Posts Tagged ‘East Germany’

Berlin’s “Citizens in Motion” memorial

Monday, October 2nd, 2017


Berlin’s impending “Citizens in Motion” – Buerger in Bewegung – memorial will commemorate the protest movement that toppled the East German communist regime and led to the reunification of Germany in 1990. In June 2017, more than a quarter of a century later, a memorial to freedom and unity received final approval by the Bundestag (lower House of the German Parliament). The monument is expected to open in 2019, the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

What the Citizens in Motion memorial will look like

Citizens in Motion will consist of a steel bowl-shaped structure, 180 feet in length and 60 feet across. Inscribed with Wir sind das Volk (We are the people) and Wir sind ein Volk (We are one people), the memorial honors the men and women who caused the Berlin Wall to fall in 1989 and led to the German reunification one year later. The structure will hold up to 1400 people. When at least 20 more people stand on one half of the structure as opposed to the other half, the bowl will gently tip to one side, similar to a teeter-totter. The visitors themselves then become an active part of the monument.


Berlin's planned "Citizens in Motion memorial to commemorate the men and women who who caused the Berlin Wall to fall in 1989 and led to the German reunification one year later. Rendering: Milla & Partner.

Berlin’s impending “Citizens in Motion” memorial, which commemorates the men and women who caused the Berlin Wall to fall in 1989 and led to the German reunification one year later. Rendering: Milla & Partner.

Concept of Citizens in Motion

Memorials are normally passive objects of contemplation. Citizens in Motion will be interactive. The monument will come to life when people gather on it. Designed by Stuttgart-based architect Johannes Milla & Partner and Berlin choreographer Sasha Waltz, Citizens in Motion is designed to illustrate how people have to act in concert to effect change.

As the East German economy crumbled and people fled to the West, the East German people began to hold gigantic, non-violent, pro-democracy demonstrations, which led to the fall of Berlin Wall and the socialist government. Then another enormous task faced the German people: Bringing together two Germanys, which, despite a common language, had experienced dramatically different political and economic realities for over 40 years. The road to a German memorial to commemorate freedom and unity was equally difficult. Everything from design, location and cost was controversial. The ensuing debates demonstrated that freedom and unity require participation and interaction.

Where will the Citizens in Motion memorial be located?

Citizens in Motion will be positioned in front of the Berliner Stadtschloss (Berlin City Palace) in the city’s historic center. The Berlin City Palace is currently undergoing reconstruction and will house the Humboldt Forum when completed. Read: Berliner Stadtschloss to Humboldt Forum The original Berliner Stadtschloss was demolished by the East German regime in 1950 to make way for the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic), the East German parliament. Read: The Palace of the Republic lives on In 1989, the square in front of the Palace of the Republic was a site of mass demonstrations, which contributed to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, “Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom,” click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of


Guenter Mittag – East German Economic Tsar

Monday, May 8th, 2017

Guenter Mittag was the third most powerful man in the former East Germany, after Erich Honecker, General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands – SED), and Erich Mielke, Minister of State Security. From 1976 to 1989, Mittag headed the Economic Commission at the Politbuero (Deutsche Wirtschaftskommission – DWK), advocating and implementing the state’s economic policies.

Guenter Mittag who headed the East German Economic Commission at the Politbuero from 1976 to 1989. Photo: Bundesarchivbild

Guenter Mittag who headed the East German Economic Commission at the Politbuero from 1976 to 1989. Photo: Bundesarchivbild

Guenter Mittag’s rise and fall

Born in 1926, Guenter Mittag joined the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands – KPD) in 1945. A year later, he became member of the newly created SED). In 1958, Mittag earned a doctorate with his dissertation “Problems of Socialist Development of the Transport System”. At the same time, he became Secretary of the Economic Commission at the Politbuero, the principal policymaking committee of the SED. From 1976 on, he headed the Commission.

