The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

25 years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall

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”.

Twenty five years on, the fall of the Berlin Wall is remembered as an iconic moment during the the revolutionary year of 1989.

Twenty five years on, the fall of the Berlin Wall is remembered as an iconic moment during the the revolutionary year of 1989.

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:

Viewed from the Reichstag, giant dominoes snaking through the centre of Berlin - part of the 20th anniversary commemorations in Novembr 2009. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Viewed from the Reichstag, giant dominoes snaking through the centre of Berlin – part of the 20th anniversary commemorations in Novembr 2009. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Giant dominoes lined up along the former route of the Berlin Wall, November 2009. Photo ©  Kelly Hignett.

Giant dominoes lined up along the former route of the Berlin Wall, November 2009. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

fallen dominoes

The dominoes are toppled! Photo © Kelly Hignett.

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:

Visualisation of the Lichtgrenze. Photo © Kulturprojekte Berlin.

Visualisation of the Lichtgrenze. Photo © Kulturprojekte Berlin.

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!

Photo showing Lichtgrenze balloons being released by the Brandenburg Gate. Photo © AFP.

Photo showing Lichtgrenze balloons being released by the Brandenburg Gate. Photo © AFP.

Fireworks at the Brandenburg Gate. Photo © DPA.

Fireworks at the Brandenburg Gate. Photo © DPA.

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.

Oliver Fritz, author of 'The Iron Curtain Kid' talking about his experiences of growing up in East Berlin at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett

Oliver Fritz, author of ‘The Iron Curtain Kid’ talking about his experiences of growing up in East Berlin at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett

Oliver Fritz and Kelly Hignett demonstrating East German speech etiquette to an enthusiastic audience! Photo © Dr. Zoe Thompson.

Oliver Fritz and Kelly Hignett demonstrating East German speech etiquette to an enthusiastic audience! Photo © Dr. Zoe Thompson.

Oliver Fritz's book 'The Iron Curtain Kid'.

Oliver Fritz’s book ‘The Iron Curtain Kid’.

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:

Oliver Fritz admiring part of the 25th Berlin Wall fall anniversary exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Oliver Fritz admiring part of the 25th Berlin Wall fall anniversary exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

The list of students who contributed to the collaborative exhibition. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

The list of students who contributed to the collaborative exhibition. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Exhibition Information. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Exhibition Information. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Division of a Nation'. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Division of a Nation’. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Mini Berlin Wall' - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Mini Berlin Wall’ – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Timeline style wall display - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Timeline style wall display – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Timeline style wall display - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Timeline style wall display – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Two perspectives: 1961 and 1989. Installation displayed as part of 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Two perspectives: 1961 and 1989. Installation displayed as part of 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Bricks from the Berlin Wall' - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Bricks from the Berlin Wall’ – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Berlin Wall Bricks' [print] - student artwork displayed at 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Berlin Wall Bricks’ [print] – student artwork displayed at 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'25 years since Mauerfall' [print] - student art work displayed at 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

’25 years since Mauerfall’ [print] – student art work displayed at 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Hammering down the Wall' [print] - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Hammering down the Wall’ [print] – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Two Berlins' [print] - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Two Berlins’ [print] – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

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:

Pavement markers showing the route of the former division still run through Berlin today. Photo  © Kelly Hignett.

# Pavement markers showing the route of the former division still run through Berlin today. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

November 13, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Space Photography Shines a Light on Berlin.

I’ve been following International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield on Twitter for quite a while now – I enjoy his insights into daily life aboard the ISS and particularly enjoy the photographs he regularly posts. Last week he posted the following photograph of Berlin at night, which generated widespread media interest:


Chris Hadfield’s recent photograph of Berlin by night, posted to his Twitter account @Cmdr_Hadfield, clearly highlights the former east-west divide across the city!

Commander Hadfield’s photograph, taken from the ISS, 200 miles above the earth, illustrates that even more than two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the East-West Berlin divide is still clearly visible from space!

The divide is caused by different methods of streetlighting, a hangover from the Cold War division of the city, with the fluorescent lamps of western Berlin causing a brighter, whiter glow and the sodium-vapour lamps in the eastern part giving off a softer, yellowish hue. Hadfield’s photograph was widely circulated on Twitter, and featured in mainstream media including the Guardian, Telegraph and Spiegel Online, Speaking to The Guardian Christa Mientus-Schirmer, a member of Berlin’s city government commented that ‘although we’ve made a lot of progress in the 20 years since the wall fell, we haven’t had the money we would have liked to equalise the two parts of the city’. City authorities have since confirmed that they plan to replace the old sodium lights with electric lamps as part of a gradual drive to reduce energy consumption.

April 26, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Degner Defection


A few weeks ago I was interviewed for ‘The Degner Defection’ – a BBC Radio 4 feature that told the little known story of East German motorcycle racer Ernst Degner and his daring defection to the West at the height of the Cold War. The programme aired on Monday 13th February.


A rising star in the GDR, Ernst Degner was determined to win but was also increasingly determined to escape from the repressive East German regime. After forming an alliance with Jimmy Matsumiya, a ‘fixer’ from the Japanese Suzuki team, Degner defected during the Swedish Grand Prix in September 1961. This was the race where Degner could have secured the 1961 125cc World Championship for himself, and for East German team MZ, but his engine failed early in the race, leading to charges that he had deliberately sabotaged his bike to facilitate his escape. Degner’s defection was fraught with risks coming so soon after the German border closure and construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961. His family also narrowly escaped, after his wife drugged their two sons and concealed them in the boot of a car to smuggle them through the border crossing into the West.



Ernst Degner racing in 1957.



Degner not only successfully escaped along with his family, but also took much of MZ engineer Walter Kaaden’s pioneering technology with him, and the following year Degner went on to win the 1962 50cc world championship for Suzuki. However many aspects of Degner’s life (and his tragic death in a Tenerife hotel room in 1983) remain shrouded in mystery and controversy.



Ernst Degner, the dashing young East German motorcycle racer. Many aspects of Degners life, and his death, remain shrouded in mystery and controversy.



‘The Degner Defection’ features personal testimony from Degner’s family, his former competitors and many of those who worked with him on the race circuit, mixed with expert analysis from Stasiland author Anna Funder, racing commentator Murray Walker, and myself – you can hear me briefly talking about the construction of the Berlin Wall and the political climate in Germany in 1961. If you missed the 30 minute programme when it aired on Radio 4 on Monday 13th February, it is still available to listen online via the Radio 4 Homepage  and on BBC iplayer. It’s a fascinating story of a daring defection at the height of the Cold War, amidst espionage and double dealing, all taking place in one of the world’s most dangerous sporting arenas, so is well worth a listen! Also, look out for a future guest authored blog post coming soon here at The View East, written by producer James Roberts, who will be sharing some of the additional information that his research into Degner’s story uncovered!




February 17, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

2011: A Quick Review


2011 is a year that has prompted numerous historical comparisons, even before it has ended. This has been a year marked by economic turmoil, widespread international protest and revolutionary activity, as evidenced by Time Magazine’s recent announcement that their coveted ‘person of the year’ was to be awarded to ‘The Protestor‘. Throughout 2011, global news coverage has frequently been dominated by the growing wave of protest and demonstrations that swept the Arab World; quickly dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’ by international media and drawing frequent comparisons with the East European revolutions of 1989. Some (including, recently, Eric Hobsbawm) have suggested that comparisan with the ‘Spring of Nations’ of 1848 is more fitting although many have questioned the value of either historical analogy. Similarly, almost twenty years to the day, in the last weeks of 2011, mounting protests against electoral fraud in Russia have evoked memories of the collapse of the communist monopoly of power and the break-up of the USSR in 1991, with the last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev recently advising current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to ‘learn the lesson of 1991’ and resign from power, although Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti has suggested that 1905 may turn out to be a more fitting historical parallel.


