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The Wall Recalled
The Berlin Wall’s “death strip,” 1977

The Wall Recalled

Sixty years after the East German Communists started building the Berlin Wall, it’s worth remembering that the physical barrier was only part of the problem.

Jeffrey Gedmin

The construction of the Berlin Wall began just after midnight in the early morning hours of August 13, 1961. It was scarcely two months earlier that the bespectacled, sixty-eight-year-old Walter Ulbricht, with his trademark wiry close beard, had stood before an international press conference and declared very clearly, “Niemand hat die Absicht eine Mauer zu errichten”—No one has any intention of building a wall. When it was finally built, the East German leader would call it an “anti-fascist protection wall.” As far as I can tell, no one fell for this line, either. They certainly weren’t buying it when I started traveling to the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the 1980s.

Between October of 1949—the year the Soviet-backed Communists established the GDR—and August 1961, some 2.7 million Germans fled East Germany for the West. The Wall slowed things down. What started as a fence with barbed wire became quite elaborate. A wide strip of land (aka Todesstreifen, the death strip) presented an obstacle course before one ever reached the ninety-one-mile-long, twelve-foot-tall concrete partition. The strip was made up of guard towers, flood lights, and ravines. Jeep patrols, attack dogs, landmines, and automatic machine-gun nests punctuated the landscape. In the language of official East Germany, successful escapees—and there were some over the years—were not refugees but Republikflüchtlinge, “deserters of the republic.” Those who aided escapees were Menschenhändler, “human traffickers.”

Ida Siekmann, a widowed fifty-eight-year-old nurse just about to celebrate a birthday, was the first person to die while trying, literally, to jump across the border. Her fourth-floor apartment abutted Bernauer Strasse, where the border ran down the middle of the street. Nine days into the Wall’s construction, Siekmann threw a quilt out of her window and jumped. Firefighters on the Western side of the street scrambled to set up a jumping sheet, but they were too late. Siekmann died of her injuries on the way to the hospital.

In the mid-1980s, East German friends of mine would head to the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic to canvass the Bohemian countryside for possible escape routes to West Germany. Why the Czech border? “Our countrymen,” they would say of the East German border guards, “are sure to hit their target. We’re gambling,” my friends said, “that the Czechs might fire into the air.” In East Germany, there were even orders to shoot women and children.

It was surreal.


The dreaded Staatssicherheit, or State Security, aka Stasi, was a menacing state within the state. I was once sitting on a train station platform in Ilmenau, south of Erfurt in Thuringia, with my friend Christel and her mother, with Christel mouthing off about politics, when her mother whispered in sudden alarm that the man standing a dozen paces away from us might be “von der Firma,” from the Firm. There was other slang for the Stasi, Christel told me, like GHG, or gucken, horchen, greifen—watching, listening, nabbing.

At 8:00 one morning, a week after I had visited my friends Stefan and Brigitte in Erfurt, a couple of Stasi men knocked at their door—scruffy, unshaven, liquor on their breath; no elegant James Bond types, they—and invited themselves in. It turned out that they had surveilled us in the morning in Leipzig, in the afternoon on a train, and in the evening in Stefan and Brigitte’s apartment, which was bugged. Stefan and Brigitte had to go through interrogation, intimidation, and giving an explanation of why they had met with an American—a “Klassenfeind,” an enemy of the working class, and, the Stasi men claimed, a CIA operative. (I was a high school teacher and dissertation writer.)

Stefan pushed back, he later said. Opposition invited threats of jail, and worse. He worried that his defiance might put Brigitte in jeopardy, even land her in Bautzen, the notorious Stasi prison east of Dresden, inherited from the Gestapo. It had a special wing for women. Stefan tried to bite his tongue; but even in front of the authorities he could not bring himself to utter “DDR” (German for the GDR). Instead, he would refer to East Germany as “Die Zone,” short for Sowjetische Besatzungszone—the Soviet-Occupied Zone—though this was a serious provocation, a grave offense.

I recently re-watched The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), the 2006 Academy Award-winning film about the surveillance by Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler of an East Berlin couple, playwright Georg Dreyman and actress Christa-Maria Sieland. Sieland is pressed into sex by Culture Minister Bruno Hempf, who promises to advance her career. Wiesler knows, through his surveillance, that Sieland has stopped in a bar on her way to meet Hempf. Wiesler pretends to happen upon her in the bar. Posing as a fan, Wiesler persuades Christa-Maria to be true to herself. She goes home to Dreyman.

Critics of the film have objected to the humanization of a Stasi man, and Wiesler’s good deeds were certainly improbable. For one thing, the Stasi ably monitored fellow Stasi; room for autonomous maneuver was slight. Just as unsettling, though, is the common misconception—aided by stories like The Lives of Others—that surveillance involved only big fish like dissidents, artists, and influential intellectuals.

In fact, East Germany’s secret police spied on 5.6 million people in a population of roughly 17 million. The Stasi archives include an estimated seventy miles of documents. In a 1997 book titled The File: A Personal History, British journalist Timothy Garton Ash wrote about what he found about himself in his Stasi file. It came to some 350 pages—a portion mundane and clinical, revealing, for example, that “‘246816’ … went to a newspaper stand in the upper station concourse and bought a Freie Welt, a Neues Deutschland and a Berliner Zeitung.… ‘246816’ greeted a female person with a handshake and kiss on the cheek. This female person received the code name ‘Beret.’ ‘Beret’ carried a dark brown shoulder bag.” Years later, Garton Ash started wondering about an old girlfriend. He discovered nothing about her in his file—and concluded that she was probably not Stasi.

