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Photo Gallery: East Germany, Up Close and Personal - SPIEGEL ONLINE - News - International
Der Spiegel Online
East Germany, Up Close and Personal

By Karlheinz Jardner

When a West German photographer set off on a trip to the East German island of Rügen just after the Wall fell in the spring of 1990, he captured a world that would soon disappear forever. Twenty years after the epochal event, he looks back on his journey in a first-person account.

I remembered the painting from art class in school: The Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, by Caspar David Friedrich. It seemed legendary to me. On the one hand, I was fascinated by the colors, the pinks, the grays, the greens, and the shimmering blue of the water contrasting with the luminous white chalkstone. On the other hand, I was convinced that although I could always see the painting, I would never be able to contemplate the same scenery in reality. I wondered whether the landscape on the island of Rügen truly resembled the painting. It was a mystery to me.

And then the Berlin Wall came down. It was the spring of 1990, and I was 36 and living in the West Germany city of Essen. I was visiting a friend in Berlin when it all happened, and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity. It must have been May when I traveled to Rügen. I had grown up in the Ruhr region and all I knew about the other half of Germany -- other than Friedrich's painting of the chalk cliffs -- were the images of East Germany I had seen on television. One was of the Palace of the Republic, an image that led me to conclude that the German mentality over there was no different than it was where I lived. In other words, everything was very orderly and tidy. Other than that, I had seen a small slice of East Germany several times while traveling on the transit route between the Marienborn border crossing and West Berlin. I wasn't exactly tempted to see more.

There was only one occasion when I experienced a small fragment of the real East Germany. In 1985, I accompanied the singer Klaus Lage, as his photographer, on a tour through the East, but everything was set up so that there was little time to look around. It would be different the second time. Although my destination was Rügen and its chalk cliffs, the rest of my journey was more or less haphazard. I wanted to allow myself to drift around, to decide spontaneously whether to take a left or a right from the road I was driving on, to take pictures of whatever appealed to me and to spend the night wherever I happened to end up. How would people react, I wondered?

'You Can Sleep in my Daughter's Room!'

I encountered many a surprise as I traveled through the Mecklenburg Lake District, where I soon realized that some towns were quite depressing -- and very much unlike the images I had seen on TV. In one village, I asked a woman on the street if she could recommend a place to stay, and she sent me to the district nurse. I rang the doorbell, and when the woman opened the door, I said: "Hello. I was told that I might be able to stay here?" She promptly responded: "Yes. My daughter is at the university in Leipzig. You can sleep in her room."

That was exactly how it happened. Here I was, a total stranger, and this woman was inviting me to stay in her daughter's room. I was very surprised, and I imagined what it would be like if someone were to ring a stranger's doorbell back home in the Ruhr region. Would the person answering the door have said: "Of course! Please come in! You can stay here!"? This friendly reception was a very special experience for me, and it was with the same sincerity that I would be greeted again and again during my trip. Something else I noticed was the fundamental attitude of my hosts.

People apologized for what they had. At breakfast, for example, they would apologize for the butter being hard -- and yet it tasted so good to me! Even when I would tell them that, it seemed that these people felt guilty because they were able to offer me so little. Of course, some were skeptical, especially men, and their skepticism became clear in many conversations. They wanted to know how they would benefit from reunification, and what would happen to their jobs "when all those people start coming over from the West now." What would happen to their business, their agricultural cooperatives? They were worried about their livelihoods, and not without reason.

Everything Was So Attractively Kitsch

Their hospitality gave me the opportunity to see how people really lived. It is hard to discover anything about the way people live just by seeing their homes from the outside. But what I saw in the interiors came as a surprise to me: bookshelves with nutcrackers, bier steins and decorative plates, and entire sets of furniture that made me realize: You've seen this before! In the Ruhr region, they call it "Gelsenkirchen Baroque." It all looked so tacky to me, and yet there was something private and cozy about the way they lived.

Something that I hadn't experienced in the West was the world of East German merchandise. I wanted to take pictures of it, to document it, because I sensed that these were images that would change very quickly: a shop window with nothing but two lonely televisions sets in it, a carefully folded price sign with the words "Logic Circuit Board: 9.50 marks" written on it in felt-tip pen, Ata cleaning and scouring agents for 13 pfennigs, "Edible Legumes" and "Yorkshire Pudding." It felt like a closing sale.

