Michael Rutschky Berlin, Alexanderplatz . As if actually a new day came

Berlin, Alexanderplatz . As if actually a new day came
Berlin, Alexanderplatz . As if actually a new day came Zwoenitz . There it looks like in my childhood Erzgebirge . History never arrives here Berlin, Tiergarten . The wall is down

Underway in the accessed area

Recently, shortly before the revolution, said the actress as we nibbled the flavourless chocolate hearts from the supermarket with our tea, that Günter Gaus of yours announced on television that under no circumstances should we GDR citizens make exorbitant demands which would jeopardise the step-by-step policy which had done so much, slowly but surely, to improve our – and your – lives in recent years. You can imagine how outraged I was: Gaus has no right at all to dish out pearls of wisdom about what we may and may not demand!

Of course you too, Gaus, didn’t really understand what the citizens of the GDR were aching for so much, and you still hadn’t understood it completely. When the floods of refugees -leaving through Hungary swelled in number, when they occupied the West German embassy in Prague, when they left on those special trains – my friend Jutta used to say that there were parallels to be found with religious emigrations; the dispensing of both host and wine, the Mass in German, the Protestants leaving Salzburg, the Hussites moving to Prussia… the only difference being that ‘over there’, it wasn’t about permitting laymen to receive the sacrament so much as about shopping opportunities.

Did she now succeed and make you understand, the actress, how unbearable life in the GDR had become; the stubbornness of the ‘clique of old men’, the overbearing Stasi, the liberties taken by officials? In reality, there was nothing left to explain. The revolution had run its course, and the pattern of events had its own evidentiary value. That’s what I later encountered, again and again, on my travels: people simply gave an account of the events of the various red-letter days: 9 October, 4 November. Myths were being created with each repetition of their stories.

Moreover, the revolution there was quite innocent and had no controversial elements. In -Leipzig, which the novelist Christoph Hein – he’s terribly overrated, claimed the actress: the intelligentsia in the GDR was always just as competitive as their West German counterparts, but was hardly likely to admit as much in public – in Leipzig, which Christoph Hein dubbed the ‘Hero’s city of the GDR’, none of those desperately nationalistic slogans had yet surfaced: there was no ‘Germany, united Fatherland’, chanted by angry voices. No press photographer had been able to track down some young man wrapped in the black, red and gold flag of West Germany, his left hand extended in a Hitler salute, another black, red and gold flag in his right showing the Federal Republic and the GDR as having only one common border – that of the ’37 Reich – and captioned ‘Germany my Fatherland’ in Gothic print. “A cheap Stasi provocation!” the actress would have cried in outrage. I did actually read in one of our newspapers that during the first great Monday demonstrations, SED members used to mingle with the crowds and warn them that this or that member of the crowd was an agent provocateur from the security service. But the actress wasn’t interested in history. Nothing – not a single thing! – to do with the SED interested her any more. Just get it out of my sight! That was always my experience later as well. What was urgently desired was not that the SED should reform, but that it should disappear within the opposition. Then we’d gone into the centre of East Berlin, on a foggy November evening. Generally speaking, the city centre was always darker under socialism than on our side; fewer street lamps, hardly any illuminated advertisements.

You wanted to see whether the centre of East Berlin, which actually lies at the heart of the city of Berlin, had changed after the revolution as far as what you might call its essential self, its ontological status was concerned. The actress wanted to show me the staging posts past which the people had streamed up to the Alexanderplatz during the mass demonstration on 4 November. She began to make a show of childish exuberance, uninhibited enthusiasm, which comes easily to her.

This is where she’d been standing, with her granddaughter on her arm. We’re doing this for you, Kiki!, she’d called out to the two-year-old girl – she’s acting it out –; well!, an elderly lady had objected, half friendly, half severe – she’s acting this out too –, it would be nice if we could have a little bit of it for ourselves!

Then we sat in the Café Bauer, part of the luxurious Grand Hotel on Friedrichstraße. They lost ten percent of their staff, the actress tells me, during the wave of emigrations, and something like that had been a terrible humiliation which couldn’t be shaken off: not even a well-functioning luxury establishment such as the Grand Hotel – or the Palasthotel across from the cathedral – was able to count on holding on to its staff. Imagine what it was like! continued the actress, it became difficult to get a hairdressing appointment because more and more hairdressers had vamoosed!

Meanwhile I was copying from the menu: chocolate cream shake. Blended vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup and cream, 9 Marks 55. In the GDR, you’re inevitably reminded of what the Federal Republic was like in the 1950s. I note panes of glass above me on the wooden partition walls with matt decorations, which haven’t been ground in, but have somehow just been burnt on. That too must have been an ongoing indignity: that things that looked like they did in the West, at least from a distance, did not bear closer inspection. All just imitation.

