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 streets in the smoggy city center were nearly empty. It was a warm mid-September afternoon, and Ute, twenty-three and a first-year student in German literature at Leipzig University—formerly Karl Marx University—had agreed to meet me at a café. She was slim and notably athletic-looking, which wasn’t surprising. As a teenager in the GDR, Ute—whom I’d met through a mutual friend—had been an accomplished figure skater, a young Priviligierte on her way to joining the elite sports cadre known as the Sportkader. But it hadn’t worked out, and she had agreed to tell me the Orwellian saga of her youthful rebellion against the state. Her story typified that of many athletes trained in the state-run sports mills of the GDR, and cast a harsh glare on life inside an authoritarian workers’ state.
Reared in Weissenfels, near Leipzig, Ute had been born into a family of athletes. Her father had played on the national ice hockey team in the 1950s, and her mother on the national championship handball squad, while her older brother, Dieter, was a standout soccer player. Ute’s parents, she told me, were “completely unpolitical people” who had found in sports a respite from the ceaseless ideological trench warfare between the GDR and West Germany. “My parents simply wanted to live in peace,” she said. She took out a cigarette and lit up. “They never spoke for or against the state. They were never much interested in party pronouncements.” Her father, who’d died in 1987, had led a life of relative independence, unusual in the GDR. His father, Ute’s grandfather, had owned a small grocery store, and the state, after nationalizing the property, had permitted the family to administer it as selbstständige Kaufleute (independent businesspeople).
Ute had attended the local school and participated in after-school sports. With her father coaching, she had begun competitive skating at the tender age of seven. Despite the fact that her legs were of unequal length, necessitating a special heel insert in one skate, Ute dominated her rivals. Along with the other skater “prospects” in her school, she trained every day, traveling regionally to compete. Skating consumed all her free time and won recognition for her; she became her class’s “Sport Representative” in the Thälmann Pioneers, a GDR youth organization named after a German Communist Party leader murdered at Buchenwald. Over the years, Ute watched enviously as friends left their regular schools to enter elite Sportschulen. Potential athletic stars in the GDR started professional training at different ages, with gymnasts beginning in fourth grade and swimmers in fifth; figure skaters, whose talents mature somewhat later, typically did not enter a Sportschule until seventh or eighth grade.
Ute’s career had begun at age twelve. At the state youth figure-skating competition, she performed a triple salchow jump expertly, earning a top score, and subsequently was invited to attend the district Sportschule in Erfurt, sixty miles from home. In 1981, along with a dozen other young female skaters from her region, she entered the Max Norgler KJS (Kinder-und-Jugendschule), a special state-run GDR boarding school where nine hundred athletes in eighth through tenth grades were trained for the major Olympic sports. Regular subjects were taught at Max Norgler, but the coaches, who lived on campus, doubled as teachers and made sure their charges understood that sports came first. Each athlete kept a Gesundheitsbuch (health journal) and received a full monthly checkup. Training was year-round; in the off-season, Ute’s group of six skaters ran fifteen kilometers per day. Parental visits were limited to an occasional weekend, and students could return home for just two weeks in the summer, bringing workout assignments with them.
The daily regimen at the school was strict, beginning with 6 a.m. reveille. (A shrill female voice, Ute recalled with distaste, would command the athletes to “Rise to a new day!”—evoking Orwell’s 1984, where a similar female martinet barks out a calisthenics ritual on the ubiquitous telescreen.) Reveille was followed by six-and-a-half hours of skating scheduled between classes, then study hall in the evening. Priorities at the school were clear. “Academics meant very little,” Ute recalled. Every athlete had to belong to the Communist youth organization, and study hall was often given over to meetings at which teachers, all of them party members, would lead political discussions. Topics included Western imperialism in El Salvador, the American invasion of Grenada, and the heroism of freedom fighters in Socialist Bruderländer (brother countries) such as Nicaragua.
