Posts tagged ‘Cold War’

October 4, 2010

The Berlin Wall returns – as a “serious” computer game

JUST ABOUT EVERYBODY WHO’S tried them derives pleasure from computer games or simulations of one kind or another, and of course we all need to brush up on our recent history, so why not combine the two? That’s what a computer design student in the German town of Karlsruhe thought. But the product of his labours, 1378 km, which was to be unveiled on Sunday to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of German reunification, has elicited nothing but horror and disgust from one end of the country to the other. Why? The game simulates the former inner-German border, and allows players to slip into the role of border guards and blow prospective “republic escapees,” as the communist regime used to call its refugees, to kingdom come…

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April 16, 2010

Adventures in PC: Are East Germans an “ethnic group”?

The classic Ossi joke from November, 1989: 17 year-old Gaby visits the West and samples her first "banana"

THE NOTION OF “POLITICAL Correctness” has taken plenty of knocks over the past two decades or so. Alongside the traditional grounds for discrimination complaints, i.e. race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion, new terms seemed to pop up daily: old people were now victims of “ageism,” ugly people suffered from “lookism,” short people became “vertically challenged,” and the impotent became “horizontally challenged” (although I always suspected this last one was meant a joke). What would “they” come up with next? the critics asked. For example, could the mere accident of birth in a certain region of a country be considered grounds for job discrimination? A former East German woman certainly thought so and took her case to court…

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April 16, 2010

Happy 90th birthday, Richard von Weizsäcker!

Former German President Richard von Weizsäcker, born on April 15, 1920

“PITY THE LAND THAT needs heroes,” Bertolt Brecht once wrote. But today, on the ninetieth birthday of former West German president Richard von Weizsäcker, I think I’m entitled to say: “Envy the land that produces – and honors – great statesmen.”

Richard von Weizsäcker was born on the run in a side wing of the former Württemberg royal palace in Stuttgart. His mother and his diplomat father had been forced to flee Berlin with the rest of the Reich government just a few weeks earlier in the face of the failed right-wing Kapp Putsch against the struggling Weimar Republic…

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November 10, 2009

Watching the dominoes fall in Berlin: Reflections on November 9, 2009

Brandenburg Gate

TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARIES ARE OFTEN melancholy affairs, no matter how happy and festive the occasion is. We can’t help but think of how much time has passed and how few of our dreams we have actually realized. Our joy over the past is often overshadowed by our ambivalence about the present. It is easy to ruin such an occasion. And that is what happened last night at the elaborate twentieth anniversary celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The orchestral music and the political speeches by Mayor Wowereit, President Sarkozy, Prime Minister Brown, President Medvedev, Hillary Clinton, and Angela Merkel at the Brandenburg Gate were okay – standard fare in this sort of situation – but then, by golly, somehow whoever was in charge of the event had the brilliant idea of handing the whole thing – and not just the broadcast – over to TV “personality” Thomas Gottschalk, who transformed this historic night into just another boring, wordy, utterly forgettable TV event.

I think this overblown talkshow would have bored anyone sitting at home in the comfort of their heated living room, but for the two million or so of us huddled together in the icy rain, craning our necks to watch the pageantry on one of the several giant TV screens set up around the government district, the twenty years separating us from the dramatic opening of the Wall on November 9, 1989 seemed more like two hundred, as if it had nothing whatsoever to do with our lives…

