A couple of weeks on, I have finally finished my thoughts on Berlin days three and four. Well, it became a bit more than that. In part, I was thinking about why what was such a great trip, in part about why I think the city means so much.
So, this being Berlin, I’m going to begin by writing about somewhere that’s 30-odd kilometers north, and the need to confront humanity’s darkest hours.
Sachsenhausen was not a death camp, though some 100,000 died there. The Holocaust was primarily carried out further east in the wild east of the Soviet Union and in the death camps created in eastern Poland and, finally, Auschwitz. But Sachsenhausen is still a monument to the evils of Nazism, the Holocaust and man’s inhumanity to man. 100,000: that is me, or you, or ours, 100,000 times.
It was also yet another staging post on the road to mass murder and the industrialisation of death. After it was built in 1936, Sachsenhausen took over from Dachau as the centre of the SS concentration camp system. Here, the first systematic murders of the handicapped known as Aktion-T4 were carried out and experiments were carried out with mass murder by gas. The mass murder of over 11,000 Soviet POWs by shooting was also perpetrated here, primarily by what was called the neck shot. The victims of medical experiments were held and suffered there too.
It was also the place where many important or significant prisoners were held, a kind of miniature who’s who of some those who fell foul of Nazism. Prisoners of war included Stalin’s eldest son and slew of SOE other elite British forces, including the Grand Prix Champion William Grover Williams; the famous Mad Jack Churchill was held there. Some were those who had crossed Nazi paths and lost: Paul Reynaud was prime minister of France in 1940, Kurtz Schuschnigg leader of Austria in 1938. There were domestic opponents such as Martin Niemöller, or Bismarck’s grandson (caught up in the wave of repression that followed the July Bomb Plot); others were just their relatives, such as the Crown Prince of Bavaria’s wife and children.
As the Holocaust developed, Jews were shipped east from Sachsenhausen. As Auschwitz was wound down and liberated, the Jews who survived the death marches ended up in camps like this. In that sense, as well as an organisational one, Sachsenhausen is a Holocaust site.
Like most of the old camps, it got new uses after the war. In this case, it became a Soviet Special Camp, housing what were officially Nazis and collaborators. In the way of the communist East, they soon became bolstered by political prisoners, whose crime was to oppose the new Soviet order. From 1945 until its closure in 1950, around 60,000 were imprisoned. When communism had gone the site was excavated: over 12,000 bodies were found: most had died from malnutrition and disease, and the majority were women and children, or the old.
We had already been thinking about the nature of the Soviet occupation of Germany in 1945, and the way the Red Army looted, raped and killed their way through eastern Germany. In the way of Soviet socialism, when the Sachsenhausen site was opened as a memorial, in 1961, it was to the ‘victims of fascism’; the inconvenient truth of what came after was ignored.
The totalitarianism of the eastern state, and the brutal inhumanity that accompanied it, was very much the theme of that afternoon. Hohenschoenhausen was the Stasi remand prison, out in the north east of Berlin, where political prisoners were taken upon arrest. The idea was to get them to confess, inform, and to break them. Their crimes were often ludicrously trivial: Anna Funder tells us the story of Miriam, arrested as a girl of 16, for printing leaflets with a child’s printing set. To begin with, the means of persuasion was outright brutality, whether by beating, or the use of water. By the ‘sixties that had become more psychological, but was no less effective.
In hindsight, the fragility of the communist state in the ‘eighties seems obvious, but it wasn’t easy to see that at the time. In part, that was thanks to the ubiquitous Stasi. By the end, something around one in five East Germans were in some way involved with the secret police. One effect of that was to suppress even the idea that opposition could have any effect. Which makes it all the more remarkable that there was opposition at all. In particular, the Stasi felt unable to break the churches. By the ‘eighties East Germany’s churches were the venue for meetings of those who wanted to think for themselves. In the twisted logic of communism, free thought was opposition, what Orwell labelled ‘thought crime’.
One of our guides around the prison was arrested and brought there for just that. She had, as a young woman, was a member of just such a church based group and was harassed regularly before finally being accused and imprisoned for the alleged crime of organising an opposition protest. The precious nature of the freedom of speech and freedom of association (the freedom to form or belong to free political groups and free trade unions, and the right to protest) became another leitmotif of these few days.