And then there were situations that were simply bizarre, like my visit to a café in Neustrelitz. The only other patrons that evening were a few women, who soon addressed me and asked whether I was from the West. Suddenly the door opened, and a man who had clearly had a lot to drink approached the women. He cursed "Wessis" (West Germans) and loudly accused me of hitting on the women. Then the door opened again, and five Soviet soldiers walked in. They walked past me, grabbed the man by the hair and threw him out. I was quite irritated and decided that it was a good time for me to leave. As I was leaving the café, the coatroom lady said to me: "Oh, are you leaving already, young man? That's too bad, because it's just getting interesting." I wasn't quite sure what she meant, but I was happy to get out of there in one piece.

High Tides

And then I finally arrived on Rügen. East Germany was completely different there. My favorite place was the town of Sellin, with its old wooden villas from the days of the Kaiser, where the nobility used to go to escape the summer heat. Hans Knospe, a beach photographer, told me about the houses, and he explained that "nothing was ever done during the East German period," which was why they were as run-down as I experienced them. And then he said: "Well, you know, somehow life wasn't so bad for me. You're always in a better mood on the beach." I felt that his words were an apt reflection of a man who had worked as a photographer under an authoritarian regime.

I went to see the Cliff Hotel Rügen, where East Germany's prominent politicians stayed, and the bedroom where Communist Party SED Chairman Erich Honecker supposedly spent his nights. By then, many East Germans were visiting the place. They said that they finally wanted to "see where they always stayed." Before reunification, the hotel was off-limits to ordinary people.

On a nice day, I got up early and went to see the chalk cliff. There was no real path, and I couldn't see it at first. But I persevered, and suddenly, as I looked out at the sea, I saw it. I had to sit down and say to myself: This is it, you're really seeing it! It was a very moving experience. I sat there for about an hour, gazing at the big white cliff and the luminous ocean, and then I decided to look at it from a different perspective. There were some wooden ladders leaning eerily against the cliff, and I climbed down one of them and strolled along the water's edge. The beach became smaller and smaller, narrowing to only two or three meters, and suddenly the disturbing thought hit me that there might be high tides on the Baltic Sea.

I was euphoric as I walked back. I had seen the cliff and the fascinating color of the water, its greenish shimmer against the white chalkstone, with my own eyes. It was exactly as I had imagined! I was thrilled by the landscape, and I wanted to go back. In retrospect, my encounters with people were perhaps even more important than the feeling of having finally reached a destination. Nature would remain the same, as I had learned from Caspar David Friedrich's painting, but the people were about to face great changes.

Adapted from an interview conducted by Solveig Grothe for einestages.de, SPIEGEL ONLINE's history portal. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.
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post #2 of 8 (permalink) Old 05-06-2009, 07:01 PM Thread Starter
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Officials Erase Historic Berlin Wall Mural

Officials Erase Historic Berlin Wall Mural
Photo Gallery: It Started with a Kiss - SPIEGEL ONLINE - News - International

By Malte Göbel

One of the most famous paintings on the Berlin Wall, depicting Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing his East German counterpart Erich Honecker, has been destroyed by the authorities. The artist is fuming, but he says he will paint a new image.

It was an image that went around the world. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev leaning in to kiss his East German counterpart Erich Honecker, a larger-than-life painting daubed onto a remnant of the Berlin Wall. Before long it became one of the most famous pictures on Berlin's East Side Gallery, the mural bedecked Wall which is now Berlin's longest remaining stretch of the former frontier of the Cold War.

But then, without warning, the image was removed, leaving an old slab of grey concrete - and an irate artist. "My picture is ruined!" raged 48-year-old Russian artist Dmitri Vrubel.

He painted the picture in 1990, just months after the Wall was officially declared open. Alongside Vrubel, 117 artists from 21 countries painted the 1316-meter-long section which runs parallel to the Spree River. Just days after the East Side Gallery was opened on Sept. 28, 1990, the German Democratic Republic ceased to exist.

The open-air concrete canvases have since developed into a tourist attraction and the whole stretch has been protected by a preservation order since 1993.

But time has taken its toll. Running alongside a major traffic route in the southeast of the city, the Wall is exposed to weather and fumes. Tourists have added their own graffiti, or have chiselled off a lump of the historic concrete as a keepsake. Now the paint is flaking. Back in 1990, Brezhnev and Honecker still had rosy cheeks but over time they grew pallid and worn.

"We only worked with cheap paints in those days," said artist Kani Alavi, who also worked on the East Side Gallery. Today he is head of the East Side Gallery artists' group which oversees the preservation of the paintings. Last October he scored a major success by scoring funding from the German lottery and other public funds to restore the gallery to its former glory.

But it has turned out to be less of a renovation and more of a complete overhaul. "Everything has to go," said Alavi. In order to preserve the Wall, all the remaining art works are to be removed using steam. The underlying concrete will then be restored and, finally, the original painters have to come and repaint their section of the Wall. "This time we will use special paints," said Alavi, "so that it lasts longer." A special varnish will then be applied to facilitate the removal of any graffiti.

But Dmitri Vrubel, who never agreed to his artwork being destroyed, is not happy with this explanation. "I've got no problem with a restoration," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But now it will be a new picture. I can't simply repeat my first painting."

The Russian painter first heard about the renovation from a newspaper report. After contacting officials in Berlin he was sent an agreement, entitling him to expenses of €3,000 euros. "But why €3,000 euros? Why not 30,000 or 300?" asked Vrubel, who has seen his image put to commercial use adorning mugs, postcards and plates in Berlin. "It is being sold, but I have never seen a cent of the profits."

Alavi of the artists initiative confirms that problems persist today with the marketing of the East Side Gallery. "Under German law, art that is created in a public space does not enjoy copyright protection. But he says his group may go to court in order to raise public awareness of that problem.

Tourist Magnet

Christian Tänzler, of Berlin's Tourist Board, describes the East Side Gallery as a magnet for travelers. "All visitors to Berlin want to see the Wall, and the East Side Gallery is the longest remaining stretch," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Tänzler is pleased that the world's biggest open-air gallery will finally be restored. Now many of the paintings are internationally famous, including Vrubel's "Brothers' Kiss" and Birgit Kinder's painting of a trabant car, an icon of the former communist East Germany, smashing through the wall.

Alavi and the artist group would like to build an East Side Gallery information center. More than just a museum, they say, it would also be a teaching center -- a place where international artists can meet and focus on the histories of divided countries and walls, real and imaginary.

Meanwhile, the area surrounding the East Side Gallery is in the throes of upheaval. Down the road a massive new arena has been built the city's biggest concert venue. And plans have already been drawn up to give the run-down area a facelift, turning it into a swish "Media Spree" residential and commercial development. That's another reason to invest in the restoration of the Wall. After all, surely a worn down concrete barrier has no place in a modern cityscape.

Renovation of the East Side Gallery is expected to be completed by Nov. 9, 2009, the day marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Dmitri Vrubel, meanwhile, said he doesn't want to disrupt the effort. Instead he's considering paiting a new kissing scene. Obama and Putin maybe? "No that would be too contemporary," he said. Instead Brezhnev and Honecker's embrace will remain the motif, but he may give it a different perspective. "This wasn't actually intended as a political image," said Vrubel. "It's about love."
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post #3 of 8 (permalink) Old 05-06-2009, 07:06 PM Thread Starter
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A Berlin Wall Made of Giant Dominos

03/23/2009 06:20 PM
A Berlin Wall Made of Giant Dominos

On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, over 1,000 giant dominos will be erected along a section of the strip that once divided East and West Germany. The dominos will then be toppled to commemorate the end of the Cold War.

This November, two kilometers worth of gigantic dominos will be erected between Berlin's Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz along a portion of the strip that once separated East and West Berlin. In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dominos will be set tumbling and the barrier will collapse in roughly half an hour's time.

"We want to knock over the wall once again," says Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit. Here, he is pictured in front of a model of the planned project.

"We want to knock over the wall once again," says Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit. Here, he is pictured in front of a model of the planned project.
"We want to knock over the Wall once again," Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit said at an opening ceremony for the project last week.

