Eyewitness: Before and after fall of the Berlin Wall

In 1989, millions of Eastern European citizens took to the streets, daring their Communist masters to deploy the security forces against them. Yet, just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, if you had visited one of its vassal states, you would never have guessed the ramparts of totalitarian power were crumbling.

In the autumn of 1988, a pall of pollution and gloom hung over Bratislava, a Czechoslovakian city on the Danube. Bratislava had formerly been a sophisticated Hapsburg town called Pressburg, populated by German-speakers and Hungarians. However, with the defeat of the Astro-Hungarian empire, it was awarded to the newly-created Czechoslovakian state after the Great War. After World War Two, the Communists seized power, shutting Czechoslovakia off from its common European home. Yet, despite the years of subsequent neglect, it had a well-preserved medieval town centre with its burghers’ houses, pretty squares and cobblestone alleys. Its Baroque palaces, mansions and monasteries were built in the grand Hapsburg style. It deserved tourists, but there were almost none, because it lay behind the Iron Curtain.

In the 1960s, the Communist authorities built barely-functional mass housing, donutting Bratislava’s charming old core. The new “people’s housing” districts had barren and misconceived public spaces where wind howled between stained concrete buildings, and its empty cement fountains were swirling with trash. Expunging this sensory deprivation with the help of a few outstandingly good beers (30 pence/50 cents a litre in 1988), it was hard to imagine how anything in Czechoslovakia would change.

Yet, the modern burghers of Bratislava had made the best of their circumstances, living one life behind closed doors with family and friends – living in truth, as Vaclav Havel, the playwright, human rights activist, dissident, prisoner and future Czech president, put it – and another life in which citizens self-edited every utterance, depending on who might be listening. Even one’s immediate family were not above suspicion because teachers encouraged children to betray their parents.

Bratislava resembled so many Eastern European cities in the 1980s: hoardings mimicked Western advertising, sustaining the pretence that consumers had choices. Supermarkets displayed bottles of pickles, green beans and Attila “champagne”. Department stores were bleak and depressing, with misshapen clothes made from clingy polyester and regrettably-patterned nylon. Only the record shops were worth a visit, offering superb recordings of the classics for a dollar a disc.

After six in the evening, the streets were empty. The melancholic mood was particularly ironic, given that Eastern European cities like Bratislava had once been the pioneers of genteel café society and lively beer halls. Life was undoubtedly tough for many people, struggling to get by with sporadically-functioning plumbing, going to meaningless jobs, standing in line for wilted produce, and with access to few labour-saving comforts like washing machines.

Back in 1988, my husband Henry and I left Bratislava impressed by the medieval buildings but fearing the Communist system would survive. The West had made little effort to challenge it, beyond political speeches delivered for the benefit of the voters at home, and the arms race benefitted the Western manufacturers of weapons. Our leaders have always been adept at finding new enemies to keep the procurement pork circulating.

During the Cold War, the West spent billions on arms but it was for our own security, and not to liberate the millions behind the Iron Curtain, yearning for freedom. When workers rose up in Berlin in 1953 (viciously crushed by their Socialist Unity Party rulers); when the Hungarians revolted against the Communists in 1956 (only to be invaded and killed by the Russians); when the Prague Spring blossomed and was supressed by Moscow in 1968, our leaders offered stirring words, scored political points and grasped the chance to increase our military spending. Asking Mr Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” was for domestic consumption, as was JFK’s admission to a puzzled crowd of Germans in 1963 that he was a human embodiment of desert typical of the region – “Ich bin ein Berliner” means “I am a doughnut.”

We went to Dresden in December 1988, keen to see its Baroque splendours, but prepared for more Communist dreariness, Spartan hotel rooms and bad food. In our years of travel throughout the Eastern Bloc we had accepted that this was a price to be paid for enjoying the culture on offer.

We arrived at Dresden’s railway station on a dark, chilly, foggy night. We headed down Prager Strasse in search of the Hotel Neva, a modern skyscraper. It was named for the river in Leningrad, an example of the local Communist Party bosses ingratiating themselves with the Kremlin, although it was packaged for the local audience as an act of solidarity with their comrades in the USSR.

Before Dresden was obliterated by the Allied bombardment and firestorm in February 1945, Prager Strasse was its ritzy Fifth Avenue or Regent Street. Now, it was lined by empty retail premises at ground floor level, topped by layers of apartments where television screens flickered. No one was strolling along the dimly-lit thoroughfare, and the lobby of our hotel was empty, save for a helpful receptionist and a barman watching soccer on TV.

