The Cold War on Ice

Coming of Age in East Germany

Twenty-one years after German reunification, Communist East Germany—or the German Democratic Republic, as it officially and inaccurately called itself—has receded like a bad dream. Many university students in Eastern Germany today weren’t even born when the Wall fell, and for them, life in the GDR is evoked mostly through period-piece movies, such as The Lives of Others, and in such curious expressions of Ostalgie—“Eastalgia”—as the ongoing cult of nostalgia for the Trabant, the reviled East German car.

But the hard reality of life in the GDR remains deeply lodged in the memories and stories of millions of middle-aged Germans. These are people who grew up as citizens of the Socialist republic and bore the brunt of its ideology. People like Ute, whom I interviewed one long afternoon and evening in the city of Leipzig in 1994, when the experiences—and wounds—of East German life were still fresh.

Leipzig had played a crucial role in the tumultuous events that led to German reunification, and a popular bumper sticker proclaimed the city as a Heldenstadt, or City of Heroes. These were the streets where thousands of candle-holding protesters had marched throughout the fall of 1989, in defiance of the East German government. Their bravery had led to the opening of the Berlin Wall that November and the toppling of the regime a few months later. When I visited, the...

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About the Author

John Rodden is the author of The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of 'St. George' Orwell and other books. He teaches at the University of Texas.