Last weekend marked 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event which is remembered today as one of the iconic moments of the East European revolutions of 1989. Of course, the fall of the wall and the capitulation of the communist regime in East Germany did not represent the beginning of the changes that swept the communist bloc during that tumultous year – by 9th November 1989 Solidarity had already achieved electoral success in Poland, and the Hungarian communist party had announced sweeping reforms, proposed democratic elections and opened up their borders with the West – a move that also directly contributed to the final destabilisation of the communist regime in East Germany. Neither did the fall of the wall signal the end of the East European revolutions: the following day Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov announced his resignation after 18 years in power, later in November the Velvet Revolution led to the end of communist rule in Czecholovakia and in December the Romanian Revolution resulted in the Christmas Day execution of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena. However, between its construction in August 1961 and its destruction in November 1989, the Berlin Wall came to symbolise the ‘Iron Curtain’ that separated Western Europe from the communist Eastern Bloc during the Cold War, so when the Wall finally crumbled and live images showing thousands of Germans celebrating by hacking at the hated structure with hammers and pick-axes were transmitted around the world, it created one of the most iconic moments of the revolutions of 1989, the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War. As Soviet foreign policy advisor Anatoly Chernayev recorded in his diary on 10th November 1989: “The Berlin Wall has collapsed. This entire era in the history of the socialist system is over … This is the end of Yalta … the Stalinist legacy and “the defeat of Hitlerite Germany”.
Although I was still only a child, I do remember the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. I remember sitting transfixed in front of the TV, watching ‘John Craven’s Newsround’ on CBBC, as footage of the collapse of the wall and the first emotional meetings between Germans from East and West was shown. While I wasn’t old enough to really understand what was going on, I do remember the vivid sense that something *really* important was happening – the first sense I ever had of ‘living through history’. That feeling stayed with me over the years, and I have often wondered whether that was the reason why I became so interested in Central and East European history, eventually making a career out of it!
Five years ago, in November 2009, I was also lucky enough to be able to visit Berlin for the 20th anniversary ‘Mauerfall’ celebrations, as giant dominoes were set up following the former route of the Wall, before being symbolically toppled on the evening of 9th November:
This year, a different kind of installation – a ‘border of light’ or ‘Lichtgrenze‘ was created in Berlin, comprised of 8000 illuminated balloons that were then released, one by one, on the evening of 9th November 2014:
Although I wasn’t able to visit Berlin, the power of the internet meant I could still watch the release of the balloons and the dramatic firework finale from the comfort of my own sofa on Sunday evening via the official livestream. Granted, it wasn’t as good as actually being in Berlin, but alongside the proliferation of photos and videos posted on Twitter, it was a pretty good substitute!
However, although I wasn’t able to visit Berlin this year, I was able to organise an event to commemorate the 25th anniversary here at Leeds Beckett University, through our Centre for Culture and the Arts. Invited guest speaker Oliver Fritz, author of the critically acclaimed book The Iron Curtain Kid visited and spoke about his experiences of growing up ‘on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall’ in communist-controlled East Berlin, and about witnessing the fall of the Wall in November 1989. Oliver provided some fascinating – and often very humorous – insights into life in communist East Germany, attracting a lively audience comprised of staff, students and members of the public. Oliver’s talk was followed by a screening of the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others (2007), a critically acclaimed portrayal of a Stasi agent assigned to conduct surveillance on a writer suspected of dissident activities in East Berlin during the 1980s.
A special exhibition, produced by Leeds Beckett students studying for a BA in Graphic Arts and Design (working with GAD Senior Lecturer Justin Burns), in collaboration with some of our final year BA History undergraduates was also displayed to mark the event. The impressively detailed and striking exhibition functioned as a visual timeline, spanning the initial division of Germany after WWII until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989:
You can read more about the event here.
Finally, the 25th anniversary commemorations have recived a lot of media attention and online coverage. Here is a short collection of some of my favourite features from the past week:
- This great RFERL infographic – 25 Years Later: The European Revolutions – for the ‘bigger picture’ of what was happening in 1989.
- The 25 Years Iron Curtain Twitter feed – who are tweeting short reports about key events that took place in Eastern Europe in 1989.
- This short video on Vine – The History of the Berlin Wall in 60 Seconds
- Special CWIHP documentary collection – 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall
- The Berlin Wall in Google Street View
- The Guardian’s interactive photo gallery of the Berlin Wall in the Cold War and Now
- The Berlin Wall – Before and After – photos in the Washington Post.
- Lichtgrenze on Vimeo
- A collection of stories from Berliners who Remember the Fall of the Wall and Berlin 1963: three stories of a divided city.
- Timoth Garton Ash’s article about The fall of the Berlin Wall – What it meant to be there
- Reuters photo slideshow – When Berlin Was Two.
- Deutsche Welle Opinion Piece – November 9th 1989: An unforgettable day for Germany, and for Europe.
- 25 years on – different international perspectives about what caused the fall of the wall.
BOOK REVIEW: Herbie Sykes, The Race Against the Stasi: The Incredible Story of Dieter Wiedemann, the Iron Curtain and the Greatest Cycling Race on Earth. (Aurum Press, 2014).
The Race Against the Stasi tells the story of Dieter Wiedemann, a small town boy with a love of cycling, who became one of East Germany’s sporting elite. In 1962, he was even chosen to represent the GDR in the annual Peace Race, the ‘Tour de France of the East’ and the biggest event in the sporting calendar for cycling enthusiasts in the Eastern bloc. During the summer of 1960 however, Dieter Wiedemann fell in love with Sylvia Hermann, a girl from the Western zone of Germany who was visiting relatives in Dieter’s home town of Floha. After Sylvia returned home, the two wrote to one another regularly, a correspondence that they maintained after the closure of the inner-Berlin border in August 1961. (“You assumed it was a temporary thing” said Dieter, when discussing his reaction to the construction of the Berlin Wall “The feeling was that the politicians would sort it out somehow, and that things would just go back to normal”).
As time passed, the division of Germany assumed more permanence, travel between East and West became more restrictive and it became increasingly clear that Dieter and Sylvia could not be together unless one of them was prepared to ‘switch sides’. So in 1964, when Dieter was sent to participate in a cycling qualification race taking place in Giessen, a town in West Germany not far from where Sylvia and her family lived, he began plotting his escape. On 4th July 1964, he took advantage of a break in training one afternoon to ‘take his bike out for a ride’, and never returned. Dieter was granted asylum in the FRG and started a new life there; gaining a professional contract to ride for the West German cycling team ‘Torpedo’, and even competing in the Tour de France in 1967. Dieter and Sylvia married, and raised three children together. Fifty years on, Herbie Sykes tells the story of Dieter Wiedemann for the very first time, drawing on a potent combination of personal testimonies and archival research.
While the love story between Dieter and Sylvia lies at the heart of this tale, it would be wrong to dismiss this as merely a Cold War romance; a pair of star-crossed lovers, separated by the ‘iron curtain’. The Race Against the Stasi also provides some fascinating insights into life in the GDR. Wiedemann’s story highlights the politicisation of sport in East Germany; sporting success was hijacked as propaganda, used to create popular patriotism within the GDR and raise the regime’s prestige overseas, with the sporting elite viewed as ‘diplomats in tracksuits’. Full-time sportsmen benefitted from generous state funding and enjoyed a privileged status, including the opportunity to travel overseas to compete. Sporting success bought material benefits and a certain amount of political influence, as shown by Dieter’s intervention to ensure that Sylvia was granted a rare travel permit for a second visit to Floha in 1964. However, poor sporting performance could also attract political pressure, as Dieter discovered when the GDR teams’ third place finish in the 1962 Peace Race was deemed ‘unsatisfactory’, bringing him to the attention of the Stasi who were ‘looking for someone to blame’.
While Dieter’s relationship with Sylvia was clearly the biggest catalyst for his decision to defect to the West, HE also outlines his growing frustration and resentment with the politicisation, oppression and tightening of social control following the construction of the Berlin Wall, and the more restrictive aspects of life in communist East Germany. In The Race Against the Stasi Dieter describes how, after 1961, his refusal to join the Communist Party led to questions being asked about his lack of ‘ideological loyalty’ to the regime, which begin to have an adverse effect on his sporting career:
“I just wanted to be able to race my bike, and to feel like I had the same chance as everybody else. Now it really dawned on me that I didn’t and probably never would have … I wasn’t political at all, but nor did I want my life to become politicised … the country was getting more and more oppressive. There were more police, more people being arrested and more Stasi” (Dieter Wiedemann, quoted in The Race Against the Stasi, pp168-173)
The Race Against the Stasi is structured around the different ‘lives’ of Dieter Wiedemann – his life in the GDR up until 1964, His ‘second life’ in the FRG following his defection, and his ‘third life’ as represented through reports and documents taken from Wiedemann’s Stasi file, which only became available after the collapse of communism and the reunification of Germany. Personal testimonies feature heavily throughout The Race Against the Stasi, as in addition to the inclusion of detailed narratives from Dieter and Sylvia, Sykes has collected testimonies from a range of other individuals who are connected to the story. Throughout the book the various narrators are allowed to ‘speak for themselves’, and Sykes’ own ‘voice’ (as author/interviewer) is almost entirely absent, limited to a short introduction and a few concluding comments. This is a very effective narrative trope, and the inclusion of multiple supporting narratives generally works very well (for example, the dual narrative between Dieter and Sylvia, describing their first meeting was a particularly nice touch) although there are also a few places where the rather frequent jump between multiple narrators is a little frustrating.