Along with Erich Apel, Guenter Mittag designed the New System for Economic Management and Planning (Neues Oekonomisches System). The system was implemented in 1963 and replaced Walter Ulbricht’s Five-Year Plans, which had been launched in 1951. The New System for Economic Management was to streamline and modernize the East German economy by reducing waste of raw materials, increasing mechanization, reducing food shortages and improving product quality. Above all, the new policies were to demonstrate East German competitiveness with the West German economic miracle. The new system was also put into place to halt Republikflucht attempts (desertion from the Republic), which had plagued the East German economy prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. But Mittag’s new system did not generate the expected results and was replaced in 1967/1968 by policies, which concentrated on building up East Germany’s high-tech industries.

Guenter Mittag was a central figure in the German planned economy from 1958 to 1989. Although he recognized sooner than his comrades that the centralized and monopolistic economic policies did not produce the desired results, he did not want to admit his plan’s failure and hid the facts by doctoring the balance sheets. It was not until mid-1989 that Mittag proposed a radical change of course, but by then it was too late. Following German reunification in 1990. Guenter Mittag was among the first to be relieved of his duties.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, “Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom,” click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of

Erich Mielke – Master of Fear

Monday, May 1st, 2017


Erich Mielke headed the feared East German Ministry for State Security (Ministerium fuer Staatsicherheit – MfS) for over 30 years. The agency became known as the STASI. From 1957 until shortly before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Stasi was enormously powerful, making Erich Mielke the most influential man in East Germany, right behind Communist Party leader, Erich Honecker. One hundred thousand full-time agents and up to two million unofficial “citizen helpers” were under Mielke’s control. His agency stifled opposition by using assassination, kidnapping, execution, denunciation and intimidation to keep the 16.5 million East Germans in fear. In a 1993 interview, Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal said that the Stasi was “much, much worse than the Gestapo.”

Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi from 1957 to 1989. Photo courtesy of Bundesarchiv.

Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi from 1957 to 1989. Photo courtesy of Bundesarchiv.

Erich Mielke’s Pre-Stasi Days

Erich Mielke’s parents were founding members of the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands – KPD, making Erich a second-generation communist. Born into poverty in 1907 in Berlin, he joined the communist youth movement at age 15 and the KPD at age 20. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the Communist party and the Nazi party were frequently involved in violent armed conflicts, Mielke was member of the communist paramilitary forces.

Together with another member of the paramilitary forces, Erich Mielke shot two Berlin police captains in 1931. Their names were Paul Anlauf and Franz Lenck. Mielke escaped prosecution by fleeing to the Soviet Union. He was not tried for the murders until 1993 when incriminating papers were found in his home safe during a search. While in exile in the Soviet Union, Erich Mielke attended the Communist International’s Military-Political School and the Lenin School in Moscow.

From 1936 to 1939, Mielke served as an operative in Spain’s political police. Upon the defeat of the Spanish Republic, he fled to France, was imprisoned, but managed to escape to Belgium. His activities during World War II remain largely unknown. In 1945, at he end of the war, a law enforcement agency closely associated with the Soviet Secret Police ordered him to return to Occupied Germany. His assignment was to build up a security force in the Soviet occupation zone, which involved tracking down Nazis, anti-communists and hundreds of members of the Social Democratic Party. The number of arrests exceeded the number of available spaces in existing prisons so that eleven concentration camps were re-opened or newly established.

Erich Mielke’s Stasi Days

With the establishment of the Ministry for State Security in 1950, Mielke was appointed deputy director of the institution. In November 1957, he became the head of State Security. At that time, the Stasi had 14,000 full-time employees. By 1989 that number had increased to near 100,000. Along the way, Mielke helped Erich Honecker to topple Walter Ulbricht as the party leader.

Erich Mielke’s Final Stasi Days

On 8 October 1989, Erich Mielke and Erich Honecker ordered the Stasi to implement “Plan X,” a plan to arrest and indefinitely detain 85,939 East Germans during a state of emergency. On 13 November 1989, a few days after the opening of the wall, Erich Mielke gave a speech at the Palace of the Republic (Palast der Republik) and in which he said, “I love all – all people.” On 3 December 1989, Erich Mielke was expelled from the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitsparty Deutschlands – SED). Four days later he was arrested and imprisoned on remand in Hohenschoenhausen. http://www.walled-in-berlin/j-elke-ertle/berlin/hohenschoenhausen-prison-part1/ Soon thereafter he was released due to medical reason and arrested again three months later for “crimes against humanity” and “perversion of justice.” He was moved to several prisons in succession. In 1993, the by then 85-year-old Erich Mielke was sentenced to six years in prison for the murders of Captains Anlauf and Lenck in 1931. At the end of 1995, Mielke was released due to ill health. He died at the age of 93.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is my story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.