“Sometimes I felt like disagreeing just because of the arrogant attitudes of some of the discussion leaders,” Ute told me. “But it was pointless to say anything. It would just turn into a headache.” It was better just to keep quiet, she’d decided, and let the meetings end sooner. In truth, no one cared much about ideological attitudes. What such schools scrutinized were sports performances; only older athletes had to support the state publicly. At sixteen, Ute recalled, “I could be more or less indifferent and not get into any trouble at all.”
Life in an East German Sportschule was severe. Western TV was forbidden, and social activities were limited to a film or dance every other week in the cafeteria. But nobody complained. “We all knew why we were there—to become Hochleistungssportkader [top performance athletes]. People like Katarina Witt were national celebrities. We watched them on TV.” Witt was then emerging as East Germany’s most charismatic young skater, and the coaches at Max Norgler held her up as a model. Others, like Ute’s brother Dieter, greeted the stardom of the “ice princess” with irony. “He and his friends called her ‘Socialism with a beautiful face,’” Ute recalled. The grim joke alluded to the reformist Czech President Alexander Dubcˇek and his famous pledge, during the “Prague Spring” of 1968, to build “socialism with a human face”—a movement brutally crushed, in August of that year, with the help of East German troops.
Ute paused and folded her hands. She seemed troubled in retrospect by her own political acquiescence and that of her fellow athletes at the Sportschule. “We knew what the rewards were,” she said finally. “And we wanted them. The coaches and teachers reminded us every week that we were the Priviligierten. Even if we didn’t always feel so privileged, we believed we were the elite.”
Her peak moment as an athlete came when she made the semifinals in the GDR’s 1984 youth sport games. Then came the kind of injury common among high-performance athletes. During an intensive two-week training camp with other top athletes, Ute hurt her right leg. Surgeons operated, and her physician informed her that she could resume training within two months. Back at the Sportschule, however, the head of the figure-skating department called her in. Her injury, he said, had forced him to make an unpleasant decision. He informed her that her “perspective” (prospects) had been seriously diminished; she was being dropped from her skater group and would soon be discharged to a regular high school. And so, not long after the February 1984 winter Olympics in Sarajevo, in which the lissome eighteen-year-old Katarina Witt won her first gold medal, Ute was out.
She was sixteen and felt shattered. Everything she had worked toward for almost a decade had suddenly dissolved. Why? she asked herself, again and again. Just a few months earlier, her “perspective” had appeared rosy. Her operation had been a success, the doctors had put her on the fast track to recovery. Why had she been dropped?
Her father supplied the likely answer: It was her brother, Dieter. At twenty, Dieter—already in trouble for expressing public criticism of life in the GDR—had officially joined the Lutheran Church, and just the previous month, as an act of solidarity with several friends jailed on political grounds, had applied to emigrate to the West. (Both Lutheran and Catholic dioceses could sponsor a limited number of immigrants from the GDR on religious grounds.) GDR Kader had to come from families unswervingly loyal to the state, families moreover without relatives in capitalist countries. Ute was being punished for her brother’s defiance.
Without skating, she was adrift, with little idea of what to do next. Having finished the ten years of schooling required by the state, she considered getting a job near her parents in Weissenfels. She also applied to an advanced high school in Leipzig, known as one of the best—and “reddest”—schools in the region. Expecting to be denied admission because of her brother, Ute was surprised to be accepted—surmising later that the Leipzig school had simply failed to contact the Sportschule for her updated records. Her acceptance into this elite “Red” school was one of those screwups characteristic of totalitarianism, where so much was being watched and recorded that the government’s accumulation of information far exceeded its capacity to process and act on it.
At her new high school, Ute soon discovered that she was far behind her age group academically and socially. In the coming years, her Erfurt group of skaters would produce an Olympic champion, a world champion, and a runner-up in the European Championship Games, and for a while Ute was plagued by regret and envy. Yet to her surprise, her primary enduring feeling was one of relief: the pressure to perform was now off, and at last she had the freedom of other girls. “And the freedom to smoke a cigarette!” she added with a smirk, exhaling a long stream of smoke.
