ddr Archive

In the Hausarchiv: Penpal in East Germany

In the Hausarchiv: Penpal in East Germany

Amateur history nerd that I am, I’m quite pleased to have married into a family which has retained all sorts of books, newspapers and magazines dating from about 1920 onwards. The “In the Hausarchiv” series gives an occasional look at the things I’ve come across in our own “house archive”.

Since I’m in the middle of commemorating the Fall of the Berlin Wall here at German History Blog, I was desperately searching our “archives” for anything pertaining to East Germany or the actual events of November 1989 so that I could write an “In the Hausarchiv” post that would fit this ongoing theme.  Well, the usual stacks of archives contained nothing relevant.  So I turned to the head archivist, Mrs. Dawson (my wife), and asked her if she was aware of any East Germany-related material hidden away somewhere.

Intro of a letter from an East German penpal to my wife.  1986.

Intro of a letter from an East German penpal to my wife. 1986.

Bingo!  She recalled that as a teenager she had a few penpal correspondents behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany.  She gave me their letters and I perused them for something “significant” that I could post about.

I’ve not finished perusing them (honestly, I’ve opened only one so far), but I’ve found something that is — to me anyway! — interesting.  A young man had written to her about one of his teachers complaining that he (the boy) had a copy of West Germany’s “Bravo” teen magazine:

According to my Stabülehrer [a type of teacher, explained below], “‘Bravo’ is a profit-seeking magazine full of anti-communist overtones; as a ‘socialist [school?] figure’ I particularly disdain it.” [The teacher’s] hatred goes so deep that I get myself a copy of “Bravo” and write to a female class-enemy [Klassenfeind].

(The construction of that final sentence confused both me and my wife — a native German speaker — but we assume he is saying that the teacher told him that he — the teacher — particularly hates that the boy has gotten a copy of “Bravo”, found a penpal advertisement in it [from my wife] and written to her, a “class-enemy”.) (Hey buddy, don’t call my wife a Klassenfeind, even 22 years ago! :) )


The East German penpal describes his teacher's very negative reaction to the boy having a copy of the West German "Bravo" magazine.

So what is a “Stabülehrer“?  Even Dani — being from Austria and not the GDR — was not certain. It’s some kind of teacher (Lehrer), that’s clear. “Stabü“, Dani thought, could be the abbreviation for “Staatsbürger“, or citizen; so she thought “Stabülehrer” could be short for “Staatsbürgerlehrer“, i.e., some kind of teacher who teaches you to be a model citizen. Dani was quite close with this guess.

To be sure, I turned to the man of the hour, Wolfgang Welsch, whom I know personally.  I sent him an e-mail asking him about Stabülehrer and he clarified everything for me. “Stabü” is actually short for “Staatsbürgerkunde“.  Indeed, a Google search for “Staatsbürgerkunde DDR” returns loads of results, including a Wikipedia page describing it in German. Staatsbürgerkunde was in fact a required subject of study for East German students.  It focused on class consciousness and marxist-leninist ideology.

So this teacher whom the boy refers to in his letter to my wife taught this subject. One can indeed imagine what he thought of “Bravo”! If you look at the Bravo website, you’ll get the idea.

The boy went on to complain about this reaction from his teacher.  “I don’t understand these teachers, how they can say such crap! (wie sie so eine Scheiße erzählen können …)”

I found that this frustration over indoctrination made for interesting reading and show-and-tell here in the Hausarchiv series.  My wife and this penpal did not remain in contact for long (not because anything bad happened to him!)  It would be interesting to know if his opinions ever got him into trouble.  I was, in fact, able to find him in Google — he appears to own his own business now in the same town where he was growing up.  I wonder how he feels now about the GDR.

21 October 2009: Berlin Wall / End of the GDR links for today

Here are links for 21 October 2009 concerning that very important moment in German History (and world history), the fall of the Berlin Wall.

If you missed them, consider reviewing other recent entries containing Berlin Wall / GDR links. And don’t forget the Berlin Wall Resources page.

