Archive for November, 2009|Monthly archive page

In honour of the little people

In GDR, Postcommunism on November 25, 2009 at 12:17 pm

I was recently at a conference in Cambridge devoted to Cold War that preceded the East-West rapprochement that followed 1989. A number of the ‘big players’ were there, from Eisenhower’s grandaughter to White House men who had served under Reagan, and Gorbachev’s former spokesman.

It was an impressive array of Cold War warriors, and enormously educational. But somewhere in the dissection of the whys and wherefores of this almighty clash of ideologies, something was lost. That something was the individual.

Looking back at what I have learned about the GDR, what really stands out for me are the stories of the little people. For example, the old lady in Leipzig who had marvelled at the people at the next restaurant table speaking French.

Or the woman who had a copy of the proscribed Gulag Archipelago for one night only and stayed up till morning to read it, before this ‘contraband’ had to be quickly passed on. Or the reckless 18-year-old who got himself arrested by the Stasi, gambling (correctly, as it happens) that West Germany would buy his release.

And of course the man at Bornholmer Strasse whose father died only months before 9th November 1989. Like my own grandmother, who served as a fire warden in the famously blitzed Coventry in WW2, these people’s names will not be found in any textbooks.

Like threads in the swirl of a pattern, their individual tales are lost in the grand design of the fabric of history. But put your face up to the canvas, look closely, and they’re there. They’re everywhere; the big narratives are but the sum of all their short stories. I salute them all.

city-lit Berlin book launch (London)

In Berlin Wall, Germany, Running on November 25, 2009 at 11:23 am

This Friday will see the launch of city-lit Berlin at London’s Goethe Institute. The anthology is inspired by the atmospheric German capital which has captured so many writers’ imaginations – including mine.

I have been lucky enough to have some of my Berlin blogging included, alongside some pretty heavyweight names in modern literature. The book has been collecting great reviews, and my own modest contributions were singled out for praise in this FT review.

If you’re around – do please come along.


city-lit BERLIN

Book launch
Friday 27 November 2009, 7.30pm – 9pm
Goethe-Institut London, Library (First floor)
Admission free, but please reserve a place by phoning
Tel: +44 20 75964000

A small celebration of momentous events

In Berlin Wall, Germany on November 24, 2009 at 10:15 pm
Domino theory.

The 9th November anniversary celebrations in Berlin were nothing if not a spectacle. Brown, Merkel and Clinton gave speeches at the highly symbolic Brandenburg Gate that had lain in no man’s land during the Wall era. Gorbachev chatted to Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Lech Walesa broadcast live from the Reichstag.

Then 1,000 brightly-coloured ‘dominoes’ – each deliberately reminiscent of a section of the Berlin Wall and each decorated by artists or children – were toppled in a line that ran all the way from Potsdamer Platz to the Brandenburg Gate and almost the Reichstag. Fireworks lit up the sky over the Tiergarten to finish off the official commemoration on this cold and wet night.

Mission accomplished all along Ebertstrasse.

But it was around 11pm that night at Bornholmer Strasse where a low-key sense of history could really be felt. Here, at around this this time of night 20 years ago, the border had given way: countless East Germans had heard the botched announcement about the lifting of travel restrictions and – only half-believing it – came to see if it was true.

As S-bahn trains rumbled underneath us, small groups were scattered along the pavement of the Bosebrucke bridge where tens of thousands of eager ‘Ossis’ had streamed across for a taste of what they had been denied so long. There was a murmur of conversation as paper cups were filled with wine and memories mulled over. Every so often a passing car tooted while candles glowed around the base of a monument commemorating the event, serving tonight as a focal point for another cluster of pensive drinkers.

People massed here on the eastern side, the approach to Bosebrucke.

A man sniffed, eyes moistening, as he explained in German how he had sat in a traffic jam here for hours that night. Only a few months beforehand his father had died, not living long enough to see this marvellous moment in modern German history. At moment that, he said, had actually been more emotional than his father’s death. He shook his head again and again, and said that he came here ever year. It was as if he couldn’t quite believe that it had all really happened.

Elsewhere, four women and a man made a toast. I asked them why they had chosen to be here, and not at the city centre razzmatazz? Two of the women had been 21-year-old Berliners in 1989, making the crossing here that extraordinary evening, and their friends had brought them here to remember it.

They struggled to articulate their feelings: “Er… toll (wonderful),” said one. “Ja, toll…” “Surprising!” offered the other. Growing up with Russian as a second language their English was very limited, so one of their friends from the former-West Germany translated what had happened:

“They were studying in Cottbus, two hours from here. They heard about what was happening here in Berlin – their home town – and said ‘It’s incredible, we have to check out if that is reality?’ They came straight to Berlin, and Bornholmer Strasse was the only place they could think to go. So they came here and it was open! They went to Ku’dam [W. Berlin’s Kurfurstendam] and it was really incredible.”

The five were all friends now; the three who had not lived in the GDR wanted to get a feel for how it must have been to be in the first wave across the bridge: “I said ‘I want to see the way you came to West Berlin 20 years ago. I want to translate that feeling for myself.’”

That feeling was still visible, as I walked across the bridge and back to the subway station, on the face of the man whose father had just missed the Wall’s demise. Even though he had been here at Bornholmer Strasse to enjoy it himself, be needed to stay a little longer to really believe it.

