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Reviews Dissertation review. When the border between East and West becomes a border between now and then

Published on on oktober 5, 2011

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A Swedish ethnologist investigates East German identity and describes how former GDR citizens are adjusting to life in a united Germany, and how they think about their own history and their environment before and after the unification of the two German states . . . . Reviewing this book represents an exciting but challenging task for me personally. On the one hand, my path and that of Sofi Gerber are diametrically opposed, because as a German student from the former GDR, I once took a great interest in Sweden, and was able to observe myself in Sweden negotiating “Eastern” and “Western” identities. At the same time, I belong precisely to that generation of East Germans upon whom this extremely fascinating investigation focuses. Since I am not a colleague of Sofi Gerber, and approach this topic principally from a personal point of view, my review should be understood less as an objective critique than as a reader’s critical contribution.

Sofi Gerber is investigating the development of East German identity in the unified Germany. The most important questions are how people define the categories “East” and “West” and which concepts with regard to identity contribute to the self-image of former GDR citizens. Gerber chooses a discourse theory in the tradition of the political theoreticians Laclau und Mouffe as the theoretical-methodological framework for her investigation. Central concepts are dislocation, which causes subjects to define themselves in totally new identity categories because of changed social and historical hegemonies, and the articulation of these identity categories in verbal, non-verbal, or material discourse. Using the example of the historically different levels of East-West discourses, Gerber examines and describes how identities are established and at the same time how they must constantly change.

For her investigation, Gerber interviewed 25 East German men and women born in the 1970s, asking questions about the course of their lives in the GDR during the Wende (the collapse of the communist system, which led to the dissolution of East Germany in 1990), and in the united Germany. In order to tap into and describe the structural connections of the world her subjects remember living in, Gerber drew upon a number of other sources, among them research literature on recent German history and identity history, popular versions of the topic in literature and the press, and, in particular, her own observations during her stays in Germany. As a result, the book also presents a good historical overview of East German history over the last 40 years. In doing so, it also places the interaction of identification processes and social change in Germany in the much broader context of late capitalism and globalization.

Central topics in the life stories Gerber recorded are the end of the socialist GDR and its transition to a capitalist system. For those who were part of this process, these social and political transformations involved opportunities, challenges, and also restrictions, and are sometimes described simultaneously as a liberation and a disappointment. The study exposes these and other dichotomies in their life histories, and reconstructs how those interviewed develop a reflexive position in relation to themselves, their history, and their social environment by negotiating the various identity discourses, historical and current.

Gerber’s study shows that the categories “East” and “West” do not have a firmly fixed significance but can be assigned meaning only by means of identity articulation on the basis of other categories, particularly “class”, “nation”, “place”, and “gender”. The terms “East” and “West” as identity categories have been outdated since the end of the GDR, but at the same time, these categories still have meaning in the social realities of East Germans today.

The study begins with a general introduction that explains the theoretical and methodological framework, and positions the study in the history of research (chapter 1, pp. 9—39). The main body of the study consists of six chapters in which different aspects of identity development are presented based on the subjects’ life memories between their childhood in the GDR and their personal life conditions in the Germany of today. These chapters are organized chronologically and begin with material aspects of the “modern GDR”, for example life in the Platte (suburban residential area of large apartment buildings built from prefabricated concrete slabs) and how people deal with the lack of goods (chapter 2, pp. 40—68). Chapter 3, “Disciplining and Resistance”, revolves around the subjects’ experiences as schoolchildren and members of socialist youth organizations, as well as their memories of the Stasi, among other things. Chapter 4, about the Wende, deals with the events between 1989 and 1990 and the end of the GDR (chapter 4, pp. 101—139). Chapters 5 through 7 look at various aspects of life in the Germany of today: “The New Country” describes, for example, attitudes toward the consumer society and Ostalgie (nostalgia for aspects of life in the former GDR).Chapter 6, “Changed Life Circumstances” focuses on the changes in the school system and life at work (chapter 6, pp. 170—192). Finally, chapter 7, “Conformist Antagonists”, revolves around topics related to identification in late modern society, such as the differing individual treatment, flexibility and insecurity of men and women in their present working life (chapter 7, pp. 193—211). The final discussion (chapter 8, pp. 212—221) and the summarized results of the study in English (Summary, pp. 222—232) are followed by a list of the published and unpublished primary and secondary sources (pp. 233—241), and a list of the interview subjects with (pseudonymous) first name, year of birth, and a few short pieces of biographical data about their current work and their place of residence and place of birth. In addition, the book contains four photos by the author, illustrating some of the “materialized discourses”, such as the Platte in Berlin-Marzahn (p. 45; discussed p. 40 ff. and elsewhere) and the Ampelmännchen (the East German pedestrian crossing light with a little green man) (p. 142; discussed p. 141 f., and elsewhere). All interview texts used in the analysis are transcribed in Swedish, and the excellent (almost literary!) Swedish translation takes into account all of the relevant linguistic and stylistic features of the original, which itself is also reproduced in footnotes. Where necessary, the cultural/historical or politically relevant background of the topic under discussion is explained briefly in footnotes.

The study succeeds wonderfully in terms of content and style, and the material is presented clearly. Because of the chronological organization of the topics under discussion, the reader follows the life histories of the interviewees eagerly. Their personal reports and the historical explanations that accompany them are skillfully built into the convincing analysis. Nowhere does the analysis, continuously theoretical, become taxing — on the contrary: Gerber’s conscientious reconstruction of East German identity formation convinces even the reader who is not schooled in discourse theory.


