In search of a better Germany – east of the Berlin Wall

Seal of the German Democratic Republic (1949-89)

A COUPLE OF YEARS ago, I was struck by what I thought was a wonderful idea for a book. Over coffee and cake  in her tiny flat overlooking the Neisse River in Saxony, a relative of mine by marriage had just begun recounting her own experiences as an immigrant from West Germany to the communist-ruled German Democratic Republic in the 1960s. The Berlin Wall had gone up only a couple of years before. It seems that while the East German regime actively recruited new settlers, it hardly welcomed them with open arms. As my relative described it, the procedure involved spending several weeks in a Stasi-run relocation camp – a sort of crucible of the Cold War – where people like her were carefully interrogated and otherwise vetted before those deemed suitable were allowed to embark on new lives in “the better Germany.” The reasons her fellow applicants confided to her for wanting to make the move across the Iron Curtain provided a fascinating snapshot of the human condition. These motives ranged from a simple desire for gainful employment and moving love stories to (less frequently) genuine belief in the communist state’s Marxist-Leninist ideals.

What a discovery! This story combined the drama of the Titanic sinking with the philosophical speculation of The Bridge of San Luis Rey. All you’d have to do, I figured, was get hold of the files and you’d have a truly fascinating little volume on your hands. Not that I wanted to take on the project, mind you. I had other fish to fry. And so I was truly excited to discover historian Bernd Stöver’s brand new book Zuflucht DDR. Spione und andere Übersiedler (“The GDR as a refuge:  Spies and other immigrants”).

Is this the book I’ve been waiting for? Not exactly, but it comes awfully close. Stöver spends relatively little time on the human interest stories that first aroused my curiosity and instead focuses on nine more or less famous personalities…



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