runningtheberlinwall

Archive for the ‘GDR’ Category

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.

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.

Berlin November ’09

In Berlin Wall, GDR on October 23, 2009 at 10:19 am

From 26 October, I will be travelling through Germany taking the national temperature as a reunited Deutschland gears up for the celebrations that will mark 20 years since the Wall opened. I will be talking to as many people as possible and taking part in as many events as possible, to understand how both sides – but particularly the former GDR-citizens – are coming to terms with this enormous event.

This will also incorporate the Berlin regional ‘Burn’ a party for the German Burning Man community. The trip will culminate in a flash mob on the anniversary (9 Nov) where people will join hands forming a human chain along the former route of the border in this iconic city.

Provisional itinerary: Bremen; Hannover; Leipzig; Rostock; Berlin.

Hero or villain?

In GDR, Germany on October 20, 2009 at 2:01 pm

Flicking through a broadsheet in a Trieste library, I read that Egon Krenz, leader – very briefly – of East Germany at the time of Die Mauerfall claims he should be congratulated for ensuring there was no bloodshed. Krenz took over as the inertia of the Peaceful Revolution was too much for a government abandoned by Moscow. The day before, I had read a German clergyman’s assertion that media plaudits for the East German church’s revolutionary role had quickly turned to allegations of collusion.

One man’s activist is another man’s agitator; the man at the helm when the government crashes says he was going to bring it down anyway. People are fickle, memories are short and truth is a much a construct as any wall; revisionism is an inevitable consequence of postmodernism. The past is changing: this will not be the last attempt to mould memories of this dramatic time.

Runner’s World UK

In Berlin Wall, GDR, Germany, Running on October 20, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Read my article about running the Innerdeutsche Grenze (internal German border) in the Nov issue of Runner’s World.

Longer and older than the Wall in Berlin, it was just as well defended. This is where NATO faced-off against the Warsaw Pact.

A matter of time

In Berlin Wall, GDR, Germany on October 16, 2009 at 11:17 am

20 years ago today in Leipzig the opening of the Wall was now almost inevitable. The weekly Montagsdemonstration (Monday demonstrations) from the Nikolaikirche were rocketing in size, especially after the decision on 9th October by the GDR government not to use military force against 70,000 increasingly-confident – and determinedly peaceful – protesters.

Gorbachev had made it clear that the Brezhnev Doctrine was obsolete and the GDR government found itself isolated as it realised there would be no reinforcements from an already preoccupied Moscow.

Tonight would have seen hundreds of thousands of East Germans slowly walk through the streets of a city that had a big Stasi presence, singing hymns and carrying candles their now regular non-violent marches around the Tröndlingring.

One can only imagine how they must have felt to be a part of history, to be shaping European politics – about to precipitate the biggest event in German history for 40 years. They were the people.

Leipzig marks turning point

In Berlin Wall, GDR, Germany, Wall on October 9, 2009 at 6:48 pm

With a series of events that includes a recreation of the famous ‘Monday Demonstrations’ that started at the St Nicholas’ Church (Nikolaikirche), Leipzig today celebrates the marches that cranked up pressure on the GDR regime over the course of 1989, eventually leading to the opening of the Wall on 9th November.

9th October was a turning point (see this article for an eyewitness account) when thousands of marchers played non-violent brinkmanship with the authorities – pushing them to see how far they would bend. The authorities had large forces at their dispersal, and were ready to use them. But, for reasons that are still slightly vague – owing to history being a subjective area and of course the regime’s secrecy – this power was not used.

This could easily have been a violent massacre: the East German government had recently praised the response of their contemporaries in China to the Tiannenmen Square protests. But for whatever reason, be it compassion or simply confusion and indecisiveness, the authorities backed down. Maybe they saw the writing on the metaphorical wall. It was the beginning of the end.

Links:
http://www.leipzig.de/de/buerger/politik/herbst89/2009/lichtfest/14404.shtml

http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=230

Goethe Institute SF: Lunchtime Lecture

In Berlin Wall, GDR, Running on August 28, 2009 at 1:41 am

I’ll be speaking about my experiences on the Grenzenlos Laufen at San Francisco’s Goethe Institute at a (free) lunchtime lecture on Wednesday 16th September.

Ursula Dinter of the institute has arranged for me to speak in the basement of the building at 530 Bush Street in SF’s downtown.

If you’re in the area, please come along. All welcome.

Runner’s World Article

In Berlin Wall, GDR, Germany, Running on August 17, 2009 at 4:28 pm

The run along the border is due to appear as a feature in the UK edition of Runner’s World, the UK’s leading running magazine. Issue TBC soon.

Look out for more updates to the site soon.

Running the Berlin Wall blogging makes Berlin anthology

In Berlin Wall, Books, GDR on August 10, 2009 at 4:28 pm
Out Nov-5

Out Nov-5

Some of my blogging on here – and on my sister site Bookpacking – about Berlin has been selected by the very nice people at Oxygen Books for their new City-lit series city-specific anthologies.

The format is to take a selection of writings about a city from some of the big literary guns, like Hemingway or Stein for Paris, mix it up with more contemporary writers and then give it some edge with some contributions from the blogosphere.

In the Berlin book, my entries will rub shoulders with excerpts from the likes of award-winning war reporter – and short-suffering wife to Hemingway – Martha Gellhorn and David Bowie. Another contributor is Anna Pfunder, writer of the excellent Stasiland.

In my own humble view, to be included alongside the works of such talented people is both an honour and an inspiration. And my own situation perfectly exemplifies the value of writing what you know (cliched but true); but also of writing about what excites and motivates you. Because that passion will come through in your prose.

To paraphrase Sontag, I wonder if this qualifies me for membership of (the very lowest echelons of) the Republic of Letters?