Posts Tagged ‘East Germany’

The Stasi were aided by an estimated 189,000 citizen-informants (source)

This is part 3 “Our Surveillance” of a 5 part series titled Doomed to repeat?: Growing up in East Germany by Petra Foerster (Part 1 – Our History, Part 2 – Our Education)

Doomed to Repeat?: Growing up in East Germany – Our Surveillance Audio by Jonathan Fader

While I agree that the government provided the incentive for citizens to report on the “inappropriate” speech and behaviour of their neighbours, friends, and even family, it was everyone’s personal decision to report someone to the Stasi, and by doing so most likely threatening and destroying that person’s life and livelihood, as well as those of their family.

During the time the GDR existed they employed the divide and conquer approach to keep the population in check. In order to access higher social/career positions and earn advantages you had to be a member of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) or SED. A big role was played by the secret service, the Stasi (short for Staatssicherheit). They had people everywhere.

Citizens were encouraged to spy on their friends and neighbors and to report any so-called suspicious behavior, meaning “did they do or say anything critical about socialism, the government, the Soviet Union?” Even a bad joke could get you arrested if it was perceived as critical of the system. The reward for the rat who sold you out was maybe a vacation, a color TV set, or a promotion. That being said – it didn’t necessarily mean that every police officer would report you if you said something, they had to be a member of the SED but many of them would still turn a blind eye.

Unfortunately people were sometimes reported by someone they least expected it from, like a good friend they used to go on family trips with. The people in my hometown were afraid of my dad because he often said things that were critical of the system but was never arrested for it. My family was lucky, we had friends in a high position in Berlin who made sure my dad wouldn’t be jailed.

After re-unification my dad requested his Stasi file and when he received it there was a lot of vetting and information deemed illegible for public viewing. They hid the names of the persons who reported my dad; those whom had hoped to get him arrested. I cannot even describe the feeling of disgust I experience when thinking about this, not only my father but everyone who was reported. Jail was different under the GDR. I know, police brutality exists, but often it is the prisoners who cause a lot of harm to each other. In the GDR, prison meant you were being tortured by the guards to get a statement out of you, to either blame yourself or another person.

When we read the word torture we have a rough idea in mind, but most of us are in denial of what one person is capable of doing to another, and we often don’t want to think what was done. Sleep deprivation was a common tactic, another was solitary confinement in darkness. Then there is physical torture, people were beaten with sticks, or water torture – the guards would use handcuffs to secure the prisoner to a wall and fill the cell with water. The prisoners never knew what would happen next; would they ever see the daylight again? And no, they didn’t have access to a defence lawyer or visitation rights. Torture was considered a “legitimate” means of interrogation in East Germany until its fall in 1989.

Living in the GDR came with a lot of fear of saying the wrong thing. Early on we were conditioned to feel bad about being German, and that we only had a chance for redemption by following the socialist lead of the Soviet Union. For the longest time I felt guilt when talking to people from other European countries, inherited guilt from the Nazis. And there are many people out there who take advantage of that. Imagine having a conversation with another person and both sides provide facts for their respective points of view, and all of a sudden the other party, running out of things to say and remembering that you are German, calls you a “Nazi” as a last resort to shut you up. I often didn’t know what to say because I was so conditioned to feel guilty.

Slowly, over time, I learned that many countries with surviving victims of National Socialism don’t blame the generations that came after, they understand that they cannot blame children for the mistakes of their parents. When I studied in the Czech Republic I took a train home one day, and ended up in a conversation with an older gentleman, old enough to have lived through WWII. We had a great conversation about history and all kinds of things, and it was while exchanging ideas and experiences with him that I started to understand that he didn’t blame me for what happened, that it wasn’t my fault. I have friends who are Jews and they also don’t blame the generations that came after.

We have to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, but I don’t have to walk with my head down because I happened to be born German, on the “wrong side of the wall.” But I still feel uncomfortable, even just writing this feels wrong on some part. This is what early childhood conditioning does to you. Under the GDR we had our own anthem,”Auferstanden aus Ruinen” (“Risen from Ruins”), which was literally about overcoming “old woes” to find “happiness and success”, but we were not allowed to sing the lyrics because that would have been patriotic and patriotism was deemed unacceptable…

…you could be reported for such inappropriate behaviour.

Written by: Petra Foerster – UTKM Green Belt

For training online visit www.utkmu.com. If you are in the Metro Vancouver area, come learn with us in person, sign up at www.urbantacticskm.com

A collection of East German textbooks from the School Museum in Leipzig (source)

This is part 2 “Our Education” of a 5 part series titled Doomed to repeat?: Growing up in East Germany by Petra Foerster (Part 1 – Our History)

Doomed to Repeat?: Growing up in East Germany – Our Education Audio by Jonathan Fader

Okay, so we’ve established that East Germany was a Socialist system. While West Germany was lucky to have “Gastarbeiter” the situation in East Germany was a bit different. While here, too, people from other countries were brought in (mostly from other Eastern European countries, Vietnam, North Korea, Angola, Mozambique, and, of course, Cuba), there was still a shortage of workers. Though East Germany tends to brag about how progressive they were regarding treating men and women equally, I personally think that it is this shortage that forced the government to provide resources so that both men and women could contribute equally to rebuilding the country.

In West Germany you could observe a more traditional role distribution, with the husband going to work and being the main breadwinner and the wife staying at home to raise the children. In East Germany both were working, often in a very exhausting shift system. Early childhood education started for quite early many children, beginning with Kinderkrippe (nursery school) for very young children (5/6 months old to approx. 3 years old), followed by Kindergarten (garden of children) for 3-5/6 year olds, and then starting primary school usually at the age of 6.

