The best novels about East Germany from an insider's point of view

Daniela Tully Author Of Hotel on Shadow Lake: A Spellbinding Mystery Unravelling a Century of Family Secrets
By Daniela Tully

Who am I?

I grew up in Germany and have been living all over the globe since I was 18, including the US. I married a New Yorker 15 years ago. I am drawn to stories that combine both the German and American cultures — two worlds I feel at home in — and as reflected in my debut novel. The next one will take place between the US and East Germany - we had relatives on the other side of the Iron Curtain whom we visited frequently. I will never forget surprising my 17-year-old cousin sitting alone in the garden, crying… over a can of Coke that we had smuggled over the border to him.

I wrote...

Hotel on Shadow Lake: A Spellbinding Mystery Unravelling a Century of Family Secrets

By Daniela Tully,

Book cover of Hotel on Shadow Lake: A Spellbinding Mystery Unravelling a Century of Family Secrets

What is my book about?

When Maya was a girl, her grandmother was everything to her: teller of magical fairy tales, surrogate mother, best friend. Then her grandmother disappeared without a trace, leaving Maya with only questions to fill the void. Twenty-seven years later, her grandmother’s body is found in a place she had no connection to.

Desperate for answers, Maya begins to unravel secrets that go back decades, from 1910s New York to 1930s Germany and beyond. But when she begins to find herself spinning her own lies to uncover what happened, she must decide whether her life, and a chance at love, are worth risking for the truth. Tully beautifully sculpts a mystery that plays with past and present, traversing war in Nazi Germany, to 1910s New York, to the present day.
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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America

Why did I love this book?

Before stumbling across this memoir, while doing the research for my next novel, I had no idea that the Cold War saw German Communist spies living in the USA - but come to think of it, why shouldn’t they have existed on the other side of the Iron Curtain? Barsky’s story blew me away: he was sent by the KGB to the States as a sleeper agent. What “broke” him was not his challenging profession, but the love for his child — he eventually had two families, one in East Germany with a wife who knew about his true identity - and another one in the States, with a wife who didn’t.

He had a son with the German and a daughter with his Latin-American wife in the US. He wasn’t there when his son was born, but witnessed the birth of his daughter. When the Cold War ended and the KGB called him back, he decided to go underground and stay with his American family - the thought of leaving his daughter would have broken his heart. I also found it deeply interesting how he found his way to God - all the way from Communism, through Capitalism, this not being ‘the’ answer either. Factually told, but deeply moving.

By Jack Barsky, Cindy Coloma,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Deep Undercover as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One decision can end everything . . . or lead to unlikely redemption.
Millions watched the CBS 60 Minutes special on Jack Barsky in 2015. Now, in this fascinating memoir, the Soviet KGB agent tells his story of gut-wrenching choices, appalling betrayals, his turbulent inner world, and the secret life he lived for years without getting caught.

On October 8, 1978, a Canadian national by the name of William Dyson stepped off a plane at O’Hare International Airport and proceeded toward Customs and Immigration.

Two days later, William Dyson ceased to exist.

The identity was a KGB forgery, used to…

Book cover of Forty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall

Why did I love this book?

Another powerful memoir - written by a former American military intelligence officer who ventured into East Germany as an intelligence officer before the fall of the Wall, where she worked behind enemy lines, risking her own life. Truly captivating, but what fascinated me even more is her recounting the story of her mother Hanna, who fled the East when she was 20 years old. The price for her freedom was very high: she left her parents and eight siblings behind. Those left behind also had to pay dearly, especially her father, suffering punishment for a daughter who dared to escape the seemingly “perfect” East.

Hanna eventually left West Germany and settled down in America. The big reunification between the generations was only possible after the fall of the Wall. I cannot even start to imagine what it means to give up your entire family for the price of freedom. And still, I understand both sides in the end — the ones who stayed, as well as the ones who left when it was still possible. It was a journey into the unknown. Nobody knew at that time how long they would be separated. It’s a powerful story about how strong family ties can endure everything.

By Nina Willner,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Forty Autumns as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Forty Autumns, Nina Willner recounts the history of three generations of her family - mothers, sisters, daughters and cousins - separated by forty years of Soviet rule, and reunited after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, as the Soviets took control of the eastern part of Germany, Hanna, a schoolteacher's daughter, escaped with nothing more than a small suitcase and the clothes on her back. As Hanna built a new life in the West, her relatives (her mother, father and eight siblings) remained in the East. The construction of the…

Edge of Eternity

By Ken Follett,

Book cover of Edge of Eternity

Why did I love this book?

