Archive for the ‘DDR’ Category

Radio Interview

In Berlin Wall, DDR, Running on May 25, 2009 at 7:43 am

Hi from Hamburg, home of the infamous Reeperbahn, but also cult football club St Pauli. I joined the faith in serendipitous circumstances yesterday, when a friendly local walked up to me and handed over a free ticket to the sold-out game. More of that later.

The blog will be updated retrospectively, but in the meantime you can hear me (2m 10s in) talking on this Deutsche Welle radio programme.

Typically, the one day we have a journalist running with us, we end up wading through soaking wet fields after a minor GPS hiccup. A few nettle stings and minor electric shocks later, we’re back on track – as you can hear in the report or see here. When they built the GDR border, they didn’t have holidaying runners in mind.

Dongle-less in the DDR

In DDR on May 18, 2009 at 7:57 pm

Greetings from Wanfried. The run is going fantastically, and we are being royally feted wherever we go. I have lost count of the number of Burgermeisters we have met.

Unfortunately, there is very little internet access for a dongle-less kind of guy like myself. But I am collecting vast amounts of material and there will be some great posts, even if retrospectively. The beautiful countryside around the border is full of history.

If you sprechen-sie Deutsche you can check out the official website.

Entschuldigung fur die freunden von Timo, aber das ist ein gut seite auch!

Day 1 – Little Berlin

In Berlin Wall, DDR, Germany, Running on May 15, 2009 at 9:10 pm
The lights are off now, and nobody is at home.

The lights are off, and nobody's at home.

I hadn’t realised it, but there are three Berlins: East, West and Little. Catching a speedy railcar from Hof to Grabau, and thence getting picked up, I finally meet a couple of the other runners.

Timo now lives in Dresden, and Ulrich lives in Frankfurt. They seem like nice guys and it bodes well. With a cheerful pip of the horn a van screeches up and drives us through tiny country lanes to out start point.

Modlareuth is hard to find on a map. It’s a tiny village, but is has a big significance. This is Little Berlin, a tiny village straggling a state border between Thuringia and Bavaria. For decades this administrative boundary was no problem, until the Cold War got chillier and in 1952 a local schoolboy from the Bavarian side found he couldn’t go to school any more in the Russian zone.

Welcome fuel cheque for the five buses.

Welcome fuel cheque for the five buses.

History is often taught in the form of macro generalisations: one‘ism’ versus another. But just imagine you are a child, and one day you’re told you can’t see your schoolmates any more. Such are the tiny tragic banalities that the textbooks never mention.

This is the first of the preserved border areas we’ll encounter on the run. Under a barbed wire-topped fence, the other 30 or so runners (all German) assemble while the Burgermeister from the western side’s council makes a speech and photos are taken. I don’t speak German, so I listen to the bird song and watch the sun behind the silhouetted empty towers.

Beady bunker eyes.

Beady bunker eyes watch no more.

We’re standing in front of the wide strip of dirt that was kept smooth so any footprints could be spotted. Inside the reflective cone of a nearby searchlight, a big bulb sits in the middle of the same scene but inverted. The museum’s head steps up and says a few words. Then, speeches over, organiser Stefan Esser hands over a six-inch replica border marker (cutely striped black, yellow and red, with a tiny plaque that would read Deutsche Demokratische Republik if it were real).

A 4km prologue around Modlareuth will be followed by a barbecue and the first of many wurst. The Burgermeister from the eastern side starts a countdown and we trot through the gates and into the compound. The adventure begins.

Deceptively pretty, this spot is where the 2nd Armoured Cavalry squared up to men who now run the museum.

Deceptively pretty, this spot is where the 2nd Armoured Cavalry squared up to men who now run the museum.

In DDR, Germany, Stasi on May 14, 2009 at 5:47 pm

‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my works. Ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelley

Standing outside the once-feared Hohenshchonhausen prison, looking at the empty window frames and overgrown concrete, I couldn’t but help remember Shelley’s indictment of the vanity of ‘great men’ and their visions. In these faded brown and grey blocks, such as the underground U-Boat facility, countless minds were played with and eventually broken.

Tucked away on an industrial estate, this was where some of the Stasi’s dirtiest work was done. People disappeared into this black hole; some came out different, others never reappeared. They were spirited here like battery hens, in tiny cells in small unmarked vans, as a whole country was subjugated for a flawed ideological vision.

