“Until 1945 Adolf Hitler was the greatest for us as Germans and I was extremely disappointed when I later found out what kind of person he really was. In the East German Zone Stalin was the greatest. There was no one bigger than Stalin, and I thought, ‘This is the same as before but with different symbols.’” -Horst Kreeter
Peter Molloy has interviewed people from several countries who lived through various parts of the Cold War, living on the ‘other side’ of the Iron Curtain. It continually surprises me who he found to talk to. Not just a farmer or a student, but the guy who supervised the guards on the wall, the guy who pulled the trigger on Nicolae Ceaușescu.
Some interviews are amusing, some are heartbreaking, some are thrilling. It’s a ground-level view of life under the boot of Moscow, threatened by the Stasi, and watched by…almost everyone. A paranoid world where the idealism was corrupted and horror became a part of everyday life. Yet, it was also a place where people did what they always do, learned to deal with the way things are and carry on.
It’s striking that even when the interviewee benefited and possibly enjoyed life on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the grim horror of it comes through. The story of the rock band having to escape while hiding in their equipment. The story of Heidi Krieger who started out as a young sports star but was forced to take so many pills she had half transitioned by the time she was 18, and eventually made the choice to transition to Andreas Krieger when he met a doctor who explained what had happened to him. So many strange tales, dark, and powerful stories. The book touches on everything from war to sex to TV to religion to art to stripping and beyond.
As I was reading this book, originally collected in 2009, I kept finding myself reminded that history haunts us. Not only are we still dealing with the fall-out of this era, we are seeing elements of it repeated. When you hear the political rhetoric of fear and hatred directed toward the ‘other,’ and the consuming desire to control women, and the dismantling of the middle class…It all feels familiar. Life in the East was not some monolithic thing, and each country had its own set of rules, problems, and even pleasures. But there was clearly something very, very wrong, and even many of the people who supported the system knew something was wrong.
The more History I read, the more I see its echos in the now. This book can and should serve as a warning and a reminder of what can happen if we aren’t careful.