“Susanne is easily tempted to gossip.” This comment was in my newsletter at the end of the first year, in the summer of 1972.
That’s why what my parents now demanded of me was a really severe punishment: we were on a train and I had to be absolutely silent when we arrived at the border and were checked.
This “border” in question was the one that divided Germany into two states until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989: the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and a NATO member to the west, and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Warsaw Pact signatory to the east.
Led by the United States to the west and the Soviet Union to the east, the two sides would be drawn into an arms-laden stalemate for roughly four decades. Once allies, who with the British had defeated Nazi Germany in World War II, the opposing American and Soviet ideologies and systems – capitalism in the West and communism in the East – saw this alliance rapidly disintegrate.
A Temporary Alliance: Heads of State Churchill, Truman and Stalin in 1945
This border, which we were now approaching to leave by the east and enter by the west, was therefore one of the most closely guarded in the world. It was literally the “demarcation line” of the Cold War.
“Show your ears!” »
When the train slowed down, I fidgeted nervously in the plastic-smelling seat, exchanging silent glances with my little brother. The other passengers were also silent, only occasional soft whispers punctuating the silence. Outside, the sun was shining; inside there was a feeling of unease.
Would have been invalid as a passport photo: author Susanne Spröer’s ears are covered
After what seemed like an interminable time, the door to the compartment opened and grim-looking GDR border guards in drab gray uniforms began their check.
“Papers!” My parents handed over the visas and passports. The agents then scrutinized us with a magnifying glass compared to our respective passports for an excruciatingly long time.
“Show your ears!” — our ears had to be clearly visible on the passport photos. I brushed my hair back, shaking and sitting quietly like a mouse, my heart caught in my throat.
The customs officers never smiled, not even at us children.
Escape and separated families
Frost, silence and hours of waiting: that’s what the Cold War made me feel, long before I knew what the term meant.
However, I had the privilege of being allowed to cross this border towards the West.
The GDR banned its citizens from traveling to the West, except for a select few. Some attempts to leave East Germany ended in failure. At least 500 people died trying to escape across the border and the Berlin Wall; the exact number remains uncertain.
But we came from the West and had to travel to the GDR if we wanted to visit my mother’s adoptive parents, Uncle Max and Aunt Frieda in Karl-Marx-Stadt (now known as Chemnitz). They had taken care of my mother when she was a child, when my widowed grandmother had to work.
When my mother and my 13-year-old grandmother fled to the West in 1956, they and many other relatives remained in the GDR.
In the West, my mother met my father and they married in 1963 – six months after the Cold War almost reached a tipping point in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Cold War with 22 million victims
Yet the term “cold war” minimizes the fact that despite the absence of direct military confrontation between the two superpowers themselves, namely the United States and the USSR, many proxy wars for territory, resources and ideological spheres of influence have been carried out elsewhere: in Korea and Vietnam. , on the African continent and in Afghanistan.
About 22 million people died in these bloody conflicts, but I didn’t learn all of this until much later, in school and during my higher education.
While I was traveling in the GDR, children in Vietnam were bombarded with napalm
In 1972, however, I was a naturally talkative six-year-old sitting on a train, feeling completely intimidated. Because there was something to tell mom – and it had to do with my feet.
Economic scarcity, long waits and arbitrariness
In the communist planned economy, there were strict regulations for importing and exporting goods.
Many things were not allowed to be imported, for example, “printed matter that contradicted the interests of the GDR or its citizens”, as an information brochure put it.
Since such wording was open to arbitrary interpretation, even the Mickey Mouse magazines could have been considered “junk Western propaganda”.
Leaving the East, on the other hand, it was strictly forbidden to export important products from the GDR, including children’s clothing and shoes. And that was exactly what I had on: a pair of red sandals.
GDR children’s clothing: Export strictly prohibited!
My parents had bought them during our visit using GDR marks, which any traveler entering the country was obliged to use in exchange for foreign currency, and which they could not exchange afterwards before leaving the GDR.
Since we were staying with Uncle Max and Aunt Frieda, we had trouble spending all the East German marks exchanged each time.
What is now just a bizarre anecdote was rather risky at the time: Violations of GDR customs and foreign exchange regulations were punishable by heavy fines, with the threat of arrest and pre-trial detention for serious violations. And you never knew what constituted a serious violation.
Everywhere except in the GDR
Over the years I lost contact with Uncle Max and Aunt Frieda and the rest of our family in the GDR.
As a young woman, I longed for the south, traveling to France, Spain or Italy, which were wonderfully simple. I only crossed the inner German border when necessary. It was almost always hours before we were allowed to continue our journey, fear overwhelming me each time.
A memorial today: the former GDR border post at Marienborn
Apart from that, the Cold War was a fairly vague threat to me, as it is to many young people in Western Europe. We knew the world was split into two blocks – and I never thought Germany would be reunited.
The largest post-war peace movement
But I was convinced that the two blocs should finally make peace.
In the early 1980s, the arms race entered a new phase with the deployment of the Soviet SS-20 medium-range missiles and NATO’s dual-track policy, which provided for new missile deployments by NATO in central Europe if the disarmament negotiations between the two superpowers have failed.
This led to the largest peace protests Germany had seen so far, led mainly by the Green Party, segments of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the churches.
American singer Harry Belafonte at the peace demonstration in Bonn in 1981
More than 300,000 people attended a demonstration for peace at the Hofgartenwiese in Bonn in October 1981: Heinrich Böll, the Nobel Prize for Literature, whom I admired, was there and the American musician Harry Belafonte also performed there .
German singer and songwriter Nena’s ’99 Luftballons’ – a song alluding to Cold War paranoia – received widespread airplay in 1983. It was re-recorded in English later the same year as ’99 Red Balloons “; both versions became chart-toppers in various countries.
The peace movement was clearly influencing the culture.
No more war!
I was a convinced pacifist at the time. I felt the same as my grandmother, who had lived through two world wars and lost her husband and brother in the process.
After all, the German-triggered World War II had led to the division of Germany and the ensuing Cold War in the first place.
That’s why in 1985 Sting’s song “Russians” resonated with me. When US President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” I couldn’t and didn’t want to share such a worldview. Sting, on the other hand, appealed to the power of humanity.
Recently, Sting re-recorded the song in support of Ukraine. After all, one of the lines says, “Russians love their children too. And today, as in the 1980s, I hope that Russian mothers and fathers will love their children so much that they will finally take a stand against this cruel war which contravenes international law and by which Russian President Putin has invaded the ‘Ukraine. Because not only countless innocent Ukrainians die of it, but also young Russians.
Postscript: End of a horrible era
The wall has fallen! And we want to go there. Brandenburg Gate in November 1989
When I heard on the news that the GDR border had opened on that fateful night of November 9, 1989, I called my grandmother and my parents. We cried on the phone.
My brother and I spontaneously decided to drive to Berlin. We made it as far as the Marienborn border crossing, but it was still 180 kilometers (112 miles) from Berlin, and traffic on the transit route to the city was at a standstill. So when our passports were returned, we turned around and helped tow a broken-down Trabant car, whose driver was desperate to get out West.
Carried by the chaotic gaiety that surrounds us, we toasted with sparkling wine. The border no longer felt threatening.
This article was originally written in German.