The best books about East Germany

8 authors have picked their favorite books about East Germany and why they recommend each book.

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The File

By Timothy Garton Ash,

Book cover of The File: A Personal History

Although it reads like a spy novel, this is the real-life account of a noted English journalist’s encounter with his own Stasi surveillance file. The file in question was compiled in the early 1980s by the East German secret police on Garton Ash (code name “Romeo”), then a young man living in Berlin and writing about Central European communism. Garton Ash opened his file fifteen years later, after the former German Democratic Republic made Stasi records accessible. Tracking those who tailed him, the book explores the uneasy sensation of reading one’s past life through the photographs, informant reports, surveillance notes, and speculations of those tasked with observing a target of suspicion. It’s a compelling and often chilling chronicle of the costs both of watching and being watched.


Who am I?

I’m an American intellectual historian and professor at Vanderbilt University. I’ve long been fascinated by the history and politics of data: the question of how publicly available knowledge shapes societies as well as individual selves. It’s led me to research the effects of popular polls and statistics on mid-century U.S. culture and to write about how ever-advancing techniques for “knowing” citizens shaped modern privacy sensibilities. My current obsession is with official identity documents—how they infiltrate people’s lives in ways that are at once bureaucratic and curiously intimate. The books I’ve selected lay bare the promise and the peril of documentation in wonderfully vivid detail.


I wrote...

The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America

By Sarah E. Igo,

Book cover of The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America

What is my book about?

Every day, we make decisions about what to share and when, how much to expose, and to whom. Securing the boundary between one’s private affairs and public identity has become an urgent task of modern life. The Known Citizen tracks the quest for privacy in the United States over the last century and a half, revealing enduring debates over how Americans would―and, importantly, should―be known.  

Beginning with “instantaneous photography” in the late nineteenth century and culminating in our present dilemmas over social media and big data, the book uncovers the surprising ways that arguments over what should be kept out of the public eye have shaped U.S. politics and society.  It offers the first wide-angle view of privacy as it has been lived and imagined by modern Americans—with powerful lessons for our own times, when corporations, government agencies, and data miners are tracking our every move.

Love in the Time of Communism

By Josie McLellan,

Book cover of Love in the Time of Communism: Intimacy and Sexuality in the GDR

McLellan’s book does a wonderful job of exploring the reconfiguration of romantic relationships that occurred in the former Eastern Germany. In addition to excellent sex education and access to birth control, the East German government radically expanded the availability of childcare and job-protected, paid maternity leaves to help women combine their work and family responsibilities. The socialist state also promoted a uniquely sex positive outlook on life that rejected the commodification of sexuality in favor of a more natural and free form of relations between citizens. A fascinating read with lots of rich historical details.


Who am I?

As an ethnographer, I have been studying the lives of ordinary women in socialist and post-socialist countries in Eastern Europe for over twenty-five years. I have always been fascinated by the differences in women’s life options in the presence or absence of robust social safety nets. As a scholar, I’ve spent decades working in archives and interviewing people across the region, and I have written eight books about the various gendered experiences of everyday life in Eastern Europe. As a professor, I have taught a course called “Sex and Socialism,” almost every year for eighteen years and I am always reading widely in this field to look for new material for my syllabi.


I wrote...

Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence

By Kristen R. Ghodsee,

Book cover of Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence

What is my book about?

Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism explores the expansive empirical research showing that women living in socialist countries experienced certain forms of gender emancipation well before women living in the West. By examining women’s roles as mothers, workers, leaders, citizens, and yes, even lovers, this book synthesizes decades worth of studies to show that “lean in” or #girlboss feminism has not been enough to undermine the persistence of sexism embedded in competitive labor markets.

Instead of blaming themselves for not being able to “have it all,” women need to take a long hard look at our economic system and understand how the unpaid labor of caregivers in the home subsidizes the profits of the business leaders who rely on families to bear and raise the next generation of consumers and taxpayers for free. The problem is with capitalism, not with us.

