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The Wall and I
East German border guard at the Berlin Wall, 1988

The Wall and I

Author Hannes Stein made it into East Berlin one day—almost.

Hannes Stein

My only excuse is that I was nineteen years old. And that it was early in the morning—I hadn’t had my cup of coffee yet. Then there was the fact that I was, after all, a child of the West, untrained in the ways and customs of a police state. In my favor I would also like to mention that I had thought of throwing out my West German newspaper—a leftwing tageszeitung (daily paper), if memory serves—as soon as we arrived at the upper platform of Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse. It was forbidden to take any Western printed matter into the German Democratic Republic (GDR); even textbooks about math were banned. (This makes perfect sense: a book about math might contain proof that there was something wrong with the latest five-year plan.) West German newspapers were, of course, a definite no-no, however leftist their tendency. But in addition, there was something else: the leatherbound booklet nestled in the inside pocket of my winter coat.

It was not forbidden to carry this with me to the other half of the planet I was about to enter on that fall day in 1984; it was just extremely unwise. You did not take notebooks with the names and addresses of your friends to the East. This I did not know.

If you want to understand what the Wall looked and felt like, we are going to need three dimensions. Left, right, up, down. I and the friend with whom I traveled that day had entered the U-Bahn in Kreuzberg, which was definitely in West Berlin. During the last bit of the journey the U-Bahn turned from a subway into an elevated train that followed the elegant curve of the River Spree. You could see the Wall on the other riverbank, a concrete monstrosity with a concrete pipe set horizontally on top. The side facing you—the Western side—was full of graffiti and colorful pictures, a living dictionary of the German language, a postmodern art exhibit.

At some point the elevated train crossed the river. A heartbeat later, you could look down and see the Wall passing under you. From this perspective you noticed that the Wall was actually two walls running side by side. The wall on the Eastern side was slightly lower. In the no man’s land in between I discerned tank traps, large Xes made of iron, wrapped with spirals of barbed wire. (I would meet those iron Xes many years later again when I visited the Golan Heights: dosvedanya, comrades! The Syrians had used exactly the same Soviet model.) I saw arc lamps—long rows of arc lamps. I saw dogs on leashes. They were attached to metal bars so the dogs could run to and fro in the middle of no man’s land but never escape. (At night, those dogs made it hard to fall asleep: from the apartment where we were staying I could see the glow of the Wall in the distance while the poor beasts were barking, barking, barking.) Also, of course, I saw the watchtowers—the young soldiers with their binoculars and machine pistols.

Did I see the planks beneath the Eastern wall? The wooden planks that had long nails sticking out? The wooden planks that lay there, waiting for jumpers? Waiting so the nails would go through their feet? I’m not sure. I might have seen the planks but I’m not sure. I don’t remember.

The Wall surrounded West Berlin because West Berlin lay smack in the middle of East Germany like a drain in a bath tub. The Wall was the plug—its purpose was to prevent the tub from draining; East Germans should be vigorously discouraged from voting with their feet. The number of people who were shot trying to cross from East to West Berlin is still subject to debate, but it is somewhere north of 140 people. The last person to be murdered while trying to flee was a young man named Chris Gueffroy. He was twenty years old in February 1989. He was hit by two shots; one of them went straight through his heart.

Once you had made it over the Wall, the U-Bahn slowed down for its final destination. Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse was a unique train station—its upper platform being geographically in the East but politically in the West. If overcome by doubts or fear, you could turn around on the spot and take the same train back. No problems, no passport control. I remember the “intershop” on the platform where you could buy Western goods for Western currency (the East German regime was as hungry for Deutsche marks as Count Dracula for fresh blood)—cognac from France, chocolate from Switzerland, cigarettes from the United States—gifts for your East German friends or family, if you had any.

Being on the upper platform of Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse was an eerie experience. The platforms were covered by an enormous curved glass roof; the glass planes were held in place by iron beams. Between the beams, ladders and footbridges. On the iron footbridges—high above you—were East German soldiers, dark figures with guns outlined against a gray morning sky. Since the East German uniforms had an uncanny resemblance to the uniforms worn by the German Wehrmacht, I felt very bad seeing them indeed.

The historical comparison that my brain had made—subconsciously, involuntarily—was an unfair one. No, the German Democratic Republic was not Nazi Germany. Far from it. The main difference is this: Nazi Germany was an empire but the GDR was a colony. The GDR was the logical consequence of Hitler’s failure to subjugate and starve the Slavs and murder every Jewish child, woman, and man in Europe. Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 was an invitation to return the favor in the other direction once the tides of war had turned. I knew all that. But still, the uniforms! Later I learned that Czech Communists had cried when they found out what design their East German comrades had used for their army outfits.