Sykes has also carried out painstaking archival research, as illustrated by the many documents interspersed throughout the narrative, including relevant press reports from Neues Deutschland and other media, multiple copies of confidential reports compiled by the Stasi, copies of some of the letters Dieter had written to Sylvia 1960-1964 (none of Sylvia’s letters to Dieter have survived as they were destroyed by his family after he left), and personal photographs of the couple and their families. The inclusion of so many sources interspersed throughout the book is a great addition, providing some wonderful insights, although at times the sheer volume of sources included does break-up the narrative flow. The extracts from Dieter’s Stasi file provide a great snapshot of the high levels of surveillance and social control that existed in the GDR, but also illustrate that errors and oversights were still possible – given their interest in Dieter, it seemed almost unbelievable that the Stasi remained largely unaware of the close relationship he had formed with Sylvia until after his defection, even with their frequent exchange of letters 1960-64 and Dieter’s personal intervention to request a permit to allow Sylvia to visit him shortly before his defection.
Finally, Sykes does not shy away from highlighting the damage that Dieter’s decision to leave the GDR caused for those he left behind. While Dieter and Sylvia got their ‘happy ending’, his family suffered terribly – not only had they lost Dieter, but they were subjected to close Stasi surveillance and endured numerous socio-economic sanctions (Dieter’s father lost his job and his younger brother, Eberhard, also a talented cyclist, was prevented from ever racing professionally). Ultimately, their family relationship was fractured beyond repair:
“Looking back, I suppose we were all victims … and no relationship could survive all that without being seriously compromised” (Dieter, quoted in The Race Against the Stasi, p386)
“At times, at the start, it felt like my whole life was a fight between East and West” (Sylvia, quoted in The Race Against the Stasi, p318)
The story of Dieter Wiedemann is an intriuging tale, encompassing a potent combination of politics, sport, love and betrayal. Herbie Sykes impresively balances the political and the personal, making The Race Against the Stasi an enjoyable, compelling and highly recommended read.
If you enjoy East European literature, then we have a treat for you! To mark the 25th anniversary of the East European revolutions of 1989, Roman Korec will be publishing his new novel ‘i Are the Kanatan’ for free online.
‘i Are the Kanatan: An Eastalgia Bestreader’ will be released in a series of 31 daily instalments on Roman’s website. The first chapter will be posted on 17th October, and this will be followed by daily updates, up until the novel’s conclusion on 16th November. These dates were deliberately chosen to cover the period leading up to the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism in the Slovak Republic, Roman’s country of origin. The novel will also be released in its entirety as a free ebook on November 17, 2014.
Roman describes his novel as follows:
“One day, the Son, a directionless thirty-something immigrant of Central/Eastern European origin living at the western edge of the New World, decides to, as he puts it, “finally do something worthwhile with his life”, and thus begins the tragicomic story of how he tries to – quite unsuccessfully – plan and organize a revolution to liberate the place he lives in and turn it into a retro socialist paradise.
i Are the Kanatan, an Eastalgia Bestreader is a subtle, humorous novel of yearning for a seemingly simpler life in a seemingly simpler past, manifesting itself as #eastalgia, that irrepressible, often irrational nostalgia for the homogenized Soviet Bloc socialist past of the sixties, seventies and eighties that, despite its repressive political reality, produced strain of spartan but lush culture and a simple yet rich way of life in most of the ex-Soviet Bloc countries.
At its heart the novel is a simple, human story filled with fleeting glimpses of insight, “Eastern European” dry humour, and bouts of irrationality that often characterize our deepest idiosyncrasies”
It certainly sounds very intriguing! I’m looking forward to reading the daily instalments on Roman’s website, starting next week, from 17th October.
You can read more about ‘i Are the Kanatan‘ on Roman’s website here, and you can also follow Roman’s updates on Twitter and Facebook. As the story unfolds, why not tweet your thoughts using the hashtags #31daysofkanatan and #eastalgia ?
I spent the first week of September in Budapest, on the first leg of a research trip funded by the Centre for Culture and the Arts at Leeds Metropolitan University. While I was in Budapest, I spent most of my time researching at the Open Society Archivum. I really can’t recommend the OSA highly enough. They have some fantastic Cold War-related collections, the archivists were friendly and helpful, and the open access ethos means they are generally happy for researchers to take digital copies for research purposes. This was really helpful for me, as working in a second language (in this case, translating documents from Czech to English) slows down the research process considerably, which can be frustrating when you have large amounts of information to get through in a limited time frame. So it was great for me to be able to quickly scan reports to ascertain their relevance and then take copies of the most relevant information that I could keep, to read through properly and develop for my research project at a later date.
Despite a very productive week which turned up some fantastic information for my current research project relating to terror and repression in communist Czechoslovakia, I left already thinking about future visits, having identified several additional collections that I plan to return to OSA to view!
In addition to focusing on my own research, I attended two interesting events during my week at the OSA. Firstly, I was able to attend the opening of a new art installation, ‘QR Code’ by Gergely Barcza. This 3 sq metre display consists of 2.916 slides, capturing the life of a family over a 20 year period in communist Hungary (1970s-80s). The montage is deliberately arranged into a giant QR code, which can be read by a smartphone, and links to the project’s facebook page, containing the individually digitised images:
If, like me, you’ve ever looked through old photographs at flea markets or second hand stores, and wondered about the people in the photographs and what became of them, then Barcza’s project will strike a chord with you. The photomontage not only showcases private family memories, but also encapsulates Hungarian society in the 1970s and 80s, and poses some interesting questions about methods of visually documenting human life, in both the past and the present:
I was also excited to discover that the team from the Europeana 1989 project were visting the OSA while I was there. Their team travel around former East bloc countries collecting personal memories, stories, objects and memorabilia relating to the revolutions of 1989, to add to their online collection. I think Europeana 1989 is a wonderful initiative, and have been following their Twitter account for a while now, so it was really great to have the chance to meet some of the team and find out a bit more about the project. You can check out their main website here.
As the OSA was closed over the weekend, I had some free time to see a bit more of Budapest before travelling on to Prague. Today Budapest is a thriving, cosmopolitan city. But twenty-five years after the collapse of communism, reminders of the communist legacy can still be found throughout the city:
I also took the opportunity to visit Memento Park, an open air museum on the outskirts of Budapest, dedicated to the display of some of the most striking communist-era monuments which were removed from the City after 1989. Ákos Eleőd, the Hungarian architect who designed the park is said to have remarked that “This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.”
The moving poem ‘One Sentence About Tyranny’ by Hungarian poet Gyula Ilyes is also displayed at the entrance to Memento Park. You can read an English translation of the poem here:
One inside the park, you are free to wander around and view the 42 communist-era statues on display. Guided tours are also available. Here are just a few photos of some of the many striking exhibits:
Other exhibits at Memento Park included an old Trabant and film footage from ‘Life of an Agent’, depicting secret police training methods in communist Hungary:
I also visited Terror Haza (House of Terror), a rather sobering museum that documents the experiences of both fascism and communism in Hungary. Located at 60 Andrassy Ucta, the former police headquarters of both regimes, Terror Haza has been criticised for focusing on the imposition of external terror, and ignoring the question of Hungarian collaboration. However, the displays were interesting and visually striking – I found the footage recounting the experiences of some of the victims of both regimes that plays on screens at various points around the museum (in Hungarian, but with English subtitles) particularly effective:
Whilst in Budapest, I also gave an interview to The Budapest Times, discussing the legacy of communism, post-communism, contemporary developments in Hungary and Ukraine and the impact of EU expansion, which has now been published on their website here.
Finally, you can see more of my photos from Budapest, and from my visit to Memento Park over at my personal blog Kelly and Kamera.
Last week I spent a few days in Prague, where I was attending an International Conference ‘The Legacy of Totalitarianism Today’ (Dědictví Totality Dnes). The conference was organised by the Platform of European Memory and Conscience in association with several of their partner organisations, and hosted by the Senate of the Czech Parliament. In addition to two full days of conference presentations and discussion, two linked film showings were offered at European House (Evropský dům): Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn (2007) and a special screening of The Soviet Story (2008) followed by a great Q and A session with Director Edvīns Šnore. You can read more about The Soviet Story (and order copies!) at the official website here.
