How the GDR fell in love with the West

  • Themes: Germany

Citizens of the GDR were exposed to an idealised version of western freedoms made up of luxury shopping, blue jeans and cowboy flicks.

Intershop in Friedrichstrasse in East Berlin.
Intershop in Friedrichstrasse in East Berlin. Credit: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

In the last freezing moments of 1989, the 37-year-old American actor David Hasselhoff hovered in a bucket crane above half a million Berliners. On the first New Year’s Eve that the people of the divided city spent together in decades, he was performing a song that would make him a much-loved icon in Germany. The phrenetic crowds knew the lyrics by heart. Looking for Freedom had been the best-performing single of the year in West Germany. It had become part of the soundtrack to the Peaceful Revolution that helped force the East German authorities to open their country’s borders on November 9, 1989. When Hasselhoff appeared in Berlin seven weeks later, it was as a messianic figure, embodying the imagined West dreamt up by a population that had been cut off from it for decades. Against the evocative backdrop of the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall, Hasselhoff was an apparition of western consumerism – from his permed hair and keyboard-pattern scarf, to his flashing leather jacket.

As the images of jubilant Germans went around the world, the West breathed a collective sigh of relief. The Cold War was over. Western capitalism had emerged victorious against eastern communism. The fact that the Soviet Union and its dependents collapsed suggested that their populations had jettisoned autocratic rule and opted for western liberty.

But this reading of events is too simplistic. Western liberty is not inherently the obvious choice, as the ‘end of history’ narrative suggests. Those who were born and bred in western societies take it for granted that everyone else in the world would naturally want to live in the same way as they do. And where they don’t, it must be because autocratic rulers prevent them from doing so. Yet, there are ample examples to suggest that it is more complicated than that. Vladimir Putin still enjoys real consent from much of the Russian population, and many nations around the world elect illiberal governments even when given a genuine choice.

It is tempting to forget that it has taken the West itself millennia to arrive at the system and values we hold dear today. Neither democracy in its current form nor the degree of tolerance and liberalism we take for granted today are cast in stone, and there was a time when this was taken into account. When the world took full stock of Germany’s Nazi crimes in 1945, none of the victorious powers assumed that the German people would return to democracy as their natural status quo. The country was occupied for decades to come and its democratisation carefully monitored. Eye-watering sums of money, as well as time and resources, were poured into stabilising democracies in all of western Europe, not just Germany.

But the Cold War changed this adjustment. True, between 1945 and 1990, the West still invested in convincing those who lived under authoritarian rule that a democratically run market economy promised a better way of life. But in contrast to the realpolitik with which Western European democracies were rebuilt and stabilised, the image of western liberty that was projected across the Iron Curtain was iconised and had little to do with its messy reality. With the Cold War fought largely on ideological grounds, neither side wanted to admit to its own shortcomings, not to its own people and certainly not to the other side. Just like communism presented itself as a classless society, while glossing over the inherent lack of opportunity, the West, in turn, promised opportunity without admitting that one can fall in a world that allows one to rise.

The West simply assumed that the advantages of the western system were obvious, and dangling them over the Berlin Wall would suffice. And they seemed proved right when thousands of people streamed West during the first border openings in the late summer of 1989, and many more followed later that year as the dams between East and West broke.

But the initial wave of euphoria that accompanied the collapse of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe and East Germany began to wane quickly. Former East Germans are still more likely to vote for extremist parties than former West Germans. Hungarian democracy has taken an illiberal turn since 2010, and the EU is fighting a bitter legal battle with Poland over the principle of the rule of law. The West should take illiberal tendencies in European democracies seriously. East Germans are still dismissed as ‘lost to democracy’ because of their ‘dictatorial socialisation’ – a theory promoted in 2021 by the German government’s own commissioner for East German affairs. Equally, the choices made by Eastern European voters are usually met with head shaking in Brussels. But responses that assume an obvious superiority of an idea over another will fail to promote their case. The result is dangerous complacency that is likely to disaffect people further, as well as preventing the healthy self-criticism that underpins progress. Ultimately, the argument has to be won. By definition, freedom and democracy are difficult to force onto people who do not want them.