Human Trafficking Called Haeftlingsfreikauf

Monday, April 17th, 2017


Haeftlingsfreikauf is the German word for ransom money once paid by West Germany to East Germany for the release of East German political prisoners. West Germany also paid ransom moneys for East German citizens who had applied for exit visas but were denied exit by East German authorities. Such human trafficking was unofficially practiced between 1962 and 1990 and sanctioned by both governments.

According to Andreas Apelt, author and historian, 33,755 political prisoners (which included people who had attempted to cross the east/west border illegally) and 250,000 of their relatives were sold to West Germany between 1964 and 1989. The Haeftlingsfreikauf cost West Germany a total of 3.5 billion West Marks. Some of these political prisoners were well-known agents; others were nameless. The prisoners were given the option of being released into the East or into the West. Most of them chose the West. At times, the ransom consisted of western currency. Other times, “buying free” involved “merchandise” for merchandise, such as cadmium, copper, crude oil, rubber, equipment, cooking oil, coffee, tropical fruit. Human trafficking infused the East German economy with much needed cash and merchandise. West Germany assisted for humanitarian reasons.

Haeftlingsfreikauf = ransom moneys paid by West Germany to East Germany of the release of its political prisoners between 1962 and 1990.

Haeftlingsfreikauf = ransom moneys paid by West Germany to East Germany of the release of its political prisoners between 1962 and 1990.

Start of the Haeftlingsfreikauf practice

The first East German political prisoners were bought free during the Christmas season of 1962. At that time, ransom moneys were paid for 20 prisoners and a number of children. They were released to the west in return for three truckloads of fertilizer. During those initial exchanges, the price per prisoner was about 40,000 West Marks. By 1989 that amount had risen to over 95,000 West Marks. Supposedly, the price was based on the “damage” the prisoner had caused to the regime plus the educational investment the East German state had made in the prisoner. For the last Haeftlingsfreikauf in January 1990 West Germany paid with copper, crude oil and light trucks amounting to 65 million West Mark. The funds were deposited in special accounts held by Stasi chief Erich Mielke and by General Secretary Erich Honecker

How the Haeftlingsfreikauf practice worked

Neither side wanted the public to find out about the Haeftlingsfreikauf practice. East Germany did not want to appear weak, and West Germany did not want to be seen as supporting a communist regime. Therefore, the operation remained clandestine. Government representatives unofficially handled the arrangements. Representatives of the Protestant and Catholic Church acted as intermediaries. Attorneys from both sides facilitated the operation. Wolfgang Vogel represented the East German side; Juergen Stange acted on behalf of the West German side. Some prisoner releases took place in the underground railway. In other cases, prisoners were driven across the border in buses with revolving license plates.

How the Prisoners were actually exchanged

Exchanges were handled with utmost discretion. If the exchange involved busses, the prisoners were usually transported to the Kassberg prison in Chemnitz and then driven to the Herleshausen/Wartha border where they were expelled to West Germany. While still in East Germany, the bus displayed East German license plates. At the border crossing, the driver pushed a button on the dashboard, and the license plate pivoted to display a West German license.

I have a friend who was one of the 33,755 political prisoners bought free by West Germany. His story is hair-raising. When he was a high school student still living in East Germany with his family, he and a group of boys in his class decided to defect. It was more of a boys’ prank than a serious desire to leave East Germany. Nonetheless, the boys planned their get-away. But someone denounced them to the authorities. All of the boys were immediately taken into custody, separated and sent to prison. My friend found himself in solitary confinement for the better of six months. One night, he and a number of prison inmates of all ages and both sexes were told to get on a bus in a hurry. The bus was standing ready. They were not allowed to take anything. My friend did not know anyone on the bus.

