GDR Glossary for Simon Urban’s Plan D

Here’s an East/West German glossary that might come in handy when reading Simon Urban’s alternative history Plan D. Just dip in as and when you fancy (no plot spoilers…).

This glossary is a companion to my review of Plan D, available here.

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The German Democratic Republic (die Deutsche Demokratische Republik) was a communist state, also known as East Germany, which existed for just over forty years between 1949 and 1990, and formed part of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. In Plan D, set in 2011, the GDR still exists. The novel presents us with an alternative history of the past two decades and shows us an East Germany that is now sixty-two years old.

Reunification (die Wiedervereinigung): the process by which East and West Germany became a single German state in 1990 following the collapse of the GDR in 1989. In Plan D, reunification never took place. Instead, the novel’s characters refer to ‘Wieder-belebung’ or ‘Revitalisation’, a moment of political rebirth around 1990 that set the GDR on a modernised course – the ‘Neuausrichtung’ or ‘New Direction’.

The Berlin Wall (die Berliner Mauer) was erected by East Germany in 1961 to stop its citizens, especially young skilled labourers, leaving for democratic, capitalist West Germany. It was termed an ‘antifaschistische Schutzmauer’ (anti-fascist protective wall) by the authorities to convince East Germans that the state was trying to stop fascists from getting in, rather than East Germans from getting out. In reality, the Berlin Wall fell on 9. November 1989, but in the 2011 of Plan D it still stands and is referred to as an ‘anti-capitalist protective wall’.

This cross-section shows that the Berlin Wall was eventually made up of a series of fortifications on the East German side. East Berlin is on the far right (1) and West Berlin is on the far left (13). Anyone trying to escape to the west ran a high risk of being caught in the ‘Todesstreifen’ (death strip) in the middle.

Republikflucht or ‘flight from the republic’ was made a criminal offence by the East German state in 1957 to halt the exodus of its citizens. Those caught were likely to receive a prison sentence and have limited future prospects in GDR society. Travel permits were tightly controlled.

Die Volkspolizei or ‘VoPo’ was the East German People’s Police, which had close links with the Stasi. In Plan D, Martin Wegener holds the rank of Hauptmann or captain in the Köpenick criminal police department (which appears to be a nod to the famous figure ‘der Hauptmann von Köpenick’ and his battles with kafkaesque bureaucracy; a production of Zuckmayer’s famous play recently ran at the National Theatre in London).

The Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit / Ministry for State Security) or state security service (Staatssicherheitsdienst) had its headquarters in Normannenstrasse in Berlin (now a museum). Established in 1950, the Stasi’s remit was to stamp out internal opposition to the state, and it specialised in forcing compliance through a range of psychological techniques. Alongside its own operatives, many ordinary citizens were pressurised/bribed/blackmailed into becoming so-called IMs (‘inoffizielle Mitarbeiter’ or ‘unoffical colleagues’), reporting on work colleagues, neighbours, family and friends. Today, around 111 kilometres of Stasi files are held in official archives, and can be accessed by the public. In Plan D, the activities of the ‘old’ Stasi were officially curbed as part of the reforms carried out during ‘Revitalisation’.

Wolf Biermann’s ballad ‘The Stasi is my Eckermann’ (‘Die Stasi ist mein Eckermann’). The songwriter Wolf Biermann, one of the GDR’s most famous political dissidents, was the subject of extensive Stasi surveillance and was stripped of his GDR citizenship in 1976 while on tour in West Germany. The ballad, written in 1974, is referred to by Martin in Plan D. Its first two verses translate as follows (listen to the original here):

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Wolf Biermann in concert in 1976

I feel a common humanity / With the poor Stasi dogs / Required to sit through snow and downpours of rain / Tediously listening to me through the / Microphone they have installed / Which catches every sound / Songs, jokes and soft curses / Sitting on the toilet and in the kitchen. / Brothers from state security – you alone / Know all my troubles.

You alone can attest / How my whole human effort / Is committed with passionate tenderness / And zest to Our Great Cause. / Words which otherwise would be lost / Are captured firmly on your tapes / And – I’m sure of it – now and again / You sing my songs in bed. / I sing my gratitude to you / Stasi is my Ecker- / Stasi is my Ecker- / Stasi is my Eckermann.

[Johann Peter Eckermann was a poet whose self-appointed task was to record the words of the famous German author Johann Wolfgang Goethe for posterity].

The Invisible Cross-hairs (Das unsichtbare Visier), whose groovy theme tune features as a mobile ringtone in Plan D, was an East German TV series that ran from 1973 to 1979, produced in conjunction with the Ministry for State Security. The central protagonist is Werner Bredebusch, a Stasi agent operating abroad under the alias of Achim Detjen – East Germany’s own James Bond! Ironically, the actor playing Bredebusch, Armin Mueller-Stahl, got into hot water with the state when he spoke out in support of Wolf Biermann in 1976.

Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei or SED): the only political party that mattered in the GDR, which shaped all aspects of political and social policy according to communist principles … and the wishes of the Soviet Union. It is still the dominant political party in Plan D.

The Palace of the Republic (der Palast der Republik) was the seat of the East German Volkskammer or People’s Chamber – the heart of GDR government – and doubled as a cultural centre. It was built in the 1970s, on the site of the historic Stadtschloss or Berlin City Palace, which was badly damaged in the Second World War and was demolished by the East German authorities in 1950. Following the Palace of the Republic’s own demolition in 2008 due to high levels of asbestos, a reconstruction of the Berlin City Palace has begun (criticised by some as a deliberate attempt to erase the GDR past). In Plan D, the Palace of the Republic has survived and remains a potent symbol of the GDR state. The national emblem is visible in the picture below: a hammer and compass surrounded by a garland of rye (to represent the workers, intelligensia and farmers respectively).