The increasingly uncertain economic climate and global financial downturn also dominated news coverage throughout 2011, particularly of late due to the growing crisis in the Eurozone. Across central and eastern Europe, economic crisis and social insecurity has generated fresh concern about ‘ostalgie’ with the release of surveys suggesting high levels of nostalgia for the communist era. In recent polls conducted in Romania 63% of participants said that  their life was better under communism, while 68% said they now believed that communism was ‘a good idea that had been poorly applied’. Similarly, a survey conducted in the Czech Republic last month revealed that 28% of participants believed they had been ‘better off’ under communism, leading to fears of a growth in ‘retroactive optimism‘.


Much of the subject matter presented here at The View East aims to combine historical analysis with more contemporary developments. During 2011 a range of blog posts have covered topics as diverse as the Cold War space race (with posts about Sputnik and the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin‘s first successful manned space flight); the role of popular culture (and specifically, popular music in the GDR) in undermining communism; the use and abuse of alcohol in communist Eastern Europe; espionage and coercion (with posts relating to the East German Stasi, Romanian Securitate and the notorious murder of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov) and in relation to continuing efforts to commemorate contested aspects of modern history including Katyn; the construction of the Berlin Wall, German reunification, Stalin’s legacy and the continuing controversy over Soviet-era war memorials. This summer also saw the first ‘student showcase’ here at The View East, which was a great success, with a series of excellent guest authored posts on a range of fascinating topics, researched and written by some of my students at Swansea University.


Something that I constantly stress to my students is the need to recognise how our knowledge and understanding of modern central and eastern Europe was, in many respects, transformed as new evidence and sources of information became accessible to historians of Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism 1989-1991; and the ways in which our understanding continues to evolve as new information and perspectives continue to emerge today. So, with that in mind, here is a quick review of some of my own personal favourite topics of interest, events and developments during 2011. This short summary is by no means exhaustive so please feel free to add suggestions of your own in the comments section below!


Anniversaries for Reagan and Gorbachev


February 2011 marked the centenary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. Today, former US President and ‘Cold Warrior’ Reagan remains highly regarded throughout the former communist block, where he is widely credited with helping to end the Cold War and open a pathway for freedom across Eastern Europe. A series of events were thus organised to mark the occasion across central and eastern Europe, where several streets, public squares and landmarks were renamed in Reagan’s honour and and the summer of 2011 saw statues of Reagan popping up in several former communist block countries, including Poland, Hungary and Georgia. To mark the centenary, the CIA also released a collection of previously classified  documents, along with a report on ‘Ronald Reagan, Intelligence and the End of the Cold War’ and a series of short documentary style videos that were made to ‘educate’ Reagan about the USSR on a range of topics including the space programme, the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl disaster, which can be viewed here. An exhibition held at the US National Archives in Washington DC also displayed examples of Reagan’s personal correspondence including a series of letters exchanged with Mikhail  Gorbachev and the handwritten edits made to Reagan’s famous ‘Evil Empire’ speech of 1983.


A statue of former US President Ronald Reagan, unveiled in the Georgian capital Tblisi in November 2011. The centenary of Reagan's birth was celebrated throughout the former communist block in 2011.


Today, citizens of the former East Block tend to view Reagan much more kindly than his Cold War counterpart, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who celebrated his 80th birthday back in March. Still feted in the West, Gorbachev was the guest of honour at a celebratory birthday gala in London and and was also personally congratulated by current Russian President Medvedev, receiving a Russian medal of honour. In a series of interviews, Gorbachev claimed he remained proud of role in ending communism, although for many, his legacy remains muddied.  April 2011 saw the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, while August 1991 marked the twentieth anniversary of the failed military coup launched by communist hardliners hoping to depose Gorbachev from power and halt his reforms and finally, the 25 December 2011 was 20 years to the day since Gorbachev announced his resignation from power and the formal dissolution of the USSR. Recently released archival documents have also provided historians with more detailed information about the dying days of the Soviet Union as a desperate Gorbachev tried to hold the USSR  together.


March 2011 - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shakes hands with Mikhail Gorbachev during a meeting to celebrate his 80th birthday. Gorbachev was awarded the Order of St Andrew the Apostle, Russia's highest honour.


Half a Century Since the Construction of the Berlin Wall


August 2011 marked 50 years since the construction of the famous wall which divided Berlin 1961-1989 and became one of the most iconic symbols of Cold War Europe. The anniversary was commemorated in Germany as I discussed in my earlier blog post here and was also widely covered by international media including the Guardian and the BBC here in the UK. I particularly enjoyed these interactive photographs, published in Spiegel Online, depicting changes to the East-West German border. In October, the CIA and US National Archives also released a collection of recently declassified documents relating to the Berlin Crisis of August 1961, which have been published online here.


13 August 2011 - A display in Berlin commemorates the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall.


Thirty Years Since Martial Law Crushed Solidarity in Poland


13  December marked 30 years since General Jaruzelski’s declaration of Martial Law in Poland in 1981, as the emergent Solidarity trade union was declared illegal and forced underground. NATO have released a fascinating series of archived documents relating to events in Poland 1980-81 which have been published online here.  Today Jaruzelski still argues that he ordered the domestic crackdown to avoid Soviet invasion, claiming in a recent book that  his actions were a ‘necessary evil’ . but intelligence contained in the newly available NATO reports suggest that the Soviet leadership were actually ‘keen to avoid’ military intervention in Poland. Fresh attempts to prosecute 88 year old Jaruzelski for his repressive actions were halted due to ill health in 2011, as the former communist leader was diagnosed with lymphoma in March 2011 and has been undergoing regular chemotherapy this year.


13 December 2011 marked 30 years since General Wojciech Jaruzelski's declaration of Martial Law in Poland, designed to crush the growing Polish opposition movement, Solidarity.


The Communist-Era Secret Police


Stories about communist-era state security are always a crowd pleaser and 2011 saw a series of new revelations from the archives of the notorious East German Ministerium für Staatssicherheit or Stasi. I particularly liked the archived photos that were published in Spiegel Online, taken during a course to teach Stasi agents the art of disguise, as discussed in my previous blog post here and, in a similar vein, information from Polish files about espionage techniques used by Polish State Security which was published in October. In November, new research published in the German Press suggested that the Stasi had a much larger network of spies in West Germany than was previously thought, with over 3000 individuals employed as Inofizelle Mitarbeiter or ‘unofficial informers’, to spy on family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. The Stasi even compiled files on leading figures such as German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) and former East German leader Erich Honecker, gathering information that was later used as leverage to force his resignation in October 1989. A new book published in September also detailed the extent of Stasi infiltration in Sweden, with information published in the German media suggesting that Swedish furniture manufacturer  IKEA used East German prisoners as a cheap source of labour in the 1970s and early 1980s.


‘Tourist with Camera’ – a favoured disguise used by Stasi surveillance agents, unearthed from the Stasi archives and part of a new exhibition that went on display in Germany earlier this year.


The Death of Vaclav Havel


2011 ended on something of a sombre note, as news broke of the death of communist-era dissident and former Czechoslovakian/Czech President Vaclav Havel on 18 December. An iconic figure, Havel’s death dominated the news in the lead up to Christmas, (only eclipsed by the subsequent breaking news about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s death on December 17!) with numerous obituaries and tributes to Havel and his legacy appearing in the media (such as this excellent tribute in The Economist, ‘Living in Truth‘), as discussed in more detail in my recent blog post here. Havel’s funeral on 23 December was attended by world leaders, past and present and received widespread media coverage. In recent interviews, such as this one, given shortly before his death, Havel commented on a range of contemporary issues including the Arab revolutions and the global economic crisis. RIP Vaclav – you will be missed.