A constructive approach should therefore recognise that ‘winning’ the Cold War did not mark the end of system competition. Western democracy is not the last man standing; autocratic models continue to exist and rival it. Rather than writing off millions of people as unable to ‘get’ democracy, the West should make an effort to bring them on board. Empathy is a prerequisite to a process in which wounds of the Cold War may be healed and, ultimately, western liberty be strengthened.

It follows that it is worth asking what people expected from western liberty and where they were disappointed. What did East Germans see when they gazed up at David Hasselhoff in his flashing leather jacket in 1989 and professed that they had been Looking for Freedom? Did the phrase mean the same to them as it did to the American actor? Probably not. Unlike their western icon, who had soaked up consumerism and democracy from birth, they had caught mere glimpses of his world from behind the Iron Curtain.

This perspective is completely alien to those who have never known anything but the chances and risks that come with western liberty. But it is worth trying to look at the West through the windows of the East. The wall afforded a distant and narrow view of the world that lay on the other side that left an awful lot to the imagination. The imagined West was a product of fears and desires, rather than information and experience. When the walls of communism fell, the sense of release and freedom thus quickly mingled with bewilderment and disillusionment. Old certainties had irrevocably gone, and those who had grown up with them were expected to cope in this brave new world that held freedoms as well as risks.

With their close geographical proximity to West Germany, as well as their familial, cultural and linguistic links to it, East Germans had had the closest contact with the world they chose to join in 1989/90. They were also immediately absorbed into the West when their East German state virtually disappeared on October 3, 1990. Yet they provide the clearest example of lingering division, with voting patterns, attitudes and lifestyles differing from their western compatriots to this day. In other words, they are best placed to illustrate the discrepancies between the expectations and reality of western liberty.

One window into the West, open to almost all citizens of the GDR, was television. According to the regime’s own surveys, more than 70 per cent of East Germans watched West German broadcasts. There were only two regions in the north and east where the signal was too weak to reach, but the inhabitants — sarcastically dubbed ‘valley of the clueless’ (Tal der Ahnungslosen) — only made up around 15 per cent of the population. The authorities knew they had no way of stopping people watching the class enemy’s programmes and they gave up trying. They even scheduled their own broadcasts carefully to avoid clashes with particularly popular shows on the western channels. Generations of young East Germans grew up watching not only the same soap operas, cartoons and dubbed American sitcoms as their western counterparts, but they also watched the same news programmes alongside their own. Conscious of this fact, western outlets often reported on the activities of East German opposition groups, as well as the repressive action taken against them. In this way, GDR citizens were not only comparatively well-informed about what was happening in their own country, despite the media monopoly the Socialist Unity Party held there, but they also began to learn that western news, too, had to be taken with a pinch of salt, given that reports about the GDR didn’t always match their lived reality. Still, a view of the West through television could only ever be a warped one. From cringe-worthy toothpaste adverts to the unlikely adventures of MacGyver, the image it projected gave few insights into the real lives of the people who lived there. Beyond the occasional news item, there was little evidence of the effects of the oil crises of the 1970s; the social, political and economic upheaval that led to strike action and unemployment across the West; the messy business of finding working majorities to govern divided countries. Instead, a world of scented shampoos, beautiful people and breath-taking car chases appeared on the screen.

Even the GDR’s own television provided idealised visions of western freedom by appealing to Germany’s enduring love affair with the American West. In the nineteenth century, its association with liberty and opportunity had pulled millions of German emigrants to the US. But even those who stayed behind were fascinated. The author Karl May became one of the best-selling German writers of all time with his adventure stories of the Wild West, in which the native American hero Winnetou and his blood brother Old Shatterhand roamed a seemingly endless and untamed landscape, fighting corruption and cruelty. There was not only a Karl May Museum in the GDR, but a whole genre of so-called ‘red westerns’ (or Osterns), which spread across the entire Eastern Bloc. The 1966 film The Sons of Great Bear was watched by nine million of the GDR’s 16 million citizens and catapulted its star, the German-Serbian actor Gojko Mitić, who would come to play Native American chieftains in many future productions, to legendary status behind the Iron Curtain. Just like Karl May, who had never set foot outside Germany when he wrote his novels, most East Germans based their ideas of western freedom on fiction rather than fact.

