Modern history

MONEY

16

THE SURREAL CAGE

WEST BERLIN TOO HAD changed by the time Ulbricht died.

Joachim Trenkner had escaped the East in 1959, two years before the Wall was built. Although he had cheated the refugee system to stay in West Berlin, his initial time there was actually fairly short. A few months after 13 August, someone told him the Americans were offering scholarships to young West Berliners who wanted to study in the United States. These generous stipends were part of the cultural-exchange programme which the President’s brother Robert Kennedy had promoted so keenly, seeing it as a way of inoculating Germans against Communism.

Joachim applied for a scholarship and got it. So in 1962, he went to study at De Pauw College, a small university in the American Midwest. There he met and married an American girl. Together they moved to New York, where he worked for some years at the magazine Newsweek, beginning a career as a writer and cross-media journalist that proved long and successful. The marriage eventually failed, and he decided to return to Berlin.

When Joachim (now often known as ‘Jo’) landed once again at Tegel Airport, he was thirty and the year was 1968. Money had poured into the beleaguered city since 1961 and the place was full of new building projects, like the modernistic Europa Center in the Budapester Strasse, which reminded him of a ‘little Manhattan’. And the psychology of the place had changed too:

People seemed to be free of fear and less tense than earlier, the city had become more international, with countless Italian, Chinese or Turkish restaurants. Americans, Brits and the French looked after security, and the Berliners had grown accustomed to the Wall. And there was something else new in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Often, all too often, there were demonstrations taking place, demonstrations against the protecting power, America, which was pursuing a bloody war in far-off Vietnam.1

The late Hungarian composer, György Ligeti, who knew West Berlin well, called the half-city a ‘surreal cage’, a bizarre prison in which paradoxically only those locked up inside were free.2

In fact, in the late 1960s—and certainly by the 1970s—West Berlin came to resemble in significant ways the ‘free city’ that had been Khrushchev’s brainwave back in 1958.

True, its population of just over two million survived because of huge subsidies from the half-city’s rich ‘big brother’, the Federal Republic. But West Berlin was not West Germany. It operated under different laws and had-increasingly—a curious social and political flavour all of its own. Cut off from its economic and demographic hinterland, and from almost half its former urban area (and a third of its former population), West Berlin was truly an island in the Communist sea.

The majority of established Berliners were still pro-Allies and especially pro-American. They still cheered at Christmas, when the tanks of the 40th Armoured toured Steglitz and Zehlendorf with Santa Claus in full fig in the turret and toys for the local kids.3America was the guarantee that their freedoms would not go the same way as those of their friends and relatives in East Berlin.

But the established Berliners no longer entirely dictated the tone. During the 1960s, the balance of the city began to change. In the early days after the Wall was built, the city had feared a flight of financial and human capital. So-called Zittergeld (literally: tremble-money) was paid to families and individuals prepared to stay in or come to the city marooned among the Communists. Manufacturing industries, including electrical equipment, machine-tools and the garment business, suffered from the unreliability and expense of the transit routes that were now the only ways in and out of West Berlin. No armaments or equipment with military applications could be manufactured there. People of working age were leaking away to the West, along with major parts of the city’s manufacturing industry.

By the 1970s, almost a quarter of all Berliners were over the age of sixty-five, twice the proportion in West Germany. By contrast, the percentage of children under the age of fifteen was 15 (in West Germany proper, around 23).4 The West German government’s extremely generous subsidies to West Berlin’s infrastructure, plus a lower turnover tax for businesses there, compulsory relocation of production facilities and administrative offices of Federal government departments in West Berlin, and so on, helped keep the walled-in city alive.

West Berlin was nevertheless slowly depopulating. In the early 1960s, its birth rate was among the lowest of any city in the world. Most years, thousands fewer people came to West Berlin than left, a situation that continued until the late 1980s.

Significantly, in the 1960s, the newcomers were not the traditional immigrants looking for work, nor were they ambitious young professionals. West Berlin was not a place to go if you wanted advancement—that happened in thriving centres like Frankfurt (finance), Hamburg (the press), Düsseldorf (advertising and insurance) or Bavaria, where the new electronic industries were beginning to flourish.

No, those coming to Berlin in large enough numbers to make their presence felt were an interesting crowd, despite—or perhaps because—they were not mainstream. Here were people in search of alternative lifestyles, cheap rents, round-the-clock nightlife, and, last but not least, looking to avoid conscription into the West German armed forces, the Bundeswehr. Under Allied occupation law, a West Berlin residence card granted immunity to the West German call-up.

The students of 1961 had supported the escape-helper teams. The evil nature of Communism had been an item of faith. However, by the late 1960s, the student body had moved sharply to the left, fed by those escaping the cosy, conservative values of the West German ‘economic miracle’. And with advent of the Vietnam War, the USA no longer symbolised freedom. On the contrary, when contrasted with ‘imperialist’ America, to these new rebels against capitalism East Germany, though stuffy and Stalinist in many of its external forms, didn’t look so bad. Free to come and go in the East as they wished, Western radical tourists liked its lack of commercialism and advertising, the cheap food, the bookshop next to Friedrichstrasse station where you could buy very inexpensive copies of the Marxist classics. What could be so wrong with a state where you could buy a hardcover copy of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire for the price of a cup of (terrible) coffee?

While enjoying the pleasures of a free and easy existence in West Berlin, many of the alternative crowd sneered at the existing population, mocking its consumerism, apparent social conservatism and continuing gratitude to the NATO forces who stood between their beleaguered part-city and its absorption into the surrounding ‘Workers’ and Peasants’ State’.