The following morning we went on a walking tour of the old East Berlin. We began on Karl Marx Allee, what was East Berlin’s showpiece street. Down on the platforms of Magdalenenstrasse U-Bahn station, we saw Wolfgang Frankenstein’s series of socialist realist depictions of the history of German socialism, from 1848 to the foundation of the GDR in 1949. In truth, they are rather marvellous examples of a style we might call (very late, 1986) socialist realism.
Socialist realism was term coined in the Soviet Union for the style and purpose of art demanded by the communist state. Being communism, the term socialist realism meant something very different from what it actually said. For a start, socialism meant the version of socialism officially dictated by the communist state. Thus, in Frankenstein’s works, the history of German socialism culminated in the glorious creation of the GDR; in the East, any other forms of German socialism were either co-opted into the communism of the SED (Socialist Unity Party, as the communist party styled itself) or were simply not socialism at all (thus the West’s SPD were enemies of socialism).
Even more blatantly dishonest was the term realism. The realism in socialist realism had two meanings. The first was artistic: it looked to what we might call neo-classical forms, in opposition to the modernism and abstraction of modern artistic movements in the west. The other meaning was all too typical of the doublethink that permeated communist newspeak, as Orwell would have it. It needed to faithfully reflect the true nature of socialism. And if reality itself did not do that, then the artist should reflect true socialism rather than actual reality. We are in the realm of the art of alternative facts.
To put it another way. When millions of Soviet peasants were starving, socialist realism gave us sturdy, healthy, happy socialist peasants stood amongst an abundance of corn: like Orwell’s doublethink, communism demanded that its adherents not only told lies, but sort of believed in them.
Above Magdalenenstrasse station is the old headquarters of the Stasi. As well as keeping watch over its people, East Germany kept watch on itself. The head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke, even had a file on his head of state, Erich Honecker (who, it seems, had collaborated with the Nazis). It must have seemed to many of those, whether doing the repressing or those on the receiving end, that the GDR would go on forever. But it was there that we began to reflect on that state’s end.
In that end, the downfall of the East German state came about in part thanks to the fact that Mikhail Gorbachev refused to maintain its existence with the use of the same force that been used to suppress popular opposition in Berlin in 1953. But that was only half the story. For a start, if the Velvet Revolutions of 1989 had a slogan it was We are the People. And in a communist state, that simply slogan carried enormous weight once it rose up against the contradictions inherent in communism.
To put it simply, the GDR wasn’t merely built on lies, but it was a lie in itself. Take the name. There’s an old joke about the Holy Roman Empire: that it was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. The same joke works for the GDR.
Take the first word: German. Frankenstein’s rather brilliant late socialist work in Magdalenenstrasse station was an attempt to show that East German socialism was somehow truly German. The problem was that it wasn’t. Before it became Karl Marx Allee, East Berlin’s showcase street was Stalinallee, its statue of Stalin a gift from the Soviet youth organisation. Komsomol.
The previous day I dragged the whole group to the greatest of the three Soviet War memorials in the city, at Treptower Park. Opened in 1949, it might be thought of as a high socialist realist masterpiece. In some sense, it was very much a symbol of Soviet domination. It is also, of course, a memorial intended to remind us, and do so with no little beauty and grandeur, of the stupendous sacrifice made by the Soviet armed forces and the Soviet people in what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War. And it is a masterpiece.
But it also gives us the true nature of German communism. At its centre is the Soviet soldier, the swastika crushed” beneath his feet. The stones upon which he stands were from the wreckage of Hitler’s Reich Chancellery, as was the marble from which the freezes were carved on the paths that lead us to and from him, each telling us the story of the Great Patriotic war: one side giving us Stalin’s words engraved upon them in Russian, the other side in German.
The renaming of Stainallee, and the removal of his statue was not so much a matter of making the GDR more German, rather it belatedly reflected Soviet de-Stalinisation. The problem was, though, with Stalin ideologically gone, what to replace him with?
Arguably, it was never really resolved. By the dog days of Brezhnev, the ‘seventies, the Soviet Union lost much of what had been left of its ideological fervour and purpose, and substituted it with a Soviet, even Russian, patriotism which focused on the war as the central act of the Soviet state. Throughout the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, the GDR struggled for recognition. It was not until the coming of detente in the Cold War, and Ostpolitik in West Germany, that the eastern state gained international recognition. By the ‘eighties, the GDR was looking to assert a German identity, hence Magdalenenstrasse station or the restoration of some of imperial Berlin along Unter den Linden.