A particular highlight for me was the invitation to attend the presentation of the first Prize of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience at Kampa Museum. The award, designed by Polish artist Mikołaj Ostaszewski, will be awarded annually to a person or persons who are fighting anywhere in the world today against totalitarianism, for the ideals of democracy, fundamental human rights and freedoms and the rule of law. This year, Crimean Tatar Leader Mustafa Dzemilev was presented with the award, to enthusiastic applause from all of those in the audience. You can read more about the award here.
The aim of the conference was to assess the legacy of totalitarianism twenty five years after the collapse of communism, by combining discussion about past lessons with analysis of contemporary developments in the region. Discussion thus covered a broad range of topics, with themed panels including the ongoing fight to achieve justice for victims of totalitarian crimes; the evolving role of memory institutions; democracy the rule of law and economic transparency; media engagement; the role of the European Union and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. However, I have briefly highlighted some of the key themes and ideas that emerged from the conference below.
The Long Shadow of Totalitarianism
“We have been living in an atmosphere of freedom for the last 25 years, but what is freedom? Freedom is just a space that needs to be filled with positive developments and actions. Today, it is important to defend this space of freedom and prevent the past from repeating, by filling this space with positive content, for us and for generations to come” (Conference Statement by Daniel Herman, Minister of Culture of the Czech Republic)
Twenty-five years after the collapse of communism across the region, the legacy of decades of totalitarian rule continues to cast a shadow. The Berlin Wall may have fallen in 1989, but there is compelling evidence to suggest that for many, the maur im kopf (‘wall in the mind’) still persists today. Despite the widespread joy expressed when communism ended, millions of people had been deeply affected, and often damaged, by decades of totalitarian rule. This created the mass ‘moral illness’ described by Vaclav Havel. It is generally accepted that mentality lags behind institutional change during times of transition and during the conference presentations, many questions were raised about how effectively the totalitarian legacy has been overcome, and to what extent the ‘ ‘post-communist mentality’ has endured, and continues to influence both individual attitudes and institutional reforms.
Assessing the Post-Totalitarian Transition
In the past twenty-five years attempts by former communist states to establish and consolidate democracy, the rule of law and respect for individual rights; establish social trust; develop political accountability and fight corruption have produced a variety of experiences. From the mid-1990s the prospect of EU membership was a key motivating factor driving reform in many post-communist countries, but some were able to use this ‘window of opportunity’ more effectively than others. Often however, there has been little political will to reform beyond the requirements necessary for EU accession, and little evidence of genuine internalisation of many of the associated democratic values (including individual rights). Today, while official data provided by organisations such as Freedom House tend to rate Central and East European countries relatively highly with regards to levels of freedom and democracy, popular opinion polls suggest that democracy in the region is not working so well, although there is evidence to suggest that citizens are now more willing to hold governments accountable by ‘punishing them’ via the ballot box. Law still has a tendency to ‘bend’ before political power, many of the big anti-corruption cases are politically motivated and there are cases where the security services have been misused for political purposes.
Today, there are suggestions that we are seeing a post-EU accession ‘crisis of democracy’, even amongst countries that have previously been viewed as success stories in terms of their post-communist transition (such as the worrying drift towards authoritarianism in Hungary), but given recent political developments in Western Europe (as highlighted by the 2014 European Parliament elections), I wonder to what extent we need to see this ‘democratic crisis’ in the context of a wider European political shift rather than as the direct result of an incomplete post-communist transition and the legacy of recent totalitarian rule.
Communism and Nazism Compared
“Nazism and communism are, in effect, interchangeable” (Conference statement by Valters Nollendorf, Occupation Museum Association of Latvia)
In 2009 the European Parliament designated 23 August as an annual day of European Remembrance for Victims of Nazism and Stalinism (‘Black Ribbon Day’) to act as ‘a Europe-wide Day of Remembrance for the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes’. But should we emphasise the similarities or the differences between these ideologies and the regimes they fostered? Should victims of communism be considered together with or separately from victims of Nazism? To what extent can the persecution and repression associated with the early communist period be considered as a continuation of Nazi repression? Nollendorf’s conference statement was controversial; the comparison between Nazism and communism has been addressed by numerous scholars and still remains a highly disputed subject. However, this comparison was evident in the screening of The Soviet Story, which highlights the ideological similarities and practical parallels that existed between the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. It is worth noting that many victims of totalitarianism suffered under both regimes and following WWII the Soviets often used former Nazi concentration camps as ‘special camps’ for prisoners of war, where many people were killed (although, there was no organised industrial genocide on the scale of the Nazi Holocaust). After the communist parties had consolidated their power in central and eastern Europe however, they also established their own system of prison camps and labour camps across the communist bloc – an extension of the Soviet Gulag – many of which have been described as ‘extermination regimes’. At last week’s conference, journalist Karl-Peter Schwarz highlighted the 2009 discovery of 4000 mummified bodies, victims of communist terror buried in a mass grave mine shaft at Huda Jama in Slovenia, which had created a ‘Pompeii of communist horrors’, and questioned why this story had barely been covered by wider European media (There is some information about this here).
Although communism was declared ‘dead’ after 1989/1991, it was arguably never fully buried. Communism has never been wholly discredited in the same way that Nazism was after WWII, and there has been no international attempt at ‘truth seeking’ along the lines of the Nuremberg Trials. In fact, in many instances attempts to bring legal action against communist-era officials has been met with reluctance and resistance. This lack of accountability allowed many communist parties across central and eastern Europe to rebrand themselves – some of them retained power into the 1990s, while others returned to political office just a few years after the collapse, and former communist parties in many countries have polled highly in recent elections (such as the success enjoyed by KSČM in the Czech legislative elections of October 2013, where they polled around 15% of the vote, making them the third largest parliamentary party). Today, communism and Nazism still tend to be presented differently, leading to allegations that communism is often ‘whitewashed’ for political reasons. In particular, academics and analysts often appear more willing to make excuses for the crimes of communism, presenting the ideology as well intentioned but distorted, due to a combination of the conditions under which it was enforced and the influence of human error.
Preserving and Promoting Voices of Victims of Totalitarian Persecution
“The communist experiment resulted in an ocean of injustice. I am just one drop in that ocean” (Aristina Pop Săileanu, former political prisoner, Romania)
Conference participants stressed the importance of recording the experiences of those who lived under communist regimes ‘to help give a voice to truth’ in the future. Several speakers also expressed the importance of education, knowledge dissemination and raising awareness of the crimes of communism. A number of organisations represented at the conference – including the Institute for Totalitarian Regimes , the Confederation of Political Prisoners (Czech Republic) and the International Center for Studies into Communism (Romania) described their involvement in oral history projects designed to collect testimonies from victims of the past, the ‘eyewitnesses of totalitarianism’, to ensure the preservation of their experiences. A variety of other positive initiatives were also outlined, including the organisation of school visits to encourage engagement between former political prisoners and victims of totalitarian repression, and the new ‘post-totalitarian’ generation. This is great news – I’ve seen first-hand how effective first-hand testimony from survivors can be in engaging younger students. But this process of ‘memory transfer’ can still be problematic.
What is the best way to pass on information, understanding, knowledge and experience about the past? As the generation gap widens, it is not only students but also their teachers who have no lived experience or memory of communism, and today, not all of the younger generation are interested in learning about the totalitarian past. Even twenty-five years on, it is often difficult for those who experienced communist repression to convey the truth of their experiences and discuss the ‘stripping of human dignity’ they endured, and some victims still refuse to speak about their experiences at all. Finally, how do we ensure equal representation of these voices, without privileging the more educated, more literate, more vocal members of this group? For example, Čeněk Růžička, President of the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust, argued that the experiences of the Roma, a group persecuted by both the Nazi and Communist authorities, remain marginalised compared with many other victims of totalitarianism. It is estimated up to 500,000 Roma were murdered in the Holocaust, but their fate is not given the same recognition as Jews and other groups who were victims of Nazi genocide, and Roma survivors have often been denied equal access to compensation. The issue of restitution for property stolen from the Roma has still not been addressed, and neither has any compensation yet been offered to victims of the forced sterilisation that routinely occurred in communist Czechoslovakia. In part, this marginalisation can be explained by the higher levels of illiteracy and the insular nature of many Roma communities, but it is also a product of continued prejudice and racism, as the Roma continue to be viewed as ‘second class citizens’ across much of Europe today.
Remembrance and Restitution
Stéphane Courtois, Professor of History and editor of the Black Book of Communism gave a thought-provoking presentation, arguing that in post-totalitarian societies ‘memory goes hand in hand with forgetting’. Courtois talked about the slow process of ‘cleansing’ national memories, following decades when communist regimes used a combination of propaganda, censorship and brute force to supress or stigmatise any alternative interpretations or memories that deviated from or contradicted their ‘official line’. The fall of communism allowed many people to speak openly about ‘how things really were’ for the first time and today a more honest assessment of the past is finally possible.