Stasiland

By Anna Funder,

Book cover of Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall

Stasiland is a gripping non-fiction account of personal histories from the former East Germany told retrospectively. We live alongside Australian writer Anna Funder amidst fast-changing 1990s Berlin as she meets Stasi men and those who resisted them. We learn of their struggles in East German times and beyond through her outsider’s eye. Some may balk at the book’s personal tone, but for me, Funder pulls it off. I found this first-person blend of memoir and journalistic investigation to be utterly irresistible. 


Who am I?

I’m a Scottish journalist. In the 1980s, I studied German at Karl-Marx University in Leipzig, East Germany. It was a fascinating experience that changed my perceptions of the world. I didn’t become a communist, but I did begin to see that where you stand depends on where you sit and that principles are easy to maintain when it costs you nothing to do so. There was a bleak glamour to East Germany that I loved, and so I decided to set my first novel in the shadowy world of intense personal connections, underground artists, and unofficial informers that I’d found in Leipzig. 


I wrote...

The Leipzig Affair

By Fiona Rintoul,

Book cover of The Leipzig Affair

What is my book about?

The Leipzig Affair is a tale of love, betrayal, and redemption set in East Germany in the dying days of the Cold War. Magda, a brilliant but disillusioned young linguist, is desperate to flee to the West. When a black-market deal brings her into contact with Robert, a young Scot studying at Leipzig University, she sees a way to realize her escape plans. As Robert falls in love with her, he stumbles into a complex world of shifting half-truths that will undo them both. Many years later, long after the Berlin Wall has been torn down, Robert returns to Leipzig in search of answers. Can he track down the elusive Magda? And will the past give up its secrets?

The Iron Curtain Kid

By Oliver Fritz,

Book cover of The Iron Curtain Kid

This is a memoir written by a young man who grew up in East Germany. I picked this one up for research but found myself completely enthralled by the story. His attention to detail is excellent. If you ever want to know what it was like to grow up in East Germany on a day-to-day basis, this is a great source of information. When the author finally goes to West Berlin for the first time in his life, it made me cry. 


Who am I?

My mother grew up in Germany during World War Two and her family (or what was left of it) settled in the Soviet Zone that eventually became East Germany. She managed to get out in 1953 by sneaking across the border with a weekend pass, but other members of the family remained. This history has been close to my heart as a result and is what inspired me to write my novel, The House of One Thousand Eyes. I had to do a lot of research to evoke an authentic setting for my novel. This reading list comes from my research of, and fascination with, that time in history.


I wrote...

The House of One Thousand Eyes

By Michelle Barker,

Book cover of The House of One Thousand Eyes

What is my book about?

For Lena, life in East Germany in the early 1980s is particularly hard. After the death of her parents in a factory explosion and time spent in a psychiatric hospital, she is sent to live with her stern aunt, a devoted member of the ruling Communist Party. Visits with her beloved Uncle Erich, a best-selling author, are her only respite.  

But one night, her uncle disappears. Gone also are all his belongings, his books, and even his birth records. Lena is desperate to know what happened to him, but it’s as if he never existed. She cannot discuss her uncle or her attempts to find him with anyone. There are government spies everywhere. But Lena refuses to give up her search, regardless of the consequences.  

Born in the GDR

By Hester Vaizey,

Book cover of Born in the GDR: Life in the Shadow of the Wall

The author of this non-fiction book interviews eight people who were born and raised in East Germany’s totalitarian regime and have had to adjust to a new life after the Wall comes down. I liked this book because it gave me a different perspective on East Germany and how people felt about the regime. Turns out it was a little more complicated than simply thinking everything was bad. And once the Wall came down, many things became difficult for easterners, particularly the higher cost of living and the scorn they experienced from westerners. 


Who am I?

