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This is the sort of archival material that Sheffer has used well to give us a trenchant "on-the-ground" everyday history of this "wall construction" process. For example, she documents that over 90 percent of court defendants were Easterners who had crossed for economic reasons. They had lost their export market and hence could sell their goods--or work remuneratively--only in Neustadt at this time. And of course many of the Sonnebergers who did cross did not return. But the ones who did return every day were also a problem in that they constantly saw economic progress in the West, which was entirely and embarrassingly eluding the East.

It was this visible difference that finally led the Eastern regime to seal the border with barbed wire fences and to sever all transit links in June East Germany used frontier residents to build fences and to patrol them. And its rulers also rewarded those who denounced anyone who spoke ill of the regime.

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Zimmermann on Sheffer, 'Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain'

The two states made the border into a bulwark each against the other, or, as Jakob Kaiser, West Germany's minister for all-German questions observed, "'the border population is to be made into a living wall'" p. And the border was now taken seriously, if sometimes absurdly so. When one Neustadter's puppy ran across the border the owner was interrogated for twelve hours.

While Neustadt was not exactly a plum Western location some referred to the area as the Bavarian Siberia , its residents did not need to be paid or policed more to stay there as in Sonneberg.


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East German authorities had to pay a 15 percent salary supplement to get their border residents to do anything for them. Living at the border also meant that they were permanently suspect and hence all the more watched.

Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain

Residents got so used to being spied on that the Stasi wound up complaining how hard it was to infiltrate any group in Sonneberg. These bizarre circumstances were, moreover, loaded with even stranger ironies. For example, the Eastern regime needed to keep the desirable population, and local functionaries accordingly bent over backward to keep their doctors, engineers, and other trained personnel in the East.

This prompted many Sonnebergers to float rumors that they were leaving. Authorities quickly offered perks, say, a better apartment, to stay. This, in turn, created more work for the Stasi, which had to investigate whether these individuals really did plan to leave. And anyone who could manipulated this system. Sheffer has scoured numerous archives, interviewed dozens of eye-witnesses, and ploughed her way through a small mountain of published materials to explore what happened in the region.

Authors at Google: Edith Sheffer, "Burned Bridge"

She writes clearly and robustly, with a good eye for the interesting anecdotes and other illustrative details with which she repeatedly spices up her prose. Her book is a major contribution to the social history of the inter-German border.


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  • “A model of the genre . . . a powerful social history of the inter-German border.”.
  • But Sheffer is less successful in her attempts to reinterpret the bigger political story of the rise and fall of the Iron Curtain. The social history of the particular border region that she narrates so ably and engagingly remains largely detached from higher-level politics. To be sure, many of the chapters begin with a brief overview of the bigger political context in Bonn, East Berlin, and the wider Cold War world, but the author never makes a sustained, systematic attempt to connect her local analysis to that of decision-making about the inter-German border at the national and international levels.

    As a result, her stated intention of underlining the importance of local-level events and actions for the bigger Cold War story of the rise and fall of the German-German boundary remains largely unfulfilled.


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    • It is undoubtedly true that local actions influenced local events and developments at the border. Edith Sheffer author biography, plus links to books by Edith Sheffer. Author Snapshot. Join Now!

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