December 2011 - News breaks of the death of playwright, communist-era dissident and former Czech President Vaclav Havel. Hundreds of candles were lit in Prague's Wenceslas Square in his memory, thousands of mourners gathered to pay their respects and tributes poured in from around the globe.


The Growth of Social Networking


The use of social networking as a tool for organising and fuelling protest and opposition movements has also been a regular feature in the news throughout 2011 with particular reference to the Arab Spring, the UK riots and the recent ‘Occupy’ movement. Many more universities and academics are also now realising the potential benefits of using social media sites to promote their interests, and achievements, disseminate their research to a wider audience and engage in intellectual debate with a wider circle of individuals working on similar areas of interest, both within and beyond academia.  The potential benefits of Twitter and other social networking sites for academics has been promoted by the LSE and their Impact Blog during 2011, including this handy ‘Twitter guide for Academics‘.  On a more personal note, promoting The View East via Twitter has also helped me develop a much stronger online profile and contributed to an increased readership in 2011, something I discussed further in a September blog post here.


Was 2011 the year of the 'Twitter Revolution'?


As 2011 ends, our twitter feed @thevieweast is heading for 500 regular twitter followers; most days The View East receives well over 100 hits, the number of regular email subscribers has almost doubled and I’ve been able to reach a much wider audience – some older blog content I wrote relating to Solidarity was recently published in a Macmillan textbook History for Southern Africa and in the last twelve months I have given interviews to ABC Australia, Voice of America, and Radio 4, all in relation to subjects I’d written about here at The View East. So, as 2011 draws to a close, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of you who have read, commented, followed and re-tweeted from The View East in 2011 – A very Happy New Year to you all, and I’m looking forward to more of the same in 2012!


Happy New Year from The View East!

December 31, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

50 Years On – Commemorating the Construction of the Berlin Wall


This weekend marks fifty years since construction of the Berlin Wall began. Sunday August 13th 1961 became known as ‘Stacheldrahtsonntag’ (‘barbed wire Sunday’) as soldiers hastily constructed makeshift barriers across the city, but what began as little more than an impromptu barbed wire fence soon evolved into an increasingly impenetrable system of metal and concrete walls, which cut across neighbourhoods, dividing families and essentially trapping nearly 17 million people inside the GDR. For further information about the events surrounding the construction of the wall, including video footage from August 1961, please see my previous blog post Building the Berlin Wall.


Between 1945-1961 around 2.4 million people (15% of the population of the GDR) fled across into West Berlin, with this recent exhibition providing a fascinating depiction of their experiences in West German refugee camps in the 1950s. During the 28 years between the wall’s construction in 1961 and its collapse in November 1989 however, guards stationed along what quickly became known as ‘dead mans zone’ operated a ‘shoot to kill’ policy, with over 600 people thought to have died while trying to breach the wall.


Was the Berlin Wall Necessary?

Speaking ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Wall’s construction, British Foreign Secretary William Hague today described the building of the Wall as ‘one of the darkest days for post-War Europe’.  In 1961 however, reactions to the wall were fairly muted, both within and beyond Germany. While there were some protests (particularly in West Berlin) most Berliners quietly carried on with their lives as far as possible, seeming bemused by and resigned to the sudden appearance of the wall, rather than outraged. Russell Swenson, who was stationed in Berlin with the US Army in August 1961, described the confusion he witnessed among citizens of Berlin: ‘Nobody expected it; that’s why there was no plan to do anything about it … I don‘t think people thought it was going to last very long, certainly not 30 years’.


In 1961 the East German authorities claimed the wall was necessary as an ‘anti-fascist protection barrier’ to protect against ‘subversive activity’ from the West. In a Letter sent by Soviet authorities to the governments of the USA, UK and France dated 18 August 1961, they claim that: ‘West Berlin has been transformed into a center of subversive activity diversion, and espionage, into a center of political and economic provocations against the G.D.R., the Soviet Union, and other socialist countries’. It has long been accepted that the primary motivation behind the wall’s construction was to stem the growing exodus of people leaving East Germany however, something which was both politically embarrassing and economically damaging for the communist authorities, with those leaving primarily comprised of younger, skilled citizens, amounting to a ‘brain drain’.


The idea that the Berlin Wall was ‘necessary’ still appears to hold some weight today, fifty years after its construction and 22 years after its collapse. This weekend, members of Germany’s Left Party (the successors to the East German SED) are debating a motion to officially accept that the building of the wall was an ‘inescapable necessity’. Perhaps more surprisingly however, around a third of Berliners also maintain that there was some justification for its construction – in a Forsa survey published in the Berliner Zeitung earlier this month, while 62% of those surveyed rejected the ‘necessity’ of the wall, 25% expressed the view that construction of the wall was ‘necessary and justified in part’ while a further 10% saw its construction as fully justified, to stem the exodus to the West and stabilise the political situation in Germany in the face of growing Cold War tensions.


In a recent article in History Today, Fredrick Taylor also believes that the wall was perceived as necessary – or at least, very convenient – by the Western powers, certainly more so that their condemnatory rhetoric suggested at the time. Despite a brief stand off between Soviet and American tanks in Berlin, overall the Western reaction to the wall’s construction was decidedly muted. Taylor details how, distracted by domestic and other pressing foreign commitments, Western statesmen and diplomats were largely ambivalent towards the permanent division of Berlin. Not only were the Western powers clearly unprepared to risk going to war to prevent the division of Germany, Taylor claims, but many privately saw the wall as a satisfactory solution to the ‘German problem’.


Mauer im Kopf: the ‘Wall in the Mind’


When the Berlin Wall collapsed in the autumn of 1989 it was largely obliterated, in part due to high numbers of Mauerspechten or ‘wall woodpeckers’ (souvenier hunters who chipped away at the remnants of the wall) and in part due to a concerted political effort to remove the wall from view and push ahead with reunification as quickly as possible. A few scattered sections of the wall remain standing today – most notably at Bernauer Strasse which functions as the official memorial to the wall – but visitors to Berlin increasingly maintain that it is difficult to pinpoint where the Wall formerly stood; where ‘West’ became ‘East’. To mark the 50th anniversary of the Wall’s construction SPIEGEL ONLINE have compiled an interesting interactive slideshow of photographs depicting life before and after the Wall here.


Many people believe that the speedy disappearance of the wall created a lack of opportunities for Vergangenheitsbewältigung or ‘coming to terms with the past’ in East Berlin. The growth of Ostalgie (nostalgia for East Germany) in recent years has led to suggestions that while the wall may have been physically removed, a less tangible barrier remains – a Mauer im Kopf  or ‘wall in the mind’. Veena Venugopal believes that ‘it is clear that even though the Berlin Wall came down 22 years ago, it is still a defining force in the life of Berliners’.


In another recent poll where respondents were asked about lingering divisions between east and west Germans nearly 22 years after the Wall was torn down, 83 percent of those surveyed said they thought there was still an ‘invisible wall’ running through the country, while only 15 percent said they thought the differences between those who had lived in the West and the East had been surmounted.


These enduring divisions appear to be fuelled primarily by post-communist disappointment, political stereotyping (with ‘East’ Germans accusing ‘West’ Germans of arrogance while some former ‘Wessies’ see ‘Ossies’ as backward and stupid) and economic insecurity. The ‘brain drain’ halted by the Berlin Wall soon revived after its collapse: between 1989 and 2005 more than 1.6 million predominantly young (with 60% aged under 30) educated and skilled Eastern Germans left for better prospects in the West. Today unemployment in some areas of the former East are three times as high as in the West.


