In hard times, people rely on their families. The rule held true particularly for the first and last years of the GDR. When states collapse, one holds on to those with whom one shares older and tougher ties than government-produced and -sponsored commonalities. But even in the in-between years, when Socialism in East Germany seemed to grow stronger and to settle down for good, most citizens in the GDR must have depended on their families more than their neighbors in the Federal Republic did. In a state that does not recognize the contradictions and tensions between a private and a public realm, between bourgeois and citoyen, between self-interest and public-spiritedness, one needs a refuge to recover from the claims of the collective. In George Orwell’s novel 1984 it is a little alcove in the hero’s flat in which he tries to hide from the camera eyes of Big Brother. The GDR was a far less menacing place than Orwell’s Oceania: more humane, more Prussian, not nearly as efficient a state as Orwell’s dystopia, and instead of the omnipresent “Telescreen,” only an occasional Stasi informant observed one’s private life. Nevertheless, for many people in the GDR, the family must have been the most important niche in this society of niches.
It follows that the family law files in the Lüritz archive will provide a less reliable picture of daily family life in the GDR than, for example, the labor law files could draw of people’s relationships at work. Court files, in any case, reflect only the failures in the lives of their protagonists: their misunderstandings, disputes, shipwrecks. In the GDR, happy families were all alike at least insofar as they could all withdraw into their niches. Unhappy family members were forced to leave their niche if they desired a legal resolution of their problems. But how typical were the relationships that litigation exposed to the light of day? In 1985, the roughly 80,000 inhabitants of Lüritz (city and district) brought 462 family disputes to court—not more than a tiny snippet from everyday family life in town. I do not know how most Lüritz family members interacted with each other and how they defined their relationship to the state. The F-files in the Lüritz archive tell me how the official Socialist image of the family changed over the life span of the system; what the disputants (and often: what members of their collectives who participated in the trial) expected from each other and the state; and under what political and practical conditions families lived their lives. But