The positive side was that every child was guaranteed a spot in the Kinderkrippe and Kindergarten. Plus there was a lot of effort put into the education of the staff. As a child you learned early on to be part of a group, which is important, but this can also be used to start feeding the children into a specific social system. In my case it was Socialism. We were taught songs, German children’s songs and songs that were translated from Russian. We would listen to fairy tails from the Brothers Grimm and stories about Baba Yaga and the beautiful Wassilissa. The Soviet Union was often referred to as “grosser bruder” (big brother), not in Orwell’s sense of “Big Brother” from the book 1984, but as a literal older sibling who, allegedly, was looking out for his younger sibling, the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

There were many exchange programs going on between East German and Soviet schools. The first foreign language most people learned was Russian, starting in grade 5. Mine was the first generation of students who learned English first in grade 5, Russian still being added grade 7. Keep in mind, when I was in grade 7 it was 1993, so this was happening 4 years after the wall came down and 3 years after the official re-unification. The changes following the collapse of the Eastern Block were implemented very slowly.

There is a big age gap between my siblings and myself. My sister is almost 18 years older than me, but we still managed to have couple of teachers in common over subsequent years. When my sister was in school one of our shared teachers reported her for wearing a blue jeans with the US flag, resulting in her suspension. To become a teacher you had to be a member of the main political party, the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands/Socialist Unity Party of Germany). When I had that same teacher in school (1993-1998) they were now a member of the CDU (Christliche Demokratische Union Deutschlands/Christian Democratic Union of Germany) which meant this person did a socio-political 180! Socialism considers religion as “opium for the people.” As a result there weren’t many active churches in East Germany. We had friends who were catholic and all of their children were incredibly smart and intelligent, but because of their faith they had a hard time getting admitted to universities. I think family friends were able to help them because I know that one of the children studied mathematics and physics at a university level. It was definitely not easy for them and I’m sure the Stasi (Staatssicherheit – the state secret service) had a close eye on them.

The first lesson my dad taught me was “don’t believe the media.” Especially in countries ruled by the Soviet Union newspapers, broadcast news, and books, where these forms of media were used to manipulate the population. We were provided with books in that promoted the idea of Socialism. Many German authors and artists who voiced their concern or openly criticized this philosophy where shunned, banned, not allowed to publish their works, imprisoned, or even expelled (anyone noticing the hypocrisy?). Critical thinking was not encouraged.

Uniform of the socialist youth league in East Germany (source)

From grade 1 to 8 students were part of the socialist youth organization called Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organization. From grade 1 to 4 we were “Jungpioniere” (Young Pioneers) and our uniform was a white shirt with the Pioneer logo on one sleeve and a blue necktie. From grade 5 to 8 we would wear a red necktie and were called “Thälmannpioniere” (Thälmann Pioneers). I think my generation was probably the last one that still got to be a “Thälmannpionier,” I remember a big ceremony related to that. But again – that was years after the re-unification. We, too, had 10 commandments. One of them was to be friends with children from the Soviet Union and all other countries (but emphasis being on the SU). In grade 8 I would have advanced into the FDJ, the “Freie Deutsche Jugend” (Free German Youth). Part of that organization included attending all kinds of camps where you learned how to dig trenches, among other things, but by the time I was that age the whole process was discontinued. The FDJ still exists in Germany, though, but is no longer important. The positive side of these youth organizations was that they provided summer camps and arranged holidays for children and young adults, which was a great relief for working parents. Our summer break being 8 weeks long (as it is in Canada), many working parents were unable to take the time off.

Our education system was structured to get us ready to be good little workers in service of the higher ideal of socialism. History was taught from the Soviet point of view and emphasized how thankful we have to be “for the Soviets to free us from the Nazis.” Facts about war crimes committed by the Soviets were conveniently omitted. I was still very young when the brainwashing started and I remember reading a book about the crimes committed by the Red Army and my first reaction was shock and disbelief, but reason kicked in and I understood that my education had been very one-sided. When you are being raised in a specific system that also conditioned you on how to think and how to perceive things, it takes a lot of time to first acknowledge it, then try to break the pattern and to step away to get a different point of view on things. The first thing that our brain learns is often perceived as the ultimate truth. When you are taught early on that the Soviet Union is your “big brother” and “looks out for you,” and they are “all that is good in the world” and that “socialism/communism is the non plus ultra, it can be a very brutal awakening when this illusion is shattered and you will become very skeptical.

Or at least I became very skeptical.

Whenever someone is trying to sell me something as the greatest thing ever, without any negative sides, I don’t believe them. Every idea, every concept, has pros and cons; it really depends on your position. One thing that really bothers me in the social structure that pushed so hard on every side to “sell” us on this ideology, was the reporting, the subject of the next part in this series.

Written by: Petra Foerster – UTKM Green Belt

For training online visit www.utkmu.com. If you are in the Metro Vancouver area, come learn with us in person, sign up at www.urbantacticskm.com

Guards along the East Berlin side of the Berlin Wall, 1961 (source)

This is part 1 “Our History” of a 5 part series titled Doomed to repeat?: Growing up in East Germany by Petra Foerster

Doomed to Repeat?: Growing up in East Germany – Our History Audio by Jonathan Fader

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.

Allied-occupied Germany 1945–1949 (source)

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

For training online visit www.utkmu.com. If you are in the Metro Vancouver area, come learn with us in person, sign up at www.urbantacticskm.com