Once, at the request of my employer at the time, I filed a Freedom of Information Request to get his FBI file. It took a while, but eventually an envelope arrived from the U.S. government. My boss eagerly opened it up. A great deal of the materials had been blacked out. On some pages only one or two words appeared floating in the sea of black. He was disappointed by all this “redaction.” He was even more disappointed by the rather slim sheaf of paper. He thought he’d merited more surveillance.
The files left behind by the Stasi in East Germany are infamous for their magnitude (more than 100 miles of files) and their breadth (covering millions of citizens). As researchers patiently reconstruct the materials that Stasi employees tried to tear up before the archive passed out of their hands, the piles of files only grows higher. Tens of thousands of people each year go through the process of looking at their files.
Marcel Rotter is one of those people. He was born in Poland but moved at a very young age with his parents to East Germany. He grew up in Thuringia, in the town of Gotha, where decided to become a teacher of Russian and German.
“In 1988, I actually spent five months in Moscow for a qualification visit at Lomonosov University,” he told me in an interview last April. “That was under Gorbachev. I collected a huge number of posters from Russia and translated the captions and exhibited them in East Germany when I got back. That was something the Stasi didn’t like, according to my file. I exhibited the posters at Protestant churches when they had youth days.”
The Stasi were also suspicious of his family’s Polish origins and opened up their mail in an effort to nose out any connections to the Solidarity trade union movement. “Once I was in Frankfurt, that’s when it really started,” he continued. “The posters triggered that. It was basically just from 1988 until 1989. One of the things the file said was that I couldn’t really be trusted with the socialist education of the students any more. And something had to be done about me. But they never specified what. And then the Wall came down.”
In spring 1989, however, the Stasi tried to recruit him. When they called him at work to schedule a meeting, saying that they were the police, he had a feeling it was the Stasi and asked a friend to be there with him when they arrived.
“When they came, they showed me their Stasi IDs,” he remembered. “I said, ‘Okay, you want to build trust here. But on the phone, you said you were coming from the police and now it turns out that you are the Stasi. So, that’s the first thing I don’t trust about you.’
They said, ‘You have to be careful on the phone.’
I thought, ‘Who else is listening but you?!’
Then they saw my friend sitting there. “If we are coming at a bad time,” they said, “we can come back. We would like to talk to you alone.” We agreed that she would take a walk for half an hour. Which was good: it meant that we had a time limit. They said, “We need people who can help us understand the Church. Because we are not in the Church, we have problems understanding.”
I said, “Sorry, I can’t help you.”
In the end, they asked me if I would talk to anyone about the visit.
And I said, “Sure, you saw my friend, I’ll tell her about it.”
I said, “I’m Catholic, I have to say everything in confession.” This was a trick I’d heard from other people. Basically I told everyone who wanted to hear about it. I think that was the best strategy. If you didn’t, people would have been suspicious. The Stasi didn’t really like that. That too was in the Stasi file: that I talked to everyone about their visit.”
Rotter’s file came in three installments. It was rather anticlimactic. “There was nothing that really surprised me,” he concluded. “I thought there would be a little bit more. I was disappointed! I wasn’t so interesting for the Stasi.”
We met at his office at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he now teaches German to American undergraduates. We talked about his experience in the Army just as the Wall was coming down, what it was like to be gay in East Germany, and whether places like Gotha will ever revive economically.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when the Berlin Wall fell?
I know exactly where I was. I was in the barracks of the national army in East Germany on the island of Rugen. There were very long barracks there near Binz that were built originally as a KdF building [Kraft durch Freude or Strength through Joy, a Nazi-era state leisure organization]. I was in the TV room with others. And we were very happy.
And I have to add: we were Bausoldaten, the soldiers that served without weapons. East Germany didn’t have what the West had — a civil service that you could do instead of army service.
Did you ask specifically for that?
How old were you?
I was born in 1963, so I was 26.
What year of military service was it for you?
I was in my first month! I was called up on November 1, 1989. On November 9, the Wall fell. On December 1, I was already in the equivalent of the civil service in Leipzig. I worked in a nursing home there for the next one-and-a-half years.
So you only had one month of military service?
Less – it was really only two weeks.
When you went in the army on November 1, did you have a feeling that things were going to change?