The Trabant (‘Trabi’) and Wartburg were GDR makes of car (see foreground of image above), for which waiting lists of over a decade were not uncommon. They are still around in Plan D, along with a new model, the Phobus, which runs on rapeseed oil.

Walter Ulbricht was General Secretary of the SED from 1950 to 1971 and Chairman of the State Council (effectively GDR head of state) from 1960 to 1963.

Erich Honecker was General Secretary of the SED from 1971 to 1989 and Chairman of the State Council from 1976 to 1989. His wife Margot was also an influential political figure. In the German original of Plan D, the character of the former head of state is named Erich Honecker. In the English translation, the character of the former head of state is named Heinrich Stangier.

Honecker and top brass at the 1971 SED Party Conference. Marx, Engels and Lenin look moodily into the distance.

Egon Krenz was the last GDR head of state for three months in 1989. In the German original of Plan D, the character of the current head of state is named Egon Krenz. In the English translation, the character of the current head of state is named Hans-Walter Moss.

Erich Mielke was head of the Stasi between 1959 and 1989. Otto Schily was German Federal Minister of the Interior from 1998-2005. In the German original of Plan D, Erich Mielke’s role as head of the Stasi is taken over in 1989 by a character named Otto Schily. In the English translation, Erich Mielke’s role is taken over by a character named Uwe Speckmann.

Oskar Lafontaine was the West German Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate for Chancellor in the historic German federal elections of 1990. His opponent, CDU politician Helmut Kohl, triumphed and became the first Chancellor of the reunited Germany. In Plan D, Oskar Lafontaine is the name of the left-leaning Chancellor of West Germany in 2011.

With exquisite humour, the novel is dedicated to Günter Schabowski, the SED spokes-man who inadvertantly triggered the ‘early’ fall of the Berlin Wall when answering a press conference question on 9 November 1989.

GDR brands mentioned in the novel include Florena Deodorant, KARO Cigarettes, Goldkrone Schnaps, Club Cola and Nautik soap. Delikat was a chain of state-owned ‘luxury’ shops for East Germans; Intershop was a chain of state-owned shops that targeted foreigners in order to encourage a flow of hard currency (primarily the West German Deutschmark) into East Germany.

Solyanka is a spicy-sour soup, originating from Russia, that was a staple of GDR cuisine. Pictures and recipe (in German) available here.

Aktuelle Kamera was the official East German TV news programme, which delivered the government’s worldview to GDR citizens every evening (watch a clip, with a *gripping* report of Honecker’s state visit to Finland at 2.18 minutes). Der Spiegel was a West German (now German) news magazine, known for its political and investigative journalism.    

Further reading

Mary Fulbrook, History of Germany 1918-2000: The Divided Nation, 3rd edition (Blackwell, 2008). Fulbrook is a highly respected historian who has written a number of excellent books on twentieth-century Germany.

Mary Fulbrook, The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker (Yale University Press, 2008)

Frederick Taylor, The Berlin Wall: 13. August 1961 – 9. November 1989 (Bloomsbury 2009). Political, historical and social history of the Berlin Wall and the divided Berlin.

Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (Granta 2011 [2003]). Gripping exploration of the role of the Stasi in the GDR and the impact of its activities on ordinary people.    

Jana Hensel, After the Wall: Confessions from an East German Childhood (Public Affairs 2008). A thoughtful memoir of childhood and adolescence; original German title Zonenkinder (Rowohlt 2002).

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13 thoughts on “GDR Glossary for Simon Urban’s Plan D

  1. Pingback: #38 / Simon Urban, Plan D | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

  2. Now this is just overwhelming. I will have to come back and read every word of it. I am always interested in history of post-WWII Germany, but my father was activated from the Air National Guard for the Berlin Crisis and was posted in Germany and France for that year. So the early history of the Berlin Wall is of particular interest to me. I truly think this was one of the happiest years of his life, even though he missed his family, because he got to visit so many museums and cathedrals that he never would have seen otherwise. I heard about them for years afterwards.

    • Oh dear, TracyK – I didn’t mean to overwhelm! The glossary is really meant as a kind of flexible resource that people can dip into if they fancy while reading. No obligation to read from top to bottom 🙂

      Your dad’s time in Europe sounds fascinating. I bet he saw and experienced some extremely interesting things. Was he posted to Berlin itself, or was he stationed elsewhere?

      • I meant overwhelming in a good way. I have already been back to read it all (had the day off today). It is extremely interesting and lots of things I did not know. I especially liked the information about Günter Schabowski.

        Unfortunately I don’t remember where my father was stationed, but I believe he was in Wiesbaden when he was in Germany. All I can say for sure is that in France, he was close enough to go to Paris and the Louvre multiple times and he loved it. One of my great regrets was not getting more information from him about his service in WWII (India and China) and the time he was overseas for the Berlin Crisis.

      • Oh good. Yes, the Schabowski story is quite remarkable. Thankfully the border guards responded to the deluge of GDR citizens going west after that press conference with restraint (incredible that the day passed without a single shot given the circumstances).

        My own father was a prisoner of war during WW2. I was oblivious to it all as a kid, but thankfully he left us some very illuminating materials, including a log book and war memoirs. He was only 19 when he joined the RAF during the war. My own son is nearly that age now…

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