1981 - 1990

The Berlin Job

Peter Millar

Reporting life behind the Berlin Wall
Peter Millar was the only non-German correspondent in East Berlin in the early 1980s and was named Foreign Correspondent of the Year 1989 for his reports on the collapse of Communism.
Arriving in Berlin as a young reporter in 1981 was a thrilling and chilling experience. The first view of my new home was the intimidating view of East Berlin through the Brandenburg Gate.
Next to the Reichstag building in West Berlin (then used for exhibitions and conferences), a sombre line of crosses remembered those killed trying to cross the Wall behind it.
The graffiti on the Western side was more light-hearted than the reality that lay beyond it.

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.

East German border guards turned their backs on westerners photographing them, or used binoculars to stare back. As can be seen, their working conditions weren't necessarily the best.
A bleak courtyard behind a tenement block in East Berlin
Room with a view: the scars of World War II were everywhere, 36 years after its end.

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.

Hinterhof: the entrance to Volker's flat.
Prenzlauer Berg was a run-down area of tenement buildings most of which still bore the scars of war. In winter it stank from the brown coal (lignite) which provided most heating. Here a delivery has been dumped in the street outside a block near our flat.
In 1982, East Germany celebrated 20 years of the Berlin Wall with a poster labelled "For our security", prominently featuring a border guard resembling Erich Honecker.
Another way of looking at things: happy hours in Metzer Eck.

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.

East German society was highly militarised, with conscription and regular parades of the NVA (National People's Army).
NVA troops with no sense of irony goose step at the "Monument to victims of Fascism"
At attention on Unter den Linden

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 that 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 up 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.

"Disability pensioner" and seasoned smuggler Manne Schulz looks back at the streets of Prenzlauuer Berg, where he lives, from an observation platform near his parents' home a few streets - and a Wall -  away in West Berlin.

At the funeral of the respected dissident and human rights activist Robert Havemann in April 1982, the Stasi were secretly photographing reporters and mourners. 

Stasi cameras capture me by the graveside
The Stasi cameraman's long lens zooms in. Here he captures my conversation with a group of mourners including (bearded, right) dissident pastor Rainer Eppelman who, after 1989, would become a member of the Bundestag.
The first and only driving test I passed was in East Berlin. The theory test was helped by giving the examiner a bottle of Cognac. 
Trabant car offered as lottery prize outside East Berlin "supermarket"

Having a car in East Germany was a luxury for most people, with waiting lists up to 10 years long for an ordinary Trabant. 

Stasi report on me and my wife, giving details of our studies, language skills, previous career experience and instructions for surveillance. Note at bottom says, "It is imperative that the source for this material be kept secret".
Photo taken of my wife and I by a camera concealed in a tail light of a Trabant. On my file, case officer Col Lehman noted "Millar...makes his wife carry the heavy objects". She has never let me forget it.
Dates and times when we were under comprehensive surveillance
Report by Stasi informer on my appearance and political opinions
Stasi observation of us on a picnic. Includes highly disapproving comment that I pulled my shorts on over my wet bathing costume.
The ruins of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, destroyed in the Allied firestorm of February 1945, with a line of Trabants and a new hotel. In 1982, I accidentally fuelled a demonstration by young "peaceniks" here by reporting what was only a rumour amongst dissidents in East Berlin but became reality after my report was repeated by West German television, watched by most East German citizens. As a result, several hundred gathered at the site to be heavily monitored by police and Stasi.
Swords to Ploughshares motif over church entrance in East Berlin

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.

FDJ drifting away after parade

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.

FDJ members gradually shed the trappings of uniform after parade
By early autumn of 1989, the crowds taking part in the regular Monday demonstrations in Leipzig had swollen to tens of thousands. Honecker asked Gorbachev to send in Soviet troops based nearby. He declined.
Amongst the demands was an end to military service. "Reunification" was a taboo, impossible to imagine.
There was an atmosphere of defiance, but also of fear. Protesters expected to see Soviet tanks at any moment.
On the steps of the Stasi building itself in Leipzig, protesters bravely held banners calling for a Rechtsstaat (a state based on law) and "against the Fascist tendency".

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. 

A young East Berliner is pulled up onto the Wall.
By Christmas 1989, Berlin was effectively one city once again.
Before long, the once-feared and hated symbol of division and repression had become scene of the best and biggest party in Berlin's history.
Brave New World? My two sons peer through holes hacked in the Berlin Wall in December 1989. For them, the Cold War is history.
The Millar family stand at what has now become an open frontier in early December 1989
On 3 October 1990, the day Germany was reunified, I had a drink at Checkpoint Charlie with a border guard I had known for 10 years. He smiled and for the first time told me his name was Uwe. He was now unemployed.
Credits: Story

Author and Curator — Peter Millar
Find out more at www.petermillar.eu —

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