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Agee, book cover

Communism's Impact on a Teenage Life

Book Essay on: Joel Agee, Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 334 pages.
UCSB: PS3551.G38 T9 1981

by Caitlin Smith
December 5, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Amazon.com page

About Caitlin Smith

I am a 3rd year Political Science Major with an emphasis in International Relations. I am interested in the political relations of the world today, and I chose to write about Agee's book because I think that the view of Germany from the other side of the wall is often forgotten in history and the wall and its foundations had a tremendous impact on modern political relations today.

Abstract (back to top)

The book is a detailed account of Joel Agee's childhood in Eastern Germany, a journal of the trials and hardships he went through. Agee presents his life as he experienced it at the time, with the pain and suffering included. Within the text there are far more tales of lover's lost and fights with friends than there are tales about the difficulties of the Communist government. He views his life as an ordinary childhood, and his emphasis on the stories about his trivial day to day life illustrates this. Through his own experiences, Joel Agee illustrates to his readers the reality of an East German childhood with all of its usual difficulties and tribulations: love, relationships, friendships and familial problems. Yet though Agee's personal happiness is what guided his successes and failures, there is evidence in the text proving that Agee's life was more greatly influenced by Communism than he realized.

Essay (back to top)

After the collapse of the Third Reich, the two halves of Germany were split, with West Germany controlled by the United States and Western countries, and Eastern Germany in the hands of the Soviet Union. This left people with nothing but their stereotypical concept of life in East Germany: common thoughts and ideas, a life where idiosyncrasies were frowned upon and punished. Usually stereotypes fall flat in the face of reality, but in Joel Agee's memoir, Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany, his life seems to at least somewhat reflect these realities. Agee expresses the experiences of his childhood through written word, giving the views of a boy to the historical events previously available mainly through the news and reports. Yet it is not historical events that most affect Agee's life, but his emotional concerns. He loved and lost, attempted to work at school to fulfill societal and parental demands. Failing at that, he tried to gain acceptance with the children at school when he was young and was afraid to be different. However, those are normal aspects of human life, not indoctrination of Communist ideals. His story was moving, and it is evident through his words that Agee was an intelligent, gifted boy with great potential, and his story was fascinating to read. It was not, however, the legacy of Nazism or the current Communist regime that seemed to rule his life in this memoir, but the social interactions of an average boy struggling to become a man.Through his own experiences, Joel Agee illustrated to his readers the reality of an Eastern German childhood with all of its usual difficulties and tribulations: love, relationships and familial problems. Yet though Agee's own personal happiness is what guided his successes and failures, it is clear that the Communist government in many ways influenced his life in East Germany. There is no doubt that the remnants of the Holocaust and the war affected the life of every individual living in Germany, and it is apparent that Communist ideas did create more turmoil in Agee's life than he realized, by trying to force him to live his life a certain way, follow a certain path, and fit in with others, but his story is not the story of a tortured victim of Communism, but the story of an average adolescence anywhere with all the freedoms and tribulations that come with it.

The sub-title of the book An American Boyhood in East Germany truly reflects the message Agee is trying to imply, that he still had an American boyhood, because boyhood comes with its ups and downs regardless of where one lives or what regime one lives under. Childhood was a time for relationships, friendships and family, and the age group that grew up after World War II in East Germany was not greatly influenced by the wall. In the story, Agee moved from Mexico to Berlin by way of Leningrad, when he was eight years old in 1948. His first impression of Leningrad came from a group of young boys who were running alongside the shore near the approaching boat appealing to the sailors for cigarettes. Agee admired them, “their independence, evinced not only by the absence of supervising adults but by their familiarity with tobacco; the way they had all that territory to themselves” (Agee 3). This admiration is not a judgment about political liberties, but a yearning for freedom that boys have anywhere.