Commemorating the Construction of the Berlin Wall


Certain aspects of Berlin’s recent past remain highly charged issues and I previously wrote a short piece relating to the contested nature of memorialisation and commemoration in Berlin here. Today Berlin is a popular tourist destination with an estimated 5.5 million visitors to its memorials and contemporary history museums per year. A thriving and lucrative tourist industry has developed around Cold War Germany, but some events – such as the infamous ‘Trabi safaris’ which allow tourists to tour the route of the wall while driving ‘one of the last relics of real-life socialism’ while experiencing traditional Cold War-style checks by costumed border guards  –  have resulted in complaints about the ‘Disneyfication’ of Berlin, serving to trivialise and distort important aspects of its history for entertainment value.


A campaign has recently been launched for a new ‘Cold War Centre’ in Berlin which would aim to construct a dominant narrative pertaining to commemoration and remembrance of divided Germany. Some have suggested that the use of socialist symbols should be legally restricted, akin to the Nazi swastika. Others suggest that sections of the Wall should be properly reconstructed to stand as a visible and enduring memorial to the divisions in Germany’s recent past. The recent announcement of work to stabilise the best preserved remains of the Berlin Wall along Bernauer Strasse (financed by funds seized from the SED after German reunification in 1990), has led to calls from Axel Klausmeier, Manger of the Bernauer Strasse memorial, for the remains of the Wall to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


In the coming days numerous events have been organised to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wall’s construction. On 13 August Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leading German politicians are attending an official ceremony at the Berlin Wall memorial on Bernauer Strasse. Further information about commemorative activities in Berlin can be found here, with a full programme in English here.



August 11, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Rocking the Wall: East German Rock and Pop in the 1970s and 1980s


The influence of popular culture was viewed as dangerous and potentially subversive in communist Eastern Europe (as previously discussed on The View East  here). Consequently, the regimes in power attempted to monitor and control the music scene. Musicians were faced with high levels of censorship, while those who were unwilling to conform to state restrictions frequently became targets for harassment and repression. This article, by guest author James Shingler, considers the impact of popular music in the GDR during the 1970s and 1980s. By exploring the changing relationship between state authorities, musicians and music fans in the GDR during the latter decades of communist rule, James suggests that by the end of the 1980s the music scene had become an important platform for promoting reform and resistance.


Rocking the Wall: East German Rock and Pop in the 1970s and 1980s

By James Shingler.


Throughout the forty years of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) viewed the impact of popular music on East German youth culture with a mixture of suspicion, distain and hostility. The official view promoted by the SED was that popular music was nothing more than a dangerous American cultural weapon designed to corrupt its young people, turning them away from socialist ideals. The cultural, economic and political freedoms expressed through Western popular music were of great concern to the Party, so as the Cold War developed throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the SED increasingly took a hard line towards popular music. However, the early 1970s saw a relaxation of the hard line policies that the SED had implemented in the 1950s and 1960s. Rather than outright repression, the official policy became one of attempted cooperation between the Party, musicians and fans. The accession of Eric Honecker as General Secretary in 1971, combined with a period of détente in the Cold War, led to some liberalization of popular music in the early 1970s.


The 1970s


The early 1970s saw the official release of records by a number of Western artists in the GDR, including The Beatles and Bob Dylan as well as home grown rock bands such as The Klaus Renft Combo and The Puhdys on the state record label AMIGA. East German rock music developed its own distinctive style and grew rapidly throughout the 1970s. The SED actively encouraged musicians, so long as they were prepared to comply with the Party line, something which was policed by the requirement for a state-issued Auftrittserserlaubnis (performance permission) to allow groups to play publicly. Political controls over the media, such as the 60/40 clause (which stated that 60% of all music broadcast or performed had to come from the GDR or other Socialist States); the fact that Western bands were not permitted to play in East Germany and the state monopoly over the production and distribution of records meant that ‘approved’ East German rock bands were essentially ‘protected’ against foreign competition.

However, state policy remained restrictive and was frustrating to those artists who expressed themselves in a way that the SED disapproved of. Song lyrics would be examined by officials before artists were permitted to release their records on AMIGA. Failure to comply with official guidelines had far reaching consequences as illustrated by the case of the Klaus Renft Combo who were banned in 1975. On 22 September 1975, the band were summoned to the Ministry of Culture to perform in order to have their Auftrittserserlaubnis renewed.  On arrival however, the band were told by a member of the committee that ‘we are here to inform you today, that you don’t exist anymore’. The committee told the band that their lyrics ‘had absolutely nothing to do with socialist reality… the working class is insulted and the state and defence organisations are defamed’. In the aftermath of the hearing the band discovered that not only were they unable to perform concerts, but that the Ministry of Culture had reprinted the entire AMIGA catalogue so they could leave the band out. As Renft acknowledged ‘we simply did not exist anymore …  just like in Orwell’ (Klaus Renft speaking to Anna Funder, Stasiland, Granta: 2004). Shortly after the hearing Renft defected to West Germany where he found employment as a radio DJ. Two of his colleagues in the band, Gerulf Pannach and Christian Kunert, were less fortunate and were imprisoned until 1977 when West Germany bought their freedom.


The Klaus Renft Combo, a successful East German rock band who were banned by the authorities in 1975:


The 1980s


The early 1980s marked a high point for indigenous popular music in the GDR with bands such as The Puhdys, City, Karat and Silly achieving widespread popularity. These bands wrote their own music and sang in German, in stark contrast to earlier groups who had largely replicated songs by Anglo-American artists, and held relatively privileged positions in the GDR music scene, as reisefähige (travel-capable) bands. This led to limited musical exchange between East and West Germany, with The Puhdys, City and Karat permitted to tour inWest Germany, while the SED also allowed a limited number of Western artists to play in the GDR.


The Puhdys, an indigenous East German rock band, were widely tolerated by the authorities:


Regardless of the privileged positions that these bands held, they still were subjected to a lyrical tightrope between expression and censorship, which meant that any critical sentiments had to be concealed. According to Toni Krahl, the guitarist and singer of City‘every line was weighed and politically sounded out… not only by the censors, but also by the audience’. Maas and Hartmut state that ‘the poetry of GDR-rock was highly developed and the audience became use to reading between the lines’ (Maas, Georg and Reszel, Hartmut, ‘Whatever Happened to…: The Decline and Renaissance of Rock in the Former GDR’, Popular Music, 17/3 (1988), pp. 267-278). Despite the popularity of these bands they received criticism from punk and dance fans who suspected that established rock musicians were too close to the powerful. The biggest GDR musicians thus found themselves stuck in the middle of conflict between the Party and young people. As Olaf Leitner states ‘the leadership [the SED] demanded conformity, the fans opposition’ (Olaf Leitner, ‘Rock Music in the GDR: An Epitaph’, in Ramet, S.P (ed.), Rocking the State: Rock Music and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia, Westview Press: 1994).


Punk Rock


While more mainstream artists enjoyed relative success and freedom, the early 1980s also saw the emergence of a distinctive GDR punk rock scene, which was quickly dismissed by the SED and the FDJ as subversive and a dangerous phenomenon. The East German punk scene differed from Western punk; according to Patricia Simpson in Britain and the United States punk was seen as a response to ‘unemployment, to middle-class lifestyles, ethics, and privilege, and to cultural boredom’. Punk bands such as The Sex Pistols and The Clash in the UK and The Ramones and The Dead Kennedys in the US ‘adopted forms of an ideology that was anti-ideological and behaviour that mocked approved social customs and manners by inverting gestures of the socially acceptable’. Conversely, punk in the GDR adapted the sound and fashion of Western punk to the political, social and cultural environment that existed in East Germany at the time. Simpson argues that, ‘with no official unemployment to complain about, for example, GDR punk instead negated the prevailing work ethic, whose purpose was to maintain freedom or strengthen socialism’. In the West, punk was viewed as a nihilistic movement where as in the GDR, punk was fuelled by optimism and an aspiration to revolutionise society (Patricia Simpson, ‘Germany and Its Discontents: Die Skeptiker’s Punk Corrective’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 34/3 (2000), pp. 129–140).