Meanwhile, the actress had started making a confession to me: she had always wondered, even back in the fifties, but also on several occasions since, why on earth she hadn’t gone to the West? And the answer had in fact always been the same: because you’re not good enough. She wouldn’t have been able to compete in the cutthroat western market. (And she’s always despised the GDR just a little because she was successful there.) She comes from a small village in the Lausitz area. She originally trained to work in a chemist’s. Then in the fifties a dynamic – frighteningly dynamic –  aunt kept telling her that if she was in the West, she’d be able to open her own chemist’s shop and earn lots of money! But that wasn’t what she wanted at all; she wanted to be an actress …

Tuesday, 14 November, to quote again from the journal. Weak sunshine, cold air, I walk down Schönhauser Allee. A pet shop; in the window, a glass tank in which guinea pigs snuggle together in a tousled heap. In front of a ‘People’s Police’ station, a scowling proletarian macho type, his sense of adolescent honour deeply wounded yet again. An ironmonger’s with robust-looking pliers in the window, a whole assortment, which I am convinced, however, would break the first time you used them; the ‘Kurt Schwarzer’ National Solidarity Club: in one of the windows, several rows of amateur photos depicting cheerful conviviality, which have yellowed and curled. I feel very much on edge. If I raise the camera to my eye and press the shutter, I’ll find a policeman’s hand on my shoulder…

You didn’t spend the night as instructed – although they didn’t actually tell you to do so this time at the crossing point – in the Grand Hotel or Palasthotel or in one of the other criminally expensive foreign currency hotels, but in the actress’s spare room. Otherwise, you would have hurt her feelings. And nobody, she insisted, would bother me for having breached the hard currency rules or anything like that – I almost had the impression that she was keen to get another mass demonstration going!

In the GDR, family relationships are everything: it’s hardly surprising that yesterday, after the trip to the Café Bauer – a famous name from pre-war times – you were taken to the home of one of the actress’s friends, a novelist, and invited to stay for supper. It was like that again and again on this journey: I was always being taken by acquaintances to the homes of strangers, who saw nothing odd about letting me share in their family life, and in particular, joining in their eating and drinking rituals. It is only natural that you stick to your family and its friends; to a trusted inner world. The world outside had been occupied by evil and asinine forces for far too long. And yet I’d have been happy to surrender my hard currency to the GDR. It must have needed it just as desperately after the revolution as before. And I would have felt a lot more relaxed about letting them have it.

During the evening spent with the novelist, we talked a lot about where I’d be heading next. I found myself in the company of a poet; not an old friend, but a new acquaintance. 

As he was on his way to his home town in the Erzgebirge Mountains, I decided to tag along; he was conducting research for an article on the impact the revolution had had on Schneeberg. It is not only the agents of West German capital, but also the agents of the West German cultural apparatus which are swarming into the newly accessible country to tap its resources.

Waltersdorf, we read from the map. Schönefelder Kreuz intersection. Rangsdorf. Teltow. The novelist, I said as I steered the car, was full of enthusiastic fury or furious enthusiasm about how the party was feeling the heat now, and how the masses were toppling its longstanding hegemony.  At the time I am making this journey, Egon Krenz is still the head of both party and state. And what had outraged the novelist during the evening trawl through the television news – at 7 p.m. ‘heute’ on ZDF, at 7.30 ‘Aktuelle Kamera’ on DDR 1, at 8 the ‘Tagesschau’ on ARD – everyone I’d spoken to did the same, and we in West Berlin had been following suit for weeks now – Genshagen, Drewitz turn-off, Potsdam Süd, Ferch – what had outraged the novelist so much was that the People’s Chamber had not, as expected, elected Prof. Dr. Manfred Gerlach as Chairman and successor to Horst Sindermann, but rather a man from the Peasants’ Party, Dr. Günther Maleuda.

In those days, the GDR media was still maintaining this Byzantine cult of the title, although it wasn’t to last for much longer. Just as Manfred Gerlach was soon to lose his great reputation and became one of the turncoats, eager to take care of number one before it was too late. The SED by any other name, the novelist complained, his outrage incandescent, Dr. Maleuda from the Peasants’ Party indeed, it’s always been one of the most obedient lap-dogs of the SED! Leipzig turn-off. Beelitz-Heilstättten. Beelitz. Brück. 

In principle, the novelist had cried, chuckling with delight, in principle all hell should have been let loose, really let loose. It doesn’t work unless there’s violence.

And the novelist’s son, 25, who had been there right at the start when the Stasi and the police surrounded Gethsemane Church, where demonstrators had gathered to protest against Honecker’s celebrations for the state’s birthday – Treuenbrietzen, Niemegk, Rabenstein – the young theatre worker deeply regrets not having been arrested and mistreated. Stripped naked and spreadeagled against the wall. Chased across the courtyard of the barracks as the blows rained down. Driven far out of town by car and abandoned in the open countryside.