Agee's first years in Germany, from 1948 to 1955, take up the great bulk of the text, mainly because it was in those years that he was most influenced by the East German situation and in those years he did most of his developing. The first part of his time in Germany seemed to be focused on finding friends and finding a way to fit in with the other boys, as boys do in all countries. Agee does not experience any hatred toward him for his race because “making racist remarks, let alone disseminating them through the media, was a punishable offense,” and the children were “informed of what the Nazis had done. Whether they liked it or not they were informed” (39). This seeming attempt to restore Germany to its righteous past before World War Two's racist history was effective for Agee who seemed to feel no racial tension or stigma for being a foreigner and having a Jewish mother. He was however astute enough to realize that his mother was more affected by life in Communist Germany than he was. The Soviet control of the border did not concern Agee in the slightest because children are exempt from the rules and he was still allowed to go to his volleyball games despite the anti-fraternization laws (70). It was situations like this, where the laws that so constrained adults were not applied to children, that make it apparent that life was perhaps more controlled for adults, but for children it remained largely the same as life anywhere else. The children knew of “the West and everything connected with it-- sports, politics, citrus fruits, espionage, money, modernity, glamour” -- but they also considered it “ 'drüben,' ‘over there .' And regardless of how you felt about it, ‘ drüben' was a foreign counry” (61). In the life of youth, it was the relationships and things that were actually in their lives that mattered, and thus life in East Germany was not any different than the life of an American child who wished she could play with Chinese dolls rather than American.

Agee was taught from an early age to understand that the ultimate goal that the Communists were trying to reach was a place where “there will be no more state, just people living and working together and helping each other. And enjoying it, too. Ultimately, joy is what it's all about.” He was more than willing to accept this explanation. His stepfather Bodo, with whom he lived, was a Communist who worked hard throughout the war to try and create a new state. Thus Agee was influenced by these ideas, but he was also lived with a mother who was not entirely comfortable with the system. Agee participated in the Communist youth organizations, and went to the public schools all children in East Germany were allowed to attend. Yet he did not perform to the standards his family, with a high-ranking official at its head, wished he would achieve. It is clear, however, through Agee's angst ridden sexual fantasies and his lack of motivation to succeed, that Agee is not influenced by Communism's attempts to make him fit in, nor are his friends.

There is evidence in the text, however, proving that Agee's life was more greatly influenced by Communism than he realized. This is probably partially because he was an underachiever who did little to interrupt the system, and also because he was so focused on seeking happiness through relationships and friendships he did not realize the impact the government was having on his life. When Stefan, Agee's brother, tried to start a student newspaper for Young Pioneers, the Communist student group, he was told that it would have to “have a certain line, a definite cultural and political profile. It would have to be educational as well as entertaining and informative” (169). But not only would the paper need to be informative, it would “have to truly represent the Young Pioneers,” and Stefan was welcome to collaborate with the editor, but he would not be able to write or edit the paper (169). The Party did not want its youth to have their own voice, because they needed to continue to influence their developing minds. The goals of reeducation were to rid the generation of the ideas of Nazism, and in order to do this they influenced student's opinions. It is evident that it was the adult generation who so strongly supported the Communist system though, when Joel and Stefan's parents realize the wrong the Party is doing, but will not do anything about it because Bodo fought for too long to let the West win any points against the East. They were willing to take the bad traits because they felt that in the end the good would be overwhelming. This attitude proves that perhaps the reason Agee was not as indoctrinated into the Communist way of thinking was because he had an American mother and a family who accepted other ways of life, but believed that Communism was better and could explain why.

Although matters are taken more seriously in East Germany, when Agee is sent to trial because he has not been attending classes, the goal of his parents' and the Party as a whole is still the same: to educate the youth (207). Agee's parents and schoolteachers respond in the same way that any parents in the West would respond to a child not achieving his potential, they get him tutors and try to convince him to succeed in school so he will not have to go to work. The Party's efforts to make him perform to his potential were no different than a father in politics in the West trying to ensure that his son or daughter presented a suitable image to the public. The Party as a whole did play a more influential role in Agee's life than other governments would play, but Agee was the son of an important man. Still, the efforts to thwart his laziness did not achieve their goal since he went back to his habit of skipping classes later in his life. The most obvious indicator that perhaps Agee was being manipulated by the government, but was too concerned with his own personal woes, came when he returned home from school after the nation discovered the crimes of Stalin. At school Agee and his teachers did not question that mistakes had been made but the new government was making them right, yet at home Agee finds that Bodo is devastated that the man he spent his life working for and defending was such an awful man. Bodo and his generation are a generation of fighters, men who believed in Communism and fought for it, while Agee and his generation were simply accustomed to the lack of personality in East Germany.

