Minds of Their Own: Documenting Voices of Migrants to the GDR

Picture Source: Eigensinn im Bruderland

Helen Schiff, visiting student researcher from the University of Konstanz, analyzes a prize-winning multimedia online documentary, Eigensinn im Bruderland (2019), which presents a humanistic view on the multifaceted experiences of Immigrants of Color to the former GDR in a way that contests stereotypical narratives of omnipotent repression in the East German “Stasiland.” This research project was first presented in Prof. Deniz Göktürk’s Fall 2021 German and American Studies seminar on “Cultures of Migration.”

Overshadowed by the ever unfolding pandemic, Germany celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the country’s reunification in 2020. Leading up to and surrounding this event, we saw a rise in political discussions and cultural renegotiations on how to remember lived realities and complicate traditional narratives about the GDR as a state of injustice (Unrechtsstaat). This reassessment has also made space for a reconsideration of experiences of migrants and people of color who lived in the GDR and subsequently found themselves on the margins of two less visible histories in the German public sphere: their experiences living in East Germany do not neatly fit into either narrow West German narratives of the GDR or Germany’s history of migration, which usually focuses on migration to West Germany, whereas migration to East Germany usually only appears as a side note, if at all.

One of these works is the multimedia online documentary project Eigensinn im Bruderland, released in 2019. The German title is translated, on the website itself, as Minds of Their Own: Migrants in the GDR. The term Bruderland, literally “brother country,” was used to refer to fellow socialist countries, or at least those that did not side with the “imperialist West” in the GDR’s politics of socialist internationalism. The documentation was created by Dr. Isabel Enzenbach, research fellow for visual history at the Centre for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University Berlin; Mai-Phuong Kollath, herself a migrant to the GDR, who now works as an intercultural consultant and who also appears as a protagonist in the documentary; and journalist Julia Oelkers. The documentary project was awarded a Grimme-Online Award, a prestigious award for online media in Germany.

The documentary aims to tell “the stories of migrants who came to the GDR as contract workers, students, or political emigrants” by recounting “how they held their own in the new society.” It highlights the repressive bureaucracy and the treatment of migrants, especially the so-called contract workers (Vertragsarbeiter) who were regarded first and foremost as labor rather than as individual human beings. But most importantly, the documentary transcends the common story of migrants as objects/victims; instead, it gives migrants themselves a voice to tell us how they navigated restrictive structures and made their own way in life.

This contrast between agency and repression both drives the (hi)story as the documentary presents it and appears in the historical documents used to give an authentic portrayal of history. The two forms of historical documents at the heart of “minds of their own” are a) documents and files representing the bureaucratic processes and the repressive state, and b) Zeitzeugenberichte, or recorded testimonies by witnesses to history, representing lived experiences and humanized perspectives by giving evidence to emotional truth. Other historical documents such as personal pictures, recordings of children’s songs, drawings, and excerpts from official GDR media function as extensions of these two “genres” central to the way the documentary tells (hi)stories.

These documents are connected and contextualized by a narrative text and are thematically divided into chapters on arrival, labor and working conditions, university studies, leisure, love, chaos, violence, and uncertainties brought about by reunification. The documentary introduces the main groups of migrants to the GDR: foreign students, political refugees, and contract workers. The term “contract workers” references the treaties between the GDR government and the workers’ respective states of origin. Similar to the guest workers (Gastarbeiter) in West Germany, contract workers responded to a labor shortage in the GDR and often worked undesirable jobs. At the same time, contract workers sometimes labored under the pretense of an apprenticeship that would enable them to help “build socialism” back home. They were usually housed in dorms belonging to the companies they worked for and had little opportunity for interaction with Germans outside of the workplace, but here, we also hear of labor disputes and the immigrants’ struggles to fashion their own way in life (see also: Behrends et al. 2003, 246; 250-252). 

The life trajectory of foreign students, who also came to the GDR as part of the East German government’s agenda of socialist internationalism, was similarly predetermined by the state. Subjects of study were set by agreements between the GDR and home governments, and students experienced little freedom in everyday life – or else had to subvert rules and expectations in order to fulfill their individual desires. 

Political refugees, on the other hand, were usually communist activists persecuted abroad, for example in Pinochet’s Chile. Because of their symbolic function, they usually had more privileges than even most GDR citizens–such as having access to newly built apartments–but were also under much closer state surveillance (Behrends et al. 2003, 217-219).

We see these conflicts between agency and state repression reflected in the qualities of the historical documents used. The official documents, which are procedural products of the bureaucratic state apparatus of control, include treaties, notices, reports, and personal files on the protagonists and other migrants to the GDR. These historical documents attest to factual truths as closed, abstract, and cold documents devoid of emotion or human consideration, both in their qualities as objects and in their content. As such, they both portray and reflect the treatment of migrants by the East German businesses, the GDR government and the diplomatic representatives of their countries of origin.

