Reflections on the Wall Twenty Years Later

In October of 1985, as a twenty-five-year-old graduate student, I went to East Germany for a nine-month study visit. I stayed in East Germany until the end of July, 1986. My visit was made possible by an organization called the “Liga für Völkerfreundschaft,” which can be roughly translated as “League for International Friendship.” This was an organization financed by the East German government, and among other things it awarded scholarships to foreign students who wanted to study in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, the official English-language name for East Germany).

Not many American students wanted to study in East Germany back in the mid-1980s, and so it was relatively easy to get such a scholarship. The League for International Friendship consisted of a large number of so-called “friendship organizations” between the GDR and various other countries. The largest friendship organization was the one between the GDR and the Soviet Union; the friendship organization between the GDR and the United States was rather small. Whether I was able to get a scholarship to study in the GDR because of my own merits or because there was hardly any competition, I do not know for sure. At that time almost all American students who wanted to study in Germany went to study in West Germany, not in East Germany. When I ultimately arrived in Leipzig, the GDR’s second biggest city, for my nine-month stay I found that there was precisely one other American student in the city, and that he was to be my roommate for the next nine months. Other than him, I saw virtually no Americans in Leipzig. Since I was living in an international dormitory, however, I regularly saw people from many different countries, especially Russians, North Koreans, Hungarians, Poles, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Cubans, and Nicaraguans. Among the few Western Europeans I saw were some British students who had come to study in Leipzig for several months.

Why did I want to go to the GDR? The answer is relatively simple. I was a graduate student in German Studies, and as a budding Germanist I wanted to get to know the other part of Germany. I had already lived in West Germany in 1980-1981, and I felt—probably prematurely—that I knew that country relatively well. But the Germany behind the Iron Curtain remained a mystery to me. In January of 1981, as part of a visit to West Berlin, I had spent a day wandering around East Berlin, and at Checkpoint Charlie the East German border guards had prevented me from carrying in a book of plays by the seventeenth-century French playwright Pierre Corneille, along with a number of other books and a newspaper or two. That fact impressed me; I had never before encountered a state that seemed so concerned about the printed word, let alone words by a French writer who had been dead for three centuries. The East German border guards and their sensitivity to printed matter piqued my curiosity and made me want to learn more about the other Germany.

Beyond that experience in 1981, I was also fascinated by the existence of two separate Germanys. I found it quite interesting that there was not just one Germany but two, a capitalist and a socialist one, and that it was possible, at least for an American graduate student, to live in and study both of them. I thought that by living in East Germany I might come to understand more about the nature of socialism, and thus more about a world that, for many decades, had been characterized by a split between socialism and capitalism. I also thought that by learning more about the socialist system I might come to understand more about the nature of capitalism. And I hoped that I would come to know Germany better by studying and experiencing both of its postwar incarnations than I would know it if I limited my study and my experiences to just one part of the divided country. And so, with no particular expectations or specialized knowledge about East Germany or socialism, I simply applied for a scholarship from the GDR-USA friendship organization and in due course learned that my application had been successful.

I chose the city of Leipzig for two main reasons. The first is that I did not want to live in East Berlin, because I had an idea that East Berlin, because of its proximity to West Berlin, was somehow not authentically East German. I wanted to experience the real East Germany, no matter how bad it might be. The second, more scholarly reason, was that there was (and is) an important library in Leipzig, the Deutsche Bücherei, where I hoped to find a great deal of literature from the 1920s and 1930s; this was the period of German cultural history that I was then studying.

I entered East Germany by taking an S-Bahn trip from West Berlin to East Berlin’s Friedrichsstrasse station, where, once I had passed through immigration and customs, I was met by a representative of the League for International Friendship and shown around the East German capital for a day. I remember being struck by two things about my tour guide: that she immediately addressed me with the familiar “du” rather than the formal “Sie” (German has two modes of address, one informal and one formal, just as English used to have centuries ago in the distinction between “you” [formal] and “thou” [informal]), as if I were a socialist comrade; and that, when I asked her whether she more or less supported the GDR’s political system, she replied that she supported it 100%. I wasn’t sure that I had ever met someone willing to declare 100% support for any political system. I had grown up and lived among people who tended to believe that most political systems were flawed, and who therefore only supported any particular system grudgingly, as the least unpalatable among a number of not-so-wonderful alternatives.

