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).

#38 / Simon Urban, Plan D

Simon Urban, Plan D (German original published by Schoeffling, 2011; English translation by Katy Derbyshire for Harvill Secker, 2013)  4 stars


Opening line: Wegener undid the flies of his cords, pulled out his p*nis with two fingers and relaxed.

It’s 2011 and the Berlin Wall is still standing. Welcome to the alternative world of Plan D, by German writer Simon Urban, in which the 1990 reunification of Germany never took place, East and West Germany remain uneasy neighbours, and fifty-six year-old East German Volkspolizei (People’s Police) captain Martin Wegener is about to embark on the strangest investigation of his career.

Called to a crime scene on the outskirts of East Berlin, Wegener finds an elderly man hanging from a pipeline that exports gas from Russia across the German-German border. It looks like a murder with political dimensions, making the case ultra-sensitive for all concerned, and to top it all, suave West German police detective Richard Brendel is attached to the investigative team, to help resolve the case ahead of some important East-West talks. That’s when the fun really begins.

The first duty of any alternative history is to feel credible, and Plan D very successfully evokes a jaded East Germany that is now over six decades old and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The novel shows how the East German dictatorship and its relationship with West Germany might plausibly have evolved in modern political contexts, and also stresses the bleakness of everyday East German life, with the activities of the Stasi (the East German security police) continuing to cast a lengthy shadow. In this dystopian world, there’s room neither for Ostalgie – the nostalgia for life in East Germany that arguably marks films such as Goodbye Lenin! (2003) and Sonnenallee (1999)nor for the soft-hearted Stasi operative of Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006). Instead, we’re shown the stifling confinement of the dictatorship and the impossibility of total trust between individuals, with Wegener taking on the role of the ‘distrustful detective’ forced to embark on a journey into the heart of darkness. More broadly, the novel draws on historican Eric Hobsbawn’s vision of the 20th century as an age of ideological extremes, with the former Nazi Reichsbank now housing the state’s SED Central Committee (which it really did), and the depiction of Wegener’s former colleague Früchtl as a former-Nazi-turned-Communist-policeman who disappeared in shady circumstances in 2010.

The striking design of Plan D’s German cover

The novel combines hard-boiled, noir humour (shades of Philip Kerr’s detective Bernie Gunther) and an exuberant, satirical writing style with elements of the grotesque (a nod to German writers such as Günter Grass and Edgar Hilsenrath). Hats off to translator Katy Derbyshire for communicating the original style with such flair. Urban also acknowledges the American writer Michael Chabon at the end of the book, and I’m guessing that The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was a particular influence, as its crime narrative is also set in an alternative post-war era. Surprisingly, however, there’s no mention of Robert Harris’s 1992 Fatherland, the gold-standard alternative history in which Hitler’s Germany is shown to have won the Second World War. In common with Fatherland, Plan D opens with the murder of an elderly man with a political past, prompting the investigator to search for a deeper truth, which in turn leads to major revelations about the state. For me, the influence of the former is very clear – and is a welcome one. (For info, an article in which I examine Fatherland in detail has just been published in the journal Comparative Literature Studies – more on that soon.)

There was only one aspect of Plan D that left me feeling uncomfortable, and that was the highly s*xualised depiction of the character Karolina. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is meant to be understood symbolically, but the jury’s still out a little for me. The novel is also extremely long. I’m not sure whether this is actually a drawback: while the manuscript might have benefited from a little trim, for this reader the 500 plus pages whizzed by.

Overall, I loved Plan D. For me, a significant portion of reading pleasure came from my prior knowledge of East Germany, which helped me to understand the novel’s in-jokes and biting satire in a way that those unfamiliar with the history of East and West Germany might not. So that everyone can join in the fun and appreciate the genuine wit and clever-ness of the novel, I’m taking the unusual step of publishing a companion post – a GDR glossary for Plan D. The theme tune to the ‘East German James Bond’ TV series is particularly worth a listen. Viel Spass! Enjoy!

My thanks to Harvill Secker for providing a review copy. The novel is published in all formats on 20th June.

Mrs. Peabody awards Plan D an ambitious, absorbing and entertaining 4 stars.

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