ddr Archive

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

I’ll be posting lots of links in the next month as we come upon the 20th anniversary of the opening of the checkpoints in Berlin on 09 November 1989. Today’s textual links concentrate on what some might consider the true anniversary date: two days ago, 09 October. This was the day in 1989 when a mass of 70,000 people successfully made their way arm-in-arm around the city of Leipzig in East Germany, singing “Wir sind das Volk” (We are the People) as they passed Stasi headquarters. No shots were fired, no blood was let. To many, this signaled the regime’s weakness and thereby spurred on continuing, ever-growing demonstrations.

I enjoy Tony Paterson’s article, “Europe’s Revolution: The pastor who brought down the Berlin Wall”, because he can insert a bit of personal perspective, having visited Leipzig that year to cover the city’s annual trade fair. His piece concerns Christian Führer, pastor of Leipzig’s Nikolai Church, which had become the famous location of the Monday prayer meetings which climaxed with the events of 09 October. Paterson:

The Monday meetings just kept growing and growing: from about 600 in late 1988 to 4,000 in September 1989.

At that point, the regime started cracking down:

“There were these terrible beatings,” recalled Führer.

That was in September. So you can imagine the tension that grew each Monday, with the participants knowing that the regime had now shown itself to be willing to use violence. Read Paterson’s article for the rest of the story.

The BBC’s Brian Hanrahan (“The Day I Outflanked the Stasi“) became very familiar with the events of 9 October 1989, having traveled there incognito to cover them. He escaped Stasi attempts to apprehend him and was later able to report what he saw on BBC television news. Read Hanrahan’s article and view the original television news segment.

I close with another great video found at YouTube. This concerns 9 November 1989 itself (not 9 October like the two articles mentioned above). I really enjoy this video for the up-close and personal footage it offers. Hundreds of East Berliners have descended upon the Bornholmer Strasse and are anxious to cross. The hesitation of the authorities is very evident here. Watch and enjoy!

One Month until 20th Anniversary of the Fall of Berlin Wall, and a nice video

One Month until 20th Anniversary of the Fall of Berlin Wall, and a nice video

Today is 9 October 2009, so that means there’s just one more month until the 20th anniversary of the opening of checkpoints along the Berlin Wall, which occurred on 9 November 1989.

This is just a short note to say I’ll probably emphasize this bit of history almost exclusively for the next month. I hope you enjoy the content. And don’t forget my Berlin Wall resources page!

Let’s start it all off with a video that I really like because it has absolutely no commentary whatsoever! It’s just clips of original material, and you all know how much I love original material! Don’t worry, there are also subtitles in English.

It’s a video produced by Deutsche Welle, Germany’s official international broadcaster. Enjoy it and see you soon!

Photo Credit

The lead photo for this article shows the Berlin Wall being built in 1961. The photo is in the public domain and available at Wikimedia Commons.

“Stasiland”, by Anna Funder

“Stasiland”, by Anna Funder

This week’s selection for Book of the Week is not written by a professional historian, but rather by an Australian journalist. So in one sense — the academic one — you might call it lighter reading, but it’s certainly heavy in the emotional sense.

Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english], DE [deutsch]) tells the stories of real people whose lives were very much defined by the existence of the Berlin Wall and the East German communist dictatorship (the GDR from here on out): not just the regime’s victims, but also its supporters and still-proud employees.

From the dates she gives, it appears Funder gathered most of her interview material while living in Germany in 1996, seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even now, in 2009, dealing with the recent German communist past is a very touchy issue (not to mention the National Socialist past). You can imagine how much more difficult it was in 1996 while Funder visited the country.

I believe her book is fairly unique in the depth it provides to multiple individual stories, some of which are brutally painful. Several individual autobiographies exist — I think of those that I have read, such as Fremd im eigenen Haus and Ich war Staatsfeind Nr. 1, plus one that I have in my possession and hope to read soon, Sie nahmen mir nicht nur die Freiheit –, but I’m not currently aware of any other instance where a print journalist has taken it upon him/herself to seek out and interview multiple persons affected by German communism. I stress print because there definitely are some German television documentaries dedicated to this topic.

