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7 February 2017
Lessons from German History

In November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, and even more so in October 1990, when Germany was finally reunited after so many years of separation, it was a beautiful feeling to be able to travel from West to East Germany and vice versa, without intimidating soldiers and their dogs patrolling the transit points, and without the need to show passport and visa documents.  It meant a lot to me personally:  not only are both my parents from the East of Germany, but I myself had been awarded a scholarship to spend a month at the University of Jena in East Germany as a visiting student in March 1989. 

This was only eight months before the Wall came down, but nobody would have been able to guess it then.  I was made very welcome, but East Germany was still a communist country then, and rigidly so.  The scholarship program was called a “German-German Exchange Program”, but it only worked in one direction:  from West to East.  East German students were not allowed to grasp that opportunity and reciprocate. Nonetheless it was a step in the right direction.  One of my Jena professors commented on my arrival: “One swallow doesn’t make a summer, but it gives hope.”

There were two other West German students on the program whom I met in Jena in the student hall of residence where we had been accommodated.  (Deliberately, we had been accommodated in the Hall of Residence for Foreigners).  Compared to me, they were a little unlucky:  they both studied Law and met cautious rejection when they tried to invite their fellow students out for a pint.  Jena trained the future State Prosecutors, and they were not allowed to have contacts to West Germany.  Therefore these students were wary of being seen to become friendly with their guests from the West.

I was fortunate:  as a Classics student, I met with like-minded students of a niche subject who did not have the same level of restriction and who welcomed me with eager curiosity and openly genuine friendliness.  I formed strong friendships during that month, we went for long walks, talked politics and put the world to rights.  These were probably some of the most intensely meaningful conversations of my life.  In pubs and restaurants, however, we stuck to small talk, and in the homes of the students who invited me to their places we turned up the music to drown our conversations.  Pubs and private residences were known to be bugged by the Stasi, and my friends had no doubt that there would be some surveillance of me, the first western visitor in this new scholarship program, and those with whom I had conversations. 

I witnessed some impressive displays of moral courage and subtle dissidence of my friends.  In one seminar on Greek tragedy, a fellow student likened the function of tragedy in Ancient Greece to that of the nativity play in Christian societies – a daring statement in a distinctly anti-Christian country.  Another student wrote a thesis on Aristotle that was an intelligently subversive critique of the communist regime. Acts of defiance like this could lead to instant relegation.

Shortly after I left, the Tiananmen Square massacre happened in Beijing, with all its impact on other communist countries, the protest waves in East Germany and the mass exodus that eventually led to the Fall of the Wall and the end of communism as we knew it.  These were exciting months, and they were deeply worrying months at the same time.  I have kept all the letters of my East German friends from that time, when they got increasingly anxious as they thought that amid the tightening security and with the borders now closed not only westwards but also eastwards, to Poland and (then) Czechoslovakia, they would in the future be imprisoned even more than before. 

A repeat of Tiananmen in East Berlin or Leipzig, the focal point of the peaceful revolution, was a distinct possibility and the Germans cannot thank the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev enough for having prevented a bloody outcome.  Those who went out on the streets to protest were brave people indeed. It was fantastic to see the borders open, people dancing on the Wall, and to visit my friends again in December 1989, in a jubilant atmosphere of hope and elation. 

Now that Germany has been united again for the past 27 years, it is very hard to describe how alien my first visit to East Germany in March 1989 felt.  Jena and Weimar, two places steeped in German cultural history, are only a short train journey away from my home town Heidelberg, and yet no visit to any other European country, not even to Asia or Australia, felt as adventurous to me as this journey into a very different world.  A friend of mine who waved me off at the train station in Konstanz said to me:  “You will think of me when the moon shines, won’t you?”  Only to then add (and it was not a joke!):  “Do they actually see the moon over there?”  Such was the effect of the Iron Curtain.

Despite all the teething problems during the complex process of German unification, it was liberating for the Germans to be one people again.  Many families, torn apart in 1961 when the Berlin Wall was built, were reunited.  The most touching symbol, to me, remains an anecdote which my university professor, Manfred Fuhrmann, an eminent Latin scholar, told me when he returned from a talk he gave in Berlin in December 1989.  He visited the National Library in West Berlin, and an elderly man from the East walked in and returned a book he had borrowed on the 12th August 1961, the day before the construction of the Wall began.  With tears in his eyes, he said that his inability to return the book for more than 28 years had been weighing on his conscience and that he was glad to be able to return it to its rightful place at last.  He had clung on to the hope that he would be able to do so in person one day.

Obviously, there were many people for whom reunification came too late.  I met one of my Jena professors who had taught me during my short stay in March 1989 when I visited again in December of that year, and exuberantly greeted him with something on the lines of:  “Isn’t it wonderful what happened.”  He gave me a sad glance and said:  “It is good for the young, Frau Seele.  It is too late for me.  I have taught Ancient Greek History for the past 40 years, and I have not been allowed to visit Greece once.  It is too late for me.” He must have been around 65 at the time, and he had, like many others, lived under dictatorial regimes for 56 years of his life, 12 years under Hitler and then 44 years under the communist regime. 

It was a sobering conversation and made me think deeply about what would have become of me, had my parents, as youngsters and before they knew each other, not left East Germany in the 1950s in search of a better life in the West.  It also made me grateful for the opportunities that living in a democracy and in a world where travel is easy has given me.

This is where I might normally finish – I am being told that the average blog reader does not have the patience to read much more than 1000 words at a time.  Recent political events, however, compel me to write a second instalment, and to publish it as a sequel to this blog.  The world that seemed to open up in such a marvellously promising way in 1989, with the exciting expansion of the EU eastwards, seems to be getting more fragmented again, and this may well have a deep effect on many of us and curtail the freedoms that for so long we have taken for granted.  You will find the second part of this blog here.

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