Lies, spies and the Berlin wall

31st March 2006 at 01:00
Life in post-1945 East Germany was grim. The full horror of the regime came to light only in the years after reunification. Yojana Sharma talks to a dissident who survived

Ulrike Poppe, 52, was a leading pro-democracy activist in former East Germany and a founder of the dissident group Democracy Now. She lived for more than 35 years under a communist regime that brooked no opposition, where the Stasi, or secret police, maintained a vast army of informers who monitored everyone's lives in minute detail, and where the division of Berlin - the wall guarded by guns, barbed wire and a "deathstrip" of mines - instilled in her a deep insecurity.

She even laughs about the year she was born - 1953, the year of Stalin's death and the East German uprising. Her life, she says, was dominated by politics. The family - her father was a historian, her mother an expert in Slavonic languages - lived in East Berlin, next to the French sector. As a child she experienced what the border meant: families separated, shots, bright lights, barking dogs, arrests. It was a deep wound running through the city.

"I was eight when the wall went up. My best friend was separated from her parents, and her grandparents had to take care of her. It was more than a year before she was reunited with her parents and I never saw her again.

That's what the division of Berlin meant to me.

"We listened to Western radio, although it was forbidden. But our teachers told us completely different things. Everyone was lying to each other. Lies were part of everyday life."

In school she was taught that the wall was built to keep the fascists out.

The enemy was the West because the Nazis had fled in that direction."But my father's sister lived in the West and I knew she wasn't a fascist," she says.

The wall was emblematic of the Cold War. "For me it was a symbol of a very fragile peace. As a child I lived in constant fear that these two opposing blocs could go to war at any time."

For two years there was almost no contact between people in the two Germanies, then, at Christmas 1963, limited family visits were allowed from the West . These grew as the East German authorities realised it was a useful source of scarce foreign exchange.

"In the 1960s the West was seen as a consumer paradise," Poppe says. "I only went across once while my aunt was in hospital. I remember the flashing neon adverts. Everything was so different, so bright, so loud and so fast. It was overwhelming."

It was a far cry from the constant shortages in the East. You needed coupons to buy butter. Meat and vegetables were scarce and fruit a rarity.

"When I was a child there was no toilet paper," she says. "When I became a mother, you could not buy cotton nappies- you had to make them from old sheets.

The shortages extended to materials for building and plumbing, so repairs were never easy. "Things just fell apart."

Poppe was 15 when she had her first brush with the authorities. With two classmates she wrote a letter to the Volkskammer, the East German Parliament, posing questions about reunification .

"We wanted to know why we could not have more contact with the West," she explains. The letter was never posted but the authorities got wind of it.

"It blew up into a big political scandal. A teacher came to our house and I listened at the door and heard my dad saying 'They're only kids'. I was terribly frightened that such a harmless letter could create such a problem. I was horrified that one friend was expelled - her father was in the church and not a party member." The other two girls got off more lightly. "Our parents were simply told to put us back on the 'right path'."

Poppe studied art and history but dropped out of university. She worked in a psychiatric hospital and a home for delinquent children - but mental health and crime were problems the regime said did not exist under socialism.

"It was another example of the big lie and it sharpened my opposition to the state," she says. In the early 1980s, the US stationed Cruise and Pershing nuclear missiles in Britain and West Germany aimed at the East.

Moscow retaliated with SS20 nuclear missiles on East German soil. The arms race was in full swing.

In East Germany it brought new recruits to the underground peace movement.

One of them was Poppe.

"We tried to break the information blockade by smuggling pamphlets and magazines from the West. There were informal groups calling for peace and human rights," she says. "People felt a need to be involved in politics even though the state did not allow it."

They used churches as meeting places to reach a wider public. Churches continued as a focus of dissident activity right up to the fall of the Wall. But they also attracted the attention of the Stasi.

"We wanted to set up a creche. We wanted more individual care not indoctrination for our children.

Also some of us had lost creche places on ideological grounds. The authorities simply said the creches were 'full'."

Poppe and some friends acquired a flat to use as a creche, but within two years they were thrown out. She describes the scene: "A lorry took the contents away, the windows were smashed... Kids arriving for the morning screamed and cried. They were very traumatised. The windows were bricked up so that the premises could not be reused."

Officially, the flat was not registered for childcare and it was shut down, an illustration of how "even relatively unpolitical initiatives were seen as a threat", Poppe says.

In 1983, she was arrested for the first time when she and another leading dissident met a British academic studying women in East Germany. All three were interrogated by the Stasi and jailed. It caused an international outcry because of the involvement of a Briton.

"I had taken my children to the doctor. As I came out I was surrounded by Stasi. They wanted me to go with them. I thought: 'This is serious', but I insisted my kids (aged three and five) should not come too. So the Stasi drove us home first. We arrived as they were still searching the flat. I was able to talk to my husband quickly. He said the charge was treason.

"You were criminalised for working for peace in your own country," she says quietly. She spent six weeks including Christmas and new year in prison, awaiting trial, but to her surprise she was released after six weeks. After the wall fell, she discovered in her Stasi files that the decision to free her had come from the highest ranks of the Politburo, because of the international protests.

By the late 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev relaxed the Soviet Union's iron grip.