Even more extraordinary is the fact that it was left to a “western” journalist, Ms. Funder, to publish such a book. But enough of the meta information about Stasiland: let’s dive into it contents.

A corridor at Hohenschönhausen, a Stasi prison in Berlin.

A corridor at Hohenschönhausen, a Stasi prison in Berlin. (Credit: flickr user bruchez, see end of article.)

As already mentioned, the book tells some extraordinarily painful stories. One of the subjects, Miriam (I presume most names in the book are not real), performed what we might be tempted to call “harmless agitation” against the regime as early as 1968, the year of the “Prague Spring” in neighboring Czechoslovakia. She and a friend distributed leaflets and were caught in the act. After spending time in jail (during which she was subjected to 11 days of sleep deprivation), she decided upon her release to flee the country. She failed in her attempt at freedom, served out a one-and-a-half year sentence and was forever thereafter blacklisted, making it difficult to find employment. I don’t want to give away all of Miriam’s story here, because I would rather you read about it in the book. I will only say that the bare facts which I’ve just told you about her are only the beginning — there is worse yet to come.

Then there is Frau Paul. Hers is the story which brought me to tears. It involves her young, ill son, from whom she was separated. No details here: read the book.

Miriam and Frau Paul are a few of the victims whose stories Funder tells. Funder herself does not stand by as a disinterested observer. Not only is Stasiland not a history book, it is also not simply a journalist’s account of interviews. Funder chooses to strongly assert the first person throughout the book and to weave the individual stories together with her own. She writes about her beer consumption, her impressions of some of her co-workers, her dying mother, her own emotions and reactions to the stories she hears. This will disturb those who are looking for some kind of purely objective recitation of the deeds done to and by people in the GDR. I found her personal touch rather refreshing and noticed that I was engaging with Funder herself throughout the book, which in fact served to increase my interest.

I’ve yet to specifically mention any of her stories of those from the “other side”: those working for the GDR regime. Funder does something which rather shocks her (west) German co-workers: she puts an ad in the paper asking for former Stasi officers to call her for anonymous interviews. A handful comply. She interviews Herr Winz from Stasi counter-espionage, who gives her a copy of the Communist Manifesto as a gift. Then there is Herr Christian, who used to keep a close eye on motorists stopping at rest stops to see if they might be preparing for an illegal border crossing (there were even cameras in the gas pumps). But for shear wackiness and dedication to his old regime and his friend Erich Mielke, Herr von Schnitzler stands out as the interviewee most likely to remembered. I refer you to the book so that you may enjoy Herr von Schnitzler’s rants.

I usually like to include a quote from the books that I feature in the Book of the Week series. Here’s one I underlined as soon as I read it. It quotes Frau Paul, whom I alluded to earlier. Anna Funder remarked to her that surely a wall (the Wall) could not be resurrected. Frau Paul:

“Who would have thought that a wall could be built!” she says. “That was also impossible! And who would have thought at the end that it might ever fall! That was also impossible!”

I highly recommend Stasiland. (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english], DE [deutsch])

Photo credits:

The two photos used in this article show Hohenschönhausen prison in Berlin. They both come from flickr user bruchez, who has kindly offered them under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. The recommended attributions for these photos are as follows:

Remember Ida Siekmann and 22 August 1961

Remember Ida Siekmann and 22 August 1961

Reading Ida Siekmann’s story at the Chronik der Mauer (Chronicle of the Berlin Wall) website will likely make you shake your head a few times and wonder how this all could have happened.  The German version of the story is quite detailed, whereas the English version is only a few lines.  So I’ll give here a summary of some of the content that’s available in German but not in English.