When we arrived there, about a third of the people called up didn’t even show up. The people who did the military service without weapons were the critics, the opposition of East Germany. So, some of them didn’t even show up. I wasn’t so courageous. Since I was a teacher in public school, and a state employee in that sense, I didn’t want to ruin my career for the rest of my life.
You had at that point a choice when to do military service?
No. You had to wait until they called you up.
And they could call you up anytime up to the age of…?
Until 28, I think. But actually with unification, when the new law on civil service came into effect, there was an age restriction, which was 24. I was out already in February, but since I couldn’t go back to my job, I just continued working at the nursing home.
Why couldn’t you go back to your job?
Because I worked as a German and Russian teacher in the East German school system. I grew up in Thuringia and worked in Frankfurt an der Oder on the Polish border. Before I was called up, I’d applied to go back to Thuringia. So I was already taken out of the system in Frankfurt, and I’d never arrived in Thuringia according to the files. So I was basically between jobs.
Let’s go back to November 9. You said you were all in the television room. What were you thinking at that moment?
The opening of the Wall was sold as just another reiteration of the law on travel that had come out. There were a number of drafts discussed before — how people could travel to the west or the east, for how long, when they could return — this was just the latest of those. I thought, “Okay, fine, now we can go and come back whenever we want.” I didn’t think in terms of reunification. That was way too early.
Had you been following the demonstrations in Leipzig?
I was there occasionally. I came down from Frankfurt on the weekends to Leipzig, and I had friends who were very active. I wouldn’t style myself as an opponent. But I had my own thoughts and participated in things that I thought were right, and in others I did not participate.
What did you think was going to happen? A 20-year process of reunification?
No, at that point, I didn’t think about reunification at all. Even in December or January when the first people called for it, I thought that we had a real chance to do something different than the West. Communism obviously didn’t work, but I thought: let’s not rush to capitalist society either. Maybe we could do something else.
I was pretty active when I was in Leipzig in a group that was interested in integration pedagogy where disabled students are taught with able-bodied students in high schools in one class. I tried to bring that approach to Saxony. But later on, we just adopted the school laws from Baden-Wurttemberg, which were the strictest school laws in the country. And this whole integration pedagogy was out the window.
Had the integration pedagogy been practiced anywhere in Germany?
Yes, in Hesse, for example. In northern Germany too: in Hamburg, in Niedersachsen. There were a couple states where it was on the books and practiced.
Why was the stricter system adopted?
I don’t know. It was a political decision. This was already the summer of 1990.
What did you think of the political campaigns leading up to the elections?
That was a total scam from the beginning. Those parties were just the mouthpieces of the West. I could see that so clearly. None of those new parties had enough money to do their own thing. At the beginning the opposition had little hand-manufactured posters, and then all of the sudden there were glossy full-colored posters for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) that obviously had been produced in the West. The election fell along the same spectrum as the West.
I had discussions with some of the older persons in the nursing home. One of them was very old, in her eighties. “We always voted Christian Democratic even before the Nazis,” she told me, “and I will vote the same.” And I said, ‘You know, it doesn’t really mean the same as the Centrum Party in the Weimar Republic.”
You think that was a dominant feeling?
Absolutely. You had a couple of smaller parties like Bundnis 90, which is now part of the Green group. It tried to do its own thing but clearly didn’t succeed.
How disappointed were you about the results?
I basically expected it. Everyone said that the Social Democratic Party (SPD) would win. It had a clear majority in the polls. And of course it did not. Maybe they were a little too confident. In the end, I suppose it helped with reunification. I can’t complain. I came out well. But there were quite a lot of other people who didn’t come out well. I wonder sometimes what would have happened if the SPD had been the winner of the election. Maybe reunification would have still happened but on different terms and in a slower way.
When you say that you did well, that you can’t complain, what do you mean?
Well, I ended up here! I could get my PhD in the United States, which I couldn’t before because they told me I wasn’t politically competent enough to do it. I’m thinking now that that was actually a good thing because all the people who had PhDs from that time were thrown out. I made the best of it. After I finished in Leipzig, I went to a language school in Cologne and taught German as a foreign language there and then went to Wisconsin and got my PhD here in the States. The university in Cologne didn’t even want to accept my abitur from East Germany. I just wanted the two extra years of aufbaustudium to teach integrated pedagogy. They said, “No, you have to do your abitur again.” Here, in the United States, it was so easy. At Wisconsin, they accepted my diploma from East Germany. I was on probation for one semester to see if I was up to par. I was, and it counted toward my PhD work.