The early 1980s saw the development of an underground punk rock movement in the GDR. However the authorities viewed punk music and fashion as subversive.


East German punks remained on the outskirts of mainstream society; a Stasi report from 1981 estimated that there were around 1,000 punks and 10,000 sympathisers in the GDR (Mike Dennis, The Stasi: Myth and Reality, Pearson: 2003). Punk was primarily an underground movement; many bands performed concerts in their own garages and recorded and distributed their music on self made cassettes. However, as the movement grew, Stasi agents were increasingly able to infiltrate the punk scene. As with jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and beat music fans in the 1950s and 1960s, punks were subjected to a campaign of repression from 1981 onwards, involving the usual Stasi tactics of arrests, interrogations and prison sentences. The SED associated punks with degeneracy, especially in their appearance, believing that their scruffy clothes and dyed hair portrayed an aggressive, provocative manner. A Mohican hairstyle was often sufficient for a punk to be hauled into custody by the police. The Stasi banned punk bands viewed as hostile toward the GDR. In August 1983, members of the East Berlin punk group Namenlos were arrested and sentenced to between 12 and 18 months in prison for ‘disparaging the state’.   Members of the punk scene were also routinely recruited by the Stasi as Inoffizieller Mitarbeiters (Unofficial Collaborators) to report on other punks. In the mid 1980s Frank Zappe, bass player in Leipzig based band Wutanfall was recruited by the Stasi as an Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter after a period of sustained pressure. Zappe talks about his experiences with the Stasi in the video below:



The Stasi were so successful in infiltrating the punk scene that one punk band in Jena consisted entirely of Inoffizieller Mitarbeiters!  The late 1980s saw a shift in Party policy in relation to punk as certain groups, such as Die Skeptiker were professionalised by the State. Just as it had done with rock groups in the 1970s and early 1980s the Party offered support to punk bands in the form of recognition, record contracts, and sponsorship of the FDJ, in return for their compliance.


The Beginning of the End


By the late 1980s, there were a number of different musical styles that were fashionable within the East German music scene. There were around 400 professional groups in the GDR ranging from mainstream rock groups such as The Puhdys and Silly to the punk rock and heavy metal of Feeling B and Prinzip. However, East German music fans also had a healthy appetite for Western popular music. A small section of records by Western artists deemed acceptable by the SED including Phil Collins, Michael Jackson and Santana were released on AMIGA throughout the 1980s. However, these records were only released in small numbers and were difficult to get hold of. Most music fans simply resorted to taping their favorite song directly off West German radio stations and exchanging them with their friends and other music fans.  

The summer of 1987 saw West Berlin host a series of open air concerts close to the Berlin Wall. Artists including David Bowie, The Eurythmics and Genesis appeared to large crowds in front of the Reichstag. On the other side of the Wall, thousands of East German fans tried to get as close to the Wall as possible to hear the music coming from the West. They were met with heavy resistance from the guards policing the border, which led to clashes between border guards and young East Germans. Realising that suppressing popular music in the aftermath of the riot would only inflame tensions, the SED attempted to win back the support of East German youths. The following year a series of concerts were organised in East Berlin, designed to counter performances from Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd that were taking place close to the Wall in the West. In East Berlin, Western stars, such as Big Country, Bryan Adams and Marillion performed alongside East German bands like City. On 19 July 1988, Bruce Springsteen performed the biggest rock concert in the history of the GDR in front of 160,000 people.  During the concert Springsteen told the crowd ‘It’s nice to be in East Berlin. I’m not for or against a government. I came to play rock ‘n’ roll for you, in the hope that one day all barriers will be torn down’. Springsteen’s words reflected the mood of young people in the crowd, sparking wild cheering and celebrations.


Bruce Springsteen performing to large crowds in East Berlin in July 1988:


In September 1989 the new opposition movement Neues Forum (New Forum) issued a declaration known as Aufbruch 89 (Initiative 89) which called for ‘democratic dialogue’ and ‘a political platform for the whole of the GDR that should enable people from all professions, trades, social circles, parties and groups to discuss and work out society’s vital problems’.

In the same month, singer-songwriters Steffen Mensching and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel drafted a document dubbed the Rocker Resolution which was signed by a number of well known artists including Toni Krahl and Tamara Danz, lead singer of Silly. The Rocker Resolution became an important part of the reform movement within the GDR. The state controlled media refused to publish the Resolution, so bands and artists were encouraged to read the declaration out at concerts and other public events to spread the message across the country. The widespread distribution of the Rocker Resolution lead to an extraordinary meeting of the SED’s Committee for Entertainment in October 1989, which resulted in ‘the first official acknowledgement of and reaction to the worsening political situation in East Germany’ (Schulz, Hiltrud, Ear to the Wall:Rock in Late 1980s East Germany, 2008). According to Toni Krahl the aim of the Resolution was ‘not to open borders or to unify Germany, but to democratise the GDR’.

The fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the beginning of the end for the GDR and symbolized the start of the re-unification process that was completed on 3 October 1990. On 21 July 1990, Pink Floyd performed their album The Wall at Potsdamer Platz, among the ruins of the Berlin Wall, with guest appearances from artists including Van Morrison, The Band, and Bryan Adams. The concert was attended by an estimated 500,000 people, from both Western and Eastern Germany.


About the Author:

James Shingler has just completed his BA (Hons) in Modern History and International Relations at Swansea University, UK. During his final year of study James researched and wrote his history dissertation about the influence of Western popular music on youth culture in the GDR between 1949 and 1990.  James is now planning to study for a MA in History at Swansea.


For more information on this topic see:

Dennis, Mike, The Stasi: Myth and Reality, London: Pearson Education Limited, 2003.

Fenemore, Mark, Sex, Thugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll, New York: Berghahn Books, 2007.

Funder, Anna, Stasiland, London: Granta Books, 2003.

Leitner, Olaf, ‘Rock Music in the GDR: An Epitaph’, in Ramet, S.P (ed.), Rocking the State: Rock Music and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia, Oxford: Westview Press, 1994.

Maas, Georg and Reszel, Hartmut, ‘Whatever Happened to…: The Decline and Renaissance of Rock in the Former GDR’, Popular Music, 17:3 (1988), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 267 – 278.

Poiger, Uta, Jazz, Rock and Rebels, California: University of California Press, 2000.

Schulz, Hiltrud, Ear to the Wall:Rock in Late 1980s East Germany, DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Simpson, Patricia Anne, ‘Germanyand Its Discontents: Die Skeptiker’s Punk Corrective’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 34/3 (2000), Michigan: Michigan State University pp. 129–140.


July 15, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Student Showcase: Forthcoming Guest Authored Blog Posts by Swansea University Students.


During July, The View East is very pleased to be hosting a ‘student showcase’, featuring a number of short articles written by history students from Swansea University.


During the final year of undergraduate study, many students invest a lot of time and energy into their studies and produce some really excellent work as a result. However, the vast majority of work produced by undergraduate students is generally not accessible to a wider audience. Most dissertations, essays and research projects are read only by the student themselves, their supervisor, one or two other examiners and perhaps a couple of family members or close friends who may be drafted in to proofread the finished article. Reading through some of the excellent work submitted by students I’ve worked with at Swansea University over the course of the last year led me to reflect that this was rather a shame. Hence my idea to host a ‘student showcase’ here on The View East was born, by asking some of my students to write short articles related to some of the research they had conducted over the past year.


The students I approached have risen admirably to the challenge! Over the next three weeks The View East will feature seven short guest authored articles. All articles have been written by students from the Department of History and Classics at Swansea University. All of the authors have recently completed the final year of their undergraduate degrees and will be graduating this month. All of the students featured here either took my ‘special subject’, specialising in the study of Eastern Europe 1945-1989 during the final year of their degree, or chose to research and write their dissertation on some aspect of modern East European history, under my supervision. All of the students featured as guest authors consistently produced excellent work over the course of the year, just a small sample of which is included here. Sadly, it was not possible to feature the great work done by all of the students I have had the pleasure of working with this year, as many (particularly in the case of my dissertation group) produced excellent research, but on topics that lie outside of the scope of this blog’s focus.


