Jump to Content

Collection Guide
Collection Title:
Collection Number:
Get Items:
GDR Oral History Project Interviews
No online items No online items       Request items ↗
View entire collection guide What's This?
PDF (153.62 Kb) HTML
Search this collection
Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Access
  • Use
  • Acquisition Information
  • Preferred Citation
  • Introduction

  • Title: GDR Oral History Project interviews
    Date (inclusive): 1990-1994
    Collection Number: 94066
    Contributing Institution: Hoover Institution Library and Archives
    Language of Material: German
    Physical Description: 8 manuscript boxes, 9 card file boxes (5.0 Linear Feet)
    Abstract: Sound recordings and transcripts of interviews of East German government and Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands leaders, and East German dissidents, relating to political processes and policymaking in East Germany from 1945 to 1990. Project directed by A. James McAdams, and sponsored by the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace and other organizations.
    Creator: Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace
    Creator: McAdams, A. James
    Physical Location: Hoover Institution Library & Archives


    The collection is open for research; materials must be requested in advance via our reservation system. If there are audiovisual or digital media material in the collection, they must be reformatted before providing access.


    Photocopying limited to two pages per transcript without permission of Archivist. (use request for extra photocopies) For copyright status, please contact the Hoover Institution Library & Archives.

    Acquisition Information

    Materials were acquired by the Hoover Institution Library & Archives in 1994.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], GDR Oral History Project interviews, [Box no., Folder no. or title], Hoover Institution Library & Archives.


