At the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall I noticed fear.
I did not find myself in Angela Merkel’s words who stated that “I had to wait 35 years for that feeling of liberty.”
I hear nervousness in The New York Times article that covers the implosion of the Socialist Republic through an exodus-misery frame. What are they afraid of? Why can’t they acknowledge that the contemporary U.S. or Germany can learn a thing or two from that past? The German Democratic Republic, the former East Germany, was hardly a quixotic place that I wish to reinstate, but I notice the willful erasure of any and all achievements of that short-lived social experiment; a country where education and health care were free for all, and where, in many industries, women were significantly more emancipated than their counterparts in other countries. It’s not the negative solidarity among East Germans that we should celebrate, but it is these accomplishments that must not be simply swept under the rug. Instead of “Ostalgie” or a description of a dark past, we need a more balanced account of East German history.
Last week, I spoke at The New School’s Exit Ghost conference about this major historical event. I was asked for a Stammtisch-approach, a personal reflection.
I never spoke about that time publicly, but now I feel it’s necessary to make these observations public because the ideological shaping of cultural history is unbearable.
My own experience and that of many of my friends differs from the official record about the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The son of a family of medical doctors, I was on the wrong side of the tracks in East Germany where working class families were the protégés of the state. But nevertheless, my childhood was carefree and blissful.
I attended a Russian language school in Berlin-Pankow, where we were raised with a deep appreciation of Soviet culture — from Mayakovsky, and Simonov, whom we read in the original, to Subotniks and Kolkhozs. Over that decade, we went for countless trips to Moscow, and students from the Soviet metropolis stayed in my home. My memories of the former Soviet capital are clouded by underage drinking, and strolls through this megacity. The language on the billboards off Red Plaza would become more modest every year. My first memories were of huge outdoor boards reading “kommunism pobedit” when only a year or so later they would state, more humbly, “socialism pobedit.“ Communism will succeed and later, toned down: Socialism will win. I also acquired a life-long contempt for kasha, which is uncooked buckwheat groats, and Kvass machines on public plazas.
Returning just two years ago, for a lecture, students showed me around the city and I swear, I knew more about Moscow than they did. Apparently, Putin’s Russia works hard to erase all memory of the period 1917 to 1989. The students that guided me around Moscow, told me that their high school curriculum deemed that period completely unremarkable and not worth talking about. Is something similar happening in Germany now?
At the age of seventeen, back in Berlin, I went through a passionate but short-lived flirtation with Christianity, which prompted a gleeful senior officer of the Stasi to visit my father with the news that I had made it onto a list of the 100 most aggressive state enemies in East Berlin. What sounds like a resume item today, propelled domestic scenes that could have been taken straight out of an Ingmar Bergman film; my parents were understandably irate.
At the same time, I had turned a room in the apartment of an older lady in our house into my art studio and well, dating grounds. One day, my gracious and always uproarious host reported that while I was away, she had a visitor. A woman, identifying herself as a curator, had requested access to my quasi-studio to see my artwork for possible inclusion in an art exhibit. She summed up the visit: “I did not let the SS in back in the days, and I did not let THAT woman in either.” I was shocked by the comparison.
As a teenager, surely my heart was beating for socialism, but the older I got, I constantly bumped up against its lived reality. And I am not only talking about central planning errors that led to a year without new toothbrushes. Like many teens in my high school, I was primed to become a future party leader but it became clear fairly quickly, that I asked too many questions, which did not go down too well. When it was time, I refused to serve with a weapon; a stern talking to by a guy in the uniform of a three-star general did not change my mind about that either.
However, the next thing I knew, I was drafted as a Border Guard, and tried to get through three months of boot camp with unhinged officers and fake bombs going off left and right. This was not far from where Luther, in 1571, had written his ninety-five theses. After that, I was stationed many train-hours away from Berlin, opposite the city of Göttingen. Here, a Stasi officer called me into his office to accuse me of conspiracy and treason, based on a letter that I had drafted, which he had apparently taken out of my locker. “I am a communist, Scholz,” he posed, “and I stand up for my beliefs. I expect the same of you.” I don’t think that he was quite aware of his hypocrisy.
The wall in that part of Germany consisted of two fences; one that was three meters high, and the second one after a kilometer or sometimes two, which was six meters in height. I remember walking through lush landscapes for six to eight hours. Fearful of encountering East Germans who were trying to leave the country, we crossed the forests and meadows in pairs of two, moving around one sink hole after the other in this region that is known for its subterranean lakes and central role in NATO’s first strike “war scare.”
On our daily patrols, we exchanged detailed accounts of sexual encounters that probably never happened and on New Year’s eve 1988/89, we were stationed on a mountain top, comparing fireworks on both sides of the national divide.
In the middle of harsh winter of that year, I recall hundreds of soldiers banging against the fence, trying to de-ice its fine mesh. Wherever we were in “the zone” between the two fences, we were close to a field telephone, which would allow us to call Berlin directly and report incoming fighter jets, or, well, the anticipated NATO invasion. Frequently, jets would fly over East German territory for just a break of a second, triggering MiGs to turn up sixty seconds later. We also drove races with Belgian, French, and American troupes: the roadways on both sides of the divide and the general boredom made that an appealing pastime. We were usually freezing in our Russian UAZs while hearing the humming sound of the heating in the VW busses of the GSG9, the West German Border Protection Group 9, on the other side.