We dumped our bags and went out to explore. As we walked toward the centre of Dresden, jagged shapes loomed out of the mist. It had been forty-three years since World War Two, but still the ruins of buildings jutted up from the scorched earth of bomb sites. All that remained of the Residence and the Frauenkirche were charred window frames, crumbling walls, and heaps of stone.

By eight o’clock at night, Dresden appeared to be closed. It was freezing cold, so we returned to our poorly-lit hotel room with its challenging plumbing. The bathroom was clean – this was Germany, after all – but it smelt as if the scouring products were made of nuclear waste. In common with other tourist accommodations behind the Iron Curtain, the radio and TV were just for show: neither functioned, but some Party bureaucrat probably thought they added sophistication. When entering or exiting the hotel, we kept ourselves amused by calculating what percentage of lightbulbs in the public areas had expired, and had been patiently waiting to be replaced, perhaps since Khrushchev had been in the Kremlin.

However, the following morning, we discovered that the Communist authorities could do an excellent job of rebuilding war-damaged buildings, when they put their minds to it. The eighteenth century Zwinger Royal Palace and the Hofkirche were impressively pompous and Baroque; the Semper Opera was outrageously encrusted with wedding cake decorations inside and out; the Bruhl Terrace by the river, and street upon street of merchants’ houses, had been beautifully reconstructed from the rubble of 1945. No wonder Dresden had been known as Paris-on-the-Elbe river. But unlike Paris, there was no one else admiring the city’s treasures.

Taking the number 9 tram through the suburbs, we rattled past rows of beautiful, if run down, late nineteenth century villas. Most of the passengers, who looked as if they were comradely students from Vietnam or North Korea, got off at a technical college, shivering in the cold. Further on, beyond the tree-lined avenues of formerly bourgeois houses, our tram terminated at the river, where vineyards stretched up slopes. A ferry took us (its sole passengers that morning) across the Elbe to Schloss Pillnitz, a palace reconstructed from the ashes of war. Again, we were the only people taking in this superb architectural achievement.

That evening, we attended a concert at the Palace of Culture, a twin of London’s Festival Hall, the concrete arts centre built in a rush of post-war euphoria. Afterwards, in a nearby café, we watched the concert-goers drinking wine, laughing and chattering like concert-goers anywhere.

The following day we tried to change our travellers checks in a bank. For reasons we never grasped, this was beyond the German Democratic Republic’s financial system. Back outside on the street, a bear of a man approached us and quietly asked if we wanted to change money. He spoke good English and had none of the shiftiness and darting eyes one associates with illegal money-changers. We did the deal to mutual satisfaction, and went on our way.

That evening, as we were getting ready to go in search for edible food, the hotel reception called, saying a man was here to see us. Puzzled, we found the bear-like money-changer in the lobby. He introduced himself as Dietmar and suggested we come to dinner at his house. Feeling more than a little suspicious, we explained we had tickets to the opera, and we compromised on a drink in the empty bar.

“When I got home today, my wife said I was an idiot for not inviting you to have dinner with us,” he explained while we waited for our drinks.

“How did you know where we were staying?” Henry asked.

Dietmar shrugged. “There are only four hotels in Dresden, so I phoned each one and asked if they had the English couple staying with them. You’re the only tourists in town, so it wasn’t so hard.”

We relaxed slightly, and asked him about his life. He had a PhD in engineering, and worked for a local manufacturing firm. His father had owned a bakery before the war, but the business had been seized by the Communists when they took power. Dietmar’s wife, Agnes, was a Hungarian whom he had met at a young Socialist summer camp. “We were both watching the television coverage of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon,” he recalled. “That’s how we got together.” Agnes was a manager at the Radeberger beer factory, and they had a young daughter called Corinna.

Dietmar was unguarded in his withering remarks about the ruling Communists, not bothering to lower his voice as he criticised their corruption and incompetence. Henry and I had no illusions that we were important enough for the German Democratic Republic to spy on us, so we relaxed, taking Dietmar at face value, and asking him more about the political situation. He told us about the shortage of workers. “So many people in the GDR go to university now, meaning there’s no one left to do practical things. That’s why you see people from Vietnam and Mozambique in the streets of Dresden.” He paused. “Of course, thousands of us find a way to leave the country each year.”