She was glad to be out of competitive sports, she decided; she didn’t want that kind of restricted life. Bit by bit she began to realize what she had missed at the Sportschule. “I didn’t have a normal youth at all. I didn’t know how to relate to people outside sports.” She’d never had a boyfriend, never even had a date. “When I was small, everyone was always saying, ‘Your school years will be the most beautiful time of your life.’ But that wasn’t so for me. I had to catch up in practically everything.”
And she grew appalled as she came to understand better the scope of the GDR drug program for athletes. Ute herself had never taken drugs, she insisted; figure skaters did not receive hormones until after tenth grade. But she had noticed—without yet fully comprehending—the effects of drugs on other athletes at Erfurt. Especially the swimmers. “Something was terribly wrong with the girl swimmers,” she recalled. She had wondered about fourteen-year-old girls with shoulders as broad and muscular as those of men—and voices just as deep. One older girl confided to her about taking drugs to delay or advance her periods around scheduled competitions. “One girl even told me that the discus throwers and shot-putters were instructed to get pregnant several weeks before an international track meet, to increase their weight and strength. As soon as the track meet was over, they got abortions.”
Shaking her head, Ute stubbed out her cigarette. The practice of manipulating pregnancies and abortions to enhance female athletic performance had been whispered about among the athletes, she said, yet it remained largely unknown to ordinary citizens until after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the Sunday Times of London had recently reported that “the practice was commonplace” in East Germany.
“Unimaginable, isn’t it?” Ute murmured. Even worse was the fact that no athletes ever refused. Not the abortions, not the drugs, not any of the demands their coaches put on them. When your coaches told you it was necessary, Ute said, you did it. “Whether it was vitamins or hormones, you took them. You didn’t question anything at that age—or even later. The coaches and doctors were prescribing it, the Olympic stars were doing it. They were our mentors and our models.”
Ute’s adjustment to a normal life was hampered by her concern for her brother, Dieter, who had emigrated to West Berlin in 1984, just before Ute left the Sportschule. Even though she’d no longer been in training, the school had refused her permission to see him off at the Leipzig railway station. “Suddenly he was gone,” Ute recalled. “I cried for weeks. I had hardly seen him since I was thirteen—and now, just as I was coming home and starting a new life, I thought I might never see him again.”
She and her family did get to see Dieter again, but only in the face of strong opposition from the state—and even from their own relatives. One of her mother’s cousins, a Leipzig city councilman and leading regional party man, warned them to cut off all contact with “that black sheep” in West Berlin. Another cousin, a history teacher at a Dresden college, advised the same—and both cousins broke off all contact with Ute’s family. Nonetheless, the family persisted in seeing Dieter, succeeding via elaborate subterfuges which, as their Stasi (secret police) file would later show, did not go unnoticed by the authorities. Working through Czech acquaintances, Ute’s parents arranged get-togethers in Karlovy Vary, still known to Germans as Karlsbad, a famous spa town in the Czech Sudetenland, less than two hours from Weissenfels. On the pretense of “taking a cure,” GDR families would go there to rendezvous with exiled relatives; the local Czechs specialized in discreet German-German contacts—and turned a tidy profit, charging rates for weekend rooms payable only in Western currency.
Ute described the routine. “Every spring and fall, and on a few other occasions, we would drive to Karlsbad to meet with Dieter.” The East German border police would detain the family for hours, searching car and baggage with intimidating thoroughness. “They knew they couldn’t prevent us from traveling to Czechoslovakia, but they could make it so unpleasant that we’d think twice about going again.” The family was undeterred. A whole new world opened up for Ute through her contacts with her brother. He enlightened her about Western music. He spoke authoritatively about Western books, dismissing most GDR literature as “party trash.” And although he had once been an excellent athlete himself, he now condemned GDR sports as blatant military education. For Ute, Dieter became a rebel hero.