And for what? What did it achieve? The front gate still intimidates, with its watchtowers and wire; but already parts of the complex resemble something as innocuous as a dilapidated comprehensive school. An old man trundles past on a mobility scooter without even glancing at the walls. Where is the glory now of your people’s republic? Where is your legacy, great leaders? How long is it since those omnipresent statues of Stalin were consigned to the scrapyard?

Today, fleets of coaches bring schoolchildren to hear about what must seem ancient history. Part of the prison has been preserved as a monument. But at the back, beyond the guided tour’s remit, the signs rust and grass grows in cracks where guard dogs once trotted.

On Freienwalder Strasse, what used to be the monolithic central archive office disappears under a wall of ivy. Two garish signs mock its blandness, marking the car park entrance for the adjoining Lidl. Let’s hope Honecker and his ilk are turning in their graves faster than the camshaft of a visiting shopper’s Audi. Ideologies come and go, but the world turns and the spirit lives on. Even in supermarket aisles.

‘Twas very bliss…

In Berlin Wall, DDR, GDR, Germany, Running, Uncategorized on May 13, 2009 at 8:57 pm

This is a very web-unfriendly 1,100 words, but parts of it made the city-lit Berlin anthology. So if you have a few minutes…

If not, here’s the several second summary for the time-poor: Berlin is beautiful in the sunshine. Two days ahead of the event, I go for a training/sightseeing run and end up at the border crossing which became world famous on 9th November 1989 when the border gates spilled open and Ossis finally got to see what was on the other side. Life is good.

Two days to go to the Prologue, and I arrive to a hot afternoon in Berlin. Everything is as it should be: the S-Bahn is half empty and its patrons park their bikes and pore over their books and newspapers. €2.10 buys me a hassle free journey through stations that resemble London – on a Sunday morning that is. Even the major hub of Fassbinder fame Alexanderplatz, is quietly civilised and free of any interchange irritation. The U2 takes me to the familiar surrounds of Senefelderplatz in East Berlin, in the super cool Szenebezirk (literally “scene quarter” – think Shoreditch) of Prenzlauerberg. Arriving at the top-rated East Seven Hostel before 5pm, this sunny evening seems an ideal time to get a quick training run in, and simultaneously reacquaint myself with my favourite part of Berlin.

And what a run. Like many things in life, sometimes you have to push yourself to do it, but once you get up and out there, it’s always worth it. Pounding the sunny Schwedter Strasse, past Lidl and heading north along Kastanienallee it’s your quintessential summer evening idyll. The scenesters sun themselves over strong cold beers and strong hot coffees – none of that anaemic rubbish here thank you, and the smoking ban is for Wessis – and mums on bicycles ferry their kids on baby seats or pulling cute articulated trailers that make them look like mini maharajahs.

My feet felt unusually light, and I’m aware I’m running on my toes without having to think about it. Past the Kino (cinema) which is showing Joy Division this evening; then Morgenrot Cafe with its ‘pay what you can afford’ brunches; then left on Oderberger passing the retro and thrift shops that scatter their orange and brown kitsch-cool debris as if the pavement were just a natural extension of the cluttered inside.

Crossing the road on a red light, which immediately marks you out as a non-German and causes both frowning and bewilderment (“Why would anyone cross on a red?”) and it’s into the Mauer (wall) park. On May Day it’s best avoided as anarchists and those left behind by gentrification let off steam, but tonight it’s a picture of metropolitan delight as lovers, friends and bookworms range themselves along the south facing slope, soaking up the sunshine. Somewhat incongruously, two riot vans rest at its edge, but it still puts me in mind of San Francisco’s Mission Dolores park. Berlin is so far the closest I’ve found to the SF vibe in Europe; after a fantastic few months in Norcal’s glorious capital, it’s my metropolitan yardstick.

Passing a teenager who riding his bike, backwards, standing on the front wheel; I weave my way through the parents trailing microscooter mayhem behind them. Some people don’t get running; but on a night like this, the buzz is huge and it feels like the most natural thing in the world. After a sprint over a runway-like patch of concrete, I decide to push a little further west and see where it brings me out. I love the light at this time of day, and the angular shapes of the park’s landscaped stairways form sharply defined intersections of sun and shadow.

