by Carol Anne Costabile-Heming (University of North Texas)
When asked to contribute a piece on “Why GDR Studies Still Matter,” I immediately flashed back to the early to mid-1990s. I had just started my career and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany were recent events—overall an exciting time to be working in GDR Studies. Then, I had the sense that I was working on something important, as archives were opened and scholars were just beginning to assess government documents. It seemed there was much to learn about the true inner workings of the German Democratic Republic. Nonetheless, a senior colleague approached me to inquire when I was going to do something interesting, noting that after all, the GDR was dead. This comment gave me pause— scholars study “dead” things all the time, for instance the Civil War or even the medieval Minnesang. Rather than accept this unsolicited advice, I chose to continue my fascination with the GDR, analyzing texts and writers, documenting the authorization process and censorship of fictional works, and trying to make sense of secret police files and the State’s fear of its own citizenry. With that long ago conversation in mind and nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, now is an appropriate time to take stock and ponder seriously, why GDR Studies still matter. Notice, I chose not to use the phrase, “if GDR Studies still matter,” because I wholeheartedly believe that there always are lessons to be learned from the past, and that the 40-year experiment that was the GDR continues to offer scholars a unique lens through which to ponder German Studies.
The East German state was particularly fearful of artists, writers, and intellectuals, and through intricate processes for authorizing films, texts, even works of art, managed to engage in censorship even though it was expressly prohibited by the East German constitution. As the Czech Cultural Minister, Antonin Stanek, noted at the 2019 Leipzig Book Fair, literature has a subversive power. But, he noted, this power to subvert does not rest solely in the domain of authoritarian societies. Recent and repeated accusations of fake news showered on journalists in democratic nations share the insidious desire to silence critical voices that typically have been associated with authoritarian regimes. Media images of the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig and other East German cities in the fall of 1989 depict a fearless citizenry demanding freedoms and willing to face down the all-powerful state, its militaristic police force, and the secret police. Thus, one lesson that study of the GDR teaches us is the power of democracy.
The main function of the East German Ministry for State Security (the Stasi) was to protect the GDR, both from external security threats as well as threats from within. To accomplish this goal, the organization developed an extensive network of informal operatives who provided the Stasi with all kinds of information from the most banal to the most scandalous. The Stasi, in turn, manipulated such information in order to exert pressure and keep the citizens in check. Though this system of spying and surveillance was not very technically advanced when measured against today’s standards, it nonetheless was incredibly effective. Surveillance is ubiquitous in today’s society, and individuals regularly, whether willingly or unwillingly (or even naively and unknowingly) grant permission to entities like Facebook to track information. For instance, during the recent social media fad, the Facebook 10-year comparison challenge, Facebook users eagerly posted pictures. Though I use social media, particularly Facebook, quite regularly, this challenge made me uneasy, even suspicious. What can someone do with the comparative data generated by those pictures, I wondered. Not normally prone to believing in conspiracy theories, I also wondered where this skepticism came from. Truth be told, it derives from researching the East German secret police, the Stasi for the last 20 years. What could an organization that amassed thousands of pages of documentation, an old-fashioned analog spy ring, possibly have to do with Facebook, you ask? Plenty, and it is a lesson that I believe we can still learn from the now defunct GDR. The storage, analysis, and exploitation of personal data should concern everyone, for countless studies of the Stasi and its tactics have shown that information can easily be manipulated to fit any crime. This is just one example of an important lesson that can be gleaned from studying the GDR, and just one reason why I believe GDR Studies remains relevant today.