My mother grew up in Germany during World War Two and her family (or what was left of it) settled in the Soviet Zone that eventually became East Germany. She managed to get out in 1953 by sneaking across the border with a weekend pass, but other members of the family remained. This history has been close to my heart as a result and is what inspired me to write my novel, The House of One Thousand Eyes. I had to do a lot of research to evoke an authentic setting for my novel. This reading list comes from my research of, and fascination with, that time in history.


I wrote...

The House of One Thousand Eyes

By Michelle Barker,

Book cover of The House of One Thousand Eyes

What is my book about?

For Lena, life in East Germany in the early 1980s is particularly hard. After the death of her parents in a factory explosion and time spent in a psychiatric hospital, she is sent to live with her stern aunt, a devoted member of the ruling Communist Party. Visits with her beloved Uncle Erich, a best-selling author, are her only respite.  

But one night, her uncle disappears. Gone also are all his belongings, his books, and even his birth records. Lena is desperate to know what happened to him, but it’s as if he never existed. She cannot discuss her uncle or her attempts to find him with anyone. There are government spies everywhere. But Lena refuses to give up her search, regardless of the consequences.  

Man Without a Face

By Markus Wolf, Anne McElvoy,

Book cover of Man Without a Face: The Autobiography of Communism's Greatest Spymaster

Markus Wolf is generally considered the greatest Spy Master of the Cold War. He was in charge of intelligence for the Stasi (East German Intelligence Service) that was focused primarily on the enemy on the other side of the Berlin Wall. The Stasi was incredibly successful, having placed up to 1,000 East German agents into high places in the German government. This is a tale of espionage devised and executed by the best. Wolf was the inspiration for the famous “Karla” character in John Le Carree’s novels


Who am I?

I am one of ten undercover illegal agents the Soviet Union sent to the United States during the height of the Cold War. We were admired and lionized as the elite of the elite. I spent altogether 10 years spying for the KGB in the US before cutting my ties to the espionage world for personal reasons. When the FBI introduced themselves nine years later, I had become what the KGB wanted me to become, a true blue American, and that is who I am today.  


I wrote...

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

What is my book about?

This is the story of my life.

It starts out with a flaming young communist who wants to change the world. He becomes an elite agent for the KBG and goes undercover in the USA. We follow many twists and turns in the agent’s path until the final life-changing moment. It is the power of love, the love for an 18-month old child that makes a human out of the communist playboy.

A Night Divided

By Jennifer A. Nielsen,

Book cover of A Night Divided

Eight-year-old Gerta Lowe wakes up on August 13, 1961 to find that a wall of barbed wire has been erected during the night, cutting off East Berlin, where she lives with her mother and older brother Fritz, from West Berlin where her father has gone to look for work. Suspected of treason, he can’t return home. Four years – and dozens of deaths later the wire has been replaced with concrete.  East Berliners, watched day and night by soldiers and the dreaded Stasi secret police, are prisoners in their own homes. Then, Gerta gets two cryptic messages and decides that her father is telling her to tunnel beneath the wall to freedom. But in a city where everyone is spying on everyone else, and no one can be trusted, is she brave enough to try – and clever enough to succeed?


Who am I?

A longtime student of history, particularly WW2 and the Cold War, my interest was personally piqued when I started to discover more about how my husband’s family narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo – and certain death in a concentration camp. I’m driven to write novels set in this era for middle grade kids – featuring brave young heroes faced with moral dilemmas– so they can learn about the horrors of antisemitism, tyrants, and war because “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”


I wrote...

One Boy's War

By Nancy McDonald,

Book cover of One Boy's War

What is my book about?

It’s the summer of 1940. Following a brush with death on the Irish Sea, ten-year-old Käfer Avigdor unexpectedly finds himself back in London. There, he stumbles upon a sinister Nazi plot that targets hundreds of people in Britain – including the most powerful man in the country. The one person who might be able to defeat Adolf Hitler. With the Germans threatening to invade England at any moment, Käfer musters all his courage and ingenuity in a valiant effort to thwart the Nazis. But will he succeed in time to save the day? As told by Käfer himself,  One Boy’s War (the sequel to Boy from Berlin) is inspired by real people and historical events. BookLife Prize calls it “an adventure story with truly high stakes. Young readers are unlikely to have encountered a hero like Käfer Avigdor.”

