East Berlin – Memories from the Twilight Zone

(First published in November 1999)

I moved to East Germany early in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The German Democratic Republic was still intact. But since its ideological backbone had been broken by the events of November 1989, Western journalists could now work in the country without endangering their sources or being harassed by official ‘minders’.

As a freelancer, I was in a hurry to get where the news was. Passing the border from West into East Germany proved to be a piece of cake. I had been provided with all the necessary documents, the most interesting of which was a visa, stamped in my passport, entitling me to a “single entry (no exit – ed.) into the German Democratic Republic”.

The authorities rapidly allocated me an apartment in a high-rise building near the Hauptbahnhof (central station). Later it turned out that the flat had been a secret police meeting place, just as several other apartments in the building had been in use by this or that branch of one of the GDR’s secret services.

I also got priority treatment in getting my car registered. And there was preferential treatment from the state’s phone company. The system had originally been devised to make eavesdropping that much easier, but after all, this was East Berlin.

Jumping the Queue
In those first months of 1990, the Berlin Wall was still there. The limited amount of border crossings meant queuing for the East German border police and customs who, as before, appeared to enjoy their work, causing impressive traffic jams. But foreign press correspondents were entitled to jump the queue, which invariably impressed visiting friends and relatives. And there was Checkpoint Charlie, as before an exclusive domain for foreigners.

(A special GDR license plate for foreign journalists (code QA). 45=The Netherlands. 02=Hans de Vreij)

Plastic cars
During this twilight period leading up to German unification in October 1990, East Berlin was a fascinating place. It had elements of what the 1950’s must have been like in Western Europe, with a touch of Moscow or Warsaw added. Visually, the most striking changes took place on the roads and in the shops.

When I arrived, my modest Renault stood out amidst the masses of indigenous plastic Trabant and Russian-made Lada cars. But those were rapidly replaced in the second half of 1990 by Western models, some of which made my own car pale in comparison.

The shops underwent a similar change in the course of the year. In the beginning, any Western visitor must have felt as if caught up in a time warp, with odd products and even stranger packaging. At the end of the year, most GDR products had been replaced by West German equivalents. In fact, most of the shops were gobbled up by Western chains. But at the same time, a new class of East German entrepreneurs emerged, opening the first private neighbourhood shops.

How can one gauge the change in mentality the people of East Germany underwent during the process that led to the abolition of their state? The average East German had been a law-abiding (or rather, party-abiding) citizen. Social networking was far more intense than in the West. The prevailing atmosphere was one of niceness up to the point of being extremely boring and even bourgeois in the neutral sense of the word. The feverish political debate of 1989 gradually made place for worries about one’s job, or the equally feverish pursuit of business success. The Russian soldiers, of course, left. In October 1990, the GDR ceased to exist.

Over Hans de Vreij

Retired Dutch journalist. Covered EU, NATO, UN, security & defense. Was correspondent in Berlin, Brussels, Geneva, Prague. Studied Russian language & literature.
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