By way of a brief introduction, our guest authors during the next three weeks are writing on the following topics:


Week 1:

On Monday 11 July we begin with Harry Hopkinson’s fascinating article Sputnik: Bluff of the Century. Here Harry explores the implications of the successful launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957, not only in terms of technological and military developments but also in terms of its wider impact on the development of the Cold War.

On Wednesday 13 July we have the first of a trio of articles focusing on various aspects of the history of the GDR. In this article Rosie Shelmerdine provides a fresh and timely analysis of the 1953 East German Uprising, exploring the true nature of the rebellion by asking whether the events of June 1953 are best considered as ‘Western Provocation, Workers Protest or Attempted Revolution?’.

Our first week concludes on Friday 15 July, with James Shingler’s intriguing article ‘Rocking the Wall’, which follows on nicely from Rosie’s study of a popular uprising by exploring a rather different aspect of protest and resistance in the GDR, focusing on the impact of popular music in 1970s and 1980s East Germany.


Week 2:

The second week of the student showcase opens by concluding our focus on the GDR. On Monday 18 July David Cook’s article ‘Living with the Enemy’ provides an insightful and intelligent analysis of the infamous East German secret police – the Stasi.

On Thursday 21 July Nelson Duque’s article ‘Inside Ceausescu’s Romania: An Unquestionably Efficient Police State’ follows nicely on from David’s study of the Stasi by considering the repressive nature of another East European regime: that of Ceausescu’s Romania and his much feared secret police, the Securitate.


Week 3:

On Monday 25th July our penultimate article, written by Carla Giudice, takes us back to the immediate aftermath of World War Two by considering some of the factors that influenced the contrasting fates of three leading individuals who featured in the 1945 Nuremberg War Crimes Trials: the ‘Good Nazi’ Albert Speer, the ‘Bad Nazi’ Herman Goering and the ‘Mad Nazi’ Rudolf Hess.

In recent months there has been a renewed focus on war crimes in relation to the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, due to the recent arrest and indictment of former Bosnian Serb Army chief Ratko Mladic on charges of genocide and other crimes against humanity. On Wednesday 27th July, our final guest authored article by Simon Andrew thus provides a fitting conclusion to the student showcase, by considering some of the circumstances surrounding the bloody break up of Yugoslavia.



July 10, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Video May Have Killed The Radio Star, But Did Popular Culture Kill Communism?

Actor Larry Hagman has recently reiterated claims that glitzy 1980s American soap opera ‘Dallas’ helped topple communism. 79 year old Hagman, famous for playing villainous oil baron JR Ewing in Dallas, is probably best remembered for his character’s involvement in one of the earliest soap cliff-hangers, the ‘Who Shot JR?’ storyline that ran 1979-1980. He is currently filming a comeback series of the soap.

Hagman has argued that Dallas successfully opened the eyes of many East Europeans to the superior quality of life in the West. Famous for its depictions of gratuitous wealth, sex, intrigue and power struggles, at its peak in the mid-1980s Dallas was translated and dubbed into 67 languages and shown in over 90 countries on both sides of the iron curtain, attracting global audiences of over 100 million. Even hard-line communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu allowed Dallas to be broadcast in repressive Romania. Ostensibly, this was in order to illustrate the corruption and moral decadence of capitalism, but the soap attracted a huge following, quickly becoming the most watched TV show in Romania.  As a result, after the collapse of communism and the execution of the Ceausescus in December 1989, the full-length pilot episode of Dallas – including a previously censored sex scene, which could now be edited back in – was one of the first foreign shows to be broadcast on Romanian TV.

Larry Hagman, who played J.R. Ewing in Dallas, recently argued that the glitzy 1980s US Soap contributed to the collapse of communism.

In an interview recently published in Australian newspaper the Fairfield City Champion, Hagman claimed:

“Romania put on Dallas to try and show how corrupt the American system was and it ended up with them lining up Ceausescu, who was the dictator, and shooting him 500 times – they wanted all that stuff they didn’t even know was out there … He let that show in to show how decadent we were and they said, ‘Yeah, we want some of it’.”

Despite the vast gulf between people’s lifestyles in the Soviet bloc compared to the glamour portrayed on screen in Dallas, Hagman argues that there were elements of the show that had a more universal appeal and transcended the iron curtain, claiming that “Everybody has a jerk like JR in the family, and somebody like a Sue Ellen and a Bobby.”

Hagman’s recent comments have been reproduced by the tabloid media in the UK, including The Sun and The Daily Mail. However, in an earlier article entitled ‘How Dallas Won the Cold War’ published in the Washington Post in 2008, Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch have also argued that Dallas may have played an important role in the fall of communism, claiming that:

“The booze-and-sex-soaked caricature of free enterprise and executive lifestyles proved irresistible not just to stagflation-weary Americans but to viewers from France to the Soviet Union to Ceausescu’s Romania … ‘Dallas’ wasn’t simply a television show. It was an atmosphere-altering cultural force (which) helped define the 1980s as a glorious decade of greed, ushering in an era in which capitalism became cool, even though weighted with manifold moral quandaries”

In actual fact, glamorous and fantastical TV shows such as Dallas painted a highly unrealistic picture of the lifestyles enjoyed by the majority of citizens in the West and there is an argument that this led many in the  communist bloc to have inflated expectations about what life under capitalism would be like – believing that in the West everybody lived in a mansion and had a swimming pool in their back gardens –  perceptions that led to subsequent disappointment and disillusionment in the years following the revolutions of 1989.

Hagman is not the only celebrity to claim to have made a contribution to the collapse of communism in recent years either. In a 2004 interview with German TV magazine ‘Spielfilm’ Actor, singer and recently turned reality TV judge David Hasselhoff also suggested that his 1989 hit ‘Looking for Freedom’, may have played some part in bringing down the Berlin Wall. The song was Number 1 in West Germany in the autumn of 1989, when waves of protest began to mount in the GDR and Hasselhoff has argued that his lyrics inspired East Germans to push for change. ‘The Hoff’ has even suggested that this contribution should be recognised by the inclusion of his photograph at the Checkpoint Charlie museum in Berlin! His comments were subsequently picked up by the BBC Magazine who ran a story asking ‘Did David Hasselhoff Help End the Cold War?’

David Hasselhoff believes that his 1989 hit 'Looking for Freedom' contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the tone of the article suggests that the BBC posed this question with its tongue very firmly in its cheek. Similarly, Hagman’s view that it is possible to somehow trace a direct consequential link between Dallas and the execution of the Ceausescus is both vastly over-simplistic and slightly ridiculous! At the same time however, there is a real case to be made about the role that popular culture played in helping to undermine communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. There is a growing body of academic work relating to aspects of Western popular culture and its role in influencing and radicalising communist youth, and Gillespie and Welch make a serious point in their Washington Post article when they state that:

“The impact of ‘Dallas’ on people’s worldviews reminds us that the ‘vulgar’ popular culture that left-wing highbrows and right-wing cultural conservatives love to hate is every bit as important as chin-stroking politics in fomenting real social change.”

During the Cold War period, Western culture was portrayed as subversive and as a potentially dangerous influence by the regimes in power in the USSR and Eastern Europe. High levels of censorship and media restrictions were enforced to try to prevent people gaining access to non-communist culture, which propaganda presented as ideologically inappropriate and morally corrupt. As a result, anyone who openly displayed their liking for Western music, fashion or ‘unsuitable’ Hollywood movies were marked as ‘subversive’ by the state and became likely targets for repression and harassment. However, the regimes were never able to prevent people gaining access to popular culture and their task became increasingly difficult during the latter years of communism as numbers of privately owned television sets and video recorders steadily increased across the block.