However, the vast majority of East Germans also came into direct contact with real western things and people. Many had relatives in West Germany, and in the 1980s visits both ways became somewhat easier to organise. More common, still, were parcels sent through the post. ‘West parcels’ were deeply evocative windows into consumerism. Many East Germans remember the excitement they felt when they carried them home from the post office, ready for the celebratory opening with the whole family. The intense mix of roast coffee and perfumed soaps carried strong connotations of wealth, indulgence and wonder, suggesting a world of plenty on the other side of the wall. Similarly, the so-called Intershops just ‘smelled of freedom,’ as an East German interviewee once told me. Her eyes glazed over and she was back in 1981, in the little place in Zittau where they sold imported goods in exchange for hard currency — dreams made of scented washing powder and tinned pineapple.

Intershops, too, were material windows into the West, with goods that were everyday items in western supermarkets reaching quasi-magical qualities in the eastern imagination.

Cravings for everyday western culture were also hard to satisfy later. Blue jeans, particularly original Levi’s, were highly sought after status symbols among the young. While the East German regime initially frowned upon them, this changed in 1971 when Erich Honecker became leader and decided that there was little harm in giving people the desired trousers. The General Secretary ordered one million original Levi’s jeans from the US in 1978, not nearly enough to meet demand for this ultimate symbol of the West. So, the demand economy began producing replicas under their own evocatively named brands such as Wisent, Boxer and Shanty. But cotton procured from the Soviet Union was of a much lesser quality, rendering the East German products somewhat stiff and uncomfortable, and many East Germans continued to treasure original denim received from West German relatives.

Overall, there was no shortage of fleeting contact with western output in the GDR. Alongside television, relatives and consumer products from the other side of the wall, there was also American and British pop and rock music, legally played on the radio and in clubs so long as a ratio of 40 to 60 per cent in favour of East German output was adhered to. In the 1980s, the regime even allowed western stars such as Bruce Springsteen or Joe Cocker to play in East Berlin. All of these windows into the West certainly played a part in fuelling a desire for western freedoms but, crucially, they fell short of creating a real understanding of it.

This dynamic immediately unravelled when the Berlin Wall fell. Over the subsequent weekend, more than four million people visited West Germany, partially to satisfy their curiosity, partially to satisfy previously unfulfilled material desires. Clothing, toys, portable cassette players, coffee and exotic fruit were particularly popular spoils of these early trips. The first free elections of the GDR in March 1990 also revealed the deep longing for democracy. With a turnout of 93.4 per cent, the conservative Christian Democrats came out as the strongest party, while the successor of the ruling GDR only received 16.3 per cent of the vote share. Western accounts of the end of the Cold War tend to end at this point. After all, capitalism had triumphed over communism. The people of East German and Eastern Europe had made their choice.

It is certainly true that few of those who have lived under communist rule want to return to it. Yet many have found the collision of their imagined West with its lived reality sobering. Unemployment in East Germany soared to 20 per cent after reunification. Many of the available jobs were insecure and low-paid. Disaffection with West German politicians, who seemed tone-deaf to East German concerns, rose. Turnout in every general election since 1990 has been lower in the former East than the former West Germany. At the general election in 2021, 27.1 per cent of East Germans did not vote at all, while 15.7 per cent voted for the far right party and 7.1 per cent for the far left one. Taken together, this suggests nearly half of East Germans have turned their back on mainstream politics — more than three decades after choosing to join the system such politics seek to uphold.

To brush off the widespread disillusionment with the western system as ‘moaning’, or a result of ‘dictatorship socialisation’, is dangerous. It is worth asking why people who once treasured images of western freedom now find it difficult to live with the reality. Attempting to see our world through the narrow windows of those who lived outside of it is not a sign of western weakness. It is a step towards finding ways to uphold, improve and promote western liberty.


Katja Hoyer