Forever agonizing over the past
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city has reinvented itself yet again, though it's easy to feel a false gaiety there. Revisiting Berlin - and some of those involved in the drama that unfolded 20 years ago today.
1. A few weeks ago, Baerbel Bohley received a letter from the mayor of Berlin, inviting her to come and knock down a giant domino today - one of 1,000 such dominoes that have been set up along the original route of the Berlin Wall, between the Reichstag and Potsdamer Platz. Twenty years ago Bohley was at the center of the revolution that led to the toppling of the communist regime in East Germany, and to the breaching of the wall that had divided Berlin for 28 years. The specially made, giant Styrofoam dominoes - each 2.5 meters high - have been colorfully decorated by Berlin children. Their toppling today, on the 20th anniversary of the demolition of the wall, will symbolize the victory of liberty over oppression. It should be quite a spectacle, but Bohley won't be part of it: The former East German opposition activist isn't inclined to turn her life's work into a show, and furthermore she is angry that the mayor included the ideological successors to the East German Communist Party in his coalition. While the German revolution of 1989 did not spawn a prominent national leader per se, Bohley, then a 44-year-old artist, came to symbolize it.
"The nation and the revolution and the world press needed a symbol, and I assumed the role," she recalled last week. She is a petite woman, now 64, who exudes vitality; her speech is softer and more reflective than when I first met her 20 years ago. That was when she founded the New Forum, which brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators into the streets to protest against the regime; indeed, more than one million people were estimated to have attended one of these rallies.
It was a movement of "sensitive souls." Perhaps, I wrote back then, "Bohley will be remembered as the Lech Walesa of Germany, but if I am not mistaken, she will be remembered only as the Janet Aviad of her country." Aviad was among the founders of Israel's Peace Now movement and, like Bohley, is full of hope and faith that good will prevail.
Bohley still lives in the eastern section of Berlin - in the same apartment where she hosted me one evening in November 1989. It wasn't easy for me to get there then; the revolution was at its height but Berlin was still divided, and making one's way from the glittering western part to the gloomy east involved a process reminiscent of that seen in spy movies starring Michael Caine. Journalists from every country wanted to interview Bohley, photographers camped outside her home, but she disconnected the phone and didn't open the door. I found her to be a very impressive woman with short hair, a biting sense of humor and frayed nerves. I don't remember how it was that she agreed to see me. We sat in her kitchen, she offered me some hot soup and told me of her dreams.
Bohley was born in May 1945 and grew up amid the rubble of the war. Like many others, her parents thought about whether to remain in the eastern part of the country. One reason they stayed was the fear that West Germany would again become a Nazi state.
Bohley's teachers at the art academy were staunch Stalinists, but she got along with them; she found herself in the socialist consensus. She believed that her Germany was a better Germany, even after the wall was erected in 1961 - until the Prague Spring in 1968, when Soviet tanks invaded Czechoslovakia to put down popular opposition to the regime. That's when Bohley really grasped the inhumanity of the communist method of government, with its dull bureaucrats determined to suppress freedom. She'd always been a political person; in Berlin it's hard not to be political. But she says it wasn't a firm worldview that led her into politics back then, but rather intuition. Maybe a particular mood, I suggested. Perhaps, said Bohley. And that was when I was reminded of Peace Now.
Bohley had been active for more than a decade in women's groups and a variety of human rights organizations. Twice she was arrested for several weeks; once she was exiled to the West, but was permitted to return.
"No," she said last week. "We weren't fighting then to bring down the wall. We weren't after the unification of Germany. We were fighting for human liberty, for democracy."
She imagined there would be a long process of introspection and self-reckoning, and of intellectual adjustment, for a genuine reform of socialist thought and society to occur. In actual fact, everything happened too fast, she also said last week, echoing what she told me back then: It was like a birth with no pregnancy.
2. These days, Berlin bookstores offer dozens of titles relating to the collapse of the communist empire, which reached its dramatic peak with the fall of the Berlin wall. Many books on the subject are also being published in English; one that was recently translated into Hebrew is "The Berlin Wall: A World Divided by Frederick Taylor." Tony Judt's monumental book "Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945" is also being published in Hebrew translation (Magnes Press and Dvir). It is usual these days to say that communism became corrupt and was spoiled, that it became rotten from the inside, that it ran its course and went bankrupt - without pinpointing just why this happened, and why then specifically. Whatever the causes, the process evidently began in Moscow and spread West.