The problem was, all that did is remind people that East Germans were, in fact, Germans. When the wall was coming down, the slogan Wir sind das Volk morphed into Wir sind ein Volk (see the blog article by Ned Richardson-Little linked to below): We are the People became We are one People. When finally given self-determination, the people were emphatic: they wanted one Germany. Given its lack of a truly national identity, its attempt to create one simply exposed the first lie at the heart of the GDR: it wasn’t really German.
If the G was a bit of a fib, the D was a whopper. Lenin gave the world communist democracy in the form of democratic centralism. Just down the road from Karl Marx Allee is Platz der Vereinten Nationen (United Nations Platz); before the wall came down, it was Leninplatz. In 1970, it was formally graced with a 19 metre high statue of Lenin. The size of the statue was a pretty neat illustration of the size of the lie it stood for. De-Stalinisation saw communism return to its veneration of Lenin, the supposed good communist whose democratic path was distorted by Stalinist dictatorship.
What utter rot that was. For Lenin, Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat was, in fact, just a dictatorship; democratic centralism was based upon the idea of that dictatorship being in the hands of a communist elite, who in turn obeyed their leadership (by which Lenin meant himself). Just as communism was imposed upon East Germany by the USSR, communism imposed itself upon its people. Nominally, Germany was not a one party state. Similarly its dominant party called itself the Socialist Unity Party: all socialists, not just communists, uniting as equals. It was all a pack of lies: some socialists were more equal than others. In truth (yes, that awkward word), doublethink was never more triumphant than when their communist masters decided to stick the D into the GDR.
Sticking with Orwell, when I last visited Berlin, I met a man who had been imprisoned for being in possession of, amongst other items, a copy of Animal Farm. It is great book, but its great ending got one thing wrong as far as East Germany was concerned. When the animals looked from pig to man and man to pig, they couldn’t tell the difference. When the people of the GDR finally got their rights most of them could quite easily tell the difference between a faux-democratic pig like Egon Krenz and Helmut Kohl.
It is tempting to think that a regime that was built on lies was in part undone by the truth about which they pretended to adhere to. In 1975, with the exception of the ultra-communist Albania, all the communist states of Europe signed up to the Helsinki Agreement. At the time, because the Helsinki Accords agreed to respect the integrity of Europe’s borders as were (thus, including East Germany) it was regarded as a diplomatic triumph for the Soviet Union. Instead, it would quickly provide ammunition to communism’s dissidents.
Article 9 saw all the signatories agree to self-determination for all the peoples of Europe: East Germany was borne of its denial. Similarly, in Article 8 the GDR agreed to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief; in reality, of course, it did nothing of the sort. Helsinki was, thus, the public statement of a lie, but one which gave right thinking men and women a mirror to hold up to that fact. Whilst the might of the Soviet Union kept the lid on the lie could be maintained. When the lid came off, the lie came crashing down.
In the true spirit of doublethink, doubtless some die hard communists somehow believed in some strange version of communist democracy, believed the lie. Others, like Gorbachev, perhaps looked to create it. Honecker and Mielke never came close.
If the D was a whopper, the R in the GDR was at least a half-truth in that, technically, East Germany was a republic. Except that, as the great historian of the Cold War, John Lewis Gaddis, would have it, the GDR was in practice part of an empire: the Soviet empire. To be fair, Gaddis also has it that the west was also part of an American empire. There, however, the similarity stops.
America ran its empire by mutual agreement and consent, at least in Europe anyway. The states of Western Europe were free states: under de Gaulle, France pulled out of some of its obligations to NATO with impunity. In the East, as East Germans, Hungarians, Czechs or Poles could tell you, any attempt to break free of the Warsaw Pact was met by Soviet force whether directly, or at one remove. The Red Empire, and it’s Red Tsars, ruled.