The contemporary consensus is that memory institutions and sites of remembrance remain important, as a memorial honouring the victims, a source of support for the survivors, sites of authenticity, museums of history, and centres for research and education about the totalitarian past. However, to date, the majority of memorials to communist repression across central and eastern Europe have been organised and built without any real state assistance. However, some questions are being asked about memory institutions: how long will they be needed? What role should they play? How should they be financed? Similar debates surround the future of many sites of repression and suffering, including prisons, labour camps and execution sites. How many sites should be retained as permanent memorials? How should these decisions be made? Who should finance the preservation of such sites? What functions should they serve? What about the future function of those sites which are not preserved? Some sites are already well established (such as Auschwitz-Birkeanau and Terezin) and others are currently under development (such as the ‘red tower of death’, a four-story building at the Jachymov uranium mine (the location of an infamously harsh communist-era labour camp) which was donated to the Czech Confederation of Political Prisoners after the production facilities closed. There are currently plans to develop the tower as a monument to the maltreatment and suffering experienced by the prisoners and a memorial to slavery across the eastern bloc). However, many other sites remain disputed, such as the Lety concentration camp, south of Prague, where an estimated 1,327 Roma were interned and hundreds died 1943-44. Today Lety remains the site of a functioning pig farm, despite a concerted campaign to close down or relocate the business out of respect for the victims.
Questions were also raised regarding restitution. How successfully have the crimes of the communist past been dealt with? Given the advancing age and declining health of both perpetrators and victims of some of the worst crimes of these totalitarian regimes, is there still a moral responsibility to achieve justice by bring them to trial? 2002 saw the launch of ‘Operation Last Chance’ in an attempt to bring remaining Nazi war criminals to justice. Should a similar international campaign be launched targeting perpetrators of communist-era crimes, especially since more information has become available since the opening up of more state archives? The 2008 Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism stated that crimes committed under communism could often be classified as crimes against humanity, but relatively few trials and convictions have been achieved in the former Soviet bloc to date, and approaches to restitution have varied widely. In Poland, the creation of the Institute of National Remembrance – Commission for Crimes Against the Polish Nation to cover the period 1939-1990, a body with special powers for investigation and prosecution has been an important development – between 2011-2014 there have been 311 indictments filed, over 470 perpetrators formally accused and 170 convicted and sentenced. Following the 2006 establishment of the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes there have also been recent attempts to bring communist-era prison authorities to justice in Romania (where 600,000 people were imprisoned under the communist regime), such as the recent cases of Alexandru Visinescu and Ioan Ficior. In Hungary too, the conviction of former Interior Minister Béla Biszku on charges of war crimes in connection with the brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising earlier this year was viewed as a landmark case, and clips from the controversial documentary Crime without Punishment (2010) highlighting Biszku’s apparent lack of remorse were also shown at the conference by director Tamás Novák.
Russia and Ukraine
“The current situation in Ukraine has created a moral and material threat for Europe” (Conference statement by Marion Smith, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation)
“23 years of independent Ukraine has shown that ignoring the totalitarian past deforms the present” (Conference statement by Volodymyr Viatrovych, Director, National Memory Institute, Ukraine)
“Ukraine symbolises the crisis of memory faced by all post-communist countries today” (Conference statement by Stéphan Courtois, Professor of History)
Naturally, recent developments in Russia and the current crisis in Ukraine also provided a key theme running throughout the conference, from Sofi Oksanen’s opening keynote speech to the closing panel discussion entitled ‘Ukraine and beyond’. Oksanen’s speech (which can be read in full here) argued that Putin’s rise to power did not just signify a new leader for the country, but a new system of power, a form of ‘neo-totalitarianism’ which is evidenced by the Kremlin’s use of ‘information warfare’, attack of pressfreedom and restriction of civil rights, while Russian nationalism is acting as a new basis for increased hegemony in their former empire.
Oksanen also questioned how easily ‘the West’ appear to have accepted and ‘forgotten’ the Russian invasion of Crimea. Mustafa Dzhemilev also gave an impassioned condemnation of the Russian annexation of Ukraine and the enforcement of Russian citizenship on Crimean people, stating that even as the Crimean Tatars still struggle to overcome the legacy of Stalin’s 1944 forced deportations, they are facing a new threat from Putin’s regime. Dzhemilev also expressed concerns about the lack of external protection for Ukrainian territorial integrity in the face of the renewed Russian threat, despite the assurances provided by the 1994 Budapest memorandum, asking what message this sends to other states threatened by Russia’s resurgence? Finally, Andriy Kohut, a Ukrainian civic activist and coordinator of the Civic Sector of Euromaidan, traced the evolution of the current crisis in Ukraine from peaceful protest through confrontation to full scale revolution, before discussing some of the key challenges faced by the new Ukrainian President Poroshenko: to finally leave post-totalitarianism behind, harness the renewed civic activity sparked by the Euromaidan movement in a constructive direction, and deal with ongoing instability in the east, much of which continues to be fuelled by Russian influence.
Finally, the ongoing situation in Ukraine also provided a focal point for a closing statement entitled ‘Time for Europe to Wake Up!’ which was released by the Platform of European Memory and Conscience following the conference, and this can be read here.
I’m very pleased to be able to publish this online interview with Paula Kirby – a writer who lived and worked in Dresden, East Germany during the 1980s. During her time in Dresden, Paula was monitored by the Stasi, and she recently gained access to her Stasi file. Paula is currently writing a novel set in 1980s East Germany and she also regularly tweets about the GDR – you can follow her on Twitter @PaulaSKirby (and we think that if you’re not already following her on Twitter, then you really should be!). Here, Paula reflects on her experiences of living and working in East Germany.
Hi Paula! Thanks very much for agreeing to share your experiences with us. Could you begin by telling us a little about the time you spent living and working in East Germany?
Of course – I was there for two years, from September 1985 to the end of August 1987, teaching English in the Intensive Language Centre of the Technical University of Dresden. My students were predominantly men aged 35+ who were already well established in their careers and needed to improve their English, usually in preparation for a stint “building Socialism” overseas: common destinations for my students included Ethiopia, Libya and Iraq, where English would be more widely understood than German. For me, the allure of the GDR was curiosity, plain and simple: the chance to see and experience a country that had always intrigued me, but which I had assumed would always remain a mystery.
What did you expect life in communist East Germany to be like? Was the reality similar to how you had imagined it?
My degree subject was German and one of my Final Year modules had included the study of a few works of GDR literature; as a student I’d also made two or three day-visits across Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin, so I knew about the greyness and the strange sensation of stepping back in time by a couple of decades or so; I knew there wouldn’t be much in the shops; I knew East Berlin felt like an oasis of calm and tranquillity after the (equally but oppositely thrilling) spectacle of West Berlin. I had seen the Berlin Wall and knew that GDR citizens were not free to travel; and I had heard of the Stasi, of course, though I wasn’t sure how much of what I thought I knew was true and how much merely Cold War propaganda.
Nevertheless, the GDR was full of surprises. Shall I start with the good ones? Dresden was beautiful: literally breathtakingly beautiful, or at least, the city centre was. The half-finished suburbs full of hideous tower-blocks were as ugly in Dresden as they were elsewhere in the GDR, but much of the historic old town had been lovingly rebuilt after the war, and even the modern areas, such as the Prager Strasse pedestrian zone, where my flat was, were amazingly light and spacious, with dancing fountains and flower-beds bursting with colour, and people sitting outside at the street cafés, lapping up the sunshine while drinking coffee and eating cake. This was not what I had been expecting of a city behind the Iron Curtain!
Then there was Dresden’s astonishing cultural provision – It wasn’t just that there was an abundance of cultural offerings, but that the appreciation of culture clearly had mass appeal. The famous Old and New Masters art galleries were always busy, and I don’t think I ever went to a classical concert in the enormous Kulturpalast (‘Palace of Culture’) that wasn’t absolutely packed. And not just with the kind of people you might have expected to see in the West, where such things tend to be perceived as middle-class pursuits. In the GDR there was nothing elitist about going to a classical concert or opera: it was simply something enjoyable and stimulating that was accessible to all. Tickets for the newly re-opened Semper Opera House were only on sale once a week, from Monday lunchtimes, and people would start queuing before dawn, even in the depths of winter, in order to be sure of getting them. Cultural events were heavily subsidised so, even though the opera tickets were still fairly pricey in relation to average wages, they bore no resemblance to the obscene prices charged in the West; and other cultural events were truly affordable for all. This was something I loved, and I still think that life in the GDR was enormously enriched by it.
