Berlin’s Cold War Footprints

Berlin is a beautiful and vibrant place with secrets around every corner. Unfortunately, mere days aren’t enough to explore what secrets it hides. My adoration of Berlin has no end, and I cannot wait to go there again.

When most people think of Berlin, people think of World War II.

I wrote in my review of Deutschland 83 that the world seems to ignore that between the fall of Nazi Germany and now, that Germany has a history which plagues it to this day: its place in the Cold War. The devisor between the East and West, the divide could not be any more obvious as the streets are marked with bricks to indicate where the Wall of Shame divided the world.

But it isn’t just the brickwork which marks where the Wall used to be. One only has to look around them to see the obviousness of this divide. Post-War West Berlin was rebuilt to assume what had been destroyed with classical, neo-classical and bauhaus architecture, and even in 2015, remains very much under construction with empty plots of land in the middle of the city. East Berlin was not so lucky; Soviet architecture’s emphasis upon classlessness and mass production resulted in a lack of uniqueness for monolithic and brutalist housing. None of Stalin’s great architecture seemed to transfer to East Berlin, with government buildings seemingly immersed in amongst residential blocks.

It is lucky that the Berlin Wall has not become as touristic as other locations, despite people desperately peddling pieces of painted cement for a few Euros each. The Berlin Wall left behind not only architecture, but victims, and wherever you walk in Berlin, you see remnants of the lives it took. Whether it’s the Stasi Prison, or the crosses by the river, you cannot simply walk past it without knowing what it left behind.

Here are some photos of Cold War Berlin!

Next posts will be about Hohenschönhausen Stasi Prison (Cold War) and the Centre for German Resistance Movements (WW2).

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Sign me up for Season 2: Deutschland 83

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There are very few television shows which can get me hooked simply from the title card, but Deutschland 83 is my new addiction.

When it comes to world cinema and television, Germany seems to have no other history except for World War II. This became even more profound with the highly controversial Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (English Title: Generation War) which divided historians and couch-critics like never before. It’s not helped with Amazon’s newest boat-rocker, The Man in High Castle and the upcoming TV miniseries, SS-GB. And even when it’s Germany in the Cold War, it’s still about the Nazis (looking you, The Man from U.N.C.L.E).

Germany, as it seems, has a vacuum in history from the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War. At least, according to television.

The brainchild of husband and wife team, Jörg and Anna Winger, Deutschland 83 is newest spy show to hit our screens, and it is one that can only get better.

The first German-language television show to air on any US television network, Deutschland 83 is set in… you guessed it, 1983, and follows East German border guard, Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay of Homevideo fame), as he is forced to spy on the West for State Security, also known as the ‘Stasi’. The eight-episode series is sleek and smart, and has plenty of room to move in one of the most interesting periods of the Cold War period.

 "Deutschland!"

Set in during one of Germany’s most tumultuous involvement in the Cold War tensions between the United States and the Eastern Bloc, Deutschland 83 portrays Cold War Germany in a way that the West doesn’t like to acknowledge: relatively normal.

The Berlin Wall has been built and life goes on, and that, by itself, is terrifying in a way where you find yourself uncomfortable at how uncanny it is. Through the lens of history, we often forget that life can go on, and that is something which Deutschland 83 forces us to remember, however much we don’t want to. With our introduction to East Germany being a sunny lunch party for Martin’s mother, Ingrid, and the booming of ’99 Luftballons’ over the television, we are given the comfort of a carefree GDR, far removed from the barbed wire and Stasi terror we are used to seeing. Light moments are produced by the trivialities of the East. Dry humour in amidst serious situations often helps us to remember the normality of daily life.

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Every episode of Deutschland 83 is watching Martin taking a turn in Russian Roulette.

Posing as the aide-de-camp of Bundeswehr General Edel (Ulrich Noethen), Martin’s hasty training by under undercover agent Professor Tischbier (Alexander Beyer) after his kidnapping from East to West Germany allows for well-orchestrated high-tension drama. With a pregnant fiancé and terminally ill mother back home, Martin has no alternative but to strafe the minefield of Cold War politics.

