25 years ago, in late 1989, I was an 18 year old who had gone through some big events in my life. I had finished sixth form at school and left with A levels in German, French, computer science, and general studies. I had lost my mum that September to cancer; I had secured a deferred place at what was then Coventry Polytechnic to study a four year degree in Modern Languages on an exciting politics and history based course (rather than literature based, as most language degree courses tended to be); and I had secured an upcoming winter season of work as a receptionist/driver/snow-clearer at the Kongress Hotel in Davos, Switzerland.
But, as much as I was leaving my old life to embark on a new, independent life, events in Europe and the world had taken everyone by surprise.
Part of my German A Level course, which had ended in June of 1989, involved studies in two key topic areas. One was the work of German writer Heinrich Böll and the other, to me more interesting one, was Berlin.
Berlin had celebrated its 750th birthday a couple of years before, in 1987, and the exam board must have considered this reason enough to make it a key area for study. I found the subject fascinating, but not especially because of the 750th anniversary of the city’s foundation, but rather due to Berlin’s geopolitical nature.
It’s hard for my own kids and younger people to grasp, but at that time, Berlin was a city of very important geopolitical significance. From a Western (our) perspective, it was an island of ‘democracy’ surrounded by the too-protestingly entitled ‘German Democratic Republic’, or, as most of us at the time knew it, East Germany… the western bulwark of the Eastern Bloc. West Berlin was like other cities in the then Federal Republic of Germany, but unlike other cities in the FRG, was surrounded by the communist world.
It’s not widely known even today, but although West Berlin was in practice a part of the Federal Republic, in actual fact it wasn’t officially so. West Berlin remained officially under Allied occupation between 1945 and 1990. In theory, the British, French, and U.S. occupying forces could have assumed control of West Berlin at any time during those years.
Reality on the ground was quite different. West Berlin, due to its isolated position in the middle of East Germany was under threat from the Soviets, who regarded this island of capitalism in its midst as a blot on the landscape and a ‘two finger’ salute to socialism. The Soviets had already tried to force the Western allies to abandon West Berlin by blocking all land routes to the city through East Germany in 1948. The Allies responded by launching the Berlin Airlift: supplying Berlin entirely by air with all its food and fuel requirements in 213,000 flights. The Soviets eventually relented and re-opened the land routes, but the Airlift had shown the war-weary West Berliners that they weren’t going to be abandoned by the Allies and a special relationship was forged between West Berliners and the former ‘enemy’. West Berlin flourished as a result, confidently enjoying the same Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle as the other ten states of the Federal Republic.
At the same time, East Berlin had been made capital of East Germany and had been largely reconstructed as a showpiece of socialism to the West. This city would show the best of the Eastern Bloc, crowned by the still famous Fernsehturm, or TV Tower at Alexanderplatz.
I had spent much of my final year in sixth form from 1988-1989 learning much of the above in my German course, but additionally learning more about East Germany, about life behind the Iron Curtain, the travel restrictions for westerners entering East Berlin, and great detail about the defences along the Berlin Wall – death strips, tank traps, mine fields, watch-towers and all. I had learnt all this in great detail. But a wider part of our syllabus involved being able to describe the prospects for reunification of Germany. I can vividly remember the phrase “It may happen one day, but almost certainly not in my lifetime.” It was inconceivable to us that the Wall might come down.
I had spent my formative years growing up in the backdrop of heightened tensions in the Cold War, which had all been reflected in the cultural backdrop of my young teenage years. Frankie Goes To Hollywood sang of Two Tribes, complete with three-minute warning sirens and Patrick Allen narration loosely based on the real narration he’d provided to the chilling Protect And Survive public information films; Hollywood itself had gone to town on its doomsday themed films, including War Games, Red Dawn, The Day After, and Miracle Mile. The comic book When The Wind Blows by creator of the Snowman, Raymond Briggs, saw a sweet, elderly couple who had survived World War 2 naively approach World War 3 with the same Blitz Spirit that had seen them through before – with the inevitable outcome. Perhaps most chillingly, my English Language class had been subjected to the very bleak, Sheffield based film about a nuclear attack, Threads. Growing up in West Yorkshire at the time, an Armageddon movie based in the south of my home county was too close to home for comfort and added to the bleak feeling of those years. Many of my age will remember the palpable feeling, not of “Will they drop the bomb?”, but rather “WHEN will they drop the bomb?”