Ms. Siekmann’s death is recognized as having been the first attributed directly to the building of the Wall.  She was born in 1902 in West Prussia and it’s not known when she first moved to Berlin.    At the time the Wall was built she lived at Bernauer Straße 48 in Central Berlin, specifically the district Berlin-Mitte, which, during the 4-power occupation of Berlin, was in the Soviet zone.  However, the street in front of the building belonged in the district of Berlin-Wedding, which was part of the French zone.  Prior to the Wall, this unfortunate circumstance caused no great difficulty; there was neighborly contact between both sides of the street.  In fact, Ms. Siekmann visited her sister, a few blocks to the west, regularly and without difficulty.

Because of the arrangement of the building, it could only be entered from Wedding, but once you were within it, you were in Berlin-Mitte.  In the first few days of the Wall’s construction, many people living along that side of Bernauer Straße were still able to escape and go over to the west via their front doors.  Beginning on the 18th of August, however, the communist authorities barricaded the front doors and created new entrances from the sides of the buildings not facing west.  Authorities tightly controlled entrance to these buildings.

With their front doors barricaded, residents inside the buildings began jumping out of windows on the western side.  You can see footage here:

Authorities barricaded the front door of Ms. Siekmann’s building on 21 August 1961. Early the next morning, 22 August 1961, she threw many of her belongings out of the window of her third-floor flat. Probably because of her fear of being seen and stopped, she jumped out of the window herself too quickly and before West Berlin firemen were prepared to catch her. She died from her injuries on the way to the hospital, one day before her 59th birthday.

Her death caused a great deal of consternation in West Berlin. The press described her fate as a “deadly jump to freedom.” A memorial was soon erected in her honor. U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy later visited this memorial with German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

I have a special page dedicated to links concerning the Berlin Wall.

Photo credit: I found this photo at Wikimedia Commons. The copyright holder is listed as “Mutter Erde”, which is most certainly not a real name (it’s the German for “Mother Earth.”) The copyright holder has given full permission for the image to be used and altered.

Berlin Wall link updates

I added ten or so links to my Berlin Wall links page over the weekend. Two of my new favorites are, unfortunately, only very useful for people who can read and understand German. The first is Hinrich Olsen’s private page, Friedliche Revolution und Mauerfall, which also has several photos so could be interesting even if you do not read German, and German broadcaster ZDF’s Mediathek, whereat you can type in a search for "DDR" and find lots of useful and interesting television clips. I particularly liked ZDF’s "Countdown Mauerfall" series, which shows clips from ZDF news on the same day in 1989 (e.g., today they will show their 17 August 1989 broadcast.)

For those who cannot speak/read German, one of the more interesting sites I linked to this weekend is Moments in Time: 1989/1990, from the federal office of civic education. It contains lots of material in English, and many of its photos are licensed under Creative Commons, meaning you can re-use them for non-commercial purposes.

Mary Fulbrook, “Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR 1949-1989″

Mary Fulbrook, “Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR 1949-1989″

By her own telling, Prof. Dr. Mary Fulbrook (University College London) conceived of the idea of writing a GDR history already in the early 1980s. I’m sure at the time she thought of some of the inherent difficulties in telling the story of a society that was, relative to the West, rather closed.

Then came 1989 and the years thereafter, when an explosion of material became available. I would guess that the sudden mountains of documents were rather daunting to specialists in German history. But Fulbrook waded through them and came out with this excellent history in 1995.

The book is divided into three sections: “The Contours of Domination”, wherein the party and state security apparatus are discussed, as well as extra-party organizations or communities (Church, labor union, academia etc.) that helped maintain control in areas where the party did not reach; “Patterns of Popular Compliance and Constraint”, where the opinions of the general populace are taken into consideration, as well as some of the Party’s strategies to mould its citizens; and “Challenges to Domination”, which begins with the June 1953 uprising and recounts some other more minor instances of uprising, then leading in to the 1980s, when the dissent took root, became more open and eventually led (as one factor) to the downfall of the regime.