The enforcement of cultural controls had always been particularly problematic in the GDR, where citizens could pick up Western transmissions by tuning their radios to the relevant frequencies and turning their TV aerials to point westwards. But elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the authorities also found it increasingly difficult to maintain the necessary levels of control over their citizens’ listening, viewing and reading habits. From the 1960s, popular black market items included prohibited Western music and films (which were smuggled in on cassette and VCR and then copied for illegal distribution),  magazines and fashion. Westerners who were able to venture ‘behind the iron curtain’ were likely to be approached on the street and propositioned about the sale of any branded clothing they were wearing – particularly Levi jeans, which were seen as a ‘status symbol’ in the 1980s. One report from Poland described how, in the early 1980s customers at a Warsaw market would ‘pore over second hand Beatles records and Playboy magazines smuggled from the West’. A second report published by RFE/RL in 1985 outlined how the booming informal trade in such ‘subversive items’ operated, describing exchanges at a Hungarian bar frequented by foreign truck drivers:

“American cigarettes and prewashed jeans, the most coveted articles on the black market, exchanged hands, The Jukebox blared out the latest hits, the air was thick with smoke, it was difficult to hear oneself speak”.

The same was true in the Soviet Union, something which was addressed in Mikhail Safanov’s 2003 article ‘You Say You Want a Revolution’. In this thought provoking piece, Safanov argues that The Beatles may actually have done more for the collapse of totalitarianism in the USSR than high profile dissident intellectuals such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

Mikhail Safanov has argued that The Beatles did more for the collapse of communism in the USSR than dissident intellectuals such as Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov.

Safanov describes how The Beatles were proscribed by the Soviet authorities to such an extent that youths who sported ‘Beatles-style’ haircuts would be stopped on the street by policemen, who would accompany them to the nearest police station and forcibly cut their hair! Despite this however, ‘Beatlemania’ developed as a popular underground culture among Soviet youth, with their music disseminated in the form of illegal cassettes:

“The apolitical Beatles slipped into every Soviet flat, packaged as tapes, just as easily as they assumed their place on the stages of the largest stadia and concert halls in the world. They did something that was not within the power of Solzhenitsyn nor Sakharov: they helped a generation of free people to grow up in the Soviet Union.”

Safanov therefore concludes that:

“The history of the Beatles’ persecution in the Soviet Union is the history of the self-exposure of the idiocy of Brezhnev’s rule. The more they persecuted something the whole world had already fallen in love with, the more they exposed the falsehood and hypocrisy of Soviet ideology … Deep down, the Communists  felt (though no-one expressed it openly) that the Beatles were a concealed and potent threat to the their regime. And they were right.”

May 23, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Building the Berlin Wall

48  years ago today, the world witnessed the birth of one of the most iconic and enduring symbols of the Cold War.


13th August 1961: On this morning 48 years ago,  residents of the German capital Berlin awoke to find barricades had been erected across their city overnight, dividing East from West. These hastily constructed barbed wire barriers later assumed more permanency when they were rebuilt as a solid concrete structure that came to be known as the Berlin Wall.


In essence, Berlin had already been divided for 16 years,since the post-War Potsdam Conference (July-August 1945), where the respective leaders of the victorious Allied powers (the USA, USSR and UK) formally agreed on the division of occupied Germany, and the German capital Berlin (which lay deep within the Soviet area of control), into four separate ‘zones of influence’.  As their wartime camaraderie quickly faded and the Cold War took hold, tensions soon became evident, as had been demonstrated by the Berlin Blockade (1948) and the Soviet crackdown on workers revolts in East Germany in 1953. The Berlin Wall, however, was something new. On the 12th August SED leader Walter Ulbricht signed an official order closing the border, and as a result, on the morning of 13th August 1961, residents of East Berlin awoke to find barriers cutting across streets and through neighbourhoods,  dividing them from their friends and family in the Western sector. Police and soldiers were on the streets patrolling the barricades, while most people reacted with confusion and after 15 years of communism, resigned acceptance, as some rather bemusedly waved to their former neighbours, people they could still see, but no longer reach. Berlin was now divided, not just ideologically and politically, but physically. On 15th August the first concrete blocks were laid, and construction of the famous wall began.


The Building of the Berlin Wall:



The border dividing Berlin soon developed from the rather rudimentary barbed wire rolls hurridly unfurled, to its more common recognisable form: comprising a 27 mile long concrete structure, marked by periodic watchtowers and staffed by armed guards who had orders to shoot anyone attempting to breach the wall on sight, while other guards undertook foot patrols along its perimiter, accompanied by trained guard dogs. Travel between East and West was only possible through official checkpoints, with a special travel permit issued by the SED required. The reality meant that most East Berliners would remain ‘walled in’ for the next 28 years, as the SED publically proclaimed that leaving the GDR was ‘an act of political and moral backwardness and depravity’, although this didn’t stop the SED sometimes forcibly shipping dissidents off into exile to West Berlin, essentially using it as a dumping ground for ‘troublesome elements’ within the GDR.


1963: US President Kennedy makes his famous ‘Ich Bin Ein Berliner’ speech in West Berlin:



The official East German justification for the Berlin Wall was that it was an ‘anti-fascist protection mechanism’ built to protect East Berliners from evil outside forces that threatened to undermine the stability of their ‘socialist people’s paradise’. In truth however, the wall was clearly erected to keep people in, rather than to keep people out. Between 1949-1961 almost 2.5 million East Germans had left for the West, and in July 1961 alone, shortly before the border was closed, 30,000 citizens of the GDR had crossed Berlin to enter the Western zone. Figures such as this meant the GDR risked ‘collapse by emigration’. This mass-exodus of Germans from East to West is the most popularly cited reason for the building of the Wall, and while it is clearly a valid argument, a recent book throws some new light on Ulbricht’s decision to close the border. In Driving the Soviets Up The Wall: Soviet-East German Relations 1953-1961 (2005, Princetom University Press) Professor Hope Harrison uses evidence from recently declassified Soviet and GDR documentation to argue that part of Ulbricht’s rationale behind building the Berlin Wall was to increase tensions with the West and thus ensure the Soviets were obligated to continue supporting the GDR. Overnight, the division of Berlin became a fait accompli and while the Western powers issued verbal condemnation of Ulbricht’s actions, they were unwilling to take any firm action that may risk a confrontation with the USSR (Kennedy was said to have remarked that ‘a wall is better than a war’ when told about developments in Berlin).


June 1987 – US President Ronald Reagan makes his famous speech demanding ‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ at the Brandenburg Gate:



For the next 28 years, the Berlin Wall would act as the principal symbol of the Cold War division of Europe. Between its initial erection in August 1961 and the fall of the Wall in November 1989, many East Germans attempted to breach the Wall and cross into the West despite the obvious dangers:  using forged documentation, concealed in vehicles or even simply trying to climb over the wall and run across the border. Some were successful, but many others were not: official estimates state that around 136 people lost their lives in attempts to breach the wall, however earlier this week an activist  group estimated that the total number of people killed trying to flee from East to West Germany between 1945 and 1989 could total up to 1,347 (see here and here for further details about  these figures).


With so much attention focused on commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall in November this year, itcould be easy to overlook the anniversary of  it’s initial construction, but earlier this week the 48th anniversary of the building of the Wall was commemorated in Berlin. On 12th August a service was held at the Chapel of Reconcilliation, part of the Berlin Wall Memorial Centre on Bernauer Streeet (the scene of some of the most dramatic attempts to escape ‘over the wall’), while in a separate ceremony a plaque was unveiled in memorium of some of the Wall’s victims, people who died trying to escape into West Berlin. Speaking at this memorial service, German Pastor Manfred Fischer perhaps summed up the legacy of the Wall most poignantly, when he stated that the Berlin Wall ‘divided our city right through its heart. It divided Germany. It divided Europe‘.