I arrived in Leipzig by train from East Berlin the following day and was met at the train station by my new American roommate, who was a graduate student at Cornell University. I remember that the city more or less met my stereotypical expectations that it would be drab and gray. East German cars—Trabants and Wartburgs—really were old-fashioned and rickety, the buildings were dirty and in bad shape, and there really were various propaganda signs around the city proclaiming undying support for the Socialist Unity Party (the East German ruling party) and the Soviet Union. What was noticeably missing from the cityscape, at least to my American eyes, was advertising. No big billboards proclaiming the virtues of jeans or underpants, but lots of signs extolling socialism and the Soviet Union. The room that was allotted to my roommate and me—I was twenty-five, he was ten years older—was exceedingly small, and for most of the next year he and I slept in the bunk beds in that room. I actually had less room there than I had had in a room I shared with my two brothers when I was five years old. Not far from our dormitory there was a drab supermarket that sold not particularly interesting or colorful—but quite cheap—food, and where there were never bananas and rarely oranges. (There were mostly apples, as I recall.) The dorm was about a twenty-minute walk away from the university, and it was surrounded by other dorms full of mostly East German students; Leipzig’s Karl-Marx-Universität was one of the GDR’s biggest and most important universities.

In my first few days in Leipzig I did not think I would be able to stand it there for more than about a week. I was bothered by the small room I had to live in, by the intense air pollution throughout the city (which actually got even worse in the winter, once the heating season really got going, since almost all of the city’s heat came from burning dirty soft coal strip-mined not far from Leipzig itself), and by a general sense, at the university and elsewhere, that open discussion was not taking place. I did not particularly like the food in the university’s cafeteria (although it slowly grew on me over the course of the year), and when I started taking seminars at the university, I found the East German students, for the most part, to be closed-mouthed and uninformed. I still remember being struck by the fact that once, when a professor asked a fairly easy question in class about Marxist theory, I was the only student in the class who ventured to answer. Since I was and am an avid reader of newspapers, particularly when I am in Germany, my roommate and I subscribed to the main East German daily, Neues Deutschland, which, as it proclaimed on its masthead, was the “Central Organ of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.” (I occasionally day-dreamed about whether any American newspaper would ever have the guts to proclaim itself to be the “Central Organ of the Republican Party.”) Every day I was struck anew by the sameness and uniformity of this newspaper, and by the lack of any sense of lively ideological debate in its pages. Whenever the East German leader, Erich Honecker, was first referred to in any article in this newspaper, he was always referred to with his full title, i.e. “General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany and Chairman of the Council of State,” etc., etc., as if regular readers of the newspaper did not know precisely who Erich Honecker was. This, along with many other things, struck me as exceedingly strange and stilted. It was the middle of the 1980s, and I was a young American graduate student used to intense debates between American liberals and conservatives, as well as to relatively combative op-ed pages, not to mention demonstrations against American policies and against the President of the United States himself, Ronald Reagan; in West Germany I had become used to lively debate among West German conservatives, Social Democrats, Greens, and various far-left groups, and also to demonstrations and protests. No such lively debates seemed to be happening anywhere at the university in Leipzig, and I found this deeply disappointing. And any demonstrations that happened in Leipzig or elsewhere in the GDR seemed inevitably to be organized not against the ruling party but by and for it. This struck me as bizarre: a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland world. It was as if the GDR were characterized by pretend demonstrations and pretend politics.