Not a hidden gem, for sure — for me, Follett is always the usual suspect to revert to whenever I need to do historical research and find myself too lazy to read a non-fiction book about the period. I’ve read a lot of books about the Stasi, but nothing beats being reminded, through one individual’s account - even if fictional, still based on true events - of how ruthless the Stasi was. Imagine finding out that you’ve been spied on for years by the Stasi - and then to top this off, finding out that the one spying on you was no less than your own husband? Sounds like the German version of the film Sleeping with the Enemy with Julia Roberts playing the abused wife, right? This role in Follett’s novel is played by Rebecca Hofmann, who flees when the Wall goes up in 1961 — causing insurmountable troubles for those who stayed behind. 

By Ken Follett,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Edge of Eternity as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ken Follett's extraordinary historical epic, the Century Trilogy, reaches its sweeping, passionate conclusion.

In Fall of Giants and Winter of the World, Ken Follett followed the fortunes of five international families-American, German, Russian, English, and Welsh-as they made their way through the twentieth century. Now they come to one of the most tumultuous eras of all: the 1960s through the 1980s, from civil rights, assassinations, mass political movements, and Vietnam to the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, presidential impeachment, revolution-and rock and roll.

East German teacher Rebecca Hoffmann discovers she's been spied on by the Stasi for years and…


By Jonathan Franzen,

Book cover of Purity

Why did I love this book?

First of all: am I the only one who thinks Franzen looks a bit like Stephen King? This resemblance might very well be the only thing they have in common (aside from both making a living solely with their writing). English isn’t my native language, so it probably took me a bit longer than the average native speaker to read his (long!) book - which is a stark contrast to Follett’s, and not only in terms of prose style. I had no idea that Franzen studied in Germany and is fluent in my mother language. I only looked this up after his chapter aptly titled "The Republic of Bad Taste" — Franzen’s name for East Germany.

With the character of Andreas Wolf, we’re looking into the mind of a criminal, the offspring of a high-level informant — his father. Andreas Wolf murders the sexually abusive father of a girl he councils in a church group — ironically led by him — but instead of being punished for his crime, he’s protected by his father. When the Wall comes down, he is petrified that his Stasi folder will be unsealed. So, he’s granted one last favor with the Party, and gets his hands on his record. When he flees, he runs into journalists and openly denounces East Germany, turning his criminal identity into that of a celebrity dissident. 

By Jonathan Franzen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Purity as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Sunday Times bestseller from the author of Freedom and The Corrections

Young Pip Tyler doesn't know who she is. She knows that her real name is Purity, that she's saddled with $130,000 in student debt, that she's squatting with anarchists in Oakland, and that her relationship with her mother - her only family - is hazardous. But she doesn't have a clue who her father is, why her mother chose to live as a recluse with an invented name, or how she'll ever have a normal life.

Enter the Germans. A glancing encounter with a German peace activist leads…

Book cover of The Tower: Tales from a Lost Country

Why did I love this book?

Did you know that the beautiful German city of Dresden was part of what the Eastern Germans called ‘The Valley of the Clueless’? Dresden, along with another section in the north, wasn’t able to receive any broadcasts from the West German TV channels existing at that time. Tellkamp’s novel sheds light on the last decade of the German Democratic Republic, leading all the way up to its fall in 1989. None of its three protagonists are too likable, and this is exactly what I appreciate about Tellkamp’s writing. He isn’t afraid to sketch them as such. The speed of the novel varies, and I can’t lie: I have to say that some passages took me an effort to get through. Still, I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to dwell in Tellkamp’s memories of a time long gone - and ironically, still so present.

By Uwe Tellkamp,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Tower as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In derelict Dresden a cultivated, middle-class family does all it can to cope amid the Communist downfall. This striking tapestry of the East German experience is told through the tangled lives of a soldier, surgeon, nurse and publisher. With evocative detail, Uwe Tellkamp masterfully reveals the myriad perspectives of the time as people battled for individuality, retreated to nostalgia, chose to conform, or toed the perilous line between East and West. Poetic, heartfelt and dramatic, The Tower vividly resurrects the sights, scents and sensations of life in the GDR as it hurtled towards 9 November 1989.

Uwe Tellkamp was born…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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