Memories of Life in East Germany: Snapshots is a collection of short prose pieces on aspects of life in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) as I experienced it directly in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. This book is meant to be a companion piece to my documentary memoir, Remembering East Germany. From Oberlin to East Berlin, which is based largely on the 396-page file the East German secret police or Stasi compiled on me between 1973 and 1988, when I was travelling and working on a number of scholarly projects in that country. The original version of the memoir, written in German and entitled Von Oberlin nach Ostberlin. Als Amerikaner unterwegs in der DDR-Literaturszene (From Oberlin to East Berlin. An American Underway in the GDR Literary Scene), was published in 2013 by the Ch. Links Verlag in Berlin.
Large amounts of material from my Stasi-file, reports primarily, have been incorporated into my memoir. The reports provide a kind of factual foundation for the memoir, as do various printed materials, letters I wrote and received, reports about me that were found in the files of several Stasi informants, and some memories as well. The book does not have chapters, it has sections which are called parts—114 in all, some short, some long—that are devoted to all sorts of topics and events that I consider significant. For the most part, the narrative proceeds chronologically, starting in 1973 and moving forward in time to 2002, with the occasional flashback.
By comparison, Memories of Life in East Germany is impressionistic in nature, presenting the author’s highly personal and admittedly somewhat subjective glimpses of people, events, experiences, etc., as seen through the lens of his mind’s eye which—despite the passage of many years—is still focusable. Each of the vignettes that comprise this collection is a moment in time the author recalls and captures in words, hence snapshots. In contrast to the memoir, these sketches are presented without accompanying documentary evidence (such as a Stasi-file report), but they nevertheless reflect what life was really like in the GDR in a vivid and authentic way.
Perhaps one should think of these two closely related books as members of the same family—as twins, not identical twins of course, but rather two siblings who have certain attributes in common while being different in a number of significant ways. Apart from their general focus on the GDR, a country that no longer exists, what precisely do the two books have in common? Undoubtedly, the most important commonality is the author’s insider/outsider perspective—i.e., his unique point of view as an American outsider who was able to acquire insider knowledge of the GDR and its literary scene while living there off and on. His knowledge of the GDR and his singular perspective on aspects of life in that country are on full display in both books, albeit in very different ways. Also, both books provide unusual insights into a totalitarian society and literary scene that no other Westerner was able to experience so intensely, reflecting on several levels how he experienced communist East Germany and how it experienced him. And finally, both books transport the reader back in time to the chilling Cold War days of yesteryear.
My hope is that interested persons will begin by reading this Introduction and then proceed to the next two prose pieces, the one on Writing Snapshots followed by East Germany in Brief. These three texts will provide readers with the background and other information they need to understand and appreciate the snapshots that follow. The snapshots are grouped in categories, such as PEOPLE, CLOTHING, EVENTS, ENCOUNTERS, EXPERIENCES, SHOPPING, PLACES, THINGS, each of which is a drop-down list. Most of the pieces are posted in two categories, and some are in three. Each snapshot can be read as a freestanding text or as part of a cluster of texts that are somehow related. For an example of the latter, read the following snapshots in this order: Carlos and the Cockroaches, GDR Postcard Museum, and Resistance and Solidarity. These pieces are loosely connected by time period—the fall of 1977—, as well as by location—the East Berlin apartment house I was living in at that time. The four snapshots listed on the IN RETROSPECT drop-down are related thematically and presented in chronological order. If read in that sequence, they are likely to be more revealing and meaningful.
By way of conclusion, I want to express gratitude to several persons who assisted me with this project. I am especially indebted to former East Germans Iris Busch and Heinz-Uwe Haus, who are now faculty members at the University of Delaware (UD) and good friends of mine, for their insightful commentaries on many of the snapshots. Their remarks helped me make necessary revisions and add relevant factual information that only persons from the GDR would know. Many persons—friends, colleagues, acquaintances—who are unable to read German became my readers along the way and also provided me with valuable feedback. These persons had little or no knowledge of East Germany, so their responses as ‘naïve readers’ of these pieces were immensely helpful. After all, my collection of GDR memories is aimed at an English-speaking audience, so I had to find out if the texts I had written were in fact connecting with those persons. Fortunately, they were! Let me now name some of the readers, all of whom were my colleagues at UD, whose candid comments were useful to me when revising my snapshots: Mary Donaldson-Evans, Susan Goodman, Katharine Kerrane, Kevin Kerrane, Bonnie Robb, and Rae Stabosz, the techie who maintains both of my websites and posts what I have written.
I also deeply appreciate the ongoing support I receive from my wife, Ulrike Diedenhofen, who encouraged me to undertake this project. She provides much-needed encouragement, also an open ear whenever I need a listener, as she has done throughout my career for more than forty years. To her I once again say “thank you,” knowing that these words are not a sufficient expression of my gratitude.