You left for Cologne in what year?
You didn’t spend much time in Leipzig!
Just a little more than a year.
So part of the time you were working in the nursing home. Did you do anything between the nursing home and going to Cologne?
No, I went there right away. i had a week’s vacation, which was my first work week in Cologne. I worked first at private language schools and then at the university.
How did the environment at the nursing home change as a result of the political changes?
We went there because most of the nurses ran to the west as soon as the Wall came down. There was a nursing crisis in East Germany. Most of the guys in our group then disappeared rather quickly. I was the only one who stayed on for one-and-a-half years. In the GDR, there wasn’t a distinction between homes for the disabled and for older people — they just threw them all together. At this one, there were young people in wheelchairs, some with multiple disabilities, and some older ladies there as well, all in this huge nursing home.
What changed? First of all, we got stuff from the West. They sent us all kinds of medications and supplies. They came from the Knights of St. John, a kind of charitable organization that no longer had a religious affiliation. Interestingly enough, they opened a little cafeteria in the nursing home. And this was run by two former Stasi people. There was a big to do about that. Some people were up in the arms about it. I didn’t care. It was tiny, twice the size of this room, serving just coffee and cake.
How did people know they were Stasi?
I have no idea. Somehow it came out. And then there was an official statement from the director. I have my suspicions that the director knew them somehow. The director of the nursing home had probably been an official.
Did they have to leave?
No. They stayed on. At least until I left.
The official statement was…?
They need a job to work. We can’t just let them go.
It wasn’t a high profile job.
No. And it wasn’t the end of the world either.
Did the protestors back off?
Yes. Or died off. It was a nursing home, after all. After the initial shock, they got used to it.
All of this aid came in. Before that happened, were you aware that you were missing things?
Not so much missing things, but missing routines. I was pretty aware — even though I was not trained as a nurse and was just a helper — that certain things were not done as they should have been done. Elderly ladies with open sores on their legs that had to be washed three times a day with peroxide — it was only done once. “Why don’t we do it more often?” I asked. “We don’t have enough time,” they said.
Otherwise, I think we had most of the stuff we needed. It was just not as fancy as the Western stuff. We had to sterilize more often with those sterilization machines. And stuff from the West was disposable, one-time use: you just took it out of those bags. It was much more convenient.
Did personnel come over from the West?
No. All the nurses went to the West. No one wanted to come to the East. Once they took over the nursing home, though, some administrative staff came over.
None of the people who left prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall came back?
One came to visit: the former warden of the station, the main nurse. The people working there were mostly young people, and it was kind of a family atmosphere. She missed them, obviously.
Leipzig is a big city. There was no interest among people in the West to come and live or work in Leipzig?
Not that early. They came mostly later. I don’t recall seeing anyone — only real estate agents who came to snap up properties, and occasionally there were tourists.
And did you think about staying in Leipzig for longer?
Yes. That was the thing: it was still East Germany. The administration of apartments was communal-run. A couple friends and I looked for apartments. Leipzig was really famous for those houses that were left alone and falling apart with everything intact — water, electrify, gas. Actually, for those one-and-a-half years, I lived in one of those houses without paying rent.
A kind of a squat.
Yes. Two of my friends already lived in that house since GDR times.
You didn’t even pay for utilities.
No, and they were still running. East German officials didn’t even know what they had running and what was not. We got furniture from the open apartments of people who had gone to the West. There were whole blocks that had been condemned, but nothing had been done to them and they were still in livable conditions. The only problem was when the roof was not okay, and the rain came in. With the moisture came this kind of tick. Once they got in there, you couldn’t get them out unless you sealed the whole place and fumigated it for a week. Leipzig was famous for those ticks. You had to look very carefully when you were choosing apartments.
You grew up in Thuringia in what town?
Ah, the famous city of the Gotha Program of the Social Democratic Party that Marx wrote a critique of.
Yes, and we also have Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the 19th century duchy. And the almanach de Gotha – the Gotha registry of European royalty.
What was it like growing up there?
I was born in Poland. My parents moved me when I was about a year old. They moved officially through the embassy. It was quicker to go to East Germany than West Germany. It would have take 10 years to emigrate to Wets Germany and only a year to go to East Germany. The family came from Zabrze, formerly Hindenburg. My parents grew up there when it was still Germany. We moved to Gotha, and since we came as outsiders and the housing market was tightly run by the local authorities, we got an apartment owned by a private person. It did not have running water in the toilet — just a dry toilet. There was no bathroom, just a sink in the kitchen. If you wanted to take a bath you had to bring a big tin bathtub from the basement and heat up lots of teapots of water. That’s how I lived until I was 17.
