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Writer of the month: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall

Hester Vaizey discusses her latest book, Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall, which reveals the everyday lives of citizens of the former German Democratic Republic

The National Archives is again hosting a series of monthly talks to broaden awareness of historical records and their uses for writers. Each month, a high-profile author will talk about using original records in their writing.

Hester Vaizey is a University Lecturer in Modern German History and a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. Her book Surviving Hitler’s War: Family Life in Germany 1939-1948, was shortlisted for the Women’s History Network Prize and won the Fraenkel Prize for Contemporary History.


Thank you very much all for coming here today. I started this project three years ago and finally this month it’s come to print and now on big display in the bookshop which is every author’s dream.

So to start with I want to tell you a little bit about why I decided to dedicate three years to working on this book. As you probably know, after the Second World War, Germany was divided into two countries for 40 years and for 28 of those years, the Berlin Wall was a physical barrier. And during this division East and West Germany evolved into two very different societies, then on 9 November 1989, 25 years ago next Sunday, the Berlin Wall fell and with that East Germany was effectively abolished and East Germany was rolled into West Germany in the reunification process.

So this was a huge change and I wondered: what was it like to have grown up in a country that disappeared? What was it like to swap communism for capitalism? One of the things any good researcher would do would be consider coming to The National Archives, a veritable treasure trove of historical sources that span over a thousand years. But, unfortunately, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 files for this were not yet released. They will be released in 2016. So my project is instead based on interviews I conducted with East Germans about what life was like before and after the Wall fell.

So to find people to talk to I did all sorts of ludicrous things: I posted leaflets asking for help through East Germans’ letterboxes; I put up notices, posters on East German supermarket noticeboards; I contacted lots of museums in East Germany that were about the Berlin Wall or the Cold War. All to see if I could find people to talk to. And then once I found the people, I met up with then either in Berlin in cafés or in their homes and then I recorded their stories and chose eight of the most interesting ones, the most diverse ones, to get a sense of what life was life was like before and after the Wall fell.

This whole process took me to some pretty interesting places. When I met in people’s homes, in one house I had to put on some slippers because those were the house rules. I had the grandfather’s slippers to put on and I was so engrossed in the story at the end of the interview that I walked off almost half-way down the street wearing the slippers before I realised I had to take them back.

In another case, when I was in Dresden, I was hopelessly lost trying to find this person’s house. In desperation I asked a car that had parked up and a strange man said ‘Hop in and I will give you a lift’. And I did, contravening all the sort of things I had been told and I survived in one piece. Breathlessly I took the stairs two-by-two to the top floor of this flat, not knowing what I would find when I arrived at this man’s door and then a man with waist-length hair and a hairband answered the door. And he is chapter seven of the book.

So, lots of adventures in order to get these stories but in order for these stories to make sense I need to give you a bit of background about the Berlin Wall, how it came to be constructed and then ultimately demolished. As you probably know, the Cold War emerged out of the Second World War and was an ideological conflict between western democratic and capitalist values and socialist eastern principles. Germany was really at the heart of this conflict between communism and capitalism because at the end of the Second World War in 1945, Germany was physically occupied by the four Allies. Here, [shows image] Britain, France, America and the Russians and Berlin is right in the heart of the Soviet zone and that was considered too important under the control of one of the individual allies so that was also divided into sectors. The problem was that relations between the Soviets and the other allies disintegrated in 1948 when the Soviets tried to make a grab for Berlin in what was known as the Berlin Blockade. They
blockaded by road and rail access to that white dot and so this forced the western allies to respond with their Berlin airlift, flying in supplies from the air instead of by road. And this all paved the way for the separation of Germany into two separate states in 1949.

So from 1949 onwards, the equivalent of a town’s worth of people moved from communist East Germany to capitalist West Germany because they thought that the living standards and job opportunities would be better there. And in the competitive climate in the Cold War between East and West, this was obviously a troubling state of affairs for communist leaders because East Germans were voting with their feet and if people continued to leave at the same rate there would be no-one left in East Germany.

