Not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, tours of the East Bloc, which only months earlier had very limited mass appeal, were suddenly in great demand as visitors from the western world descended to explore the treasures of a culturally rich part of the world which had previously been out of reach. Two of these were Mary and Ann Ford, nurses from Ontario, Canada and avid travelers during their vacations. The photos in this post are taken from trip they took to Central Europe in June of 1990 and I enjoy them for how they present a Berlin (mainly) that is both familiar and distant. Read More
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.
“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.
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
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.
Today is a good day to reflect on the victims of the years of German division, in particular those whose lives were lost at the Berlin Wall, as it was on this day 28 years ago that a 20-year old East Berliner named Chris Gueffroy became the final victim of the “order to shoot” in effect at the border separating the two Berlins. Gueffroy was shot to death trying to make his way across the border fortifications separating the East Berlin district of Treptow and the Neukölln neighbourhood on the West Berlin side. The pair had chosen this evening to try and make their escape in the mistaken belief that a visit to East Berlin that day by Sweden’s Prime Minister had resulted in the temporary suspension of the “order to shoot”. This had been the case, but by the time of their attempt, the Swedish PM had left town and it was back to “business as usual” at the Wall.
I happened to be studying German in West Berlin at the time of this incident and I remember it as a moment which underscored for me just how cold the Cold War had left many West Berliners. Read More
As the fall of 1989 progressed and the Socialist Unity Party’s (SED) grip on power began to loosen, many of the Party’s more than 2 million members watched in disbelief as the socialist project crumbled before them. One window onto the myriad of reactions that these developments gave rise to is found in the newspapers under SED direct control. Junge Welt (Young World) was the organ of the GDR’s youth organization, the Free German Youth (FDJ), and with 1.4 million copies printed, it was the country’s largest circulation daily. My collection includes this paper’s November 7, 1989 edition, and it provides an amazing reflection of the disintegration of state socialism in the GDR just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
On August 13, 1961, 55 years today, East Germany erected the Berlin Wall. At least 138 individuals died at the Wall during its more than 28 years of existence, most of them East Germans seeking to flee “real existing socialism”. Approximately half of these deaths occurred in the first five years after the Wall’s construction in the period before the GDR was able to refine the fortifications to a point where escape became virtually impossible.
While the construction of the Wall turned the flood of East German citizens fleeing West via Berlin to a trickle, in the early years of the barrier, many desperate individuals tried to escape from East to West across what was in places still a semi-porous border. At times these escape attempts escalated into open confrontations between East German border guards and West Berlin police, sometimes accompanied by an exchange of gunfire. One result of this was that the atmosphere in the newly divided city was highly charged. This was most certainly the case on Sunday, May 27, 1962.