In the fall of 1989, thousands of East Germans began fleeing to Prague and Budapest, taking refuge in the courtyards of the West German embassies there. This heightened the ferment in the eastern part of the country. The heads of the Communist Party attempted to save their government. They jettisoned their leader, Erich Honecker, into the fray and promised liberalization.
In the evening of November 9, 1989, the spokesperson for the Communist Party appeared at a press conference and read a long statement about the Politburo discussions. Somewhere between the lines, it said that a decision had been made to allow residents of East Berlin to visit West Berlin. The reporters present didn't immediately grasp the full import of this, but when one asked when this passage to the West would be possible, the spokesman replied: "As far as I know - now."
The proceedings were carried live on television and within minutes, masses of people were streaming toward the crossing point. The guards at the wall were caught unprepared and the crowd burst through the checkpoints. In the coming days, hundreds of thousands passed through this way. Many just wandered the streets of West Berlin for a while, bought tons of bananas, visited the porn shops and returned home, like prisoners heading back to jail from a furlough.
I was there in those days and I remember being reminded of the feeling in Jerusalem in June 1967. The masses who crossed from one part of Berlin to the other belonged to the generation that had grown up, as in Jerusalem, with the knowledge that beyond the wall lay another, forbidden and unattainable - and therefore magical and coveted - world. And now suddenly it was reachable. Many wept beneath the Brandenburg Gate as people had wept by the Western Wall, over the nation's bitter history and its imminent redemption. But Baerbel Bohley was not among the celebrants that night.
"When I heard the announcement on television, I knew right away that East Germany had ceased to exist as an independent state. I drank a shot of cognac and went to sleep," she recalled last week.
It may not have happened the way she pictured it would, but no one can take the revolution away from her; those were the best years of her life. German unification, 10 months after free passage between the two parts of Berlin was allowed, was too sudden for her, too brutal. She chose to spend the next 12 years in Sarajevo, where she helped in the rebuilding efforts after the bloodiest war since World War II. She stopped painting, battled cancer, married and returned to Berlin; she has a son. Even now, when she goes out, she still gets recognized as the symbol of 1989.
Bohley has a hard time getting excited about the current celebrations: It's all a bit too bombastic for her taste, too commercialized, suffused with fake nostalgia. The entire city has been turned into a giant entertainment complex, with souvenir stalls on every corner hawking the story of the wall in pictures and posters, puzzles and comic books, porcelain mugs, keychains, miniature flags, replica uniforms, license plates from the communist period, handcuffs, playing cards and also fragments of concrete encased in transparent plastic, which are being sold as actual remnants of the wall. You can also buy wall fragments in the form of ground-up dust. Tourists can rent GPS systems to lead them along the route of the wall, along which, here and there, few remnants are still visible. Or they can opt for a tour in a Trabant, the clunky passenger car manufactured in East Germany. It used to be said that you could double the vehicle's value just by filling it with gasoline.
Last week, a guy dressed in an a U.S. Army uniform and clutching an American flag stood next to the famous Checkpoint Charlie border crossing, shouting, "Photo! Photo!" For 1 euro you could have your picture taken with him. A guide at the Museum of the Wall behind him said he used to smuggle people from East to West. A group of schoolchildren listened to him wide-eyed. The man, Rudi Thurow, told them one heroic story after another. He himself escaped from the East after deserting from the East German army.
He also knew the soldier who was photographed leaping to the West over the barbed-wire fence that separated the two parts of the city before construction of the wall was completed. That soldier's desertion resulted in one of the most famous photographs of the later half of the 20th century. The soldier's name was Conrad Schumann. In fact, Schumann did not flee because he opposed the communist regime, Thurow explained: He was really an alcoholic and hoped to obtain better treatment in the West. And he carefully staged his desertion, having arranged beforehand to have press photographers there waiting for him. But he did not find happiness in the West, evidently; he hanged himself in July 1998.
It is commonly said that about 40,000 people managed to escape from East Germany after the wall was built; several hundred are said to have died trying. Beside one remnant of the wall, on Bernauer Street, stands a memorial to them in the form of a giant iron wall, much higher than the actual wall was. This is no coincidence: Most national myths are larger than the reality. The division of Germany, the tyranny in the East and the construction of the wall are depicted as the embodiment of evil and as a punishment that the Germans did not deserve; the unification of the two Germanys is presented as the embodiment of justice.