    by James McAdams, Principal Investigator
    In 1994, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University opened a major new archive, a collection of over 80 oral histories of leading politicians and policymakers from the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). The GDR Oral History Project was initiated in 1990 by Professor A. James McAdams of the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame. It was made possible largely through the financial assistance of the National Council for Soviet and East European Research. Other supporters included the Center for German Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and the John Foster Dulles Program in Leadership Studies at Princeton University. The Hoover Institution supported the transcription of all of the interviews in the collection.
    The aim of the GDR Oral History Project was to record on tape some of the still vivid memories of the former leaders of East Germany, so that in 50 or 100 years (the amount of time Socialist Unity Party [SED] general secretary, Erich Honecker, predicted the Berlin Wall would last) future students of German history would have a unique source for assessing the driving motivations of the individuals who once made up the country's dominant political culture. Of course, no series of interviews alone can realistically relate the entire history of a state. Nevertheless, the researchers felt they could preserve for posterity a segment of that experience by interviewing a select group of individuals who could reasonably be characterized as the East German political elite.
    In particular, the Oral History Project chose to interview four types of politically significant individuals. In the first group, we emphasized well-known representatives of the SED, such as former members of the ruling politburo and central committee, like Kurt Hager, Karl Schirdewan, Günther Kleiber, Herbert Häber, Werner Eberlein, Egon Krenz, and Gerhard Schürer. The second group was broader, comprised largely of members of the party and state apparatus. In this case, our goal was to identify a sample of policy implementers, from diplomats to department heads. Thus, we focused on key departments of the SED central committee, such as Agitation and Propaganda and International Affairs, and sections of state ministries, such as the foreign ministry department charged with East German-Soviet relations. Our third group of interviewees was comprised of so-called policymaking intellectuals. This disparate group, with representatives ranging from economist Jürgen Kuczynski to socialist theoretician Otto Reinhold, primarily included individuals who had some tangential relationship to policymaking; we particularly emphasized former members of SED policy institutes, such as the Academy of Social Sciences and the Institute of Politics and Economics. Finally, as the Oral History Project grew, we decided to develop a fourth group of interviewees in order to cast light upon the transition from the GDR to unified Germany. This category was drawn from former dissidents who became politicians, including such wide-ranging personalities as Markus Meckel, Lothar de Maiziere, Jens Reich, and Wolfgang Ullmann. [Footnote: Since the opportunity arose to conduct interviews with individuals in the former Soviet party apparatus who had dealings with the GDR, we also conducted several interviews in Moscow. However, the Soviet-East German relationship never evolved into a formal interview category.]
    From the beginning of the project, the organizers were confronted with a question that all oral historians face: how to find an appropriate balance between the competing norms of "richness" and "rigor." Rigor involves the kind of rigidly-structured interviews that will lend themselves to social scientific generalization and even quantification; richness, in contrast, favors the unique political and personal story of each individual to be interviewed. On the side of rigor, we provided all our interviewers with a concrete set of core questions to guarantee that the interviews would not be entirely random. Nearly everyone interviewed was asked previously formulated questions about their family background and social class, their particular path to political engagement, their views on the German national question, their perceptions of the outside world, and their personal experience with policymaking in the GDR.
    Yet, if we leaned in any particular direction in developing the project, it was in favor of richness. Clearly, we did not have the resources to interview the number of representatives of the GDR elite that would have been required for quantitative social-science analysis. We also found that it was best to tailor many of our questions to the individuals' own experiences, since we were dealing with very different sorts of people, with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Some, for example, had worked closely with major figures like Walter Ulbricht; others had been uniquely positioned to understand major events, such as the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. We did not want any of these memories, however idiosyncratic, to be lost to future historians. Finally, we believed that after the formal questions were posed, it was crucial to let our discussion partners speak for themselves about what mattered most in their lives. Sometimes they took the interview in directions that we could not have anticipated.
    Not surprisingly, we initially approached our interviews with certain guiding preconceptions about how our discussions might progress and what we might discover. As the Oral History Project developed, some of these assumptions were borne out; but provocatively, others were not. In every case, however, our successes and failures turned out to be enormously revealing about the nature of the project itself and about East German history.
    Our first preconception was that we might have a hard time getting some of the most senior SED officials to talk openly about their past. This concern turned out not to be serious; in the majority of cases, they seemed to speak freely about their experiences, particularly when we assured them that we were not interested in "sensationalist journalism." With only a few exceptions-primarily, those facing criminal prosecution-it was quite easy to gain access to these former leaders, even to individuals who had granted no other interviews to westerners. We had an unexpected advantage: for the most part, we were Americans, indeed Americans from the well-known Hoover Institution. In the perception of many of our interviewees, we were worthy victors. Many were actually thrilled to welcome representatives of the "class enemy" into their living rooms, provided that we would not turn over their interviews to one of the "boulevard newspapers," like the Bildzeitung. Three eastern German social scientists also conducted interviews for us. They had the advantage of knowing how to speak the "language" of their former leaders. On balance, our main advantage seemed to be that no members of the Oral History Project came from former West Germany, which was still regarded by our interviewees with suspicion.
    In retrospect, the readiness of these individuals to speak with us should probably not have been so surprising. After all, by depositing their thoughts in a major archive, we were assuring them that we were taking their experiences seriously and perhaps even guaranteeing that their lives had not been lived in vain. This is no mean consideration in view of what happened to the GDR. Naturally, future scholars will have to come to their own conclusions about the honesty and sincerity of each interview. Occasionally, we detected moments of outright dishonesty. Sometimes our interviewees simply refused to talk about embarrassing moments in their lives (e.g., association with the Stasi). There was also a recurring tendency for younger individuals, or those lowest in the old hierarchy, to portray themselves as something they were not before 1989-such as, closet reformists or enthusiastic supporters of Mikhail Gorbachev. There were also frequent problems with memory; some older interviewees could remember the "anti-fascist struggles" of the late 1920s with absolute clarity, but could not recall the 1950s at all.
    These sorts of problems afflict all oral histories. Yet, there were many moments when we could not help but be struck by the candor of our interviewees. Many showed a surprising readiness to talk about issues that we expected to be embarrassing to them. The best example of this was the Berlin Wall, which they nearly always defended in animated terms. From the first days of the interview project, there was also a telling recognition among the leading representatives of the SED elite that they had lost the battle with the West and that they were beginning to accept this reality. Thus, there was none of the crazed rambling and denial that one found in previously published interviews with Erich Honecker. Among several interviewees, there was even a notable respect for their former opponents, such as East German dissident, Bärbel Bohley, and the late West German Green, Petra Kelly. Undoubtedly, there were many points where one wanted more self-criticism from our discussion partners. Yet, some of our interviewers wondered whether this same quality would have been available from comparable politicians in the West. As one eastern German interviewer reflected: "Any political elite has to confront issues involving moral integrity in the daily course of its activities, and each individual must make his peace with truth as he can."