  • Advertising Age magazine has caught on to the marketing successes of Ostalgie. Snippet:
    When the wall came down, East Germans flocked to buy the famous brand names they had been denied for so long. Consumer preferences changed overnight, but 20 years later many of its former citizens once again crave the comfort of the goods they grew up with, and are proud of the quality and value they represent. As a result, there’s a renewed interest in Communist-era products from sneakers to coffee to face cream.

    (Ostalgie is a term that has come about since the Fall of the Wall; it’s a play on the German words for “east” (“Ost“) and “nostalgia” (“Nostalgie“), so: nostalgia for the way things were in the East.)

  • At Juraforum.de, a German online forum concerning law and legal issues, appears a notice that a German historian is researching kidnappings carried out by the Stasi (Ministry for State Security of the GDR). Snippet:
    A faked telegram from a sick relative, knockout drops in a glass of beer or simply brute force – the methods used by the East German secret police, the “Stasi”, were varied and imaginative when it came to kidnapping opponents and critics of the East German regime in West Germany and putting them on trial in the GDR. Historian Susanne Muhle (29) has found over 400 cases in the files of the Birthler Agency (named after Marianne Birthler, who heads the agency that oversees the archives holding millions of files collected by Stasi) as well as in those held by other authorities.

Today’s video is, I assume, a home-made product, and a good one at that. It features the Scorpions’ hit song “Wind of Change”. (Check out the link for that song if you’re not familiar with its history.)

So turn up the volume, sit back and enjoy:

20 October 2009: Berlin Wall / End of the GDR links for today

Here are today’s selected links concerning that very important moment in German History (and world history), the fall of the Berlin Wall.

If you missed them, consider reviewing other recent entries containing Berlin Wall / GDR links. And don’t forget the Berlin Wall Resources page, which I’ve updated just today.

Today’s video comes from the France24 international news channel and reminds us of the sometimes uncomfortable (or politically inconvenient) fact that some Germans miss the GDR. That not all East Germans — and perhaps not even a majority — have negative feelings towards their former country is a theme I will be returning to next week with my Book of the Week.

19 October 2009: Berlin Wall / End of the GDR links for today

Here are today’s selected links concerning that very important moment in German History (and world history), the fall of the Berlin Wall. If you missed them, consider reviewing other recent entries containing Berlin Wall / GDR links. And don’t forget the Berlin Wall Resources page, which I’ve updated just today.

Now on to today’s links:

  • With the teaser “Barack is too busy”, Der Spiegel (in English) announces that the U.S. President will not attend Berlin’s celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Rick Richman, at his Commentary blog, wishes it were otherwise.
  • The Telegraph meets up with Egon Krenz, who congratulates himself on avoiding blood shed in October and November 1989.
  • At Forbes.com, Joshua Hammer celebrates the Berlin that has emerged in the last 20 years since the Wall fell. He calls the German capital “the most dynamic city in Europe.” And he reminds us that it wasn’t always so:
    For until the mid-19th century, Berlin was a backwater. Goethe called it “crude.” Voltaire said it had “astoundingly many bayonets and very few books.” Stendhal wondered, “What could have possessed people to found a city in the middle of all this sand,” referring to the marshy plain upon which the city is built.

Today’s video cannot be embedded here on the page, I’m afraid. But it’s a good one, and it’s only the first in a planned series of five at the Guardian. So I recommend you go have a look. Part One is called ‘The Berlin Wall was a monster'”, quoting one of the persons interviewed for the video.

16 October 2009: Berlin Wall / End of the GDR links for today

Welcome back to my continuing series of links commemorating the 20th anniversary of a very important moment in German History: the opening of the checkpoints along the Berlin Wall on 09 November 1989.

For today’s links I decided to select articles from “major media”, namely the New York Times and Time Magazine.

  • From the New York Times comes the 1988 article “Protests Mark Berlin Wall’s 27th Anniversary”. I found it really fascinating to read an account of protests going on just one year before the Wall’s fall. One excerpt:
    Dozens of West Germans demonstrated in front of the Brandenburg Gate. They carried life-size portraits of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, and called on him to press East Germany to tear down the wall.

    Remember those heady days with Gorbachev? Or are you too young?