So the East German government’s solution then was a wall. So on Saturday 12 August 1961 East Berliners went to bed being able to move freely between the eastern and western parts of the city. But when they woke up the following morning this was no longer the case because the East German government had erected a temporary security fence which was then guarded by border police which prevented people from going into West Germany.

Twenty-eight years then after this day, Germans who were living in East Berlin or the wider East Germany, which was also known as the German Democratic Republic or GDR, they were only allowed to travel either within East Germany or the other countries within the communist eastern bloc: Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary etc. East Germans would apply for visas to visit relatives in the west but whether these visas were granted was entirely at the whim of the authorities. And those East Germans who asked to leave the GDR for good were marked down as politically unreliable, often blocked from career promotions and were sometimes put under surveillance by the Stasi, the East German secret police. The people who tried to escape over the wall were shot at and if they were caught were imprisoned.

So, a question for you now: how many people do you think in the 28 years managed to escape successfully across the Berlin Wall? [Audience member replies] 5,000 is spot on, yeah, well done to the gentleman over there. But as well as the 5,000 people, another 138 people actually died trying to escape over the wall.

But then on 9 November, people climbing on top of the Berlin Wall, so-called ‘wall woodpeckers’, were hammering away at the wall trying to get their slice of history. Sections of the wall were being dismantled and East German border guards simply stood by and let people go through.

And the opening of the Berlin Wall was met with such excitement on both sides of the border. West Berliners greeted East Berliners with glasses of champagne as they crossed the border often for the very first time in their lives. And in the excitement strangers embraced realising the enormity of the moment that they were witnessing.

This party atmosphere continued all night in Berlin but in other parts of the city, people managed to sleep through the whole event. Some heard the news only in the morning with neighbours rapping on the door excited to tell them what had happened. Others heard it on the radio.

To show you how this big event was experienced differently in individual lives, I am going to recount the moment when three East Germans leant the news that the wall had fallen.

The first lady I want to talk about is Petra. She was studying for a PhD in Berlin at the time. She was a member of the Communist Party. She didn’t think everything was perfect about communism but she felt you had to be in the system, in a one party state I suppose, in order to reform it. She had been part of the demonstrations that happened on 4 November just days before the wall fell. But on 9 November she came home from a day at the library at around 6pm. She caught the start of the press conference, a momentous press conference, where Günter Schabowski, who was the Communist Party spokesperson first announced that the travel restrictions between the east and west were going to be relaxed.

But before it got to the crucial moment where he said that these new travel conditions would come into effect immediately and without delay, Petra was going out to the theatre with her mother and a group of friends. So she had to switch the television off and go out. But before the performance she and her friends were, kind of, discussing what they made of what they had heard and they just felt it really must be a joke and didn’t really take it seriously at all. None of them in the group had an inkling that Günter Schabowski, as he later said had ‘only read the damn thing once’, meaning the press release and diagonally at that. And so had, really, inadvertently led to the hastening of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

So Petra: the play finished around 9.30 and her mother was coming to stay with her so they said good-bye to their group of friends and made their way towards the Straßenbahn to go home and Petra says she remembers saying to her mother: ‘I really feel, you know, something’s different, something in the air. I am going to turn the radio on when I get home to see what’s happened’. And then, obviously, when she got home she remembers shouting – she was making a cup tea – and had turned the radio on and said had to her mother, you know, shouted through to her mother in the next room that the wall had fallen.

Having been so involved in the demonstrations, Petra’s impulse was to get out onto the streets and see what was happening for herself, with her own eyes. But her mother had a heart condition and Petra lived on the top floor flat of a block which didn’t have a lift. And so she didn’t want to go down and up again and so poor old Petra wasn’t able to go out and see for herself but she had instead to lean out of her window and see – she said she could see that the street was thick with traffic below as cars were streaming towards the border nearby.

