This is part 1 “Our History” of a 5 part series titled Doomed to repeat?: Growing up in East Germany by Petra Foerster
When I started writing this blog I didn’t expect it to get this long. I’m not a political person, as a friend recently said, I pick my battles carefully. When you look at my Facebook feed it is about my cats, martial arts, and travelling. That being said, I’ve recently started following the news a bit more, and I noticed a development in the politics on the North American continent and back in good old Europe that raises all kinds of red flags for me. I will have to go back in history to explain where I’m coming from with my concerns. So bear with me here.
I was born at the end of 1979 in East Germany, the former “German Democratic Republic” (GDR). I was 9 years old when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. I remember watching it on the news and the bizarre feeling of seeing people climbing on top of it (prior to that day you would have been risking your life), and later seeing the wall actually being torn down. The exact date is November 9th, 1989.
But, have you ever wondered why German Unity Day (Tag der Deutschen Einheit), the holiday to celebrate re-unification, is October 03? Simple – the Night of Broken Glass (Reichskristallnacht) happened in 1938 on November 9th. Thousands of Jewish-owned stores and buildings, along with hundreds of synagogues, were smashed by rioters; both civilian and Brownshirts. The same happened to Jewish homes, hospitals, and schools. As a result of that single night of state-sponsored brutality approx. 30,000 Jews in Germany and Austria were deported to concentration camps. Growing up German means you carry a lot of history, and it is important to learn about that history in order to not make the same mistakes again.
Yes, I was still very young in 1989, but it was always important in my family to learn as much as we can about history. My dad had all kinds of books about it. And, of course, we learned a lot about it in school. But here is where it gets a bit complicated, because history books are written by the victors. Depending on where you grow up the angle on events might be different or some facts may be omitted. Which is, again, very strange, since history happened you might think those facts are objective, but depending on the system you live in they might give events a different spin.
Let’s circle back to my background and my attempts to get things lined up so that they make sense. I try to not to go into too much detail, as it is incredibly complex. But I will try to cover the most important things and fit it all together.
After WWII (1939 to 1945) Germany was divided into different zones. West Germany, which was split into 3 zones, each controlled by a different country (USA, Great Britain, and France), and East Germany, which was under control of the Soviet Union. Berlin, the capital, was split into East and West Berlin; East Berlin being controlled by the Soviets and West Berlin controlled by the USA, Great Britain, and France together. During the years of Third Reich the area occupied by Germany was way bigger, after WWII large pieces of land were given away to other nation, e.g. to Poland and Czechoslovakia. Many places have the name of their town in Polish or Czech and sometimes below, in a smaller font or in brackets, the old German name. E.g. In what is now Czechia the German town of Ústí nad Labem was formerly Aussig. If you ever happen to go there – keep your eyes open. This also means the outer borders of Germany, as they exist now, are not that old.
During the Potsdam Conference (July 17th to August 2nd, 1945) Stalin, Churchill, Attlee, and Truman got together to discuss the next steps for Germany. They wanted to avoid the mistakes that were made after WWI in the Treaty of Versailles (1919). Among a couple of other things they wanted to establish a democracy in Germany, demilitarize the country, proceed with the denazification, and establish military tribunals for war crimes against members of the leadership of Nazi Germany (International Nuremberg Military Tribunal).
Let’s have a look at the denazification. The plan was to replace people in administrative/government positions, who were identified as strong believers/followers of the Nazi regime. In the Soviet zone that meant those in positions of authority were being replaced predominantly with people who were in favor of socialism/communism, in order to transform that region into a Socialist society. Ever since the October Revolution in 1917 and the creation of the Soviet Union, with its Socialist philosophy following Marx, Engels, and Lenin (to name a few), many people were drawn to that idea of socialism/communism. Since the Soviet Union was the first country to implement this system many German intellectuals travelled there to learn more about it, and to either become fully convinced that this was the greatest thing ever, or (at least a few) to witness the other side of the medal, with all its absolutism and cruelty, and distance themselves from it.
When establishing a new government and new governing body in East Germany people with a pro-socialist attitude were preferred when assigning offices. Early on the Soviet Union worked on creating a socialist system in East Germany and to make it part of the Eastern Bloc which was governed by the Soviet Union. It was also part of the idea to keep Germany weak by keeping it split into East and West. Interesting side fact: Most of you will know that I practice Judo – Judo was forbidden in Germany (among other martial arts) after WWII, up until approx. 1949.
It made a big difference who ran the zone. In the USA controlled zone, and later in all West Germany, the Marshall Plan was implemented to help Europe, including Germany, to recover from the destruction of WWII. West Germany benefited from it a lot. Borders were opened and many so-called “Gastarbeiter” (“guest workers”, foreign or migrant workers who moved to West Germany between 1955 and 1973) came to West Germany to help rebuild the country. The idea originally was for them to come to Germany, help rebuild and then go back to their respective countries, but many of them stayed, as they came to Germany as young people, made friends, founded families, and had their families from their countries of origin come to live with them.
The situation in East Germany was different. Instead of providing financial and material help to rebuild the country, many factories, including their means of production, were transported to the Soviet Union; not much was left. Many people migrated out of East sector to find better opportunities in one of the other zones. In order to keep people from leaving, the German-German border was established and fortified in 1952. In 1961 the Berlin Wall was built to divide Berlin into East and West. Since 1960 East German soldiers had orders to shoot if they saw anyone attempting to cross the border from East to West.
There was no legal requirement to shoot to kill. However, for troops deployed on the border, commendations and bonuses for guards who had shot and killed escaping fugitives, ideological indoctrination of young draftees and soldiers, and laws that under certain circumstances criminalized escape attempts all tended to transform the “permission” to use weapons into a kind of obligation to use them. (source)
The exact number of people who died trying to get over the Berlin Wall is not confirmed, though the estimates are between 140 and 245. The number of people killed while trying to cross the German-German border was also not accurately recorded, though it is predicted to be in the range of 1,000-1,400.
Most soldiers serving at the Inner German Border were from Saxony, a region which features a very distinct accent and dialect of German. The reason for choosing Saxon Germans as border guards was that the state of Saxony didn’t touch the Inner German Border (being separated from Berlin by the state of Brandenburg), and therefore most soldiers didn’t have any personal ties to the East Berlin population. The government feared that if the soldiers knew, or could sympathize with, the person trying to cross, they might not shoot. A side effect of this strategic choice is that, when asked what they associate with East Germany, West Germans very often mention (and mock) the Saxon accent.
I have to admit, Saxon is not the prettiest of accents. However, before “accusing” me, as an Easterner, of being Saxon myself, I will have you know that the area where I’m from is called Upper Lusatia. We originally belonged to the kingdom of Bohemia, but during the Thirty Years’ War the Bohemian king was indebted to the Elector of Saxony and to settle the debt they gave them the Upper and Lower Lusatia.
So don’t call me a Saxon 🙂
Written by: Petra Foerster – UTKM Green Belt