Episode 2 transcript:
Life behind the Wall

News Grab 1:

From the Berlin Wall specifically, take a look at them. They've been there since last night. They are here in the thousands. They are here in the tens of thousands. Occasionally they shout, Die Mauer muss weg - the wall must go. Thousands and thousands of West Germans come to make the point that the wall has suddenly become irrelevant.

News Grab 2:

Thousands of East Germans came across the border today, perhaps more than 100,000. So many that border police lost count. And at every border crossing, thousands of West Germans there to say, welcome. While thousands and thousands came to look, even gape. what they showcase of capitalism, the vast majority said they would be going back. The simple act of giving people the freedom to travel, may have convinced East Germans they need not take flight whenever the door opens, just a fraction.

Leo Kretzenbacher:

This is The Secret Life of Language. A podcast from the University of Melbourne, School of Languages and Linguistics. I'm Dr Leo Kretzenbacher. It's been three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a guarded concrete barrier that had divided Berlin both physically and ideologically, since it's construction by East Germany in 1961. The German democratic Republic, or GDR to give East Germany its official name, saw the wall as a way of protecting its population from what they saw as fascist elements from the West, seeking to prevent the building of a socialist state in the East. But what did the state they were building in fact look like? Ordinary East Germans were denied basic freedoms of movement and speech, enjoyed by their counterparts in the West. And attempts to gain these freedoms were often met with state repression of violence.

But life went on in the GDR, and for the great majority who played by the rules in the self-proclaimed, most egalitarian society in Europe. It's worth asking if perhaps things weren't so bad after all. Joining me in the studio to look back at life in East Germany and to think about how we should remember it, are my fellow German studies researchers, Professor Alison Lewis, and Dr Claudia Sandberg. Claudia Sandberg, I should mention, spent most of her childhood in East Germany. Welcome Alison Lewis and Claudia Sandberg.

Claudia Sandberg:

Thank you for having me.

Alison Lewis:

Thanks for having me.

Leo Kretzenbacher:

So let's start with this basic question. What was live in the GDR like outside the focus of the Stasi, or for people who were not really dissenters for people who had tried to live a normal life there?

Claudia Sandberg:

I would say much after life in East Germany went on without surveillance of the Stasi. And when you look at it from the outside, it might've been a bit grey and a bit ordinary. And it was a lot of ordinary life, I would say. People went to work, everyone had their job they went to from eight o'clock in the morning to five o'clock in the afternoon. They would pick up the children from school or from the kindergarten. They would go do their gardening or meet their parents. There was a lot going on that is still unexplored.

Leo Kretzenbacher:

You spent some time in the GDR in the 1980s Alison Lewis as an observer from outside. Did you find normal life rather than, what you were looking for, for your studies?

Alison Lewis:

Well that's an interesting point Leo Kretzenbacher, because I was there in '86. And I was a student, and I had been studying East German literature and I thought, wow, this literature, especially feminist literature, was really progressive and really exciting. So I was a bit shocked when I got there, that life didn't seem to be quite as rosy for women. This emancipation that was touted and written about, wasn't to me all that evident. I found the society a little bit macho. I was a bit shocked by the standards of living to be honest. But yes sure, people were normal. And in many ways I found it a little bit like Australians. Australia is a small society. It was about the same size as East Germany. And we felt a little bit like the poorer sort of more backward cousins of the British and the Americans. And I think the East Germans were a bit like the poorer cousins of the West Germans.

And so yes, they were very similar, but we didn't know at the time what we now know, is that things were far worse than they appeared on the surface. I'm always wary saying that life was ordinary and normal, because we now know of the massive surveillance, the massive restrictions on freedoms, the brutality of the regime in the early years. And I'm a bit hesitant of people wanting to have that system back, because of what we now know about it.

Leo Kretzenbacher:

I wonder how much this oppressive dictatorship state that is now visible, actually impacted on everyday lives of people. One thing that I remember, and that impressed me very much, was I went to visit a colleague in Merseburg, which is between Halle and Leipzig. A very small city. He was an academic there, and he invited me to his house. That was in 1990 already, after the Wende. And two things he told me interests me. First of all, each of the little houses had a hill of sand before them. And I asked, why is that the case? And he said, "Well, when you get sand, you buy sand. You never know when you have to renovate or something." And the other thing was, we talked about the television, and they could actually get West television. And he said it was an automatic thing. It was like a reflex, when you went to bed before you switched off, you change to a GDR channel, just in case someone came and looked it up. So did this actually influence ordinary, normal lives?