Another German, East German, I spoke to was a lady called Lisa who was also finishing a university degree at the time. And she said that on the evening of the press conference she met a friend for a drink early in the evening. She said soon after she returned home, her boyfriend came in all in a rush around 9pm and said what he had heard on the radio, said that he planned to drive to West Berlin and to join a party on the Kurfürstendamm which is Berlin’s equivalent to Oxford Street.

And she was somewhat confused and, kind of ‘how are you going to be able to drive to the West? You know we have never been able to do that’. But he was insistent that this was going to be possible and that other people were doing it too and he was really keen to get going because, like many other East Germans, he was afraid that the wall would be closed up again and that the opportunity would be missed.

So, eventually Lisa agreed to join him on the trip and they sat in a massive traffic jam for about two hours so that they along with many other people wanted to get across the border and eventually just before midnight they managed to get across the border. She said everyone was buzzing with excitement and anticipation and they made their way to the Kurfürstendamm and looked at the Brandenburg Gate from the western side. She saw people chipping away to get their slice of history.

She said she drank in all the details of West Berlin streets which were a lot more colourful than the East because there was graffiti and the advertising was a lot brighter. She said that her boyfriend took lots of photographs and they chatted to people asking where they were from. And then, finally, at 3am they had their first West German breakfast and then headed back over the border.

So, finally, I want to tell you about ten year old Peggy’s experience. She was one of those who slept through the whole thing! When Peggy woke up on the morning of 10 November, 1989, she knew that something was amiss. Normally, she said, her mother would come into her room every morning, open the curtains, sit on her bed, stroke her face and talk to her as she woke up. But on that morning, she said, she could hear the splatter of the coffee machine going in the kitchen and she could smell the waft of bread rolls in the oven.

But her mother hadn’t come in, so she slipped out of bed and went to the kitchen and said to her mother ‘Well, why didn’t you wake me up’. And she said her mother was staring into the middle distance, her hands wrapped round a mug of coffee, just looking out of the window and she said ‘The wall’s fallen’. And Peggy followed her mother’s gaze out of the window into the garden and saw the wall at the end of the garden and that looked perfectly fine. So that wall, obviously, hadn’t fallen, and so her mother said ‘Well, obviously, no, not that wall but the wall in Berlin’.

And a number of thoughts then passed through the head of ten year old Peggy. She had heard that the west had very high unemployment and also that lots of people were homeless there. So she said that one of the first things she thought was ‘I hope we get to keep our flat and I hope my parents get to keep their jobs’. So interestingly for her, fear as much as excitement characterised her first reaction. And for her as a ten year old, she was meant to be going on a class trip the very next day, her class was being rewarded for their good socialist behaviour but she was very worried that these events in Berlin would be scuppering her trip. So she was very relieved to know that the trip was still on.

So, at this stage, it was by no means inevitable that the GDR would collapse and disappear. A lot of people felt that the border might be resealed and things would go back to normal. But in the months that followed, more and more people flocked across to the West and it was clear that there was no going back. Discussions then took place in December 1989 and following these discussions East Germany had free elections for the first time in 40 years, in March 1990. But rather than voting on party allegiances, as was normal in an election, East Germans voted instead on the manner and the speed of reunification: whether it should happen as quickly as possible; or more slowly and be more of a genuine merger of the two sides.

But in March East Germans voted overwhelmingly in favour of the quickest option available which was put on offer by Helmut Kohl and his Christian Democratic Party. So, from these elections it was clear that people wanted to unite the two sides but putting the unification into practice was far from straight forward. Each country had its own flag, its own national anthem, its own armed forces; not to mention a different taxation system, a different health system, a different educational system. So deciding how to deal with all of this was logistically very difficult. But replacement, it seems was the order of the day and in many senses it was a wholesale take-over of East Germany by West Germany.