It was completely dark inside the bus. All the prisoners could see was that they were being driven into the woods. There was dead silence in the bus. The prisoners feared for their lives. Finally, headlights became visible in the distance. Moments later, the headlights went off. The bus continued in the direction of the headlights now gone dark and then came to a stop. The driver turned off the engine. The prisoners were told to quickly get off. Once outside and still in complete darkness, they were barely able to make out the outline of another bus parked directly next to theirs. At gunpoint, they were told to get on the second bus as quickly as possible. Once everyone had boarded, the doors closed, the engine started, and the bus took off. It was still completely dark inside the bus. No one spoke.

A few minutes later, the lights came on inside the bus, music blared from the radio and the driver said, “Welcome everybody. In a few minutes you will be in the West. You are free.”


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, “Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom,” click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of

Avant-Garde Recyclers of Cars

Monday, February 6th, 2017


Did you know that Communist East Germany was an ingenious, albeit unintentional, recycler of cars? East Germany’s most popular car, the Trabant – affectionally called Trabi by its owners – turned out to be edible. You heard right! When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, East Germans abandoned their cars in droves and walked across the border. Many Trabis were hastily left in open fields. When the owners returned some weeks later, they found to their surprise that goats and pigs had dined on their beloved Trabis.


Pig dining on abandoned Trabi. Photo courtesy of

Pig dining on abandoned Trabi. Photo courtesy of


A 1984 UN report identified East Germany as the most polluted country in Europe. In terms of air, water and soil pollution, East Germany certainly was the most polluted European country. But East Germans were also cutting-edge recyclers of cars because Trabant bodies were made from an amalgam, called Duroplast, a material which turned out to be edible. No other carmaker can say that about its vehicles.

The East German Trabant

Between 1957 and 1990, the East German state-owned automobile manufacturer, VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau, produced a total of 3,096,099 Trabants Before the fall of the Berlin Wall East Germans coveted those cars. To buy a new Trabi, the prospective owner was placed on a list and had to wait for delivery an average of 11 to 18 years. Aside from the lengthy wait, a Trabi was a huge financial investment. In most cases it cost the equivalent of one year’s salary. With so much riding on ownership, Trabis were well cared for and had an average lifespan of 28 years.

In West Germany, Trabis were mocked for their 25-horsepower, vacuum-cleaner-size plastic motor, their uncomfortable ride and their bodies’ fibrous reinforcing material that looked like – but wasn’t – cardboard.

What is Duroplast?

The roof, trunk lid, hood, fenders and doors of the Trabant were made of an amalgam, called Duroplast. Duroplast was made from cotton waste from the Soviet Union and phenol resins from the East German dye industry. Fibrous reinforcement was added. The resulting material was strong, light and durable.

Worldwide Recyclers of Cars

In the U.S. nearly 12 million cars are recycled every year. In Europe it is nearly eight million. Generally, about 75-80 percent of a vehicle is recyclable. That means the car is shredded, metal is recovered for recycling and the remainder is put into a landfill. The waste usually includes polymers such as plastics and resins. Not in East Germany, however. These avant-garde recyclers of cars reprocessed the Duroplast.

As discarded Trabants began filling junkyards after the German reunification, VEB Sachsenring, the same automobile manufacturer that had produced the cars in the first place, developed a way to shred the Duroplast and use it as an aggregate in cement pavement blocks. A Berlin biotech company even experimented with bacteria that would consume the car bodies in 20 days.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, “Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom,” click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of






The Lipsi – a politically correct dance

Monday, March 14th, 2016

The Lipsi was a new dance in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was officially promoted by East German leaders. The socialist dance creation was the East’s answer to Elvis Presley’s Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Rock ‘n’ Roll-inspired dance, the Twist. Party officials saw in Elvis’ sexually provocative performance style an undesirable capitalist influence on their socialist youth and were looking for a more wholesome alternative.