Watching a Cold War drama, our perception might automatically assume that Martin would be a willing officer for the Stasi, but Martin’s reliability echoes the dubious nature of a military upbringing in East Germany. Although his boss, Schweppenstette (Sylvester Groth) might ask him whether he is prepared to sacrifice everything to the GDR, and Martin agrees with blind allegiance, it soon becomes clear to Martin that the realities of life outside alters his perception of the world – violently and abruptly. Deutschland 83 is not afraid to criticise youthful bravado, whether that is in the military or through political involvement.

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As Martin becomes Lieutenant Mortiz Stamm of the Bundeswehr, we are treated to how masterfully Nay illustrates the human experience of wonder. His initial shock and subsequent cautiousness on his first visit to a West German supermarket wearing branded clothing allows us to experience the overwhelming nature of the world outside the East. Later, his fascination with the Walkman, despite having access to micro-cameras and radio-transmitting bugging equipment, his childish bouncing on a soft hotel bed, and his cluelessness at how to order at a formal restaurant is endearing, but reminds us of the true discordance between the East and the West.

Both directors, Edward Berger and Samira Radsi, use colour in Deutschland 83 which is unlike any other Cold War drama. While our expectations of the GDR would be pride in the red flag with the hammer and sickle, East Germany has just as many colours as the West, only subdued. Muted tones and desaturated washes help to drain some life from the GDR whilst bright and loud colours help to represent the vibrance of West German society.

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Deutschland 83 eases us into Martin’s world with each episode raising the stakes higher and higher but never loses its human edge.

The show forces us to consider what most espionage shows fail to master: the portrayal of the isolated world of a spy. As Martin experiences his personal disasters, losses and challenges, Nay does an excellent job of Martin’s desperate attempts to connect, to someone or something. Deutschland 83 forces us to suffer with Martin as he struggles through each day, subjected entirely to the will of the Stasi. His loneliness is exacerbated by his distance from his fiancé, Annett (Sonja Gerhardt) and his initial attempts to contact her which sets a harsh lesson for him for the rest of the series, especially by the aunt who conscripted him, Lenora Rauch (Maria Schrader).

As Martin navigates each challenge, Nay has the slightest of movements which alter the direction of the scene. Whilst those waiting for the next exciting peak may miss them, much of the show is dependent upon the subtlety of Martin’s reactions as thinly-veiled expressions would have obvious consequences: after all, he is a spy. This is closely reflected by Schrader’s stellar performance as Lenora, who delivers the heavy-handed authority of the show with her chain-smoking chameleon capabilities.

Deutschland 83 is not a show of bravado with hard negotiators and swanky politicians: it is the dry reality and humour of Cold War negotiations.

Whilst I find General Edel’s rebellious son, Alexander (Ludwig Trepte, who happens to be in Unsere Mütter, unsere Voter), and his Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh cult daughter, Yvonne (Lisa Tomaschewsky) to be generally intolerable, their presence alongside Edel’s wife, Ursula (Anna von Berg) reminds us of the humans involved in the Cold War crisis, and its impact upon the home front. We are not treated to sweeping views of the White House or the Reichstag, nor are we subjected to shady backroom deals. We are given table-top military meetings without excitement – as it should be.

There are few pitfalls to Deutschland 83. Some viewers may view Yvonne’s flimsy character along with Trepte’s disastrous overacting for Alexander’s fits of fury as being a sign of bad quality in the show, but these are things which can easily be fixed in future seasons. A smart script is sometimes challenged by television tropes: ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ by the Eurythmics was not the only song in existence during the 80s, nor was ’99 Luftballons’.

With Nay at the helm, a more than capable cast and wonderfully talented Anna Winger as script writer, I am waiting for Season 2 of Deutschland 83.