The 43-kilometer Berlin Wall -- the most famous symbol of the Cold War and of divided Germany -- fell on Nov. 9, 1989, after having stood for nearly three decades. The domino project, which is headed by the Berlin group Kulturprojekte, hopes to inspire reflection on that day by toppling 1,000 eight-foot tall Styrofoam slabs.

Each of the dominos will be individually decorated, most by young Berlin residents. Part of the project's aim is "to encourage young people to reflect on what the fall of the Wall meant," Wowereit said.

Roughly 20 of the dominos will also be sent abroad to be decorated in other parts of the world where aggressive divisions and separating walls have left an impact. "It's important that we not only bring Germany to the world but that we also bring the world to Germany," Michael Jeismann of the Berlin office of Germany's federal cultural foundation Goethe Institut, which developed the foreign component of the domino project, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Officials with several countries and regions say they are interested in participating, including Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Cyprus, Yemen, South Korea, China as well as India, where one village has erected a wall to separate Muslims and Hindus. Despite 580-mile-long fences separating the countries, though, Jeismann said that neither the United States nor Mexico had expressed much interest.

The international dominos -- or "Goethe stones" -- are to be shipped abroad in May and decorated by young people, as well as artists and intellectuals who will address the topic of walls in their countries. In Korea, for example, the author of a book about divided Korea will write the first sentences of his work on one domino.

In October, the Goethe stones will be returned to Germany and set up to be knocked down along with the other dominos.

Eventually, the Goethe Stones and a selection of those decorated in Germany will be put on display in Goethe Institutes in Berlin, Bonn and Leipzig. If funding allows they will also be exhibited internationally.

All of the domino designs are to be included in a book.

cew -- with wires
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post #4 of 8 (permalink) Old 05-06-2009, 07:10 PM Thread Starter
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Photo Gallery: Protests in Leipzig in 1989 - SPIEGEL ONLINE - News - International

Leipzig Book Fair Recalls Heady Days of 1989

The fall of the Berlin Wall is the talk of the town in Leipzig this weekend. The city's book fair is awash with memories and chronicles of that historic day. And with venues including the former Stasi headquarters and the famous St. Nicholas' Church, history is set to come alive.

The titles say it all: "Visit to the West," "The Night the Wall Fell" and "The Miracle of the Peaceful Revolution." These are just some of a raft of new books recalling that massive day in contemporary German history: Nov. 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell. Published to coincide with the 20th anniversary, they will form the main talking point at Germany's second biggest book fair in Leipzig this week.

The event, which runs from Thursday to Sunday, will air new perspectives on the eurphoric moment -- and the bumpy process of reunification which followed.

Some 130,000 people are expected at the year's first major event in the German literary calendar. And with Leipzig having been the focal point of demonstrations against the communist regime in 1989, visitors attending readings and presentations will find themselves in some of the city's more poignant locations, including the former Stasi Headquarters and the St. Nicolas' Church, the focal point of the Monday demonstrations which kicked off East Germany's peaceful revolution.

Politicians of all stripes as well as historians and journalists are among those publishing their takes on the momentous events that heralded the end of the Cold War.

But old divisions, or what Germans refer to as 'the Wall inside people's heads,' also loom large among the latest offerings. "Gefängnis Notizen" (Prison Notes), written by Egon Krenz the last leader of the communist German Democratic Republic, is based on his thoughts while serving time between 2000 and 2003 for his role in the killings along the East-West border. By focusing on some flaws in the former West German justice system, Krenz attempts to boost the image of the old East Germany.

Former Social Democratic politican Reinhard Höppner, on the other hand, is more reconciliatory in his recollections. He writes that reunification can only truly be achieved "…when we stop vilifying East German biographies and histories but rather understand them as part of our German history."

Loud Heart Beats

Other books avoid polemics by homing in on the everyday stories of life in divided Germany. Jutta Voigt's "Westbesuch" (Visit to the West) gathers telling anecdotes from both sides of the divided Germany. We meet the 20-year-old East Berliner who memorized bus routes in West Berlin, even though he saw little chance of crossing the Wall in the foreseeable future. Then there is the tale of Regina from East Germany who was in love with Eckhard who lived in the West. She hid in the boot of a car to be united with him and her heart beat so loud she feared the border police would hear her.