None of this changed in my nine months in Leipzig. The city remained polluted (although I gradually learned to recognize some of the beauty of the buildings beneath the pollution), the newspaper remained boring, stilted, and predictable, most of the classes at the university were relatively uninteresting, and any public demonstrations were inevitably pro-, not anti-government. But what began to happen, and what made it possible for me to stay in Leipzig for an entire academic year and be relatively happy, was a gradual shift of emphasis from the public to the private. I got to know some very interesting people, mostly fellow students from Hungary, Slovakia, and the Soviet Union, and on a private level, with them, I became involved in fascinating political and historical discussions. My next-door neighbor was a Russian who happened to be the head of the Leipzig Komsomol, the Soviet Communist youth group, and he was a true believer in communism. But it was possible to talk openly with him, and I remember having a good many lively discussions about communism versus capitalism. For instance, he thought that Western Europe’s regular destruction of mountains of butter and lakes of milk (in order to shore up commodity prices) was a sign of capitalism’s failure; I (no doubt partly for the sake of argument) contended that the excessive production of commodities in the west was a sign of remarkable success, not failure, and I pointed out to him the obvious fact that there was more to buy in stores in the west than in stores in the east. (He, of course, could easily have pointed out that many people in the west could not afford to buy those commodities.) I don’t think that I have ever, in my adult life, been more pro-capitalist and anti-communist than I was in my nine months in East Germany; during the last half of my stay there I even took to traveling to the American embassy in Berlin, going to the relatively well-stocked library there, and bringing back books by American right-wingers like Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations (famous for her verbal attacks on communism) and copies of the right-wing magazine National Review. All of this seemed somehow a good antidote to my daily perusal of Neues Deutschland, and my voluntary attendance at university courses like “Scientific Communism” (wissenschaftlicher Kommunismus). I was probably the only student at the university who went to such courses voluntarily.

Many of the other Eastern Europeans whom I befriended turned out in private to be profoundly anti-Communist. This was particularly true of the Hungarians, four of whom became my good buddies. They were all interested in Germany and German culture and highly critical of the Soviet Union, at least in private. Two of them were of mixed German-Hungarian ethnic background. From these Hungarians I learned a great deal about the tensions that existed just below the surface in the East Bloc. One of the Hungarians was so anti-Communist that one day, as a joke, he turned up at the door of my dorm room in full, authentic SS regalia. This was a brave, albeit problematic, thing to do, because if he had been caught he could easily have been imprisoned or sent back to Hungary; all Nazi emblems were strictly illegal in East Germany, and the state made much of its antifascist raison d’être. It turned out that the SS uniform belonged to the grandfather of my Hungarian friend’s East German girlfriend, and that it fit him perfectly. This little incident also clued me in to the hidden existence of East Germans and eastern Europeans with anti-Communist and even fascist sentiments; and it taught me that not all Eastern European resistance to Communism was necessarily based on liberal principles. I sometimes wondered just how tongue-in-cheek my Hungarian friend’s donning of the SS uniform had been.

I also, slowly, began to make friends with some East Germans. The East Germans seemed much more reluctant to befriend an American graduate student than the other eastern Europeans, and I figured that this was probably because they were afraid for their careers as journalists, academics, or party officials. But one of the East German students in my literature seminar turned out to be at least as dissatisfied with the East German system as any of the Hungarians, and he and I wound up getting together regularly for coffee and cake at Leipzig’s café Corso, the best café in town, with an almost Viennese atmosphere, where, beneath a huge portrait of Erich Honecker, the East German leader (my East German friend assured me that this was a tongue-in-cheek piece of interior decoration), we talked about art and politics. I also, quite by chance, met two young East German theology students, both of them future Lutheran ministers, and neither one of whom seemed to be afraid of getting to know a young American. And one day, out of the blue, two Leipzig high school students showed up at the door of our dorm room; they had heard the rumor that two Americans students were living in Leipzig, and they wanted to meet us. I ultimately became a good friend of one of these high school students, who introduced me to the non-academic, non-theological world of ordinary Leipzig citizens. I also befriended a young woman who worked at the Deutsche Bücherei, whose boyfriend was one of the Vietnamese students who lived in our dormitory. (His father had fought against the Americans in the Vietnam War, but we got along fine.) She was able to bring me books from the library, which was useful, because it meant that I did not always have to read my books there.