Deutschland 83

Directed by: Edward Berger, Samira Radsi
Screenplay: Anna Winger
Starring: Jonas Nay, Ludwig Trepte, Maria Schrader, Ulrich Noethen, Sylvester Groth, Alexander Beyer
Watch it: RTL Deutschland, Thursdays at 20:15

The leap which defined a life: Hans Conrad Schumann

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On a cloudy Friday morning in mid-November, I stood under my broken umbrella and stared at the image of the 19-year-old Hans Conrad Schumann leaping over coils of barbed wire.

I’m not sure what captivated me to stand there for twenty minutes, glancing between the ground and the large black and white photograph printed upon the side of the building on Bernauer Straße in Berlin.

On 13 August 1961, the Berlin Wall ‘officially’ started being built. However, it was the preparations made by the Border Guards of East Berlin/GDR which established the foundations for the next 28 years of construction to what would eventually be known in the media as ‘The Wall of Shame’.

After World War II, the four major Allies (the USA, France, Britain and the USSR) forced Germany into demilitarisation as a part of the denazification process of the nation. However, as time went by, it became evident that there was a clear ideological divide between the democratic capitalist nations of the USA, Britain and France and the single-party communist state of the USSR. Despite the insistence of the GDR that no wall was being built, walls no less than three metres high were being constructed to emplace a physical divide between the East and West.

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Hans Conrad Schumann was an unwitting symbol of freedom in the Cold War, and though he never regretted the decision to defect from the East, it was a decision which forced him into a life of alcoholism and depression. 

On August 15, 1961, 19-year-old photographer Peter Liebing was tipped off by West German police that something would happen upon Bernauer Straße. He had been tipped off as a 19-year-old Conrad Schumann had stood at what would eventually be the Berlin Wall – coils of barbed wire – and pressed down upon it. In a signal to a West German policeman, he gave a sign – the sign to defect.

The situation was dire: as coils of barbed wire were being unrolled, the people of Germany were in uproar, shouting and swearing at police and guards from both side. But upon the Western border, a police van had been stationed opposite the wire, its back door open.

When Liebing arrived, he noticed a young GDR border guard leaning against a wall, smoking cigarette after cigarette, trying to keep calm. Two of his comrades were patrolling the other side of the road. To Liebing, it was unclear which of them would defect, and when. As hours went by, nothing happened, but Liebing continued to be at the ready with his Exacta camera ready to capture whatever would occur.

But at 4pm, Liebing caught the picture which would change Schumann’s life.

“My nerves were at breaking point… I was very afraid. I took off, jumped, and into the car … in three, four seconds it was all over.”

A camera crew had forced the view of the camera upon the two other border guards, forcing them to turn around upon their patrol and lose Schumann from sight. In that moment, Schumann tossed away his cigarette, and within seconds, bounded over the barbed wire fence, tossing away his Kalashnikov machine gun and running into the back of the van. Within seconds, Schumann was whisked off to the nearest police station, out of sight.

When he arrived, he asked for something to eat, and another cigarette. He then said that the West German police ‘squeezed him like a lemon’.

Schumann was the first of many GDR border guards to defect from East Germany.

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East Germany initially wanted to portray his defection as a kidnapping, but as publicity mounted behind a uniformed member of the GDR fleeing his own regime, it became more and more unviable to maintain the story.

In his police report, Schumann provided the West with a valuable insight into the instability behind the East German lines.

In the report, Schumann disclosed that in the days prior to his escape, he had worked endlessly in the attempt to maintain control behind East German lines and got very little sleep as GDR troops were reallocated to East Berlin. In the GDR, he had been told certain things about those in West Germany: that those lingering along the Western Berlin border were criminals, or that the West German police did everything to keep the West Berliners in (such as shooting at them). However, as he stood guard at the border, through his observations Schumann came to realise that what he had been told were falsehoods; there were no conflicts between West Berliners and the police and that the ‘Free Zone’ was indeed free.

Schumann had made some preparations. The Russian MG 42 he had chosen was empty as to help him get over the wire. As he said, had it not been, it probably would have gone off when he dropped it. At 2pm, he assigned tasks to the soldiers under his command, and spread them out so that it wouldn’t look suspicious, but had placed himself closest to the wall. As he said, “Nobody noticed anything.”

