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

The Race Against the Stasi [Book Review]

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).

Herbie Sykes, The Race Against the Stasi (Arum Press, 2014)

Herbie Sykes, The Race Against the Stasi (Arum 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’.

A poster advertising the 1954 Peace Race - an annual stage cycling race known as 'the Tour de France of the East'.

A poster advertising the 1954 Peace Race – an annual stage cycling race known as ‘the Tour de France of the East’.

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)

A poster from the 1960 Peace Race. Dieter Wiedemann competed in 1962.

A poster from the 1960 Peace Race. Dieter Wiedemann competed in 1962.

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.

A photo of Dieter Wiedemann during his Torpedo racing days. Photo Source: http://www.siteducyclisme.net/coureurfiche.php?coureurid=27942

A photo of Dieter Wiedemann during his Torpedo racing days. Photo Source: http://www.siteducyclisme.net/coureurfiche.php?coureurid=27942

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.

November 7, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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:

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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

US Documents Provide New Perspectives on Katyn ‘Cover Up’

 

Today Katyn remains a contentious and highly emotive issue, one that casts a long shadow over Russian-Polish relations. In recent years, some important gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the Katyn massacres – the mass execution of over 22,000 members of the Polish military and intellectual elite and their burial in mass graves in the forests around Smolensk during April-May 1940 – have been plugged. Developments in the post-Cold War period have tended to focus upon the information that has slowly (and often reluctantly) trickled out from the Russian archives, particularly in April 2010, when publication of key documents confirmed beyond any doubt that the mass executions had been carried out by the Soviet NKVD, acting on the direct orders of leader Josef Stalin. It is generally accepted that Stalin approved the massacre to ensure there would be no organised domestic resistance to the extension of Soviet control over Poland after World War II (for more details see my previous blog post about the Katyn massacre and its historical legacy HERE). However, the recent release of over 1000 pages of documentation held by the US National Archives has focused attention on a new and previously under-discussed perspective of this tragedy; assessing the extent of US and UK complicity in hiding the truth about Katyn.

 

The newly declassified documents, released on 10th September 2012, confirm that both the US and UK authorities were aware of strong evidence pointing to Soviet responsibility for Katyn soon after the initial German discovery of the forest graves in 1943, but deliberately chose not to question Soviet claims that it was the Germans who were responsible for the slaughter, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary, due to the importance of maintaining good wartime relations with Stalin. Even after the end of World War II, they chose to remain silent about much of what they knew. Several years later, after the wartime alliance had irretrievably broken down and Cold War battle lines had been drawn, a Congressional Committee (‘The Madden Committee’) was established to review the available evidence relating to Katyn. Their official report revised the US stance, determining after a series of hearings held 1951-52 that the NKVD had been responsible for the executions, which the report described as ‘one of the most barbarous international crimes in world history.’ However, the material indicating the full extent of western wartime knowledge of Soviet involvement in Katyn was concealed, and although the committee recommended that the Soviets face trial at the International World Court of Justice, this was never pursued. The Soviets continued to deny any responsibility until the dying days of the USSR, and as recently as 1992, the US State Department maintained that prior to Mikhail Gorbachev’s official admission of Soviet guilt in 1990, they had ‘lacked irrefutable evidence’ to substantiate claims that it was the Soviets rather than Nazi Germany who had carried out the massacre.

 

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, pictured at the Yalta conference in 1945. By this point, the western leaders knew that the Soviets were responsible for the Katyn massacres, but chose to ignore the evidence and focus on attempting to maintain good relations with Stalin.

 

The documents released yesterday tell a very different story: comprised of detailed accounts from officials in the Polish exiled government; reports from U.S. diplomats; US army intelligence and testimony from two American Prisoners of War – Capt. Donald B. Stewart and Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr – all of whom provided strong evidence suggesting Soviet culpability. The testimonies provided by Stewart and Van Vilet Jr are particularly compelling. Theit accounts describe how they were taken to Katyn (which had recently passed from Soviet to German control) by their Nazi captors in May 1943. The bodies they viewed were all already in an advanced stage of decay, indicating that they had been killed prior to the recent Nazi occupation of the area. This was further supported by the good state of the men’s boots and clothing (suggesting they had not remained alive long after their initial capture by the Soviets) and the fact that none of the personal items found on the corpses  – including letters and diaries – were dated beyond the spring of 1940. The two men reported all of this in coded messages which were sent back to Washington, expressing their conviction that the evidence of Soviet responsibility for the massacre was ‘irrefutable’. However, their testimony was supressed. At a time when the allies remained desperate for Soviet military assistance, neither Roosevelt or Churchill were willing to risk confronting Stalin. Realpolitik took precedence over any sense of moral responsibility, as illustrated by one telegram Roosevelt sent to Churchill in June 1943, where he  strongly urged suppression of any evidence suggesting Soviet complicity at Katyn because ‘The winning of the war is the paramount objective for all of us. For this unity is necessary’.

 

Thus, when the Polish government in exile in London called for an investigation into the Katyn massacres, Roosevelt advised Churchill to ‘find a way of prevailing upon the Polish government in London … to act with more common sense’. In a letter dated May 1943, British Ambassador Owen O’Malley explained how ‘We have been obliged to . . . restrain the Poles from putting their case clearly before the public, to discourage any attempts by the public and the press to probe the ugly story to the bottom’ and acknowledged that ‘We have in fact perforce used the good name of England like the murderers used the conifers to cover up a massacre’.

 

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A memorial inWarsaw, commemorating the 22,000 members of the Polish military and intellectual elite who were massacred by the Soviet NKVD in 1940 (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

 

The US documents do not contain any radically new information or earth shattering revelations about Katyn. Rather, they simply confirm what most historians have long suspected. However, they do add to our knowledge of events, suggesting that both British and American administrations were aware of the truth about Katyn at an early stage (from at least mid-1943) but chose to conceal the truth, in a deception that extended up into the highest political levels. For this reason, Allen Paul, author of ‘Katyn: Stalin’s Massacre and the Triumph of Truth’ believes that the information revealed in the US documents is ‘potentially explosive’, suggesting that the US decision to cover-up the truth delayed a full understanding about the true nature of Stalinism in America, while George Sanford, author of ‘Katyn and the Soviet Massacre of 1940: Truth, Justice and Memory’  compared western attitudes towards Katyn to their unwillingness to accept or act on early information received about the killing of Jews in Auschwitz in a recent interview with Radio Free Europe.

 

As Dmitry Babich, a commentator for the Voice of Russia surmised in respnse to the latest findings, ‘No one looks particularly pretty … the moral of the whole story is that everyone behaved very cynically’. The information contained in the US documents could be used to support those who argue that it was Western ‘abandonment’ of the East European countries that left them helpless to resist Soviet expansion after World War II, condemning them to fifty years of enforced communist rule. There have also been suggestions that the new documentary evidence has the potential to  negatively influence contemporary Polish relations with the US and UK, although any serious ‘cooling’ in relations seems unlikely.

 

The documentation released by the US National Archives can be viewed online HERE.

The final report from the Madden Committee (dated 22 December 1952) can be viewed HERE.

 

September 12, 2012 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

New Monument to German Reunification Unveiled

Plans for the construction of a new monument to celebrate German reunification have caused some controversy.

The winning design, unveiled earlier this week, was the culmination of a controversial 12 year process involving two public bids for design submissions for a memorial to celebrate the peaceful revolution of 1989 and the subsequent reunification of Germany on 3 October 1990. Chosen by Culture Minister Bernd Neumann and approved by a parliamentary committee, the new monument will cost €10m (£8.76m, $14 million USD) and is expected to be built over the next two to three years. The new memorial will occupy a central site in Berlin, near the soon to be rebuilt Berlin Palace, which was destroyed by the SED to make way for a new communist-era German parliament. The square outside the building was also the site of peaceful mass demonstrations in the lead up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

'Citizens Movement': The winning design for a new monument to celebrate 'freedom and reunification', unveiled in Berlin earlier this week.

The winning design, entitled ‘Citizens Movement’, was designed by Stuttgart designers Milla & Partner in conjunction with Berlin choreographer Sasha Waltz, as a 55 metre long, 330 tonne tilting steel dish. The dish will be inscribed with the slogans ‘Wir sind das Volk’ (we are the people) and “Wir sind ein Volk” (we are one people) and adorned with engravings depicting scenes from the 1989 revolution.

Rather than a passive monument, the dish is deliberately designed to encourage active engagement and popular participation, with people encouraged to physically climb onto the structure. The construction is designed to tip from side to side and will be set in motion by visitors’ movement. It can hold up to 1400 people but requires 20 people to start moving, representative of ‘people coming together’ as was the case in the 1989 revolution and 1991 re-unification.

German culture minister, Bernd Neumann, said that the new memorial “will not be a dead monument but one … that allows citizens to participate”, while Johannes Miller, one of the architects behind ‘Citizens Movement’, also issued a statement emphasizing the populist sentiment behind the design:

“The rest of the world’s monuments are built to be looked at. “This monument isn’t just an object to look at. It should be entered and set in motion. That movement is only possible when a large group of visitors cooperate. With this concept, it’s the people who’ll make it into something. Maybe they’ll use it for theatre, or like Speaker’s Corner, or skaters will use it. The people will make it their own.”

However the monument has attracted criticism. Viewed as something of a gimmick in certain quarters, it has been described in derogatory terms by much of the German and international media; quickly dubbed ‘a giant fruit bowl’, ‘a baby rocker’ and a ‘playground for grown ups’. Critics have also claimed that the monument is a safety hazard and, in a city already filled with memorials, superfluous. However, the announcement made earlier this week also led to calls from Roland Jahn (former dissident and current head of the Stasi Archive) for construction of a further memorial, this time dedicated to victims of repression in the former GDR.

Journalist Christian Bangel goes further, claiming that the memorial represents an ‘imbalanced unity’, symbolic of German failure to adequately come to terms with re-unification in the last twenty years. While acknowledging that, on the surface the memorial represents a ‘fun idea’, in an article published in Zeit Online, he claims that:

“The memorial leaves out any sense of the process of reunification – the problems, the friction, and yes, the sense of marginalization that many East Germans still feel. It’s very possible that this memorial will one day be seen as a symbol of the failure to confront the ghosts of East Germany … and why bother to build a memorial anyway? We already have a monument that symbolizes division, change and unity the world over: the Brandenburg Gate”.

Finally: “Citizens Movement” was not the only monument to be unveiled in Germany this week – a memorial in memory of Paul the Octopus, who became an unlikely star of the 2010 World Cup after successfully predicting the outcome of eight matches by choosing mussels from boxes labelled with the flags of rival teams, was also unveiled at the aquarium in Germany where he lived until his death in October 2010. The tribute to Paul, part of a new exhibition in Octopus Garden, shows a very large Paul with his tentacles hanging over a football which is patterned with different national flags!

A memorial in memory of Paul the Octopus was also unveiled at the aquarium in Oberhausen where he had lived this week.

UPDATE:

27 June 2011: A recent article, ‘Rocking Remembrance‘ by Dr. Karl Schlogel, written for ‘Slow Travel Berlin’ in reference to the planned memorial to unfication, contains some interesting perspectives.

April 22, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 3 Comments