All of these relationships turned out to be quite important and close. I saw these people frequently, and they provided a social and intellectual network that made it possible for me to live a happy life in spite of the bad newspaper, the disappointing university, the polluted city, the pretend demonstrations, and the drab supermarkets. Like most people in East Germany, I did not have a telephone, and so I simply met people in the dormitory or in the university cafeteria or at their homes. Very little was planned; almost everything was spontaneous. It was not uncommon to have someone simply show up at my door, and I too got used to going over to other people’s rooms and houses without an invitation. If someone had come to my door while I was gone, I would find a note on the door, often suggesting a get-together at a later time. Several nights a week I would end the day with my Hungarian friends at a local pub drinking beer and talking about politics. On these occasions I even began to smoke cigars like a stereotypical American capitalist or like Bertolt Brecht. The most important things I learned that year came from my friends and their families and from other private, often random meetings with individuals. As I became more comfortable with my surroundings, these meetings happened more frequently. By the final months of my stay in Leipzig I had become friends with one of the city’s most important poets and been introduced into the city’s rather lively literary scene. I became an avid reader of particular writers and poets and, like many East Germans, I grew adept at reading between the lines of published works for hidden meanings. I also took to going to the theater, to the opera, and to concerts relatively often. For a student, all of this was relatively cheap. My stipend was only three hundred marks a month (precisely one hundred marks more than the stipend of an ordinary East German student, and at the official exchange rate the equivalent of about $150), but my dorm room only cost ten marks (five dollars) a month, and food was cheap, particularly in the university cafeteria, so I could afford to go to cultural events. Once or twice I also discreetly exchanged West German marks on the black market, which gave me some additional spending money; and once I even worked as a translator for one of the doctors who worked at the nearby medical institute.

By the end of my stay in Leipzig I even began to have more contact with the North Koreans who also lived in my dormitory. There were all men—no women—and I imagine that they all came from the upper echelons of North Korean society. They generally kept to themselves. In every dormitory room occupied by North Koreans there was always a shrine to Kim Il Sung, the so-called “Great Leader.” Once, on a group trip to the Buchenwald Concentration camp, I got into an argument with some of the North Koreans about the Korean War. They claimed that the United States had started the war, while I insisted that it was North Korea that had started it. By the time I left Leipzig, however, I was transcribing the words to American pop songs for one of the North Koreans. With my Vietnamese acquaintance I talked about the Vietnam War (although in this case I did not defend the United States), and with a young man from Cambodia I discussed the recent Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and its pluses and minuses (mostly pluses, in spite of official U.S. protests, since the invasion put a stop to the murderous regime of Pol Pot).

The great world of politics and international relations did not disappear from view in the face of my private friendships and mutual enthusiasms for particular books, authors, or films. During my nine months in East Germany the United States bombed Libya, killing an adoptive daughter of Muammar al-Gaddafi, and I remember that one of the leaders of the Free German Youth (the GDR’s socialist youth organization) at the university came up to me the day afterwards and demanded to know why I and my country had done such a thing. I told him, quite truthfully, that the bombing had not been my decision, and that I had an alibi—my presence in Leipzig, and Ronald Reagan’s ignorance thereof—for the entire event. I realized that, like it or not, in Leipzig I was a representative of the United States of America, even though my stay was being funded by the East German government, and even though I was not a fan of Ronald Reagan. Shortly before the bombing of Libya, terrorists bombed a West Berlin club called La Belle where American soldiers liked to go; three people died, including two American servicemen. In January of 1986, the US space shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff, killing the seven people on board, and I remember that even some of the people whom I viewed as hard-line Communists expressed deep sympathy to me, almost as if the disaster had happened to me personally; this moved me greatly. Perhaps most important of all, in Chernobyl, Ukraine, about hundreds of miles away from Leipzig, a nuclear reactor exploded toward the end of April, 1986, spewing radioactivity into the air and throwing western Europe into a panic for weeks. I found out about this event several days after it happened; the news was buried on page four of Neues Deutschland (the page for foreign news stories) one day in late April. On May 1, several days after the explosion of the reactor in Chernobyl, the GDR celebrated International Workers Day with the usual canned parades and speeches. It was a beautiful spring day; as far as I can remember, no one publicly talked about Chernobyl. While West Germans were hunkering inside trying to stay away from the radioactivity, East Germans were marching in more pro-government demonstrations. In the subsequent weeks, lots of ordinarily unavailable fruit and vegetables turned up in Leipzig supermarkets. I quickly realized that this was because it was no longer possible to sell these items in the west, because of fears of radiation. (In fact, as I learned much later, because of the winds in late April and early May, which were moving from the Ukraine up to Scandinavia and then back down to western Europe, West Germany was actually somewhat more affected than East Germany by the radiation from Chernobyl, at least in the short term.) My librarian friend, who by this time was pregnant with her first child, enjoyed the fresh produce; I generally stuck to canned food since I didn’t trust the sudden superabundance of vegetables.