After his escape, Schumann remained in a refugee center in Marienfeld, West Berlin until the end of September 1961.

The two other guards, Erich Fierus and Peter Kroger, later stated that had they have caught Schumann in the act, if he had so happened to have gotten caught in the wire, they would have shot him. But with knowledge of what the Stasi were capable of, this would have been one of the kinder options.

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Conrad Schumann had become a symbol of freedom during the Cold War.

But life in the GDR was defined by paranoia. With the State Security – also known as the ‘Stasi’ – keeping an eye on everyone and everything, imprisoning those who were merely suspected of antisocial activities and sentencing all those to prison or hard labour, residents of the GDR had everything to fear. It was well known that there were those in the West whom had been kidnapped by the Stasi, and so it was not irrational to think that even though one was in the West, that they could still be a target.

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On one side of the Wall, Schumann was a hero. On the other, he was a traitor.

In the West, Schumann was alone. Born in Zschochau, Saxony, Nazi Germany in 1942 and trained as a sheepherder, Schumann had left family and friends behind in the East. The West German Government helped him to build a new life in the West. With his ticket to Bavaria, he started work at a Hospital and trained to become a nurse. However, his first decade in the West sees him fall prone to the bottle to numb the pain, the start of what would be a lifelong battle with alcohol addiction.

Schumann he met his future wife and with her, had a son, Erwin. He bought his first car, a VW Beetle, in 1963 – a far cry away from the eight year waiting list for a Trabant in the GDR. He took up a new job at a winery, and eventually at the Audi car assembly factory in Ingolstadt. Schumann proudly cheered for FC Bayern München, and attended church on Sundays. He got himself tattoos on both arms along the way.

But Schumann had left behind his mother and father, a younger sister. The Stasi, with their eye upon him, record that he wrote exactly every two weeks. When his father had finally received a permit to see him thirteen years after the jump, Schumann discovered that he had been told by the Stasi that he had read contraband materials, and that they had paid him to jump, to which Schumann had accepted. Over the years, Schumann was tempted to return to Saxony, receiving letters from his family saying that everything would be fine if he were to come home. At one point, he had to be persuaded by a West German policeman against what could have been a disastrous outcome, because little did he know but the letters had been written by family, but dictated by the Stasi.

And so despite all pressure from the Stasi, did not return to the GDR. The fear and paranoia plagued his life, and alongside the pressure of his unintentional fame, Schumann led to a lifelong battle with depression and alcoholism. He had remarked, “Only since 9 November 1989 [the date of the fall] have I felt truly free,” and had considered Bavaria where he felt truly at home.

Despite the fame, Schumann never blamed Liebing for taking the photograph.

Schumann developed a small friendship with Liebing throughout his life as a result of the photograph and met often. Schumann divulged to Liebing in a private talk his reason for defecting: he did not want to be put into the situation where he would have to shoot someone. With one’s upbringing in the GDR being fundamentally driven towards military purpose, it was highly likely that Schumann might eventually have had to.

Schumann later publicly spoke more about his reasons for defection, “As a border policeman I could see how a little girl who was visiting her grandmother in East Berlin was held back by the border guards and not allowed over to West Berlin. Although the parents were waiting just a few meters from the already rolled barbed wire, the girl was simply sent back to East Berlin.”

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After the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Schumann was reunited with the family he had left behind in East Germany, but it was clear that time had not justified his choice to some.

There were those in his family who still regarded him as a traitor, and refused to talk to him. He had frictions with former colleagues, and was hesitant to visit his parents and siblings back in Saxony.

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Conrad Schumann died in 1998 from suicide, and though he left no note, it was widely accepted that he never escaped living a life in fear. He was 56 years old. Schumann was one of the Berlin Wall’s many victims.

Peter Liebing’s photograph of Conrad Schumann, entitled ‘Leap to Freedom’ was compiled as part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World in 2011.