Claudia Sandberg:

I think it was very much integrated into normal life. All these security measures that you had to take. For example, that you used a different kind of language at home. You knew what kind of topics you could talk about with your parents, or your parents with you, about your family who lived in the West. And any political issues. There was a different school, public places work, where of course a different world. And you knew the official language one had to use, the way one had to behave, that you did not say anything about. If you've watched on television the night before. Which by the way, you could only access West German television channels if it was a rainy night. If there was a lot of clouds, then it was fantastic to receive the ARD or the ZDF, the first or the second West German channel. And never in a good quality and always in black and white.

Alison Lewis:

And there were places in East Germany that you couldn't receive West German television, like in Dresden, and they called them the Tal der Ahnungslosen (the Valley of the Clueless). The Western radio stations like Radio For Europe or Voices Of America, they were banned or they were interfered with in the Soviet Union, but they weren't in East Germany. So the regime capitulated on that quite early on. But as you say, Claudia Sandberg, you never mentioned it publicly, that you were watching West German television, but you did it. And as long as you didn't put your foot in it, and mention it in some official capacity when it could be used against you, then it was fine and you could get away with it.

Claudia Sandberg:

So of course that's why the idea that people lived completely isolated and completely behind walls, wasn't true at all. Because you could access information, you had ways to get what you wanted to know, and even if you wanted some clothes, there was always someone in the neighbourhood whose daughter, or mother lived in the West, who regularly received any mail and huge packages of clothes, and they couldn't use it on their own, and they would then maybe sell it to neighbours, to friends, to colleagues. It was an event. It was a family event when one of those packages arrived. And it was only opened when everyone was at home. So my father usually arrived at home after six o'clock, we had to wait until he came home, and then we would collectively open that package. And the best thing about him was the smell. The smell was just awesome. It was coffee, it was-

Alison Lewis:

Chocolate.

Claudia Sandberg:

Usually it was hand down clothes as well. But the kind of detergent used, we didn't have that at all.

Leo Kretzenbacher:

The smell of the West.

Claudia Sandberg:

It was definitely the smell of the West. We'd always have some West coffee, we'd always have some chocolate. But you wouldn't just eat it right away, because it was something special. If I had some Mars bars or so, I would keep it probably for two months, or sometimes it would go off because I didn't open it. It was so special. Of course, you had to pay a fair amount of money for that, but they are always ways.

Alison Lewis:

I remember actually, because I was a Western student in East Germany, I remember I had slightly similar experiences. And I had Drum tobacco, and they didn't have that there. And so everybody was wanting to roll their own cigarettes, and they're asking me if I had Marlboro. And I could really get the sense that certain brands like Levi's ... There were people that wore Levi's, but they were very rare.

Claudia Sandberg:

But this was a sign of course, when someone had a packet of Marlboro, or would wear Levi's jeans, they had connections. Because it was such a homogenous culture. If someone had something else or something more, it was immediately visible to everyone else. There was some other connections there.

Leo Kretzenbacher:

So having personal or family relations to the West could be economically advantageous, but it might be a political disadvantage for your career for example, or something like that. Is that the case?

Claudia Sandberg:

I would say many people had relations, because after all, the families lived on either side. I would say, in my case, I had family in Cologne, I would had family in Hamburg, we had families still in Poland. Because my family was immigrated from the Eastern territories. But if it was just the occasional package, if they would visit you maybe once every two years, that was still okay, it was not damaging. And not many people had relations where maybe families in the West with send them so much money that could build a house. They could get materials from the West, building materials, or even a car. That was something very special. And yes, I would say, of course they were watched much more closely than anyone else.

Leo Kretzenbacher:

So West currency was very powerful of course in the GDR. So there was this chain of shops called Intershops where you could actually buy luxury goods, or what was considered luxury goods, but only with West currency, not with GDR mark.

Claudia Sandberg:

Yes. But the West mark, the D-Mark, you couldn't use it there. You'd still had to exchange it to a currency that could only be used in these Intershops. So you wouldn't do anything else with this money. Again, you would go into an Intershop, and the smell is overwhelming once again.