They Divided the Sky

By Christa Wolf, Luise Von Flotow (translator),

Book cover of They Divided the Sky: A Novel

They Divided the Sky, which is set in 1960-61 and was published in 1963, offers a rare first-hand insight into the period leading up to the construction of the Berlin Wall on 13 August 1961. As one of East Germany’s leading writers, Christa Wolf enjoyed an unusual degree of freedom of expression, and this novel wrestles openly with the central question that afflicted many East Germans of whether to stay in the East or defect to the “decadent” West. Written in flashbacks, They Divided the Sky transports us to that highly charged time, offering an evocative portrait of the socialist project in East Germany when it was still fresh and meaningful for many East Germans, including Wolf. 


Who am I?

I’m a Scottish journalist. In the 1980s, I studied German at Karl-Marx University in Leipzig, East Germany. It was a fascinating experience that changed my perceptions of the world. I didn’t become a communist, but I did begin to see that where you stand depends on where you sit and that principles are easy to maintain when it costs you nothing to do so. There was a bleak glamour to East Germany that I loved, and so I decided to set my first novel in the shadowy world of intense personal connections, underground artists, and unofficial informers that I’d found in Leipzig. 


I wrote...

The Leipzig Affair

By Fiona Rintoul,

Book cover of The Leipzig Affair

What is my book about?

The Leipzig Affair is a tale of love, betrayal, and redemption set in East Germany in the dying days of the Cold War. Magda, a brilliant but disillusioned young linguist, is desperate to flee to the West. When a black-market deal brings her into contact with Robert, a young Scot studying at Leipzig University, she sees a way to realize her escape plans. As Robert falls in love with her, he stumbles into a complex world of shifting half-truths that will undo them both. Many years later, long after the Berlin Wall has been torn down, Robert returns to Leipzig in search of answers. Can he track down the elusive Magda? And will the past give up its secrets?

Purity

By Jonathan Franzen,

Book cover of Purity

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…


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.

Stasi Child

By David Young,

Book cover of Stasi Child: A Karin Müller Thriller

This is a police procedural set in the 1970s in East Berlin. The author successfully evokes an atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion, as the main character, a female detective, must try to solve the murder of a young girl who seems to have been killed fleeing from West to East Germany (not the usual direction). The feeling that everyone is watching, everyone is a potential informer, everything is potentially corrupt, corresponds to all the research I did on East Germany. Plus, it’s a great story that’s hard to put down.


Who am I?

My mother grew up in Germany during World War Two and her family (or what was left of it) settled in the Soviet Zone that eventually became East Germany. She managed to get out in 1953 by sneaking across the border with a weekend pass, but other members of the family remained. This history has been close to my heart as a result and is what inspired me to write my novel, The House of One Thousand Eyes. I had to do a lot of research to evoke an authentic setting for my novel. This reading list comes from my research of, and fascination with, that time in history.


I wrote...

The House of One Thousand Eyes

By Michelle Barker,

Book cover of The House of One Thousand Eyes

What is my book about?

For Lena, life in East Germany in the early 1980s is particularly hard. After the death of her parents in a factory explosion and time spent in a psychiatric hospital, she is sent to live with her stern aunt, a devoted member of the ruling Communist Party. Visits with her beloved Uncle Erich, a best-selling author, are her only respite.  

But one night, her uncle disappears. Gone also are all his belongings, his books, and even his birth records. Lena is desperate to know what happened to him, but it’s as if he never existed. She cannot discuss her uncle or her attempts to find him with anyone. There are government spies everywhere. But Lena refuses to give up her search, regardless of the consequences.  

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