On our daily tours, we were not permitted to talk back to people in the West and accepting their offerings, often chocolate bars or cigarettes, thrown over the fence, was, of course, also against the rules of conduct. We were shown examples of self-built bombs in the form of cigarette boxes.
At one time, a middle-aged man rode up to the fence from the West, threw himself against the fence with full force and shouted for hours “Let Me In!” Not what we had expected. We were convinced that he must either be an Ex-East-German or that he must be mentally ill. Officers took him in and fed him and indeed, he was from the former GDR and he was mentally unstable. They sent him back.
After two or three months at the border, one officer who had noticed that I was drawing every spare minute, approached me. He asked if I could paint a live-sized oil painting of him as a present for his wife. The request became even more bizarre when he revealed that he, like many officers, was an avid hunter. Between the fences, deer and wild boar multiplied in the absence of predators. The lieutenant requested a painting of him, one boot on the carcass of a wild boar into which he had just pumped sixty bullets because “the damn thing did not stop moving,” as he put it. In his right hand, proudly, he held his Kalashnikov. While I don’t remember the outcome at all, I did paint him as requested. This somehow earned me the title of regiment muralist. I was moved to Central Headquarters where, for the rest of my compulsory service, I painted nothing but wall-sized landscapes in cafeterias. I was asked to paint whatever I liked as long as it had nothing to do with the military. I had a studio outside the barracks and produced much work.
After 18 months, my service came to a close, and the Lieutenant Colonel responsible for Culture (probably the only genuine communist whom I had ever met up to that point), took me to the side and reported that there were protesters in Dresden, Berlin, and Leipzig, and that they might keep us on to take down these “counterrevolutionaries.” A week later, he was visibly puzzled and told me that Gorbachev did not approve repression and that we will all be released. Living in relative isolation in the army, I was not aware of the seriousness of the situation; state-run television certainly would not tell us, and there was no Twitter feed to benefit from. On October 26, 1989, I was released from the army and, as you know, on November 9, the wall came crashing down. I believe, I was on my way to Dresden on that day but I was not dancing or singing. I was not opposed to “the fall of the wall” either, just like many of my friends, I did not particularly care either way. It also was not clear to us that this move actually meant the demise of the Eastern Republics altogether.
What does it mean that we did not dance in the streets, that we did not understand that this was the end? I’m not sure if we should chalk it up to ignorance. How was it possible to raise children who did not have the desire to leave their lockup? I remember watching West-German TV, and sitting in the S-Bahn, seeing white housing units in the other part of the city but strangely, none of that inspired a desire to leave.
Our English teachers had never been to an English-speaking country and English-classes on TV were narrated by a bearded, British union representative who described the plight of the British working class, standing in front of a black-and-white still-image of Piccadilly Circus. We counted ourselves lucky not having to live under that system. As a border guard, I could have left for the West faster than you could say “capitalism” but I did not. I did not, because I had no desire to leave; the other side simply did not seem appealing.
After a few months, I walked across a check point in Berlin and bought a few books that were blacklisted in the East. Heinrich Böll was among them, I remember. Beyond that, I had never seen a homeless person and the sight of one disturbed me. I thought that what they had told us about capitalism was accurate.
While my interest in West Germany was minimal, I suddenly realized that now, the path to the rest of Europe and the world was open and that changed things.
Months later, I’d live in Paris, supported by an agency that helped to get Eastern European Intellectuals out of Eastern Europe. From there, I ended up studying French in Aix en Provence in a Gaullist institute. From there, I moved on to earn degrees in London, Zurich and NYC, and teach at the Bauhaus in Germany, and at universities in Arizona, Oregon, upstate New York, and now, New York City.
Having left Germany early in 1990, I missed out on all the inner-German tensions; I did not even get to own the infamous German-German dictionary.
(In 1954, the Communist party decided to abandon all American and religious references in German language and created its own, Soviet-leaning version of Deutsch. What was an astronaut for a West-German, would be a cosmonaut to an East-German, for example. And “angles” would be appropriately and conveniently secularized into “end-of-the-year-figures-with-wings.”)
Today, I am taken aback when West Germans make prejudicial remarks about their counterparts in the Eastern part of the country. Years ago, one woman from Hamburg, a lady well into her seventies, boasted to me that her son was a professor at MIT, but then she could not accept that I was also a professor, at SUNY Buffalo at the time. How could an East German “make it” in American academia? I felt embarrassed for her; it was like a bad dance move.
In 2014, these tensions are still present; cross marriages are rare even now, I’m told, and pensioners in East Berlin have crossed the invisible border in her city exactly no more than a handful of times over the past 25 years.
For my generation, the timing of the implosion of the German Democratic Republic was ideal. We had a protected childhood and good schooling but when it came time for higher education, suddenly, the world was open to us.
Today, I recall Bulgarian beaches, pubs in the Czech Republic, and also my later studies in France, the UK, Switzerland, and the United States.