Instead of spending the 1970s continuing to protest against the Wall, the radical activists who flocked to West Berlin spent their considerable free time protesting against imperialism in far-away countries and, closer to home, against the allegedly proto-Fascist nature of the post-war West German state created by Adenauer’s conservatives. It was true that many more moderate observers had also been disappointed by the failure of the Federal Republic to make a really clean break with the past. West Germany kept many of the rigidly hierarchical structures and authoritarian attitudes of earlier eras. Konrad Adenauer may have disliked and despised the Nazis, but he had been a senior Prussian state employee before 1914, and Lord Mayor of Cologne under the last German Kaiser, and he espoused a pious Catholicism that accepted the absolute authority of the Pope.

As could be expected, the West Germany Adenauer and his political supporters created after 1945 was a parliamentary democracy that accepted the rule of law, but it was far from a natural home for radicalism and free thought. Berlin was historically more tolerant than provincial Germany, and this remained the case even though a robust anti-Communism became general in the Western sectors after 1945.

Gay and lesbian life had flourished in Berlin for at least a century, and had enjoyed almost total toleration in the 1920s, slightly but not completely modified by the existence of the so-called ‘paragraph 175’ which forbade homosexuality. In 1929, the last left-liberal coalition of the Weimar Republic actually passed a repeal of paragraph 175, but within months the Right took control, and the repeal was shelved. Three years later, Hitler seized power. The Nazis added ‘paragraph 175a’, which broadened the area of culpability to include activities not even involving mutual physical contact and also allowing castration for male homosexuals found ‘guilty’ of gay relationships. This resulted in a vast increase in the arrest and imprisonment of gay men, and to the deaths of many thousands in concentration camps.

After 1945, West Germany kept the Nazi ultra-restrictive ‘175a’. East Germany reverted to the old, less absolute, paragraph 175 and was reckoned in the immediate post-war years to be more tolerant, though there were crackdowns on public expression of gay sexuality, especially when East Berlin hosted ‘world youth festivals’ and suchlike. West Berlin, removed from strait-laced religious conservatism, remained in the area of sexuality, as in other matters, an island. Reinforcing the native community, gay men and women flocked there to live as they wished and needed to live, and by and large were able to do so. Both German states decriminalised homosexuality towards the end of the 1960s, but Berlin has remained a vibrant centre of gay culture into the twenty-first century.

So far as broader social and political attitudes were concerned, there had been some ‘denazification’ immediately after the war, but there is no question that in West Germany many who had made sordid, even brutal careers under Hitler seamlessly achieved the transition into the new postwar élite, in industry, the law, the state apparatus and the armed forces. The Allies, keen at first to purge the country of Nazis, quickly realised that to do so with any thoroughness would also purge Germany of the men (and they were overwhelmingly men) who knew how to run the place. And with the Cold War quickly dominating the international horizon, it was more important that the new Germany functioned, and joined the Western side, than that it was politically pure. A lot of investigations against useful men of a certain age and curriculum vitae were not pursued with due process or energy.

This was a point often made in East German propaganda, with some justice. On the other hand, the fact that 80 per cent of doctors in the East German province of Thuringia had been members of the Nazi Party before 1945 did not lead the Communist authorities to sack them all.5 Exceptions were quietly made, and plenty of them. The same applied to other key areas of the administration and the economy. Neither Germany could really afford to start again with a completely clean slate.

The only area where the GDR did carry out an almost total purge was in the judiciary. By the 1950s, the old upper middle-class judges had been replaced by ‘class-conscious’ jurists, many of proletarian origins, who could be relied on to do the regime’s bidding. The practice of deciding political offenders’ sentences before the trial had been present under the Nazis, but in the GDR it became common practice. Klaus Schulz-Ladegast said that if one looked properly at the notes your Stasi interrogator was making, you could see him writing down recommended sentences according to the replies he was getting. His own, he recalls, was halved to four years as a result of adroit handling of one of his most vital interviews.6

But the purists of the radical Left in West Berlin during the late 1960s and the 1970s were not interested in such fine distinctions. They provoked the establishment and, when the establishment lashed out in response-angered by the contempt the radicals showed for the values that West Berlin had made such sacrifices to preserve-they proclaimed it as bad as the Nazis.

In June 1967, the Iranian head of state included West Berlin in his tour of Germany. As an authoritarian ruler and, so far as the Left was concerned, an American stooge, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi was a fit subject for a big demonstration, and the demonstration turned violent. A student protester, Benno Ohnesorge, was shot dead during an encounter with police. Days of riots followed. Thereafter, many on the Left were convinced that in the Federal Republic they faced Hitler’s heirs and therefore any methods were justified to defeat those who held power.

Symbols of America such as the US cultural centre near Zoo station, the so-called Amerika-Haus, were subjected to aggressive direct action. In fact, the Amerika-Haus remained more or less under siege for the whole period between the late 1960s and the late 1970s.

There were times when West Berlin seemed to teeter on the edge of violent anarchy. Rudi Dutschke, who ten years earlier had refused to join the East German army, was by this time a doctoral student at the FU-and the most prominent of all the student radical leaders. Serious-minded, fearsomely intelligent, a brilliant orator, he inspired equal measures of fear and respect, love and loathing among his fellow Germans. To the Springer press, he was the political devil incarnate—‘Red Rudi’.

On 11 April 1968, Dutschke was riding his bicycle in West Berlin when he encountered 24-year-old Josef Bachmann. Like Dutschke, Bachmann had come West as a refugee from East Germany, but unlike Dutschke he was an ill-educated drifter. Having caused the student leader to stop, he pulled a gun and shot him in the head. Dutschke was all but given up for dead, but after a hazardous operation lasting many hours, his life was saved.