Fläming, Köselitz, Coswig, Vockerode: unfamiliar names for invisible towns. We continue our dash down the motorway, failing to observe the speed limit imposed under ‘actively existing socialism’. Dessau Ost. Dessau Süd.

Instead of swords to ploughshares, the young theatre worker had mocked, it was more like -candles to Coke cans! Opening up the Wall and the border on 9 November, so that the GDR citizens could finally take pleasure en masse in western consumer goods, albeit on a very modest scale; that was, according to the young theatre worker, a particularly perfidious manoeuvre on the part of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. Bitterfeld. Doberstau. Schkeuditzer Kreuz intersection. What does the poet in the passenger seat have to say about all this?

The poet, 37 years old, had left the extended secondary school as a very young man, and gone straight to jail. Leipzig. Markkleeberg. Espenhain – Espenhain! cries the poet. This is it, the most toxic place in the GDR. It was true. Thick smoke belched from countless chimneys, and such a foul smell filled the car that I had to turn off the ventilation. It’s hard to understand, said the poet, how people could live here at all. The villages, I replied, look like ours did in the fifties. Like I said, I’d have cause to say that more and more frequently as my journey progressed …

Thursday, 16 November, to quote again from the journal. Yesterday, at cousin Lutz’s place – a haulier – there was an embarrassing moment when, because of all the beer, I had to ask the whereabouts of the toilet. Swaggering with pride, he led the way as expected – then turned to warn me sheepishly that it didn’t flush. The excrement lands, as I could see for myself, on a flap which is forced down by the pressure of water poured in from a red plastic jug, just like in old-fashioned train toilets. Today, at the home of LPG Chairman Vogel in Lindenau, the friendly mater familias shows me up to the first floor. It’s a proper pit latrine, where you have to remove the fitted wooden lid from the seat. The last time I saw one of those was in 1959, before the major renovation at Salzmanns Hof in Spangenberg. The stink is all-pervasive; a sizeable portion of earlier deposits clings to the wall of the shaft. But while Lindenau is a small village, barely more than a hamlet, Aue – where Lutz the haulier lives in his fine old house – is home to some 30,000 people.

While the Vogel farming family in Lindenau, the poet has told me, are unusual and atypical of a farmer’s family – they had enjoyed wonderful parties there during his schooldays – I could find in Lutz and his family a veritable rainbow of GDR political beliefs, from a German nationalist to an SED member: brother Helmut, who always was the quiet one, almost an intellectual, and who’s left standing there again, of course, on the losing side.

But to return to the subject of the toilet. It must be difficult to find a pit latrine even in the deepest Bavarian forest or the Westerwald. Although it is true that the farmers of the Erzgebirge mountains are less exacting about cleanliness than the petit bourgeoisie you’d find in a town. Farmers live with their animals: without animals, said LPG Chairman Vogel, he’d feel there was something missing. A little cat caught my eye in the living room where we were chatting; there were more than ten altogether. A large mongrel gazed anxiously in at the door, then toddled off again when he smelled the strangers. But the one which appealed to me most was the chicken which perched on the sofa, asleep. Its little head was disgustingly scabby – it had escaped the clutches of a marten. It was only allowed to sleep on the sofa as an exception, because it was still a little disorientated after the attack. You must find that sort of thing on our side too sometimes, in the Westerwald, but also in Toftum on the Baltic island of Föhr or in Kaltenbach, in the district of Schwalm-Eder.

While there was wine to drink at the home of the LPG Chairman, white wine from Hungary, Lutz the haulier produced beer, as I already mentioned. Whilst genial Ma Vogel brought in a large plate of generously-topped open sandwiches, at cousin Lutz’s you spread your own; here too there was any amount of sausage, ham and cheese – pure poison for westerners conscious of their cholesterol intake. ‘Dig in!’ ordered cousin Lutz, his hospitality never flagging, ‘Dig in!’ This is often how they eat and drink in rural and small-town areas, and it has little to do with GDR socialism.

But the moaning was, however, all too typical. That it was only possible to find a local source of the good Wernesgrüner beer, which was brewed nearby, through ‘connections’, because it was almost all exported; just like the tasty gherkins from Lübbenau. And yet we were able to drink the good beer and eat the tasty gherkins. For Lutz the haulier, a stocky man in his mid-40s, knew how to organise supplies of culinary treats; he had built up his infrastructure long ago (as I had also observed the actress in East Berlin doing over the years). Whilst he, he complained, was one of those small businessmen who had to hand over 90 % of their income in tax under socialism.

(Source: Underway in the accessed area, Göttingen, Steidl 1994)