So now we come onto the question that I am really interested in, is how did life change for people in East Germany once the wall fell? Obviously, there is no ‘one size fits all’ account for how this was experienced. What people made of life after reunification was certainly coloured by what their life had been like before.

But complicating matters – there are many different memories of life in East Germany. On the one hand, East Germany is remembered as a Stasi state in which ordinary people felt constantly vulnerable and afraid and this perspective is put forward really vividly in the film, The Lives of Others, from 2006. It focuses on a dissident writer, a dissident in the sense that he was writing for Western magazines even though that was forbidden and he didn’t toe the party line. The film also looked at his wife who was an actress and the Stasi officer who was in charge of gathering information about them.

Political prisoners in East Germany were most commonly kept in solitary confinement. And so long were the periods that they were kept in isolation that when they were hauled out for interrogation they were just desperate to talk to anyone. And this was most likely a deliberate tactic on the behalf of the Stasi to try and get people to talk. In interrogations there was usually a ‘good cop’ and a ‘bad cop’. The bad cop would start by being really threatening and shouting a lot while the good cop would maintain a low profile. The bad cop would then leave the room whilst the good cop would take over and say ‘well now, then, I think we can deal with this in a more calm and civilised manner’.

Interrogators were trying to get prisoners to confess to their non-conformist behaviour, to their attempts to flee across the Berlin Wall and also to extract the name of other non-conformists so that they could haul them in too. Prisoners who gave useful information to the interrogators got to sit on a comfier seat sometimes, sometimes got their favourite food. And it is really interesting that you are able to visit, certainly Hohenschönhausen in East Berlin, and there are tours given by former inmates which are controversial in one sense but you get a very vivid impression of what life was like there.

The Stasi used many different tactics to try and get information about political suspects, be it tapping phones, wiring houses, trailing suspects and even collecting smell samples in jars so that, in theory at least, sniffer dogs could track the movements of political suspects. I am not sure that that actually worked.

In the 1980s the Stasi had 91,000 full time employees and a further 173,000 part-time informal helpers – or informers, we might know them as. It is interesting that we think of the Gestapo under the Nazis as being sort of huge and all pervasive but that only had 7,000 members overall.

Stasi files reveal an inordinate amount of information about political suspects: when they ate their main meals, what brand of toothpaste they bought to what time they took their children to school.

In information the Stasi felt was power. If an interrogator demonstrated a detailed knowledge of the suspect’s life in an interrogation it would seem futile to withhold information. You know, the Stasi seemed to already know everything. And so the Stasi in this way collected an awful lot of material. And, in fact, they collected more material in the Stasi era than had been collected from the Middle Ages to the end of the Second World War. And since 1991 the Stasi files have been open to the public and East Germans have been able to write in to see if they had a file during the Stasi period and in some cases this led to revelations of betrayals by old friends or even, in extreme cases, relatives.

But coming back to how did life change once the wall fell, it would stand to reason that if ordinary people felt constantly vulnerable and afraid in East Germany, the end of the GDR would have been a relief. And this was certainly true for those who were persecuted by the regime: non-conformists, political opponents, Christians, environmental activists. But this was, in fact, how most people from East Germany remembered the GDR. This perspective is perhaps more accurate about how the West has tried to portray East Germany. Most East Germans in retrospect said they had no idea how extensive the Stasi surveillance was and therefore it is understandable that they don’t remember the GDR in this way.

The film, Goodbye Lenin, from 2003 gives a very different and more positive perspective of what life was like in the east. And this has clear implications for the adjustment to reunited Germany afterwards discussed. So one of the things that was highlighted was the young boy is wearing a blue neckerchief. This was the uniform of the Young Pioneers which was the East German youth movement, I guess the Communist equivalent to the Hitler Youth.