The result was more days of riots, in which there were assaults on all the symbols of the establishment, including an attempt by a mob to burn down the Springer headquarters, a tower block right by the Wall. The Springer press, especially the tabloid Bild-Zeitung, was blamed for whipping up feeling against the radical student leaders. Bild had written of ‘intervening’ against the ‘ringleaders’ of the Left. Bachmann was found to be strongly influenced not just by Bild, which was read by millions, but also by Nazi fantasies and the reading of much more extreme far-right publications. He committed suicide in jail in 1970.

Dutschke survived, and after many months of physical rehabilitation managed to regain his powers of speech and thought. None the less, although he continued to be active, he never quite resumed his dominant position on the radical Left. He was troubled by terrible headaches and epileptic fits for the rest of his short life. In the autumn of 1979, Dutschke travelled to Berlin from the Danish city of Århus, where he had taken a teaching job at the university, to participate in discussions about the formation of the German Green Party. By the end of the year he was dead. It is thought that he suffered a fit while taking a bath and drowned.

All the same, in the late 1960s and 1970s, West Berlin was a pleasant enough place to live. It had an intimate, piquant flavour, very relaxed and yet slightly dangerous, that you either liked or disliked, and if you liked it you probably loved it. You could avoid being confronted too much by the depressing fact of the Wall if you knew which routes to take. There was a lively party and cultural scene, plenty of interesting people. Little was forbidden, just about everything was tolerated.

The alternative lifestyle types could be seen, if you forgave their showy and sometimes violent excesses, as a kind of noisy, permanent street cabaret. It was in Berlin that several soon-to-be-notorious anarcho-radical figures, including student leaders such as Fritz Teufel and Dieter Kunzelmann, and the precocious Ulrich Enzensberger, younger brother of the famous German writer, Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, set up the so-called ‘Commune One’ (Kommune 1). Here sexualised politics and politicised sex became the order of the day. What most people understand as politics often receded into the background.

As Ulrich Enzensberger put it:

We wanted to begin the revolution with ourselves. We wanted to revolutionise ourselves, the bourgeois individual, we did not want to become apparatchiks, gaga seminar-room Marxists in our wing-backed chairs with professorial bellies, wives, grandchildren and house-slippers, dead men walking, hands-in-pockets strategists, exhausted political cadres—and neither did we want to become dried-up organisation men or party functionaries, spinning the whole time on the eternal carousel of pay talks and discussion groups. The fact that life consists of cycles-biological and historical cycles-brought me, at least, into a state of white heat. Just get off the treadmill! But how? This was the deeper meaning of our motto: ‘What’s Vietnam to me? I have orgasm problems’. We wanted the great, the fantastic ecstasy, we did not want to sacrifice ourselves for something abstract, for a phantom, for literature or the world revolution. More honesty! We didn’t want to hide anything. Our parents had hidden so much…7

Whether the people of Vietnam suffered from orgasm problems is not recorded by Herr Enzensberger or, preliminary enquiries seem to show, anyone else. Eastern Europeans who arrived in West Berlin were bemused by its leftist scene, this exotic political and social hothouse flower. They were appalled by the extent to which such far-left thought could be so widespread and dogmatically expressed, with the real-world results of Marxism-Leninism so painfully and cruelly apparent right on the rebels’ doorstep, in the shape of the Wall.

Milos Foreman, the Czech film director, arrived in West Berlin in 1968, at the height of the Prague Spring (soon to be crushed by Soviet tanks) and joked: ‘When we were trying to take the red flag down, they were trying to put it up!’8

While the pampered youth of West Berlin was testing how much punishment freedom could take while keeping some recognisable kind of shape, the East German regime had its own problems, but these did not stop it from tightening its hold on power.

In contrast with the West, where alternative lifestyles were by and large tolerated, in the GDR, between the sixties and the eighties, pressure on ‘hooligan’ or ‘subversive’ elements was intense. Hippies were bad enough, but probably the most serious conflict between the state and its young came in the late 1970s when punk culture spread to East Germany.

It wasn’t just the clothes-the ripped garments, the fetish objects and chains-or the excessive drinking—drugs were almost impossible to get in East Berlin at this time—or the flaunting of evidence of self-harm. There was something else about punk that the authorities couldn’t stand. Perhaps it was the key phrase of the movement, ‘No Future!’ In a society where the past was uncomfortable, the present seriously problematic, but the utopian ‘socialist’ future was everything, pessimism of the kind that punks luxuriated in was considered deeply anti-social.

As a matter of official policy, punk groups were refused service in cafés and bars, excluded from social occasions, sometimes thrown off trains and buses. For these young people, a great deal of each day was spent just trying to find a place where they could sit down and order a drink. Vopos subjected them to incessant ID checks, even if they were just walking in the park. It was bad enough in the suburbs, where most of these young people lived with uncomprehending or hostile parents, but once they came into the centre of the city they ran serious risks. The Alexander-platz, for instance, was known as a place where they could meet Western punks, usually in the self-service cafeteria by the television tower. This they very much wanted to do. To talk with such Westerners or even—highest honour of all-to be mistaken for a Western punk themselves, though their own S&M finery was generally home-made, remained a burning ambition.9

The punk groups were infiltrated by the Stasi, hounded, and often pulled in for interrogation sessions. Many were imprisoned, usually for short, sharp periods of a few weeks or months. They would be seized on charges of hooliganism, subversion or anti-social activity, or—if they got too close to Western punks-of ‘state-endangering links’ or even ‘espionage’. The authorities had a varied bag of catch-all, small-print legal measures at their disposal. The fact that many punks were the children of loyal party officials did not necessarily protect them. Parents often seem to have ‘turned them in’, either from genuine outrage or fear for their own careers.10

From the 1960s onwards, wayward East German youth was subjected to the strictest, in fact downright brutal ‘re-education’ in military-style so-called ‘youth industrial schools’ (Jugendwerkhöfe). These were attached to the Ministry of Popular Education (Ministerium für Volksbildung), which was presided over by Erich Honecker’s formidable wife, Margot.