After receiving her high school diploma in 1986, she moved with a girlfriend to Leipzig and applied to study to become a skating coach at the German College of Physical Culture, the leading center for sports research in Eastern Europe. Despite excellent scores on her entrance exams, Ute was refused admission—while a high-school classmate with lower scores and no Sportschule background was admitted. This time Ute had no doubt that her brother was the reason for her rejection.
“That experience was my breakthrough,” she said. From now on she would be a rebel like her brother.
At first her rebellion chiefly took aesthetic form. By day she worked as a waitress near the university; at night she drew stares on the street, and hostile treatment from Leipzig police, for dressing in black with a fiery orange punk haircut. In the GDR of the mid-1980s, such iconoclasm was understood as not merely a cultural statement, but a protest against the state. That was especially so in Ute’s circle, which included members of a subversive youth group that dubbed itself the Geschwister Scholl (Scholl Siblings), after the dissenting Munich University students led by a brother and sister who were executed by the Nazis.
By 1988, at twenty, Ute had decided she too would emigrate, as her brother had before her. She planned to do so via the same route Dieter had taken, cultivating a church sponsorship. Like her brother, Ute had no interest in Christianity as a religion and little familiarity with it. But churches could provide the way out, and so she began attending discussion meetings at the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, and also the “Monday Circle” meetings in Weissenfels, both of which were devoted to nonreligious topics such as disarmament, ecology, and conscientious objection to military service. Her plan was to be confirmed in Weissenfels, as her brother had been.
To Ute’s surprise, Dieter discouraged her, convinced that the maneuver wouldn’t work a second time: the state, if not the church, would balk this time around. So Ute decided in late 1988 to pursue a different route to freedom. An old high-school classmate had fallen in love with a West German visitor and had been allowed to emigrate; Ute now determined to do the same. At the restaurant where she waitressed, she would chat up single, male West German visitors, scouting out a potential rescuer. Since the state viewed sudden cross-border romances with skepticism, Ute would have to meet a man willing to court her at length, writing and telephoning often and visiting Leipzig regularly. The longer and better-documented the courtship, the greater the odds of state approval for emigration. To get such approval, Ute would have to answer a lengthy questionnaire about the relationship, complete with detailed proof of its authenticity. Such invasive bureaucratic procedures, allowing the state into one’s innermost private affairs, were designed to intimidate and to discourage. But Ute was resolved to undertake what she called, with a grin, her “manhunt.”
And almost right away, she met her rescuer—Heinz, a German literature student at the renowned West German university of Göttingen. Ute was frank with him, quickly confessing that she didn’t want to share her life with him, but just wanted to emigrate. When Heinz agreed to help—he had met a number of ex-GDR students at Göttingen, he said—Ute was surprised and touched by his generosity. “He was just so good,” she recalled. “He said, ‘I understand your situation. I just want to help you.’ I loved him—and still love him—for that.” Heinz lived just across the border in West Germany and was able to visit every month. “He was willing to phone and visit me every month for years, if it meant that. We never slept together. He did it simply out of Menschengefühl [human feeling].”
As it turned out, the East German regime fell before Ute’s scheme could be put to the test. The couple had agreed to “date” for at least a year before Ute submitted her emigration application. But before the year elapsed—indeed, just as Ute was starting to collect materials for the application—candles began to light up the Leipzig night, as thousands of marchers took control of the streets. On October 9, 1989, Ute, along with some church acquaintances, fell in among their ranks. One month later, the Wall fell. Ute was free at last.
We all know the mass euphoria that followed, the scenes of East Germans streaming into West Berlin to join a delirious celebration. Ute was one of those euphoric Ossis. But once things shook out in the new system, and she could visit her brother and even live in the West if she chose to, she decided to stay put after all. Free to travel, she no longer needed to emigrate. Along with two close friends, Ute applied to study German literature, rented a student apartment, and matriculated at Leipzig University.
