Spy movies evoke East Berlin as a sinister place from where people try to escape, a dystopian enclave with a dreaded security service, the Stasi.
What tends to get forgotten is the German Democratic Republic (the GDR) the country born in 1949 and where close to 20 million people lived for forty-one years.
The GDR, unlike West Germany, had few natural resources and economic problems became too much for its sclerotic political leadership.
The system collapsed in 1989 in the face of mass protests by its citizens but, for decades before, it bore testimony to a genuine socialist idealism struggling against the odds and, unlike West Germany, the GDR did not welcome former Nazis back into its ranks just because they possessed useful skills.
“Siblings” is about that struggle, told from the inside and played out in a story about Elizabeth and her brother Uli.
Their deep affection for one another comes under stress when Uli decides he wants to leave for work in West Germany – this is shortly before the Wall goes up in 1961 – but unlike Konrad, their older brother who has already left the GDR, Uli is not an unashamed free-marketeer. He fondly thinks he can remain a good communist in the West.
Heated discussions between Elizabeth and Uli form one of the book’s two narratives. Uli tells her he is only going from one Germany to another but Elizabeth knows what is stake and tries to change his mind.
The other story concerns Elizabeth’s placement as a resident artist in an industrial plant and her travails after coming into conflict with a traditionalist who informs the Stasi she is not following the Party line (“anti-realist… dabbling in abstract aesthetics”).
The fiction displays similarities with the life of its author Brigitte Reimann. A writer committed to the GDR, she was not blind to the system’s failings and this invests the writing with a personal and heartfelt dimension.
She knew why people left for a new life in West Germany but understood equally well why they should stay and work for a better future than the one on offer in the other Germany. She feels she belongs to the place and pictures it as homely:
“I walked back along the path. There was our house, white and cube-shaped, the branches of the overgrown cherry trees bobbing above the balcony. A rickety bike was leaning against the wooden fence in front of the housing block.”
But she is also sharply intelligent, as in this exchange between Elizabth and Uli:
“No one tells you to shut up over there [West Germany].”
“They’ve banned the KPD.” [German Communist Party]
“Maybe”, Uli said calmly, “Maybe for exactly that reason I’ll join the KPD.”
“Maybe for exactly that reason you’ll walk straight into prison”.
“Siblings” is compelling testimony to the fractures of everyday life in the GDR and the political and personal dilemmas faced by its young citizens.
Siblings, by Brigitte Reimann, is published by Penguin Books.