Before I know it, I’m over a big junction, railways lines shining in the bright light. In the distance I can see a fairly ordinary looking grey metal bridge, but a familiar one at that. A few months earlier, I had crossed this bridge on a Mitfahrgelegenheit (ride share) trip from Jena. Our driver was a German who had finished his GDR national service only 10 days before the Wall fell. On the famous night of 9th November, less than a fortnight after being released from the very army that was supposed to defend the border, he’d danced on top of the Wall with thousands of his ‘Genossen’ (comrades) as they celebrated the beginning of the end.

In a few minutes I’m there, on the Bösebrücke. This bridge, part of Bornholmer Strasse, became famous on that night in 1989. Besieged by a mob who weren’t violent but weren’t taking no for an answer, frazzled border guards opened the gates to relieve overcrowding. Before they knew it, 20,000 impatient Ossis had streamed through (video) after that afternoon’s famous governmental gaffe. Pressed by journalists as to when the (just announced) loosening of travel regulations would come into effect, a hapless government spokesman could only muster a response along the lines of “Er, now, I suppose?” Cue border bedlam.

If Himmler exemplified the banality of evil, perhaps this represents the haphazardness of history? Or the idiosyncrasy of the iconic? Still punning in my head, it was time to head back through tree-lined streets in an identikit housing estate as old couples shuffled along to the Imbiss on their evening constitutional. Crossing Bernauer Strasse, there was the Wall information centre where black and white films show that fateful day in 1961 when Berliners woke up to a city cut in half. On this street, desperate old ladies jumped from three or four floors up as people held blankets to catch them. Morose bricklayers soon sealed the windows, as Ulbricht’s ‘anti-fascist protection system’ took shape.

Nearing home I pass the Zionskirche. It’s stunningly silhouetted against a blue sky so pure that nothing could spoil it, nothing that is, save the dust spots which have recently appeared on my point-and-shoot’s sensor. Unlike Paris cafes, there is no sitting outside surcharge here, and Kapelle’s outside tables are doing a steady trade tonight in contemplative bohemians. Leaving the pensive sippers behind, I spot a remnant of pre-yuppie Prenzlauerberg. Standing outside a defiantly unfashionable corner bar, four men in dungarees and labourer’s fatigues stubbornly cling to a table, like limpets fighting the tide. Wave after wave of wealthy westerners have radically changed the face of this former GDR worker’s quarter, but in a place where people once used newspapers to stand in for the curtains they couldn’t afford, some trace of tradesmen lingers on.

There is a final curio to be contemplated as I approach the hostel. Stepping out from a modest hotel are five middle-aged men and women in traditional dress, Lederhosen and all. A festival perhaps? Or a band? I have to ask, and discover they are from Bavaria, come to visit the Bundestag. It seems the most natural thing in the world for them to be stood in such a fashionable area in such distinctly unfashionable outfits. I tell them about the Grenzlos Laufen (Run Without Borders) I’m doing and they look politely disinterested. But the endorphins are flowing freely now, and unbowed I walk the few doors down to the hostel. Time for some carb loading in Asia Stubchen, the cheapest and best Thai restaurant on Kastanienallee. Very bliss indeed. © Simon Cole 2009

2019 update: in my excited haste to get the words down of that thrill of a jog around Prenzlauerberg, I confused – or deliberately mashed up (?)  – Wordsworth’s quote about the French Revolution. And now it is immortalised in print, in the Oxygen Books title City-Lit Berlin. The original line was of course:

Bliss it was in that dawn to be aliveBut to be young was very heaven.’

Greener Grass?

In DDR, Film, Postcommunism on May 10, 2009 at 6:04 am
You lived the regime, now buy the t-shirt

You lived the regime, now buy the t-shirt

Nostalgia is not what it used to be. But as Ossis look to their wealthier Wessi brothers and wonder if capitalism is all it’s cracked up to – a sentiment that some in the UK have shared as the banking crisis kicked in – some of them hark back to the bad old days. From the Stasi bar in Lichtenberg, to this t-shirt I bought in a Wedding army surplus store, Ostalgie is a mini industry.

The postcommunist joke is that they used to have money, but nothing to buy. Now they can buy whatever they want – but they have no money. One thing I observed in the workplace, and life in general, is that change is unsettling. People like certainty, even if that means paying a price for fixing their daily reference points in drab communist-era concrete. It’s the proverbial devil you know. We’re all familiar with the expression “it’s the waiting I can’t stand”.

From the welders of the uncompetitive Gdansk shipyards, to the little old ladies in Bratislava panelkas and the unemployed factory workers of Leipzig – ‘new’ members of the capitalist club are finding out that winners means losers too. The yin of boom also means the yang of bust.

It’s understandable that some look back to a time where they didn’t have much, but they knew they wouldn’t lose it either. As the popular film Goodbye Lenin! points out, it wasn’t all bad, and it’s debatable whether East Germany was unified with its neighbour – or just absorbed by it. But the wonder of communism is not that it collapsed, but that it lasted as long as it did: it was propped up on IMF loans from the system it despised. Ostalgie says as much about human nature and the loss of comfort zones as it does about the disappearance of the DDR.

The slow suffocation of the soul

In Books, DDR, Stasi on April 21, 2009 at 9:16 am
Leipzig Stasi emblem

Big organisation for small minds

This week we’ve been drawing towards the end of the brilliant Stasiland. Some things in life are so subtle and insidious in the way they wreak their destruction, that it’s hard to convey the level of harm they do without sounding histrionic. But Anna Funder‘s work steadily plots the low-key psychological violence that lay behind the Stasi’s bid to control every aspect of the DDR citizen’s life. Why draw attention to your organisation’s existence with a high profile execution when, using your network of coerced informants, you can quietly engineer a nervous breakdown for your target?

Many never found out that it was not life conspiring against them, but the state. It is this power, pulling invisible strings and playing God, that gives a stalker their thrill. Being in the secret police rewarded you for taking the path of least resistance and following your more base instincts. In a country of empty shelves, power was the only way to really feel one-up on your supposedly equal peers. And there were perks; if you were going to be thorough in your monitoring, then you had to listen to everything the target did. Who knows what you might hear through pillow talk?

Of course everybody knew the Stasi were everywhere, but doublethink was a key part of the denial and backwards-rationalisation that enabled the regime to exist. Many of the agents of the system knew what they were doing was ridiculous, but in that Emperor’s New Clothes culture the shops were full and everyone was happy, if the Party said so.

Listening to people in the former Eastern Bloc lament the passing of an era where ‘you knew where you were’, you could lull yourself into a 6th form common room rose-tinted view of communism. God only knows – or rather He doesn’t because He didn’t officially exist behind the Iron Curtain – that communism looks good on paper. But reading the intensely personal accounts of state persecution that Funder recorded, one becomes increasingly incredulous at such extreme cynicism; in a culture of suspicion where it seems flippant to apply that overused adjective ‘Kafka-esque’.

The subject – and there were many given there was a Stasi employee for at least every 10 people – was presumed guilty until proven guilty. With a relentless drip of propaganda and the steady application of duress, the authorities corroded the individual’s integrity and morality. They undermined the most basic bonds of humanity in a whole society, to prop up a worldview they only half-believed themselves. Like a twisted pyramid scheme, a citizen who was under suspicion could make it easy on themselves by informing on another suspect, who was informing on someone else who was spying on somone else…

The Nazi war machine, with its industrial might, used the direct route: bullets. But with the DDR’s threadbare infrastructure and austere economy, and the need to create jobs to maintain full employment, it suited the Nazis’ successors to maintain this huge and hidden army of grey men to slowly drain the life out of the individual. They called themselves the Sword and the Shield of the Party but, in a twist on the description sometimes applied to Prussia (and coincidentally the geographical boundaries overlap), this was not a state with a secret police force; but a secret police force with a state.

It’s fascinating, if slightly wearing for anyone with any capacity for empathy. One’s rising incredulity is inversely proportional to the characters’ dwindling reservoirs of self-belief; slowly ebbing away as a ‘template for undermining’ takes its toll. They certainly killed people, using locations in Leipzig and Dresden for secret executions, and Putin was allegedly stationed in Dresden as the local KGB presence. But for the majority of their victims, they preferred to wear them down until they became a shell of their former selves. And if you finally accepted you never going to make it to the West, it was tempting to retreat instead into your own mind. This withdrawl from daily life even had a name, ‘internal emigration’. Some might say that was the biggest crime of all. Not the killing of hundreds, but the burying of Hope for millions.

This post is a duplicate from my Bookpacking blog