main draw here.
The most fascinating aspect is how much wistful nostalgia colors some of their reminiscences. Perhaps it’s a function of still being so close to the well worn, familiar routines of their old lives, and now being flung into a world of chaos and confusion after the well-defined rigidity of life under communism. But it’s startling to hear people actually longing for the good old days of SED rule — of collectivist farms, Stasi surveillance, and circumscribed lives.
For many, the communist ideal and dream was a real and vibrant thing, something to invest oneself in completely. For others, I imagine the rather sudden dissolution of a binary, black and white world, and surety of knowing who the enemy was, was still rather shocking. There’s a certain lure to such… well, certainty, to knowing where everything fits, knowing one’s place in the machine.
But there’s plenty of counterpoint to these views, plenty of people who express rage at the political, economic and intellectual limits that East Germans were forced to live under. The stories of political prisoners are, as to be expected, harrowing and depressing – and at times, as in the case of one family who were put through the wringer trying to get adequate care for their disabled son in West Germany, absolutely heartbreaking.
The release of That Was the GDR, coinciding with the anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, makes sense from an education standpoint, though as an artifact, it’s a bit of a curiosity. Though I’m sure that better material exists out there now scholarship-wise, as a time capsule of the immediate aftermath (well, if five years post collapse is immediate) of the fall of East Germany, it’s somewhat invaluable. A similar documentary made now, with the distance of 20 years, would obviously be colored by subsequent events, and the way that reunification ramped up in the ’90s – and would lose much of the immediacy and force arising the anecdotal stories and feelings of individuals who have just had their entire world pulled out from under them.