East Germany, the former DDR, was a grey, repressed place. Or so the narrative of the victors would have you believe, a narrative peddled in an unceasing ideological war that continues unabated. The standard of living was low, there was no industry or initiative, people were not free, all they wanted to do was escape. And the reason was that Stalin imposed communism on an unwilling population, as part of his campaign for world domination. Suspicious of this official account, I decided to dig a little deeper into the history of east and west.
Origins of the Two Germanies
How and why were the two Germanies divided after the Second World War? Was it because of Stalin’s aggressive policy to put under the Soviet yoke as much of Europe as possible? Was it a defensive act on the part of the occupying powers in western Germany against communist world domination, all of which was embodied in the ‘Berlin blockade’ of 1948-49?
Not quite. Let us go back to the Potsdam and Yalta conferences, where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed to three key items in post-war Europe:
1. The four Ds: disarmament, demilitarisation, denazification and democratisation of Germany.
2. Reparations, vital for the USSR’s recovery.
3. German unity.
Stalin had even agreed to three occupation zones, with each symbolically represented in Berlin, despite it being deep in the Soviet zone. (How the French ever managed to get a toe in was beyond many, since they had embraced the Nazis a little too enthusiastically.) This was despite the fact that the USSR had exerted by far the major effort and lost the most in winning the war.
How did these three items fare after the end of the war?
1. The four Ds. Only in the eastern, Soviet sector was there any significant progress on these items. The occupying forces in the western areas were too keen to rearm Germany, which already began by the early 1950s. They found ‘ex-’ Nazis willing participants in the anti-communist struggle, and they fostered pliant governments. Of course, Stalin too favoured a government sympathetic to the USSR’s concerns, but he believed this would happen through popular groundswell.
2. Reparations. Soon enough, the occupying forces in the western zones reneged on the earlier agreements. The last thing the Anglo-Americans wanted was for significant resources, technology and money going to the USSR, so they stalled and blocked reparations from the west of Germany.
3. Unity. In contrast to the standard narrative, Stalin favoured political unity, the Anglo-Americans did not – this is perfectly clear from the increasingly rancorous discussions over what was to be done with Germany. Whenever Stalin or Molotov or other Soviet representatives pushed for a unified German government, the Anglo-Americans countered by arguing that the economic situation had to be addressed first. In other words, they wanted to axe reparations and keep Germany divided.
Why? The Americans and British could see that communist parties were becoming extremely popular, not only in Germany but across Europe. For his part, Stalin hoped that this ‘new democratic’ wave would continue in a united Germany and lead to a government favourably disposed to the USSR. In March 1948, Stalin urged the east German communists to draft a constitution for the whole of Germany as a beginning point for discussion with western politicians. He was even prepared for a non-socialist government as long as it was ‘democratic and peace-loving’. Yet he was realistic enough to see that the Americans in particular would not agree since it would threaten their desire to control western Europe. On that point he was correct: the Anglo-Americans were certainly not interested in such a united Germany, for then it would risk falling out of their control. So they preferred a divided Germany.
Events unfolded. In June 1948, the UK, France and USA issued a communiqué stating their intention to form a western German state. A few days later a new currency was introduced in the western zones. By the end of June, Stalin ordered restrictions on access to West Berlin. Despite all the western propaganda concerning the ‘Berlin blockade’, it was not a blockade. Air access was permitted the whole time, for the purpose of supplies. Stalin’s reason for the restrictions was simple: he wanted to get the former allies back to the negotiating table. As soon as they agreed, the restrictions were lifted in May 1949.
Despite clear Soviet desires for unity, the fours Ds and reparations, the Anglo-Americans were simply buying time. By this time NATO had been formed. In September 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was declared and the first formal meetings of government held. The east had no option but to respond, reluctantly, with its own state soon afterwards.
