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To mark the 57th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall, here are some memories of Gundula Wilhelm, a retired pastor’s wife from Alberta, Canada. Gundula and her family moved to East Berlin in 1952 so that her father, a Lutheran pastor, could serve the zum Vaterhaus parish on Treptow’s Baumschulenweg, just a short stroll to the border dividing the two halves of the city.

Wall - Berlin Aug 13 cover

Berlin August 13, a publication of Federal Republic of Germany’s Ministry for All-German Affairs, here in a revised and expanded version in April 1965 (author’s collection)

“It was wonderful growing up in the Berlin of that time. When we arrived in the city, the border was still open of course, so you could go over on the S-Bahn [commuter train, ed] any time you wished,” remembers Gundula.  “You might be unlucky and get searched, but that never happened to me. We had close relatives over there though, so we were over often. In fact, we were in the West visiting a cousin on August 12, 1961, but came back to the ‘lovely’ East that evening. We woke up the next morning to the sound of tanks passing by our house on their way to the border just up the road. And from that point on, you couldn’t go across, simple as that.” (Interview with author, May 27, 2018)

While we are familiar with these sad stories of the immediate consequences of the Wall’s construction, it was the account of the years that followed shared by Gundula and her husband Friedmut which I found most fascinating as they help bring to life the atmosphere that the couple and their circle of young friends experienced in the aftermath of the Wall.

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Wilhelms 27 05 18

Friedmut and Gundula Wilhelm, May 27, 2018 (photo: author)

When asked to characterize his approach to dealing with Communist authorities, Friedmut Wilhelm, a retired Lutheran pastor who largely grew up in the German Democratic Republic and served parishes there from 1966 to 1979, is matter of fact: “We simply refused to play the game by their rules.” (Interview between author and Friedmut Wilhelm, September 5, 2017).

It’s a telling remark and one that I would contend is the key to understanding how the Lutheran Church in the GDR persisted in the face of forty plus years of hostile rule by the Socialist Unity Party (SED). This post is based on three interviews I conducted with Friedmut Wilhelm and his wife Gundula over the past number of months and it relates experiences they had as a clergy couple in rural East Germany between 1966 and 1979. While the Wilhelms’ story is theirs alone, I suggest that it is an example of the church’s – or more accurately, some of its clergy’s – dogged determination  to maintain independence from direct state control, an attitude which allowed the Lutheran Church to help facilitate the peaceful revolution of 1989 which brought an end to both the GDR’s state socialism and the Cold War. Read More

1960 - Homeric JWK II

My father, John Kleiner, at a masquerade ball on board the Homeric, the ship which transported him to Europe in the fall of 1959.

Today would’ve marked the 82nd birthday of my father, Dr. John Kleiner, a professor of at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Canada, and the man whom I have to thank for my interest in German history. To mark this date, I thought that I’d share some photos and notes from a trip he took to Berlin in the winter of 1960. I think that these provide an interesting perspective on the divided city before the Wall and I hope that after reading this post that you’ll agree with this assessment.

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In an earlier post from a few months back, I looked at the issue of Vietnamese contract workers in the GDR through the experiences of Hieu L., father of Minh, a young woman I met through my work at the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University. After spending a number of years in the GDR in the 1970s learning German and completing engineering studies, Hieu returned to Vietnam where he worked as a university lecturer. In the mid-1980s, however, he received an offer to return to the GDR to work as a translator for Vietnamese guest workers and in 1987 he accepted, leaving his wife and young daughter behind to take on what was quite an attractive position compared to those on offer in his native Vietnam. If you are interested in Hieu’s work in the GDR, you’ll find plenty of those details in the earlier post. We pick up the story here in the summer of 1989 . . .

The Wende and a World Turned Upside Down

In the summer of 1989, Hieu received welcome visitors to his East German home in Wallendorf, his wife Diu and their daughter Minh. Minh explained: “My Dad’s contract was for five years and so we were allowed to visit him [in the GDR] for six months in the summer of ’89. We could do that because he was not a regular guest worker. He was more highly qualified and directly employed [ed. note – by the East German state, not a specific factory or industrial combine as was the case for most guest workers].” During the visit, Diu became pregnant with the couple’s second child and this important development in the family’s life was mirrored by the major changes taking place in geopolitics.

Indeed, the backdrop for the family’s reunion was the gradual disintegration of the GDR over the summer and fall of 1989, a situation which really picked up speed with the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. The scenes from the Brandenburg Gate in the aftermath of the Wall’s fall reached Wallendorf’s television sets and Diu quickly decided that she wanted to be part of this monumental moment. So, with Minh in tow, she and a friend boarded a bus for the once divided city. Once in West Berlin, they spotted a supermarket through the bus window, got off to marvel at all that was on offer there and even bought some soap and mandarin oranges. The scene remains vivid in Diu’s mind to this day: “Our eyes were sparkling with joy and we thought of West Germany as a prosperous country!”