Voigt includes stories about West Germans who travelled to the East because they enjoyed the nerve-jangling border crossing. In the communist East, travel was severely restricted and Voigt described how any visting Western relative was "a source of joy, a window into the outside world. Apart from that, the coffee that he brought with him was tastier."

Voigt, like the authors of many of the recent Wall books, dwells on subjective details rather than the bigger historical picture. The Leipzig Book Fair also showcases a number of anthologies written in a similar vein. Examples include "Das Wunder der Friedlichen Revolution" (The Miracle of the Peaceful Revolution) or "Die Nacht der Mauer Fiel" (The Night the Wall Fell), a collection of writers' personal experiences.

All will add to the ever-growing bookshelf of Wall tales and will feed the ongoing fascination with the divided Germany 20 years after reunification.

jas-- with reports
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03/06/2009 06:58 PM
Berlin Still Divided on How to Commemorate Wall
Photo Gallery: Remembering the Berlin Wall - SPIEGEL ONLINE - News - International

By Jess Smee

It has been nearly 20 years since Berliners hacked away at the Wall that once separated East Germany from the West. Two decades on, its crumbling remnants remain highly controversial. Many would like to see Berlin make more of its unique history, but old wounds are taking time to heal.

Bernauer Strasse used to be just another unassuming residential street -- that is until the Berlin Wall catapulted it to international fame overnight. The street, which was built into the city's Cold-War-era divide, saw east Berliners flee to the West by clambering out of upper-story windows towards the crowds on the street below.

The historic images were beamed around the world and the road which lined the east-west border became an icon of the human tragedy behind the Berlin Wall. Today, despite its less than central location, Bernauer Strasse, is the site of the capital's memorial to the Wall, attracting a steady stream of visitors.

Coaches with foreign number plates stand just meters away from the grey concrete slabs of the former wall. Tourists wander through the Berlin drizzle: But those who expect a taste of the city's dramatic history often leave somewhat bemused.

"Part of visiting Berlin is finding trails of its unique recent history -- but it has been hard to find this place," said Juanjo Gonzalo, a Spanish tourist who was visiting the city for 10 days. "All we found was was a tiny sign reading 'Wall' by the metro station".

Nearby a group of British students stood around a map trying to establish which side of the road used to be the east and which was on the west.

The tourists' bewilderment has been supported by the German press which, this week, fired some sharp words at the important site. "A virtually indecipherable wasteland," ran a headline in Die Tageszeitung, while the Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote: "Here Berlin has gambled away an inheritance of international importance."

Indeed, the site is far from straight forward to negotiate. One of its more controversial features is a massive Wall memorial, built by the Stuttgart-based architects Kohlhoff&Kolhoff in 1998. By positioning two steel walls parallel to each other, they wanted the reflections to create the impression of a never-ending wall. Unfortunately the metal has lost its shine and most visitors leave soon after they arrive.

Bernauer Strasse's Revamp

But the Berlin Wall Foundation, the group which runs the memorial site, rebuffs the critics, saying the current confusion will soon be a thing of the past. Later this year, on Nov. 9 -- two decades after the wall was deemed obsolete -- a new information pavilion is to be opened. It is part of a broader revamp of the Bernauer Strasse memorial, due to be finished by 2011. Thomas Klein, of the Berlin Wall Foundation, admits there are still some "big deficits" but says the facelift will make the history accessible to more people, using media like animation to guide people through the story of the Wall. Ahead of the anniversary, the site will also host some 50 events including open-air cinema, readings, concerts and art projects.

Klein argues the foundation faces a delicate task. "This is not the site of one serious crime. We need to represent different aspects -- the purpose of the divide, the Wall's victims and also the more positive associations of the end of the Wall era, for example" he told SPIEGEL ONLINE in his office just meters away from the Wall's bulky remains. "This is a deeply complicated place."

That complexity is compounded by the emotive power of the Wall for Berliners. Ever since the legendary press conference on Nov. 9, 1989 when Günter Schabowski, a member of East Germany's Politbüro, surprised journalists with news that people could travel without restrictions, most Berliners wanted to rid their city of what Westerners had dubbed the "Wall of Shame."

In the immediate aftermath of the news, locals and visitors laid into the concrete divide with chisels and hammers. At Bernauer Strasse, the structure is only intact today because a local priest defended the wall as a warning for future generations, even guarding it at night to ward off hammer-wielding Berliners.

