Newcastle University is leading a new £988k research project which offers an unusual insight into life in East Germany.
The project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), is exploring life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) from a new perspective by looking at the extent to which citizens there actually knew about the Stasi, the secret police. This differs from most current academic discourse on the matter which focuses on the agency’s knowledge about citizens and their methods of information gathering.
Following Germany’s defeat in 1945, the country was geographically divided between the four Allied forces: the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and the United States, the occupied zones of the latter three uniting to become the Federal Republic of Germany. The North-East area occupied by the Soviet Union included Leipzig, Dresden, Rostock and parts of Berlin and was made into the GDR socialist state with a centralised planned economy throughout the Cold War before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and thus the GDR in 1989. The population is described as having lived in fear of the official state security service, the Stasi, whose employees in 1989 totalled more than 90,000. It has been regarded as one of the most effective and extensive intelligence and secret police agencies which primarily spied on the East German population through an immense network of informers to overcome any opposition expressed by the public.
The project is being led by Dr Anselma Gallinat, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Newcastle University, who is working alongside a large team interested in memory studies including Dr Joanne Sayner, Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Heritage Studies at Newcastle University, and Prof Sara Jones from the University of Birmingham. The project is also being run in cooperation with the Federal Agency for Civic Education in Bonn and a local branch of the Federal Agency for Stasi-files in Magdeburg. Through this inter-university and inter-disciplinary approach, the subject can be analysed from different perspectives with varying theoretical approaches; Dr Sayner has expertise in antifascism in the GDR while Prof Jones has extensive knowledge of literary studies. Furthermore, Dr Gallinat has a biographical link as she grew up in the GDR; she has research expertise regarding sociocultural changes, identities and narratives in eastern Germany following the fall of the GDR.
The multi-faceted project will utilise a large range of sources including archives, Stasi files, personal records and also primary research through a series of semi-structured and oral history interviews which began with Dr Gallinat interviewing her father and will expand to include the network of contacts this interview provided her with. These interviews will pose the usual challenges faced by researchers exploring people’s life stories – some former GDR citizens may be unwilling to discuss their lives during the regime whilst others may be less supportive due to the private nature of the experiences being discussed.
Describing the project, Dr Gallinat described how, “We want to find out what the people who lived in East Germany knew about the Stasi, how they found out this information, how they shared it and how they used it during their everyday lives. Since Germany was reunified in 1990, the story that is told of life in East Germany is one of a dictatorship which operated through oppression and fear. But life for the people who lived there was much more complex but often also quite different from than that. “
The project will analyse how information was shared within social networks, including the workplace and religious settings; the role of the Church in the collapse of the GDR in 1989 is something that Dr Gallinat’s father, who provided the impetus for this project, believes to be particularly underestimated.
Current discourse in Germany is heavily one-sided and emphasises the dictatorial nature of the GDR, which has led to criticism of the citizens. Project lead Dr Gallinat identifies a main aim of the project as countering these stereotypes about GDR citizens through collecting new knowledge, including the belief that they “lack civic skill because of their upbringing. But these people had to use creativity, imagination and courage to navigate life in the regime. We hope our research will highlight this side of the story.”