Here I should mention that it was forbidden to call the Wall “the Berlin Wall” in East Germany. The official name for it was “anti-fascist protective barrier.”

The real test of courage still lay ahead: you had to go down into the entrails of Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse. I was happy that my friend—who, unlike me, was blond, blue-eyed, and tall—was leading the way. The first hurdle was the purchase of a visa. You entered a narrow corridor and found yourself opposite a large mirror that obviously was a window from the other side; you were seen but you could not see. Next you had to slide your passport into a small slit under the false mirror together with five Deutsche marks. The passport was then returned to you with a stamped slip of paper that entitled you to spend the day until midnight in “Berlin, the capital of the GDR.” But not outside! Leaving the city’s boundaries would have been considered a serious offense.

Second hurdle: you found yourself in an enormous hall, had to stand in line before a counter window, and were supposed to hand over twenty-five Deutsche marks. In return, you were handed twenty-five marks in Eastern currency. This was by no means fair to you—in reality the East German mark was worth about a seventh of the Deutsche mark—but you had no choice in the matter. It was called “Zwangsumtausch” (forced conversion).

Third hurdle: customs. And here I made my asinine, horrible mistake.

Being a Westerner, I assumed that the uniformed guys manning the customs station were regular customs officials. But of course they were not! The regime would not let ordinary East Germans anywhere near the border. I was dealing with members of the “Ministerium für Staatssicherheit,” the Stasi, the East German version of the KGB.

The question they asked you at customs was, “Are you carrying weapons, drugs, ammo, Western literature?” Exactly the same question to everyone. Even the tone of voice stayed the same. My blond, blue-eyed friend, who was just one step ahead of me, said, “No.” And through he went! There were large swinging doors at the end of the hall. Behind them lay the other half of the planet. But I had to be an idiot. I had to make a joke. It was not even a good joke because I suppressed my first inclination (which had been to ask, “Why do you ask? Does one need any of these items here?”). This, thank God, I did not say. But I answered, “Well, I have a packet of Marlboros.” (I was still smoking then.) “Very funny!”, the Stasi guy said, grinning in a not unfriendly way. “Let’s have a closer look.” And I was plucked out of the line and led to a tiny, very bare room. I remember a steel engraving on the wall of high-rises of extraordinary ugliness.

I had to empty my pockets. They found the little notebook that had all my friends in it. They vanished with my notebook. To cut a too-often told story short, I spent three and a half hours in that tiny, bare room. Then a small uniformed man with steel-rimmed glasses planted himself in front of me and said, “Herr Stein, you are not permitted to enter the capital of the German Democratic Republic!”

“But why?”, I asked.

“Herr Stein, in international relations it is not customary to state reasons.”

“I understand that,” I said, “but I wasn’t planning on opening an embassy. Can’t you just tell me?”

“Herr Stein, in international relations it is not customary to state reasons.”

“All right, all right,” I said, “but between you and me—what have I done?”

“Herr Stein, in international relations it is not customary to state reasons.”

I ended my discussion with this broken record. He returned my notebook, took me to the counter window and got me back my twenty-five Deutsche marks, handed over the five I had paid for my visa—yes, they were very correct—and twenty minutes later I found myself in West Berlin under the glowing midday sun.

My friend, meanwhile, who had no idea what had happened to me, waited on the other side. Waited and waited. Waited some more. Finally, he got hold of a uniformed guy who informed him, in passing, that—yes—the little guy with the glasses had been sent back. (“Der ging zurück” was the phrase he used, an expression one would not use for a person but a sack of potatoes that had to be returned because the contents had gone bad.) So my friend tried to spend his twenty-five East German marks on beer, which was difficult to do because in the East beer was cheap, and finally bought a bottle of excellent Polish vodka that we knocked down later that night when we found each other again.

Later, a dissident friend of mine told me that the Stasi copied all notebooks with addresses from the West they could get hold of. The whole lot of them. “While you were stewing in your bare room, they were busy making photocopies,” he said. “These Stasi guys are not fleeting stars. They are planning for eternity. They are feeding their data into a computer—of course they have computers—because they want to create a sociogram. Who knows whom? Who can be blackmailed? Who can be bribed? Who can influence public opinion in the West?”

All this happened (as mentioned before) in George Orwell’s annus horribilis. The Wall was still lethal and seemed to last forever. Communism was not yet a joke, the East German flag not yet a punch line. But five years later the Wall was gone, vanished from the surface of the earth, as if it had never existed.

Hannes Stein, born in Munich, Germany, in 1965, works as a cultural and political correspondent for Die Welt. His third novel, Der Weltreporter (The World Reporter), was published in February by Galiani Berlin.

Image: By Neptuul - CC BY-SA 3.0,