Looking over the Wall from the viewing platforms erected in West Berlin was a grim experience: an obstacle course 'death strip' patrolled by armed guards
My Prenzlauer Berg flat, where my newly-married wife came to join me, looked out over a bleak, filthy courtyard. The ground-floor flat was inhabited by a peacenik grave-digger hippy called Volker who irritated the Stasi by sleeping with the 16-year-old daughter of one of their top foreign agents.
But life in East Germany wasn't totally bleak. There were still corner bars where people who trusted one another gathered to drink and laugh and tell jokes, sometimes ones that could have landed them in prison if shouted in the street. My local was Metzer Eck, a bar run by the Falkner family since 1913, when the Kaiser was still on the throne. Its eclectic cast of regulars included Kurtl, a popular comic musician on East German radio (head sideways), who would tell me of his childhood hiding in the basement from British bombs. His father had died fighting at Stalingrad.
One of the interesting cast of characters who gravitated to Metzer Eck was Manne Schulz. He was staying with his grandmother a few streets away from his parents the night the Wall was erected. He didn't see them again until West Berliners were permitted short visits to the East . In 1981 after an appendix operation complicated by obesity, he was granted a 'disability pension' which meant he could travel. But instead of remaining in the West (which would have saved the East German state having to pay his pension) he visited his parents occasionally, returning home to the East where he built a vibrant social life, making money and lots of friends by running discos in pubs and smuggling pop music tapes, videos and pornographic magazines, usually in his copious underpants which even the most diligent border guards (primarily concerned with stopping people leaving) were reluctant to search.
At the funeral of the respected dissident and human rights activist Robert Havemann in April 1982, the Stasi were secretly photographing reporters and mourners.
Having a car in East Germany was a luxury for most people, with waiting lists up to 10 years long for an ordinary Trabant.
The Lutheran and Evangelical Churches in East Germany gradually became a focus for youth discontent. Young East Germans had begun to mimic western protests about American missiles on West German soil. The presence of Soviet missiles on East German soil was officially denied. But the Church threw its weight behind a 'peace' movement, which cleverly adopted the Biblical phrase 'let them smite their swords to ploughshares' and used a motif which evoked a Soviet statue outside the United Nations building. Re-envisioned as a patch sewn on jeans it became a badge of dissent.
The FDJ (Free German Youth) communist organisation tried to channel young people into state-approved activities, but only its mixed sex camping trips proved really popular.
What happened in the end was a misunderstanding by border guards at one Checkpoint (Bornholmer Strasse) of a decision by the rattled communist politburo to make travel to the west easier. Encouraged by liberal interpretations reported on West Berlin radio, East Berliners stormed the checkpoint demanding to be let through. With nobody available or willing to give orders to the contrary, which would have required use of extensive force, the harassed border guards gave in. The dam was broken and before long a flood was under way. Many people still feared the checkpoints would be closed the next day, but it was too late. At crucial moments history develops a momentum all of its own.
Author and Curator — Peter Millar
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