Icons and ironies

In Postcommunism, Wall on November 6, 2009 at 9:31 am
U2 Bburg Gate (640x480)
The Hammer & Sickle flies again in Berlin

The Hammer & Sickle was on prominent display again last night in Berlin, but only as part of U2’s gig under the Brandenburg Gate. “Thanks for building the set,” Bono drily commented in their free pre-MTV European Music Awards show.

Album Achtung Baby was recorded at the time of reunification (1990) at the famous Hansa studios near the Wall, and their Zoo TV stage show took diminutive GDR Trabi’s and mounted them on stages around the world.

U2 always have an eye for the moment. The gate was hugely symbolic long before the Wall made it off limits in ’61, so this spot at the end of the Unter Den Linden was the perfect place to mark the anniversary of Berlin’s (latest) rebirth.

As Jay-Z guested on anthem Sunday Bloody Sunday at one of Europe’s most famous landmarks – under the quadriga that depicts the chariot-riding Roman goddess of victory – it became a giant video screen while searchlights touched the clouds and made patterns in the black November sky.

“Thanks for coming out on a cold night,” said Bono. It was worth it for a little piece of history.

Hohenschönhausen: silent scream

In GDR, Germany, Stasi on November 4, 2009 at 7:29 pm

Only one of three floors...

At a recent workshop given by volunteers from London’s arts radio station Resonance FM, they were at pains to point out that silence is not always a bad thing. A short pause can sometimes say much more than a hundred words ever could.

I was reminded of this comment today in the former Stasi prison Hohenschonhausen. The guided tour had ended and, as it grew dark outside, I was left alone on the 2nd floor of the interrogation block. Door after brown padded door lined either side of this long corridor till the dark lines they made converged like rail tracks or cross hairs.

This is where disoriented prisoners were brought – one at a time so as not to pass anyone on the way – to meet their one source of human contact: their interrogation officer. Listening to the litany of offences against human decency the guide reeled off, a sense of revulsion welled up inside; coupled with the uncomfortable thought that sensory deprivation and water torture in unknown locations still goes on today. And sometimes closer to home than we’d like to think: ‘extraordinary rendition’ has a much nicer ring to it than kidnapping, though.

Shocking though they were, the allegations of forced-abortion and exposure to deadly X-rays were almost superfluous: given the exent of the methodical application of more mundane methods of destroying the individual. Dissenters and would-be escapees to the West were more commonly crushed by the application of mental cruelty, under the guise of ‘operative psychology’.

But what lingers now in the memory is that silence; a silence that was not even broken by a buzz from those harsh fluorescent lights; a silence so intense you could hear the hum of your brain’s electrical impulses in between your ears.

Minutes seemed like hours. What must have it been like to endure that for days, weeks and sometimes years? Not knowing where you were, even the guard walked behind you to avoid the tiniest trace of a relationship or connection that eye contact might constitute.

Stepping through the iron gates and out of the claustrophobic grey courtyard, I walked back along the snowy Freienwalder Strasse to the M5 tram stop. Passing a warm and fully stocked supermarket, orange light spilled from snug-looking apartments with lacey curtains and I wondered who lived there. Or more pertinently, who they were and how they lived with themselves?

Of the 91,000 full-time Stasi, 20 people had been prosecuted after the Wall came down. Many of them are living comfortably in that same area; some are doctors and lawyers; most refuse to apologise. And so for the ex-prisoners who lead the tours of this once-secret dungeon, any acknowledgement of wrongdoing they seek must come from tourists and not torturers. ‘Sorry’ is not a word that comes easily to Stasi lips.

CNN seeks memories

In Berlin Wall on November 3, 2009 at 6:15 pm

CNN are looking for anyone with memories of that time to contribute by joining in with their interactive special. Click here at for more details.

Heroes and villains

In Germany, Postcommunism on November 2, 2009 at 9:35 am

In a wonderful irony, a McDonald’s now stands on the corner of Frankfurter Tor on the former socialist shopping showpiece that is Karl Marx Allee. This is where visiting dignitaries were brought, and officials made sure that here – unlike other places – the shops were always.

And yet, in a wonderful twist that seems to say so much about the transition from socialism to capitalism, it does not open until 9.30am in the morning – missing the breakfast rush as commuters head to the U-Bahn station outside.

Speaking of dignitaries, a reunion has taken place between Gorbachev, Bush Senior and ex-Chancellor Kohl. History will probably be kind to all of them, but as one reader comments here, Gorbachev’s back was against the economic wall and he had little choice.

Was he a visionary? By all accounts the USSR was broke and IMF loans were drying up to the Eastern Bloc (USSR and satellite states like East Germany and Poland) when it started to break up in 1989. Historians have also indicated that Gorbachev was not in favour of the break-up of the Soviet Union which followed.

“Between the truth and the legend, print the legend,” is a well known quote. The fact that it is attributed to a number of famous people exemplifies the arbitrary subjective nature of history. The comments board under this article is a mixture of informed debate and puerile mudslinging, but it shows how polarised views can be.

The Monday Demonstrations crowd chanted “Gorbi, Gorbi” in the streets of Leipzig. Whatever Gorbachev’s motivation, on this side of Europe he looks set to go down in history as the man who tore down the Iron Curtain. Further west in Russia, some see him as the man who ruined an empire and weakened a once-great country. Such is history.