East Germany and the People’s Resistance

Dirk Philipsen’s We Were the People, a treatment of German reunification in the 20th century, attempts to prove through interviews with ordinary Germans living under the GDR that not only did democratic and other such resistance movements exist in the East, but that they were also actively instrumental in spurring the movement toward democracy and unification in 1989.

While Philipsen portrays a wide range of examples of opposition in East German, I was personally struck by the extent to which the psychological isolation of the GDR impacted East Germans citizens.

While certainly physically isolated from the rest of the world, Philipsen’s interviews with ordinary East Germans illustrates that perhaps the most devastating aspect of being separated from the world — and perhaps, the most important causal factor of East German underground pro-democracy movements leading up to 1989 — was psychological seclusion, a blockade of the mind that drove a number of East Germans to refocus their efforts on reform and revolution.

One man told Philipsen that “being walled by the GDR” not only isolated them physically, but that the wall also “closed down any kind of access to information and ideas” (Philipsen 78).  The stagnation of free and open thoughts drove many to pessimism.  One individual claimed that “one dies due to the wall in one’s head” (Philipsen 78).

The impact of the so-called “brain drain” — the flight of intellectuals from East to West Germany before the wall was erected — certainly had a direct impact upon the intelligence of the populace remaining in the East.  However, psychologically, East German citizens were reduced to feeling subhuman, outside of history itself and lost within the outside world.  Philipsen details East Berlin workers’ complaints to their superiors that “they did not understand the world anymore” (Philipsen 111).

In his essay, Farewell without Tears, Noel D. Cary suggests that Philipsen’s negative “laments” over the difficult years East Germany suffered and the psychological woes wrought upon that populace might, rather, be worthy of outright celebration (Cary 651).

It is indeed a remarkable aspect that dissenting East Germans, as oppressed and intimidated as they were by secret police, the Soviets themselves, and even by the aspect of being ratted out by neighbors and family members, managed to positively impact the democratic future of the GDR.

Cary explains that while the reunification process was heavily played out in the realms of international politics, with diplomats and party leaders battling constantly in the war of ideas, perhaps an equally as influential aspect of reunification was the domestic front, one in which dissenting Germans would risk life and limb in order to place an amount of pressure, however slight or strong, upon both the West and the GDR in hopes of reuniting Germany once and for all.

Dirk Philipsen, We Were the People, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).
Noel D. Cary, “Farewell without Tears: Diplomats, Dissidents, and the Demise of East Germany,” Journal of Modern History 73 (September 2001): 617-651.


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