When World War II ended in Europe, American, British and Soviet military units rolled into communities throughout Germany to establish order. Within a short time the country was officially divided into East and West zones, as was the city of Berlin. The Soviet Union occupied the East sector, and with the beginning of the Cold War and the establishment of a Communist-led government, the residents there would have their lives changed for decades to come.
In East Germany, one small, seemingly innocuous act judged, by a person in authority, as a challenge against the police state could lead to a reprimand, imprisonment or worse. Many were able to escape but many others were killed or captured during their attempts. A brave young woman named Hanna from the rural village of Schwaneberg was able to escape and eventually lead a free and happy life as a U.S. citizen. But her close German family, which included her parents and eight siblings, had been the center of her life, and she missed them terribly.
Nina Willner, Hanna’s daughter, tells the true story of what life was like for her mother and her East German family during this period in her compelling Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall. Drawing on a wide range of sources including interviews with family members, memoirs, letters, archives, trips to relevant locations and historical records, this is a moving account of one family’s life under tyranny. In a fascinating twist, the author was the first woman to lead U.S. Army intelligence operations in East Berlin during the Cold War in the 1980s, and she relates some of her experiences.
At the heart is the story is Oma, the author’s grandmother, to whom the book is dedicated. Throughout the many devastating changes in their lives, she was able to keep up the morale of her children and her husband by word and deed, demonstrating the central importance of love and family.
After the war, as West Germany began to rebuild, people in the East went in the other direction, depriving many of basic items. The government’s propaganda, however, painted the West zone as much worse off.
Perhaps the most distressing aspect in the East was the establishment of the secret police, the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, for short. Eventually it became responsible for the wholesale manipulation and control of all citizens. The Stasi used clandestine operations, fear tactics and intimidation, attempting to get everyone to spy on everyone else as a way of life.
Forty Autumns includes a family and historical chronology that helps the reader put events in context. Willner’s sensitive and well-written account causes us to reflect on what is really important to us and how we would react in a similar situation.