For a young person to be incarcerated in such a place, the crime need not be serious. In fact, there need have been no crime at all, in the usual sense of the word. Teenagers between fourteen and eighteen could be confined to these places without trial for minor crimes such as theft or fighting, but also for truancy or (in the opinion of the authorities) anti-social behaviour, such as having long hair, wearing unconventional clothes, or hanging out with the wrong crowd. Children of politically dissident parents, or of parents who had repeatedly requested permanent exit from the GDR, were also at risk.

The time in the institution began with the head being shaved and then several days of solitary confinement. The severe and minutely worked-out regulations, which covered every aspect of behaviour every hour of the day, had been developed in Stalin’s Russia. Their aim was to turn troublesome young people into obedient members of the collective. The director of the most notorious of these youth prisons, at Torgau (a companion to the much-loathed adult prison there), stated that ‘as a rule we need three days for the young people to come into accord with our demands’. Isolation cells, beatings (the teachers were allowed to ‘defend themselves’ and did so with relish), and collective punishments were the rule.11

In the early 1980s, East German punks found a refuge with the Protestant churches, whose pastors often offered them places to socialise and to practise and play punk music, sometimes as part of ‘modernised’ church services. The numbers of punks increased as in the 1980s discontent grew, along with the ranks of the skinheads, who represented an altogether more sinister trend towards racism and neo-Nazi nostalgia which the state, for all its power and rigour, seemed helpless to prevent.

The mid-seventies were a strange, tense time for the GDR and its rulers. Despite the apparent relaxation of the international situation, in Berlin the Wall was being repaired and extended to a degree that would bring it to its most lethal and secure condition.

What Western tourists called the ‘Berlin Wall’ was known to the Easterners as simply the ‘border marker’. Most ordinary people from the East never even saw it. For them, the barrier existed between sixty and ninety yards back inside East Berlin, in the form of a concrete-slab barrier, the so-called ‘hinterland’ wall. This backed on to ordinary East Berlin streets or open ground and was festooned with stern warnings. Anyone who scaled this initial barrier was outlawing themselves; they were officially a criminal and could be fired upon.

Should anyone climb the hinterland wall without being observed and drop to the ground on the other side, they almost immediately faced the ‘border signal fence’, a structure of barbed-wire and mesh stretched between concrete posts, with a sloping barbed-wire topping to discourage climbing. It was reinforced for a couple of feet at ground level to stop anyone crawling under it. Most importantly, it was wired to set off an alarm sound, and often a floodlight, when touched. If the border guards had not been alerted so far, they now knew an escape was in progress.

But for the escaper there was still a long way to go. Then came specifically anti-personnel devices, be they sharp metal tank-trap-like obstacles known as ‘dragons’ teeth’ (Höckersperren) or even nastier arrangements, known in German asFlächensperren(literally, ‘surface barriers’), which consisted of steel bars laid out on the ground and covered with metal spikes or teeth. Any would-be escaper leaping down unawares from the ‘border signal fence’ would find their feet or limbs lacerated by these instruments. If the escapers survived this, they would face being observed from one of the manned concrete observation towers that were now situated every hundred metres along the East Berlin/West Berlin border. The guards had orders to shoot. Then came the floodlit supply road that ran the entire length of the city border. And beyond that, the so-called Kontrolstreife (control strip)-more accurately known as the ‘death-strip’-which consisted of a several-metre-wide expanse of carefully raked sand, on which footprints or other marks would be instantly noticeable. Often a dog-run would be set up along this part of the border. German Shepherd dogs were supplied by the Stasi’s dog-training school at Lobetal, north-east of Berlin. Each animal would range along a hundred-metre-long wire. The wire, to which their leashes were attached, ran at around five feet above the ground. The animals would react exactly according to their training if they spotted an intruder, seeking and attacking. At night, during the 1970s, the dogs’ lonely howls echoed eerily through the neighbouring areas of East and West Berlin.

Almost nobody got past that point in the 1970s or the 1980s, certainly not in the centre of Berlin. Then, and only then, would an escaper have reached the ‘border marker’ or ‘foremost barrier element’, the twelve-feet-high wall with its rounded, scramble-proof top. This was, for Westerners, the ‘Wall’. The Western side was covered in colourful and wacky graffiti, subject of a million tourist photographs. It was actually all but insignificant from a security point of view.

There were four great reorganisations of the Wall. It was further extended and refined in the 1980s, but by the mid-1970s the defence had become all but impregnable. The guards knew their orders, and also the fact that if anyone did make it through to the West, they would be held responsible. One explained the dilemma:

The responsibility was sloughed off on to the most junior man, the one who was the worst trained. I realised this problem when I myself came to stand guard. I thought to myself, what will you do if someone tries to escape here. We rehearsed that and asked ourselves, what shall we do if something happens at Lamp 35—there was a numbered arc lamp every 35 metres—how shall we catch the border violator. If the visibility got a bit worse, we had to get down from the tower, so as to see better. It can take around fifteen seconds to leave the tower…everyone was happy if he could climb down from his tower with his duty over and with nothing having happened.12

This reluctance on the part of most border troops—who were after all largely conscripts—to fire on their fellow East Germans did not make much practical difference. The authorities were aware of such reservations and ensured that the guards would be too terrified to do anything other than obey orders and open fire. The squeamish guard could not even ignore the escaper and hope none of his colleagues noticed. Sooner or later, he could be sure that some expert investigator would pick out the telltale footmarks in the raked sand and realise that Soldier X, on duty in that section at that time, had let a ‘border violator’ make it through to the West. Soldier X would then be in very big trouble. Negligence was treated as equivalent to treachery, and penalties for treachery were draconian.

The only devices that were not installed on the Berlin border—though they existed on the border between East and West Germany, more than a hundred miles to the west—were anti-personnel mines and automatic shooting emplacements (Selbstschussanlagen), sets of self-firing guns that were triggered by trip wires or other contact indicators. The regime was concerned that international protests would follow the use of these unpleasant installations in an urban area frequented by tourists and foreign observers.

It was true that the East German Politburo was strangely sensitive. Its members wanted to keep their population shut up inside the GDR, but at the same time they wanted themselves and their state to be well thought of. Paradoxically, the maximum strengthening of the Wall occurred in the mid-1970s, after Walter Ulbricht’s death, and also after agreements over West Berlin and the status of the two Germanys, which led to stability and to a regulation of routine travel between them.

Most of the travel was, as before, one-way, from West to East. Until the mid-1980s, only East Germans of retirement age could travel freely to the West. They were, of course, no longer productive. What did it matter if they chose not to return?

In 1969 Brandt became Chancellor of a ‘social-liberal’ coalition with the FDP and was free to pursue his ‘Eastern Policy’. Under the 1971 Berlin Agreement between the Allies and the Soviet Union, West Berlin remained separate from West Germany but had its continued independence guaranteed by the Soviet Union as well as the Allies. The East agreed to ease transit traffic between West Berlin and West Germany. West Berlin would not be ruled from Bonn, but West Germany would represent the city in foreign affairs.

These agreements were conditional on a deal between East and West Germany on transit traffic, directly negotiated at a government level. In effect, this gave the Allies and the West Berliners stability at the price of de facto recognition of East Germany. Formal recognition followed two years later in the Grundlagenvertrag (Basic Treaty) between East and West Germany. After tortuous negotiations, this was signed just before Christmas 1972.

Various forms of words allowed West Germany to avoid completely sacrificing the notion of German unity (and its previous claim to be the sole representative of the German people). A formula was arrived at that stopped just short of the two countries’ treating each other like foreign lands. East Germany set up a ‘permanent representation’ (Ständige Vertretung) in Bonn, and West Germany did the same in East Berlin. In practice, however, in the twenty-third year of its existence East Germany became a fully independent and accepted member of the international community and a member of the United Nations. No one in the world community seemed much to mind about the Wall.

The Brandt ‘social-liberal’ government’s treaties with the USSR, Poland and Czechoslovakia, acknowledged the results of the Second World War and abandoned claims on territories lost by Germany in 1945. The agreement between the two Germanys represented the realisation of the ‘Eastern Policy’ that had caused such dissent ten years before when Egon Bahr and Brandt first presented it at the Tutzing conference.

So why did the ‘spoiled old men’ (verdorbene alte Männer) who ruled in East Berlin, remain so unhappy in many ways?

A clue is in the phrase. The description ‘spoiled old men’ to describe the GDR’s leaders was coined by a figure with whom the élites in neither East nor West were entirely comfortable. His name was Wolf Biermann.

Born in Hamburg in 1936, son a of a half-Jewish Communist shipyard worker who died in Auschwitz, Biermann was an idealistic leftist by birth and conviction. At seventeen, he voluntarily emigrated from West Germany to the East, finishing his school education there and then studying in East Berlin. After working as an assistant at Brecht’s famous Berliner Ensemble theatre after the great man’s death, he founded his own theatre company and began to write political and satirical songs. In 1963, the youthful Biermann got into trouble by producing a play about two lovers separated by the newly built Berlin Wall. It was banned by the regime before its first performance. He was increasingly subjected to performance bans in the GDR but allowed to tour in West Germany, where he became very popular. For almost ten years, Wolf Biermann was in the bizarre situation of living in East Germany as a critical supporter of the Communist regime, while performance and publication of his work was banned. In the West, however, his records and books were massively popular and his concert tours sell-outs.

The one-man anomaly that was Wolf Biermann finally provided one of the great absurdist jokes of the Cold War. In November 1976, while touring in West Germany, he was stripped of his East German citizenship and banned from going home. A regime that had expended billions of marks and hundreds of lives to stop its people from leaving, now forbade one of its most famous citizens to come back.

At worst the regime’s attitude towards those who refused to go along with its plans for a society composed of ‘new human beings’ veered into a murderous Stalinist security obsession. At best it resembled a puzzled adult trying to correct a child who keeps trying to go ‘down’ on an ‘up’ escalator. The ‘up’ escalator of History. Does this uninformed little person not see that such behaviour is not just wrong but dangerous?

All the same, the treaties brought a tidal wave of West German visitors to the GDR. Both West Germans and West Berliners could now travel at will, whether as simple tourists or to see families and friends long trapped behind the border.

At Friedrichstrasse station, where thousands now crossed between West and East every day, the GDR built a glass-and-steel bunker to process visitors in and out. Great queues would form at night there, when Western day-trippers (who had to be back on the train at midnight, Cinderella-fashion) entered and waited to go downstairs to the complex of underground processing halls, where he or she would shuffle their way to sections labelled ‘Westberlin’, ‘BRD’ (West Germany), or ‘citizens of other states’.

The infamously ill-mannered and brusque border officials would check passports, ensure no one had abused the currency regulations (which forced compulsory amounts of East German marks to be taken into the country but none to be brought out) and—when finally he or she was satisfied that the security of the Workers’ and Peasants’ State had not been undermined in any major way—press a button that allowed the traveller to pass through. If they were entering the East, travellers would emerge into the Eastern part of the station, where taxis or further S-and U-Bahn trains would be waiting to take them where they wanted to go in East Berlin. If they were leaving for the West, they would end up on the westbound platform that would take they back over the Wall into West Berlin. Many heart-rendingly emotional scenes occurred outside, as East Germans greeted or bid farewell to their Western friends or relatives. Berliners dubbed this intimidating complex the ‘Palace of Tears’ (Tränenpalast).

