Posts Tagged ‘fall of the Berlin Wall’

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


Ode to Joy – European National Anthem

Monday, March 27th, 2017


Two hundred years after inception, Ode to Joy is still as popular as ever. Throughout the world, it is seen as a song about resistance to war and repression. It is even speculated that Schiller originally entitled his lyric poem “Ode An die Freiheit” (Ode to Freedom) and later changed it to “Ode An die Freude” (Ode to Joy).

First written in 1785 by German poet Friedrich Schiller as a celebration of the brotherhood of man, Ode to Joy is best known as the 4th and final movement in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. When the poem was republished in 1808, Schiller made some minor revisions. This revised version forms the basis for Beethoven’s famous movement. The Ninth Symphony was completed in 1824.

Ludwig van Beethoven, photo courtesy of wikipedia. Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.

Ludwig van Beethoven, photo courtesy of wikipedia. Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.

Becoming the European National Anthem

In 1972, the Council of Europe adopted Beethoven’s famous movement as the European National Anthem. In 1985, it also became the anthem of the European Community and in 1993 that of the European Union. The European Anthem does not replace the national anthems of its member states. It celebrates their shared values and their unity in diversity. It symbolizes not only the European Union but also Europe in a wider sense. Just as Schiller’s lyric poem, the European Anthem symbolizes the human race as one of brothers.

Due to the large number of languages used in the European Union, the European National Anthem is purely instrumental. In the universal language of music, this anthem expresses the European ideals of freedom, peace and solidarity. It is played on official occasions, such as the opening of Parliament following elections and at formal sittings.

Ode to Joy has been heard around the World

In Chile, women sang Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in the streets and sometimes outside torture prisons during Pinochet’s dictatorship to raise the hope of inmates. In 1989, Chinese protesters sang the Ode to Joy during their march on Tiananmen Square. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Ninth on both sites of the Berlin Wall to celebrate freedom.

German and English Lyrics to the Ode to Joy

Ode an die Freude                                 Ode to Joy

Freude, schoener Goetterfunken             Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,

Tochter aus Elysium.                                 Daughter from Elysium.

Wir betreten feuertrunken                       We enter, burning with fervor,

Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!                   heavenly being, your sanctuary!


Deine Zauber binden wieder                    Your magic brings together

Was die Mode streng geteilt;                    what custom has sternly divided;

Alle Menschen werden Brueder,              All men shall become brothers,

wo dein sanfter Fluegel weilt.                  Wherever your gently wing hovers.


Wem der grosse Wurf gelungen             Whoever has been lucky enough

Eines Freundes Freund zu sein,              to become a friend to a friend,

Wer ein holdes Weib errungen                Whoever has found a beloved wife,

Mische seinen Jubel ein!                          let him join in the jubilation!


Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele                      Yes, and anyone who can call one soul

Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund!              His own on this earth!

Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der steel             And who cannot, let them slink away

weinend sich aus diesem Bund.              from this gathering in tears.


Freude trinken alle Wesen                      Every creature drinks in joy

An den Bruesten der Natur;                    At nature’s breast;

Alle Guten, alle Boesen                            Good and Evil alike

Folgen ihrer Rosenspur.                          Follow her trail of roses.


Kuesse gab sie uns und Reben,               She gave us kisses and wine,

Einen Freund geprueft im Tod;               A true friend, even in death;

Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben,         Even the worm was given desire,

und der Cherub steht vor Gott.                And the cherub stands before God.


Froh wie seine Sonnen fliegen                  Gladly, as his suns hurtle

Durch des Himmels praecht’gen Plan,    Through the glorious universe,

Laufet, Brueder, eure Bahn,                       So you, brothers, should run your course,

Freudig wie ein Held zu Siegen.                Joyfully like a conquering hero.


Seid umschlungen Millionen!                   Be embraced, you millions!

Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!                  This kiss is for the whole world!

Brueder ueber’m Sternenzelt                    Brothers, above the canopy of stars

Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen.                  Must dwell a loving Father.


Ihr stuerzt nieder, Millionen?                   Do you bow down before Him, millions?

Ahnest Du den Schoepfer, Welt?             Do you sense the Creator, world?

Such ihn ueber’m Sternenzelt.                  Seek him above the canopy of stars.

Ueber Sternen muss er wohnen.              He must dwell beyond the stars.