  • And from Time Magazine’s archives comes this article, “Refugees Freedom Train”, dated 16 October 1989, about one month before the Wall fell. The article describes the continued emigration of East German citizens via other bloc countries, and the very awkward 40th anniversary of the East German regime which had just been celebrated in Berlin with a less-than-enthusiastic Mikhail Gorbachev visiting. Excerpt:
    Few expect things to get better under Honecker. And though in failing health, he shows no signs of turning power over to the next generation. While their neighbors in Poland and Hungary rush to embrace the reforms of perestroika and glasnost, East Germany’s aged chieftains have stoutly withstood all blandishments, even from Gorbachev, to abandon the strict orthodoxies of conventional Communism. The result: a country so calcified that its citizens find a hopeful future only in flight.

Today’s video is a U.S. propaganda film from 1962 entitled “The Wall”. Below is the YouTube clip; more information is available at the Internet Archive’s entry for “The Wall”. The film lasts nine minutes and, as far as I could tell in my quick viewing of it, seems to be factually accurate. At one point in the video (7:57) you will quickly see a small memorial to Ida Siekmann, to whom I dedicated a short blog post sometime back: “Remember Ida Siekmann”.

15 October 2009: Berlin Wall / End of the GDR links for today

Some links for today in my ongoing series commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall:

  • Did East Germans originate from apes? Well to find the answer to that question (which is, of course, a joke) you will need to see today’s article at Telegraph.co.uk titled “West German spies collected jokes from behind the Berlin Wall”.
  • “Germany: East is East” is the title of an article by Wolfgang Kerler appearing at the ipsnews.net site. The article highlights some of the major differences — for example in income and optimism — between western and eastern parts of Germany even today, 20 years later. One example: unemployment is 12% in the “new states” (the states that were once part of the GDR), whereas only 7% of the west german working population is jobless.
  • At the Wall Street Journal’s WSJ.com, see a slideshow of the wall being erected right now in Berlin — a wall that will be toppled quite soon.

Today’s video comes from the geobeats.com site, which I had never seen before and which looks very interesting. It is a video about the Berlin Wall produced by Sybille Spinola and hosted by the very charming Dörthe Eickelberg, who speaks perfect English throughout the video.

14 October 2009: Berlin Wall / End of the GDR links for today

I have a few links today. Warning: the first two could be construed as political, particularly the second. I generally avoid politics like the plague in this blog. But I think these two balance each other a bit:

The next two items are resources, one of them audio, the other a very impressive map-based online tour of the area of the Wall and the artifacts along the perimeter.

  • iMinds.com has an eight minute forty-four second audio clip all about the Berlin Wall, available for $0.99 at Audible.com. I have not purchased it or heard it. But I just think it’s cool that someone is selling bite size pieces of educational audio like that.
  • The Brandenburg Technical University has put up a fantastic virtual tour of the perimeter of the Berlin Wall. Unfortunately the text is all in German, so you may not understand the captions attached to each market spot along the perimeter. But I still think it would be fun to click around on the map and popup some photos. You’ll get the idea when you get there… click on the map on the right side of the page, then just play around with the larger map that appears.

Finally, here is another video available at YouTube. It’s from ABC News (U.S.), narrated by Peter Jennings. It’s a nice look at the Wall’s fall and the subsequent collapse of other European communist regimes:

13 October 2009: Berlin Wall / End of the GDR links for today

Just one link today. It’s a video, and it’s a dandy, but unfortunately in German.

Never fear, your translator is here.

Please, at least watch the first nine minutes of this 40+ minute documentary that appeared on ZDF, Germany’s “second” public station. The name of the show is Flucht in die Freiheit“, “Escape to Freedom”. (Note: it will ask you to select the speed of your connection so as to gauge the quality of the video it sends to you. I think it’s clear what the three Brandbreite (bandwidth) options are: they go from slowest to fastest. Select one and choose the link at the bottom-right labeled “Übernehmen”.)

“Escape to Freedom” tells the stories of many who escaped (or attempted to escape) East Berlin using techniques such as tunnel-digging, crossing with false passports, and … well, one guy found a pretty straightforward way to get out. And that’s the story of the first nine minutes of this show.

