On a wall in my study hangs a Falk map of Berlin, on which the Berlin Wall is marked with a subtle rosy line. It’s the map I used on my year abroad in Germany, in the tumultuous year of 1989. In the space of six months I visited West and East Berlin (via Checkpoint Charlie), stayed with an East German family in Karl Marx Stadt (relatives of my German boyfriend), and then, rather disbelievingly, watched the Wall fall on TV with my great-aunt (who had seen it go up in 1961) before heading back to Berlin, this time to climb through a freshly created hole in the Wall and ponder the craziness of history while standing in the former no-man’s land.
This image of the Berlin Wall was taken in 1986 by Thierry Noir and corresponds with my memories of it in 1989
9th November 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the remarkable day that East Germany collapsed without a single shot being fired. It’s being commemorated with a programme of events in Berlin, culminating in a Lichtgrenze (Border of Light), which sees 12 kilometers of the Wall’s former route lit with 8000 helium lights as an act of remembrance and as ‘a symbol of hope for a world without walls’. This is what it’ll look like at night:
Of course, one of the myriad ways in which the legacy of the East German past is still being explored is via crime fiction. Here are some examples of recent Krimis that engage with the so-called ‘deutsch-deutscher’ (German-German) question. (Unfortunately only the first one is in English translation at the moment, but hopefully the summaries below will give non-German speakers a flavour of what’s out there. And who knows, perhaps some publishers might be tempted?)
Simon Urban, Plan D (Schoeffling, 2011; Harvill Secker translation, 2013). This gutsy alternative history imagines a 2011 world in which the Berlin Wall did not fall. A blackly humorous satire, it follows the misadventures of Volkspolizei (People’s Police) investigator Martin Wegener, while giving readers an insight into life in East Germany and its historical contexts. I reviewed it favourably in 2013, and posted an East German glossary that explains some of the key events and terms in the novel.
Christa Bernuth’s Innere Sicherheit (Inner Security; Piper, 2006) is set in the East Germany of the early 1980s, before reunification seemed likely. GDR police investigator Martin Beck (a nod to Sjöwall/Wahlöö?) looks into a fatal case of Republikflucht (‘flight from the republic’) that’s not all it seems. Why has the victim been shot with a bullet used by the West? And what are her links to the West German terrorism of the 1970s? There’s an extract available (in German) on the author’s website.
Uwe Klausner, Stasi-Konzern (Stasi Business; Gmeiner, 2014). Retired police chief Tom Sydow is strolling through a West Berlin park on 9. October 1964 when shots ring out. A man has been murdered, but perpetrator and corpse quickly disappear. Sydow discovers the victim was meeting a Stasi officer and is pulled into a case that leads to the top of the East German secret police. This is the sixth installment in the historical ‘Sydow’ series. The fifth, Kennedy-Syndrom, is set in August 1961, just as the Berlin Wall goes up.
Oliver G. Wachlin, Wunderland (Wonderland; Emons, 2008). This humorous ‘Berlin-Krimi’ takes place as the Wall is falling in 1989. West German police investigator Hans Dieter Knoop views a corpse by a lake who’s wearing ice-skates … even though the water’s not yet frozen. He sets about solving this puzzle in the midst of the historical jubilation around him, and receives some unexpected visitors from the East. The second in the series, Tortenschlacht (Death by Cake), plays in 1990, shortly before German reunification.
Jay Monika Walther, Goldbroiler oder die Beschreibung einer Schlacht (Roast Chicken or the Chronicle of a Slaughter; Orange Cursor, 2009). Set shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in Warnemünde, this novel shows former East German citizens floundering economically in the new order. The villains are former Nazis from the west, who co-opt eastern neo-Nazis, former Stasi members and disgruntled former GDR citizens into activities such as extortion, smuggling and importing women as sex workers from eastern Europe. A bleak view of the reunited Germany.
As this small selection shows, there’s a huge amount of diversity in crime novels that engage with the East German past – in terms of the historical moment they examine (from 1961 to 1990), the perspectives they adopt (investigators from East and West), the themes they pick up (political repression, corruption, the impact on ordinary people of major social and political changes), and the style in which they are written (satirical, thriller, comic). They link to other legacies of the German past (National Socialism, left-wing terrorism) and sometimes form part of larger historical series attempting to process twentieth-century German history (Klausner’s ‘Sydow’ novels). All of them form part of a wider boom in German-language historical crime fiction, which was triggered by 1989 and the renewed interest in Germany’s ‘double past’ of fascism and communism – Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘age of extremes’ writ large. I’ve just finished a chapter on this subject for the University of Wales Crime Fiction in German volume, which has been very illuminating to write. A final point: only one of the authors above actually had lived experience of East Germany – Oliver Wachlin, who was born in the GDR in 1966. The latter is obviously not a prerequisite for writing crime about the GDR, but I find it interesting nonetheless.
The famous image of the East German Trabi busting through the Berlin Wall
Here are a few extra links to articles and websites about the former East Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Coverage has been excellent:
A brilliant collection of video clips from rbb (Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg) that chronicle the history of the Berlin Wall and its fall. They can be viewed in German or in English.
Before and after shots of the Berlin Wall and the city from The Guardian. Click on the old image and the modern one appears – quite uncanny!
Great piece on the fall of the Berlin Wall by Timothy Garton Ash, a historian who was also an eye witness – some great images too.
An interesting piece by Philip Oltermann, on how some positive aspects of GDR society (from football to gender equality to education) are only now being properly acknowledged.
Over at Kafka’s Mouse, PD Smith has a great post on the changes to urban Berlin in the wake of reunification, with before and after images.
The British Museum currently has a major exhibition on exploring German history through a variety of objects. It’s called Germany – Memories of a Nation, and runs until January 2015. There’s a companion Radio 4 series: you can listen to an episode on the two Germanies here – the object in question is a wet-suit that was used in an escape attempt from the East in 1987.