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Everyday SubversionEveryday Subversion

From Joking to Revolting in the German Democratic Republic

Kerry Kathleen Riley

Narrated by Cynthia Wallace

Approximately 14.5 hours


Downloadable edition:

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Book published by Michigan State University Press

This important book traces the evolution of grassroots social movement in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) and reveals the democratically spirited, subversive forms of communication that were practiced behind the Wall before it fell on November 9, 1989. From the political jokes that were shared in private, to the informational events, small group work, underground publications, and weekly "peace prayers" that were sheltered by Evangelical-Lutheran churches, to the demonstrations of 1989, to the onslaught of exposé work after the fall of the Wall, East Germans resisted and rebelled against the state in a number of humble but rhetorically brilliant ways.

Kerry Kathleen Riley provides a new way of looking at the East German revolution in an English-language rhetorical history, as well as an analysis of GDR grassroots persuasion that draws on research (especially German language research) from several disciplines. Working from firsthand interviews and other primary source materials, her approach brings readers closer to the people who helped bring down the Wall and heightens our appreciation for the subversive impact of everyday political communication. Here we see how speech, social interactions, and rudimentary print materials can keep democratic sensibilities alive for a populace while courageous individuals do the painstaking work of opening up the space, both physical and rhetorical, for social change to occur. We see the power of a private political culture, the role that can be played by churches, the importance of small group activities to social movements, the crucial work of intermediaries and "hidden hands," and the step-by-step winning of the street for political action. We also see what happens to the hard-earned tradition of GDR truth-telling when the East German story is finally open to all.

Kerry Kathleen Riley has spent a great deal of time in Eastern and Western Europe as well as in the former Soviet Union, as both a student and a teacher. An additional three research trips to the former East Germany inform her account of dissent behind the Wall. She is now an independent scholar and resides in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.


“At last a rhetorical critic of social movements has brought into the methodological mix the insights of folklorists, anthropologists, and others who work ethnographically with local, oral cultures and who understand, for example, the power of jokes and proverbs on the street as a social movement gains momentum. This is an important book, one that should bring the folklorists and anthropologists into a fruitful conversation with rhetorical critics.”

—Jay Mechling

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University Press Audiobooks
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University Press Audiobooks