Many thanks to KIRO’s Tom Tangney for his permission to re-post this essay in connection with our ongoing Divided Cinema series (which runs through this Wednesday, December 16). Tom was among a handful of American journalists who visited Berlin in October on a RIAS/Berlin fellowship.
Stasiland, 20 years after – the visible made invisible, and vice versa.
Paris has the Eiffel Tower, London has Big Ben, Rome has the Coliseum and Berlin, like it or not, has its Wall. Despite centuries of rich political and cultural history, Germany’s capital city is still probably best known for those 97 miles of barbed wire (and eventually, reinforced concrete) that divided and isolated Berlin for almost 30 years. And that will no doubt remain the case for at least another generation or two.
Despite this past month’s major hoopla over the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the most striking thing about this particular symbol of Berlin is its absence. It speaks to the power of the imaginative hold the Wall had over not only Berlin but also the world that its presence still captivates decades after its disappearance.
Like most every other major city in the world, Berlin is grappling with how to preserve its unique past without strangling its growth and progress. Europeans are especially sensitive to the dangers of “Disneyfication,” whereby their homelands become carefully preserved historical playgrounds for tourists the world over. It’s going too far to suggest that great metropolises like Paris and London are held hostage to the demands of their spendy visitors, but the power brokers there certainly recognize the financial benefits of keeping their History front and center. The Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and the centuries of accumulated royal trappings are certainly central to an outsider’s image of England’s capital city. And that goes double for Paris, what with its Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, Louvre Museum and its centuries of accumulated cultural and artistic trappings.
But these symbols of national heritage are not just for tourists. They’re also highly prized by the town’s inhabitants. They’re markers of civic pride and social identity. They help the citizenry define itself.
That’s what makes the case of Berlin so particular and piquant. Of all the capitals of the world, is there any with a more troublesome or problematic 20th century past? As many historians have noted, so horrific were the 12 years of National Socialism that they threaten to permanently color, if not actually wipe out, centuries of German history in the minds of most everyone now alive. And to have the monstrosity of Adolph Hitler and the Holocaust followed immediately by the Soviet-controlled experiment called the German Democratic Republic, one has to seriously wonder how Germans in general and Berliners in particular can muster any civic pride at all.
If any capital has earned a sense of cataclysmically low self-esteem, it would seem to be Berlin. How much does the city want to remember, let alone commemorate, its Nazi past, for instance, or life behind the Iron Curtain in “Stasiland,” as journalist Anna Funder so sharply coined it? With a past as notorious as Germany’s, the danger is not in getting stuck in the past. It’s far more likely to be a denial of the past that could cripple this great city.
It’s preposterous, of course, to try to address such profound issues in such a short essay. But I hope to at least frame the complexities by looking at two striking examples now in evidence in Berlin: the startling ABSENCE of the Mauer (the Wall) and the powerful presence of the Hohenschonhausen prison. In a nice twist of historical irony, the once visible is now invisible, and the invisible now quite visible.
For the most part, all that remains of the Wall is a line of cobblestones through the heart of the city. It’s such a quiet marker that it goes unnoticed by the millions of pedestrians trampling over it as they rush hither and thither. The contrast is striking. What had been a nearly impregnable barrier to so many for so long is now traversed without a second thought. As I did my best to walk the Wall’s path through the city, I continually found myself disoriented enough to have to stop and check – now is this the East side and that the West? Twenty years after the Fall, it’s not so easy to tell. I’m sure I’m not the first visitor to Berlin who wished, if only momentarily, that the Wall was still standing in some form … as an aide-memoire to those of us in search of history. In fact, I can imagine someone like Christo or perhaps the artists at Tacheles organizing a massive performance art piece in which a lifesiize replica of the entire Berlin Wall would be reconstructed out of, say, cloth and strung along the path of the original wall. That’s too fanciful for most people, I’m sure, but I personally would have preferred that to the oversize dominoes that were used in the 20th anniversary celebration.
Although I was fortunate to have visited Berlin when the Wall was in full operation and been able to wander the streets of East Berlin on one memorable day, it’s still hard for me to imagine what life must have been like during those nearly 30 years of bi-section. I remember thinking at that time, in the late 70’s, how outlandish and unimaginable the Wall was, even as I leaned up against it. And with each passing year, it gets harder and harder to imagine and/or accept that reality. The further away I get from my specific memory of it and of the fall of the Wall itself, the more it becomes as unreal (or real) as an episode of THE PRISONER, that classic TV series of paranoia.
Berliners have a complicated relationship with the Wall. As a quite literal symbol of oppression, the Wall was so hated, on both sides, that once it was breached, it seemed to fall down by itself. The rage over the Wall eventually consumed it. You can hardly blame Berliners, East and West, for wanting to obliterate every scrap and remnant of the hated divider. Twenty years later, I suppose it’s to Berlin’s credit, that any stretches of the Wall persist at all. Curiously, it’s Checkpoint Charlie and not the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing that’s best memorialized. After all, it was Bornholmer that served as the border crossing for Germans, not Charlie (which was restricted to non-Germans.) Perhaps because it has always been a privately funded endeavor, the preserved Checkpoint Charlie station and accompanying museum has become a major tourist attraction, catering primarily to tourists, I suspect. Its excellent if somewhat rickety museum still bears the stamp of its origins in the early 1960’s. No better holdings exist of the various (and all rather amazing) means of escape under, over, and through the Wall.
