Inflexion Points

German Reunification: Sudden, Searing and Sublime

Lenin Statue tipped over_DPA
Toppled over by history.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The novelist Uwe Tellkamp, a native of East Germany who was detained by the Stasi in the runup to German reunification, recounts his memories of this turning point in German history.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Uwe Tellkamp, who grew up in the former East Germany, was denied the right to attend medical school because authorities deemed him to be politically unreliable.
    • After German reunification, Mr. Tellkamp finished medical school and worked as a trauma surgeon before devoting himself to his writing.
    • Mr. Tellkamp is author of several novels, including “The Tower,” for which he was awarded the German Book Prize.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

East Germany is history, but now historians are arguing over when exactly the turning point — in German it’s called “the Wende” — of German reunification took place. Uwe Tellkamp pins it to individuals – to the lives of his friend Christian, the projectionist Fabian and seamstress Muriel.

When I think of the “Wende” period, which continues to this day, I think of Christian, a medical student in Leipzig, who was probably my best friend. In December of 1989, on his way from Transylvania to Bucharest, he was dragged into the bloody Romanian revolution, swept up by a wedding party and, in the following night, as shots were fired and the university library was burning, saw a poster of Bud Spencer as Aladdin in a movie theater filled with singing and dancing refugees.

I think of Fabian, who worked as a projectionist at the Babylon Cinema in Berlin and was a passionate fan of Westerns. No one can appreciate what it means to a boy to see the face of Lee van Cleef, perhaps not even the boy himself.

I think of other people, as well: his sister Muriel, an inmate at a juvenile detention center who worked as a seamstress at the Lukas Studio in my childhood neighborhood and later at the Laterna Magika theater in Prague. Also Steffen, nicknamed Pancake, a blacksmith and artist with the state circus; and Judith, a writer who became one of the spokeswomen of the citizens’ movement and a radical opponent of the Ministry of State Security, known as the Stasi. There’s also Anne, Christian’s mother, who was separated from her husband Richard, moved to Berlin, went into politics and, as a member of the East German parliament and cabinet minister, helped shape a new era.

I think of Fabian who worked as a projectionist at the Babylon Cinema in Berlin and was a passionate fan of Westerns. No one can appreciate what it means to a boy to see the face of Lee van Cleef.

When did this new era begin? Was it in the fateful summer of 1989 when an infestation of ladybugs descended on the Baltic Sea beaches and the country was in agony, and when thousands of people fled through Budapest, Prague and Warsaw? Was it with the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, an East German folk singer, in 1976, or was it when Mikhail Gorbachev came into office and proclaimed his policies of glasnost and perestroika? Did it begin with individual actions, such as the self-immolation of Oskar Brüsewitz in 1976, which left a deep impression on the country? Was it at St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, during the largest of the so-called Monday demonstrations, on October 9, 1989? Was it the formation of the Group of 20 in Dresden on October 8, preceded by the so-called Prague “freedom trains,” or the police beatings at Dresden’s main train station? Or the demonstration in Plauen on October 7?

Historians and the cities that served as the backdrop for acts of heroism are still at odds over when it all began.

On the night of November 9, Anne and Judith were standing at the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing, watching the crowds surge into West Berlin. Judith was skeptical and disappointed, while Anne was filled with euphoria. She was dancing with an elegant man, who would remember her and be reunited with her later on, a West German from the industrial Ruhr region who worked on the chancellor’s economic team and later with the Treuhand, the agency that privatized former East German state-owned enterprises. Christian and his friends took one of the jam-packed trains to Berlin, were given welcome gifts in the form of cash, and strolled along the Kurfürstendamm to the KaDeWe department store to revel in fruit and chocolate and coffee beans and maps. Somewhere along the way, they realized that they were so-called “Ossis,” or “Easties,” and that perhaps they would never be anything else.

Historians and the cities that served as the backdrop for acts of heroism are still at odds over when it all began.

Christian lived on Nürnberger Strasse in Leipzig in a room containing four beds in a dormitory, with the plastic crumbling from the walls, communal showers and dried bits of spaghetti stuck to the walls of the communal kitchen – flung there by cooks to test for doneness. The so-called Balkans hallway was filled with strings of peppers hanging out to dry and pictures of Tito. Christian had a room off the Africa hallway.

One night, he played a Bach cello suite for the cadavers in the anatomy preparation room. The high-rise building known as the Uniriese, or university giant, now the home of public broadcaster MDR, cast its shadow into the Leipzig air, polluted with the smoke of coal fires. Brawls and discussions over the course of the new era took place in the seminar building with a giant bronze bust of Karl Marx outside.

A revolutionary student council was established. Kurt Biedenkopf, a western economist who would later become the state premier in Saxony, gave lectures on the market economy and law. He bought books by the cartload at the Franz Mehring bookstore on Goethestrasse, to find out what people read in the east. One of the books was titled “We Cook Well,” published by a company specializing in books for women.

New ideas, images and impressions flooded in.

“Where are you going?” Larry (Mario Adorf) asks Billy (Giuliano Gemma) in the classic spaghetti Western “Amigos.” “I don’t know!” Billy shouts. “I want to go there, too!” Larry responds. The majority of people in East Germany knew perfectly well where they wanted to go: to the West. But where did the West want to go?

He had listened to Hennis, a colleague with a nationwide reputation, speak on the subject in Freiburg in southwest Germany. Their objective now was to tear an old system out of a state, like a network of nerve cells, and insert a new one in its place. But the state also needed new blood vessels and a new liver. He talked about the drinking habits of some of the Soviet politicians he had encountered. Anne fascinated him.

She was one of those strong, free East German women who had taken her life into her own hands, gone into politics and fought for her ideas and ideals. “Strong women who also happen to be loved,” Anne would joke. He couldn’t forget their dance together on the night the Berlin Wall came down. She had felt a strong attraction to him, perhaps in part because of the way intense conflict binds people together.

Judith dreamed of a true socialism, of a humane society that the liberated East Germans could now build. But the majority of people felt differently. The civil rights activists, the pioneers of the revolution, were flushed to the sidelines on March 18, 1990, the day of the East German general election. Judith was disappointed by her people, who had thrown themselves at the chancellor and the deutschmark, choosing bananas over ideals. It wasn’t a question of bananas, the people said, but of sausage.

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Uwe Tellkamp was born in Dresden in former East Germany in 1968. After military service in the East German National People’s Army, his application to medical school was denied for reasons of “political unreliability.” He was detained for two weeks in 1989. After German reunification, he completed his medical studies in Leipzig, New York and Dresden, and worked as a trauma surgeon in Dresden.

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Fabian walked through Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. He was wearing the kind of hat Franco Nero wore in the 1966 film “Django,” carrying a Smith & Wesson from the props department at the Babelsberg film studio, and the kind of duster worn by the larger-than-life gunmen in the films of Italian director Sergio Leone.

The duster was moth-eaten, and instead of a wanted poster Fabian was carrying a thermos and a lunch box in his pockets. He had tamed his long, black curls with a hair clip borrowed from his first love, so that they wouldn’t get caught in the moving parts of the projection machinery. There had been a fire at the Babylon movie theater in January. Perhaps old Sulke, who loved samurais and potted tillandsias, had held a match to his nitrate film collection, an act of despair over the new era, which would no longer be devoted to silence and a slow pace of life. Or perhaps he did it because the Philips organ was broken, or just because he felt that a fire was necessary once in a while.

There was an independent radio station on a street that began with the letter F, in Gagarin’s black-and-red apartment. Robert Hoffmann, Christian’s brother, who first shared a room with Anne in a former dormitory for single Stasi employees on Ruschestrasse, and then lived in an apartment in Fabian’s neighborhood, where the floorboards were rotten, the windows were broken, the toilet was halfway down the stairs (a hand grenade found in the labyrinths beneath Berlin was hanging from a string on the ceiling) and garbage was piled up in layers.

The station, dubbed the Meo Frequency after a tribe of indomitable dwellers of a mountainous jungle region in Laos, played music by Feeling B, Herbst in Peking, Sandow, Silly, Rosa Extra and Die Firma. It was the M94.5 educational radio station and the FM4 for East Berlin.

Christian moved in with a furrier on the Brühl. The furrier liked to dance, explained tobacco products to Christian and, even though he was over 80, was still partial to women (“They suck the life out of me, but I’m still smiling!”). One night, when he opened the attic room, he found unpacked suitcases made by the Mädler company in Leipzig, “the suitcases of those who didn’t escape the Gestapo.”

Then there was Hotel Astoria in Leipzig. The members of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party were polite and accommodating, according to Christian’s classmate Babsi, who earned good money at the Astoria. The conquistadors, who had descended on Leipzig and were staying at the exclusive, so-called protocol hotel, a place hardly any ordinary East German had seen from the inside before 1989, ordered their breakfast from Babsi. She unlocked a room filled with furs for Christian and his girlfriend Reina (it was the week of the famous Leipzig fur auctions), who loved furs almost as much as she loved Christian. She took along one of the ruined sables, a piece worth a thousand deutschmarks.

Anne campaigned for civil rights activists and renovated the apartment. She worked at a citizens’ assistance office, handling basketfuls of mail and the concerns of walk-in visitors. She and Judith investigated Stasi camps, and they established a newspaper. She reconnected with the elegant man, who was now living in East Berlin, where he worked for a Christian conservative group called the Alliance.

