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Gerhard Richter was born in Dresden in 1932, the first child of Horst and Hildegard Richter. A daughter, Gisela, followed four years later. They were in many respects an average middle-class family: Horst worked as a teacher at a secondary school in Dresden and Hildegard was a bookseller who liked to play the piano.
In 1935, Horst accepted a teaching position at a school in Reichenau, a town that is known today as Bogatynia in Poland, at the time located in the German province, Saxony. Settling in Reichenau was a drastic change for the family, which was accustomed to the vivid cultural life of the larger Dresden. It was a move that would keep the family largely safe from the coming war. In the late 1930s, Horst was conscripted into the German army, captured by Allied forces and detained as a prisoner of war until Germany's defeat. In 1946, he was released and returned to his family, who had again relocated, this time to Waltersdorf, a village on the Czech border.
The post-war years caused difficulties for the Richter family, as for many others. Horst’s return was not that of a war-hero. In an interview from 2004, he added: "[we] were so alienated that we didn't know how to deal with each other." Horst’s former membership of the National Socialist Party, which all teachers had been obliged to join under the Nazi regime, made it difficult for him to return to teaching. He eventually ended up working in a textile mill in nearby in Zittau, before finding a post as an administrator of a distance learning program for an educational institution in Dresden.
While too young to be drafted into the German army during the Second World War, the war nonetheless had a deep impact on Richter. The family experienced economic hardship and personal loss: Hildegard's brothers, Rudi and Alfred, and sister, Marianne, all died as a consequence of the war. "It was sad when my mother's brothers fell in battle. First the one, then the other. I'll never forget how the women screamed," Richter recalls. Marianne, who suffered from mental health problems, was starved to death in a psychiatric clinic.
Richter remembers playing in the woods and trenches with his friends, shooting with forgotten rifles which they found lying around: "I thought it was great. [...] I was fascinated, like all kids." The bombings of Dresden made an enduring impression on Richter: "in the night, everyone came out onto the street of our village 100 kilometers away. Dresden was being bombed, "now, at this moment!"
Following the Potsdam agreement at the end of the war, the area in which Richter lived fell under Soviet control. The Second World War profoundly changed the face of the country that Richter had been born into, which had a lasting effect on Richter's education and later artistic practice.