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November 10, 2009

Day of destiny: Germany and November 9

Berlin Wall

FOR AS LONG AS there have been calendars, specific dates have marked significant historical and spiritual events in their respective societies. The Americans celebrate their independence on the fourth of July, the French mark the storming of the Bastille on the fourteenth of July, and the British commemorate the infamous Gunpowder Plot on the fifth of November. Every other country – and just about every religion – also celebrates certain days that changed the world. New dates can appear at any moment. In today’s America, the magic date of 9/11 now trumps all others and determines much of our national identity. Germany is no exception to this phenomenon, although it is unique for having one day in its national calendar so pregnant with meaning that they have a special name for it: der Schicksalstag der Deutschen (the fateful day of the Germans). They mark this day not on 9/11 but on 11/9, i.e. on November 9. The events that have occurred on this day span the entire spectrum of human experience, from defeat to shame, from the profoundest horror to redemption and rebirth. It is the date itself that ties these seemingly random events into a neat package and gives both structure and an astonishing level of meaning to one of the most turbulent histories any nation has ever experienced – and inflicted on the rest of the world. It wasn’t always this way, but November 9, 1848 happened to be the day that German revolutionary Robert Blum was executed by firing squad in Vienna. His death at the hand of reactionary Austrian soldiers marked the symbolic defeat of the Revolution of 1848, which set the cause of German democracy back by generations. Exactly sixty years later, as a new rebellion broke out among the soldiers and sailors of the defeated German Empire … Continued…

November 5, 2009

My escape from East Berlin

Hauptstadt01

EVERY MORNING, ABOUT HALFWAY into my daily jog along Gartenstrasse towards the old West Berlin district of Wedding, my feet pass over a double row of bricks set into the pavement. A metal plaque identifies this seam, which zigzags through the German capital, as the route of the former Berlin Wall. Turning onto Bernauer Strasse, I pass by the weathered gray slabs of the Wall itself and then encounter the cylindrical Reconciliation Chapel, built on the site of the old brick Reconciliation Church, which used to stand smack in the middle of the free fire zone between the two halves of the city and which the East German regime consequently dynamited in 1985. After working up a good sweat, I double back onto Strelitzer Strasse. There I catch a glimpse of a plaque marking this gray East Berlin house as the endpoint of the famous 1964 tunnel which, the sign notes, was shut down after a Stasi agent betrayed the escape route to his minders. A few minutes later I step into the shower and am soon ready to begin a normal working day.

 And yet, I can remember a time when this routine jog would have been even less plausible than a non-stop sprint to Vladivostok. It was the summer of 1987. After spending a few weeks with my new East German girlfriend in Berlin, I headed back to the States to continue my graduate studies. As the weeks passed, our suspicion turned to fact: she was pregnant. And not just pregnant, we learned as autumn turned to winter, but pregnant with twins. …

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October 12, 2009

“We are the people!” How Leipzig launched a revolution

70,000 march in Leipzig's Monday Demonstration on October 9, 1989

70,000 march in Leipzig's Monday Demonstration on October 9, 1989

IT WAS ALEXIS DE Tocqueville who wrote that “The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform.” While this observation clearly applied to Eastern Europe’s doomed communist governments in 1989, it was not entirely true in the German Democratic Republic in October of that astonishing year. Instead, “the second German state” decided its own destiny the moment it refused to reform while it still had the chance. That was the moment when the people of Leipzig took the cause of reform into their own hands.

“Those who come too late”

Please note that I said “reform” and not “revolution,” let alone “reunification with the Federal Republic.” These were still pipe dreams in October of 1989, and not even particularly attractive ones for most people. The majority would still have been satisfied with a few democratic reforms at home and an open border with the Federal Republic. A new “socialism with a human face” was as much as most people expected to see in their lifetimes. But the fraudulent election in May had energized the tiny underground opposition movement. Internment camps were going up across the country, and the communist government’s repeated threats of a “Chinese solution” à la Tiananmen Square gave dissidents a cause to fight for, namely sheer survival in the face of a potentially genocidal government. 

Then, as escapes westward via Hungary and West Germany’s Prague embassy grew from a trickle to a flood, East Germans began to realize that their government was hardly the all-powerful monolith they had been brought up to fear. Finally, Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to East Berlin on October 6 in connection with the GDR’s fortieth anniversary –  in the course of which he publicly told communist boss Erich Honecker through an interpreter that “those who come too late [i.e. who don’t introduce reforms in time] will be punished by life itself” …

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September 30, 2009

Freedom Day: Prague, September 30, 1989

Prague embassyThe makeshift refugee camp outside the West German
embassy in Prague, August-September 1989

PRAGUE MEANS MANY THINGS to many people. It is the site of the infamous “defenestration” of 1618, which marked the beginning of the Thirty Years War. It is the home of Alfons Maria Mucha and the decadent, absinth-crazed dreamers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s delicious fin-de-siècle. It is the mist-shrouded metropolis of Rabbi Loew and Franz Kafka. It is the seat of “Reich Protector” Reinhard Heydrich, psychopath extraordinaire. To today’s young backpackers it is the party capital of Europe. But for anyone living in Central Europe in those years, the Prague of September 30, 1989 represents a historical turning point none of us will ever forget.