The birth of the Lipsi

East German leaders regarded both dancing too closely together as well as dancing apart as indecent, decadent and offensive. Both dance modes were frowned upon and sometimes strictly forbidden. To eclipse the emerging Rock ‘n’ Roll music and dance modes, party officials had to come up with an alternative, a politically correct dance. And in 1959 they introduced the Lipsi.

Composer René Dubianski and dance instructor-couple Christa and Helmut Seifert concocted the dance. Since all three came from the East German city of Leipzig, they named their creation the “Lipsi” by adapting the name from lipsiens, the Latin name for Leipzig. Officials hoped that the “i’ on the end of Lipsi would make the dance sound modern and American and, therefore, appeal to young people. All aspects of the dance were government- supervised and approved. Officials even prepared for the possibility that the new East German dance might become a worldwide hit and applied for a patent.

Let’s do the Lipsi

The Lipsi is a dance in 6/4 time. Think of a double-time waltz, done to fast, upbeat music. Its basic steps and patterns are simple and easily learned so that beginners can master them in short order. The Lipsi is a couples’ dance. The man leads; the woman follows. It looks similar to the Latin Rumba without hip involvement, of course. While partners gently hold hands, they rarely dance apart nor do they get very close to each other. For a few beats of the Lipsi, watch Christa and Helmut Seifert on youtube.

What happened to the Lipsi?

Although the Lipsi was actually a rather nice dance addition, it had limited appeal. Its major downfall was that it was promoted as a politically correct dance to counter Rock ‘n’ Roll. Despite enormous propaganda efforts on the part of the East German government, the Lipsi was only briefly in vogue. The dance was too conventional to captivate the East German youth, which hungered for the rousing rhythms of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Within a few years the Lipsi disappeared again. However, since the beginning of the 21st century, the Lipsi has celebrated a come-back, especially in Leipzig.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of


Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen Prison- Part 1

Monday, November 9th, 2015

Between 1951 and 1989 East Germany’s deeply feared State Security, the Stasi, operated a notorious political prison in Hohenschoenhausen. Located in Berlin’s northeastern district of Lichtenberg, some 40,000 political prisoners passed through the sprawling compound’s gates during its 38-year operation. Few people actually knew of the prison’s existence because the prison was located within a large, restricted military area and hermetically sealed-off from the outside world. It never even appeared on any East Berlin map.

History of Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen

In 1939, the Hohenschoenhausen compound was built as a canteen. In June 1945, at the conclusion of World War II, the Soviet Secret Police took over the area, transformed it into a detainment camp and called it Special Camp No. 3. During the winter of 1946-1947, the Soviets turned the camp into a prison and converted the cafeteria into an underground prison area.

Original Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen prison building, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Original Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen prison building, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

In 1951, the Ministry of State Security (Mfs) – better known as the Stasi – reopened the prison. In the late 50s, using prisoner labor, they added an additional building. It included 200 prison cells and interrogation rooms. The Stasi also converted the existing cafeteria. It became known as the “U-Boot” (submarine) among inmates because the Stasi applied water torture in some of its cells. Employing predominantly psychological torture to break the prisoners’ resistance and will, Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen functioned as a prison until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Most of the prisoners had tried to flee or emigrate from East Germany or had been persecuted due to their political views. The compound officially closed on October 3, 1990, the day of German reunification.

Expanded Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen prison building, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Expanded Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen prison building, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen Memorial

In 1995, the Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen Memorial (Gedenkstaette Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen) opened on the site of the former East German political prison. On the initiative of its former Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen inmates, the compound has become a registered memorial site. To help us comprehend the extent and methods of political persecution in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany), former prisoners conduct guided tours. In 2013, a museum opened as well. It displays close to 500 objects that tell the stories of those who were imprisoned here. The Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen Memorial is open year-round.

Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen Memorial from the outside, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen Memorial from the outside, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Read about my impressions of to Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen in next week’s blog.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.


Beate Ulbricht’s golden cage – Part 1

Monday, October 5th, 2015

Beate Ulbricht – alias Maria Pestunowa – alias Beate Matteoli, was the adopted daughter of Walter Ulbricht, former East German head of state, and his second wife Lotte. Beate was born in 1944 in Leipzig, Germany, under the name of Maria Pestunowa. The Ulbricht’s renamed her Beate and gave the girl their last name. Beate remained the couple’s only child. These facts did not become public knowledge until the Berlin Wall fell.