While only a small minority of the state documents presented here are associated with the Ministry of State Security, its legacy may also be a powerful cultural reference invoked here for German viewers. Commonly known as the “Stasi,”  the ministry functioned as the GDR’s intelligence service and secret police and was a key to the regime of suppression and control. The full extent of the Ministry’s massive archives of information on GDR citizens and its wide-reaching networks of surveillance were only revealed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The documents presented in Minds of Their Own evoke the spectre of this state apparatus of surveillance and control. 

That some of the historical documents presented in the documentary are associated with the Stasi  is not surprising, but these Stasi documents  stand out when put in contrast with recorded witness testimonies. Historical witness testimonies were first recorded during the Holocaust with the aim of preserving life, individuality and humanity in the face of homogenization and destruction. As such, the witness testifies to their own authentic emotional experience of lived realities, rather than providing factual accounts, and are accompanied by an aura of immediacy and evidentiality (De Jong 2018, 52-58). 

In the online documentation, we are also shown thematic clips from multiple witnesses about certain topics. Often these contain the witnesses’ recounts of the circumstances under which they lived in the GDR, as well as anecdotes on how they navigated these living conditions.Throughout the documentary we hear the protagonists telling us about the repressive state structure, but these accounts are always contrasted by how they made their own paths, whether it’s about hiding girlfriends or a pregnancy from authority, fighting to be able to study according to one’s own interests at the university, calling strikes for better working conditions, or getting rice meals instead of unappealing german food. It is these everyday acts of subversion and resistance that are at the heart of the documentary. The witness testimonies reveal the humanity of these stories in stark contrast to the bureaucratic documents. They portray humor, anger and pain, personal perspectives, moments of life. 

Cut from the biographical narratives and put into a thematic context, these personal accounts also have two effects: first, they give us a sense that there is more to these people than what we are shown. Further, they come to not only represent the individual experiences of the witnesses, but also remind us that those who migrated to the GDR have stories to tell.

Technical elements also contribute to the videos’ attempt to forge a close affective  bond between the interviewees and the viewer. Typical for these witness reports is that the interviewer is out of the frame while interview questions are cut out, so that the witnesses appear to be directly speaking to the viewer in an unmediated and spontaneous manner. Nevertheless, what is uncommon is that these scenes are filmed in private spaces, not in front of plain, neutral backgrounds. The online format of the documentary further enables the viewer to engage with the video in the comfort of their own homes, thereby contributing to the feeling of immediacy. 

The contrasting use of the bureaucratic files and the witness testimonies underlines the documentary’s overarching narrative of rich lives and agency in spite of state control. The narrative is not only driven by thematic content, but also by the affective, material, and factual qualities of the historical objects, their context of production and their contrasting character as historical objects. This continuous tension throughout the documentary succeeds in portraying a different, less visible side of GDR history without losing authenticity or casting migrants to the GDR as anonymous victims subjugated under societal racism and state control. At the same time, state repression also does not completely fall out of the picture. Instead, the documentary succeeds in presenting the migrants’ experiences as multifaceted, full of life and Eigensinn, a history rarely visible in German public memoralizations.


  1. Behrends, Jan C., Thomas Lindenberger and Patrice G Poutrus (Ed.). Fremde und Fremd-Sein in der DDR. Zu historischen Ursachen der Fremdenfeindlichkeit in Ostdeutschland. Berlin: Metropol Verlag, 2003.
  2. De Jong, Steffi. The Witness as an Object: Video Testimony in Memorial Museums. New York: Berghahn, 2018.
  3. Mundhenke, Florian. “Die Webdokumentation. Funktions- und Wahrnehmungswandel des Dokumentarischen im intermedialen Raum zwischen Fernsehen, Film und Neuen Medien.” C. Heinze, T. Weber (Ed.): Medienkulturen des Dokumentarischen. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 2017.
  4. Schnettler, Bernd and Alejandro Baer. “Zur Soziologie des Zeitzeugen: Erinnerung zwischen Subjektivität, Sozialität und kommunikativer Konstruktion.” A. Poferl, N. Schröer (Ed.): Wer oder was handelt? Wissen, Kommunikation und Gesellschaft. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien, 2014.

About Qingyang Freya Zhou

Qingyang Freya Zhou is a PhD candidate in German Studies, with a Designated Emphasis in Film Studies, at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on the intersections between socialist internationalism and postcolonial studies, particularly the literary and cinematic interactions between Germany and East Asia during the Cold War and beyond.
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