Alison Lewis:

Yeah, and I think also having quite a lot of these goods from the Intershop, could have been a sign that you might have been working for the Stasi, or you might have been an officer, or even an informant. And they also might have connections to the West, and might be able to buy things that other people couldn't have. But I do think having connections to the West could ruin your career in politics, or your career in the Stasi for instance. And I've known of informers who got dropped from the Stasi because they had a brother in the West.

Claudia Sandberg:

Or they would be required to give up that connection.

Alison Lewis:

Or give up the connection. Exactly.

Leo Kretzenbacher:

Could we go back for a moment to something you said earlier, Alison Lewis, about the equality of the sexes in the GDR? The ideology was this is the most egalitarian society in Europe. And we know for example, that compared to West Germany, many, many more East German women were working full time jobs, that children were looked after by the state. So there was a network of childcare system so that women could actually work. And yet you said you thought that this was a bit of a macho society. What do you think about that?

Alison Lewis:

East Germany introduced a lot of affirmative action policies very early on. They were always very progressive towards contraception, abortion, all those sorts of things. And their main platform was to get rid of that contradiction between the sexes, and to guarantee women's work. So women were given opportunities to work in non traditional areas, like to become engineers. There were lots of women who became doctors and these traditional domains, but once they were in these jobs, they were subject to a lot of sexism, lots of misogyny, and a lot of traditional prejudices. And I suppose the reason was that attitudes hadn't really caught up, and hadn't really changed. That's probably a fairly normal thing, but I don't know if there was that much pressure to change attitudes either. And so women were still expected to be mothers and to look after the household.

So there was this famous thing called the Doppelbelastung, the double burden where you had to go out to work like Claudia Sandberg said. and you still had to look after the children, you had to do most of the parenting, because that was women's business. And working life was really, really tough. There were long working hours, hours were longer than in the West. There was the issue of trying to shop, and buy goods, and then having to keep your eye on goods that were available. And then looking after the children. And it was tough. So by the time I got there in the eighties, I still thought there was a lot of sexism. And of course the other issue is that women were represented in non-traditional areas, but they weren't represented in the upper echelons. They weren't represented in the party and the politburo, and in management positions.

Claudia Sandberg:

That's right. So there was the infrastructure for women to be able to work. So there were kindergartens, and what we called a "Hort", kind of an aftercare after school. All of this was in place. This was not a problem. But yes, the attitudes never changed. And when women came home, they still, they were the ones who picked up the children. They were the ones who were doing the laundry. They were usually the ones who had to go shopping. And they were expected to cover all that spectrum, to be mothers, to be wives, to be housewives in a way, but at the same time also to work in a very responsible job, in traditional and in non-traditional areas.

Leo Kretzenbacher:

Would you say that this made GDR women specifically resilient? It's my impression that after the unification, most of the people who consider themselves losers of unification were males. So a lot of women actually found jobs in the West, and were very well educated and resilient. So the typical image of the Jammer-Ossi - the winching East German seen from the West is a man actually, rather than a woman.

Claudia Sandberg:

Yeah, I find that very interesting that you say that. Of course these expectations were always high, and in order to reach full employment of women, 99% of all women were working, in between 16 and 65, or 67. And they were shocked after the fall of the wall to find these very traditional roles in the West. There were then the expectations for them to be at home, or to maybe have a part time job and take care of the children, while any part-time arrangements were completely unheard of in the GDR. And yes, they were resilient because they always had to do all of these things. And I still have to think about this kind of Jammer-Ossi as a maybe masculine model, because at the same time there was a huge migration wave, at least in the first two or three years, from the East to the West, of people who needed a job, who lost their jobs.

And this was usually the man who was the one who was mobile, had to be mobile, had to take care of the family. And from Monday to Saturday were in Düsseldorf, any sort of factory. Then came back and then went off. And that way a lot of marriages of course failed, because they could not take this.

Alison Lewis:

In the literature for instance, there are lots of books about East German couples relationships that break up after unification, and it's interesting, it's usually the woman who seems to find either another partner, or seems to cope with unification better. And that's why the male characters are often a bit of the sad characters. The Jammer-Ossis who often get left behind in all sorts of ways, and the women seemed to be a lot more resilient in the literature. There's lots of variations on that story, and often those stories are played out through marriages that break up, or the East German woman finds a West German partner, and leaves the East German behind. There's a lot of them actually.

News Grab 3:

People meet at the People's Solidarity Charity Organisation, which has survived reunification. Nobody here misses the wall, but they have all experienced disappointments with the free market system, and its unexpected downsides.

News Grab 4:

They failed to say what would happen to us. It was like being thrown into cold water, all the unemployment and so forth. I didn't have freedom. We used to say I'd like to travel to A or B, but I can't do that today either.

Leo Kretzenbacher:

Claudia Sandberg, you just mentioned the massive shock of mass unemployment after unification, which came with the breakdown of the East German economy that just couldn't compete with West currency, with their mark all of a sudden. That would have been a particular shock in a society where unemployment was unknown. Basically everyone worked, and everyone had to work. So what was the work situation? What was full time employment like in the GDR? Alison Lewis, you already mentioned longer working hours. If everyone worked and everyone worked long hours, why didn't the economy flourish?

Alison Lewis:

There are a lot of reasons why the economy didn't flourish. A lot of the work was not very productive work. It was occupational therapy, if you like. There was a shortage of raw materials, and that was to do with the Cold War, and so people might turn up on a construction site, there'd be no materials to build. So they'd just mark time. And then there was a lot of political interference. Work was really frustrating because it was a planned economy, there were these targets, the Soll. And so that all came from above, and often they were completely unrealistic. Workers had to increase productivity, but with no resources, very backbreaking, quite hard work. And you read that in the literature. A lot of novels are all about the hardships of that. I think work was obviously for women, really important. And I think when the wall came down, women really lost, and a lot of women became unemployed. And this shocking unemployment there was in the first decade, especially among women.

Claudia Sandberg:

If you ask any East German what affected them most after the fall of the wall, and even 10 years or 20 years later, it was the unemployment. Not being able to cope with this situation. I think also there was a lot of manual work in factories. The technology was of course not very advanced, so you needed more hands than you would do. And after lots of factories, a lot of companies were taken over by West German American, Australian owners, of course, they introduced different measures. And all of a sudden in a place where 500 people worked, they only needed 10%, 50. And so many of them were left. And that's why a lot of towns, villages, places where just had these high unemployment rates of, I don't know, 20%, 30%. And you see that even now, people who could not adjust, who could not find a way, kind of the losers of the historical circumstances.

You can travel to Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, close to the Polish border, and you find the GDR right there. You still find the buildings, you find the blocks. You find people who are very bitter. They would still talk about that situation of being unemployed. And somehow this was a natural selection. Whoever could not get away, who were the ones left behind, were the ones who'd never had maybe a proper education. They were for family reasons. There were all sorts of reasons that became quite apparent with these changes, that were covered up under this blanket of 100% employment, and no one is left behind.

Alison Lewis:

The city's in the former East look quite beautiful, modern now, don't they? They've all been renovated and the infrastructure is great, but they're sort of almost empty, aren't they? People come in during the week, sometimes they travel in from the West, they work, and sometimes they'd leave. So on the weekends, my experience has been a lot of these East German towns are quite empty, and there's nothing really happening. Because they can't sustain much of a life. And it's really quite sad, as you were saying.

Claudia Sandberg:

Of course all that money that went into restoration of cities, of Dresden, of the Semperoper, drew a lot of envy by West Germans, because there was of course a lot of money that was not used for any very important and necessary projects in the West at the time. And while there was a lot of solidarity right at the beginning for this, of course waned -, the Solidaritätsbeitrag (reunification tax) was supposed to be there for just a couple of years. And as far as I know we still have the Solibeitrag.

Alison Lewis:

By that you mean this sort of compulsory tax that everybody paid?

Claudia Sandberg:

Exactly.

Leo Kretzenbacher:

A surcharge or a tax.

Alison Lewis:

A surcharge or a tax that was paid after unification. Everyone paid it.

Leo Kretzenbacher:

And they're still paying it.

Alison Lewis:

And they're still paying it.

Claudia Sandberg:

It's a couple of percent of Euros.

Alison Lewis:

A couple of percents?

Claudia Sandberg:

Yes.