Every Monday evening, in Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche, a beautiful baroque church in the middle of town, there was a peace prayer. This was the most public oppositional activity that took place on a regular basis in town, because the peace prayer was directed not just against American but also against Soviet nuclear weapons. It was out of these peace prayers, which began in the early 1980s, that the oppositional movement in Leipzig in 1989 emerged. When I went (I believe it was in the late fall of 1985, a month or two after my arrival in Leipzig), there were not more than fifteen people in the church, and probably one or two of those people worked for the Stasi, the East German state security service. Four years later, in the fall of 1989, this number went from hundreds to thousands, and on October 9, 1989, tends of thousands of people marched through the streets of Leipzig demanding nuclear disarmament and above all free elections and a change of government. But throughout most of the 1980s it was a very small minority of people who actually dared to voice public dissatisfaction with the status quo in East Germany.

When I left East Germany in July of 1986 I went from East Berlin’s Friedrichsstrasse train station to West Berlin, reversing my journey of nine months earlier. My librarian friend, who accompanied me to the train station, was about six months pregnant, and I remember wondering if I would ever get to see her again or meet her soon-to-be-born child. Incredibly, I was very sad to leave the GDR. As unpleasant as I had found the political system and most of public life in the country, I had formed deep and lasting friendships, and I did not know when or whether I would ever be able to see my friends again. Neither I nor anyone else imagined that in less than four years the Wall would come crashing down and my eastern European friends would be able to travel freely to the west. The Cold War system that had divided Europe for four decades seemed as stable as ever in the summer of 1986. What I have learned from this experience is that change is something people rarely expect, in spite of a history that tells us that change is virtually inevitable.

On the night that the Wall fell in Berlin I was attending an event at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs, where, as I recall, an American security expert was suggesting that the apparent revolution in eastern Europe generally, and in East Germany in particular, was simply a Trojan horse ploy on the part of Mikhail Gorbachev to catch the west off guard. I went home that night wondering how it was possible to be so blinkered, and when I picked up the New York Times the next day I learned that people were dancing on the streets of Berlin and standing on the Wall. Of course I wanted to go to Berlin as soon as possible, but I had to wait until the end of the semester before I had time. In the end I arrived in Berlin on New Year’s Eve; I celebrated the new year, 1990, on the roof of a dilapidated apartment building in Leipzig with some of my theologian friends, and on that same day, which happened to be a Monday, January 1, I joined the year’s first Monday demonstration. Now it was not just a demonstration for peace, disarmament, free elections, and a better government; it was above all a demonstration for German reunification. And reunification is in fact what happened less than a year later. Within a period of about fourteen months the existence of the East German state had gone from seeming inevitable to being unimaginable, and German unification had gone from being unimaginable to seeming inevitable. Human beings are remarkably flexible creatures, but also remarkably forgetful. Perhaps that forgetfulness is a way of adapting to new circumstances.

