Civil Disobedience and Opposition to the East German Regime in the Years from 1949-1953

Iris Bork-Goldfield (Wesleyan University)

How did citizens resist East Germany’s dictatorial regime, and what happened to those who were caught? These were the questions that I pursued and researched for four years. The main focus of my research was a group of young men and women who lived in Werder/Havel in Brandenburg, Germany, 30 miles southwest of Berlin. They wrote leaflets and secretly distributed them in Werder and surrounding towns. Some were caught, tortured, and spent several years in prison. Eight of them disappeared from view completely. It took 44 years–seven years after the Wall had come down—until relatives and friends found out what had happened to them. Based on interviews with survivors, historical documents that included Stasi files, photos, historical news reals, letters, diaries, etc., I produced a film documentary and wrote the book Wir wollten was tun (We Wanted to Do Something), which was published in 2015. The documentary is available online with English subtitles and German captions. They were created with both German and American students in mind (16 to 24 years of age).

Beate Brunow (Wofford College) and I developed teaching materials for both the film and the book for American students of German. We introduced our pedagogical materials at the ACTFL conference in November 2015. These teaching suggestions are available online on our own website but also with additional authentic materials on the website of the Bundesstiftung für die Aufarbeitung der DDR Diktatur. The materials can be used in conjunction with both the documentary and the book.

These materials were developed for the teaching of history in the German classroom but are easily adaptable to history classes. My original goal was to create a documentary where contemporary witnesses who were actively involved in the resistance between 1949 and 1953 tell their stories. I used a digital camera and a Macbook Pro laptop to record the interviews. I used a professional film editing program to create the video. The book tells the film’s story in more detail. The reader learns the historical background and what happened after 1953. A topic that is not mentioned in the documentary but included in the book is the resistance movement in the 1980s.

Useful and of interest for further research would be:

        1. Integrating research and teaching through digital humanities projects
        2. An online searchable textual database of the Stasi files.
        3. The creation of a GIS-oriented map in order to better visualize where resistance fighters were active and distributed their materials.
        4. A geotagged map of artifacts of various resistance groups, since the students from Werder were not the only ones who actively and secretly opposed the East German government.
        5. A website in which specific parts of the book are connected to the film.


Since I am not very familiar with geotags, cursor-activated popup windows, and Google
geocoding, I hope to learn more about them in the seminar. Such tools will help me make the
book and film a true DH project.

The question I have for the GSA seminar participants is whether they could imagine teaching
this topic (resistance in the former GDR) in their classes and what I or others—including
students—could do to explore and enrich this topic and make it accessible to the world.