Although the initial anger has faded, the ongoing sensitivity of the issue slows any decision-making. Just this week, amid much debate, the Berlin Wall Foundation, the organization in charge of the official memorial site, unanimously rejected a government call to rebuild a 19-meter-long hole in the surviving stretch of the Wall on Bernauer Strasse. Opposition to the project was strong -- with officials rejecting any "Disneyland" style reconstruction. As Klein said: "Building a new artificial wall was simply not an option."

Historian Brian Ladd, author of the book "The Ghosts of Berlin" also warns that the forthcoming 20th anniversary is an awkward time for Germany, not least because of the slower-than-expected pace of reunification.

"At the time, nearly everyone in Germany greeted the fall of the Wall as the great triumph of German history, an occasion for unalloyed joy. But it soon became clear that division had left wounds that would be difficult to heal," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Ever since the 1990s, Germans have had to ask: Can we celebrate the event -- unlike so much else in German history -- or do we have to think of it as a little like May 8, 1945, a time of sober reflection?"

Tourist Traps

But while decision-makers stall, Berlin is luring an increasing number of foreign visitors, many of whom are keen for a glimpse of the city's divided past. But their options are sorely limited. Aside from Bernauer Strasse, many take a polluted trek alongside the 1,300 meters of the East-Side Gallery -- Berlin's longest segment of the Wall, which borders a six-lane road. There are other, less authentic, responses to the influx of "Wall tourists". German students dressed up as Cold War border guards, now stand at historic border points like the Brandenburg Gate or Checkpoint Charlie, earning their euros by posing for photos or stamping passports. At Potsdammer Platz, where the no-man's land has now sprouted skyscrapers, visitors take turns to photograph each other standing in front of a few pieces of the Wall, which have been repositioned near the metro entrance.

Elsewhere, a central Berlin hotel, the Westin Grand, has responded to the gap in the market by acquiring a large chunk of the former Wall for its foyer. Its guests can hire helmets and hammers to chip away their own chunk of Berlin Wall as a souvenir.

As the capital seeks to attract more visitors to offset the slowing economy, Christian Tänzler from Berlin's Tourism Marketing GmbH told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that it was time to take a more balanced approach towards the Wall's history. But he also acknowledged the extent of opposition within the city: "The people who suffered under the Wall still have the need to radically from themselves from it."

But at the Bernauer Strasse memorial site, standing by the redundant Wall is still a poignant experience for many Germans. Some join services in a simple chapel on the former no-mans-land, built to remember the estimated 136 people who died trying to cross the death strip into West Berlin.

Among those moved by her visit to Bernauer Strasse is Jutta Marten, a former resident of West Berlin who recalled how she tried to visit her grandparents in East Berlin on August 13, 1961, the day the Wall was built.

"Suddenly we were turned away. No one knew what was going on. It all happened incredibly fast," she said, standing alongside the building site near the Wall. "It is very hard for anyone to imagine how it feels to have your family separated from one day to the next. This place is authentic. It should help people to imagine how it felt.
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05/06/2009 12:52 PM
Photo Gallery: Still Plagued by Memories of Stasi Jail - SPIEGEL ONLINE - News - International
'I Thought I Was in a Nazi Movie'

By David Crossland

Mario Röllig is still struggling to get over his time in a Stasi prison while his jailers enjoy a peaceful retirement. Twenty years after the fall of the Wall, East Germany's former political prisoners want more recognition for their suffering -- and an end to "Ostalgie."

Mario Röllig can remember the day he arrived in East Berlin's Hohenschönhausen jail like it was yesterday. And recalling the three months he spent there in 1987 often makes him tremble.

"When we stepped out of the van there were men in riding boots with riding breeches and rubber truncheons screaming at us to remove our belts and shoelaces. I thought I was in a Nazi movie," Röllig, a 41-year-old Berliner, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

His crime was trying to flee communist East Germany, where he had been harassed by the Ministry for State Security, the East German secret police force known as the Stasi, because he had refused to spy on friends he knew in West Berlin.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Röllig's legs still buckle at the memory of being locked up without knowing where he was, of body cavity searches while naked, of being threatened with indefinite incarceration.