By contrast, Bornholmer, where thousands of East Berliners first crossed over into West Berlin that fateful night of November 7, 1989, has nothing more than a pop art bench and a non-descript stone marker by the side of the road to acknowledge the historical significance of the place. It’s now such a quiet, almost pastoral place, it’s hard to imagine this was where the sixteen year-old girl featured in the book “Stasiland” was tracked down and caught at the very edge of the “death strip,” just inches from freedom and the prospect of a very different life than the life she ended up with in a Stasi prison. But this rather more subdued approach may be the way most Berliners prefer to remember. For them, the Wall is a matter of historical record but no longer a pre-occupation.
This is not to say Berliners are in any state of denial over the Wall. As a people, I can’t imagine how Germans could say mea culpa any more than they already have for their hand in many of the major horrors of the 20th century. And the Wall is well-memorialized on Bernauer Strasse with the block long preservation of the original Wall and its corresponding death strip, an extensive Berlin Wall Documentation Center across the street, and the Evangelical Reconciliation Church rebuilt on the spot where its previous incarnation once stood in the middle of said death strip. Nearby, there’s even an outdoor stainless steel sculpture of East German soldier Conrad Schumann making his famous leap over the barbed wire into West Berlin. There’s also a small Wall park and a lengthy stretch of wall known as the East Side Gallery, which features Wall Art created post-Fall. And finally, occasional swaths of the Wall crop up in the most unexpected places – some are covered in ivy and apparently forgotten, others form the back walls of cemeteries, while still others seem to be backdrops for billboards and traffic signs.
In other words, The Berlin Wall still exists for those who want to seek it out but for all intents and purposes, it’s non-existent for those who don’t.
That may be the proper balance for Berlin to strike. There’s been a lot of talk about the “wall in the mind” that persists for some Germans, and a segment of the population even calls for the return of the Wall – mostly East Germans who nostalgically remember full employment and conveniently forget the Stasi. But the vast majority on both sides of the divide reject that notion outright. The most recent and intriguing call for the return of the Wall is from Dr. Rita Kuczynski, a German writer who says the Wall should have been left standing as a memorial, a commemoration in stone that would serve as “a resistance to amnesia.” As sympathetic as I may be to this line of thinking, the impracticality of such an idea makes it seem more like academic posturing than a real call for action.
If the Wall was the most visible manifestation of Germany’s division, the work of the Stasi was, obviously, the most invisible. When it became clear that
as many as one in seven East Germans were spying on their fellow citizens, that neighbors were reporting on neighbors, priests on parishioners and vice versa, that spouses even betrayed each other – it was a testament to the secrecy skills of the Stasi bureaucracy that the news stunned everyone, East Germans most of all.
The exposure of the Stasi machinery is the most important work (and accomplishment) of the reunited Germany. The destruction of the Wall was an understandably immediate priority – it satisfied the emotional needs of the time and its physical presence was a literal hindrance to the unification of Berlin.
But it was the dismantling of the operations of the GDR, and most notably the exposure of the Stasi apparatus, that did the most to pave the way for unification.
A good illustration of the institutional invisibility of Stasi operations is Hohenschonhausen Prison. This Stasi prison in northeastern Berlin was so well-hidden it didn’t even show up on East Berlin maps. Like many Stasi buildings, its map footprint was simply blacked out and never identified. So effective was this official invisibility that a one-time political prisoner there in the 1950’s says he had no idea where he had been held until after the fall of the Wall, 30 years later. Hans Eberhard Zahn, who at the time of his imprisonment was a West Berlin college student legally visiting East Berlin, is now in his 80’s but he gives tours of the prison to this day as a way to shed light and bring attention to the darkest underbelly of life in the GDR. His compelling account of the psychological torture he endured and his tales of how he combated it were made all the more poignant for being told to us from inside the very cell he was once imprisoned in. And when he began reciting for us the Shakespearean sonnet that he said helped keep him sane, he managed to covey to our group of jaded journalists a hint of the emotional costs of life in what he also called “Stasiland.”
The Hohenschonhausen Prison is now visible for all the world to see, but most importantly, for Berliners themselves. In addition to the daily tours of its once heavily guarded premises, the prison is even featured prominently in the Oscar-winning German film “The Lives of Others.” In his work as a prison guide, Hans Eberhard Zahn is the very embodiment of this so-called “resistance to amnesia.” He represents the living past. And as for the future, the most hopeful sign is this: schoolchildren now regularly tour this once most secret and awful manifestation of the German Democratic Republic. Those children are the best antidote to amnesia there is.