It’s easy for works of history to be too dry for (shall we say) common consumption, particularly those histories that are more "scholarly" than "popular", as is the case with this book. One device that can bring the reader in early — “hook him”, so to speak — is to start off with a good human-interest story. Fulbrook does precisely this by opening the book as follows:

On Wednesday, 21 September 1961, Sieglinde M., a sixth-form pupil in Anklam, Neubrandenburg, came to school wearing a black pullover. For this, she was expelled from school and forced to ‘work in production.’

And not just poor Sieglinde, but her entire class. They were protesting the new law requiring service in the National People’s Army. This incident — one which we who were raised in western democracies would consider trivial, harmless and maybe even a little bit silly — raised alarms at the highest levels of the GDR government.

When reading the book for the first time, I considered this opening story to be important because I believe there are many intelligent people out there — particularly now, in 2009 — who attempt to minimize the dictatorial nature of the regime. (Of course, the title alone, Anatomy of a Dictatorship, had already gone quite far in assuring me that Professor Fulbrook was not one to do so!)

She begins chapter two, “Structures and Mentalities of Power”, with this rather clear statement:

The GDR was a repressive state. It was a dictatorship.

Yet she hardly takes a purely moralistic approach, which is no doubt tempting to people such as myself. But of course she is that much better as a historian by not dedicating every sentence to a black and white interpretation of the GDR. As she explains, that would be ahistorical. It would be counter-factual, because the truth of the matter is that many in the GDR did not see their own dictatorship in such black-and-white moralistic terms. In all honesty I find that truth to be somewhat painful, just as it depresses me that many who live in the eastern states of Germany today are actually longing for some kind of return to the GDR. But facts are facts, and Professor Fulbrook reports them, as well she should.

I actually read the book several years ago, and I notice now that I had turned down corners of several pages where I found passages to underline. I’ll submit just one of them here for your consideration. She’s talking about the massive amount of information the Stasi retained about people. Computer technology in the east was behind, therefore everything was kept on paper and cards:

And, as [Erich] Mielke is alleged to have commented, cards and paper have the edge over computers when there is a power failure — an important consideration under actually existing socialism. [p. 49]

Am I mistaken in finding a subtle bit of humor there? I think she’s poking a bit of fun at the regime by pointing out a weakness, in this case the very real problem of power failures, while labeling the regime with the moniker they themselves enjoyed: "real existing socialism" (real existierender Sozialismus).

Later she adds:

In retrospect, the childlike proliferation of codes and secrets, the guidelines and procedures, and the files of trivial observations couched in the self-important jargon of bureaucracy, could on occasion almost appear quite comic, were it not so tragic for those whose lives and careers were blighted in the process. [pp 49-50]

If you the history of the East German Communist Dictatorship interests you, you will undoubtedly enjoy Anatomy of a Dictatorship. (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english])

(Photo is mine, available under the Creative Commons license. For details please see the photo’s page at Flickr.)

Berlin Wall link page — just starting out

No doubt about it, I’ve caught the Berlin Wall Bug big time.  This is going to be quite a year of commemorations, and I’ll be eating it all up with gusto.

As I already spend a bunch of time scouring the web for Berlin Wall history, information and photos, I decided I may as well take the next step and put up a page containing links to some of the better resources I have found.  The beginnings of this endeavor are visible now at my page simply titled “Berlin Wall“.   The link is also available up on the navigation bar.

There are only a few sites listed there now, as I need to pause for the rest of today and work on other things.  But I’ll be regularly updating the set of links.  And if you have found some good web resources concerning the Berlin Wall, I urge you to go to my “Berlin Wall” page and submit a comment to tell me about it.  Or you can always write me an e-mail: just address it to bill at this domain.

Berlin Wall construction began 48 years ago today

Berlin Wall construction began 48 years ago today

After tens of thousands had fled East Berlin for West Berlin in recent months, the East Germans began to erect a physical barrier in the early morning of 13 August 1961.  Thus began the Berlin Wall’s 28 year existence.  As Germans and others celebrate — this year, 2009 — the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, more attention will naturally be given as well to this anniversary of its construction.