It concerns Wolfgang Engels, who is 19 years old and a civilian working with the National People’s Army in 1963. Here’s your guide to his story, the first nine minutes of “Escape to Freedom”…

00:00 — Introduction to the documentary, a hint of the kinds of escape attempts you will see in the show.

01:50 — Wolfgang Engels (19 years old) works for the National People’s Army (NVA). He arrives at a base in his nice car.

02:30 — Engels greets the soldiers who drive the armored vehicle. One of those drivers is interviewed for the documentary: “He drove a beautiful car — we were jealous of him.” They talk about the armored vehicles — “a discussion among men”.

03:00 — Engels interviewed today: “They were interested in my car, and I was interested in their armored vehicle. They were proud to show it to me. They even showed me the inside and let me climb in.”

03:15 — The soldier interviewed today: “He didn’t ask too intensively. He made it sound casual.”

03:30 — Engels asks them a lot of questions. How does it work? How does start it up? How does one get it in to gear?

03:55 — One of those soldiers interviewed today: “No, no, [we had] no suspicions.”

04:00 — 17 April 1963: His chance comes as the soldiers go to the mess hall. “I climbed in and drove away.”

04:30 — A sentry signals for him to stop. He breaks easily through the chain at the gate.

04:45 — One of those soldiers interviewed today: “Now it was clear to us that he wanted to flee the country. It couldn’t have been anything else.”

05:05 — Travel time to the Wall is 20 minutes. No one follows him. It was nothing unusual to have a military vehicle on the streets of East Berlin.

05:20 — The only traffic light on his route happened to be red as he approached it. But the policeman stationed there turned it to green for him, following normal procedure.

05:45 — He reaches the place where he wants to break through. There is no turning back now.

06:18 — There he goes, into the Wall!

06:34 — “Part of the hood of the vehicle was in West Berlin, but the doors were still in East Berlin.”

06:43 — East German border police open fire. Engels: “I felt the shot like a kick in my side. Then it just felt hot. But I was still able to get back into the vehicle, then climb up to the front and up on to the wall where the barbed wire was.”

07:15 — “I laid there and the border police continued to fire at me.”

07:25 — Covered by West Berlin policemen who fired back, civilians are able to pull Wolfgang Engels down from the wall into West Berlin. He is critically wounded. They take him to a tavern.

07:42 — “From the floor where I was laying — just in front of the bar — I could see the several brands of liquor that we East Berliners only knew about from advertisements. And then I knew: ‘You made it.'”

08:05 — The story hits the western newspapers. The escape of 19 year-old Wolfgang Engels is a sensation. He leaves the hospital weeks later.

Great story!

12 October 2009: Berlin Wall / End of the GDR links for today

Here are a few links I came across today, and another video.

  • I thought this was cool: students at the Communication and Culture graduate program at Indiana University are going to be partying like it’s 1989 to help celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Wall’s fall.
  • The AP (linked via ABC News (U.S.) has a look at the tunnels secretly built below Berlin (and the Wall) to help those wanting to escape the East. I definitely want to go back to Berlin to tour the “underbelly of the German capital.”

Today’s video is from the folks at germany.info (the German mission to the United States). It’s a very short one video whose only purpose is to advertise the slogan “Freedom Without Walls”, which they are using for their commemorations within the United States. But I liked the use of multiple U.S. Presidents in it.

“Ich war Staatsfeind Nr. 1″ by Wolfgang Welsch

“Ich war Staatsfeind Nr. 1″ by Wolfgang Welsch

I’ve chosen a German book for this week’s Book of the Week. Unfortunately, Wolfgang Welsch’s Ich War Staatsfeind Nr. 1 (I Was State’s Enemy Number 1) is not available in English. That’s really too bad because the story is pretty amazing.

Welsch was born in Berlin in 1944. His family ended up in the eastern sector after the war, and therefore later became citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany). As early as the 1960s, Welsch began to protest the regime through his poems, public readings and pamphlets. He attempted to escape the country but was apprehended. While awaiting trial, he was mistreated and tortured by agents of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Stasi). After conviction, he spent several years in the Bautzen and Brandenburg prisons.

