Letters Over The Wall: Life in Communist East Germany (2015) by David F. Strack is a collection of letters from East Germans to the American author over forty years, 1975-2015.
The Berlin Wall split Berlin in two and was built to surround West Berlin in the heart of East Germany on August 13, 1961. The Wall would eventually fall on November 9, 1989, marking a historic moment in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.
The collected letters from four East Germans (Barbara, Gerhard, Jürgen, and Jutta—all pseudonyms) provide an extraordinary glimpse into the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
The letters transport the reader back into a time that was mostly kept hidden behind the foreboding Berlin Wall. The letters also shine a light on the individual’s feelings, moods, and thoughts about their living situations and their political beliefs which reveal a deeper, more poignant sentiment among the masses.
The author explains the use of “Wende” or “Die Wende” in one letter dated towards the end of 1986:
“In her next sentence—remember, this letter was written in 1986—Barbara uses a word that became one of the most important words in the German language in the late 1980s: Wende.
“Here’s the sentence where she used that word for the first time. I had never seen it used in that context: ‘There are further negotiations with some countries, and I hope that a Wende for better times will take place.’
“This word in English can mean ‘reversal’ or ‘turning point.’ A Wende can also be a change in direction. Wende became the word used in German for the ‘revolution’ of 1989—and Barbara is using it in 1986, not in any great context of a revolution, but in an expression of hope for better times to come.
“Little did she know how important that word would become for all of Germany just three years later” (p 102).
In another letter received in December 1986, Jutta reveals (quite bravely) how many individuals were apathetic, drained emotionally and physically in order to become obedient and pliable to the GDR’s political and cultural wishes and demands:
“I always admire the engagement of my American friends for peace and disarmament. We are so hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world that we can hardly dream of taking part in that peace movement as intensely, personally, and individually as you do over there. We are accustomed to act politically only by order, and only in that case are we obliged to act. Personal engagement is suspect, and for the ‘upper ones’ it smells like betrayal. We have unlearned to act” (p 129).
A year later, in the winter of 1987, Barbara adds to Jutta’s complicated and mixed emotions regarding how best to live under the GDR’s oppressive regime. Barbara explains that there’s no easy answer:
“And the other thing is living with the consequences of one’s actions. There just aren’t any clear, ‘clean’ solutions. There’s always some kind of unpleasantness left over. And that makes life more difficult. Not being afraid of changes, and letting things just happen, is something that I have to always tell myself to keep in mind” (p 141).
In 1988, Jutta and Barbara make it clear that “money” is one of the best answers to most of their problems (which is still relevant for most people today). The GDR would purposefully keep people poor by limiting salaries and restricting how much money one could carry out of the country to further complicate travel:
Jutta: “The question is not to get much, but to get some money at all. Please don’t take it bad. I do not want to become rich or to buy desired articles. My idea is of quite an ‘idealist’ nature: to see a bit more of this multicolored world, which so far was quite a hidden empire for me throughout many, many years. This dream is realizable but by money” (p 146).
The author explains: “There had also been a reduction in the amount of money East Germans could exchange: thirty marks per day, and totally only enough for twelve days a year. This did not make her happy:
Barbara writes: “Ridiculous! That won’t even cover room and board for half that amount of time! One alternative: go with an organized tour booked through a travel agency. And now I’m a great friend of that! Makes me crazy! One just can’t even think about it” (p 149).
By the end of that year Barbara would be married and she offers some great advice, which reveals that most people from all parts of the world are pretty much the same when it comes to money problems, family life, and pleasing others:
“We had wonderful summer weather and got really silly. Afterwards we were twice as happy because of all the relatives who showed up and helped us realize our plans… Andreas’ father kind of complained because he thought he was being bilked out of some money. My parents said we did the event just right because we made the day so beautiful for ourselves… Oh well, to do right for everyone is an art no one can really do” (p 155).
In October 1989, Jürgen wrote that the “Die Wende had come” and how drastic changes were happening to East Germany:
“The number of people leaving the GDR is so great that production levels have fallen. Especially bad is the situation in hospitals because medical doctors and other medical professionals have left. Near Leipzig, an entire hospital had to close because nobody was available to staff the place. It’s really scary that now over 100,000 people have fled. I think you can understand how bad that is for such a small country. We have only 16,000,000 inhabitants. Every day more than 1,000 people flee; that’s a small village or an entire city each week” (p 166).
Jürgen adds: “Dialog is now our new hit. Discussions are taking place everywhere, and finally our problems are being brought to the table. Everyone can take part, and all can say what’s bothering them. And the media are being very open and honest… But we also know that dialog must be followed by results. We all have a kind of intoxicated high. And we’re really using it! But we still need to see measurable results. I think something’s really going to happen very soon” (pgs 168-169).
Less than a month later the Berlin Wall would fall. East Germany and West Germany had made their peace. In time, many long years after, Germany would become united and be made whole.
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of the Hemingway Society, Club Med, and the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America: A Look Back (2020); and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
You can follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 440,000+ followers