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






House of One – three faiths under one roof

Monday, August 15th, 2016

Berlin’s House of One, when completed, will be the spiritual equivalent of the confederation of Switzerland, which has four main linguistic and cultural regions. The House of One will bring together three different faiths under one roof: a church, a synagogue and a mosque. The concept of a house of worship shared by Christians, Jews and Muslims is a “first” in the world. It is the hope of the project’s initiators that the House of One will eventually tear down the walls between religions just as the fall of Berlin Wall removed the barriers between East and West Berlin a quarter of a century ago.

What the House of One will look like

Plans have already been drawn. Berlin architect Wilfried Kuehn of Kuehn Malvezzi GmbH designed an interfaith prayer house that has three separate sections. A communal room in the center of the building will link the three areas and seat 380 people. Each of the worship areas will be the same in size but of different shape, allowing each religion to keep its own identity.

Originators of The House of One

The three men now heading the House of One project are: Pastor Gregor Hohberg, Rabbi Tovia Ben Chorin, and Imam Kadir Sanci.

Protestant pastor Gregor Hohberg of Berlin’s St. Marienkirche (St. Mary’s) first conceived of the idea of an interfaith house of worship when a 2009 redevelopment excavation unearthed the ruins of Berlin’s very first church. That archaeological discovery pointed to fragments of the foundation of St. Petri (St. Peters), built in the 13th century. The church was named after St. Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. St. Petri had already been destroyed and rebuilt several times when the communist government of East Germany decided to demolish the church altogether in the 1960s. Currently, a parking lot occupies the space.

Location of the House of One

Once built, the House of One will be located at the Petriplatz (Petri Square) in the historical birthplace of Berlin between Breite Strasse and Gertraudenstrasse. In medieval times, the square was not located in the historical center of Berlin but that of Coelln, Berlin’s sister city.

Funding of House of One

The religious leaders are still in the process of raising funds for the construction of the House of One. The goal is to raise 43 million euros and to finance the project entirely through crowdfunding, by selling bricks for €10 each. So far, one million euros have been raised. Construction is to begin in earnest once the first €10,000,000 has been raised.


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 Stasi and how it worked

Monday, February 29th, 2016

The STASI was the secret police agency of the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The name stands for Ministerium fuer STAatsSIcherheit (Ministry for State Security). In keeping with their motto “Schild und Schwert der Partei” (Shield and Sword of the Party) the Stasi became one of the most repressive and feared institutions that ever existed.

How the Stasi got its start

The Stasi grew out of the internal security and police agency that was launched by the Soviets in their occupation zone of Germany in the aftermath of World War II. On 8 February 1950, four months after the East German state was established, the state’s new legislature established the Ministry for State Security. The agency’s initial responsibility was limited to domestic political surveillance and foreign espionage. Soon its power grew exponentially.

What made the Stasi so powerful?

Under Erich Mielke, director of the agency from 1957 to 1989, the Stasi gained access to every aspect of the daily lives of East German citizens: Aside from foreign espionage, it suppressed internal political opposition; it imprisoned hundreds of thousands of citizens; it infiltrated every major East German institution; it even went so far as to analyze the garbage for suspect western food and/or materials. In addition, the Stasi maintained detailed files on family and personal relationships.

It accomplished these tasks with approximately 100,000 full-time Stasi officers, 15,000 soldiers, army officers and police in addition to a vast network of full-time and part-time citizen informants and unofficial collaborators. The number of these citizen-helpers has been estimated at somewhere between 500,000 and 2,000,000. These unpaid collaborators were often recruited from people whose jobs entailed frequent contact with the public. They included doctors, nurses, clergy, lawyers, teachers, trolley conductors, waiters, janitors and actors. In return for small incentives designed to make them feel important, they were asked to spy on and denounced colleagues, friends, neighbors and family members. By 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell the Stasi employed one full-time agent for every 166 East Germans. Adding full-time and part-time informers and collaborators, the Stasi relied on one informer per 6.5 people. The agency maintained files on more than one-third of the East German population.

By the 1970s, the Stasi decreased its number of overt persecutions, such as arrests and torture, and increasingly focused on the use of psychological tactics, called Zersetzung (undermining). Favored methods included gaslighting, which is a form of mental manipulation with the intent to make the victims doubt their sanity. Gaslighting tactics included breaking into homes and moving furniture, changing the time on the clock, removing pictures from walls or simply replacing one variety of tea with another.