Whether arriving directly at the border around the established checkpoints at Helmstedt or Hof, or taking advantage of the other frontier posts that were opened up in the 1970s, Volkswagens, Audis and Mercedes were now frequent sights on the pot-holed and cobbled roads of the GDR. The West German cousins were making full use of their visiting rights.

Claus Christian Malzahn, West Berlin resident but son of refugees from the Leipzig area of East Germany, recalls how in the 1970s, once the treaties were signed, they could suddenly cross the Iron Curtain and visit the rest of the family whenever they wanted. There would be scarce Western treats for the Eastern relations-Rolling Stones albums for the kids, fresh real coffee for the grown-ups. On the return trip home, the car would be loaded up with model railways (a speciality in the GDR), carved toys for which the Thuringian Forest was famous, and Christmas stollen.

Every summer without fail there would be a get-together of the entire clan. A great table would be laid out in the open, groaning with all the things the Eastern relations always complained they could never get, but which miraculously materialised on special occasions:

The conversations at table would first centre on friends and relations: who’s been sick, who got married, who bought a new car. Then the grown-ups would talk politics. First off, the spokesman for the East, my uncle by marriage from Keutschen, would complain about shortages of materials, the restrictive travel policy of the government, and the Soviet-style sloppiness in technical equipment. Then the spokesman for the West, an uncle who had been born in the East but meanwhile lived in Schleswig-Holstein, would reply that things here were not so bad really. After all, a lot of stuff here was free, for instance places in kindergartens, and a lot was cheap, for example bread. And in the West everything wasn’t perfect either, unemployment was a total scourge, especially among young people and so on and so on. The end of the song was that in the final analysis life could be tough in both countries, and everyone had his cross to bear. This had nothing to do with pretending that everything in the GDR was lovely. Rather, it was the basic condition for a family truce-and also a question of good manners.

Because among brothers no one should be better off than the others, and even if he is, for God’s sake he should never admit it. Would it be right to paint the good life in the West in vivid colours for those stuck with living in the ‘Dumb Remnant’ {contemptuous Western slang for the GDR}? Would it be right to remind them that even a jobless guy in Bremen in the West could live better than a skilled worker in Eastern Bitterfeld? Of course, our relatives knew this perfectly well. So after an hour of political chat, we left it alone, drank another beer-and told jokes until dawn. As a child one thing really struck me: in my West/East family, there was a lot of laughter.13

But this ‘normalisation’ was only partial. The East still treated the West as ‘the enemy’. Both sides had long spied on each other, but in the 1960s and 1970s the Stasi’s foreign-espionage department, the ‘Main Administration for Reconnaissance’ (HVA) was hugely expanded. Its head, Markus Wolf, had grown up in exile in the USSR as son of a well-known German Communist writer, Friedrich Wolf. Bilingual in Russian and German, highly intelligent and renowned for his charm, he rapidly climbed the hierarchy after 1945 and was put in charge of the HVA in 1957 at the astonishingly young age of thirty-four. He was both admired and feared in the West. John le Carré is said to have modelled his fictional KGB mastermind Karla, after Wolf.

With a strength totalling almost 4,000, lavishly funded and equipped, the HVA was especially adept at penetrating West Germany with ‘sleepers’. One of these, specially trained and sent into the West in 1956 among many thousands of refugees from the GDR, was Günter Guillaume. Guillaume’s cover was that of a firmly anti-Communist Social Democrat, and so it was that over the years he rose through the ranks of the SPD to become a prominent aide to Willy Brandt and finally, in 1972, his personal assistant and constant companion.

Early on the morning of 24 April 1974, the doorbell rang at the villa in Bonn where Guillaume lived with his wife (also a Stasi agent) and his children (who knew nothing of their father’s true identity). Guillaume answered the door in his dressing gown. His visitors identified themselves as officials of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, West Germany’s equivalent of the FBI or MI5.

‘Are you Herr Günter Guillaume?’ asked one of the officials. ‘We have a warrant for your arrest.’

At this point, Guillaume made a fatal error. He drew himself up to his full height and announced: ‘I am a citizen and officer of the GDR-respect that fact!’

Actually, they had no conclusive evidence against Guillaume until he incriminated himself.

Guillaume was the most prominent of a host of Stasi ‘sleepers’ or ‘moles’ in West Germany, including senior members of the West German intelligence service, government and business communities. His arrest changed the course of post-war German history. It spelled the abrupt end of Willy Brandt’s career as chancellor. Brandt had survived a great deal, but he could not survive this. He took responsibility for the catastrophic failure of security and resigned, to be succeeded by a hard-headed SPD politician from Hamburg, Helmut Schmidt. Schmidt was a doer where Brandt could be a dreamer, tough where Brandt was instinctively conciliatory, a man who though never a Nazi had served like millions of other Germans in Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Schmidt continued with the ‘convergence’ policy towards the East, but his most obvious achievements were those of the ‘hard man’ who handled the mid-1970s economic recession and the growth of leftist urban terrorism. A new era of pragmatism had arrived.

Few in either East or West thought that the GDR was doomed. To consider a case such as the Guillaume affair, which brought down a great political leader, was to feel regret and anxiety. It was, at the same time, hard to avoid a certain respect for an organisation like the Stasi that could achieve such a thing, and regard for the state that stood behind that organisation. And there was the Wall, stronger and more impregnable by the year. Above all, the GDR seemed to be enjoying a considerable amount of prosperity, not just compared with other Eastern countries, but also even when measured against much of the West.

