Claudia Rusch

Whenever people ask me what it was like to live in East Germany, I counter with another question: “Have you read Harry Potter?” 

I take advantage of the inevitable moment of confusion to cite one of the cleverest and most appropriate sentences I’ve ever read about life in dictatorships. I found the quote on the final pages of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. As evil returns, the headmaster attempts to prepare his pupils for the threat of doom. “There will come a time,” says Albus Dumbledore, “when we must make a choice between what is right, and what is easy.” 

The choice between what is right and what is easy – that is precisely the moral dilemma in which the people in the GDR found themselves. It is the same dilemma faced by all citizens of totalitarian states. Right or easy?

There was no-one in the GDR who was not familiar with the strict order of public life, and had not developed a heightened awareness of their own behaviour and its possible consequences. Even as children, we were conditioned to deal with the ordinary, everyday intimidation in our country. Like a reflex, self-control accompanied our every action in public. We hardly noticed it any more. We even had our own term to describe the phenomenon: an accomplished GDR citizen.
Despite all that, most people did try to live a life as upright as possible under the circumstances. That was rarely easy. Almost everyone wanted to rebel at some point, and many people did so here and there in minor ways, but very few of us had the courage to speak out against the problems and the desire to change them in practice. Those who did so lived with the risk of being spied on and subjected to repressions, exclusion, degradation and imprisonment.

Nowadays, the GDR is often presented in retrospect as a harmless, Technicolor, happy-go-lucky country (something that did not apply for one minute during its forty-year existence). This image is closely linked to the fact that the country’s former citizens don’t want to be seen as having played along or looked the other way – and above all don’t want to see themselves that way, I suspect. Yet choosing what is easy, the path of least resistance, is not something that can be condemned en masse. It’s not a question of the fault of many – it’s a question of the intrepid commitment of a few. Twenty years after the Peaceful Revolution, it seems far less important to me to make accusations against the mass of conformists in the GDR than to respect and honour those who rejected the omnipresent opportunism of the time.

Those who refused to play along at some point in their lives in the GDR, who said no and took action against the system. They wanted to change the GDR and they raised their voices to make their demands – some of them even long after they had been forced to leave the country.

All of these individuals chose not what was easy, but what was right. A choice that is always infinitely harder to make than that between right and wrong. 

These people, who defined the way we understand the terms ‘grassroots movement’, ‘opposition’ and ‘resistance’ today and bore more modest titles at the time, paved our way to freedom. And that includes the freedom to simply say what we think, without fear of sanctions. This new self-determination even includes those who believe that their cosmetic approach to remembering the past helps matters. Let them think that. Life is on our side.

Claudia Rusch

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