    Our second preconception was that we could use such interviews to uncover new facts about the GDR. No doubt, anyone listening to the hundreds of hours of tapes in this collection will encounter a number of interesting facts about distinct events in the East German past (for example, about the mysterious death of planning minister Erich Apel in 1965, about the lack of East German involvement in the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and about the banning of the Soviet publication, Sputnik, in 1988). Moreover, the interviews also serve to undermine many of the stereotypes that scholars have cultivated about some of East Germany's best-known politicians; sometimes the "good guys" turn out to be not so good in the recollections of their former associates, and the "bad guys" not nearly so bad.
    Yet, one of our most interesting findings is how little most policymakers, including many members of the SED's highest circles, actually knew about some of the most important events and controversies of the East German past. We feel that this says a lot about the nature of politics in the GDR. This really was a system that kept all politically significant facts restricted to very few people. We discovered that even at politburo meetings, leaders discussed very little of substance. The most important decisions were frequently made by two or three individuals walking in the woods on a weekend. In these instances, expertise rarely played a major role.
    Even if we did not acquire the full stories about some of the events in the East German past that interested us most, the opportunity to discuss such issues as the construction of the Berlin Wall or the SED's opposition to Gorbachev was unique. Indeed, future scholars may find that these interviews provide a natural complement to the mountains of written documents that have recently become available to us in such collections as the Central Party Archives in Berlin. For in the latter case, we have huge new reservoirs of historical facts, but we frequently lack the personal perspectives necessary to interpret them.
    A third preconception was that we would learn much more about policymaking processes in the GDR. This turned out to be true, although not for the reasons we envisioned. Initially, we thought that by interviewing individuals at different levels of the decision-making apparatus of the SED, we would be able to construct a rough flow chart of authority, showing how decisions moved upward, downward, or outward in a complex hierarchy. Not only did we never encounter such structures, but we received constant affirmation that, but the 1980s, no well-established hierarchies existed at all. As we have already suggested, absolute power was concentrated in very few hands, and all other expressions of political activity took place on a highly informal and personalistic basis. Even the SED politburo had the character of a rubber stamp; to the extent that there were differences among its members-and these did exist on some questions-they were only expressed on a private basis over the lunch table at the ruling body's Tuesday meetings. It is striking that even those who might have been considered personal cronies of SED General Secretary Erich Honecker did not feel that they controlled very much. They, too, felt like cogs in the socialist wheel.
    In contrast to this image of a faceless, even amorphous policymaking culture, there was also provocative agreement in many of the interviews that politics in the GDR had not always been so uniform and that it had changed particularly since the 1950s. Those individuals who were politically active in East Germany's first decade were practically unanimous in conveying an image of policymaking during that period that is conspicuously more collegial than anything later experienced in the GDR. Among them, there was a consensus that East Germany's first leader, Walter Ulbricht, was only a primus inter pares in the early 1950s, and that those around him could and did oppose his views on a regular basis. These findings seem to concur with the written records of the Central Party Archives.
    Finally, we came closest to meeting our fourth preconception: that we could record our interviewees' views on the great issues and great debates of the GDR past. In this case, we were listening to people's perceptions that they could remember, regardless of how well they know the details of an issue. They could say what was important to them, and what was not. Many spoke passionately about matters that had once been life or death questions for their country. This was, above all, true of the long-disputed German national question. In contrast to some Western scholarship, which has held the GDR's national policy to be little more than a tactical diversion, all of the interviews conveyed a strong sense that, at least until the early 1960s, if not later, the SED leadership really did believe that it was offering a valid German path to socialism. Walter Ulbricht emerges as practically obsessed with the issue, and much of his downfall in 1970-1971 can be explained in terms of this obsession.
    Similarly, the Oral History Project offers a very nuanced perspective of the complex relations that existed between the GDR and its superpower ally, the Soviet Union. It will not surprise anyone to hear that some differences existed between East Berlin and Moscow. But future scholars may be impressed by the extent of these differences, as recorded in the interviews, and by how far back they reach in East German history (e.g., in Ulbricht's efforts to push through the economic reforms of the New Economic System in the 1960s, despite manifest Soviet opposition). Additionally, the Oral History Project affords a unique perspective on the East German-Soviet conflict that emerged in the 1980s with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev's reformist leadership. Standard Kremlinological approaches to the study of communist leadership might lead one to expect the East German politburo to have been divided into factions of "Gorbachev opponents" and "Gorbachev supporters," with comparable divisions existing with the Soviet leadership over policy to the GDR. But aside from a few slight exceptions, we were surprised to find almost no evidence of factional divisions over the GDR's relationship with Moscow.
    Of all the great issues of the East German past, the interviews offer a very clear picture of the evolution of East Berlin's relations with the Federal Republic of Germany. They depict an exceptionally close relationship between the two German states, in fact, one that defies all assertions that the essence of West German policy was to hold the German question open for some future resolution. With German reunification now an accepted fact, future scholars may be intrigued to hear, form the eastern German perspective, how seriously Bonn took the leaders of the GDR and how much of West German policy was based upon the assumption that the Berlin Wall would remain in place for "50 or even 100 years."
    In sum, while the GDR Oral History Project does not presume to offer a complete or unbiased perspective on East Germany's history, we believe it is a valuable source of information and interpretations for future scholars to use as they seek to make sense of the GDR's past. We are not aware of any comparable, publicly accessible projects on the GDR's history, particularly in Germany itself, although much smaller interview collections on the history of inter-German relations in the 1960s and the roots of the East German revolution of 1989 are being assembled. Nor do we know of any similar efforts to capture the memories of comparable political elites in other East European states, although the Hoover Institution is now beginning a similar interview project on the old Soviet elite. Therefore, we hope that the Oral History Project will serve as an inspiration to researchers seeking to lay the foundations for future scholarship on countries as diverse as Poland, Romania, Hungary, and the former Czechoslovakia.
    The GDR Oral History Project would not have been possible without the generous assistance of a number of experts on the history of the GDR. Aside from A. James McAdams, interviewers for the project included Thomas Banchoff, Heinrich Bortfeldt, Catherine Epstein, Dan Hamilton, Gerd Kaiser, Jeffrey Kopstein, Olga Sandler, Matthew Siena, John Torpey, and Klaus Zechmeister. Elena Danielson of the Hoover Archives played a central role in the project, cataloguing all of the interviews and arranging for their transcription.
    All of the interviews in the collection are equally accessible to any interested scholars, provided that interviewees have not previously requested copyright restrictions on the use of the material. For further information on the collection, contact the Hoover Archives.
    For background information, contact: Professor A. James McAdams, Helen Kellogg Institute of International Studies, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556

    Subjects and Indexing Terms

    Germany (East) -- Politics and government
    Dissenters -- Germany (East)
    Communism -- Germany (East)
    Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands