Tales of spies and lies in a former Stasi suburb
Lichtenberg isn’t any old neighborhood. For years it was the nerve center of the Stasi, and on Ruschestrasse stands the former HQ of East Germany’s secret police, now the Stasi Museum.
Hello Berlin, still building over the scars of the past when the city was divided between the capitalist West and communist East Germany (GDR). Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the watchful eye of the state might not be missed, but for the tourists – and some East Germans – nostalgia for the former way of life remains.
I am driving an East German Trabant car around the heart of Berlin, past Museum Island on the River Spree, and onwards past the sparkling dome of the Reichstag parliament building and the equally shimmering façade of Hauptbahnhof station. A few decades ago, this would have been a little tricky. A wall would have got in the way.
There was a time you could not talk about Berlin without mentioning the Wall, hastily built by the GDR in 1961 and dividing the city for almost three decades. Since then, Berlin has come into its own, so charged by creative energy it could power itself. Cafés on every corner, former East Berlin neighborhoods such as Friedrichshain finding a new lease of life, architecture to make your heart pound and, on any given night, clubs heaving with Berlin’s party people. It feels free, open and buzzy.
This is the Berlin I see as I chug along in my army-edition, khaki green and open-top “Trabi”. Many people hoot in delight on seeing this relic on the road and others wave from the sidewalk while truck drivers at traffic lights look down and smile. It is not the quietest of cars, rumbling away on its two-stroke engine and, with its boxy, plastic design, not the slickest. Judging by the oily fumes and smell, it is not the greenest either. But the Trabi was once the most sought- after car for East German citizens and remains an endearing icon of the former GDR, part of the so-called Ostalgie or nostalgia for the Ost (East), which has also woven its way into tourism. So much so that a couple of blocks from Checkpoint Charlie, which marks the most famous East-West Berlin Wall crossing point, Trabi Safaris have 130-odd refurbished Trabant sedan cars to rent.
I am following Nicolas Aimar, a charismatic Frenchman who has lived in Berlin since the Wall came down. From his Trabi up ahead, his expert commentary on the city’s history is piped through to me on the radio – the pinnacle of the onboard gadgetry. The GDR may be dead and buried but certainly this part of its history is alive and well. Whenever I park up, people ask if they can photograph it. I feel I am driving the world’s one and only car.
There are not that many spots where you can actually see the Wall – mostly, double rows of cobblestones indicate where it once stood. The longest section is along the East Side Gallery at 1.3 kilometers, its panels covered in comical, political artwork. The most poignant spot by far is the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse, the only section of original Wall with the “death- strip” intact. I climb the viewing tower for a better look at just how crudely Bernauer Strasse was completely split by the Wall. Residents awoke in a new East Berlin unable to go to work in the West, while others were separated from family and friends. Some jumped from apartments in crazed attempts to cross the border and, over the years, about 100 to 200 people would die trying to escape. That the section was called the “Death Strip” is no exaggeration.
Unbelievably, I am a little flustered
As my tour heads back to base, I am stopped by an “East German police officer”. I know it is illogical to feel scared, given the GDR collapsed when the Wall did, but although I recognize a set-up (doesn’t the officer look like a man I saw in the Trabi Safaris office?) I am no less attentive. He asks me to step out of the car and present my documents. Unbelievably, I am a little flustered. Then I recall Nico giving me a “driving license” and “visa” during my briefing. “Keep them safe,” he said before I laughed and carelessly tossed them into the car.
I do find them but then my less-than-fluent German suggests I have been drinking and I have to prove my sobriety by walking in a straight line. It is a moment of lightness, but the implications are not lost. In darker times, a stop like that could end with the driver being bundled into the back of a seemingly innocent fruit-and-veg van and taken off for questioning if an informer had their way.
It is astonishing to think how recent this part of Berlin history is. The wall stood from August 1961 until November 1989 when ossis (citizens of the East) met the wessis (West) in a joyous reunion. Images of a crowded Brandenburg Gate flashed on TV screens across the world as the hated wall was chiseled away by revelers.
Historian Konrad Koerner was nine when the wall went up. “It was so random,” he says. “Suddenly, you could not visit your neighbor. They even split the metro lines. The U8 actually ended up as three lines, going through East Berlin, then West Berlin and East again. Trains from the West would pass through East German stations without stopping, so-called “ghost stations”. Some stations even had new names under Communism. The U-bahn stop Eberswalder Strasse became Dimitroff Strasse, after a Bulgarian Communist leader.”
A hotel is fitted out in Communist-era furnishings
Berlin is now one city and Germany one country but a sense of Ostalgie has formed among ex-GDR residents and extended to tourists, whether they want to trundle around Berlin in a Trabi, feast on GDR cuisine in themed restaurants or even book a bed at Ostel. This hotel is fitted out in Communist-era furnishings, with GDR-style decor and bunks, in an East German Plattenbau (prefab concrete) block of flats.
Cynics might say the romanticizing of the past is purely to make money from tourists but, for ex-GDR citizens, some of whom lived the full 41 years of the GDR from 1949 onwards, nostalgia feels normal. Lara Kappel is a writer in her 50s. “I was never comfortable under the old regime,” she says. “But I also was not a vocal critic. Many of my friends felt nostalgic soon after the Wall came down, whereas I always felt freer after reunification. But now I do understand them. With the world the way it is, that safety, security and simplicity where everyone seemed to have a job and a flat, can seem quite appealing.”
Security did come at a price. Under the rule of Walter Ulbricht and then Erich Honecker and the GDR’s ever-efficient, often brutal, always- present state security service, the Stasi, they kept strict watch on its citizens, keeping the country in a state of constant paranoia. But defenders of Ostalgie say it is not about denying, forgetting or minimizing the dark aspects. “It’s about remembering the good times we did have,” says Lara. “Laughing at dubious fashions and retro furnishings, favorite foodstuffs. I may have despised the leadership but I made friends in those years, got married, had children. There were happy moments.”
Once the wall went up, the GDR was intent on showing the world – and its own citizens – that it had kudos. The Fernsehturm TV tower on Alexanderplatz, which still dominates the Berlin skyline, is the highest structure in Germany (taller even than the Eiffel Tower) and built in 1969 as a symbol of GDR power and status. It is no longer serving that purpose but the views from the top are probably the best of Berlin. I can see the River Spree winding its way through the city, Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome and the Tiergarten, Berlin’s vast, green city park.
There were three colors in the GDR: light grey, dark grey and grey
“This square was pretty much the capital of East Germany,” says Konrad. “The GDR also built what is now the Park Inn by Radisson, Berlin’s tallest building. It opened in 1970 as the luxury Hotel Stadt Berlin, mainly for representatives of Comecon, an Eastern Bloc economic organization. Now you can go Base-jumping with a 125-meter drop.”
Alexanderplatz is packed with people and lined with cafés. There is a revamped department store, chain restaurants and the new Alexa shopping mall with 200 shops and 20 restaurants. Commerce and capitalism have made their mark with barely a whiff of its Communist past. Just behind the square, however, the GDR’s Plattenbau apartment blocks remain in great numbers. Individually, they look perfectly decent, but their sheer number and density is something else. At least, they are colorful now. Splashes of pastel colors, even reds and yellows, run down one column of slabs, brightening the blocks, streets and neighborhoods. “The flats are an improvement,” Konrad says. “There were three colors in the GDR. Light grey, dark grey and grey.”
While the GDR had a reputation for cultivating a monotonous, one-view existence, that is not how everyone remembers it. Adrian introduces me to his girlfriend, 42-year-old café owner Ulrike Kubitza, and his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dominique Turner. Both women grew up in the GDR and Ulrike was 19 when the wall came down. She remembers her childhood in the Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg as an uncomplicated one. “There did not seem to be any worry or anxiety about jobs or money but, as a child, things feel simple,” she says.
“It’s funny, though. I remember after the wall came down, I was on a train and, as we passed through old East Berlin, people in my carriage were looking at the Plattenbau and saying ‘Look at this, how depressing’. But I never felt that living there.”
There was no other outcome to be had
Prenzlauer Berg is now one of Berlin’s most sought-after areas and particularly popular with young professionals and families. I see mothers café-hopping with buggies in tow and workers enjoying a post-office beer in the sunshine. “My parents still live in the same apartment they’ve had for 30 years,” says Ulrike. “But the area quickly became gentrified and it’s more transient. They do miss the community aspect of the old life; it was hard to adjust. But we all know there was no other outcome to be had.”
Dominique Turner grew up away from the city in the East German countryside, moving to Berlin when she was older. “I remember as a child our television would pick up West German channels,” she says. “I thought everyone watched them, but I only realized after the Wall came down that not everyone did. We were always told not to talk about what we’d seen or what we’d heard our parents talk about, so we never mentioned it to other kids.
“There was just so little choice for us. I remember paying someone to bring me teen magazines from the West. There was one where you had to collect issues to make a life-size poster of French actress Sophie Marceau. I paid who-knows how many East German marks for that.”
“Even with things like pencils, fountain pens, coffee, in the GDR, there were just one or two types,” says Dominique. “We would pay for better quality products but we would use them secretly at home or in the toilets at school. It was hard to get hold of things, even practical items like auto tires. If you wanted to have a party, you had to start collecting shoes, clothes and food up to a year, before due to shortages. You would stockpile whatever you could. Cement workers would steal supplies so they could trade it for something else, everyone did that.”
Products like Rotstern (Red Star) chocolate are common cravings
What’s interesting are the feelings after the Wall came down. “The collapse of the GDR was absolutely necessary,” says Dominique. “East Berlin perhaps did not have the same shortages, but the rest of East Germany was on its knees after 40 years of being locked in. But I did not feel locked in. It was just how we lived. I didn’t know any different.”
Variety may have been limited, but East German dishes such as solyanka (meat and pickled vegetable soup) and letcho (Hungarian vegetable stew), or products like Rotstern (Red Star) chocolate and Mocca Fix coffee are common cravings, associated with childhood, Christmas or other events. The hit 2003 film Good Bye Lenin! which sensitively pays homage to the collapse of East Germany features a key scene involving this. The sick mother, unaware of the collapse of her beloved Communist republic, requests her favorite Spreewald pickles only for her son to discover, post-GDR, that everything is imported and he can only buy Dutch ones.
Dominique also recalls the first day her family went to the West to spend their “welcome money” – but with a good deal less nostalgia than that. “I had tears in my eyes holding the new money,” she says. “I remember being in the supermarket and my father yelling ‘You bastards!’ over and over again. Seeing the abundance and variety of food, when for years we had just had to make do, just got to him. ‘We worked just as hard, we all lost the war, didn’t we?’ he was saying. My father’s friend just stood and cried. I had never seen a grown man cry before. It was so sad.”
A visit to the former Stasi headquarters in Magdalenenstrasse in the eastern suburb of Friedrichshain helps put this sadness and anger in context. Inside this vast, stark, foreboding GDR complex, which opened as the Stasi Museum in January 2012, is the eerily intact office of Erich Mielke. Described by Anna Funder in her book Stasiland as “the most feared man in the GDR”, he held the post of Minister for State Security and head of the Stasi for more than 30 years.
One informer for every seven people
“There was about one informer for every seven people,” says historian Mika Koertig. “They all answered to Mielke.” Estimates suggest there were around 100,000 official Stasi employees and roughly 200,000 unofficial informants. The Stasi chief had an entire floor to himself, with boardroom, lounge and bedroom, in contrast to the sometimes-cramped apartments allocated to citizens.
It is ever so ghostly in here. Even tape recorders and telephones, still in position on huge paneled desks, look sinister in the context of Stasi activities. A shredder tells a tale of its own: towards the end of the regime, Stasi officials tried to destroy information collected on their own citizens, many of whom were spied on for an entire generation. In January 1990, after the fall of the Wall, people stormed inside to secure the Stasi files. In a separate building, you can now request and view personal data.
“Finding out who betrayed them ended many friendships and even marriages,” says Mika. Some confessed under extreme duress. The 2006 film The Lives Of Others describes the experience of one couple under Stasi surveillance and illustrates just how clinically they worked.
Mixing these darker moments with the lighter memories of Ostalgie is something the DDR Museum on the River Spree tries to do. (DDR is the German abbreviation for GDR). With East Berlin completely cut off from the West, the Communist GDR regime set about creating a very different way of life. I watch an old TV reel running a propaganda video about new housing for all, open cupboards full of delightful Communist-era fashions, and make myself at home in a GDR apartment complete with retro kitchen appliances and East German TV shows on the box.
The absurd practice of communal potty training
There is even a Trabant display where I can pay homage once again. But there is also a Stasi interrogation room, satirical puppet exhibit mocking the one-party electoral system and panels showing how state control extended to the absurd practice of communal potty training. It is the right mix of history and nostalgia and next door, the museum’s restaurant serves up hearty East German stodge to complete the experience.
This history, it seems, is too recent to be forgotten on a day-to-day basis. Katie Griggs, a campaign manager for environmental charity 10:10 Germany, is a 36-year-old Berlin resident. “I’m fascinated that you still see regular reminders of a city once divided,” she says. “Things like cycling over the double line of cobblestones marking where the wall stood or seeing the portly Ampelmann traffic light man (see mini-feature) in the old East Berlin. In the grand scheme of things, 20 years is just yesterday: when people look back in 100 years’ time or so, it will be considered almost part of the same era.”
Berlin is more popular than ever before and seeing record visitor numbers but it may take another generation or two to forge a new post- reunification identity. Finding the right balance in its divided history is a tough discussion and perhaps Ostalgie is a tonic for this transition. While tempting tourists into a Trabi and using kitsch to bring the past to life is harmless enough, a trip to the prison and Stasi HQ soon reminds them of the chilling context.
Lichtenberg isn’t any old neighborhood. For years it was the nerve center of the Stasi, and on Ruschestrasse stands the former HQ of East Germany’s secret police, now the Stasi Museum.
Not everything in old East Germany was grey. Its signature car, the Trabant, came in glacier blue, papyrus white and beaver brown when it launched in 1957. And everybody wanted one.
With chic Prenzlauer Berg to the north and alternative Kreuzberg to the south, the former working-class neighborhood of Friedrichshain combines a bit of both.
With the reunification of Germany, Berlin replaced Bonn as the official capital and, in 1999, the German Bundestag (parliament) moved back into the rebuilt Reichstag, which stands in Mitte, a central neighborhood in Berlin.
Berlin is known for its creativity and innovation. So it should come as no surprise that the hull of a recycled cargo ship doubles up as a cool poolside venue on the River Spree.
It’s an art to mix humor with history – especially when that includes Stasi spies, interrogations and the sinister practice of communal potty training. But this museum knows its craft, portraying an era from every perspective.
It doesn’t matter how many times you visit museums and memorials which commemorate genocide, any genocide. The sense of disbelief at humanity’s ability to destroy and divide is overwhelming.
Once the Berlin wall went up, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was intent on showing the world – and its own citizens – that it had kudos. The Fernsehturm TV tower on Alexanderplatz in Mitte, which still dominates the Berlin skyline, is the highest structure in Germany (taller even than the Eiffel Tower) and built in 1969 as a symbol of GDR power and status.
I am following Nicolas Aimar, a charismatic Frenchman who has lived in Berlin since the Wall came down. From his Trabi (Trabant, East Germany's signature car in GDR days) up ahead, his expert commentary on the city’s history is piped through to me on the radio – the pinnacle of the onboard gadgetry.
Kreuzberg is the kind of place travellers love – a colorful neighborhood full of vintage shops, bargain flea markets and artisan coffee. As this once-impoverished part of Berlin booms, however, its people pay the price of development.
It’s not always tuneful, but Sunday afternoon karaoke is a Mauerpark institution on what was once the ‘death strip’.
Once upon a time, there was a reluctance to speak about the past for many ‘Ossis’, the residents of former East Germany. This makes Anna Funder’s narrative all the more mouthwatering.
I never thought I’d return home from Berlin with a souvenir of a road safety symbol. But that’s the curious charm of Ampelmann, the little green man seen on traffic lights in the old East Germany. The authorities even tried to remove him after the Berlin Wall fell, but he’s here to stay.