The fall of the Wall, the collapse of East Germany, and the subsequent collapse of the entire eastern bloc, have radically changed the world over the last two decades, and they have certainly changed my own life. I can visit friends in the former east whenever I want, and anyone in the east can express political opinions in almost any way. When I went to live and study in East Germany, I hoped to learn about a real, existing social system; I have now become a witness to the end of an era, and one of relatively few Americans who actually experienced life in a now long-gone world. Because of the events of 1989, the world we live in today is very different from the world as it existed during the first three decades of my life. For this reason the fall of the Wall, with everything that it symbolizes, seems to me the most significant political event of my life. I do not believe that the fall of the Wall was inevitable; I believe that the Wall could easily have existed for many more decades, particularly given a different kind of leadership in the Soviet Union, or even in East Germany. History always acquires an aura of inevitability after the fact, but before it happens no one can really anticipate it. The strangest fact about German reunification is that it is not what the original protesters in Leipzig or the participants in the Monday-evening prayer meetings at Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche wanted, and it is also not what most people in West Germany—who were relatively satisfied with the status quo ante—wanted. But it is what the great masses of East German people wanted, the ones who went out onto the streets to demonstrate once it became clear that demonstrating was no longer dangerous. And in the end they got what they wanted, for better and for worse, mostly for better. It is remarkable that this massive change happened largely without bloodshed, as a result of peaceful demonstrations. Reunification has not been an easy process, politically or economically, but Germany today strikes me as a better, happier, and more normal country than it was two decades ago. True, dreams of democratic socialism have died, and true, there is still massive unemployment, not to mention right-wing radicalism and xenophobia, in the former east. And true, substantial numbers of East Germans seem to idealize the now long-gone system, even if they can hardly remember it themselves. One disgruntled East German recently wrote a letter to a political scientist complaining that “When people used to show us movies in school or in the army showing people waiting in front of the unemployment office or old people searching through trash, we would scream with laughter. It’s all propaganda, we thought. Today we know better: it was the truth, and now we’re a part of it.” Nevertheless most East Germans are materially better off now than they were two decades ago; and they are all free to express their opinions, including opposition to the current system. Almost everyone has a telephone and even a cell phone, and people don’t show up at other people’s doors unannounced. Money is more important and time is scarce. But Germany is one of the great post-World War Two success stories: a prosperous, tolerant democracy with a strong social welfare system, a largely healthy population, and a lively cultural life. The success of German democracy is something that Americans can be genuinely proud of, because our country has been one of the central promoters—indeed, the central promoter—of it.

But it seems to me that we have only just begun to realize how radically the fall of the Wall has changed, and will continue to change all of our lives. At a recent reading in Berlin the prominent East German writer Christoph Hein, asked about what he thought of the Wende, i.e. the change that brought about German reunification, responded, “We’re only at the beginning of the changes.” I think Hein is right. Essentially, the fall of the Wall is what made possible the rapid globalization of the past two decades, and it is also what made possible the rise of Islamist terrorism and the so-called war against it. None of these things would have been possible in the Cold War system, at least not in the same way. The Cold War, as awful as it was, was predictable; one knew more or less where one stood, and more or less what the future would bring: more of the same. For this reason a friend of mine, a man who escaped Czechoslovakia in 1986 and ultimately settled in the United States, recently told me that he missed the Cold War. The years since the end of Cold War have been far less predictable than the years before. We are still groping to understand the nature of the world left behind by the collapse of the Cold War system and its most potent symbol, the Berlin Wall; and the world continues to change even after we thought we have begun to understand it. East Germans had many illusions about the west prior to 1989, of course: they did not understand the reality of unemployment, for instance, because in their system there was no such thing as unemployment. But West Germans, and westerners in general, had illusions too: that the fall of the Wall meant a change in the east, but not in the west, for instance. Instead what we are coming to realize is that, with the fall of the Wall, a profound process of global change started, change that has affected the former West Germany, western Europe, and the United States as well as the former East bloc countries. Twenty years on it is time for us to face up to this fact and to address these changes. We will not be able to prevent change, and that would not be desirable anyway, but with some luck, and with hard work, we may be able to channel it into a more productive path.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1