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The People's State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker [Paperback]

Mary Fulbrook
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
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Book Description

19 Sep 2008
What was life really like for East Germans, effectively imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain? The headline stories of Cold War spies and surveillance by the secret police, of political repression and corruption, do not tell the whole story. After the unification of Germany in 1990 many East Germans remembered their lives as interesting, varied, and full of educational, career, and leisure opportunities: in many ways 'perfectly ordinary lives'.Using the rich resources of the newly-opened GDR archives, Mary Fulbrook investigates these conflicting narratives. She explores the transformation of East German society from the ruins of Hitler's Third Reich to a modernizing industrial state. She examines changing conceptions of normality within an authoritarian political system, and provides extraordinary insights into the ways in which individuals perceived their rights and actively sought to shape their own lives.Replacing the simplistic black-and-white concept of 'totalitarianism' by the notion of a 'participatory dictatorship', this book seeks to reinstate the East German people as actors in their own history.

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The People's State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker + Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR, 1949-1989
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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (19 Sep 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300144245
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300144246
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 15 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 336,204 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"'... a fresh, flowing, thoughtful account... an immensely readable book... Above all, this empathetic account puts East Germans back into their own history. As such, it will surely act not only as a standard work on GDR society, but also as a model for the emerging social history of post-war Europe.' Josie McLellan, Reviews in History / History in Focus 'One does applaud Mary Fulbrook for writing a book that is extremely rich in detail and one that is certainly different from other works on the German Democratic Republic. It provides an excellent framework for further debate on the pros and cons of the first socialist experiment on German soil.' Peter Hylarides, Contemporary Review"

About the Author

Mary Fulbrook is professor of German history at University College London. Among her books is the best-selling A Concise History of Germany.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The human beings behind the state 18 Dec 2005
By Galena
I thoroughly enjoyed this work - I read it for interest rather than for studies. It describes the ordinary East germans perception of every day life in East Germany, the good and the bad. It also describes the genuine attempts by the Party members some way below the "magic circle" to improve and assist the difficult aspects of life in the GDR with the exception of foreign travel- which was beyond their control.It describes the hard life of the non - government party members who had to live up to high ideals, work punishing hours, deal with all the complaints but without access to the perks of the Politbureau. Even the leadership had its aspirations for the people and improving their lives - again these seem to be genuine - but the cost of fully implementing the majority of this paternalistic strategy was economically impossible to achieve. It answers for me why there has been an outbreak of ostalgie and why some look on the old days with real affection. Comparisons are also usefully made with other western countries - the chapter on health reminds me of the NHS in the 60s!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The face of the dictatorship 16 April 2010
By Darren McCormac VINE VOICE
This book chronicles (by theme) the development of East Germany from 1949 to 1989 through the medium of society. When we in the West think of communist Eastern Europe, we often think of just the dictators, the repression of society, food shortages and queues, grey grey grey worlds.

We forget the people. We forget that these countries were populated by actual people, just like us, with their own hopes, dreams, fears, romances, families, ambitions... Fulbrook - an extensive and experienced author/lecturer on East German history - paints a picture of lives just like ours but a little different. We learn about the GDR's school system, how the unions and societies worked, industry and work, family, marriage and divorce, and the role of women (much more advanced than in the West, in a lot of ways).

Best of all, the book is accessible. It is primarily a history textbook but it's written in very easy language, almost with anecdotes and stories. This makes it quite possibly the best history book I have read; the GDR suddenly became a very real place for me - and made me realise that "they" were just like "us".
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
I supposed my greatest praise of this book lies in two main areas

1. Firstly you really get a feel of what East German society and life were like, very much removed from the usual stereoypyes that are so often the norm. But please don't think this author is an apologist for the regime or makes any partisan political viewpoints either way. The book is grounded on excellent and paintaking research and this shows up all the way. Hence you do end up agreeing with her conclusions of normal everyday life in the GDR

2. Although the writer is a respected academic and as mentioned the book is thoroughly well-researched it reads very well indeed and doesn't get bogged down as some texts of this nature do. This is one of the main highlights of the book together with its highly interesting subject matter. Combining academic rigour with readability is a real skill and is to be applauded in this case.

I got this book from my local library, but would certainly not begrudge buying it - and theres plenty of times when you could'nt say that!
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars At last, a "different" book on GDR. 26 April 2006
Yes, many of us suspected that life behind the iron curtain couldn't have been quite the absolute hell it was described in the west, before and after the collapse of communism.

Surely GDR survived for four decades not only because the iron hand of the regime was too heavy to fight but also because this very hand was creating a social environment where most citizens of the country could lead a "perfectly ordinary life"

Excellent work by the author, shows that historical books can be more authoritative when they present both sides of the argument.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant read 20 Oct 2008
It may seem strange to describe a book about the GDR as a 'brilliant read', but this is what it is. Mary Fullbrook has certainly done a lot of research into the workings of the People's State, both the bad and the good, and reminds us that not all about the GDR was bad. To anyone old enough to remember the times before Thatcher in the UK, much will be familiar with much of that described in the book. Much of industry in the UK was state owned, overstaffed and failing, and the economy found itself in a very similar situation to that of the GDR just prior to the fall of the Wall. Importantly, much is made of that which was good about the GDR. That basic living standards were protected, and that people's basic needs were taken care of is a quality of a society that is not to be sneezed at. Many of the problems of maintaining such a system will be familiar territory to anyone who has grown up in a country where social welfare is regarded as important by government, and will probably be looked upon with envy by those not fortunate enough to be born into as caring a society. Many millions of people in, for example, the USA, have not had the 'luxury' of having anything worthy of comparison.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in how societies are governed, as it points out the pitfalls of political constraints, as well as the problems of allowing too many 'freedoms' (such as the 'freedom' to starve?). It also highlights concerns over state surveillance, which will strike a chord with recent developments in the UK with ever increasing state surveillance, and erosion of civil liberties.
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