Erich Honecker and his communist German Democratic Republic were living on borrowed time. Encouraged by the growing success of the Solidarnosc movement in Poland and by democratic reforms recently introduced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, East Germany’s Protestant churches finally took heart in the summer of 1988 . In church gatherings and in small private meetings they called upon their own members and GDR citizens as a whole to ensure that the local elections scheduled for May 7, 1989 be conducted on a democratic basis. As a rule, elections in communist countries are a mere formality – public acclamations of the status quo – and voters stay away from the polls at their own risk. But this time, a new generation of activists were urging their fellow citizens to make use of the limited democratic structures included in the East German constitution by demanding reforms and also by nominating candidates of their own choosing. …

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September 11, 2009

In search of a better Germany – east of the Berlin Wall

GDR
Seal of the German Democratic Republic (1949-89)

A COUPLE OF YEARS ago, I was struck by what I thought was a wonderful idea for a book. Over coffee and cake  in her tiny flat overlooking the Neisse River in Saxony, a relative of mine by marriage had just begun recounting her own experiences as an immigrant from West Germany to the communist-ruled German Democratic Republic in the 1960s. The Berlin Wall had gone up only a couple of years before. It seems that while the East German regime actively recruited new settlers, it hardly welcomed them with open arms. As my relative described it, the procedure involved spending several weeks in a Stasi-run relocation camp – a sort of crucible of the Cold War – where people like her were carefully interrogated and otherwise vetted before those deemed suitable were allowed to embark on new lives in “the better Germany.” The reasons her fellow applicants confided to her for wanting to make the move across the Iron Curtain provided a fascinating snapshot of the human condition. These motives ranged from a simple desire for gainful employment and moving love stories to (less frequently) genuine belief in the communist state’s Marxist-Leninist ideals.

What a discovery! This story combined the drama of the Titanic sinking with the philosophical speculation of The Bridge of San Luis Rey. All you’d have to do, I figured, was get hold of the files and you’d have a truly fascinating little volume on your hands. Not that I wanted to take on the project, mind you. I had other fish to fry. And so I was truly excited to discover historian Bernd Stöver’s brand new book Zuflucht DDR. Spione und andere Übersiedler (“The GDR as a refuge:  Spies and other immigrants”).

Is this the book I’ve been waiting for? Not exactly, but it comes awfully close. Stöver spends relatively little time on the human interest stories that first aroused my curiosity and instead focuses on nine more or less famous personalities…

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August 8, 2009

A leap to freedom… and to a life of fear

Conrad Schumann

CONRAD SCHUMANN AND Peter Leibing were two young men at the right place and at the right time. The elite border guard and the news photographer, both nineteen years old, had come to Berlin because that was where the action was. For Trooper Schumann, this action was the construction of what the East German government was calling the “Anti-Fascist Defensive Wall,” which he had been sent to the divided capital to help secure. Leibing, by contrast, had left Hamburg for Berlin to take the photo of his life. The West German cub photographer had made enough photos of jumping horses to know that you only got one chance at a winning shot. So for more than an hour, Leibing stood watching the nervous young non-commissioned officer as he paced back and forth, his Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, smoking one cigarette after another. “Come on over, come on over!” the West Berlin crowd on Bernauer Strasse chanted. “He’s going to jump!” one passerby remarked. And at four p.m. on August 15, 1961, Leibing got lucky. Schumann tossed aside his cigarette, then turned and ran for the coil of barbed wire that marked the boundary between East and West. He jumped, flinging away his gun as he flew, and Leibing clicked the shutter. A nearby newsreel cameraman captured the same scene on film. Leibing’s photo hit the West Berlin tabloids the next morning. The rest is Cold War history…

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