Another highlight of my time in Dresden were my interactions with friends, colleagues and students. One of my strongest memories is of laughter: whether in the classroom or staffroom, at a local restaurant or over a bottle of wine or whisky at home, we spent a huge amount of time laughing. Not that that, of itself, is anything particularly unusual: it just wasn’t what I’d been expecting of the GDR, which I’d assumed would be altogether grimmer in character. Also, in a society where there was simply no point spending your life in the pursuit of material gain because, no matter how much money you amassed, there was very little to spend it on, people had the mental space to focus on other things: like friends and family, going mushrooming in the woods, going for bike rides: the simple life. There was a simplicity and a warmth in the interactions I shared in that was quite delightful and very different in character from anything I’d experienced in the West – I suspect that plays a large part in many former GDR citizens’ nostalgia for those times.
There were some bad surprises too – the political propaganda I had been expecting, of course: just not that it would be quite so relentless. It was in the textbooks I was expected to teach from, it was on TV, it was in the newspapers, it was on banners draped above shops and offices, it saturated the endless staff meetings, it was even lit up in red neon letters on a block of flats near my home (“Socialism will triumph!”). The same goes for the bureaucracy: it wasn’t unexpected, but the extent of it and the frustration that went with it (and the number of times you would wait for hours to see an official, only to be curtly turned away because you didn’t have a particular form with you, or you did have the form but you hadn’t already waited two hours somewhere else to have it stamped by another official first …), these were things to which I eventually became accustomed but never reconciled.
While nearly all East Germans I got to know socially and professionally were warm and welcoming, an encounter with people in their official capacities was often stressful. Most shop assistants, waiters, post office clerks, ticket desk staff and even doctors’ receptionists often seemed to go out of their way to convey their low opinion of you and their resentment at having to engage with you. “Customer service” seemed an unknown concept, and to go shopping or to the local post office was to face an almost certain lecture on the many ways you had failed to live up to expectations. You would be scolded for not having wrapped your parcel properly, for not standing at the right place in the queue, for not stepping up to the counter quickly enough when it was your turn, for not having your ID ready to show, for not having the right change, for giving them too much small change, for speaking too quietly and, of course, for speaking too loudly. Such encounters were a constant test, it seemed: one we were all doomed to fail. In fact, of all the challenges of everyday life in the GDR, this was the one that ground me down the most.
How do you think your status as a foreigner (and particularly, your identity as a Westerner ‘behind the iron curtain’!) impacted upon your experiences in East Germany?
On a personal level, most people were friendly, curious, warm, helpful and eager to show off their home town and region. I did genuinely get the impression that most people I met broadly approved of what the GDR was trying to do, even if they were critical of some – or even most – aspects of the reality. The lack of freedom to travel was, of course, a very sore point: even Party stalwarts would privately admit to feeling resentful about this. Officialdom could be tricky, especially because the GDR was always seeking ways of getting hold of hard currency, and so there were certain things (notably hotels and international train travel) for which Westerners were required to pay in Deutschmarks. One glimpse of my British passport, and the demands for western currency would begin! All very well, but I was being paid in GDR Marks and, having only just graduated, had no western currency to spare. The university gave me an official document confirming that I was “building socialism in the GDR” and that the requirement to pay in hard currency therefore did not apply, but it didn’t always do the trick, and then the long circuit from one bureaucrat to another to another would begin all over again until I found someone who was willing to cut through the muddle for me.
For the same reason, travel to other countries within the Soviet bloc was difficult. (To be fair, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, it wasn’t straightforward for GDR citizens either.) I had a visa permitting me to travel between the GDR and non-socialist countries as often as I wanted, but no visa permitting me to travel within the Soviet bloc. These days travelling from Dresden to Prague simply involves a train journey of about two and a half hours. Back then when I wanted to visit Prague I was told I’d have to go to East Berlin (a two-hour train journey from Dresden) in order to get a visa to enter Czechoslovakia; but once I was there, the embassy refused to give me that visa because I didn’t yet have a visa to leave the GDR for another socialist state. For this I had to return to Dresden and apply to my local police station, after which I had to go back to East Berlin for my Czechoslovakian visa. And both visas had to be paid for in hard currency, of course. Even once all that was sorted out, the train journey to Prague took a good four hours because of the border – where, of course, the passport and customs officials were particularly interested in the passenger from the West…
I think generally, as Westerners living and working in the GDR, we fell between two stools. In some ways it worked in our favour: we could, after all, nip across the Wall to West Berlin whenever the urge for an orange or some real news became too strong, and we were free to leave permanently whenever we wanted. However, unlike lifelong residents of the GDR, we were entirely dependent on the products available in the shops. People who were permanently resident there often had allotments where they grew their own fruit and veg; or if they weren’t gardeners, they were good at, say, DIY and could repay the favour of a few kilos of soft fruits in the summer by being willing to fix a neighbour’s dodgy plumbing. Partly because of the poor supply situation and partly, too, because of the interminable bureaucracy, GDR life was eased considerably if you had “Vitamin B”, where the B stood for Beziehungen: contacts. But such contacts take time to build up, so we temporary residents were at a disadvantage: a disadvantage that would have immediately disappeared if we’d had enough Western currency, of course!
How aware were you of the Stasi during your period of residence in Dresden?
I was aware of the existence of the Stasi, and I assumed they’d be at least a little bit interested in me, as a Westerner, but back then no one had any sense of the sheer scale of Stasi operations. My approach, especially in my first year there, was to be cautious but not paranoid: after all, I wasn’t spying, I wasn’t trying to foment revolution and I wasn’t a subversive element, so I couldn’t imagine they’d find anything of interest to them even if they were watching me.
That all changed after my then-partner Knut and I applied for permission to marry and for him to leave the GDR and live with me in the UK. We were never in any doubt that this would not endear us to the GDR authorities, and after that I was much more careful about what I wrote and said. We were quite certain that our letters and phone calls to each other would be monitored – and my letters and phone calls home as well – so I began to take the ‘invisible ear’ into account when deciding what to write and say.
Generally I think most East Germans adopted a similar kind of approach to the one I had taken in the early part of my time in Dresden: they would be somewhat cautious about what they would say, and to whom. Publicly people would repeat or even initiate all the slogans and stock phrases required of them, while perhaps taking a decidedly more sceptical tone in private. Among family and close friends people were sometimes surprisingly forthright about their true feelings, though many will have been devastated after the collapse of the GDR to discover the extent to which the Stasi exploited this too.
You recently requested access to your Stasi file. What motivated you to do this and what did this process involve?
For the applicant the process is quite straightforward,: simply complete the form on the website of the BStU, the Germany authority now responsible for managing access to the remaining Stasi files, and then wait. In my case, it didn’t actually take too long - I heard back within two months that there were index cards referencing me and that it was therefore likely there would be a file, and I received my copy of the full file just over a year after that. That may sound a long time, but the usual waiting time is currently at least two, sometimes even three years, simply because there are still so many new applications coming in and the documents can be spread over several different former Stasi offices, which makes tracking them all down a huge task. You also have to bear in mind the sheer size of the archive: some reports say that, if placed upright in a single line, the files would stretch for 80 miles, others that they’d stretch for 120 miles. Whichever is nearer the truth, the scale is truly staggering, especially when you consider that the population of the GDR was less than 17 million.
As for my motivation, I’d always known I’d do it one day. I had always wanted to get a clear picture of the kind of thing the Stasi were interested in, and the extent to which they had had me under surveillance. Most of all, I wanted to see whether I could work out who, if anyone, had been spying on me. I am fascinated by the notion of layers in relationships: the bits that are visible and the bits that are concealed. Was there someone I had thought of as a friend who had actually just been acting a role with me? If so, it would mean that the memories I had of my time in Dresden – my understanding of my own story, if you like – would be at least partially false. This is also a central theme of the novel I am currently writing.
The initial confirmation from the BStU that there probably would be a file on me was a bit of a shock, and had me reaching for the Remy Martin! Which was strange, really, because it was exactly what I’d been expecting (a Westerner who tried to marry a GDR citizen and leave with him: how could there not have been a file on me?), but that first letter from the BStU transformed the thought from the hypothetical to the real, and really did give me a jolt. By the time my file arrived I’d got used to the idea and, perhaps more importantly, had seen a copy of my former partner’s file so already had a bit more of a sense of the kind of thing it was likely to contain. I was still very curious to see it, but nowhere near as agitated as I’d imagined I would be.
Wow – so what kind of information was contained in your file? Were there any surprises? What have you learned from reading it?
There was less in both my own file and that of my then-partner, Knut, than I’d expected, but as I read and digested what was in there, it became clear that we weren’t talking about a “Lives of Others”-style round-the-clock surveillance, but merely the gathering of what might later become the evidence for the prosecution, so to speak. The crimes of which they suspected us were, in Knut’s case, being likely to try to leave the GDR illegally; and in mine, espionage, passing on secret information and – I still can’t quite say or write this without laughing – people-trafficking! And they clearly weren’t interested in anything that might suggest we were not guilty – so no wonder both of our files were relatively short.
