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.

The books I picked & why

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

By Jack Barsky, Cindy Coloma,

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

Why 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.


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

By Nina Willner,

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

Why 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.


Edge of Eternity

By Ken Follett,

Book cover of Edge of Eternity

Why 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. 


Purity

By Jonathan Franzen,

Book cover of Purity

Why 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. 


The Tower: Tales from a Lost Country

By Uwe Tellkamp,

Book cover of The Tower: Tales from a Lost Country

Why 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.


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