"They said if I didn't talk about my friends they would arrest my parents too or take my sister's child from her. They said 'no one knows where you are, we can do what we want and no one will ever find out. We'll just say you disappeared in the West.' There were moments when I really thought I might not make it out alive."

Plagued by Memories

Röllig still wakes up in a sweat at night wondering if he's broken prison rules by sleeping on his side. The sound of a two-stroke car engine still makes his heart pound because it reminds him of the van that brought him to jail in a five-hour odyssey that was aimed at disorientating him.

Like many of the 250,000 political prisoners held in East German jails during the 41-year communist regime, Röllig is suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder. A noise or a smell can trigger a memory and cause panic.

Röllig can't work and has been in and out of psychiatric therapy and hospitals for the last decade. He had initially managed to suppress the trauma and was enjoying life in unified Germany until one day in 1999 when his world collapsed. A chance encounter with one of his interrogators in a Berlin department store brought all the memories flooding back and overwhelmed him. Röllig tried to commit suicide with sleeping pills that night.

He lost his job and has been fighting to overcome his past ever since. But Röllig keeps on returning to Hohenschönhausen, every month to give tours of the drab, concrete complex of 103 cells and 230 interrogation rooms that now serves as a memorial to the victims of the Stasi.

Why does he come back? For one, it gives him a sense of triumph. "A lot of the old Stasi guys still live in this neighborhood and this place is like a thorn in their side. I like the thought of that."

Warped View of East Germany

But Röllig, one of 72,000 East Germans jailed for trying to escape to the West, has another reason for confronting his past each month: He feels that many Germans have started to look back at East Germany -- also known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR -- with an utterly unwarranted nostalgia that has become so widespread that there's a name for it -- "Ostalgie."

Röllig says the fundamental injustice of a system that locked its citizens behind a wall, spied on them and incarcerated anyone who criticized it or tried to escape is being masked by a growing perception that East Germany had a great welfare system, good schools and virtually zero unemployment -- appealing attributes at this time of economic crisis.

"I really can't stand this sentence you often hear these days: 'Not everything was bad about the GDR.' I'm speechless when I hear people going on about the great child care and the great education system in East Germany. It's a lie. People were indoctrinated there like they were under the Nazis."

Röllig said the Left Party, which emerged from the communist party that ruled East Germany to become a major electoral force in both eastern and western Germany, even sharing power in the city-state government of Berlin, has been propagating a warped view of the past. Left Party officials including Bodo Ramelow, the regional party leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, are on record denying that East Germany was an "unjust state."

Röllig said: "I'm not surprised many young people think East Germany was like the West, just without the freedom to travel and the hard currency. We ex-prisoners have to keep hammering home to people that it was a dictatorship. Only when every school book contains that statement will I stop coming here to give tours."

Former Stasi Officers Regaining Confidence

Röllig and other ex-prisoners are becoming increasingly vocal because Germany is getting ready to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall on November 9. But they're also motivated by frustration at the mounting self-confidence of former Stasi officers and prison guards.

In recent years Stasi members have been writing books about the good old days and taking legal action against newspapers or former prisoners who name them publicly. They have been emboldened by the passage of a statute of limitations deadline in 2000 since when Stasi officers can no longer be prosecuted for any crimes they committed apart from murder or manslaughter.

"They've all been coming out their holes and trivializing what they did," said Röllig. "Sometimes they take part in tours at the prison. They're easy to recognize because they usually have little handbags round their wrists, probably containing tape recorders," said Röllig.

"We've had people who suddenly shout out 'You're lying!' It used to make me angry but these days I ask them to come to the front and talk about their human rights abuses. They usually respond by walking off or just shutting up."

"It Will be Our Turn Again One Day"

The people who imprisoned and interrogated Röllig and thousands like him now live quiet, prosperous lives, many of them in neat terraced houses surrounding the jail in northeastern Berlin. Recently, as Röllig was walking to the prison, one retired Stasi officer called out to him over his garden fence: "It'll be our turn again one day! You'll be among the first we lock up again!"

"Yes but by then you'll be long dead," said Röllig, whose quick wit and eloquence mask the turmoil inside.

Röllig got into trouble with the East German authorities because he refused to become one of the 189,000 "informal employees" the Stasi recruited to spy on friends, colleagues, neighbors and even relatives.