The Federal Republic of Germany (FRG/BDR, Bundesrepublik Deutschland, West Germany) purchased Welsch’s freedom in 1971. During the 70s and 80s, he became one of the most successful Fluchthelfer — people who assisted East Germans who wished to escape the regime.

I’ll finish the story here simply by pasting in a (not particularly good) translation I did of the synopsis of Welsch’s book several years ago. This will make this post the longest, by far, here at German History Blog — so if you don’t want the nitty gritty details, let me give you the executive summary here: Welsch’s success helping people emigrate from East to West made him a target of the Stasi (though, you’ll recall, Welsch was by now a citizen of West Germany). He became a marked man and Stasi agents operating in the West made at least three attempts on his life: once by putting a bomb in his car (it detonated but injured him only slightly); once by shooting into his vehicle as he drove on a highway in the UK, and once via introducing Thallium in his food. Only after the Wall fell did it become possible to scour the Stasi files and find direct evidence of these assassination attempts. This led eventually to the trial of a former Stasi Major-General, who committed suicide in prison.

Wolfgang Welsch’s story was adapted into a German television film which first appeared on 13 April 2005 and has been shown several times since (including just a few days ago.)

If you can read German and this period of German history interests you — particularly if you are or had been under the impression that East German security services did not take part in assassinations –, then I highly recommend to you Wolfgang Welsch’s Ich war Staatsfeind Nr. 1.

Photo Credit

The lead photo for this article comes via Wikimedia from the German Federal Archives. It shows the prison at Bautzen, in which Wolfgang Welsch was interred as a political prisoner.

Begin excerpt of the synopsis of Ich war Staatsfeind Nr. 1 (my translation) —

Part II

After the dramatic crossing of the border in a GDR government bus, Welsch settles down in Giessen and begins to study sociology, philosophy and politics, while simultaneously preparing for his debut as an active underground facilitator for East Germans who wanted to flee. Together with a friend from his days in prison, he fetches a professor out of the GDR. The operation is planned in the Federal Republic of Germany and carried out from Athens, Greece. Welsch flies to Sofia as a courier, delivers a prepared West German passport to the refugee, gives the necessary instructions, and flies back to Athens via Bucharest, Romania. The escape is a successful “David versus Goliath” story: Wolfgang Welsch against one of the best Secret Services in the world.

Welsch is in charge of and takes part in the most daring escape missions throughout the whole of the Eastern Block. Sealed trucks, private cars, caravans, horse transporters and scheduled flights are all part of his arsenal. The route goes from East Berlin via Sofia, Bucharest and Belgrade to Vienna or Frankfurt/Main. Airline flights and diplomatic vehicles are the safest and most effective methods of extracting people from the East. Throughout this part of the book, Welsch relates these stories of liberation in detail. Highlights include a chance meeting with a CIA agent in Athens; the agent seems to know of Welsch’s activities and praises him, noting that “they” could not have done it better themselves.

In reply to a hateful article about him in an East Berlin newspaper (“Keine Chance den Menschenschmugglern” – “Don’t give the smugglers of people a chance” — horizont, 2/80), Welsch sends a telex to the MfS, mentioning not only his chances but also his successes. The Minister of State Security — the notorious Erich Mielke — is furious at this provocation and his agency forms a special task force specifically to eliminate Welsch.

Welsch’s wife at that time is arrested while attempting to aid an escape in Sofia, Bulgaria. She betrays him, the structure and planning of his organization and all the names known to her. Welsch has no suspicion of this betrayal and frees his wife from the claws of the Bulgarian Secret Service in a spectacular mission. The US Embassy in Sofia participates in this, as well as the Federal Foreign Secretary, Mr. Hans Dietrich Genscher.

During this period, Welsch battles the dictatorship not only by continuously and successfully aiding escapes, but also by publishing condemnatory articles in West German newspapers. With the help of a German political party, he sends a memorandum to the United Nations in New York to urge them against letting the GDR join the community of nations. Of course, the GDR representative at the UN receives a copy of this memorandum. The MfS Secret Police then re-double their efforts to assassinate Welsch.