When I saw her that day in 1994, she told me she had increasingly come to see her years spent inside the East German sports machine as a matter of Schwarzglück, a blessing in disguise. “Maybe it’s all been for the best,” she said. “Because now I can read and study any writer I want. If I had gone to university in the GDR days, it would have been so limiting.” In the GDR, the options for a literature student had been limited to classic German texts or socialist realism. “There was nothing outside or between them,” Ute said.
She was silent for a while, the stub of her cigarette glowing in the twilight. A waitress placed a small candle stand on our table. We had been talking for hours.
“But it’s not entirely a ‘happy end,’” Ute said abruptly. I asked what she meant, and she took out a sheet of paper—a page from her brother Dieter’s Stasi file, she told me, frowning. Though her family had always assumed the Stasi were keeping tabs on Dieter, they’d had no idea of the extent of the surveillance. But now they did. Friends and classmates had spied on Dieter; even the family next door in Weissenfels had reported on him. As many as a hundred friends and acquaintances—including members of the church groups in which she and Dieter discussed sensitive political issues—had informed on Ute’s family over a seven-year period. The file ran to over two hundred pages.
“They knew everything!” Ute said, angrily.
She had now applied to examine her own Stasi file, and had no doubt that it would include reports from classmates and teachers. Ute knew that she and her family were lucky compared with some Stasi victims, such as dissident Heinz Eggert, a Lutheran minister who was falsely accused of child molestation, then committed to mental asylums where he was pumped full of drugs; or peace activist Vera Wollenberger, imprisoned and ultimately exiled from the GDR, who found out that her own husband had reported on her to the Stasi for more than a decade. Still, Ute was enraged to know that she and her brother had confided in friends, only to be deceived and betrayed by them.
“Can you possibly forgive them?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said in a low voice. “I really don’t know.”
Picking up the piece of paper from her brother’s Stasi file, she folded it gently and put it away. “The past is not dead,” she recited in a murmur, “it is not even past.” The famous line from Faulkner had been paraphrased in the opening sentence of one of Ute’s favorite books, Patterns of Childhood, Christa Wolf’s 1976 novel about her upbringing in Nazi Germany and her agonized struggle to work through it. Wolf, a prominent writer in East Germany and longtime critic of the government, had been one of Ute’s heroines—until confessing, in 1993, that she had worked as a Stasi informant in the late 1950s and early ’60s. The revelation had hit Ute hard. Deception in the GDR had been everywhere—your public heroes, your neighbors on the block. “It’s hard to trust,” Ute said. “It’s hard to believe anymore. Even now, I don’t know if any of the friends with whom I’m still in touch betrayed me.”
She’d been brooding a lot about this lately, she said; in particular she’d been thinking about those next-door neighbors in Weissenfels. “I haven’t seen them since we got the Stasi file. But my mother, who had been trying to hold it all inside, had an argument with the wife one day last month. She got so mad that she finally told the woman off and called her a ‘slimy Stasi weasel.’” The neighbor had denied it indignantly, whereupon Ute’s mother went inside, returned with Dieter’s file, and showed the neighbor her name. “The woman turned white. She and my mother haven’t spoken since then. They catch each other’s eye on the street and quickly look away.”
Ute wasn’t sure how she’d react when she next saw the neighbor. She was still angry, but what was the point? What good did it do to think about revenge? In a way, she pitied the woman. “Her husband drinks, she has no children, she is utterly alone. I think she used to gossip with my mother for hours partly out of loneliness. I think she wanted attention and recognition. That may be why she was open to the Stasi’s overtures. She wasn’t a party member—she wasn’t political at all. It was exciting and flattering for her to meet young Stasi men, have them taking down her words and giving her little favors in return.”
Ute looked away, her voice trailing off. The candle on our table flickered faintly in the dark.
“At my best,” she said, “that’s how I try to imagine it.”
This essay is adapted from The Unexamined Orwell by John Rodden, © 2011. Forthcoming August 2011. By permission of the University of Texas Press.