Representing the Wall
A little more than a decade later the wall went up, reinforcing the perception of vast divide. Its remains were not far from where I lived in the east. A few sections stand still, perhaps preserved from the wrecking balls at the last moment because someone in the west realised their tourist and propaganda potential. The Mauerpark, with its museum, plaques and tastefully sprinkled sculptures of wall-parts, or the ‘East-Side Gallery’, a collection of murals along the River Spree, or the tackiness of ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ – they all work a little too hard to assert that life in the east was grey and grim and deathly. The ‘wall of shame’, Willi Brandt – the West German chancellor – called it. For Winston Churchill it was the clearest marker of the ‘iron curtain’.
At first sight, the finality of the wall’s fall is marked by a double-row of bricks – cutting across roads, footpaths and intersections – that traces the path of the former wall. Bronze plaques appear regularly, at least through the city: ‘Berliner Mauer, 1961-1989’. Contained, interpreted, neatly packaged – all in order to present the perspective of the supposed ‘winners’. Yet at nearly every point along the former wall, one finds more ambiguous dimensions of a memory and a project that cannot so easily be contained in this fashion.
Soon enough, in my search some facts emerged from the mists of that narrative. First, the wall does not cut the city in ‘half’, between a communist east and a capitalist west. Rather, the centre of Berlin is mostly in the east, with the suburban rump of the western part left to the occupying American, British and French forces after the Second World War – a deal to which Stalin had graciously agreed even though the Red Army had captured Berlin.
Second, it actually circles the whole of west Berlin, covering some 155 kilometres that includes canals, lakes, villages, fields and vast forests. Far from the grainy pictures purveyed by the ‘official’ history of the wall, towards the south-west it skirts the holiday playground of the Wannsee. Here inland beaches where nudists still frolic in summer – for nudism was fostered in the DDR – sit cheek by jowl with extensive forests and their tracks. I can imagine the pleasure of the builders as they cut through the areas where mansions of the rich and famous are found, isolating some – in the western part – from the water and thereby their source of value, and turning others – on the eastern side and beside the water – into places for all to visit on holidays, subsidised by the government.
But who did the wall seek to stop? In western mythology it was the whole population of the DDR, desperate as they were to flee to the land flowing with milk and honey. According to this story, a good number had already left the DDR due to communist ‘repression’, so the wall was built to prevent more – neglecting the facts that most of the border had no wall at all and that many of those who did leave had connections with the Nazis. But let us look more closely and see precisely who was preventing whom from crossing over in the early days of the two Germanies.
Since I have already traced the origins of the two countries, let me begin in 1950, when Konrad Adenauer was chancellor of West Germany, with massive army bases manned by American, British, French and many other troops. In that year the Korean War was underway and rabid McCarthyism was dominating not only US politics but all those parts of the world now under its imperial sway. So Adenauer proposed a combined European force with a German contingent, which would be sent to attack the communists in the east. With hardly time to draw a breath, after the Second World War, West Germany was on the path to rearmament. Back home, the West German government announced a new decree concerning ‘Anti-Democratic Activities by Public Employees’ – a McCarthyist code for anyone who was vaguely left. Actually, anyone who was not openly and vocally anti-communist was subjected to defamation and discrimination. For example, the Roman Catholic writer, Reinhold Schneider, wrote a couple of articles urging public debate on rearmament and the need to come to an understanding with East Germany. Given the repression of public debate in the West, he published them in East Germany. After that ‘mistake’, most West German avenues for Schneider to express his views were closed to him. Newspapers, magazines and radio refused to deal with him.
Further, the police were deployed to prevent West Germans from making contact with the East. In 1950, the police arrested more than 10,000 young West Germans at the border. They were returning from a meeting in East Berlin and were held at the border for over 24 hours until they agreed to register their names and undergo a ‘health’ examination. The following year, in May, the police arrested another large group, again over 10,000, which was returning from a ‘Meeting on Germany’ in East Berlin. This group refused to register their names, so they were held under arrest for more than 48 hours. Another event was on the calendar later in the year, the ‘Third Youth and Student World Peace Festival’ (5-9 August). The West German government ordered the police to close the border, which was at this time open and through which free passage was possible. And in May of 1952, a member of the Free German Youth was shot dead by police during a banned protest in Essen.