Things began to change within the East German Communist Party: some sympathised with the softer Gorbachev line."Some party people even joined our cause," she says. From then on disillusionment with the Communist Party gathered pace.

"By 1988 the economy was in a terrible state," says Poppe."The infrastructure was kaputt. Buildings were falling to pieces, the streets were unrepaired, the trains no longer ran on time. People had lost hope that socialism would work. "

The last straw was the local elections in May when the Communist Party got more than 95 per cent of the vote despite its overwhelming unpopularity.

People knew the vote had been rigged.

As more people openly expressed dissatisfaction, the Stasi became even more violent."They were more brutal, very little hesitation before piling in against demonstrators," Poppe says. She was arrested several times and also put under house arrest. Throughout 1988 and 1989, the number of arrests grew.

"The Stasi were very active. We set up a telephone hotline in Berlin's Gethsemane church where people who knew of arrests or threats could tip us off. We manned the phone day and night and gave the information to Western media. We had contacts with Dresden, Leipzig and Mecklenburg. We became a network."

Huge anti-communist demonstrations were staged: 200,000 marched in Leipzig; in East Berlin, half a million turned out.

From April, Hungary began to remove restrictions on citizens wanting to travel to Austria. By August, the border was open for other East European citizens to cross over to the West. Thousands of East Germans fled via Hungary and Austria.

She remembers the night the Berlin Wall came down very vividly. "I was at a birthday party. Someone went to get some bottles of wine when he heard, and he came running back to tell us. We could not believe it. We jumped into the car and drove to the Brandenburg Gate where we could climb through the wall and we were in West Berlin! People shouted and celebrated. I knew even then that it would be the most important day of my life.

"Next day we went across with the kids. I was totally amazed by the exotic fruit in the shops. I didn't know what it was called because we had only ever seen apples and pears, oranges and plums."

The fall of the Wall changed Ulrike Poppe's life. No longer was she under a dark cloud professionally. The fear that her children's future would be jeopardised by her activities was gone.

After reunification, she became a researcher in the Volkskammer, preparing for the first free elections in East Germany and working on winding up the Stasi. "It was not so easy. The Stasi wanted to carry on under another name. We wanted to make sure they laid down their weapons and handed in all their surveillance equipment. We also wanted to ensure - against the will of the West Germans - that the Stasi files did not just disappear into some vaults but would be opened up to the public."

Opening the files was essential to healing a deeply wounded society where people never knew whom they could trust. Fifteen years after the Wall fell, Poppe thinks the scars are still there. Other wounds are evident. "There is a lot of dissatisfaction in the East because of unemployment and continuing discrimination against Easterners by Westerners," she says. "There is still a lot of nostalgia for the old days. Many in the east did not worry that they could not read Western magazines or travel. They had jobs and security."

"Those over 50, who cannot get jobs now, realise they will never work again. These people have fallen into a black hole. For them freedom has its price."


Many young people's views about Germany and the Germans are shaped by the secondary school history curriculum, which focuses on the rise of Nazi Germany during key stages 3 and 4. Teachers have complained about the "Hitlerisation" of secondary history, and the German ambassador to the UK, Thomas Matussek, suggested the curriculum had contributed to negative attitudes towards Germans.

Under a new syllabus from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, from next year Year 9 pupils will study a new unit on post-war Germany, covering the beginning and the end of the Cold War. New A-level units are also being developed.

The Year 9 course focuses on how Berlin was divided after the Second World War, the building of the Berlin Wall and its significance for Europe, how the wall split families, and the dramatic escapes that it inspired, the trading of spies and dissidents between East and West, the role of the Stasi, and how ordinary Germans coped with division, as well as the events that led up to the fall of the wall in 1989.

The guidelines add: "It is important to end with a positive review of the German experience in the last half of the 20th century."

Mr Matussek, who is about to finish his London posting, said he was delighted at the new curriculum unit. "History teaching is by nature a long-term investment," he says. "To achieve a broader and more realistic perception of modern Germany will need further debate. But the time is now ripe for this. After all, the strongest criticism of the British obsession with Hitler has been expressed by Britons themselves."



May 8 Second World War ends. Berlin is divided in four sectors: British, American and French in the West, Soviet in the East.


October 7 German Democratic Republic (East Germany) founded, after the Berlin blockade ends in May.


June 17 Uprising of East German workers against a planned 10 per cent rise in production quotas suppressed by Soviet tanks.


August 13 The border between East and West Berlin is closed and barriers erected. In several stages, a wall is built.


December 17 West Berliners visit East Berlin for the first time in more than two years.


November 11 Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signals a relaxing of Soviet domination over East European states at a Warsaw Pact summit.


February Chris Gueffroy, 20, was the last of over 100 people to be shot trying to escape over the wallMay Huge 'majority' for the Communist Party in local elections sparks widespread unrest.

July East Germans flee west through the now open borders between Hungary and Austria and occupy the grounds of the West German embassies in East Berlin, Prague and Budapest, seeking asylum.September Thousands demonstrate in Leipzig.

September 30

5,500 East Germans allowed visas to the West by the embassy in Prague.

October 17

East German president Erich Honecker resigns and is replaced by Egon Krenz.

November 9

Berlin Wall is opened.


October 3

Germany is reunited.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today