There was never an opportunity to move?
You had to apply for it. My parents applied every year and were turned down every year — until I was 17 when we got one of those big apartments. It was day and night. Suddenly we had a bathroom with a bathtub and a shower and a real toilet.
One of those prefab apartments.
When they were new, they looked pretty good.
It was also socially mixed. There weren’t just poor people living there. Doctors and professors lived there as well. Today, everyone who can afford to has moved out. Now, it’s just the bottom of society left there.
I joke sometimes with my students: the blueprints of the apartments were basically all the same all over the country. So, when you were at somebody else’s apartment, you never had to ask where the bathroom was.
I saw a film about the construction of those apartments. In the film, the builder presented an orientation packet to the new tenants. There was obviously a great deal of pride on the part of the builder because, as you say, it was quite a step up from the condition of the apartments people were leaving.
East Germany had subsidized housing. As an apartment building owner, if you could only charge 60 marks a month for a three-room apartment but it cost you 150 marks to keep it up, of course you didn’t do that much with it. So, it deteriorated more and more. Also, after the war, things were not rebuilt in East Germany as much as in the West. There was no Marshall Plan.
When you were growing up, what did you think you would do for a living?
When I was really little, I wanted to be a circus clown. Later, I wanted to be an actor, which teaching kind of is. Pretty early on, I wanted to become a teacher, first an elementary teacher and then later at the upper level. I eventually decided to become a German and Russian teacher and studied at Erfurt at the Pädagogische Hochschule
When you were thinking about becoming a teacher, did you anticipate that there would be any political problems?
Yes, I thought about that. I figured I’d see how far I could go. At the beginning, even though I was qualified to teach 5th to 10th grades, I started teaching 4th grade, which is a completely different curriculum — because it was quite a new school in Frankfurt an der Oder, and there were a lot of young families and young children. It was quite fun. You could keep the teaching relatively apolitical. I took that class up to 7th grade – up to 1989 when I was drawn into the army.
Over the last year, I got in touch with some of them over the Internet. Someone posted a picture of an old class picture from that 4th grade and wrote on it, “In the back is Herr Rotter. He was cool.” So, I thought, “Okay, I must have done something right.”
In Poland, Russian language was mandatory, but of course no one wanted to learn it.
It was the same stigma in the GDR. Nobody really wanted to learn it. Honestly I studied it not for the love of Russian but for the love of German. You had preset combinations in education, like German and Russian, and that was the only thing for me at the Pädagogische Hochschule. Then in 1988, I actually spent five months in Moscow for a qualification visit at Lomonosov University. That was under Gorbachev. I collected a huge number of posters from Russia and translated the captions and exhibited them in East Germany when I got back. That was something the Stasi didn’t like, according to my file. I exhibited the posters at Protestant churches when they had youth days. At that point, I loved having taken Russian. I excelled at it. I was at my peak in 1988, and after that it just went downhill. I can hardly build a sentence any more.
You were studying German and Russian. And you imagined before entering the army that you would be teaching that for the rest of your life?
Did you take your first opportunity to look at your Stasi file, or did you wait?
The first time I asked for it I was living in Cologne. All they had was a notecard. The second time I asked I got a little more. The third time I applied I got the rest of it. It came in increments, so I had to do some reconstructing.
I entered the files in the 1980s through my friend Martin who lived on the same street as I did. We were close, both of us active in the Catholic Church. He was a poet and a singer. He lives as an author now in Berlin. He caused some trouble with street music in Leipzig, that’s how he got into the files. Because I had family in Poland, they thought I had some connections with Solidarnosc. They started opening our letters to and from Poland, and everything from the West, letters and parcels. But they didn’t really do anything aside from this postal check.
Once I was in Frankfurt, that’s when it really started. The posters triggered that. It was basically just from 1988 until 1989. One of the things the file said was that I couldn’t really be trusted with the socialist education of the students any more. And something had to be done about me. But they never specified what. And then the Wall came down.
They didn’t trust you because of the Polish connections…?