When we asked him if it was dangerous for him to speak so openly about the system, Dietmar sighed. “What are they going to do to me? The people in charge are really beyond caring, just so long as we don’t try to escape.”

Looking back, we should have realized that if people like Dietmar were beyond fear, the regime must be in an advanced state of decay. It is also salutary to recall that a kilometre from where we sat, a young Russian KGB operative called Vladimir Putin was also watching the system disintegrate. While he was stationed in Dresden, Putin saw the Socialist Unity Party bosses lose the will to fight for a power structure in which they no longer believed. That lesson stayed with him.

A mere eight months later, and a few miles away in Leipzig, the spark of revolution was ignited. New Forum was a group of courageous Christians and other citizens who met at the Nickolaikirche, the St Nicholas church, each week. They decided to march every Monday evening, calling for democratic reforms. Their numbers grew until thousands were joining them each Monday. The country, and those in the outside world who cared about such things, held their breath, waiting for the dinosaurs on the ruling Central Committee to order their security services to open fire on the crowd.

After the Berlin Wall fell, many Americans claimed Ronald Reagan was responsible for the end of Communism in Eastern Europe. This does a great disservice to the brave people of New Forum. Each time those protestors sets out from Nicholaikirche, they knew they might face bullets, or years of torture and imprisonment. Thankfully, the East German system was so rotten that no one was prepared to defend it, let alone spill blood; Leipzig’s police joined the people, the demonstrations spread across the GDR, the Wall was breached, and within a year Germany was reunited.

As I write those words, I tear up, all these years later. The day the Wall came down felt personal because I had travelled so much throughout the Eastern Bloc, beginning when I was 17 years old. I had seen how decent, dignified people were suffering, and making do as best they could. And I felt sadness at the corrosive effect of years of official lies and propaganda, the consequences of which are seen now in the dismal political situation in much of free Eastern Europe.

In March 1990, during the first democratic elections in eastern Germany since 1933, we returned to Dresden to see Dietmar and to meet Agnes and Corinna. They lived in a pleasant, low-rise apartment block on the edge of the city, and as we trudged up the stairs to their floor, we noted how clean their commonly shared areas were, compared to the British equivalent in which we lived. The spotlessness and organization of their housing project was not post-Communist, however. Decades before, a self-defining professional class had established and maintained this enclave of like-minded people, and their local schools were excellent, too.

The election campaign was in its final days when we visited. While Dietmar and his family were excited, they were also wary of what reunification would mean. Agnes was still in marketing at the local beer factory, working for the same boss. However, her superior was no longer a stalwart East German functionary, quoting the wisdom of the Central Committee, and giving Agnes a hard time for being a social democrat Hungarian (a “bourgeois rightist”). Suddenly, he was castigating her for being a left-winger (“a red pig”). A lifelong Socialist Unity Party member, her boss had abruptly dropped his previous allegiances and was now fervently and ambitiously pro-capitalist and conservative. Agnes, whose lifelong liberal values were rather more durable, was under suspicion for failing to reinvent herself.

We also noticed a souring toward the bureaucrats from West Germany who had abruptly swept aside and denigrated everything connected with the old regime, irrespective of its merits. At Corinna’s school, West German officials had removed all the old text books, declaring them tainted by Communist propaganda and thus unfit. The teachers waited months for ideologically sound replacements to arrive from Bonn. “But how politically suspect can a chemistry book be?” wondered Agnes.

She was also unhappy that the after-school activities on offer in the GDR days had been cancelled. Previously,

working parents had been confident their offspring were participating in sports or some artistic pursuit each afternoon, rather than hanging around street corners. Already, Agnes told us, kids were getting into drugs and other harmful pastimes. The new bosses had also closed down kindergartens, an additional blow against working mothers, she thought.

There was another regrettable side to the sudden arrival of West Germans. Walking around the city we noticed brightly-coloured notice boards advertising coach tours to Paris and Rome, exotic places that had been impossible for East Germans to visit previously. Dietmar told us that the trusting and unworldly citizens of Dresden were handing over their money to West German “travel agents,” who gave them “tickets” for these coach tours. The East Germans turned up at the appointed hour but found no bus and no trace of the travel agents, their fellow Germans, who had sold them the tickets.