Alison Lewis:

And they're still paying that, and there is a bit of resentment in the West, that West German towns have become more rundown. And I think you can see that when you travel around West Germany, there hasn't been so much investment in infrastructure.

Claudia Sandberg:

Yes. And of course in East Germany people made up their houses, and there's some places and some spots that it's quite beautiful. Also at the Baltic Sea in Ahlbeck where it's this big houses that were ruins before. No one wanted to live in these houses, it was awful. The walls were cracking, everyone wanted to live in these new erected buildings and blocks in Marzahn. And because there was running water and everything was there, you didn't have to put the coal into an oven. There was heaters and everything, which of course has now changed with all the gentrification with the fantastic buildings. I've just recently been to Potsdam. Potsdam is beautiful, it's beautiful. And all these houses that were built during the UFA-time is just magnificent. And you have a lot of cultural institutions, or research institutions also moving into these buildings, moving into the East, Max Planck Institute, and a lot of other institutes, who now have their main-

Alison Lewis:

Their headquarters.

Claudia Sandberg:

Their headquarters in East Germany.

Leo Kretzenbacher:

I think that was one of the most impressive things for Westerners going to the GDR, visiting the GDR. The desolate state of the city centres, of the old buildings, is something that to some extent looked like West Germany after the war. So there were still a lot of bombed places, not reconstructed. I remember working in 1988 or '87 I think, in the East German National Library in East Berlin, the National Library had been hit by a bomb, and the centre was destroyed. So the central reading area was cordoned off. You couldn't go there, so you had to go around everywhere. And from a lot of reading places you could still look at bombed buildings and so on. So that was something I found impressive and very sad.

Claudia Sandberg:

Depressive.

Alison Lewis:

Yeah. When I went in '86 and I studied at the Humboldt University in Berlin, I was just completely shocked when I went into the university, which is a beautiful building. But I went into the wardrobe to hand over my bag, hang up my coat, and there was a hole in the ceiling. And that was a bomb ... A bomb had struck and it had never been repaired. The other thing about Berlin, there's beautiful four story buildings from around 1900, and all the balconies had fallen off. And there was no attempt to repair the balconies, because there was no money to repair them. And there was no private property of course, and so no one felt responsible for it. And so you just lived with the balcony and you just boarded it up.

Leo Kretzenbacher:

I remember visiting colleagues at Leipzig also in the late '80s, just before the wall fell, one or two years before that. And a lot of people who worked at University of Leipzig lived in the area around the Zoo, which is a beautiful area, with now beautifully reconstructed old buildings. But at that time those buildings were very, very desolate, and sometimes people only lived in the first and second floor, because the roofs were leaking. And then the pigeons moved in, and with the pigeons, the pigeon ticks moved in. So the ticks actually were the things that made people move out of the higher levels and move one level lower.

So sometimes only the first and second levels were lived in. And people told me that Leipzig of course was the window to the West. It was the trade fair, the book fair, and so on. And people said that the route from the airport to the fair ground, only the ground levels of houses were renovated and painted, so that when the upper echelons of the party actually were driven there, they looked at beautifully painted facades. But only the ground level was actually renovated and painted for them to see.

Claudia Sandberg:

Yes, the GDR was definitely not a surface culture, there was an aesthetic issue that was completely absent in terms of buildings. And I realised that when I was recently in Cuba for a couple of months, and I saw the same thing, that you could not locate yourself, because first of us all agree, you have half erected buildings, you have buildings that are falling down, you cannot even see where any kind of shop is, there is no sign, there's no advertisement. And all of a sudden I felt in a situation of a foreigner, of a West German, coming into East Germany. When you come to any sort of place you don't know, the first cue that you always take, is the surface as the city, so you know whatever surrounds you. And I can totally see that this image of the GDR, of being grey and uniform comes exactly from this aspect of their dilapidated houses.

Leo Kretzenbacher:

I think that was one of the reasons why my generation who grew up in the West didn't go there. We could go to the GDR, but we went Interrailing to Portugal and Spain and Italy and Norway, but we wouldn't think of going to Leipzig. Everything was grey and people were grumpy. One aspect of the incapability of losing your job was the horrible state of the service industry in the GDR. Even if you go to a restaurant and say, I want stuff like that.

