It’s hard to believe it has only been 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and yet in another way it seems like a life-time ago. I suppose in a way, for me, it has been. I remember, as a student of sociology and politics, being fascinated with communism and wanting to spend time in a communist country, to experience it first-hand. I wondered if it really was just totalitarianism dressed up as a high “all people are equal” socio-political ideal or if there was something more to it than that. The fact that a structure such as the Berlin Wall existed at all made me suspect communism was simply a euphemism for fascism, after all its primary purpose seemed to be to keep people IN eastern Germany rather than keep westerners out. Still, I wondered and set my sights on one day going there to find out.
However, on 9th November 1989 the wall came tumbling down and with it the end of communism in what was known as the Eastern Bloc. I remember watching the news reports, incredulous that this structure of oppression was coming down and not one person was harmed or killed. Only months beforehand that would have seemed impossible.
I was truly happy for the people of eastern Germany and watched their jubilant celebrations continue into the night. History was being made and I almost felt like I had a front row seat. A twinge of disappointment nagged at me though, that I hadn’t made it to Eastern Germany to see what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. The champagne bottles were barely empty however, when a sense of “what happens next” crept throughout Europe. Again, I wondered what life was going to be like for the people of the former German Democratic Republic.
This time however, I got a chance to find out. Not long after the last Soviet troops had left in September 1994, I rocked up to Chemnitz, East Germany in my blue Volkswagen Golf. Re-unification was in full swing and Eastern Germany was under re-construction. My new husband was tasked with overseeing the construction of a city block.
Chemnitz was decimated by the Allied bombing campaigns of the second world war and the only construction that had taken place during the Soviet era was primarily Plattenbau style tower blocks.
This town, and many others, desperately needed a facelift. As my husband settled into the monumental task ahead of him, I took up a position as an English teacher with a local language school. This meant I was in close contact with members of the local population and I soon learned just what life had been like under communist rule. As I had suspected, communism had meant oppression. From the stories I was told, life had not been easy under Soviet rule and in keeping with human nature, some chose to ease their hardships by informing on others. Even five years after the fall of communism and with the last of the soviet troops gone, my students still lowered their voices and looked nervously around them when they spoke of the dreaded Stasi. Detention, torture and disappearances had been common.
Apart from the insidious repression there had also been day to day challenges for the people of East Germany. They didn’t have supermarkets like we had in the west and shortages of all sorts of goods were common. A type of bartering system existed where goods, produce and services would be exchanged for each other. When the wall finally came down, many east Germans spent what little they had and their west German welcome money on items such as television sets, microwaves and other gadgets that all too often were faulty goods sold to them out the back of vans by con-men, many of whom had been English speaking. This did nothing to alleviate their inbuilt suspicion of strangers.
The first night myself and my husband entered the local stube (bar) the place fell deathly silent and one could sense a hint of hostility. Most people would probably have left but the problem was, I was hungry and thirsty and the cupboards at home were bare. So as far as I was concerned the locals – mostly dirt-on-boots working guys – could be as hostile as they liked, I wasn’t letting that get between me, my food and a cold beer. Unknown to our new drinking buddies my husband is fluent in German and there were a few raised eyebrows as he rattled off our order in flawless Deutsch. We took our beers and made our way to a table by the window. Conversation resumed but in a more hushed tone than before. Eyes glanced over at us, some curious, more of them suspicious. It wasn’t long before a representative was sent over to interview us. “Abend,” he said in the unique Chemnitz way, drawling out the “A” .
“Abend,” (evening) we both smiled back. I can still see him standing in front of us, his bushy blond hair sporting something of the mullet look and his startling blue eyes full of unspoken challenge. “Woher kommen Sie?” he asked.
“Ireland,” I replied. His eyes switched from challenging to surprised and I could see him searching his internal database. It was obvious when he located Ireland within his memory bank as his face lit up in shock.
“Irelanda?” he asked and I’m willing to bet I was the first Irish person he had ever met.
“Ja, das ist richtig,” (Yes, that is right) I answered, somewhat amused.
“Und was tuen sie hier?” (And what are you doing here?) he asked.
I explained I was a teacher and my husband was an architect working on the new city block just around the corner. He eyed us up, decided we weren’t con artists or even worse – condescending west Germans – and welcomed us to Chemnitz! The welcome included two more beers. We bought a round for the Stammtisch (locals’ table) before we left and every night we dined there afterwards, a steady stream of beers would miraculously appear with our meal.
Our time in east Germany was much shorter than we had planned and I have to admit to the drab architecture and overwhelming greyness getting to me to the extent that the weekends would find us on one motorway or another out of Chemnitz. However, the more I got to know the local people they beguiled me with their friendly, warm nature and by the time Sunday night rolled around I was always happy to be dodging them in their Trabants and making my way back to their smiling faces again.
Later that year as I pointed my Golf west I couldn’t help wondering how the whole re-unification project would go. It was only five short years since the wall had come tumbling down and tensions simmered on both sides of the now defunct structure. But as the amazing scenes of celebration on Sunday night showed, the German people pulled it off in spectacular fashion and are incredibly proud of what they have achieved, and so they should be. As Angela Merkel, who was raised in east Germany, said:
“The fall of the wall showed us that dreams can come true.”