And then, 25 years ago to the day, all the things I’d learnt in great detail just a few months before in my German lessons were no longer relevant. As I prepared to head off to Switzerland, GDR Politburo spokesman Günter Schabowski, who had been chairing press conferences to announce greater freedoms for citizens following on from the demonstrations by East German citizens, made a bit of a blunder. Having announced that citizens would be free to travel, when pressed by a member of the press on when this would take effect, after some obvious confusion, paper shuffling, and uncertainty, responded with the words “with immediate effect.”
Citizens needed no further prompting and the now famous scenes unfolded, as weeping East Germans crossed into West Berlin and were met with hugs, West Berliners jumped on the wall and started to dismantle it.
My diary entry at the time shows that even I hadn’t truly grasped what was happening, but it all became clearer in successive months.
My third year at university (1992-1993) involved a year’s study abroad, shared, in my case between half an academic year in Germany and half in France. My interest in Berlin and a desire to visit and see the place for myself pretty much determined the location I would choose as a preference for my German placement. Coventry had an exchange programme with the University of Potsdam. For those not especially clued up on German geography, Potsdam borders western Berlin to the west of Berlin itself, but in what was East Germany. I had heard of the town in reference to the Potsdam Conference in World War 2, but knew little else about the place.
Whilst others seemed to shy away from the prospect of spending winter in what we pre-conceived to be a grey, dark, run-down place, in the former Eastern Bloc, I jumped at the chance.
As I was to discover on my arrival 28th September, 1992, my own preconceptions were pretty wrong. Yes, Russian troops were finalising withdrawal from the area and trucks marked Люди (personnel) were commonplace. There were the Trabant cars, the cobbled streets, ill-maintained buildings, and a problem with drains which left an amusing whiff throughout many of the streets, but there was also much beauty and charm to the place.
On entering the former East Germany, just under three years since the Wall had come down and two years since reunification, I was immediately struck by how beautiful some of the old houses were and how much countryside there was around the area (notably forests). Additionally, Potsdam housed the former royal Prussian residences of Frederick the Great and was loaded with historic gardens, palaces, and monuments, none of which appeared to have any great significance to locals at the time. This was immediately apparent to me when I saw a lonely Trabant drive past the front of the Neues Palais on my arrival at the university and this impressive palace totally devoid of tourists.
Potsdam also shares the lakes between itself and Berlin, and some very beautiful villas backing onto the lakes which had housed German film stars of the first half of the 20th century. Studio Babelsberg was and remains to this day a world-famous film studio and you will often see its name at the end of Hollywood movies. All this ran counter to what I had expected.
The day after arriving, as my fellow Coventry student, Julian and I were assigned our accommodation in the residential blocks in the Babelsberg campus, we met up with a couple of student girls from Manchester purely by chance whilst walking through the middle of Potsdam town centre. Ruth and Kate then introduced us to Sharon. Ruth and Sharon would go on to become good friends throughout my stay in Potsdam. I got to know Kate better when we both also ended up going to the same place for the summer of 1993 – Grenoble, in the French Alps.
Our German Kommilitonen, or fellow students, comprised politics and law students. I had opted to study politics in Potsdam, as it was most relevant to my degree, so I attended politics lectures and seminars with German native students in modules including international politics, the German constitution, and the European Union.
The Germans with whom I lived had all studied under the GDR system for two years before the Wall came down. In all likelihood, they had been lined up for careers in the GDR’s diplomatic service. As such, the politics campus was placed next to the border with West Berlin, as it was considered that politics students were the least likely to attempt Republikflucht, or escape from the GDR. Our accommodation overlooked the Glienicker Bridge (famous for Cold War spy swaps), the outskirts of West Berlin on the other side of the river, and we were ten minutes’ walk from the former border – a whole world away a mere three years before.
My German friends there seemed a little older than me and this was indeed the case. It transpired that the government had initially considered them unsuitable to continue to study politics or law, as they had spent two years studying under the GDR regime and were therefore considered ‘brainwashed’. It was very quickly apparent to any sane person that this was palpable nonsense. They were all perfectly rational human beings and were all capable of distinguishing between facts and propaganda. Nevertheless, it took them a year to fight for the right to remain as students and even then, they were only permitted to do so on condition that they restart their courses from year one.