End of the Stasi

Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the East German legislature tried to rebrand the Stasi as the Amt fuer Nationale Sicherheit (Office for National Security). But because of a public outcry this agency was never established. Instead, the Stasi was formally disbanded in February 1990. But before the agency was dissolved, Stasi officials destroyed a vast amount of the organization’s files. East German citizens occupied the Stasi’s main headquarters in Berlin on 15 January 1990, stopped the destruction and saved the remaining files.

Attempted destruction of files by the Stasi and bags of files recovered - photos on exhibit in "Haus in der Runden Ecke", Leipzig.

Attempted destruction of files by the Stasi and bags of files recovered – photos on exhibit in “Haus in der Runden Ecke”, Leipzig.

Since 2015, East German Stasi files are open to the public online for the first time. Please visit


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


Allied Control Council governs Germany

Monday, November 30th, 2015

Originally headquartered in the Kammergericht building in Berlin, the Allied Control Council (Allierter Kontrolrat) was in operation for only three years – 1945 to 1948. The following year, it morphed into the Allied High Commission (Allierte Hohe Kommission), which met at the Hotel Petersberg, near Bonn, Germany. The Allied Control Council was disbanded when the final peace treaty of 1990 restored full sovereignty to the reunified Germany.

Location of the Allied Control Council between 1945 and 1948. Today, Berlin's Kammergericht is housed again in the building, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Location of the Allied Control Council between 1945 and 1948. Today, Berlin’s Kammergericht is again housed in the building, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Creation of the Allied Control Council

Preparations for the postwar occupation and administration of German affairs following the surrender of the Third Reich began during the second half of 1944. The European Advisory Commission – formed in 1943 – did most of the planning. It recommended shared-power administration. Therefore, following Adolf Hitler’s death in 1945 and Germany’s unconditional surrender, the Allies signed a four-power document that created the Allied Control Council. The Allied Control Council’s initial members were Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Soviet Union), General Dwight D. Eisenhower (United States), Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (Great Britain) and General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny (France).

Potsdam Conference of 1945

The European Advisory Commission was dissolved at the Potsdam Conference. Germany was officially divided into four military occupation zones: American, British, French and Soviet. It was agreed that each occupying power would govern its zone. It was also agreed that all four Allies would jointly rule on all matters affecting Germany as a whole. A representative from each of the four powers would sit on the Allied Control Council.

Allied Occupation Zones of Germany (British, French, American and Soviet) - 1945 to 1990

Allied Occupation Zones of Germany (British, French, American and Soviet) – 1945 to 1990

Purpose of the Allied Control Council

During its three-year existence the Allied Control Council issued a substantial number of proclamations, laws, orders, directives and instructions. These dealt in large part with the abolition of Nazi laws and organizations, demilitarization and denazification.

Breakdown of the Allied Control Council

As time passed, the quadripartite meetings got more and more cantankerous. Relations between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union deteriorated, as did their cooperation in the administration of occupied Germany. On 20 March 1948, the Soviet representative on the Allied Control Council, Vasily Sokolovsky, walked out of the meeting and never returned. Since the Council was required to reach unanimous agreement on all decisions that pertained to the whole of Germany, Sokolovsky’s action effectively shut down the Council. Soon thereafter, the Soviet blockaded West Berlin. The three Western Allies countered with the Berlin Airlift. A Cold War between East and West ensued that continued until the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Post-Allied Control Council Operations

Although the Allied Control Council effectively ceased all activity in 1948, it was not formally dissolved. The only four-power operations to continue were the management of the Berlin-Spandau Prison and that of the Berlin Air Safety Center. Germany remained under nominal military occupation until 15 March 1991, when the final ratification of the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany, also known as the Two Plus Four Treaty (Vertrag ueber die abschliessende Regelung in Bezug auf Deutschland or Zwei-Plus-Vier-Vertrag) was signed in 1990. As part of the treaty, the Allied Control Council was officially disbanded.


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.

Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen Prison – Part 2

Monday, November 16th, 2015


Last week I wrote about the history of the dreaded Stasi prison Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen Today I will share my personal impressions after touring the former prison buildings.