The political changes, however, quickly plunged the many foreign guest workers inside the GDR into uncertainty about their futures. Minh relates, “My Mum told me that after the GDR ceased to exist [ed. note: formally on October 3, 1990, but the decision to unify was essentially sealed with the results of the March 1990 elections in the GDR], the contract workers had no ‘existential status’ anymore. So they were told to go back and they were offered or given 3,000 Marks or so to buy tickets and go back.” While some guest workers accepted this offer, for others, including Hieu, a return home was not particularly appealing and so he and Diu decided to try and stay and find a place for themselves and their young family in the new Germany.

Berlin, Abflug vietnamesischer Arbeiter

Returning home: in the fall of 1990 thousands of Vietnamese guest workers returned home via daily charter flights from East Berlin’s Schönefeld airport (photo: Bundesarchiv 183-1990-1109-032 / Bernd Settnik).

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East German city planning is a particular interest of mine because here the frictions between the utopian aspects of the socialist project and the concrete realities of daily life in the GDR are revealed in a most telling way. East German leaders were determined to create the “new socialist personality” (their version of the Homo Sovieticus) and saw in city planning another tool to facilitate this goal. At the centre of these efforts were four so-called “socialist cities”, towns planned from the ground up and, theoretically at least, built in such a way as to enable its citizens to live their lives in conformity with the values and priorities of the state’s socialist ideology. Over the past number of years, I managed to visit three of these several times (Eisenhüttenstadt, Hoyerswerda and Halle-Neustadt), but had never made it to the fourth, Schwedt. That changed this past April when I was able to spend a day in this town in the lovely Uckermark region to the north-east of Berlin.

Public Art from GDR Era, Pt. 1

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My guide in Schwedt was Dr. Johanna Goldberg, a resident of the town since 1969 and someone who will be familiar to regular readers as the subject of several recent posts. My hope was that she would be able to give me a personal take on Schwedt’s history and I was not disappointed. Before heading out for my tour, however, I gave a close read to Dr. Philipp Springer’s Verbaute Träume: Herrschaft, Stadtentwicklung und Lebensrealität in der sozialistischen Industriestadt Schwedt (Blocked Dreams: Power, City Planning and Daily Life in the Socialist Industrial Centre of Schwedt – Ch. Links Verlag, 2006), a detailed look at the development of this “socialist city” and source of many of the facts laid out here. Read More

In 2008 I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Marcus Funck, my friend and colleague from the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies to lead a study tour of Canadian graduate students to the former-East. The central theme of our trip was transformation and one of our aims was to expose the group to what this process had been like not only in the major cities such as Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden, but in smaller centres as well. Given the way in which Eisenhüttenstadt had been connected to the old regime, we were confident that including it in the itinerary would be useful and I’m pleased to say that we were not disappointed.

Children are our future: Stained glass from 1950s by Walter Womacka in former daycare centre (photo: author).

Children are our future: Stained glass from 1950s by Walter Womacka in former daycare centre (photo: author).

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In my former job as the Coordinator of the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University I supervised a number of German students in Canada on exchange who were assigned to our office as student assistants. For the first few years I was at York, the students I worked with were all white, had “German” family names and could trace their connection to Germany back over many, many generations. But in more recent years this began to change and our German students often came with family names betraying a variety of ethnic and cultural heritages. I greeted this development as a reflection of the fact that the German academy had begun – finally – to reflect the multicultural reality of the society around it.

That said, I was more than a little surprised when one year the C.V. belonging to our new German student bore a distinctly Vietnamese name. I immediately wondered whether Minh L. was from the family of a former East German guest worker as this was the provenance of many people of Vietnamese background in the united Germany. Reading on, the dates and locations suggested that this might be the case.

Vietnamese guest workers from "Banner of Peace" shoe factory march in the 1988 May Day parade in Weissenfels (photo: courtesy of Minh and Diu L.).

Vietnamese guest workers from “Banner of Peace” shoe factory march in the 1988 May Day parade in Weissenfels (photo: courtesy of Minh and Diu L.).

However, this remarkable aspect was quickly overshadowed by an entry in the C.V. which showed that from 1993 to 1999, Minh had attended elementary school in that most notorious of eastern German towns, Hoyerswerda! (For more on Hoy, click here for my earlier post on this subject) This was only two short years after German authorities had caved to several days of anti-foreigner pogroms by neo-Nazis and their sympathizers and removed all former-GDR guests workers and refugee seekers from the town. Neo-Nazis subsequently declared Hoy a “national liberated zone” (German: national befreite Zone) and the town became synonymous with the wave of xenophobia and violence that surfaced in the early years after German unification.

The mind boggled. Read More

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