I have always been fascinated by Communist history and have travelled to many countries in Eastern Europe and Asia under former and current Communist rule. in reality it was a very dark time in history. For all the ideology and the supposed better way of life, it was a time of struggle, fear and cruelty in many of the former Eastern Bloc countries (the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries).
My personal key interest in that period is particularly with East Germany – the GDR (German Democratic Republic – right!). Also known in German as the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik). There is so much to learn about that time behind the Berlin Wall and it just fascinates me.
Construction of the Berlin Wall commenced in 1961. Tensions were high that year between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Many East Berliners were defecting across to West Berlin and the GDR wanted to stop this (following World War Two and prior to the building of the wall around 3.5 million East Germans defected to the West and many did this through the divided Berlin). There was no easier way to do this than just put up a wall! Originally it was just barbed wire and barricades (1961), but this proved ineffective and an improved wire fence was erected between 1962 to 1965. This wasn’t as effective as the GDR desired either, so between 1965 to 1975 the infamous concrete wall was built along with guard towers and anti-tank trenches to completely cut off West Berlin from East Germany (the city border was 155km). This was followed by further improvements and additions between 1975 to 1989 in what was known as Border Wall 75.
Between 1961 and 1989 when the Berlin Wall finally came down, over 600 people died trying to escape over it or on the “Death Strip” between the wall and a secondary fence line in East Germany. The bringing down of the wall following a huge public cry for freedom was a major symbolic gesture and allowed people to freely cross the border once again and was a major stepping stone to the reunification of Germany in 1990.
I have visited a number of cities in the former East Germany and seen plenty of museums on that time period. The Stasi (The Ministry for State Security – abbreviated to MfS in German) were the intelligence and secret police force of the GDR. They were ruthless and highly effective at their job. During the height of the Cold War from 1950 to 1989 they had 274,000 people employed full-time to control the state along with anywhere up to 500,000 regular informants amongst the people (along with many more casual ones too)! Many Stasi records were destroyed with the fall of GDR Communism in 1989, but researchers have been able to positively identify 174,000 informants and that alone was 2.5% of the population of East Germany!
It is believed 1 in every 63 people collaborated with the Stasi and there was at least 1 full-time Stasi agent for every citizen of the GDR. They monitored everything and were not past spying with hidden listening devices, cameras and the like. You wouldn’t know who to trust as they could be someone in your apartment building (apparently there was at least one informant in each building or factory), your green grocer, the old lady next door and even kids (around 10,000 informants were under the age of 18)! Spies were even spying on their own spies! It was real cloak and dagger stuff! They were crazy and paranoid times.
In 2010 I visited the central Stasi HQ in Berlin and also another Stasi building in Leipzig – both of which are now museums. It was fascinating entering both of these places. During the Cold War if you went in to them, you may not have come out again! You could be imprisoned for speaking against the state, trying to leave the country, trying to contact people in the West and so on. Just being suspected of these things could be dire for you, even if you were perfectly innocent!
STASI HEADQUARTERS – LEIPZIG
STASI HEADQUARTERS – BERLIN
Despite the seriousness of it all, one thing that always amuses me from that time is the anti-west propaganda that was used to convince the population that the Communist edict was the right way to go. The so-called iron curtain meant that exposure to the Western way of life was limited to what could be obtained on the black market and so on, so the people in these countries really only had a one-sided view of the world and that was what ever their Communist leaders wanted them to believe! The basic message was beware the perils of the decadent symbols of the “Free West“.
I have roughly translated the wording of the above GDR poster as follows. It makes for a fascinating incite into the progaganda of the day:
So will uns der Feind schaden und vernichten = The enemy wants to hurt and destroy us (in this case the BND – German Intelligence Agency and the CIA).
ideologische Beeinflussung = Ideological influencing.
wirtschaftliche Störtätigkeit = Activities aimed at disrupting the economy.
Terror und Gewaltakte = Terror and violent acts.
Spionage = Espionage.
staatsfeindlicher Menschenhandel = Anti-state human trafficking.
Imperialistische Spione und Agenten sind gefährlich, aber sie scheitern immer wieder an der Wachsamkeit unserer Werktätigen und des MfS = Imperialist spies and agents are dangerous, but they fail again and again due to the vigilance of our workers and the MfS (i.e. The Ministry for State Security or the Stasi).
Is it any wonder between 1989 and 1991 the people of the Eastern Bloc embraced the fall of Communism? The look of joy and excitement on the faces of the Germans in 1989 when they knew the wall was coming down is something I will never forget. I just wish I could have been there to experience it in person rather than watching it on TV.
Ironically today, people do look fondly back at the nostalgia of the Communist times and reminders of the GDR. None are more evident in Berlin than the notoriously bad, but popular (by lack of choice?) old East German Trabant cars that are often used for tours today (over 3 million of these little cars so familiar in the Eastern Bloc were produced between 1957 and 1991). Then there is the adorable cult like figure of Ampelmann, the East German pedestrian light symbols that were introduced in 1961 and are still in use in the eastern sections of Berlin today.
“Checkpoint Charlie” a former guarded crossing point from East to West Berlin is a popular tourist spot today too. In 1961 this was a major centre for tension and often had tanks nearby and ready to go if any fighting broke out between NATO and GDR forces (the Soviets were never too far away either). Luckily all that tension is gone today!
A couple of other significant reminders of the GDR in Berlin are very present at Alexanderplatz (a city square). These are the World Time Clock(Weltzeituhr) and the nearby Berlin TV Tower (Fernsehturm) which were built in 1969 as a symbol of East German technological superiority!
So even though there is some favourable nostalgia to those times and parts of the GDR and the Berlin Wall remain today, the influences and perils of the “Free West” proved to not be so bad after all for the unified Germany!