If we were to believe the figures coming out of East Berlin, the GDR’s own ‘economic miracle’ was almost comparable with West Germany’s. Towards the end of the 1970s, it was even claimed (the figures were published by the World Bank) that the GDR had a higher standard of living, expressed as per-capita income in dollars, than Great Britain. This contradicted all other evidence, especially empirical observation, but was widely cited by the East and by friends of the Soviet system as a key indication that the GDR was turning into a rampant economic success story.14

In fact, the relatively sunny exterior of Honecker’s East Germany belied permanent structural problems. Once the tourist got away from the showcase streets of East Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig or Halle, he or she would find decaying, shabby buildings (often beautiful old structures that in the West would have had materials and attention lavished upon them as a matter of course). By the same token, a combination of statistical sleight of hand, startlingly unconventional economic improvisation, and frankly brutal exploitation of human misery held sway behind the GDR’s façade.

During the previous few years, like other Communist countries such as Poland and Hungary, East Germany had embarked on a policy of importing technology from the West in the hope of raising productivity.

To do this, the government in East Berlin had accepted Western credits, assuming it would be able to repay them from the economic improvements these imports would bring. But from 1973, when the first oil crisis hit, the GDR had serious energy and raw-materials problems. Cheap raw materials and oil from Russia made up for the truncated state’s lack of natural resources, and favourable price agreements compensated for the lack of real productivity increases in the GDR’s industry. In the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union raised its prices for vital supplies of fuel and raw materials. In 1979-80 came the second ‘oil shock’, and the Soviet Union reduced its oil deliveries to the GDR. The country slid into a situation of massive indebtedness to both the USSR and the West.15

The GDR was in a state of crisis that continued for the rest of its existence. For Honecker, it had become an article of faith that the people must be kept happy with consumer goods and social benefits, or the regime would risk another 1953. There was a social-security and welfare system to pay for-the cradle-to-grave safety net that helped compensate East Germans for their lack of freedom to travel, express themselves fully, or enrich themselves. And an army and a security apparatus-after the USSR, the GDR had proportionately the second-highest military budget in the entire East Bloc (5.8 per cent of GDP), twice or even three times those of its allies.16 The NVA, the Stasi at home and abroad, the cost of maintaining, extending, and manning the Wall, not just in Berlin but also along the entire length of the East/West German border, all these calls on the East German state finances were sky-high and, as the balance of payments situation deteriorated, crippling.

The state responded in a way unusual in a modern industrial country. It basically set up a completely alternative, secret economy that it didn’t have to account for. The organisation that controlled this, a shadowy branch of the administration, highly secret and closely tied in with the Stasi, was known by the curious title of ‘Commercial Co-ordination’ (KoKo). Founded in 1966, KoKo was charged with earning hard currency outside the normal, planned economic system.

The advantage, as the GDR accumulated foreign debts, was that KoKo, this secret store of foreign currency, wasn’t liable for payment of interest on foreign loans and could be used to plug gaps in the state’s finances. Always allowed great independence, it was totally detached from the Foreign-Trade Ministry by a Politburo resolution in 1972, and thereafter its full activities (and the amount of hard-currency funds it controlled) were declared no longer subject to the usual banking supervision. The full extent of KoKo’s machinations was known only to a handful of figures in the leadership, especially Honecker.

Through KoKo, the élite at Wandlitz were supplied with Western goods and personal luxuries unavailable to the vast majority of East Germans. Once Honecker himself became leader in the early 1970s, he gained personal control of a hard-currency bank account, the so-called ‘General Secretary’s account’, number 0628 at the Deutsche Handelsbank in East Berlin. By order, this had always to contain a minimum of a hundred million marks. Honecker used it for whatever purposes he saw fit. He might decide to donate forty million marks’ worth of grain to Nicaragua, or make a grant of eighty million to Poland during the political difficulties there. He might, as he did one year, personally write a cheque for two million marks for the importation of apples in order to counteract a fruit shortage in the GDR.17 The image of the General Secretary as absolutist ruler, dealing out largess at his gracious whim, grew year by year; back to the eighteenth century again.

KoKo in its most refined form was the creation of Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski. Born in Berlin in 1932 to stateless Russian immigrants, he was adopted at the age of eight by a German couple named Schalck, leading to his hyphenated name. He began work in a state-owned export company before rapidly switching to the GDR Ministry of Foreign Trade and Inner-German Relations. Clever, charming and politically reliable, with the face of a jolly medieval bishop and the mind of a highly efficient calculating machine, he scaled the ladder with extraordinary speed.

Schalck-Golodkowski rose to the key position of First Secretary of the SED party organisation in the Ministry of Foreign Trade, link man between the party and the export-orientated technocrats. In 1966, still not yet thirty-five years old, he was put in charge of KoKo, which even then was envisaged as a covert channel through which the state’s financial solvency could be assured. In 1967, tellingly, he was given the rank of Stasi colonel and the title of ‘Officer in Special Mission’ (i.e. secret agent). To the outside world, he became Deputy Minister for Foreign Trade and later State Secretary in the Foreign-Trade Ministry.

By the mid-1970s, Schalck-Golodkowski was in charge of a personal empire unlike any other, East or West. He was certainly more powerful than the minister who was technically his superior, and operating on an equal level with Politburo members.

KoKo built up a labyrinthine network of more than 220 mailbox and front companies and more than a thousand bank accounts in East and West. It sold arms to the Third World-most successfully trading with both Iran and Iraq during the war that begin in 1980-and through front companies secretly imported high-tech goods from the West that had been placed on the banned list by NATO. In some cases these illicit imports were put directly into service, in others the prototypes were simply copied in East German factories and manufactured in the required quantities. This particularly applied to sophisticated electronic equipment coveted by the Stasi.