In many respects, Beate Ulbricht lived a privileged life. She went to the best schools, enjoyed splendid vacations with her parents and enjoyed many advantages in the socialist state – with one exception. Beate was not allowed to be herself. She was brought up to be the First Child of the Nation. Her parents expected her to be the perfect daughter, the impeccable student, the model pioneer. Her mother told her to always be “useful and cheerful.” Every aspect of Beate’s life was on public display. A slip-up was out of the question. The young girl came to feel trapped in her golden cage, had difficulty coping and finally succumbed to the unrelenting pressure. Shortly before she died in 1991, Beate Ulbricht said in the only interview she ever gave, “Ich hatte zu essen, zu trinken, anzuziehen – aber in diesem goldenen Käfig war keine Liebe – I had food, drink and clothes, but in this golden cage there was no love.” She died a few months later under mysterious circumstances.

The infant Beate Ulbricht

Beate Ulbricht came into the world as Maria Pestunowa, a citizen of the Soviet Union. Her mother was a Ukrainian forced laborer in Germany. The identity of her father remains unknown. Soon after Maria’s birth, her mother perished in a bomb attack. The baby was first placed in an orphanage, then with a foster family in Dresden. In January of 1946, Walter Ulbricht and his partner, Lotte Kuehn, applied to adopt the girl. At the time, Walter was still legally married to Martha Schmellinsky, although the couple had separated years earlier. As his political career was taking off, he planned to wed his personal assistant, Lotte Kuehn, once the divorce was final.

Beate Ulbricht’s adoption

Walter Ulbricht’s political star was on the rise (see last week’s post Having a family was likely to further his career. Since Lotte was unable to bear children, adoption looked like the perfect option. It all happened quickly. Walter pulled some strings with the youth authorities in Dresden. Although not yet married to Walter, Lotte already identified herself as Lotte Ulbricht. In January of 1946, the youth authorities took baby Maria from her original foster family and placed her with the Ulbrichts. In 1950 the adoption process was finalized though Walter and Lotte Ulbricht did not legally marry until 1953.

Read about Beate Ulbricht’s tragic adult life at

For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.

Image-challenged Walter Ulbricht

Monday, September 28th, 2015

Walter Ulbricht was a 20th century East German politician who always knew which side his bread was buttered on. By instinctively understanding whom to defer to and which efforts to pursue, he became East Germany’s postwar leader. Loyal to Leninist and Stalinist principles, he was described by peers and populace alike as an inflexible, dull and unlikeable man. It didn’t help that he spoke with a squeaky falsetto voice due to a childhood diphtheria infection. Still, he remained East Germany’s chief decision maker until 1971 – a period of more than twenty years. A joke made the rounds in East Germany during those years. It went like this: An airplane crashes carrying the presidents of the United States and France and the British Queen. They all perish. Which country mourns the most? The answer: East Germany because Ulbricht wasn’t on the plane.,postext,herbst89,artikel_id,12915.html

Who was Walter Ulbricht?

Walter Ulbricht came from humble beginnings. He was born in 1893 to a tailor in Leipzig, Germany. After graduating primary school, Ulbricht trained as a cabinetmaker. Since both his parents were active in the Social Democratic Party (SPD), young Ulbricht joined the party as well. He was 19 at the time. Eight years later, in 1920, he left the SPD and joined the newly created KPD, the Communist Party of Germany. By aligning himself with the “right” people he rose swiftly through party ranks.

Walter Ulbricht, East German Statesman 1950-1971

Walter Ulbricht, East German Statesman

Walter Ulbricht’s political life

Walter Ulbricht quickly became an important member in the party. In 1923, he was elected to the Central Committee and five years later to the Reichstag (German parliament). He remained a member of the Reichstag until 1933 when the Nazis came to power. When they imprisoned other KPD leaders in connection with a high profile murder, Ulbricht fled to France, Czechoslovakia and finally Spain. Between 1937 and 1945, he settled in Moscow and resided in the famous Hotel Lux. While there, he worked on a variety of communist causes.