My impressions of Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to take one of these guided tours of the Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen Memorial. Our guide was a West German woman who had been incarcerated here because of a romantic involvement with an East German man. Her account of the psychological intimidation methods employed by the Stasi was truly chilling. We were told that the overall goal of the Stasi was to destabilize prisoners and to make them feel powerless. To that end, prisoners were completely sealed off from the outside world and never even told where they were being held. They were strictly isolated from their fellow prisoners, and interrogations and manipulation to extract information were harsh. They involved isolation, sleep deprivation, water torture and threats to friends and family members.

Typical Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen prison interrogation room, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Typical Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen prison interrogation room, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Walking through the prison, we came to realize that the cells had no windows. The only air exchange occurred through a few small holes in the bottom of the cell doors. These doors had a small, latched openings through which the guards observed the prisoners. Even the cell toilets could be viewed through these openings. We also visited a padded room that had neither windows nor corners. Its purpose was to play havoc with the prisoners’ sense of orientation.

Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen observation window into prison cell, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen observation window into prison cell, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

The average prison stay at Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen was six months, although some prisoners were held captive without trial for years. Interrogators were trained psychologists who had been briefed on the prisoners and their families and used sophisticated methods to break down defenses. Their methods were so successful that a third of all Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen prisoners were informants by the 1980s.

From personal recollections our guide added that lights were turned on and off at regular intervals throughout the night and that the guards awakened prisoners who did not maintain the “approved” sleep position. All prisoners were expected to sleep on their backs with their hands on top of the blanket. The Stasi did not allow any kind of contact between inmates. If a prisoner was lead through the corridor to an interrogation room and his path crossed that of another inmate, both were required to turn to the wall so that they could not get even a brief glimpse of each other. To reduce the chance of such encounters in the first place, a red and green signal on the ceiling indicated whether a prisoner was allowed to walk on or not.

Signal light at Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen prison indicating whether or not a prisoner was allowed to walk, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Signal light at Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen prison indicating whether not a prisoner was allowed to walk, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

The closing of Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen

Unlike many other government and military institutions in East Germany, demonstrators did not storm the Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen prison after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In fact, prison authorities had time to destroy numerous pieces of evidence of the prison’s history. Therefore, today’s understanding of the methods employed at Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen comes mainly from eyewitness accounts and documents maintained by other East German institutions. It is estimated that more than 91,000 full-time Stasi employees and 189,000 unofficial collaborators maintained close, repressive surveillance over the East German populace until the Berlin Wall fell.


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.

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.


Comrade Lenin is back

Monday, September 14th, 2015

Twenty-four years after the 62-foot statue of Communist leader Vladimir Lenin was buried outside of Berlin, Germany, its granite head was unearthed this month and placed in a Berlin museum. Just last year, in August 2014, the Berlin senate had claimed that the giant statue was lost. At that time, authorities had maintained that they knew the general location of its burial place but had no records of the precise location. Digging up the entire pit, long overgrown with shrubs, to unearth Lenin’s head had seemed too costly an undertaking.

Who was Comrade Lenin?

Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) was a Russian communist revolutionary and politician. He played a senior role in the October Revolution of 1917. Under his administration the Russian Empire was dissolved and replaced by the Soviet Union. His political theories are known as Leninism. Admirers view him as a champion of working people’s rights and welfare. Critics see him as a dictator responsible for civil war and massive human rights abuses. In East Germany, Lenin was held up as a model communist.

Where was Comrade Lenin’s statue located?

Designed by Nikolai Tomsky, Lenin’s giant sculpture was originally located in Leninplatz (Lenin Square) in the Friedrichshain district of former East Berlin. A gift from the Soviet Union to East Germany, the monument was carved from Ukrainian red Kapustino granite. Three days before the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birth it was unveiled before 200,000 guests. The celebration took place on 19 April 1970. Subsequently, in 1992, the square was renamed Platz der Vereinten Nationen (United Nations Square).

Lenin statue at Leninplatz, Berlin, photo Bundesarchiv, Germany

Lenin statue at Leninplatz, Berlin,
photo Bundesarchiv, Germany

Why was Comrade Lenin’s statue removed?

The East German government had commissioned the statue to express East Germany’s reverence for and gratitude toward Lenin. But following the fall of the Berlin Wall, many Germans wanted to get rid of Soviet symbols, and Berlin’s then mayor Eberhard Diepgen ordered the statue to be removed. Critics argued that the monument was part of the history of the neighborhood and should remain. Nonetheless, two years after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, demolition took place.