So the movement was very much from the west to the east, especially by young people seeking a way forward for a united Germany. The western powers were less than keen on the idea, so they did their best to block such movement. Not a story that is told in the lead-up to the wall’s construction.
But what is the wall actually like? My initial impression of the sections left standing was, ‘How low it is and how thin!’ Western representations of the wall presented it as a massive fortification, towering to the heavens. But the reality was less than the political spin. It was barely two metres high and perhaps 20 cm thick, a rather flimsy construction really. I was therefore surprised at the foundations that had been too difficult to remove, that were now used as the basis for other constructions. In quiet corners I encountered unexpected slabs of concrete, a twisted piece of cement reinforcement, a run of foundation blocks that proved too much to remove. In some cases, the line of bricks and concrete at ground level merged into a newer wall that had been built – behind an apartment block, a warehouse on the outskirts, a house that needed some sturdy grounding. Solid foundations it would seem, which can still be used in order to build again. Perhaps that effort at socialism was not so fragile after all, its foundations running deeper than one might have expected.
The wall’s real name is as telling as it is little known: the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, the Anti-Fascist Security Rampart. Was this merely hyperbole in the face of western aggression? Was it really a screen to keep east Germans out of the western rump of Berlin? Or was there some truth in the name? In order to find an answer, we need to revisit I some more detail one of the four D’s, denazification, since it has become a hot issue once again.
Spend a little time in Berlin and one of the standard lines you hear trotted out these days is that East Germany never went through a proper process of ‘denazification’ (Entnazifizierung), unlike the good people in the West. Instead, goes the narrative, nearly all the ex-Nazis in the east simply joined the new communist government, which explains the ‘totalitarian regime’, the dreaded Stasi and now the supposed burgeoning of neo-Nazi groups in the east.
The problem with this convenient story is that it ignores a rather inconvenient fact: communism was and is implacably anti-fascist. Stalin’s victory over Hitler’s Germany (for which the western front was a diversionary tactic of limited success) was explicitly celebrated as a victory over fascism. As soon as the war over, virtually all the Nazis in the east were arrested, banned from any involvement whatsoever and put in ‘re-education camps’. And in good old Stalinist fashion, a goodly number of them were granted an early funeral.
Meanwhile in the western occupation zones, the Americans made a show of denazification, with a massive censorship program that spent most of its time censoring criticism of the occupation. At the same time, the Americans shipped out most of the Third Reich’s leading nuclear scientists, ‘intelligence’ officers and whatnot, in order to bolster their anti-communist struggle. Not a few of them were awarded prestigious US medals. The British and French didn’t even bother with the show of denazification. They wanted people to run the civil service and since a significant number of the intelligentsia and the civil service had been Nazis not long before, they were simply reappointed. The British and French made some token arrests of a few elite members of the Nazi party.
But even the Americans gave up on their efforts by the early 1950s, under pressure from Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. In one measure after another, ‘former’ Nazis were released from prisons and pardoned. Those pardoned included Nazis responsible for dragging people off to prison, for shootings, executions, causing bodily injury and so on. Above all, ‘article 31’ removed restrictions on persons ‘incriminated’ with the Third Reich, since they had suffered so much since the end of the war. In an early example of anti-discrimination laws, they were given preferential treatment for government, educational, medical and many other positions. Thus, whenever a vacancy occurred, the committee was instructed to check with a list provided by the Ministry of the Interior to see whether someone with this past was available so that he or she could be given preferential treatment for the post ahead of better qualified candidates. Once in positions of influence, these ‘ex-’Nazis worked hard to ensure their buddies gained posts elsewhere. Why? The new enemy was communism and who better to fight the good fight against communism than unreconstructed fascists.
No wonder it was called the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall.