Posts Tagged ‘Walter Ulbricht’

Hagen Koch marked off the Berlin Wall

Monday, October 30th, 2017


Hagen Koch, just 21 years old at the time, was a little known, yet important, player in the construction of the Berlin Wall. It was Koch who researched the exact location of the boundary between East and West Berlin. And it was Koch who painted the white line that would mark off the border. Hagen Koch walked 30 miles in a single day in August of 1961 of, hunched over to paint that line. Once finished, construction of the Berlin Wall began.


Hagen Koch researched the exact location of the boundary between East and West Berlin and then, in August of 1961, painted the white line that demarcated that border. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015.

Hagen Koch researched the exact location of the boundary between East and West Berlin and then, in August of 1961, painted the white line that demarcated that border. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015.


How did the Berlin Wall come about?

Since earliest times, man built walls to keep others out. However, the Berlin Wall was a rare example of a wall built to keep people in. It was constructed to keep East Germans from defecting to the West because between 1949 (the creation of East Germany) and 1961 (the construction of the Berlin Wall) over two million East Germans had done just that. They had left East Germany and fled to the West. For years, East German leader Walter Ulbricht pleaded with the Soviets to let him close the border to put an end to the workforce drain. By August 1961, the Soviets agreed, and Ulbricht proceeded with his plan.

Berliners awoke on 13 August 1961, a beautiful Sunday morning, to find Operation Rose (Ulbricht’s code name for the construction of the Berlin Wall) in full swing. By the wee hours of the morning, most of the border between East and West Berlin was already primitively closed. Barbed wire and concrete posts severed streets. The underground and elevated trains terminated at the border. Armed soldiers stood guard. Within a few days, a block-and-mortar wall replaced the barbed wire fence. The Berlin Wall stood for 28 years. It split the city and separated families and friends. It became a symbol of the Cold War.

Hagen Koch’s Rise to Fame

Having graduated a technical draftsman, Hagen Koch joined the Ministerium fuer Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security) – better known as Stasi – as a cartographer. Upon joining the Stasi in 1960, Koch made a speech, which quickly propelled him up the Stasi ladder. In his speech, Hagen Koch denounced “American imperialism” and emphasized his pride in East German socialism. Upon hearing Koch talk, Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi, remarked, “He’s the man of our future.” Soon thereafter, Hagen Koch was promoted to Head of Cartography.

Hagen Koch’s transformation

One hundred percent committed to East German-style socialism at the beginning of his career, Hagen Koch’s conviction began to fade when the Stasi insisted that he divorce his wife on account of her ties to the West. His commitment to East German ideology took a further plunge when Hagen’s father lost his job for protesting the expulsion of his Dutch father, Hagen’s grandfather.

After having fulfilled his service requirement, Koch left the Stasi in 1985. Four years later, the Berlin Wall fell. Thereafter, Hagen Koch began to talk openly about his part in creating the hated barrier. He had had a change of heart in the preceding years relative to East Germany’s political system. In 1990, Koch became Cultural Heritage Officer at East Germany’s Institute for the Preservation of Historical Monuments and was appointed Minister of Culture, responsible for the demolition of the Wall. After German reunification the same year, Hagen Koch began creating an extensive Wall Archive at his home and welcomed visitors to view his collection. Visiting dignitaries included the Queen of Sweden and the artist Christo. Over time, Koch turned self-styled chronicler of the Wall and became a sought-after speaker. As part of a Historical Witness Project, the Wende Museum in Los Angeles, California, invited Hagen Koch to tell his story. Click to watch the interview.


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.




Detlev Rohwedder Building History

Monday, September 4th, 2017


These days, the Detlev Rohwedder Building (Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus) in Berlin is the seat of the Bundesfinanzministerium (German Finance Ministry). However, the building wore many hats over the years and played a significant role in German history. The enormous office complex is located in the Wilhelmstrasse in central Berlin. If bricks and stones could talk, these walls would have interesting stories to tell.


Bundesfinanzministerium (Federal Finance Ministry) in Berlin. The building is named the Detlev Rohwedder Building. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2005.

Bundesfinanzministerium (Federal Finance Ministry) in Berlin. The building is named the Detlev Rohwedder Building. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2005.

Along the Leipziger Strasse, the exterior of the building is embellished with a famous wall mural, designed by Max Lingner. The mural was created during the post-WWII years when Berlin was divided and the building was located in the eastern section of Berlin. The wall mural is entitled “Building the Republic” and depicts East German excitement over the new social and political order.

How large is the Detlev Rohwedder Building?

The Detlev Rohwedder complex consists of five to seven storied buildings. At the time of its construction (1935 to 1936) it was the largest office complex in Europe. German architect, Ernst Sagebiel, designed the neoclassicist project. Sagebiel also reconstructed Tempelhof Airport on a similarly gigantic scale.  The Detlev Rohwedder building has as reinforced concrete skeleton and an exterior facing of limestone and travertine. The stone came from no fewer than 50 quarries. Even today, The Detlev Rohwedder Building remains one the largest office complexes in Berlin. It houses more than 2,100 offices, contains 4.25 miles of corridors, 17 staircases, four elevators and three paternoster lifts. The complex has two wings, an Ehrensaal (Hall of Honor) facing Wilhelmstrasse, two large inner courtyards and a facility management yard. The gross floor area totals more than 1,205,000 square feet with almost 603,000 square feet of useable space.

Detlev Rohwedder Building During the Nazi Era

The Delev Rohwedder Building initially served as the headquarters of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (Reich Aviation Ministry). Four thousand bureaucrats and their secretaries were employed within its walls. The building played a central role in the war effort during World War II.

Detlev Rohwedder Building During the East German Era

Miraculously, the building came through World War II with only minor damage. The exception was the Ehrenhalle (Hall of Honor). It underwent major expansion and remodeling to become a Stalinist-style Festsaal (Festival Hall). Until 1948, the building served as the headquarters for the Soviet military administration. From 1947 to 1949, the Deutsche Wirtschaftskommission (German Economic Commission) was located here. During that time, the building became known as the DWK-Building.

On 7 October 1949 the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was founded in the building’s Festival Hall. Later, the complex served the Council of Ministers of East Germany and became known as Haus der Ministerien (House of Ministries). It was in this building that East German head of state, Walter Ulbricht, insisted in June of 1961 that “no one has any intention of building a wall.” The statement was made only two months before construction of the Berlin Wall began. As a seat of governmental power, the House of Ministries was also at the center of the East German people’s uprising of 17 June 1953.

Detlev Rohwedder Building since German Reunification

Following German Reunification on 3 October 1990, the building was used by the Berlin branches of the Bundesfinanzministerium (German Finance Ministry) and by the Federal Court of Auditors. The Treuhandanstalt, an agency charged with privatizing the East German economy, occupied other parts of the building

The building was renamed the Detlev Rohwedder Building in honor of Detlev Karsten Rohwedder, head of the Treuhandanstalt, following his assassination in 1991. In the course of the relocation of the German Government from Bonn to Berlin, the German Finance Ministry transferred its head office to Berlin. During subsequent reconstruction and renovation works the structure of the offices, stone facade and the mural by Max Lingner were preserved. Conference, press and visitor centers were redesigned and equipped with state-of-the-art conference technology.


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.






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

Beate Ulbricht’s Golden Cage – Part 2

Monday, October 12th, 2015

Read about Beate Ulbricht’s adoption in last week’s blog.

Beate Ulbricht’s life

From the beginning, Beate Ulbricht’s life was beset with problems. She started school in Berlin where her classmates bullied her because of her privileged status. When she reached the age of 15, her adoptive parents, Walter and Lotte Ulbricht, dispatched her to Leningrad, Russia, to complete high school. She was lonely there, but her cries for help remained unanswered. Her parents only advised to keep a stiff upper lip. Following graduation, Beate was to remain in Leningrad to study Russian and History.

At age 18 and still in Leningrad, she fell deeply in love with Ivanko Matteoli, the son of an Italian Communist Party functionary. The pair contemplated marriage, but Walter and Lotte Ulbricht opposed the union. Beate prevailed. A year later, in 1963, she broke off her studies, returned to Berlin and married Matteoli against her parents’ wishes. The Ulbrichts used their influence to block Beate’s in-laws from entering the country to attend the wedding, and the Ulbrichts themselves stayed away as well. Relations between the Matteolis and the Ulbrichts quickly deteriorated. After Beate bore a daughter, Patrizia, the young Matteoli family decided to return to Leningrad to sidestep further confrontations.

In 1965, Ivanko left for Leningrad to prepare for the move. The Ulbrichts saw their chance. Only hours after Ivanko had left, they arranged to have Beate’s passport taken. As a result, the young mother and her daughter were no longer able to leave Germany and join Ivanko. Furthermore, Walter Ulbricht had all communications between husband and wife intercepted. Beate and Patrizia were stuck in Berlin for two full years. During that time, Walter and Lotte Ulbricht pressured their daughter into a divorce. When Beate finally relented, her passport was returned. Soon thereafter, the young mother and daughter flew to Leningrad to join Ivanko. But he had vanished. At that point, Beate decided to remain in Leningrad anyway. She wanted to be far away from her parents.

Back in Leningrad and unable to locate Ivanko, Beate reconnected with an old friend from high school, Juri Polkownikow. She fell in love for the second time and the two married in March 1968. The following year their son, Andre, was born. When Juri turned out to be an alcoholic and a wife beater, Beate returned to Berlin with her two children. But the relationship with her adoptive parents did not improve. After Walter Ulbricht’s death in 1973, Beate, found herself divorced from Juri and disinherited by Walter Ulbricht. She took back the name of her first husband, Matteoli. But with two children, no university degree and only occasional odd jobs, she sought solace in alcohol. Eventually, Lotte Ulbricht gained custody of Beate’s two children, and in December of 1991, Beate Ulbricht Matteoli was found murdered in her apartment. The case was never solved.

The German Television station MDR (Mitteldeutscher Runkfunk) aired a television movie based on Beate Ulbricht’s tragic life. The program aired on August 2, 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.

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.


Walter Ulbricht

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

On this day in history–July 24,–communist statesman Walter Ulbricht became the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Social Unity Party of East Germany. He had been the Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of East Germany since 1949. When the party had restructured into a more Soviet-style Communist party the following year, Walter Ulbricht had become General Secretary of the Central Committee. In 1953, that position was renamed First Secretary, making Walter Ulbricht the actual leader of East Germany. On account of a childhood diphtheria infection, he retained a squeaky falsetto voice, which made his speeches difficult to understand.

Walter Ulbricht, East German Statesman 1950-1971

Walter Ulbricht, East German Statesman

Already during the Weimar Republic (1919 to 1933) Ulbricht had played a key role in the creation of Germany’s Communist Party. He had spent the Hitler years in exile in the Soviet Union. In 1945, he had returned to Germany to reconstruct the communist Social Unity Party and to help establish the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Walter Ulbricht was a loyal follower of Leninist and Stalinist principles and is quoted as having said, “Es muss demokratisch aussehen, aber wir muessen alles in der Hand haben–it has to look democratic but we must keep our hands in everything.”

In 1950, Ulbricht announced a five-year plan concentrating on the doubling of industrial production in East Germany. By 1952, eighty percent of industry had been nationalized. Consumer goods were often in short supply or of shoddy quality. His leadership is said to have been repressive, and undemocratic, and that he crushed all opposition. As a result, large numbers of citizens fled to the West. In order to stop the outflow of workers he gave orders to build the Berlin Wall in 1961. Only two months earlier he had publicly stated, “Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten–No one has the intention to erect a wall.” His unwillingness to seek an accord with West Germany coupled with his difficult relationship with Soviet Union party leader, Leonid Brezhnev, forced his resignation in 1971. He was replaced by his protage, Erich Honecker.


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.