No, because I spoke my mind, even among my colleagues. In 1988, for example, the Russian journal Sputnik was outlawed in East Germany because it was too pro-Gorbachev. I was posting clips from Neues Deutschland on the teacher’s bulletin that highlighted the contradictions in the official positions. “Do you really think we are that stupid?” I thought. The worst thing that can happen is when someone insults my intelligence — that infuriates me. Otherwise, I’m low-key and can take a lot.
Did you learn unexpected things from your file?
For example, they mixed up things. They said that I was in contact with someone that I’d heard of but had never been in touch with. I don’t know how they came up with that. I heard from other people that the Stasi mixed up brothers and sisters and put information connected to one brother into the file of the other brother.
They didn’t have fact checkers.
No, not at all. I pretty much knew before looking at my file who was informing. It was the head of the PTA of my class. He was already talking about his time in the Felix Dzerzhinsky Guards Regiment, the elite Army group, which was well known to be tied to the Stasi. His kid was, as we would say today, learning disabled. Back then we didn’t know what to do with him. He couldn’t learn another language; he had enough trouble with his own language. I did my best. The father was okay. He didn’t really say anything bad about me. He said I was intelligent and not much else. Elsewhere too, like in Church circles, I pretty much knew who was informing on the group as a whole.
Are you glad that you looked at your file?
Yes, I think so. There was nothing that really surprised me. I thought there would be a little bit more.
You were disappointed?
Yes, I was disappointed! I wasn’t so interesting for the Stasi.
They did come in spring 1989 to recruit me as an informer. That was a very interesting thing. They called me at the school since, like most people, I didn’t have a telephone at home — only about 9 percent of East Germans had telephones at home. They said that they were from the “district office of the police.” But I worked one block from the Stasi headquarters of Frankfurt an der Oder, and we knew that there were a lot of kids of Stasi employees at the school because they put in the job box that their parents worked at the “district office of the police.” So the Stasi wanted to talk to me. They said they wanted to come to my home. “So,” I thought, “How am I going to deal with that? I invited a friend of mine to be there at the same time.
When they came, they showed me their Stasi IDs. I said, “Okay, you want to build trust here. But on the phone, you said you were coming from the police and now it turns out that you are the Stasi. So, that’s the first thing I don’t trust about you.”
They said, “You have to be careful on the phone.”
I thought, “Who else is listening but you?!”
Then they saw my friend sitting there. “If we are coming at a bad time,” they said, “we can come back. We would like to talk to you alone.”
We agreed that she would take a walk for half an hour. Which was good: it meant that we had a time limit.
They said, “We need people who can help us understand the Church. Because we are not in the Church, we have problems understanding.”
I said, “Sorry, I can’t help you.”
In the end, they asked me if I would talk to anyone about the visit.
And I said, “Sure, you saw my friend, I’ll tell her about it.”
I said, “I’m Catholic, I have to say everything in confession.” This was a trick I’d heard from other people.
Basically I told everyone who wanted to hear about it. I think that was the best strategy. If you didn’t, people would have been suspicious. The Stasi didn’t really like that. That too was in the Stasi file: that I talked to everyone about their visit.
I read that unless the Stasi had some particular leverage –
Right — they would never pressure. But back then I didn’t know that.
And most people didn’t. They didn’t realize that they could just said no.
I’m gay, and I’d just come out shortly before. I thought they might use that as a pressure point. I don’t know how I would have reacted to that. Or how I would react to violence. There were all sorts of rumors about that.
But they never raised any of that?
No. It never came up. It’s not written anywhere in my file.
I was so surprised when I went back to Germany this year to discover that the Stasi is still an important issue. I thought that maybe 15 years ago or even 10 years ago, it would be an important issue. But there are problems with people’s files emerging even today.
If you want to work in a public office or even at a TV station, you’re checked. The chief of the sports department at MDR TV, he was fired because he was in the Stasi.
In other countries in the region, the secret service is an issue because the files haven’t been released in their entirety. But I thought because –
It was so open.
Germany is far more open than other countries.
But it’s also interesting that nothing really happened. No one shot anyone when they found out that their friends worked for the Stasi. I haven’t heard of any cases like this. Some friendships broke up. But there was no outbreak of violence.
Some suicides. But nothing beyond that.
That was surprising. Vera Lengsfeld, her husband spied on her — that’s heavy stuff. Do we know why he did that?
I interviewed her, and she says that he said that he thought that if he were the informer, he could protect her and the family. She didn’t find that particularly convincing. And they divorced. It’s a painful story.
