One of the first things that happens in the first episode of Deutschland 83, the riveting German Cold War spy drama on Channel 4, is that Lenora Rauch – the brilliant, manipulative and obviously high-ranking Stasi officer stationed in West Germany – rushes home to East Berlin. After watching Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech on West German television, she is convinced that NATO is preparing for an imminent nuclear attack. She calls her boss, switches off the telly and leaves her apartment.

But why on earth would she take a jar of freeze-dried coffee with her? Here is a bit of realism: many consumer goods, especially “luxury” items such as coffee, chocolate, trainers and VCRs were in desperately short supply in the East, available only at huge expense in the specialised “Intershop”, “Delikat” or “Exquisit” outlets.


This control of supply in turn reflected another desperate shortage: hard currency. The GDR, while well off in the context of the Eastern bloc, was perennially skinned for convertible (Western) currency and resorted to all manner of tricks and blackmail to get its hands on it.

West Germans could purchase gifts, for example, from cassette recorders to prefab houses, for relatives in the East or friends using the Genex catalogue, a state monopoly operating through a Swiss intermediary. In Deutschland 83, it is poignant that Lenora takes the precious coffee not to her boss (as per usual), but to her sister. She needs it to soften the blow of poaching her border guard son Martin for a crucial Stasi mission in the West.

The theme of consumer goods shortage is carried through consistently, with an eye for historical detail and a tongue in cheek. Martin Rauch infiltrates the FRG as an army officer called Moritz Stamm and is overwhelmed by the choice of fresh produce in a West German supermarket and nonplussed in an upmarket restaurant when the waitress asks him what kind of steak he would like – “From the cow”, he replies. So full points for realism on consumer goods and their potential leverage.

Less realistic is the scene in which Martin, working as a border guard prior to his recruitment by the Stasi, accosts two would-be smugglers. Together with a colleague, he taunts them for their individualism, greed, and naivety: did they really think they’d get away with it? So far, so plausible – but then he lets them go, squirrels away the contraband, winks at his colleague and they share a laugh.

In reality, a border guard conscript such as Martin would scarcely have taken such risks. Who is to say that his colleague, for all the playful elbow-jabbing, is not reporting back to their superior, or worse, the Stasi? In a country of 16 million people there were over 90,000 permanent Ministry of State Security employees (admittedly including spies in foreign lands, cleaners, clerical staff etc – but still a large number) and a staggering 180,000 Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter – unofficial collaborators or informants, such as the unfortunate actress wife of the dissident author in Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others).

In any case, the playfulness, complicity and laxity of the two border guards in letting off the two “parasites” is deeply misleading. In reality the smugglers would probably have faced prison, possibly re-education and certainly official ostracism – even though all they carried was an edition of Shakespeare and one of Marx.

Trabants and tatty clothes

In terms of sets and props, production values trump the likely reality of the clothes, fittings, dwellings etc. Sure, the shape of the beer bottles, the cut of clothes and the penchant for skinnydipping are all well researched, but in the TV series, it all looks rather stylish. Clothes fit and interiors are well put together – if occasionally odd or austere. The GDR, however, was a place where everything from nails to shirts, paint to nappies, curtains to cars could be hard to come by.

The waiting list for a Trabant, a two-stroke, minuscule car produced virtually unchanged from the 1950s to the 1980s, was 18 years; the price prohibitive. People wore horrible spectacles (there were only a handful of models to choose from), ill-fitting clothes – and many appeared in Christmas and wedding photographs wearing the same outfit year after year.

But if the GDR of Deutschland 83 appears less run-down and shabby than it really was, the same is true of Mad Men’s 1960s Manhattan – and if the Elastoplast glossiness makes us more likely to take in this engrossing Cold War spyfest, who cares? For while the plot takes some liberties, it faithfully sticks to the overall facts, the poetic truth, of GDR life.

That Martin has no idea of his father’s identity or whereabouts is realistic – single parenthood was normal, carried no stigma and could count on comparatively generous state support. That Martin would know the score of the West German football cup final is also realistic – most GDR citizens had access to West German TV and watched it despite official strictures not to do so. The protocol of a regional committee of the ruling Socialist Unity Party that we teach as part of our course on the reconstruction of Germany notes that moving the regular meeting slot is all but inevitable, as otherwise members would leave “in order to catch the seven o’clock news on West German television”.

Welcome to Stasiland

Other examples of realism abound. That advanced medication like the immunosuppressant crucial to Martin’s mother’s kidney transplant would be hard to get by (partly because its purchase diminished hard currency reserves)? Realistic. That such treatment was de facto the privilege of the elites in the “state of the workers and peasants”? Realistic. That, partly as a consequence of such perks, the Stasi attracted some of the best and brightest? Realistic. Stasi officers such as Lenora or her boss, the awesomely named Schweppenstette, could well have been razor sharp, flexible, if necessary charming and generally very good at their jobs.

That they rode roughshod over the private lives of citizens? Realistic, too. In an understated but chilling scene, Lenora, Schweppenstette and a sidekick come to the Rauch family home to interview and recruit Martin. They don’t so much as knock. Martin is not awake, but summoned to the kitchen in his pyjamas. The nonchalance of this invasion and its air of brusque, unquestioning and unquestioned power conveys a GDR reality, just as the fact that Lenora will exploit family ties for her political ends does. Of course the TV series presents a condensed, dramatised account. But ideology did trump family loyalty, in official policy and often enough in the reality of GDR citizens.

Fond memories

It is less paradoxical than it may seem that, nonetheless, most people were happy in the GDR, most of the time. This, too, Deutschland 83 gets right. It was not just the stability and social security, nor the fact that the state provided public goods free of charge that inspired such identification and for some even patriotism.

As long as you heeded the rules, which for the majority of Germans under Communist rule meant no conscious blinkering, more a routine of moving within the parameters set by the state, there was no particular reason not to be happy. In the GDR, people made friends, fell in love, argued with their parents, fretted about wedding arrangements, moved to a different city to study, had favourite movies and songs.

That much of this normalcy was questioned and to an extent invalidated by reunification inspired a good deal of the longing that Germans call “Ostalgie”. And that Westerners frowned upon such regrets – “But … it was a dictatorship!” – only cemented it. Ossis didn’t hanker after the Stasi – how could they? – but they did mourn the loss of the everyday GDR that framed their lives and which reunification had swept away, from the layout of traffic signs to the old brands of chocolate and gherkin.

Even after the decommissioning, to all intents and purposes, of the Sonderweg thesis, the Third Reich remains the reference point of German history, implicitly or explicitly. While that is warranted, it has some problematic side effects, not least that in comparison to the Holocaust and Hitler, almost any other kind of state crime looks relatively benign and explicable.

It is here that Deutschland 83 seems to me particularly successful: it is even-handed and almost sympathetic in suggesting that the GDR’s intrusive and cynical policies, vis-à-vis the West and its own citizens, were motivated by the perceived threat of nuclear annihilation.

At the same time, it makes crystal clear that the operation of a successful secret intelligence network of the kind that places and directs Martin Rauch depends on exploiting precisely the kind of liberties and legal safeguards that the GDR denied its own citizens, or routinely flaunted. There are many lessons in that, not least concerning our own attitudes to the reach of security organisations that we rely on, but whose remit we should not renege on monitoring.

Henning Grunwald, Lecturer in History, University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.