Over the Wall

9 November 2009

Over the Wall

by Ewout Irrgang

Precisely twenty years ago the wall fell. In 1982, as a six-year-old, I visited my family in the GDR (East Germany) in the company of my parents and my four-year-old brother. So – I was very young. But I was old enough to carry away a child's memories. Such as the fact that my parents suddenly became very nervous as we arrived at the German-German border, the then Iron Curtain. Not a single checkpoint, but a whole street with many checkpoints had to be traversed before we could drive into the 'Workers' and Farmers' Paradise'. And I was really offended when I had to hand in my comic book to the border guards.

As a child you could feel the anxiety and fear in the GDR. The children themselves were a potential danger to their parents, in case they spoke out of turn. At school there was a risk that they would repeat something that they had heard their parents say at home. Or if the teachers asked them to draw what they had seen on the television the night before. If they drew the logo of the West German television service, their parents had a problem.

This fear was ever present in the GDR. You never knew who was spying for the Stasi, the secret police. Sometimes this was done quite openly, for example in the case of a niece who was a party member because this meant she could get a Trabant – the national car – more quickly. Sometimes you only found out after 1989. We gave a sigh of relief when we were once again on the other side of the Iron Curtain. But our family could visit us in the Netherlands only if they left their children in the GDR, because otherwise it was feared by the authorities that they would not return.

On an economic level the GDR did not function at all. Even as a child I could see this in the poor quality of pastries and lego. When I was thirteen the wall fell. It sent shivers down my spine when I heard the chants of 'Wir sind das volk’ (We are the people) on the demonstrations. It was even more exciting when the chants changed to ‘Wir sind ein volk’ ('We are one people'). With the call for unification of Germany the Soviet Union, already reeling, was once again challenged. But euphoria won over fear that 'they' would intervene.

In our home the fall of the wall was felt as an enormous liberation. That feeling, twenty years later, has not been wholly fulfilled. Before the wall came down the family could not easily visit us, but now that they can it isn't that much easier.

Still, the fear is gone. The fear of the dictatorship. Its disappearnce is something which is intrinsically good. The GDR called itself socialist. But socialism without democracy is like a pub with no beer. The GDR has been gone for almost twenty years, and a good thing too.

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