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Mr. Tellkamp’s first novel, “The Pike, the Dreams and the Portuguese Café,” was published in 2000. Four years later, he abandoned the medical profession to pursue his career as a writer. His second novel, “The Kingfisher,” appeared a year later. The Suhrkamp publishing house published his novel about the events leading up to reunification, “The Tower,” in the fall of 2008. The work spans November 1982 to November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell. Mr. Tellkamp received the German Book Prize for “The Tower,” a bestseller that was made into a film by ARD television network. He is married with two children and lives with his family in Dresden.

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He and Anne argued a lot. His opinions weren’t all quickly formed or unfounded. He shed his clichés about East Germany and the Ossies as soon as he became better acquainted with both. He had seen the world and experienced different lifestyles. He was interested in systems: administrations and how they were organized, political orders, the history of economics and ideas.

The new People’s Parliament moved into the Palace of the Republic. It consisted of pastors, laborers, engineers, lawyers, farmers, housewives, teachers, students, doctors and white-collar workers, a cross-section of the population. In this new atmosphere of grassroots democracy, things like rules of procedure and parliamentary group leadership soon made sense.

The members of the first freely elected People’s Parliament got up at five or six in the morning and didn’t get to bed until well after midnight. Anne, a trained nurse, became a cabinet minister after receiving a call from the prime minister, who gave her half an hour to think about his offer.

The prime minister seemed thin and intellectual standing next to the chancellor, but Bonn didn’t underestimate him for long. He would occasionally pull out his viola and play for the parliament, prompting his listeners to think he had lost his mind. His ministers had no offices at first, and they weren’t the only ones. They knew nothing about political practices in the West, about the pitfalls of administration and the need to ensure that political decisions were legally airtight. But they did have capable and resourceful employees from both the east and the west, people who had learned how to improvise. There were hardly any computers, and when there were, hardly anyone knew how to use them. Telephone lines were a disaster or simply nonexistent.

Muriel was in Prague. She had fled there, to the West German Embassy in the Lobkowitz Palace, with Fabian and Alexandra, the daughter of an SED district official, in the summer of 1989. Shortly before the embassy was opened to East German refugees on September 30, she had discovered one of her guards from the Torgau closed youth detention facility there. He could no longer endure the conditions at the crowded embassy and, responding to an offer by a lawyer, left the embassy with her brother Fabian. But then she returned to Prague.

Anne, a trained nurse, became a cabinet minister after receiving a call from the prime minister, who gave her half an hour to think about his offer.

The Prague civil rights activists had established their headquarters at the Laterna Magika, a famous avant-garde theater in the city. Muriel served as a liaison to the West German embassy, did tailoring work for the theater, and lived with friends on a street called Wassergasse in the Smichow neighborhood, near the Staropramen brewery.

People used to say that a white whale was living in Staropramen beer – along with mermen that would swim through the Vltava River at night to reach the Rudolfinum, so that they could encounter Smetana’s ghosts. It was before the Americans descended on Prague to turn it into a second Montmartre, and before VW executives who were reading Carl von Clausewitz’s “On War” launched joint ventures with Czech carmaker Skoda. Lenka Reinerová, the doyenne of German-language literature in Prague, was still alive. In the evenings, Muriel listened to the heated discussions among the philosophers surrounding Václav Havel and Jioi Dienstbier, philosophers who had worked as forklift operators or, like the poet Bohumil Hrabel, in a scrap paper plant.

She wanted to go to the circus. Christian had told her about Pancake. She went to see him in the late spring of 1990, when the state circus was beginning a tour of the disintegrating Soviet Union, a circus where he would remain, somewhere in Russia where a circus tent and a trailer still meant something but had become worthless.

The Treuhand agency began its work. The former aviation ministry on Leipziger Strasse became a state within the state. For many East Germans it was the epitome of evil. The world’s largest holding company came into being, and it gave its protagonists carte blanche and the assurance that they could not be held liable for their actions. No one knew how to transform a planned economy into a market economy. Soldiers of fortune arrived, like the conquistadors who invaded the Aztec kingdom in the year “One Reed.” They bought businesses for a song, sold the companies’ real estate for a lot of money and couldn’t have cared less about the employees and their life’s work. But the Treuhand also worked with honorable businesspeople and entrepreneurs.

It had three problems: industrial contamination, world market developments and pride. Socialism had been a repair workshop, but who needed its repair geniuses anymore? Workbenches were needed, especially of the extended kind. Many a rotten company from the West managed to clean up its books with federal loan guarantees. The rotten businesses of the East disappeared. Often those that weren’t rotten disappeared, too. The West also had interests.

Reputable business owners put their shoulders to the wheel for things and ideas that were near and dear to them. They used their assets as security, and they were not evil capitalists, which was not always understood in the East. But the idealism of the West often wasn’t understood, either. Attorneys gave free seminars for their East German colleagues. Retired judges went to Leipzig and Dresden to help build a judicial system. Not everyone was compensated.

Converted party secretaries who still believed in their primitive form of Marxism were often the ones to practice the most ruthless predatory capitalism. Christian said: “Dear fellow East Germans, have you already forgotten the gifts? Money, property, expertise… We should be thankful for the fact that everything was done without violence.”

“Of course,” said Fabian, “most Wessis (the term East Germans used in reference to West Germans) are nice, but they also own the buildings.”

The golden gang working for Kurt Biedenkopf, the new governor of Saxony, initially slept in the sauna of the Hilton Hotel in Dresden. Many a Wessi was defrauded, and too little attention was paid to Stasi and SED assets. If the members of these two organizations had been so devoted to the people as they had always claimed, they should have been allowed to distribute the assets they had extracted from the people to those same people again. There is little talk of this solidarity contribution. People in all parts of Germany pay the other one.

In the summer of 1991, Christian and Muriel, Pancake and few leftover circus cars traveled through Germany on sidetracks. The new currency was a year old. Many East Germans had now experienced Paris – and unemployment – for the first time. Christian sat on the roof of a railcar and smelled the scent of hay, watched the clouds roll by and felt freer than he had ever felt in his life. He saw the Rhine River, the Elbe in Hamburg, and the port he had dreamed about since childhood. He had always loved ships and sails. He decided to become a ship’s doctor.

On September 11, 2001, he stood at the main train station in Munich and watched on a giant screen as jetliners crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. He was surrounded by silent people, paralyzed with horror. It was his wife’s birthday, and they had just returned from an outing. She was holding flowers in her hand. Together with their black cat, they lived in a 24-square-meter apartment in the Pettenkoferstraße dormitory, near the university hospital.

Many a Wessi was defrauded, and too little attention was paid to Stasi and SED assets.

On a June day in 2014, the anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo, Fabian, a projectionist, attorney and chronicler of history, walked along the route he called the path of the century. It led from the finance ministry on Leipziger Straße, formerly the Treuhand building and aviation ministry, along Voßstrasse, with the remains of the Reich Chancellery, past Wilhelmstraße, a focal point of German history, and crossed Unter den Linden, with the Brandenburg Gate visible a few blocks away. Fabian walked along Luisenstrasse and through the Charité Hospital, in the direction of the main train station. He remembered the time when Prenzlauer Berg became Europe’s biggest urban redevelopment zone, the days of squatting, techno acts and, finally, the gentrification of a neighborhood that had once been a blue-collar and bohemian quarter.

He thought about Judith, a female Robespierre who had relentlessly pursued her enemies. Wherever she looked, she had seen nothing but conspiracies and the long arm of the Stasi. Time had passed and Judith had gone to Sarajevo, where she was now working for an aid organization.

It was early in the morning. Berlin woke up differently than his native Dresden, which always seemed to stretch as it awoke from a restful sleep. Berlin, on the other hand, awoke from a flat daze that had come to an end before sunrise. Traffic picked up, and the air became filled with the sound of honking horns, slamming doors, sirens and curses. Biting remarks were brandished like weapons and tossed into other people’s faces. Berlin was a big, scruffy cat, jumping out of hiding to pounce on its prey.

Fabian looked at empty lots and tried to remember where the wall had been and where it had divided the city. Could any of the schoolchildren walking toward the Chancellery and tapping away on their smartphones imagine what had been there before? Berlin. It was an anxious, neo-Babylonian city that needed its coffee and had set out into the harsh light of the future long ago.

At the same time, Christian was somewhere between Algeciras and Cape Town, aboard the three-masted topgallant sail schooner of a Hamburg architect friend. Jammed between masts high above the waves of the Atlantic, he was thinking about the simple things in life, the important things, when he received a text from his mother Anne.

“Dear Christian! I, a girl from Bad Schandau near Dresden, am swimming in the pool of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, gazing out over the railing at bustling Singapore, 200 meters below. There are times when I can’t believe what happened to us. That we’ve made it. That it was even possible. What a crazy and magnificent life we have! PS: Thanks for the ‘Amigos’ DVD. We watched it yesterday. Morricone’s music is truly brilliant ;-).”

 

 

Uwe Tellkamp is the author of “Der Turm” (The Tower), a novel about German reunification. For Handelsblatt, he recounts his personal memories of the events that happened 25 years ago.

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