Walter Ulbricht – leader of East Germany

In April 1945, Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, chose Walter Ulbricht to lead a group of party functionaries into Germany to begin reconstruction of the Communist party in Germany. Within the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany and the Soviet-occupied sector of Berlin, Social Democrats were pressured into merging with the Communist party to form the new Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). After the founding of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1949, Ulbricht became Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers. In 1950, he became General Secretary of the SED Central Committee and First Secretary in 1953. After the death of Stalin that same year, Ulbricht’s position was in danger. However, the East German Uprising of 1953 helped him to gain the Kremlin’s support. With Moscow’s backing, Ulbricht suppressed the uprising and secured his position in East Germany. From that point on, Walter Ulbricht was East Germany’s chief decision maker.

Ulbricht continued to plot his course. By 1952, he had nationalized 80 percent of the industry, which resulted in an economy that was short of consumer goods and often produced goods of shoddy quality. When his economic measures proved flawed, millions of East Germans fled to the west. Aware of the possibility of a total collapse of East Germany, Ulbricht pressured the Soviet Union in early 1961 to stop the outflow or workers and to resolve the status of Berlin. This led to the construction of the Berlin Wall, only two months after Ulbricht had emphatically denied that there were such plans when he stated, “No one has any intention of building a wall.” The Berlin Wall became a public relations disaster for Ulbricht and the Soviet Union. By the late 1960s, Ulbricht found himself more and more isolated, both at home and abroad. His refusal to work with West Germany on Soviet terms infuriated Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. In 1971, Ulbricht was forced to resign from virtually all of his public functions. He was only allowed to remain head of state as Chairman of the Council of State in an honorary capacity.

Walter Ulbricht was a survivor

Image-challenged Walter Ulbricht came close to being toppled several times, but he always landed on his feet. His private life was beset with difficulties as well. Next time, I will write about his relationship with his wife, Lotte, and their daughter, Beate.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.


Bueckware is Stoop Merchandise

Monday, September 21st, 2015

Bueckware is a German word that translates into “Stoop Merchandise.” It is a clever expression that alludes to the need for the sales person to have to stoop beneath the counter to unearth the goods.

Bueckware – WWII 

The term originated at the onset of WWII when Germany’s Nazi government rationed certain items, in particular foodstuffs and textiles. Producers and shop owners reacted by holding back some merchandise and storing it out of view. Generally, these were luxury items, such as chocolate, eggs or sausage. By hiding the goods from view, they were officially no longer on hand. When it came to finally selling the coveted items – and they were sold only to a select group – the shop owner had to literally stoop (buecken in German) beneath the counter to come up with the goods.

Bueckware – East Germany

During the communist era of East Germany the situation was similar. Bueckware referred to items that were locally scarce, could only be obtained through bartering, or were intentionally held back for friends, relatives and important persons. In those days, Bueckware often consisted of daily necessities. Shop owners would stoop beneath the counter to unearth hard-to-come-by items, such as exotic fruits, building materials, electrical outlets and replacement parts for cars. Bueckware also referred to items that were sold illegally, such as record albums from West Germany. Matthias Kaiser in Der Eichsfeld Report, Art de Cuisine, Erfurt 2009, states, “the pigs must have grown up without livers during those years because these popular innards were so scarce that they were available only as Bueckware.”

Bueckware – West Germany

Bueckware also existed in West Germany during those days. But the term had a slightly different connotation. During West Germany’s post WWII economic miracle, Bueckware referred to illegal items, such as pornography.

Bueckware – Today

The term has not disappeared. These days, Bueckware refers to the cheaper no-name brands of merchandise that are located on the bottom shelves at your grocery store. While the pricy brand-name products with higher profit margins are located at eye level, customers are forced to stoop down to the lower shelves if they wish to purchase the less expensive items.

Learn a new word and let me know if you need help with the pronunciation.

Bueckware at Ralphs, Photo © J. Elke Ertle 2015

Bueckware at Ralphs,
Photo © J. Elke Ertle 2015


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.