The first thing that struck me was that it was clear from both files that they never for one moment gave any consideration whatsoever to granting our application to marry. It clearly never crossed their minds that our relationship might be genuine, even though it is also clear they were monitoring our letters and phone calls, and would therefore have had evidence enough to show that it was. They could have turned the application down right at the start, rather than leaving us in suspense for over a year.
Knut had already been under surveillance before our application, simply because he had the “wrong” friends: two who had emigrated legally to West Germany, and two others who had attempted to escape and had been caught and imprisoned. These four friendships alone were enough to bring him to the attention of the Stasi. Not only that, but to earn him the Stasi code-name of Karzinom: Carcinoma. That, I think, shocked me more than anything else I found in either of our files. The sheer malevolence of that code-name blows any notion of a cold, unemotional, detached state-machine out of the water and suggests real hatred towards those the state considered its enemies. However, my own code-name was Stachel, which means “thorn”, as in “thorn in our side” - and I rather liked that!
In my case, the Stasi had created various index cards with my details on them even before I arrived in the GDR (there were 20 on me in all), but there is little record in my file of any active interest in me before Knut and I submitted our application to marry. Two or three notes make it clear that the Stasi occasionally debriefed an IM (unofficial informer) about me in my first few months in Dresden, but since the file doesn’t go into detail about what was said, I assume they had nothing of interest to tell.
The second thing that stands out in both files was how jumpy the GDR was about our having any contact whatsoever with the British Embassy in East Berlin. I had quite a lot, of course – I generally dropped in there for a decent cup of tea and to read the British newspapers whenever I was in Berlin, and the embassy was also a good source of data and statistics about the UK that proved useful for my teaching. The letter below, which was written in December 1986 and sent between Stasi departments, noted my contacts with the British Embassy, suggested they should be viewed in the light of increased espionage activity on the part of the NATO states, and asked the recipient to consider assigning an IM (unofficial Stasi informant) to me. There is no formal record in my file of this having been done, though there are a few observation sheets from June 1987 that suggest it might have been:
Naturally, once Knut and I had submitted our application to marry and for Knut to join me in the UK, I visited the embassy more often. I had several meetings with officials there, all of them very friendly and positive and, of course, I always told Knut afterwards what had been said. It came as no surprise, of course, to find this information recorded in Knut’s Stasi file, but what was extremely odd was that the file claims it was Knut who had been to the British Embassy and had these discussions with the Consul and others there, which is entirely untrue. Was this a deliberate distortion of the facts in order to make the case against him as damning as possible, or a genuine misunderstanding by the Stasi? I will never know.
Despite its fearsome reputation today, the Stasi was capable of almost farcical incompetence, something which becomes clear from a copy of a second letter that I found in my own file, as shown below. This letter was dated February 1988, and was sent between Stasi divisions in Dresden. It related to something that had happened seven months earlier, in June 1987, when an official at the British Embassy in Prague had been on a visit to Dresden and had, of course, been trailed by the Stasi. According to the letter in my file, he had been seen entering my flat at 6.13 pm, but “no further information concerning the duration of the visit is available”. On the basis of this, the letter asks the recipient to try to investigate the nature of the relationship between the embassy official and me, and the possibility of using me to report to them on his activities:
There is so much about this that is just breathtakingly inept! First, the letter refers to my still being resident in Dresden in February 1988, but by the time it was written I’d been back in the UK for nearly six months, since my GDR visa had expired at the end of August 1987. Secondly, the letter was written less than a month after the GDR had finally deigned to tell Knut that our application to marry and for him to leave had been turned down, so it is safe to say it would have been a particularly unpropitious time to ask me to do the Stasi a favour.
And it gets funnier: when I read this letter in my file I hunted out my 1987 diary and turned to my entry for the day of the embassy official’s visit. Not only had he not been alone when he visited me, his companion was an official from the British Embassy in East Berlin. Given the extreme concern about my contacts with the British Embassy that is apparent in the rest of my file, I am quite sure that the presence in my flat of officials from not one but TWO British Embassies would have left the Stasi hyperventilating, if they’d only known about it! And since both officials entered my flat quite openly and together, I can only assume that whoever had been given the task of trailing the official from Prague that day had taken a very narrow interpretation of his instructions and had seen no reason to mention the existence of a second visitor.
Even more amusingly, my diary reveals that we were only in my flat a very short time before walking to the restaurant of the Interhotel right next to my apartment block, where we spent several hours in full view of anyone who cared to see us, in animated discussion about the GDR, the CSSR, Gorbachev, perestroika, glasnost, the GDR elections and much more besides. One of the very reasons the GDR built so many Interhotels was to make it easy for the Stasi to keep an eye on Western visitors, so really, we couldn’t have made things any easier for them if we’d tried. Yet they still managed to miss all the interesting bits. I am irresistibly reminded of this, possibly the best commercial of all time.
Today, the topic of East Germany still clearly holds a great deal of interest for you. You regularly tweet old photographs and snippets of information about the GDR. What is your aim in doing this?
I just want to give people a glimpse inside a land that few of them will have seen for themselves and which is now gone for ever. I want to give them something that takes them beyond the stereotypes and the clichés and gives them a more rounded sense of a real country where real people led real lives that, in many respects, weren’t so very different from our own. A country where, just as in the West, children played on swings and struggled with their homework, and grown-ups had to buy petrol and scrub the bath and peel potatoes; where, it is true, there were few luxuries and many frustrations, and where non-conformity could be dangerous, but where people also tried to get on in their careers, raised families, had friends round for supper, built sandcastles, swept the front path and baked cakes …
There’s no hidden message in my tweets and I actively avoid giving my personal opinion in them wherever possible. I’m not interested in either demonising or sanitising the GDR. I just want to convey a sense of what it felt like to live there: sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always real.
I think it’s unfortunate that today, so many people seem to want to deal exclusively in black and white. While there were aspects of the GDR that were, in my view, inexcusable, and I would never wish to downplay the persecution of those who dared to express thoughts and pursue goals that did not conform to the state ideology, it was not (for most people) the relentlessly grim and terrifying place of Cold War propaganda; and while there was also a great deal that I remember with fondness, nor was it the paradise on Earth that many of the Ostalgiker would have us believe. The reality was far more varied, far more complex and, above all, far more interesting. That’s what I try to convey through my tweets.
A lot of your tweets relate to everyday life in the GDR. Why do you think it’s important for people to know about everyday life under communism, as well as focusing on the ‘high politics’ of the Cold War?
Any study of an era that excludes the daily experiences of the people who lived in it must inevitably be incomplete, and why should anyone with any interest in the subject be satisfied with that? But for me the main motivation is quite simply fascination with the subject. The GDR existed until less than 25 years ago. Less than 25 years ago, it was right on the front line of the Cold War. Less than 25 years ago people risked being imprisoned or even shot simply for trying to leave their country: and this just 600 miles – a couple of hours’ flight – from London. This is very recent history, and for those of us in the UK, very local history too. Before the fall of the Wall the GDR was shrouded in mystery because the Iron Curtain put it beyond reach. It seems ironic to me, and also rather sad, that it largely remains shrouded in mystery because in the rush to reunification so much seems to have been erased from view.
I am also fascinated by the apparent split personality of the GDR: for me, and I think for many others who lived there too, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. There was much that I loved and valued and feel nostalgic for; but also much that I hated and am glad has gone.
That’s interesting – so what do you think about the legacy of the GDR today, and the notion of Ostalgie? Do you think it is true to say that there is still an East/West divide evident in Germany today?
I think the East/West divide is still very marked in Germany today, in all sorts of ways: a variety of reports suggest that incomes are still markedly lower in the East; unemployment higher; life expectancy shorter. And, according to this Gallup poll, people in the East feel they are having a harder time of things in general. It was interesting to see the results of last year’s Bundestag election too: while the results overall gave the right-of-centre CDU victory in most areas, both West and East, the image below showing the proportions of second votes for the far-left Die Linke party indicates far higher support in the East. I know that friends of mine in the East still feel that West Germans look down on them and, for instance, that they are at a disadvantage when competing for jobs or contracts in the West. The divide is most certainly still there.
As for Ostalgie, this comes in a variety of forms, I think. Humans are prone to nostalgia, of course, and nostalgia isn’t known for sharpening the accuracy of our memories: how many of us don’t secretly hold to the view that our childhood summers were sunnier and our Christmases more snowy? But I suspect that, in the case of the GDR, nostalgia is being exacerbated by the feeling among some former citizens that the world they grew up in hasn’t just been left behind by time but has been deliberately destroyed.