It is tempting to believe that the pack of lies that was the GDR was, in part, a cause of its downfall. Over the 40 years of the state’s existence that the old men were celebrating in 1989, those old men had done a lot of lying to the world, to their people and to themselves. If the young protestors of the Lutheran churches or the unlistenable punks railing against whatever was available to rail against really were the agents and spies of a decadent west, then the rest of the good people of East Germany were not. Or to put in Orwellian terms again: in a state where four legs good two legs bad was its defining mantra, those who were down on their knees looked mighty like four legged animals. When, in 1989, the kneeling rose to their feet, I suspect those who had made their careers behind the walls of the Stasi headquarters got one hell of a shock. Reality bit.
The first of those two days ended with what turned out to be a genuinely uplifting experience, a visit to the Reichstag. But in many ways, the story of that building begins with what has been the more usual stuff of Berlin’s modern history. The old Imperial facade began its life as part of the Wilhelmine Reichstag: that is, as a sop to a facade. Imperial Germany’s parliament was to parliamentary politics what the D in the GDR was to democracy. It wasn’t until 1916 that its final touch was added when Wilhelm II unveiled the inscription atop its entrance: to the German people. In one sense it was accurate: Wilhelm’s government was certainly sticking to the German people in the form of what was rapidly becoming a military dictatorship.
When it became the home of German democracy, it seems somehow fitting that it’s birth happened elsewhere, that the Weimar democracy never fitted its Berlin home and that it last rites were read in an opera house. When, on the night of the 27th February 1933, it was found ablaze, the subsequent Reichstag Fire Decree heralded the end of German democracy and the start of the Nazi dictatorship.
Where that dictatorship left its people was well enough summed up if we think of Sachsenhausen, Treptower, the Reichstag itself and where we ended the second of these two days. Gesundbrunnen is a pretty undistinguished station in a pretty nondescript northern suburb. But underneath lies an old and never completed underground bunker system that, by the war, served as an air raid shelter for ordinary Berliners. They needed it. For two long years the RAF and the USAF pounded the city. In two short months in 1945 the Red Army finished the job.
Famously, two Russian soldiers mounted the Reichstag and flew the red flag. And then, what was left of the Reichstag was left to rot. Had Wily Brandt not addressed the western city, and the world, from its front in the Berlin Blockade, and turned that facade into a symbol of freedom, it might well have shared the fate of much of the city and been turned to rubble. Instead, as the Berlin Wall was erected beside it, it stood as a relic of Germanys past in a Berlin cruelly divided in its present.
And the people spoke, and the people’s elected representatives took the plunge. Berlin would be the capital of the reunited Germany, and the old Reichstag building the home of the Federal Republic’s Bundestag. To me, the building is, like the Germany recreated at the same time, a triumph.
You can see that Germany in the building. First and foremost, it acknowledges its past. The Wilhelmine farce is there in the Wilhelmine facade. The Weimar tragedy is there in the remains of the fire damaged she’ll left in 1933, and the memorial to the members of the Reichstag the Nazis murdered that is outside. The war is there in the shell, and the Russian soldiers’ graffiti left intact on its walls. The Cold War is there in the memory of the wall that ran beside it, and the memorials to those who tried to escape their eastern prison that run by the water.
And then there is the triumph of democracy, finally. The building gives us that symbolically, with Richard Roger’s open glass dome rising around and above with its magnificent views of the city in all its histories. But inside, two things struck me. One was the return of the old eagle symbol, though as our guide acknowledged it does look rather more like a fat chicken. In that sense, it symbolises a Germany bent on both acknowledging, confronting and, where possible, resolving its history. But most of all, what really gladdened my heart was the way the guide took through just how the building makes the messy business of democracy possible.
We finished that first night by heading off the Brandenburg Gate for some nighttime photos, before popping back to hit the scruffy cafes, fast food joints and supermarkets of Fredrichshain. The old eastern suburb was buzzing, as it is on a Saturday, with Berliners looking for a good time. Back at the Brandenburg gate, I thought again of Hannah Arendt Strasse, just round the corner, and Hannah Arendt. In the age of alternative facts her assertion of the primacy of fact as the first defence against totalitarianism seemed more important than ever. In an age in which the liberal values of the west and democracy seem under assault from those who wish them ill, that visit to what was once the story of German democracy’s failure, and is now at the very heart of the democratic Europe I love, gladdened my heart.
And, I’ll echo JFK, speaking when I was but a babe. I, too, am proud to say with free people all over the world, Ich bin ein Berliner. And, now more than ever, we need to say that. There, that’s why I love the city.