3. The collapse of the communist regime sparked a wave of anti-Semitic incidents in the East. This is a subject that in recent years has much occupied Irene Runge, who works in Berlin's 20,000-strong Jewish community. Her parents had immigrated to New York during the Nazi period, and she was born there. In the 1950s, prompted by their identification with socialism, her parents returned to East Germany.
When I met Runge in 1989, she was unofficially know as the spokesperson for the Jewish community in East Berlin. Among other things, she encouraged an appeal to the Soviet authorities to permit Jews to settle in East Germany. I got the impression that Runge, a sociology lecturer at Humboldt University, enjoyed good ties with the authorities; she knew a lot about the politics behind the communist collapse and spoke relatively freely. A while after it was all over, she confessed to her students that for a few years she had worked as a collaborator with the East German security service, the Stasi. She was immediately fired from the university and has suffered the repercussions to this day. Others did not come clean and were not fired, and by the time their past was discovered - no one took any interest.
"What did I really do?" she asked last week. "I reported to the Stasi why my friends talked about. I supported the party; I believed it could be reformed. When I went to see my file in the Stasi archives, I discovered that at least seven of my friends told the authorities what I said to them."
In advance of the 20th anniversary, at least three new tourist sites were opened documenting the work of the Stasi, and showcasing various espionage gadgets, like a fountain pen that's also a camera. One can also visit the jail where opponents of the regime were incarcerated (including Baerbel Bohley, twice). I suggested that she accompany me there, but she twirled her finger next to her forehead and said she wasn't quite that nostalgic.
The jail is popular, attracting approximately 250,000 visitors annually. You get to see the cells and the equipment, such as that used for Chinese water torture, which were used, albeit mostly in the 1950s. Conditions at the prison improved over time and eventually psychological torture, such as total isolation, was the primary method used there.
Bohley recalled that for her, at least, being cut off from the world was not a hardship: "In the isolation cell I discovered my inner freedom," she said.
In one interrogation room that looks like it came straight out of the movie "The Lives of Others," the guide asked me to sit in the interrogator's seat, but I preferred for him to do so. All the visitors except me were Germans; the guide did his best to convince them that communism had not yet disappeared. He was referring to East German figures who, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, were permitted to integrate into German politics; indeed some of them are still active today. One, attorney Gregor Gysi, heads the leftist Die Linke party. The communists permitted him to defend opponents of the regime - including Baerbel Bohley. When she looked through the Stasi archive, she was stunned to find that Gysi had betrayed her and informed on her. He denied it.
By the way, former Stasi prisoner Bohley thinks "The Lives of Others" is a very good movie; former Stasi collaborator Runge, however, thinks it distorts history.
Sometimes both women miss the past. There was a better atmosphere in a way, Runge said. Since most houses didn't have telephones, people went to visit each other, and since there were no restaurants, people cooked more at home. In the West they've never learned to bake rolls the way they used to do in the East, she added.
Baerbel Bohley misses the maple tree that grew in front of her house and was chopped down to make way for an underground parking garage. Lots of young families took advantage of the low housing prices and settled in Kollwitzplatz near her apartment, and they bore her. The unemployment worries her, too; in Berlin the jobless rate is as much as 15 percent.
4. In the 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city has reinvented itself, as it has done over and over again throughout the 90 years since Germany's defeat in World War I. Only Paris and London draw more tourists than Berlin. Approximately one million of the city's 3.5 million inhabitants are foreign citizens, and that figure includes hundreds of young Israelis. Life here is relatively cheap, and many are captivated by the multicultural liveliness. It's hard to remain indifferent to Berlin, but it's easy to feel an oppressiveness, a false gaiety; the city is forever agonizing over its past and tormenting its guests with it.
United Germany became a world power, but public opinion surveys show that one in three residents of East Germany feels that unification did not improve his situation. Many feel defeated. The socialists hare having trouble coming to terms with the fact that for 40 years, they believed in an evil regime that led them astray. Many have moved to the western part and somehow integrated there. Many of those left in the eastern part earn less than people in the West; pensions are lower, the unemployment rate is higher.
Klaus Schuetz told me he doesn't know anyone who seriously believes he had it better during the communist era, but still, not everyone has managed to really internalize the unification as part of their identity, or even as part of their daily routine.
When I was there last week I heard on the radio that the deer in the Berlin woods haven't adjusted to unification either: The fences that divided Germany prevented them from passing between the two sides. To this day, the deer are still stuck in the past and turn around when they get to the places where the fences once stood, as if they were still there.