This youth movement was essentially compulsory for young East Germans and the aim was to try and turn young people into socialist personalities. So committed to the socialist worldview and committed to working towards a better society together. And the youth movement was integrated into the German school system, the pupils who didn’t join – often who were Christians – were often barred from going on to do A Levels. So most parents, even if they weren’t very keen on the youth movement would enrol their children anyway.

Then after 1989 many young people were really glad to have their free time back again, less regimented by the regime; but others by contrast missed the structure and the opportunities for socialising that the regime had provided.

The Spreewälder Gurken so these assumed cult status amongst the East Germans after the wall fell. For the East German these pickles were something familiar from their old lives. And like lots of other East German products initially they disappeared from the supermarket shelves after the wall fell but they were brought back by popular demand.

But on a serious note, it is perhaps worth considering imagining what life would be like if suddenly your favourite brands of food or your favourite brands of clothing were no longer available even if, obviously for East Germans, there was much greater choice in the West after reunification. The West German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, promised East Germans the same standard of living as the West within five years but the reality was much darker.

In the GDR 98% had worked for state enterprises and there had been near full employment but within three years of reunification 15% of East Germans were unemployed. It is interesting that even now, 25 years after the fall of the Wall, unemployment still stands at nearly double the rate in the former East Germany than it does in West Germany.

So though, obviously, reunification brought the East Germans many freedoms: freedom of expression, freedom to travel, freedom of movement. For those who struggled to put bread on the table as a result of reunification, who were made unemployment the downsides of reunification obviously weighed more heavily on their minds.

Access to western fast food was particularly exciting for East Germans, particularly McDonalds which ironically was the ultimate symbol of Western capitalism and in the course of my research I read a letter from an East German describing his first visit over the border with his girlfriend Katya. The letter goes something like this:

‘Katya absolutely wanted to go to a McDonalds restaurant. She stormed in and I stood outside just opening my eyes as wide as I could. It was all so modern, white and made of glass. Katya pulled me inside. I felt like a lost convict who had spent 25 years in prison. Katya had some money which we used to buy a Big Mac. I was sure we behaved in such a way that everyone could tell where we came from.’

So many East Germans like Katya and Torsten flocked to McDonalds to get a taste of whatever they had only ever seen on TV before. But many also felt the sense of disorientation that Torsten described, that they didn’t really know how things worked and that they were sure that they stood out as being a bit different and from the East. And some East Germans in the wake of reunification went to great lengths to try and hide their eastern origins either by dressing in a more Western way of by getting their new cars registered in the West, so it would seem like they were western too.

These were obviously quite superficial changes but attitudes and behaviour were not so easy to shrug off quickly. Most East Germans were in the happy position to be able to tweak their aerial to be able to receive western television. And through that they were able to get an alternative version of events than the ones the government was peddling. For an unfortunate minority who lived in the Dresden area, they were in a reception blackspot known as the ‘Valley of the Clueless’ [laughter] and so they weren’t able to do that.

And quite understandably the East German government was not keen on people tuning into West German TV. So people went to certain precautions to try and conceal it. Some, for example, turned the sound off during the adverts so that they wouldn’t be caught humming inadvertently jingles from western ads; others pulled the blinds down when they watched western TV but kept them up when they were watching eastern TV.

So through TV easterners, even during the divide, got a chance to get a glimpse of life in the west. But a lot of them interestingly said afterwards that they felt they were a bit disappointed that life wasn’t just like it had been in the adverts. After reunification many East Germans got the sense that nothing from their old lives was worth saving. One man, for example, put it:

‘people here in the GDR saved half a life time for a spluttering Trabant, then along comes along a smooth Mercedes society and makes our whole existence, our dreams, our identity laughable’.