The most conspicuous kind of Ostalgie is the pure, un-nuanced version, which simply holds that everything damals (“back then”) was better. There are countless such groups on Facebook, where, if you were to believe everything you read, you would be convinced that everything damals tasted better, no one went without anything, the queues and the patchy supply situation only made shopping more interesting, the Trabant was the best car in the world, industrial pollution didn’t harm anyone, people rarely fell ill, national service in the army was the best laugh ever, and people who fell foul of the Stasi must have done something to deserve it. I have even seen a number of comments suggesting that we shouldn’t make such a fuss about people shot at the Wall, because they knew what the risks were and had only themselves to blame. Everything was for the best, in the best of all possible GDRs.
Personally, while sharing the nostalgia for some aspects of the GDR (if offered a trip in a time machine, I would set the dial firmly for Dresden 1985 and zoom back there like a shot; not because it was so wonderful, but because it was so interesting), I have little patience with those who are determined to whitewash history so completely.
However, there is also a more nuanced form of Ostalgie which I think is more defensible and represents a much more serious challenge to the reunified Germany. One of the enduring resentments felt by many in the East is that, whereas what they wanted was a genuine unification – a new Germany comprising the best aspects of both republics – what actually happened felt more like a takeover, or even a conquest. There was an assumption on the part of West Germany that everyone in the East accepted that the West was superior in all respects; and I think that assumption was largely false. There were many things about the GDR that much of the population genuinely valued: low rents, full employment, state childcare, good schools. It wasn’t that most GDR citizens despised socialism and longed to be plunged into full-on capitalism: what many of them wanted was not primarily a higher standard of living but more personal freedom. And while reunification has given them that, it has also brought with it a whole raft of problems that were unknown in the GDR, where virtually no one needed to worry about not being able to afford the basic necessities, and where there wasn’t the endless pressure to consume, consume, consume. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that some people in the East feel alienated in the new Germany, or that Ostalgie groups regularly talk about having had their Heimat (‘Homeland’) taken away from them.
Finally, I should, of course, add that Ostalgie is far from universal. There are some who were treated appallingly by the GDR state and who hate every reminder of it; and many more who have embraced the freedoms and opportunities brought by reunification that they would never have experienced under the old GDR regime. As with most things about the GDR, the Ostalgie phenomenon is more complex than it may at first appear.
Many thanks, Paula!
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 46,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 17 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
This weekend I went to see Wałęsa: Man of Hope, the new film by acclaimed Polish director Andrzej Wajda, which offers a rich biopic of Lech Wałęsa: shipyard electrician, family man, leader of the Solidarity Trade Union, communist-era dissident, Nobel Peace Prize winner and President of post-communist Poland. The film focuses on the period from the Gdansk strikes of 1970 to the collapse of communism in 1989. This was the time when Wałęsa rose to international prominence as leader of the Solidarity movement, and original documentary footage of various events was interspersed throughout the movie. I’ve really been looking forward to seeing this, particularly as I visited Gdansk, the birthplace of Solidarity, for the first time last November (and am looking forward to returning in a couple of weeks!), so I was delighted when I discovered that Cineworld are currently offering showings throughout the UK.
The film’s narrative is developed around Wałęsa’s interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, which took place in March 1981. Near the beginning of the film, Fallaci asks her advisor ‘What is he [Wałęsa] really like?’. His answer is: ‘Full of contradictions and surprises’ – something which is more than evident as the film progresses.
Robert Więckiewicz and Agnieszka Grochowska are both wonderful in their respective lead roles. Więckiewicz excels as Wałęsa, allowing his uncompromising charisma to really shine through, while Grochowska provides a great portrayal of Danuta, both as Wałęsa’s loyal, long-suffering wife and mother to their eight children, but also allowing her to emerge as a strong character in her own right. We see her abusing the secret service agents sent to periodically search their apartment (while concurrently destroying incriminating pamphlets by boiling them in a pot on her stove!) and ordering dozens of journalists out into the street when she decides their privacy has been eroded enough. One particularly poignant scene shows Danuta traveling to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace prize on her husband’s behalf (Wałęsa was awarded the prize in 1983, but refused to travel to Norway to collect it in person, as he feared that he would be prevented from re-entering Poland). Danuta returns proudly bearing the prize, fresh from the prestige of the acceptance ceremony, but is met with a cold welcome back in Poland where she is forced to endure a humiliating strip search and ‘personal interrogation’ as a punishment.
As the story unfolds, we get a real sense of the precarious position Wałęsa was in as he tried to grope his way through uncharted territory to victory against the communist party – often caught between the younger, radical members of the strike committee who urge him to push too fast, too soon and those who accused him of ‘selling out’ for his willingness to consider compromise with the communist authorities. We see Wałęsa himself become hardened and more radicalised in his demands for workers’ rights as the Solidarity movement gathered momentum. This is particularly evident from depictions of his experiences with the SB (the communist-era Secret Police in Poland). The fear manifest during his initial arrest for involvement in the 1970 riots is palpable, as he nervously watches other protestors, most of whom are bloodied and battered, being pulled in around him and listens to the StB make threats against Danuta and their new born son. But later arrests and interrogations are characterised by tolerance and resignation. ‘I’ve been expecting this’ he drily remarks when he opens his door to two nervous SB men sent to arrest him on a cold December night in 1983, as Polish Premier General Jaruzelski prepares to declare Martial Law.
Throughout the film we frequently witness Wałęsa’s ‘human’ side as he is forced to push harder and risk more in his fight against the authorities. The slogan ‘Nie chcem, ale muszem’ (‘I don’t want to, but I have to’) – as Wałęsa himself declared during his Presidential campaign in 1990 – appears increasingly apt. ‘What if I get scared?’ Danuta asks Lech before the SB men take him away on the eve of Martial Law. ‘Then that would mean the end’ he responds, before admitting, in a rare moment of vulnerability, ‘I get scared sometimes too’. This fear is perhaps most evident when he spots a Soviet aircraft hovering menacingly overhead as he is hurriedly transferred from his helicopter to the jeep that will take him to his confinement, while the SB officers accompanying him express concerns that the Soviets could decide to ‘take Wałęsa out’, placing them in danger too ‘so there aren’t any witnesses’. And although Wałęsa acknowledged how easily the people could turn against him during his 1981 interview with Fallaci, he still appears genuinely shocked when some passing Poles hurl abuse at him while he is being transported in an SB car the day after the declaration of Martial Law.
The film’s emphasis is firmly focused on Wałęsa’s ‘golden years’, although even the famous round table talks and the election victory of June 1989 are skipped over very quickly at the end. There is nothing about Wałęsa’s chequered Polish Presidency (1990-95) or the controversy provoked by his increasingly extremist views in recent years. While Wajda does not shy away from allegations that have emerged suggesting that Wałęsa acted as a police informant prior to his involvement in Solidarity (and even hints that there may be some truth in this), overall the film adopts a deliberately ambiguous approach in its portrayal of the nature of any collaboration between Wałęsa and the SB. No clear answers are provided, although more generally, Wajda hints at some of the reasons why people may have collaborated with the communist authorities – for example, the case of Wałęsa’s workmate, who agrees to make an unpopular speech calling for the acceptance of ‘voluntary penalties’ by shipyard workers who fail to make their quotas, because his family live in abject poverty and he was given ‘wood for the fire and a promise of electricity’ in exchange for his complicity.
Today, Lech Wałęsa remains a controversial figure. Reports that he recently walked out of an interview mid-way through, suggest that the confrontational, bullish, uncompromising attitude we witness during the film’s depiction of his interview with Fallaci has not mellowed. Wajda himself described producing the biopic as ‘a very difficult undertaking’, stating that his aim was to present a nuanced picture of Wałęsa – an aim in which he certainly succeeds. Man of Hope portrays Wałęsa very much as a flawed hero – someone who did the best he could under the circumstances in which he was operating, and achieved much against almost insurmountable odds. However Wajda also illustrates how Walesa’s ‘difficult’ and at times authoritarian leadership style frequently translated into arrogance, intolerance and rudeness. The overall sense I left with was one of Wałęsa as human, rather than saint-like, although I thought this strengthened, rather than detracted from, the film’s message. Wałęsa himself has recently given his seal of approval to the biopic, stating that overall he thinks Wajda has ‘done a good job’.
The film trailer is below. Catch it if you can!
The passage from September into October also signals the transition from late summer into autumn, and there has been a distinctly autumnal feel in the air here of late. As we enter John Keats’ ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, I’m delighted to play host to a second History Carnival here at The View East. Rather than ‘gathering swallows twittering in the skies’ over my house however, noisily honking geese have dominated for the past few days – I clearly live under a popular migratory flight-path!
The October 2013 History Carnival once again stands as a testament to the diverse range of excellent history blogs out there. This month, we begin with a visit to The Collation, featuring Goran Proot’s ‘Wherein True Bliss is Buried’ a study of a Broadside advertising a tragicomedy performed by a Jesuit theatre in Brussels in September 1624. This document was formerly the property of the Marquess of Downshire, but was subsequently acquired by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Over at The Renaissance Mathematicus, C. Thony discussed the life’s work and enduring legacy of seventeenth century English mathematician John Collins, in his post The corresponding accountant, the man who invented π and the Earls of Macclesfield, which was inspired by the welcome news that Collins’ letters collection is going to be published as an edited collection.
