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.


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):


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).

A week in Berlin: Krimis, Krimis and yet more Krimis

I was lucky enough to spend the whole of last week on a research trip in snowy Berlin, and was sure to squeeze every last drop from the marvellous opportunities this world city has to offer.

Section of the former Berlin Wall

The main reason for my trip was to see the 5500 crime novels or Krimis (Krimi = ‘Kriminalroman’) in the Kuczynsky Collection at the Berlin Central Library for my  research into East German crime fiction.

Jürgen Kuczynsky (1904-1997), a prominent GDR academic and political adviser to Honecker, was a keen crime fan, and according to the archivists had a regular cigar-for-crime-novel exchange agreement with the famous dramatist Bertolt Brecht. I was very kindly given access to this as yet uncatalogued collection, and in the course of my visit unearthed a number of extremely interesting texts, such as Gerhard Scherfling’s fascinating East German crime novel Die Zeitungsnotiz (The Newpaper Item, 1973), in which a historian is revealed as the murderer and as a former Nazi (one for my database…). I was able to peruse these on a tatty yet comfortable sofa, which was bequeathed to the library along with Kuczynski’s books, and sits in the corner of the vast storage room where the collection is currently housed. I imagine that Jürgen and Bert had some lovely chats about crime fiction while parked there.

I was also fortunate enough to be able to visit all of Berlin’s crime bookshops. Berlin is an absolute mecca for Krimi fans, as it has not one, not two, but three wonderful bookshops packed to the rafters with crime. Finding them took me all over the city, from Prenzlauer Berg in the north-east, where the Krimibuchhandlung todsicher (‘dead certain’) is located, to Charlottenburg and the Miss Marple bookshop in the west, and finally to Schöneberg and the Hammett bookshop in the south-east, near the old Tempelhof airport.

The very helpful lady in todsicher presented me with an absolute treasure trove: a whole box of GDR crime fiction from the DIE series (a witty acronym that stands for Delikte Indizien Ermittlungen / crimes, clues, investigations).

While the other two didn’t carry GDR crime (according to the owner of Hammett, the continued existence of a ‘literary wall’ means there’s little demand for works from East German publishing houses), they did have stacks of contemporary crime fiction set in Berlin, which I was also keen to see. Notably, there appears to be a mini-explosion of twentieth-century historical series by German authors at the moment, which are being strongly promoted in mainstream bookshops as well as more specialist outlets. The following caught my eye:

Volker Kutscher’s ‘Gereon Rath’ series (2007-): three novels set in 1930s Berlin (Der nasse Fisch, Der stumme Tod, Goldstein; English descriptions and sample translations available here).

Uwe Klausner’s ‘Tom Sydow’ series (2009-): four novels set in Berlin between 1942 and 1961 (Walhalla-Code, Odessa-Komplott, Bernstein-Connection, Kennedy-Syndrom).

The ‘es geschah in Berlin Kettenroman’ (the ‘it happened in Berlin chain-novel’; 2007-): currently fourteen novels set in Berlin between 1910 and 1936, featuring investigator Hermann Kappes. This series was conceived by the famous German crime writer Horst Bosetzky, but – very intriguingly – is written by a number of different authors. It’s apparently achieved cult status in Germany.

I also picked up a standalone crime novel by Mechtild Borrmann entitled Wer das Schweigen bricht (The One who Breaks the Silence, Pendragon 2011), which won the Deutscher Krimi Preis in 2012. It’s a crime novel that engages with the legacy of the National Socialism through the story of a son researching his industrialist father’s wartime past.

None of these have been translated into English as yet, although the rights to Kutscher’s novels have been snapped up in a number of other countries, including Japan.

And as if all of that wasn’t enough…I got to hang out in Berlin the same week as the Berlinale film festival and the resignation of the German President due to a corruption scandal. No visit to Berlin is ever dull. I first visited in 1988, a year before the Wall came down, and every time I go back, I continue to be amazed at the dramatic changes taking place there – best appreciated visually from the top of the space-age Fernsehturm by the Alexanderplatz.

Fernsehturm as seen from the Alex

Most striking this time round was the disappearance of the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic), the East German 1970s parliamentary building on Unter den Linden, which was demolished in 2008 due to its high asbestos content. The city now has ambitious plans to rebuild the Berliner Stadtschloss (Berlin City Palace), which originally stood on the site between the 1750s and 1950 … the year in which the war-damaged building was torn down by the GDR regime! Berlin is full of these sorts of mind-blowing twists and turns, with buildings, streets and even whole districts being dramatically reshaped by historical events and the rise and fall of different regimes. On discovering that one street had undergone six name changes between 1907 and 1990, I had to retreat for a calming Bier.*

All in all, it was a highly profitable and enjoyable week, and I’m already looking forward to returning to Berlin soon. Lots of reading to keep me going until then though – my return luggage contained a ridiculous number of new Krimis, which I only just managed to lug home.

*Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz: was Babelsberger Platz (1907-10), Bülowplatz (1910-33), Horst-Wessel-Platz (1933-45), Liebknechtplatz (1945-47) and Luxemburgplatz (1947-69) before taking its current name in 1969.