Half a Country, a Whole Country, a Whole Life

Recollections of the GDR, the Period of Change 1989 /90 and the Efforts of German Unification: A Conversation with Marianne Birthler, with commentary by Paul Nolte

Wednesday, October 7, 2015, 12:00-1:15pm
German at Noon at the Goethe-Institut Washington (in German)

In cooperation with the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC, the Cultural Section of the German Embassy and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

On the 25th anniversary of German unification, Marianne Birther and Paul Nolte were invited to share their recollections of the GDR, the period of change 1989/90, and the efforts of German unification at the Goethe Institute in Washington, DC. During this well-attended lunch event, Birthler read from her autobiography Halbes Land. Ganzes Land. Ganzes Leben (Half a Country, A Whole Country, A Whole Life) published in 2014 by Hanser Berlin. The book spans from Birthler's childhood, family, and work-life in the GDR, her engagement in the East German civil rights movement, to her career in politics and civil society during and after German unification.

Among the first memories Birthler recounted during her reading was the building of the wall on August 13, 1961. At age thirteen and more occupied with her girlfriends, puberty, and what was going on in her local East Berlin district, the wall did not mean a great change in her life at the time. For her mother, however, it was a "personal and political catastrophe," as it inevitably cut her off from her sister, her closest friends, and the cultural and intellectual life of West Berlin. A few years later, the sensation of being forbidden to go to the West — while living so close to it — became more central to Marianne Birthler's everyday experience as well. She recalled how standing on East Berlin's Friedrichstrasse, one could feel the air of the subway trains going into West Berlin rise up through the air shafts and the longing this invoked in her. Still, in reoccurring dreams that miraculously placed her on one of those trains and allowed her to get off in the West, she struggled with the decision to disembark, for fear that she might be not be able to return to the East. In the book, this episode follows only a few pages after the one in which Birthler publicly declined to join the East German youth organization, out of protest to the authorities' attitude toward her church youth group. Such anecdotes and reflections on emotions illustrate the ambiguity and complexity of life in the GDR that make her account so insightful.

This perspective is also valuable from a historian's point of view, as Paul Nolte pointed out in his thoughtful commentary after the reading. He noted that the history of everyday life and the history of the opposition in the GDR are intertwined in Birthler's memoir, whereas these two areas are often artificially separated in some of the scholarship on East Germany. Her book also reminds us that the GDR was not as static and rigid as people often conceive of it but that throughout its 40 years of existence it changed internally as well as in its relationships to the West. Observing the continuities that mark the history from the peaceful revolution to the unification of Germany and its aftermath, Nolte honed in on the concept of freedom, a word that has been ubiquitous in the discourse on this period of German history. Mentioning the frequently articulated phrase (by West Germans) after 1989 that people from the East had to yet learn and understand what freedom was, Nolte looked to Birthler's biography to complicate this picture. He remarked that her story illustrates how some East Germans in fact learned about freedom in East Germany, where they carved it out for themselves and where awareness of freedom became an impetus for the peaceful revolution. After the fall of the wall and in a united Germany, Birther did not only learn more about the meanings of freedom but she critically probed the concept during her various engagements in politics and civil society. Last but not least, Paul Nolte reminded the audience that after 1989, West Germans too had to learn anew what freedom meant. He concluded by emphasizing how important East Germans have been in shaping, and improving, the course of Germany since 1989.

The brief but lively discussion that followed the commentary signaled great interest in the stories of "ordinary people" and activists such as Marianne Birthler, which can serve as a correction to the public focus on heads of states — in the U.S., Ronald Reagan's role in particular — as primary movers in this episode of German history. 

Anne Schenderlein