Since 1994, a bubbling fountain has taken the place of Lenin’s sculpture in the Platz der Vereinten Nationen (United Nations Square). Now, water bubbles from five roughly hewn granite boulders in a group of fourteen that grace the square.

Where was Comrade Lenin’s statue buried?

The demolition of Lenin’s statue began in November 1991 and took several months. It was split in 129 sections and buried in a sand pit at Seddinberg in the district of Treptow-Koepenick, a southeastern suburb of Berlin. It seemed that Lenin’s statue would remain buried forever until historians started campaigning for its excavation last year. When the Berlin government claimed not to know where exactly it was buried, Rick Minnich, a Berlin-based US filmmaker, stepped up. He told the media that he knew its precise location because he had it partially unearthed a few years earlier for his 1990 film, Good-bye, Lenin.

Where is Comrade Lenin’s head now?

On 10 September 2015, Lenin’s 3.5-ton granite head was transported from the Seddinberg sand pit to Berlin’s Spandau Zitadelle museum. It is scheduled to be the showpiece in the Zitadelle’s exhibition, “Berlin and its Monuments,” which will display more than 100 original Berlin monuments from the 18th century to the fall of the Wall. According to Berlin officials, Lenin’s head will remain the only part of the statue to be excavated. All other sections will remain buried.


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.

Who really opened the Berlin Wall?

Monday, August 31st, 2015

On 9 November 1989, East German Politburo member, Guenter Schabowski, stated during press conference televised from Berlin that a new travel law was going into effect. The new law was to remove a longstanding restriction to travel West. The Central Committee’s intention had been to announce the change overnight and phase in the new ruling the following morning. Instead, Schabowski, blurted out the plans prematurely. When journalists Peter Brinkmann of the German Bild Zeitung and Riccardo Ehrman of the Italian news agency ANSA asked for an effective date, Schabowski compounded his error by adding that the new rules would go into effect “unverzueglich – immediately.”

Schaboswki’s statement together with Brinkmann and Ehrman’s queries changed history. They sparked the opening of the Berlin Wall. But it was a border guard who actually opened it.

Harald Jaeger opens the Berlin Wall

Upon hearing the news, people headed for the border. Quickly, their numbers grew to several hundred. Demands to open the gate became louder. The crowd continued to grow. Soon, several thousand people had amassed. The guards, under order to stop anyone from crossing the border, called headquarters for direction. Nothing. The standoff between armed guards and the people grew tenser by the minute. The tide  seemed unstoppable. Twenty thousand people were demanding to cross checkpoint Bornholmer Strasse to the West.

Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jaeger, in charge of passport control at checkpoint Bornholmer Strasse that night, recalls almost choking on his dinner when he heard Schabowski’s statement on the guard’s cafeteria TV set. He was that surprised. He immediately rushed to his office to get clarification on what his border guards were supposed to do. To ease the tension, he was told to let some of the rowdier people through, but to stamp their passports invalid so that they could not return. But the departure of the few only fired up the crowd even more. Pressure from both sides mounted on Jaeger.

At 11:30 p.m., Jaeger ordered his men, “Macht den Schlagbaum auf – Raise the barrier,” despite the strict orders from his superiors not to let more people through. With that command, Jaeger allowed East Germans to cross to the West. With that command, he opened the Berlin Wall that had been impervious for 28 years.

Disobedience can be a good thing

Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jaeger disobeyed his orders during those dramatic hours. That disobedience could have had serious consequences for him and for his family. We have to thank him, his men and also the people waiting at the border for their levelheadedness. Had just one shot been fired, the outcome might have been very different. By breaking all the rules, a potential bloodbath could be avoided.

Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jaeger apparently was not the only guard who had the presence of mind to make the critical decision to disobey orders. In 2009, a former East German Stasi officer, Heinz Schaefer, came forward and claimed to have ordered the opening of the Waltersdorf-Rudow border crossing hours before Jaeger opened the Bornholmer Strasse crossing. Schaefer stated that he began to allow crossings at 8:30 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. Since the Waltersdorf-Rudow crossing was only a small checkpoint without television coverage, Schaefer’s account cannot be verified. However, it would explain reports of the presence of East Berliners in West Berlin hours before the opening of the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint by Harald Jaeger.


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.