I enjoy looking at archives to read through immediate reactions to such big historical events.  I’ve looked today the U.S. State Department archives, specifically “Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, Volume XIV, Berlin Crisis, 1961-1962“.

An early telegram to Washington from the leader of the U.S. Mission in Berlin, Allen Lightner, speculated:

Evidently as a result of increased refugee flow with attendant economic loss to GDR and prestige to Socialist camp, East decided at recent Moscow conference of Warsaw Pact countries to proceed with fait accompli which would drastically disrupt freedom of movement within Berlin and erect frontier with respect entry into West Berlin of Sov Zone and East Berlin residents. In this way East has now taken some of the steps which it had been anticipated would follow from separate peace treaty with GDR.

As one would expect for such a momentous and dangerous event, the archives show a mix of reactions among U.S. diplomats.  On 16 August, after three days of relative inactivity on the part of the west, Lightner’s telegrams show obvious frustration:

In essence these people feel that we are facing a crisis of confidence which endangers quite seriously our position. This is based on the absence of any sharp and definite followup action since the Secretary’s statement. However this feeling of letdown is the greater because the President’s speech had had such a large readership and television following and had evoked such widespread public acceptance as a promise of firmness. I have not been impressed by German complaints of the lack of display of US military presence since sector borders were closed. I realize also that the longstanding belief that US support is the main and only German protection makes them impatient of our desire to act in concert with NATO Allies. Taking into account these prejudices and discounting numerous emotional arguments which have been made to me I am nevertheless convinced that what is described as the surrender of East Berlin to Ulbricht with all that this immediately implies has been a shock so severe that it can gravely affect our future relations, first, with the city of Berlin and its leaders, and second with the Federal Republic once the extent of the disillusionment here is recognized in Bonn.


Comment: I anticipate Berliners will label our Aug 15 letter of protest belated and tepid. No one here asking large violent action, merely some action, some proof this is not “another sample of `Hitler’s take over of Rhineland'”. I think the timetable for this crisis has been stepped up very considerably and there is real danger that Berliners will conclude they should take themselves, their bank accounts and movable assets to some other place. What is in danger or being destroyed here is that perishable commodity called hope. [my emphasis]

Berlin Mayor and future German Chancellor Willy Brandt wrote to President Kennedy personally on 16 August to express his doubts about western reactions to the crisis:

This development has not changed will to resist of West Berlin population, but has tended to arouse doubts as to determination of three powers and their ability to react. In this connection the decisive factor is that the West has always specifically invoked the existing Four-Power status.


[I] recollect not without bitterness declarations rejecting negotiations with USSR on basis one should not negotiate under pressure. We now have state of accomplished extortion, and already I hear it will not be possible turn down negotiations. In such situation, when possibility of initiative for action is already so small, it is all the more important at least to demonstrate political initiative.

Among those located in Washington, you can see as early as 14 August, the day after construction began, the beginnings of the treatment of the event as a fait accompli as shown in McGeorge Bundy’s summary of his discussions with others:

The Department’s proposal for a riposte is likely to be the ending of the travel permits which have been issued by the three powers in West Berlin to East Germans who want to visit allied or neutral countries. This was used a year ago in response to East German harassment of civilian traffic, and it worked well. No one thinks it will cause a reversal of policy this time, in the light of the much more serious causes of this much larger action. But it is argued that it will give some pain, since it will cut off East German access to allied countries and to those neutral nations which play along.

I find this argument unconvincing. I doubt if we should take little actions in reprisal against this big one, especially when the punishment is unrelated to the crime. The only good argument for this action is that it has been discussed among the 4 Powers before as a possible retort to border-closing, and there may be some Allied worry about our “reliability” if we don’t support it now.