He worked in the restaurant at East Berlin's Schönefeld airport where he met passengers from West Berlin, and he made friends with some of them. "One of them worked in the West Berlin city government and the Stasi wanted me to inform on him and others. They offered to arrange a nice flat for me wherever I wanted.

"But I didn't want to betray my friends for a flat. I said how about a flat in Charlottenburg?" Charlottenburg is a district of West Berlin. After Röllig's cheeky refusal, Stasi agents started tailing him constantly. As punishment for his non-cooperation, the Stasi leaned on his employer to fire him, and he was transferred to a humiliating job washing dishes in a fast-food stand.

Failed Escape

Frustrated with the harassment and the lack of prospects, Röllig, then 19, decided to flee to the West by travelling to Hungary and trying to cross the less heavily-guarded border with Yugoslavia. But he was caught and flown back to East Berlin. He was interrogated in good cop/bad cop routines and told he may be charged with "treason, endangering world peace and provoking a nuclear war."

Röllig was kept in a one-man cell. Prisoners weren't allowed to sit or lie on their bed until 10 p.m. when the lights were turned out. During the night they had to lie on their backs at all times. "The guards would check throughout the night. If you lay on your side they would turn the light on, kick the door with their boots and yell."

Hohenschönhausen was more than a prison . It was a factory for espionage gadgets such as brassiere cameras, electronic bugs, letter-opening machines and false passports for agents. The complex also contained a social club for Stasi officers.

The prison was so secret that the district was left blank on East German city maps. It had two padded cells where problem prisoners would be kept for up to 13 days in total darkness.

Röllig was released after three months and allowed to defect in 1988 under a prisoner sale arrangement with West Germany which the regime used to earn hard currency.

Meeting His Stasi Interrogator

He enjoyed his freedom until his life was overturned by an incident in 1999, when he was a sales assistant in Kadewe, Berlin's flagship department store. He suddenly realized a customer he was selling €750 worth of cigars to was one of his prison interrogators.

"I thought, what do I do now? Do I smash his face in? Then I thought, he's not that old, maybe we can talk about this, he'll apologize and we'll shake hands," said Röllig.

"I told him who I was and said let's shake hands and say you're sorry. He first looked baffled and then it dawned on him and he gave me this look of hatred. He said: 'What am I supposed to apologize for? You're a criminal!'"

"I wanted to hurl myself over the counter at him but colleagues held me back and I was just screaming. He just walked off. Anger, frustration, fear, sadness all the feelings I thought I'd come to terms with suddenly came up again. That night I tried to kill myself because I thought now they've found me, now it's all over." A friend found Röllig in time. He was referred to a psychiatric institution and lost his job.

Calls for Compensation

Röllig is campaigning for an honorary pension for everyone persecuted in East Germany, for easier access to compensation for health problems resulting from imprisonment, and for a large center of remembrance Berlin dedicated to the victims of communist dictatorship.

The law banning people from denying the Holocaust should be broadened to include denial of the crimes of East Germany's communist dictatorship, said Röllig, who gives tours of Hohenschönhausen with 31 other former prisoners.

Some 250,000 people visit the grim site every year, including many school parties. The prisoners' campaign got a symbolic boost this week from Chancellor Angela Merkel, who visited Hohenschönhausen on Tuesday. She said the prison "shows how brutally people's dignity was hurt."

"It's important that this chapter of the GDR dictatorship isn't hidden or forgotten," she told reporters.

Meanwhile Röllig is enjoying victories of his own. Last month he won a libel case against a former Stasi officer who had called him a notorious liar on a Web site.

"He was ordered to pay me €2,785. I'm going to use that money to help fulfil a dream -- a cruise to New York on Queen Mary II," said Röllig with a smile. "And I'll definitely be sending him a postcard."
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post #7 of 8 (permalink) Old 05-06-2009, 07:39 PM
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I always wanted to go to East Germany to view the contrasts of the same people, just miles apart with two separate governments, two economies, two lives. I never got the chance.

I am so glad the Wall came down and things began to rebalance. I know there have been negatives along with all the positives but the balance has to be great.

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On either side of the old border is the 'freedom park' with a swing build into part of the wall.
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