One evening, we attended a superb production of the Marriage of Figaro at the Semper Opera House. On our previous visit, in 1988, the audience had arrived on foot because few people had cars under the old system. Now, the Semper Opera forecourt was crowded with vast BMWs owned by West German visitors. They literally pushed the locals out of the way. Confident, brassy, perfumed, expensively-dressed West Germans milled about the foyer, while the locals in their modest and much-mended dresses and suits stood around the edge of room, bewildered. As we watched the wealthy West Germans throwing their weight around, we witnessed one of the better aspects of the old world – access to high-quality entertainment, fine educational standards, and the unashamedly intellectual tone of the media – fading away already.

We visited Dietmar and Agnes again in 2002. Dietmar had set up his own engineering company and was exporting his products – assembly line machinery – around the world. He and Agnes had also travelled to places they were previously forbidden to visit. Agnes was still in management at the former beer factory, and their daughter was studying in Canada. Their family appeared to be a perfect example of the distance one could travel between the rusty old GDR and high-tech Germany.

Yet, they were lukewarm about their new lives, saying that while they enjoyed the new climate of freedom and the economic opportunities, they had lost something. “There used to be a solidarity among people here,” said Agnes. “It was all of us, helping each other, coping as best we could, and united against the Communist bosses. That feeling of togetherness and shared experience is gone.”

They were also unhappy about the rash of boxy new commercial buildings in Dresden. Cheaply-built and poorly-designed, they had been plonked down in the middle of the former market square, obscuring the Baroque skyline. “Dresden had more dignity before,” Dietmar said mournfully. He also took a counter-intuitive view of the plan to rebuild the Frauenkirche: “They should leave it as a ruin, to remind everyone what happens in war.”

Even back in 2002, Dietmar and Agnes were concerned about the rise of right-wing and racist politics in the former East Germany. They pointed out that under the Communists, there had been no re-education about the causes of World War Two, in sharp contrast to West Germany. Parts of Saxony that are now infested by fascist groups had also missed out on West German television, which had been surreptitiously watched by millions of East Germans. Dresden was in a geographical hollow that became known as the valley of ignorance, because they were unaware of what was happening in the rest of the world. The result, coupled with rising unemployment, is skinheads strutting about, threatening immigrants, and worrying levels of support for the far right ADF political party.

Back in 2002, after leaving our friends in Dresden, we took trains from one former East German town to the next: Erfurt, Weimar, Quedlinburg and Weinigerode. A surprising number of medieval villages appeared to have been untouched by the various battles that had raged across Central Europe for centuries, or the more recent baleful influence of the Communist Party. The rickety-roofed, half-timbered houses were run-down, but they had survived the mindless tide of 1960s and 70s civic planning that had blighted Western Europe and North America. This, perhaps, was one advantage of living under a bankrupt regime that had too few resources to replace many fine old structures with modern ones; and which had leaders who cared little about their citizens’ comfort or convenience. Between the villages were fields of neat allotments with tiny summer houses where people could escape the cities, sit in a deckchair, sip beer and watch their cucumbers grow.

We continued to Leipzig, a Mecca for devotees of Johann Sebastian Bach. It was sublime to sit in the light and airy Thomaskirche, listening to a cantata Bach had composed for the church’s Sunday services. For twenty-seven years he was the cantor of Leipzig, churning out masterpieces for the city council. He died there in 1750, and we paused at his grave in Thomaskirche, pondering his greatness, thinking that Bach is surely proof that God exists and means us well. John Lennon reputedly declared that before Elvis, there was nothing. It would be unfair to say that before Bach there was nothing, but he certainly made everything thereafter possible.

We first visited Leipzig in 1990, during the first democratic elections which followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the election count, we witnessing the disappointment of the New Forum candidates as the results came in. These courageous political innocents had been squeezed out by the big West German party machines. Evidently, their heroic role in bringing about the end of the GDR could not compete with the Johannes-come-lately West German politicians. The New Forum candidates stood to one side in the brightly-lit school gymnasium, pale-faced and disbelieving.

While I am not nostalgic for “former times” in Eastern Europe, I realize how fortunate I was to see so many magnificent cities without the crowds that make a visit to famous sites today so challenging. We glimpsed John Le Carre Land, with all its contradictions and absurdities, without having to endure living under the corrupt authoritarian system. We enjoyed our interactions with resilient people who found razor-sharp humour in grim circumstances. Somehow, through all the ridiculous enforced ideologic brain-washing, they lived in truth.


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