I only encountered one definite, unequivocal fan of the old regime. He often spoke glowingly of the GDR in seminars, but appeared to be shunned by his fellow students. After enquiring as to this treatment, I was told by some of the Polish students that they had taken the opportunity to examine the Stasi files which had been kept on them and had discovered in doing so that the bloke in question had been a Stasi informant and had passed on information regarding his colleagues to the Stasi.
Whilst most students I knew had no desire to examine the Stasi files kept on them, lest they discover that their best friend had informed on them – “What’s in the past should remain in the past” was a common train of thought – the Poles had no such qualms.
It was clear, however, that despite a general happiness. things had not unfolded as had been wished by many of my East German contemporaries, many of whom had not necessarily clamoured for reunification at all, but for reform and democratisation. There were aspects of life under the GDR which had made life easier for working parents and had fallen by the wayside somewhat. At the same time, the cost of living and rents had increased, wages had not kept up with these price rises, and there was a palpable feeling of distrust and dislike towards Besser-Wessis – arrogant West Germans who had been relocated to the East to assist in the transformation of East Germany into five new states in a reunified Germany. This feeling was summed up brilliantly in some spooneristic toilet graffiti I saw in the university toilets…
“Ausländer rein… Rheinländer raus!” = Foreigners in… Rheinländer (those from the Rhine area – i.e. West German officials) out!
My East German friends laughingly mocked the trappings of their former state, with an all-too-familiar healthy disregard for authority, referring to their former currency as Spielgeld, or toy money and reminiscing about the good times they had had, serving their time in national service in the Volksarmee; spending time guarding the Wall (they informed me of the unspoken rule of deliberately missing people attempting to flee); and doing what they could within the realms of what was feasible to undermine authority.
Without wishing to paint an idealistic picture (history and personal accounts tell us that for many, life in the Arbeiter- und Bauernstaat, or Workers’ and Peasants’ state, was far from ideal), a lack of material possessions outside life’s essentials had appeared to me at least to have promoted a sense of humour very similar to the British dark sense of humour and to have fostered a genuine closeness of people. I could already sense a somewhat melancholic clamour for some aspects of former GDR life.
This reminiscing of old GDR times had already taken on its own term – Ostalgie and was later used to great advantage in the excellent film, Goodbye Lenin.
There was of course relief at the fall of the surveillance state, but there was also a genuine sense of opportunities lost during the reunification process.
As with all revolutions, events have a habit of snowballing way beyond the intentions of those who initiate them, and, in the event, what had been a clamour for reform was swiftly overtaken by events as politicians (notably then West German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl) vied to cement their place in history. In less than a year, East Germany had become known in references to that part of the world as either die ehemalige DDR (the former GDR) or die neuen Bundesländer (the new federal states).
I struck up some good friendships whilst in Potsdam and it left a lasting impression on me, forging changes in my political outlook and re-evaluation of many pre-conceptions I had of what had been the Eastern Bloc.
The events of 25 years ago shaped not only the lives of people directly affected, but rippled out across the world, effecting the end of the Cold War and affecting some of us more personally in the experiences of its aftermath. Had they not happened, the modern world and my life would certainly have turned out very differently.
These events were to have even greater personal significance to my younger brother, who, following my (probably tedious) ‘selling’ of Potsdam, decided to venture there himself a couple of years after my time there. He would subsequently fall in love, make his home, and raise his family there… all of which has allowed me to make occasional returns to the place and see its wholesale transformation over the last couple of decades… Not all of which has been positive. Yes, the buildings have been renovated and modernised, the palaces have been restored and become big tourist attractions, but Potsdam is a beautiful place and has become a desirable place to live for Berlin “overspillers”, with all the inevitable consequences for locals in property and rent prices. And, whilst there is an effort on the part of politicians to continue to push Potsdam’s position as a world heritage site, and notably reconstruct the former Garnisonkirche, there is little public interest in this when there are rather more practical and pressing immediate concerns.
Still, for anyone under the age of 25, all this cultural baggage will be insignificant. Regarding Berlin – that city is now not only the capital of a unified Germany, transformed in the last couple of decades, but a desirable place to visit for “stag dos” and a must for hipsters. For locals, the Wall will have no significance to a sizeable proportion of the population, but I still recall quite vividly the events of 25 years ago tonight and the sheer incredulity at what was unfolding before my eyes at the time.