So here is that Trabant [shows image]. It was one of the two cars manufactured in the GDR and was the butt of many western jokes because it was relatively backward although, ironically, it was actually quite a robust car because the roads in East Germany were pretty bad so they had to be able to withstand that. But the attitude to the Trabant was seen as symbolic of how westerners seemed to laud over easterners their superiority so easterners gave westerners the name ‘Besserwessi’ or ‘know-it-all’ westerners. Westerners seemed to easterners to be somewhat arrogant and felt they gave off the impression that they thought there was nothing they could learn from the east.

The East Germans I spoke to though said that there were many things that could have been learnt from the eastern model even if socialism hadn’t always been put into practice as brilliantly as it might have been. So one of the things that came up, for example, was the number of women who worked. In East Germany 97% of women worked, crèches were available, free of charge, and they were open for really long hours. So women in East Germany were far more integrated into the workforce than was the case in West Germany. So, just in terms of gender equality, that was one thing that the west might have considered learning from the east.

But the lack of openness to incorporating any the eastern ideas into the reunited Germany led to many East Germans feeling very resentful that their old lives were essentially written off as worthless. And the East Germans also felt hurt and disappointed that West Germans didn’t seem to acknowledge the hugely disorientating experience that they had been through as a result of reunification.

But West Germans, for their part, felt that East Germans were ungrateful because they had been footing a tax bill of 140 billion deutschemarks per year during the 1990s to subsidise reunification and so they labelled East Germans ‘Jammer-Ossis’: moaning Easterners.

And this lack of mutual understanding between East and West Germans was a surprise to Germans on both sides because after all they shared the same long-term history, they shared the same language. But 40 years in very different societies led to the others seeming very foreign. I spoke to one lady who left school at 16 in East Germany and trained as a nurse and then she did her A Levels afterwards in a reunited Germany. And she said she was in a class where they were mostly westerners apart from her. And she said her approach was to be really open and collaborative, wanted to work together. And they just thought she was utterly mad for being so open and they viewed things in a lot more of a competitive way. And she said she felt like they viewed her as someone who had been infected by a strange ideology.

Initially it was a concrete wall that caused the division between the two sides but in a way the divisions came into sharper relief once the Wall fell. During the division, West Germans had sent on average 25 million parcels per year to easterners but once the Berlin Wall fell, these friendships commonly dwindled to nothing.

For East Germans unfamiliar cultural norms combined with the absence of a familiar way of life was profoundly unsettling. One East German described how she felt about this in her diary in December 1989:

‘Everywhere is becoming like a foreign land. I have long wished to travel to foreign parts but I have always wanted to be able to come home. The landscapes remain the same, the towns and villages have the same names, but everything here is becoming increasingly unfamiliar.’

And this view was echoed by many East Germans who were conscious that they dressed differently, for example, from their western compatriots. They didn’t know how to pronounce all the items on the McDonalds’ menu and they didn’t know how to work operate a coin-operated supermarket trolley because they simply hadn’t existed in East Germany. And this was just the tip of the iceberg about how the country that they had grown up in was suddenly very foreign. With the fall of the wall, a whole way of life evaporated. The certainties upon which the day-to-day routines had been built ceased to exist.

So, obviously, the reunification of Germany brought massive changes for ordinary Germans and these changes brought a clash between the values and practices in East Germany and the values and practices of the new status quo. Whilst East Germans were forced to adjust to the situational differences, their behaviour and attitudes were far harder to change. It was simply not possible to snuff out years of socialisation [socialism?]. So no matter what they felt about the GDR, what their individual day-to-day lives were like was totally bound up by a system which had affected their whole outlook and way of thinking.

So with the fall of the Wall and the reunification that followed, a country was effectively erased. For those individuals who had been born in the GDR, the Berlin Wall and all it symbolised continued to cast a long shadow long after it fell. And a quarter-of-a-century later opinion is still divided about the extent to which the two sides truly merged.

So, today I have aimed to give you some insights into the social consequences of the reunification but my book [Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall] gives more personal detailed insights into how the collapse of communism was felt in individual lives.

Transcribed by Sara Perry as part of a volunteer project, April 2015