KoKo also exported large quantities of valuable antiques and artworks to the West, where they were sold for hard currency. In many cases these treasures were confiscated from their owners, who had previously been presented with huge and mostly fictitious tax bills. In some cases, owners were imprisoned until they agreed to cede their possessions to the state.

A final, blatantly criminal source of foreign currency, whose proceeds were ultimately disposed of by KoKo, came from the GDR’s sale of its political prisoners to the West. Political prisoners as ‘export items’.

The trade in prisoners began in 1964, when Axel Springer cut a deal by which church and other oppositional figures were freed after payment of substantial sums of hard currency. This group included Klaus Schulz-Ladegast’s father, though not Klaus himself. At least 200,000 East Germans were convicted of political crimes of some kind in the forty years of the GDR’s existence. About 34,000 of those prisoners were released, usually to the West, on payment by the West German government. In the 1960s, the price per head was around DM 40,000, while by the 1980s the West Germans were paying almost DM 100,000 for each human being set free.

Prior to the ‘sale’, prisoners were transferred to a holding prison at Chemnitz (then Karl-Marx-Stadt). A West German bus contractor supplied specially modified buses, which were fitted with revolving number plates-East German ones for the trip from the border to the prison and back, and West German ones from the time they crossed into the West.

The official proceeds of prisoner-trading amounted to at least DM 3.4 billion; Schalck-Golodkowski more recently put the figure at around DM 8 billion.18 There were cases when an individual lodged a (perfectly legal) visa application and was promptly arrested on a political charge, after which they could be ‘sold on’ to the West Germans. If they really wanted to leave, the East German authorities’ reasoning went, the state might as well earn something from it.19

Add to this the agreements between East and West Germany on maintenance of the transit highways between Berlin and West Germany, blatantly exploitative visa and currency-exchange agreements, lucrative deals involving disposal of ‘special waste’ from West Germany in the East, and the manipulation of Western grants for the rebuilding and repair of Catholic and Protestant churches in East Germany, and the sums routinely transferred from West to East were enormous. They were thought to total between one and two billion per year in rock-solid West marks.

Honecker’s regime always drove a hard bargain. And the West always paid up. No one believed that reunification was possible, but at least the Easterners’ sufferings could be alleviated. For the quarter-century that followed the building of the Wall, this was the chief priority for the Easterners’ richer, guilty Western cousins.

The final triumph—if that is what it was—of this ruthlessly hardnosed begging-bowl diplomacy on the part of the East German regime came with the big West German credit agreement of the 1980s.

The spike in the oil price around 1980/1 caused a crisis, but soon found East Germany’s economic bureaucrats playing a clever game, importing oil and gas products from the USSR at favoured-nation Eastern prices, then re-exporting these to the West, where they could be sold for much higher prices, with the GDR pocketing the difference in hard currency. To make this system work, expensive, ultra-sophisticated refining equipment had to be purchased from the West and Japan, but it was worth it. The sale of these mineral oil products made up about a third of the entire export earnings of the GDR in the early 1980s.

The problem was that these products had to be removed from the domestic market. Soon, with a shortage of oil-derived asphalt, East German roads began falling into disrepair. With East Germany unable to afford Polish black coal to replace oil, the country fell back on its own supplies of brown coal, also called lignite. The mining and burning of this dirty and inefficient fuel increased dramatically during the 1980s, as did the accompanying pollution. And, as part of a general export and foreign-currency drive, goods that normally supplied the domestic market were sold abroad, from eggs and butter to furniture and bicycles. In 1982, imports fell 30 per cent and exports rose by just over 9 per cent.

Honecker’s bargain with his people, guaranteeing their standard of living in exchange for their compliance, was on the brink of collapse. Then the price of oil began to fall, which it would continue to do throughout the 1980s. Western lenders, who had seen East Germany as a reliable client, began to draw back from further lending.

The East German government was forced to make a drastic move. With the help of Schalck-Golodkowski and some surprising friends, the GDR enlisted a huge Western credit in order to keep going in the style to which it had become accustomed.

The particularly surprising friend was Franz-Josef Strauss, the bull-like, aggressively conservative Bavarian political boss who had been Defence Minister when the Berlin Wall was built. Strauss, vilified twenty years previously by East German propaganda as an ultra-reactionary warmonger who was trying to get his hands on a nuclear bomb for West Germany, now emerged as middleman. He arranged a deal between a consortium of West German banks and the East German government—or rather, a small group within the GDR leadership consisting of Honecker, chief planner Günter Mittag, and the ubiquitous Schalck-Golodkowski.

The GDR gained credit facilities on favourable terms, amounting to a billion in 1982 and almost as much in 1983. The East German government did not draw on the money, but used the fact of the credit’s existence to restore faith in its own solvency. In return it had, for once, to pay a political price. In 1984, 35,000 East Germans were allowed to emigrate to the West.

Money talked. That had become a given in relations between Bonn and East Berlin. But the East-West situation was subjected to some seismic shifts in the 1970s and early 1980s, and it was not clear where they were leading. One moment there was a relaxation of tension, an intergovernmental visit or a credits deal, the next moment the great powers were stationing missiles aggressively close to each others’ borders.

Out of this confusing scenario emerged, gradually, an endgame to the Cold War. The Western triumphalists claim it was the West’s superior economic and military power that proved decisive. Others point to the inch-by-inch liberalisation that was quietly forced on the East by world opinion and changes in the desires and hopes of ordinary people in the Communist countries.

In other words, some point to the triumph of the Hawks, the others to the triumph of Helsinki.

Perhaps it was both.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!