Of course, some targets were deemed more valuable than others: Dissident songwriter Wolf Biermann had a Stasi file of forty thousand pages. But it is really the surveillance of so many ordinary citizens that tears people apart, that crushes the soul of a society.

At the center of this system, East Germany had an army of informants—the inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or IMs in Stasi jargon, some two hundred thousand when the GDR finally collapsed. The Wall may have kept people in, but these “unofficial associates” kept people down, clamped down on them cruelly and severely. With one informant per fifty citizens, they could be—or one suspected them of being—anywhere, everywhere: in the classroom or office, the bus station or bar. Or bedroom. Former East German dissident Vera Lengsfeld learned in 1992, two years after German unification, that her husband Knud—a mathematician and poet born in Denmark, with whom she had two children—had been spying on her for their entire eleven-year marriage.

Some were snitches, acting out of envy, ambition, or misguided patriotism. Others were bribed or blackmailed. It could often be wickedly complicated. In The Lives of Others, a neighbor of Georg and Christa-Maria is ordered by the Stasi not to say a word about the crew that had come to bug the couple’s apartment. She was told that if she talked, her daughter would lose her chance to study at the university. There was always a pressure point. Resist collaboration? The pharmacy might well run out of heart medication for your mother (that threat was made to one of my friends). Vera Lengsfeld’s  husband, whom she divorced after the revelations in 1992, told her that as a Jew he had felt obligated to the GDR because of its response to Auschwitz. And once you were in Stasi clutches, it was hard to get out.


Stefan, my friend in Erfurt, gave up trying to escape. He applied to emigrate: One could do that by the 1980s. The regime was often looking for ventilators: Toss out the troublemakers. East Berlin rid itself of seventy thousand political prisoners over the years (at seventy thousand Deutsche marks a head to boot). To leave legally, though, could take years. Permission was frequently denied.

Then there were the indignities. Once the paperwork was filed, you were unemployed. Brigitte was allowed to keep her job as an office worker—but once a month, she would be brought before a panel of colleagues who would browbeat her about her and Stefan’s decision to leave for the cursed Federal Republic (West Germany). Stefan was the culprit in all this, they said, and it was her responsibility to change his mind. Their son, ten-year-old Ingo, was mocked by teachers at school, where it was widely circulated that his father wanted to abandon the socialist fatherland. In a courtyard one day, an instructor told a group of boys standing near Ingo, “Schlagt zu, der braucht das.” Beat him up; he needs it.

Stefan’s original sin was to be a born contrarian, a natural outsider. As a schoolboy, he had refused to don the uniform of the Communist Junge Pioniere. The decision sidelined him from sports, dances, concerts, clubs. When I met him, he was doing maintenance work at the university in Erfurt. During his years waiting to leave, when he was down and out, he turned to his parish priest for odd jobs—Stefan, the Catholic, in Protestant East Germany; a believer, in the atheist GDR. One Friday, the good Father was ready to help him. By Monday, after a weekend visit from the Stasi, the priest’s offer to throw Stefan a few East German marks for sweeping and such was withdrawn. So many found themselves caught up in these countless conflicts, these grimy, vicious little compromises.

It’s all there in “Weissensee Saga,” a 2010 German television series that follows two families in East Berlin from 1980 to 1990 (available with subtitles on Amazon Prime). You have to watch a number of episodes (each forty-nine minutes) to get a feel for the intrusion, the suspicion, the broken trust that soiled and spoiled so much. Actor Uwe Kockisch, who plays a senior Stasi officer in the show, lived this. In real life, he went to prison for trying to escape East Germany as a young man.

I knew a couple who ended up in the Stasi prison at Bautzen. It’s a memorial now; one can visit. It’s such a hard place. When I watch The Lives of Others or “Weissensee Saga, I can still smell East Germany from the twenty or so trips I made there, back then: the burning of brown coal; the exhaust from the Trabis, the two-cylinder, twenty-six-horsepower East German cars; East European cigarettes. I remember once washing out a shirt in the sink of a Leipzig hotel. It was dark winter. The water turned black.


November 9, 1989, was surreal. November 9 was the date of Hitler’s attempted putsch in 1923. It was the date of Kristallnacht, the antisemitic pogrom of 1938. November 9, 1918, was the day Kaiser Wilhelm II was dethroned. But the fact that passage to the West was actually opened on this day in 1989 was the result of a strange mishap.

The GDR had decided on a last-ditch effort to save itself by gradually liberalizing travel. But when would new policies go into effect? At an evening press conference, a sleep-deprived Politburo member named Günter Schabowski began reading from papers, with shrugged shoulders, frowning. Things had been happening so fast. When would the new rules materialize? What came out at the end of considerable rambling from Schabowski was “ab sofort”—effective immediately. The news got reported on West German television—viewed by East Germans, of course—that the Wall was actually, now, fully and properly open. Thousands of East Berliners pushed to the crossing, overwhelming stunned border guards.

Chris Gueffroy was the last person shot to death trying to cross the Wall. In February of 1989, the twenty-year-old waiter heard, mistakenly, that the Schiessbefehl, the order to shoot, had been lifted. Gueffroy and a friend made their attempt early that month around midnight along the Britz District Canal. One of them set off a motion alarm. Sirens sounded. Flood lights turned on. Gueffroy’s friend, Christian Gaudian, was wounded and later jailed. Gueffroy was shot twice in the chest and died on the spot. Afterwards, the four border guards involved got an award for their service, plus 150 East German marks each.

Nine months later, the Wall was history.

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.

Image: By George Louis at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28942679

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