Once a year, every year, we interrupt our months-long Christmas time for a day steeped in history: ‘tis the season. The 9th of November saw war, intrigue, revolution, pogrom, and, most recently, a border that finally opened.
My parents and me were in the somewhat unusual position of being at least semi-frequent visitors to the German Democratic Republic – the state that has ceased to exist but still casts its Long shadows into the present – because we had family there. Or that was the official story. They are friends, but friends would not have been enough to allow citizens of the Federal Republic, that capitalist arch-nemesis of the Actually Existing Socialism of the GDR, into the country. So they were promoted to cousins; any proof of that had “burned in the war”. How convenient.
A visit would start weeks or months in advance when our friends would apply for permission for us to visit at the police. After bureaucracy had run its course, our chance to go and see them would arrive in the form of a thick brown envelope of A5. In there were documents that I knew as “the papers”, a bunch of forms that had to be filled in and kept as additional documents to the passports,valid only for a specific time. But these details were lost to six-year-old me. All I knew was that a big brown envelope meant we’d get to go. All the while I didn’t really get the concept of the cold war or of two German states and the implications for people on both sides. I remember asking my father that if we lived in Germany, and the G in “GDR” stood for “German”, did this mean that our friends also lived in Germany? “It’s kind of a long story”, he said, and “please don’t ask that when we’re at the border”.
The border: that line on the map that was so real in the real world. It has become almost sort of cliché to regard the GDR as some kind of a joke, with thick Saxon accents, Trabis and no bananas or lemons. But in reality of course it was anything but a joke and indeed not the least bit funny, certainly not to those unfortunate enough to have said the wrong thing at the wrong time or tried to leave the country and found themselves at Hohenschönhausen for their troubles – or in the latter case, dead. And it wasn’t for us, either, when we approached that dreaded border that regularly turned what should have been an hour and a half’s worth of driving into a three-hour journey, and crossing it was boring, tedious, annoying, and utterly terrifying.
And yet, I can’t say that my East German memories are all bad, and I suspect the same is true for my parents, for surely if it had been only horrible, we wouldn’t have gone there as often as we did – once a year. In my memories the GDR is bleak and grey, and smells of lignite. But we went there to see our friends, and they were, still are, warm and welcoming people. I remember long walks in the local castle’s gardens; a castle that hadn’t seen fresh paint for fifty years and a garden with fountains that never worked properly, but that’s just how it was, and when you’re six, these things don’t tend to bother you. When we weren’t there walking we would drive around in our friends’ green Wartburg, the pride and joy of the family that carried them, and us, faithfully wherever they were going – not into the West, of course – that was cared for lovingly and carefully but was thrown out in disgrace after reunification and replaced by a Mercedes. There was the old fortress at the Elbe with its massive walls and its old and closed buildings and, much more interesting to a six-year-old boy, with cannons and piles of projectiles. I would always try to roll them around, but I could never do it. Of course not. They’re welded to the ground. These days, the fortress is a museum with a big parking lot and an entrance fee, and I’ve never been there again. We would also sometimes go to Schwerin, a beautiful place, but, in keeping with GDR tradition, terribly neglected by a country that was only interested in buildings made from pre-fabricated concrete slabs and not at all in buildings that predate socialism. Even if they had wanted to preserve them, there wouldn’t have been enough money – a problem that was almost a leitmotif for the entire state. And so the old timber-framed buildings that hadn’t been torn down yet looked like time was doing the job of a demolition company. Some of them were literally half-collapsed. The only decoration to be found anywhere were posters and flags evoking the everlasting friendship of East Germany and the Soviet Union. How ironic, in hindsight.
And so the country gave the impression of being grey, dusty, with old leaders, no innovations and a pervasive sense of “we’ve always done it this way” – and an enormous surveillance machine that, as I later learned, required our friends after every one of our visits to report to the local police station and be interrogated by Stasi agents. And yet, life went on, as it does. Or, as a friend of mine put it, you could live quite comfortably if you played by the rules, did as you were told and kept your mouth shut. But that is a tall order, taller, perhaps, than the powers that be – or rather were – had realised, and things had begun to change in Poland, shown that the socialist rule was perhaps not as eternal as it had seemed, and then one day, one more rigged local election was one too many and more and more people dared open their mouths, at tremendous risk to themselves, and remind the country of the Publicly Owned Operations who the public really was. Well-known events took place, until one night Günther Schabowski caused the wall to open due to an error in bureaucracy. How very German. The rest, as they say, is history. When my mother came into my room that night, woke me up, and said “the border is open” I did not immediately grasp the full meaning of this but I instinctively knew that something important had happened, and we all stayed up that night and watched the events unfold. Unfold they did, and never really stopped for almost a year, with a speed that surprised many, some people seized opportunities as they arose, others couldn’t keep up and were left behind, and for some, elation turned into disappointment, frustration and anger in the face of unfulfilled dreams and broken promises when it turned out that the unification of two so different countries takes a lot more effort than it might have looked like in the enthusiasm of the moment and a lot more patience, as things that have never been done before tend to do.
The shadows of the past are still there and will hang around for a bit, but while not all dividing lines are gone, the physical border is a thing of the past. Drive around Germany today on roads in the countryside and you find the occasional brown sign on the roadside, marking where the border once was and when it was opened at that spot. It is perfectly possible not to notice it, or a crumbling watchtower standing close to it, largely ignored save by the local graffiti sprayers who can’t complain about the canvas. It is probably as it should be. But sometimes, when I drive past the old death strip in an instant or, when I’m there, walk over the line where the wall once stood in Berlin in a single, banal step, I can’t help but think about how utterly, utterly impossible that had seemed not so long ago, and aren’t we lucky.
–Johannes was listening to Trollfest – Der Uhr Ist Skandaløst Schändlich while writing this article