The team at Scandalous Women travelled back to the early Georgian era as Elizabeth Kerri Mahon explored The Life of Henrietta Howard, the ‘reluctant mistress’ of King George II. Over at History Republic, Joe K. provided an entertaining summary of the failure of the French Estates General of 1789 in the third of an ongoing series of posts about the French Revolution entitled ‘The French Turmoil: Vive La France!’. Meanwhile, Guy Woolnough uses the case of Victorian gentleman John Dunne to highlight some of the ambiguities Historians can face when adopting a class-based approach in his article Identifying the Victorian middle class which was posted at the Journal of Victorian Culture Online.
At the ever-entertaining Pirate Omnibus, Simon Abernethy’s post ‘Taking a Walk on the Wild Side’ examined resistance to Lord Newton’s 1922 ‘Walk on the Left’ campaign, designed to ensure pedestrian safety in an increasingly motorised London, while Betsy Frederick-Rothwell’s blog post for Not Even Past draws on research and photographs sourced from the Austin History Center to document a day in the life of Austin’s Municipal Abattoir, which functioned as an integral part of the city between 1931-1969.
I’m expecting a steady increase in blog posts relating to WWI in the lead up to next year’s centenary and over at Withered Papyrus, Nikhil Sharma illustrated how the power and the personal often combine to devastating effect in history, documenting the relationship between Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his ‘unworthy’ wife Sophie Chotek in his review of the new book The Assassination of the ArchDuke by Greg King and Sue Woolmans. Also on a WWI-related note, Richard Evans wrote about the daring First World War journalists who risked arrest to report from the Front Line for The History Press Blog.
Moving on from WWI to WWII, UCL SSEES Lecturer Daniel Siemens provided some fascinating insights into an unusual alliance between politics and big business in interwar Germany over at the UCL SSEES Research Blog, where his post about Nazi storm-troopers’ cigarettes discussed the rise and fall of Arthur Dressler’s ‘Sturm’ company, which made a handsome profit from the production of German ‘home brand cigarettes’ for the SA between 1929-1934. Continuing the WWII theme, Alexis Coe’s blog post Zinaida Portnova: Young Avenger at The Toast highlights the tragic story of a 15 year old Belarusian girl who played an active role in the underground resistance to Nazi occupied Belarus before she was captured, tortured and ultimately executed.
One of the perks of hosting this month’s History Carnival is that I can take the opportunity to close with a few of my own personal recommendations. Earlier this month I really enjoyed James Estrin’s evocative photos and insights into life in Manhatten’s ‘Little Italy’ district in the early twentieth century in The Italian Americans of Mulberry St: Long Before ‘The Godfather’, at LENS (hosted by the New York Times). As a historian whose research interests relate to the Cold War, I also enjoyed reading Matthew M Aid and William Burr’s article Disreputable if not Outright Illegal over at the National Security Archive website. Aid and Burr analysed recently declassified NSA documents that reveal that prominent figures including Martin Luther King and Muhammed Ali were placed under surveillance on a Vietnam War-era ‘watch list’ along with several prominent US Congressmen. They also discuss how other newly available NSA documents provide fresh insights into US knowledge of Soviet actions during several Cold War ‘flashpoints’ including the decision to close the Berlin Border in 1961; the placement of missiles on Cuba in 1962 and the Panama Canal negotiations in 1977. Finally, Josh Jones deserves a mention for compiling a great collection of links relating to George Orwell’s 1984 including access to free e books, audio books, study resources and reviews over at Open Culture.
That’s all for this month – but be sure to check out next month’s History Carnival, which will be hosted by the excellent History and the Sock Merchant on 1st November!
Hot Pink Protest: Bulgarian Monument Repainted as ‘Artistic Apology’ for 1968 Czechoslovakian Invasion.
This week marked the 45th anniversary of ‘Operation Danube’, the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Overnight on 20-21 August 1968 a combined force of up to 200,000 Soviet, Bulgarian, East German, Hungarian and Polish troops entered and occupied Czechoslovakia to crush the political liberalisation sparked by communist leader Alexander Dubcek’s reformist ‘Prague Spring’ and implement a period of ‘normalisation’. You can read more about the failure of the Prague Spring and the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion in a previous blog post here.
Of course, the 45th anniversary of the invasion was commemorated in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In Prague, several top Czech officials (including current Prime Minister Jiří Rusnok, lower house speaker Miroslava Němcová and Prague Mayor Tomáš Hudeček) marked the occasion in a ceremony that took place outside the Czech Radio building that had formed one of the centres of resistance in 1968.
However, this year domestic remembrance was overshadowed by developments in Bulgaria, where anonymous artists spray painted a prominent monument to the Soviet Army pink with the accompanying slogan ‘Bulgaria Aplogises’ (written in both Czech and Bulgarian) indicating remorse for Bulgarian involvement in the invasion. Back in 1968 Bulgarian communist leader Todor Zhivkov was the leading advocate of hard-line intervention to quell Dubcek’s reforms, and critics have since pointed out that Bulgaria was the first Warsaw Pact country to insist on military intervention in 1968 and the last communist-bloc country to formally apologise for their involvement, in 1990. This week, a Bulgarian blogger interviewed one of the anonymous artists, who confirmed that choosing pink paint was a deliberate nod to Czech artist David Černý, who famously painted a Soviet tank dedicated to the memory of the 1945 liberation of Prague pink in 1991, an act which sparked controversy and ultimately led to the tank’s removal to a military museum.
Photos of the freshly re-painted monument quickly spread around the world via social networking sites and the story was also picked up by several international media organisations. The Bulgarian authorities moved quickly to try to ensure damage limitation: the monument was cleaned the following night (an operation allegedly conducted by volunteers from the ‘Forum Bulgaria-Russia’), while the Regional Prosecutor’s Office in Sofia swiftly announced the launch of pre-trial proceedings against the (still unknown) perpetrators on charges of ‘hooliganism’ which could result in a sentence of up to two years in jail if pursued, although this seems unlikely unless they are identified. However, Alexander Lukashevich, a spokesman from the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry said that the Russian government intend to formally request that the Bulgarian authorities take action to punish those responsible and prevent the recurrence of any similar incidents in future. His statement demanded ‘the adoption of effective measures to prevent the mockery of the memory of the Soviet soldiers who died for the liberation of Europe from Nazism and Bulgaria, to identify and punish those responsible’.
This was not the first time that the Soviet Army monument in Sofia has been the subject of a controversial makeover. It has been subject to repeated graffiti, most famously in June 2011 when the statues were re-painted to resemble a collection of well-known Western pop culture heroes including Superman, The Joker, Captain America and Ronald McDonald, the flag held by the soldiers was painted with the US stars and stripes and an accompanying
slogan proclaimed that the makeover was ‘In Step With The Times’. I also wrote about this in an old blog post here. The Soviet monument has long divided opinion in Bulgaria – many view the statue as a symbol of communist repression, and there have been several calls for it to be destroyed, or at least moved from its current (prominent) location in central Sofia to the city’s museum of communism which opened in 2011. But these proposals are opposed by others who argue that the statue represents Bulgaria’s liberation from fascism in WWII and charge those who want the statue removed with ‘historical revisionism’. Of course, this debate is not just taking place within Bulgaria; over twenty years after the collapse of communism, the status of Soviet WWII memorials as symbols of liberation or oppression are still frequently contested throughout the former communist bloc. For more on this topic see my previous blog post here.
The latest ‘attack’ on the Soviet memorial in Sofia must also be understood in the context of growing domestic unrest in Bulgaria, where large-scale protests against the current government (which is dominated by the former communist party) have been occurring on a daily basis since June. Interestingly, photos of the on-going anti-government protests in Sofia following the controversial repainting of the memorial earlier this week show demonstrators brandishing a cardboard cut-out of Černý’s ‘pink tank’.
However, the Czechs have also experienced a summer of political turmoil, triggered by the collapse of Petr Necas’s government following a corruption scandal in June. Czech MPs recently passed a vote of no-confidence, dissolving parliament and triggering an early election this autumn that threatens to return the communist party to power. Some Czech officials used the 45th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion earlier this week, to warn against the return of the communists to political power, with Prague Mayor Tomáš Hudeček commenting that:
“This day is important for all of us because many people of my age and younger don’t know what the communist era was like. They don’t remember the shortages of oranges and bananas but also more important issues – the lack of freedom, the lack of responsibility for one’s actions, and so on. I believe that marking this anniversary will help us remember all these things of the past … Many things have not changed since the fall of communism in 1989. Changing people’s way of thinking is so much more difficult than changing the way the streets and cities look, for example”.