Part III

For years there is a special “process” in the MfS, in which the various “tactical measures” against Welsch’s “criminal human-smuggling gang” are discussed and potential “solutions” to the problem — meaning, methods of assassination — are suggested. Around 1978, the leader of the “Central Operative Process Scorpion,” MfS Major-General Heinz Fiedler, gives the order to liquidate Welsch. MfS minister Mielke and the Central Committee of the Communist Party (SED) are informed. The murder machinery of the MfS begins to roll into action. An agent is sent to the West. His orders are to assassinate Welsch. This agent, whose cover name is “Alfons”, pretends to be a friend and succeeds in winning Welch’s confidence. “Alfons” constructs a car bomb using the explosive Semtex 1A, which he receives from the GDR Secret Service. He installs the bomb under the dashboard in Welsch’s car. While Welsch drives on the motorway, the delay-action explosive detonates, completely destroying the car. Miraculously, Welsch survives with only minor injuries.

After this failure, “Alfons” lures Welsch to London. As Welsch drives along an English motorway, a sniper is lying in wait. This time the team of General Markus Wolf, leader of the MfS’s Foreign Agent Department, is also involved in supporting the operation. In England, a NATO member state, an East German agent alongside the motorway shoots at Welsch, but misses his target by a hair’s breadth. Welsch has no idea what really happened; he thinks that some fool shot at him by chance.

After these two assassination attempts fail to achieve their objective, it is finally time for agent “Alfons” to finish the job. In 1981, he lures Welsch, his then-wife and his daughter to Israel. The MfS has placed a second agent — a female — there as well. “Alfons”, who throughout all of this has meanwhile become Welsch’s closest friend, recommends a motor home for traveling around Israel. This motor home had been specially exported from Germany to Israel for this purpose. The agents’ plan is to poison Welsch using the highly toxic heavy metal Thallium. They consider Welsch’s wife and child to be acceptable collateral victims if need be. During a break at the Red Sea, Agent “Alfons” prepares a meal in the motor home’s kitchen. He deposits ten times the deadly dose of the scentless and tasteless poison into the food. Though his wife and daughter eat very little of the meal, Welsch alone consumes almost all of the poison. After a four-day incubation period, the first symptoms become visible. Both agents find excuses to leave the Welsch family and return by detours to East Berlin. Mrs. Welsch and the child feel sick for only a short time, but Welsch himself falls into agony. He feels paralyzed, almost unable to move his legs. Finally, the family manages to fly back to Germany, where doctors at the hospital fight for his life. Seriously ill, he remains in the hospital for quite some time. He eventually recovers: another miracle.

As medical experts tell Welsch that such lethal doses of poison cannot be eaten by chance, he immediately suspects the Secret Police of the GDR. After the fall of the Wall, he begins to search his files in the “Gauck department”, the agency setup to be the custodian of MfS files. He then begins searching for the assassins, an effort which takes him to England, Greece and as far as Argentina, but to no avail. One day he reads a book on the work of Eastern secret services. The book’s description of the methods employed by these Services confirms his suspicion that the attempts to murder him must have been organized by the MfS. Despite meticulously collected evidence and leads, nobody wants to believe him. Both journalists and legal authorities think that his assumption is crazy. Forty years of communist propaganda show their influence on the judgment of the West German intelligentsia. Everyone rejects his assertion that the GDR was in the business of political assassination. He files three criminal complaints, but nothing happens. Only one important news magazine in Hamburg believes him. Three journalists take interest in the case and begin their investigations. Eventually they are joined by a special investigative task force of the Berlin State Attorney’s office, constituted specifically to investigate the crimes of the former GDR. Evidence supporting Welsch’s suspicions begins to accumulate. In the meantime, Welsch himself has left Germany to live in Costa Rica after receiving further death threats.

The perpetrators of the assaults, and the MfS officials who approved them, are found and arrested. Major-General Fiedler, the head of “Operation Scorpion”, hangs himself in a Berlin prison cell. At a sensational trial, the assassin “Alfons” and his co-conspirators plead guilty. “Alfons” is sentenced to several years of prison. Another of the perpetrators dies of cancer.

End excerpt of the synopsis of Ich war Staatsfeind Nr. 1 (my translation) —