August 14, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Adventures in Stasiland

I recently read Anna Funder’s book Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (Granta Books, 2003). Funder, an Australian journalist who lived and worked in Berlin for a couple of years in the late 1990s, became fascinated by the experiences of people in the former GDR during her stay, a place where, as Funder  describes ‘what was said was not real and what was real was not allowed, where people disappeared behind doors and were never heard of again, or were smuggled into other realms…’.

Anna Funder's book 'Stasiland' provides 'a journey into the bizarre, scary, secret history of the former East Germany that is both relevant and riveting' (The Sunday Times)

Anna Funder's book 'Stasiland' provides 'a journey into the bizarre, scary, secret history of the former East Germany that is both relevant and riveting' (The Sunday Times)

Funder provides a well-researched overview of the scale and scope of the Stasi in the former GDR presenting some interesting (and at times quite mind-boggling) facts and statistics: in just 40 years the Stasi generated the equivalent of all records previously produced in Germany since the Middle Ages; laid out upright and end to end the files the Stasi kept would form a line 180km in length; when the wall fell the Stasi had 97,000 official employees and an additional 175,000 informers in a country of 17 million people, giving a ratio of one Stasi officer or informant per 63 citizens (a higher ratio than the KBG in the Soviet Russia at the peak of Stalin’s terror and, if part-time informers are added to the total of Stasi representatives in the GDR, some estimates place the ratio as high as 1 Stasi representative per 6.5 citizens). She describes the methods employed  to keep citizens of the GDR under such close surveillance: the boxes of fake wigs and moustaches found in Stasi offices to assist surveillance operations (one former Stasi officer she interviewed demonstrated ‘a sense of fun’ about his former occupation describing the joy of choosing different disguises by coming into work and deciding ‘who shall I be today?!”) and the list of observation signals displayed in the old Stasi HQ (‘like a choreography for very nasty scouts’ observes Funder).

But this was not a simple case of grown men harmlessly living out their boy-hood spy-game fantasies (and Stasi officers were – almost overwhelmingly – male). Other methods employed by the Stasi were legally and morally suspect even in the totalitarian climate of what was allowed in the communist GDR. The ‘standard practices’ applied of course: mail would be opened and inspected, telephone calls intercepted and residences and hotel rooms bugged – but the Stasi even went as far as to develop a method of connecting individual typewriters to the print they made (‘as if to fingerprint thought’ Funder muses sombrely). Smell sampling was also widely employed as ‘evidence’, interrogation subjects were frequently subjected to sleep deprivation to gain ‘confessions’ (which was technically illegal, even in the GDR) and following the death of a number of communist-era dissidents from a rare kind of cancer in the 1990s – all of whom had been held in Stasi prisons around the same time – evidence was uncovered of the use of radiated tags and sprays to ‘mark’ people and objects that the Stasi wanted to track. The full extent of the Stasi’s penetration into East German society will probably never be known – despite the opening of Stasi files to the public in August 1990 and continued revelations about their activities being uncovered today, in the panic during the events of November 1989, the Stasi were ordered to dispose of many of their ‘most incriminating files’,  which were shredded and destroyed (Funder describes how over 100 burnt out shredders were discovered in a room at the fomer Stasi HQ in Normenstasse, Berlin following the collapse of communist authority in the GDR).

All of this is, of course, fascinating. But what really makes Funder’s book is the ‘human element’: the personal stories she collects from people who had lived in the former GDR and their experiences of dealing with the Stasi. Funder draws perspectives from both sides, speaking to those who represented and actively participated in the power structures of the old GDR (including numerous ‘Stasi-men’ who she contacts though newspaper adverts) and also to some of those who opposed, rejected or confronted the regime in various ways. She is always clear about the importance of this material, stating that ‘for anyone to understand a regime like the GDR, the stories of ordinary people must be told’. So we are told the stories of Herr Winz, Herr Christian, Herr Bock and Herr Bohnsack (all former Stasi employees), of Hagen Koch (who had been appointed as Eric Honecker’s ‘personal cartographer’ and had personally walked the streets of Berlin in August 1961 to paint the line where the Berlin Wall was then erected) and of Carl Eduard von Schnitzler (who had presented Der Schwarze Kanal (‘The Black Channel’) a propaganda programme broadcast across the GDR from 1960). Conversely, Funder also explores the experiences of those such as Miriam Webber (who became an ‘enemy of the state’ after an attempt to cross the Wall into West Berlin when she was just 16, and whose husband Charlie later died in mysterious circumstances whilst being held in Stasi custody), Julia (Funder’s landlady who was targeted by the GDR after establishing a long-distance relationship with an Italian man and pressured to inform on her friends and family)and Frau Paul (whose seriously ill baby was being treated in a hospital in West Berlin when the Wall was suddenly erected, who was later arrested and imprisoned by the Stasi and offered the chance to visit her son if she agreed to act as their ‘bait’ in a sting operation to arrest someone they were after while she was there – she declined their ‘offer’ and as a result would not see her son until he returned to East Berlin several years later, a virtual stranger to her).

These individual stories all combine to provide some intriguing insights into life in the former GDR, but what is perhaps most fascinating is the degree to which they illustrate that its history cannot be understood in simple black and white. Instead, a massive grey area exists when attempting to explain or understand the system that developed under communism, and the motives of those who chose to participate in, or oppose it. So while many of the former Stasi-men show little regret or remorse about their former roles (‘We had people everywhere!’ proudly proclaims Winz, while von Schnitzler still steadfastly maintains that the Berlin Wall was ‘humane’), their stories reveal how many of them too were damaged despite – or because of – their involvement in the system.  So Christian was arrested, imprisoned and later demoted to manual work on a building site for three years after he failed to disclose his extra-marital affair to his superiors (‘Any one could have an affair of course’ he explains, in an attempt to describe the perverse logic behind his arrest ‘but EVERYTHING had to be reported’) and it emerges that Koch ran into problems when he married a girl who the Stasi viewed as ‘GDR negative’ and was later arrested when he attempted to resign from the Stasi, while his wife was forced to divorce him under threat of losing their son if she did not (they later re-married).

Conversely, despite several people recounting their awful experiences with the Stasi, many former citizens that Funder spoke to continued to display significant amounts of nostalgia – or ‘Ostalgie’ – for the former GDR now that it no longer exists. Post-socialist development and re-unification have failed to live up to the expectations that many held in 1989, and ironically, many mourn the loss of ‘security’ they now associate with the GDR in a time when people recall that ‘prices were lower, everyone had work and transportation was free’. The current system is ‘better than the Weimar Republic and better than Hitler, but bring back the Communists!’ one elderly woman confides to Funder, and even Julia, who was targeted and persecuted by the Stasi, talks of the rise of problems such as unemployment, drugs, homelessness and prostitution which she still identifies today with ‘the West’ and seems to equate the fall of the Berlin Wall with the loss of her own personal security (for reasons that become apparent as her story unfolds).

You get the sense that Funder is trying her hardest to remain impartial, but nevertheless some of her frustration with this ‘Ostalgie’ does come through when she talks of the post-communist ‘myth’ that has emerged about how life was better in the GDR in many respects because ‘if you didn’t buck the system then it wouldn’t harm you’ – despite the stories she collects clearly demonstrating the opposite – and the tendency of some she encountered to present the GDR as ‘simply a harmless welfare state that looked after people’. As a result, while the primary focus of Stasiland is to explore life in the period before 1989, some interesting contemporary perspectives also emerge, particularly in relation to the existence of ‘mauer im kopf’ or ‘the wall in the head’ that still appears to influence many in Germany today.

Stasiland is available from

July 23, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 2 Comments