There are only a few details in the analysis that I personally could not understand, and on the whole, they were of rather minor importance. Some of them have to do with the age of the people questioned. According to Gerber, her interviewees are representative of the last generation of GDR citizens who can give us information about both the time before and the time after the Wende. The age of the interviewees varies so greatly, however, that at the beginning of the peaceful revolution the youngest, Inge, was just beginning her fifth year of school at the age of ten. The oldest, Georg, aged 19, had finished his schooling long before. In my opinion (and in my personal experience with comparably younger people), these nine years encompass worlds of difference. Gerber’s subjects can all offer plenty of memories of the former GDR, but I would hardly consider the youngest among them as “completely socialized in the GDR” (p. 223). My own feeling, therefore, is that the interviewees belong in two groups: those who in 1989 were already young adults (roughly those born no later than 1973; 12 people) and the younger ones (13 people).

I am not familiar with all of the interview material that was recorded and analyzed, but it strikes me that in the case of the topics specific to the GDR (school, Stasi, etc.), it is mainly the statements of the older interviewees that are quoted, and that most of the youngest interviewees do not appear until much closer to the end of the investigation (except for the youngest, Inge, who says something about almost every topic). Indeed, in a couple of places Gerber herself talks about the age range of her interviewees and reflects on the differences in their memories during the Wende (p. 102). In the chronologically earlier chapters, however, the relevance of the age range must reveal itself even more clearly. For example, children will more likely have learned about the repressions of the Stasi indirectly (perhaps hearing about it from their parents while the GDR was still in existence, or even not until much later). Young adults, on the other hand, most certainly compared notes about it among themselves, even if they had not personally come into contact with the Stasi in some way.

Of course, what is important is not how true the memories are, but the personal standpoint that the interviewees chose in the discourse. The reconstruction of an appropriate historical context is, however, of significance for the correct interpretation of the subjective statements. For example, Gerber tries to interpret why Steffi did not take an active part in the protests in the fall of 1989 (p. 108). One banal reason could be that Steffi at 14 was possibly too young to think about going to the demonstration. Jana’s statement that she never went shopping in an Intershop (shop for high-quality goods paid for with hard currency, p. 119) also seems unremarkable from the perspective of that time, because 12-year-olds would go to these shops only with their parents.

It also seems that Gerber may not pick up too easily on some indirect clues about relevant personal differences in the biographies. A good example is a passage about Inge, who describes her own childish image of the West as “naive and distorted”. Gerber cautiously concludes that from today’s perspective Inge could certainly be described as politically indoctrinated (p. 64). In fact, it seems very likely that Inge and her family must have been indoctrinated by the socialist system. Her father was apparently a career soldier (pp. 51, 185) and therefore a comrade with privileges; in addition, soldiers and their families were forbidden, among other things, contact with West Germany, and therefore had to sever relations with any West German relatives.

It is possible that other biographies also mention issues that were extremely interesting but were not expressed in the study. Karl is described in several places as fitting in well in the GDR and at the same time being critical of the system. He had been admitted to university in medicine before the Wende (p. 177). Yet, to fulfill his career choice, it is possible that membership in the FDJ (Free German Youth) and good marks through his early school years were not enough on their own. Normally people preferred to sign up right away for a longer period of military service (three years instead of the basic military service of a year and a half) for a “dream” course of study like medicine. In addition, many candidates competing for university courses that were particularly in demand also joined the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) “voluntarily”. What would Karl’s stance have been in relation to these issues of conformism and resistance during the existence of the GDR?


A few other details also demonstrate that although Gerber understands the big picture very well, she only reconstructs the details indirectly or at second hand. Yet many details are absolutely relevant to her analyses. Without a doubt, schoolchildren in the GDR, as members of the socialist organizations for children and youth, conformed to the GDR regime. However, to interpret this “fellow-traveling”, we must take into consideration that the Jungpioniere, Thälmannpioniere (socialist children organizations), the FDJ, and other organizations such as the Society for German-Soviet Friendship (DSF) functioned differently than member organizations today. Personally, I do not find it at all remarkable that almost all of those interviewed were members of the socialist youth organizations of the GDR (p. 80). Much more remarkable are the very few exceptions (among Gerber’s subjects these include only Tanja, who from time to time withdrew from the FDJ, and Erich, whose Christian parents did not allow him to become a member of the youth organizations). As Gerber argues, the regular flag ceremony at schools and the youth organizations clearly illustrate the socialist discipline. She is also right when she says that the subjects, from their current perspective, have an ambivalent position on this: on the one hand, it was normal, and on the other, it was “socialist discipline”.

Yet, given the social reality of that time, some of Gerber’s analyses rest on shaky ground. It does not matter whether Andrea expressed it explicitly, it is certainly clear, for example, “who honored the partisan fighter with flowers and whether Andrea herself was one of the pioneers who participated in the flag ceremony” (p. 72). Of course Andrea participated in the flag ceremony! The whole school took part and laid flowers at the memorial because it was a regular part of the school program.

However, in summary, it must again be emphasized that my criticism does not affect the central theses of this extremely interesting study. Sofi Gerber is without question a specialist in her field and in addition has an excellent understanding of recent German history. I have gained personally from the opportunity to read this study and to reflect on my own life history while doing so. Putting her research results into a popular science format is of course not the author’s priority. However, it would be interesting to observe how the emotionally laden East-West discourse of the German feuilleton would receive Gerber’s theories. ≈

Sofi Gerber, Öst är Väst men Väst är bäst: Östtysk identitetsformering i det förenade Tyskland, East is West but West is best: East German identity formation in unified Germany, Stockholm University (Stockholm Studies in Ethnology 5) 2011, 248 pages