Incidentally, I find agreement in both Joe Alsop and George Kennan to these three conclusions: (1) this is something they have always had the power to do; (2) it is something they were bound to do sooner or later, unless they could control the exits from West Berlin to the West; (3) since it was bound to happen, it is as well to have it happen early, as their doing and their responsibility.

It reminds me of the opening pages of Rainer Eppelmann’s memoir, Fremd im eigenen Haus (Amazon US, UK, DE). Eppelmann’s father had papers showing him as being registered in West Berlin, whereas the family home was in the east. The parents agreed that the father should remain in the west (where work was more plenty):

Both [parents] were absolutely convinced that the Wall, erected brick-by-brick in front of the eyes of the world, would not remain for long. The West would never allow it! [My translation and emphasis]

Welt Online shows child victims of the Berlin Wall

Welt Online shows child victims of the Berlin Wall

November 2009 will mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many German publications and websites are therefore dedicating a great deal of time and space to commemorating the event.

The online presence of the German newspaper Die Welt posted on Monday a photo essay of five children who died because of the presence of the “Wall” (the term is used broadly to describe the entire border between East and West Berlin, including the Spree River, which, as you will see, plays a significant role here.) I include here a brief English summary of each entry:

  1. Cengaver Katranci, an 8 year-old Turkish immigrant in West Berlin, fell into the water from the banks of the Spree River in October 1972. A fisherman wanted to help him but decided against it, knowing that the whole of the river at this point was found within GDR borders. West Berlin police tried to summon boats from the east to save him, but failed. It took 90 minutes for a boat from the east to finally begin the search. His body was found two hours after he fell in.
  2. Siegfried Kroboth, a five year-old, also fell into the Spree from the west in May 1973. West Berlin police saw him in the water but could do nothing. Occupants of an East Berlin border post did nothing. Only hours later did divers from the east fish out his body.
  3. Cetin Mer fell into the Spree on 11 May 1975, his fifth birthday. His body was retrieved two hours later. After this event, the east and west finally agreed on a warning system by which border police could raise alarm and call on rescuers.
  4. Giuseppe Savoca, the 6 year-old son of Italian immigrants, fell into the Spree on 15 June 1974. Border guards on the eastern side saw this and reported it. Shortly thereafter, a boat belonging to the eastern border troops came by but simply kept going. Only after receiving orders did the boat crew fish out the young boy’s body.
  5. The East German parents of the 15 month-old Holger H. wanted their son to grow up in freedom.  In 1973 they attempted to escape by hiding in boxes in a lorry of a friend from West Berlin.  During the wait at the border post, Holger began to cry.  His mother covered the baby’s mouth, but because Holger had a middle-ear infection his nasal membranes were swollen and he was therefore unable to breath.  He suffocated in his mother’s arms.

The photo accompanying this blog post shows part of the Spree river going through Berlin. Credit: flickr user Murdoch. http://www.flickr.com/photos/murdoch/ / CC BY 2.0.

Die Welt revisits a once-tabu subject

Die Welt revisits a once-tabu subject

On Tuesday, 04 August 2009, the website of the German newspaper Die Welt re-published an article from 04 August 1989 [german] concerning right-wing youth within  communist East Germany.

As the article points out, the East German government tried its best to keep such stories under wraps, since “officially, the DDR had defeated fascism” (my translation).  The article highlights a report from the East German documentary film director and democracy activist Konrad Weiss.  Weiss’s report asserts that arrests due to right-wing activity had increased five-fold between 1983 and 1987.  The apparent goal of the neo-nazis was the return of a united Germany within the borders of 1938.  Weiss suggests that only true democratic reform could stop more and more youths from turning to right-wing ideology.

In fact, the Berlin Wall would fall just three months after Die Welt published the original article.  Now the problem of neo-nazi activity in today’s eastern German states is quite well known.  The wished-for democratic reform came, but unfortunately could not by itself to hold back the popularity of right-wing ideology among youths in that part of the united Germany.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/romtomtom/ / CC BY-NC 2.0)