Alison Lewis:

Yeah, it was particularly bad in, I think in restaurants and cafes in East Germany, that there was no automatic expectation. If someone walked in the door, you would serve them. You could say, we're full, although the restaurant was empty. You could say there's no coffee now, although it's only four o'clock, because you might've shut down your coffee machine just because you felt like it.

Leo Kretzenbacher:

I just imagine this was for us tourists. I imagine how that would have been for people who lived there, not just going to a restaurant, but shopping for everyday things, shopping for fruit, exotic things like bananas or stuff like that.

Claudia Sandberg:

It was not a society of consumers. This concept was just not there, but you didn't even want to go into any shops and go buy clothes. It was just awful. You were appalled by their windows. You were appalled by going into these shops, which it was all ugly, and it was just full of stuff. And it was hot, of course, particularly as a child, that I was at the time, I just hated when my mom said we have to buy you some trousers, and I didn't even want to go. Probably my children say the same now, but there was also not the idea, on a Saturday we go shopping. It was not there.

And I think this kind of falls into place, or is parallel to the idea there is no Dienstleistungsgesellschaft (service society), people do not want to serve you. Because they don't care if at the end of the day, if they had made 200 marks, or 400 it was not that ... That goal was not there. It was not this sort of attraction, or competition because maybe the café next to the one you were in, maybe would attract more customers. Because there was none. You go into this one or maybe in Friedrichshain (neighbourhood in East Berlin) was the next one.

Alison Lewis:

But on the other hand, East Germans were great consumers, they loved queuing. They would love to queue for goods.

Claudia Sandberg:

They did love to queue.

Alison Lewis:

They didn’t love to go out. But they did do a lot of queuing.

Claudia Sandberg:

Yes, they did have to do it. And whenever there was a queue, you would go join-

Alison Lewis:

You would join it, right? Sometimes you'd join it even if you didn't know what was being sold.

Claudia Sandberg:

Absolutely. Absolutely. So I grew up fairly rural, and whenever we were in Berlin, because my sister moved to Berlin in the 1980s, so I would spend some time in Berlin. And this was a time when my mom said, "Take your cousin or take your friend, and you can just walk for two or three hours, and I'll meet you back at three o'clock." And so even I, being 14, 15, 16, when there was a queue, I would join the queue. And I remember that one time I joined a queue ... And you only find out, once you walk into the shop, or maybe people in the queue tell you, but sometimes they didn't know either. So I came home with three or four bags of Christmas decorations. Not that we needed any Christmas decoration, but it was there, and that's why I bought it. And so you were automatically trained in just queuing and getting what was there. You would hoard it, you would store it, you'd give it to your neighbour, you could use it as a present, or you could use it as ... What do you call it? Aussteuer?

Leo Kretzenbacher:

A dowry?

Claudia Sandberg:

Yeah, a dowry for other family members, or you could exchange it. You never knew what it was good for, so you better have it.

Alison Lewis:

There is a story of a West German left wing terrorist, the RAF terrorist, one of the later generations of terrorists were protected, and given new identities and sometimes even had cosmetic surgery. And one of them almost blew her cover by refusing to join a queue. And one of her fellow workers said, "There's a queue for bedding or for towels. Would you like me to get you some? I'm going to queue up, and I'll get you some." She said, "No, no, don't worry. No, no, no, I don't need it." And that planted the seed that she couldn't have been a real East German, because no East German would have said no to that. And then soon after, somebody from the factory where the terrorist was working, traveled to the West and saw the wanted posters, and that she was one of West Germany's most wanted terrorists, and her cover was blown.

Leo Kretzenbacher:

The conversation continues in the next episode of The Secret Life of Language, in which Claudia Sandberg, Alison Lewis and I consider life in the GDR, in terms of culture and the arts. Travel, uses of language and humour, and of national identity. Be sure to keep up with every episode of The Secret Life of Language, by following us on the Apple Podcast App, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Producers for this episode were Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param of Profactual and Gavin Nebauer. The Secret Life of Language is recorded and mixed at The Horwood Studio by Gavin Nebauer and is a podcast from the University of Melbourne's School of Languages and Linguistics. It's licensed under Creative Comments. Copyright 2019, the University of Melbourne. I'm Leo Kretzenbacher. Thanks for listening, and Auf Wiederhören.