In his later childhood, Agee did as most teenagers do and slipped in and out of realization of a world outside his bubble, from thoughts only about trivial personal matters to a shocking awareness of outside reality. It was after his realization that Egypt was being bombed by Israel, and his father was scared for their family's life that he comes to realize that he doesn't believe in anything at all anymore (188). Rather than do as he was supposed to do and influence him to support Communism, growing up in a Communist country did not affect Agee's political apathy at all. He was simply a self-absorbed teenager growing up in Germany. When familial troubles forced his mother to decide to move back to the United States, Agee felt that “trading a socialist for a capitalist country didn't trouble [him] in the least: what bearing did it have on [his] personal happiness?” (315). This attitude that his only reason for deciding where to live was based upon his personal happiness and an ability to start over and erase his mistakes makes it evident that Agee's childhood in East Germany influenced him in similar ways to Western children are raised today. He was well-educated, and his education was biased against Capitalism, but he saw either system as a way to gain happiness, and that was what he ultimately wanted in life.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 12/x/08)

Book Reviews:

  • Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Books of The Times: Abandoned by His Father Evocative Detail.” New York Times (1857-Current file). May 6, 1981. P. C28 (proquest link)
    Christopher Lehmann-Haupt views the book as a memoir that does an excellent job detailing the tribulations of childhood and adolescence, but claims that it is more than that. He says that the book is much more than just a judgment of communism or a psychological analysis of an abandoned childhood, it is the combination of these things and the way he was able to capture very vividly and accurately life in East Berlin.
  • Mysack, Joe. “TWELVE Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany.” National Review 11/27/1981, Vol. 33 Issue 23, p 1435-1435, 1/6p.
    Joe Mysack views the book as a tale of a childhood that is similar to any other childhood, particularly in the teenage years when children are resistant to being molded into exact copies of their parents. He views the book as unique because rather than simply criticize communism Agee tells the story of a teenage boy's life, and gives credit to Agee's writing style.

Web Sites:

  1. Joel Agee, “ German Lessons” (Archipelago Publishers 1997-2007), http://www.archipelago.org/vol7-1/agee.htm.
    This is an excerpt from Joel Agee's The Storm and is a briefer tale of his life in East Germany. He states more obviously the effect the East German regime had upon him and explains the sameness of thought and decisions they required from the citizens of the DDR.
  2. “A Tour of East Germany: Ten Years After the Wall” (4 Nov 2000), http://ddr5.homestead.com/files/index.html.
    This site has images depicting the remains of Communist built cities and explanations about what the sites are. It portrays a more realistic vision of what the country looked like behind the wall.
  3. Wikipedia, “BodoUhse” (6 Nov 2008),
    (google translation of: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodo_Uhse).
    This documents the life of Bodo Uhse, stepfather of Joel Agee. It is translated into English so the language is not perfect, but it explains how important Bodo was in the Communist system in Eastern Germany and his importance as a writer in exile.
  4. DDR Museum, “Experience History” www.ddr-museum.de/en/exhibition/contents/.
    This is one page of the website for the museum that documents what life was really like in the DDR. They have many pictures from the DDR and information about what it was really like to live in East Germany.
  5. Wikipedia, “East Germany” (22 November 2008), wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Germany.
    This has historical facts and information about East Germany itself including its history, culture, and military operations. It helps to explain how East Germany was formed and its own politics, etc.
  6. Nadia Ismail's UCSB Hist 133c review of Agee's book (2008).


  • Funder, Anna. Stasiland:True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (London: Granta, 2003), 288 pages UCSB: DD881.F845 2003
    This book contains stories about people whose lives were affected by the Stasi in Eastern Germany. Their lives were affected by the controlling German Secret Police and their stories reveal horrifying details about what life was like for some in East Germany.
  • Hensel, Jana. After the Wall: Confessions from an East German Childhood and the Life that Came Next (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), 180 pages. UCSB: HQ779.G3 H45613 2004.
    This book gives the stories of other children, who, like Joel Agee grew up in East Germany, but it not only tells of their childhood but of the struggles they faced after the Wall fell in East Germany. It puts their childhoods into perspectives as East Germany struggles to rejoin the rest of the Western world.
  • Neuman, Alma. Always Straight Ahead: A Memoir (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993), 165 pages. UCSB: Women's Studies CT275.N458 A3 1993.
    This book is written by Joel Agee's mother and is the tale of her life, the marriage to Joel's father and then later a remarriage and move to Mexico and about her version of life in Germany being married to an expatriate. It is a different view of the same experiences that Joel went through as a young boy.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 12/x/08; last updated:
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