“In West Germany people know barely anything about thirty-five years of my life,” Angela Merkel, today the powerful prime minister of a unified Germany, said in a 2004 interview. This quote now serves as the epigraph for a new book by two German journalists, Günther Lachmann and Ralf Georg Reuth, about the East German origins of the German chancellor. The authors of Das erste Leben der Angela M. (“The First Life of Angela M.”) wish to impress upon their readers that Angela Merkel, who lived those first thirty-five years of her life in the communist German Democratic Republic, was more deeply a part of that society than had previously been appreciated.

The book has managed to provoke an impassioned discussion in Germany focused on the true nature of Merkel’s personality and political allegiances. "Only Angela Merkel herself can say how much of her old life remains stuck inside of her," a recent magazine article concluded. What the controversy reveals, though, is not that Germans understand too little about their chancellor eight years after her election but, rather, that they understand too little about East Germany’s communist past, twenty-four years after communism’s fall.

The basic facts of Merkel’s biography have long been publicly available. Merkel was born in 1954 in the West, in the Federal Republic of Germany. Merkel’s father, a Protestant minister and a socialist by conviction, moved with his family to the East shortly thereafter. He was sent there by his church, whose leadership wanted to support Christians who were subject to harassment by East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party. The authors of Das erste Leben der Angela M. emphasize that, despite her father’s profession, Merkel showed little interest in theology. Russian was apparently her favorite subject. “She loved the Russian language, because it was so ‘full of feeling.’ And she learned it with enthusiasm,” they write. They describe how, in 1970, having won East Germany’s Russian Olympiad, Merkel traveled to Moscow to participate in the international Russian Olympiad. The suggestion is that her skill at learning Russian was suspicious.

Merkel went on to become a physicist. While a young researcher at the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin, she continued her involvement in the Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth), the state-sponsored socialist youth organization. She has never concealed this. The kernel of the book’s accusation received today as scandalous is that Merkel was not, as she had claimed, a “cultural official” of the organization, but, rather, a “secretary of agitation and propaganda.” Merkel has recalled organizing outings to the theater and readings by Soviet writers. Lachmann and Reuth quote former Minister of Transport Günther Krause saying that the person holding this position was “responsible for brainwashing in the Marxist sense. That was her task, and that was not cultural work.”

Angela Merkel has never pretended to have been a dissident. (“I was really not an active resistance fighter,” she has said about herself.) Still, the German electorate should be shocked, the authors suggest, by the possibility that Merkel was perhaps a reform communist of a sort -- that is, someone dissatisfied with the East German regime who looked hopefully toward Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms after 1985 as a sign that a way toward a democratic socialism might be found. “Angela Merkel,” they write, “who had a special affinity for all that was Russian, experienced the promise of glasnost and perestroika as a meaningful opportunity.”

What is now often forgotten is that even dissidents, those more courageous or outspoken than Merkel, often came from within Marxism. The heroes of 1989 were not all Western liberals from birth who always understood the “End of History” as Francis Fukuyama did. The most powerful critiques of the communist system emerged from insights that could only come from participatory experience. The prominent Polish opposition figure Adam Michnik began his political career when he was a precocious teenager interested in revisionist Marxism. Michnik’s first arrest, in 1965, was occasioned by his distribution of Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski’s “Open Letter to the Party,” which declared that the workers’ revolution had been betrayed.

Even those dissidents who were never Marxists did not necessarily idealize the West. Lachmann and Reuth quote Merkel saying to a theologian’s wife, “If we reform the GDR, then not on the model of the Federal Republic.” This might be put in context: Václav Havel, the long imprisoned Czech dissident turned post-communist president, writes in his famous 1978 samizdat essay “The Power of the Powerless”: “There is no real evidence that western democracy ... can offer solutions that are any more profound.”

In discussing Lachmann and Reuth’s new book, the newspaper Die Welt describes Merkel’s support for democratic socialism as “an astonishing point of departure” for the future federal chancellor and Christian Democratic Union chair. The question is: Why is this so astonishing? After all, in the second half of the 1980s millions of other people also looked hopefully toward glasnost and perestroika. At that time virtually no one throughout the communist bloc -- be they Communist Party members, dissidents, or members of the largely passive majority -- imagined that communism as such would end in their lifetimes.

What is astonishing is perhaps the very reminder that communist East Germany existed at all. This is not the first time in recent years that Europeans have expressed surprise upon learning that personalities they admired had once been involved with communism. When confronted in 2008 with the probability that the Czech writer Milan Kundera had as a young man reported to the communist police the presence of a Western spy in his dormitory, readers were shocked. A 2010 biography of Ryszard Kapuściński, communist Poland’s most important Third World correspondent, caused a sensation in part by revealing that the literary giant had throughout his life remained a Marxist of some kind, hoping for a socialism with a human face.

In both cases the essence of what was so dramatically “revealed” had never actually been concealed. The Stalinist-era commitments of Kundera’s and Kapuściński’s youth were a matter of published record. And sensitive readers could not miss that these writers’ later critiques of communist totalitarianism were so penetrating precisely because they had come from inside. It is impossible to separate Kundera’s Stalinist past and Kapuściński’s lifelong leftist sympathies from their greatest writing.

Kapuściński and especially Kundera were -- barring any further revelations -- much more deeply implicated than Merkel. The German chancellor could not have been a Stalinist, her youth having fallen well after Stalin’s death; and the authors of Das erste Leben der Angela M. do not claim, or even suggest, that Merkel collaborated with the communist secret police. Nonetheless, certain similarities in the media’s response suggest a common phenomenon of historical amnesia disguised as historical reckoning.

Whether or not Merkel’s formal role in the Free German Youth was titled “cultural officer” or “secretary of propaganda,” those who have seized upon the apparently radical nature of this distinction reveal either willful bad faith -- a desire to discredit a political opponent -- or simple ignorance about what living under communism meant. In East Germany, as in other communist countries, the distinction between “culture” and “propaganda” in both theory and practice was vague. The point of organizations such as the Free German Youth was to affirm that there was no independent cultural space outside of socialism as conceived by the state. The language of socialism was omnipresent.

Perhaps German unification -- the absorption of East Germany by West Germany -- has created conditions especially conducive to historical amnesia. East Germans could be “blended in” to a larger national narrative. Moreover, Germany is still a country laboring under the burden of accounting with its Nazi past. Nazi crimes were by and large crimes done to others. Communist crimes were by and large crimes against one’s own citizens, and thereby pose different challenges for national integration, unification, and identity. What both totalitarian experiments shared was the creation of a system that depended upon the complicity of more or less everyone. In that sense what Hannah Arendt wrote in 1945 is relevant for post-communist accounting with the past as well: “The totalitarian policy ... has completely destroyed the neutral zone in which the daily life of human beings is ordinarily lived.”

European liberals would prefer that all their leaders today be untouched by communism’s evils. And yet the history of communism (and not only as a story of the grotesque consequences of good intentions) runs counter to this longing for moral purity. As a general rule, everyone who lived in the communist world participated in that world and was formed by it. No one emerged untouched. That one could have emerged untouched tends to be an illusion of those who are, in former Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s phrase about the post-Nazi generations, “graced with a late birth” -- or in this case, graced with a birth elsewhere.

“In West Germany people know barely anything about thirty-five years of my life,” Angela Merkel said. With this citation the authors insinuate the concealment of a dark past. Yet the sentence could be read somewhat differently: namely, nearly a quarter century after the destruction of the Berlin Wall, Western Europe understands little, and perhaps ever less, about what it meant to live under communism.

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  • MARCI SHORE is associate professor of history at Yale University. She is the author, most recently, of A Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe.
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