So close to home.
I’m curious about the LGBT community in East Germany prior to the fall of the Wall.
Non-existent! I grew up in a small town. And Frankfurt an der Oder didn’t have anything. I met my first boyfriend in 1988. He was from Leipzig. It was a long-distance thing. There were a couple books that had come out — very medical materials. You know about the Arbeitsgruppe Homosexuellein the Protestant Church. But they were only in the big cities. I tried it once. I went to Berlin to one of those meetings. But no one else had come that day, so I was the only one there. That was disappointing! Basically just Dresden, Leipzig, and Berlin had anything. I tried once this personal ad because I heard that if you write that you are fond of ballet, sometimes people would write back. But I didn’t get any of the responses I expected. So I lived mostly alone.
Germany has such a rich gay/lesbian tradition. And it practically vanished in the East! Whereas in West Germany, there was a flourishing culture and a continuity with the Weimar days.
When I lived in Leipzig, my loneliness came to an end. That’s why I moved to Cologne — I fell in love with someone from there. And that’s why I moved to the United States because I followed a man here as well.
Well, that’s good! Was there a marked change after the Wall fell?
In my case, I had also moved to Leipzig at that time, which had somewhat of a culture there before. All of the sudden you had more groups, gay bars. And Cologne of course is the San Francisco of Germany — anything goes there.
When the culture sprang up more fully in Leipzig, did you learn about what had been going on that you didn’t know about?
Yes. And I read about it too. There was a book of interviews with gay East Germans. It came out in 1990. That was basically stories about people in East Germany that were gay, and it was quite revealing. Also there was a group I belonged to in Leipzig that had talks once in a while about the history of gay people in East Germany. But there was never really anything in terms of literature. Even though officially it was not a criminal act, much earlier than in West Germany actually, there was no facilitation during the GDR days: no newsletter, meeting spaces, nothing.
Had you heard anything about gay/lesbian life in other parts of Eastern Europe before the fall of the Wall?
No, not really. I think someone cruised me in St. Petersburg in 1988, but that’s as close as I got. I was with some of my colleagues at the time, so nothing happened. That’s the only thing I came close to.
Not even about Yugoslavia?
Yugoslavia was almost like the West for us anyway. We couldn’t go there.
Have you been back to eastern Germany since?
Almost every year. I go with my students. My parents live in Gotha, my sister lives in Berlin. In March, I was in Berlin with students for a course on the Holocaust and German culture. My mom came up from Gotha. Last time I was in Germany, I couldn’t go to my parents.
When you go back, what strikes you the most about what has changed?
The facades. I’m very interested in historic preservation. In Gotha, there’s a big castle where I was working as a tour guide in the summer time as a student. I’m very invested in the town — there’s a map here on my wall of the city from the 1950s. Everything on the western side was actually ripped down during the early 1980s, including a baroque palace. It caused me physical pain to see that. I watched that happening.
Was there any protest?
None at all. And they built more of those prefab buildings there. That’s something I like to see when I go back: houses that could be saved have been saved and rebuilt. On the other hand, my hometown has shrunk by 4,000 or more people who have left. It was 58,000 before, and now it’s 54,000 or even less, maybe only 50,000. A lot of people have gone. Now they’re starting to tear down those prefab apartments because they don’t need those apartments any more.
The unemployment rate in the east is still higher than in the west.
Yes, a lot of people went to the west. Basically, the population is older people like my parents and young people who can’t wait to get out. My parents’ current landlord is a young man with an Internet company. That’s how he makes money — providing Internet for firms in the area. Otherwise he would be somewhere else as well.
Is the city trying to attract new people?
It’s difficult. The German economy depends on middle-sized firms. There aren’t a lot of big firms. There are a few firms that have settled in Gotha. But if you employ five more people, that doesn’t do a lot.
I visited Lutherstadt. Other than the fact that they have the historical area, the economic prospects are bleak.
Gotha is similar. They have the huge castle, with a collection of Dutch paintings and mummies and historic rooms that are amazing. People will go elbow to elbow to Heidelberg to the castle there, and it’s in really bad shape, instead of going to a nice castle in Gotha. It’s just not well known. And when they come, they just come for the day. They don’t stay overnight. In terms of tourism economy, it’s the night stays that make money.
Gotha was a big place for the army, both the German and Russian armies. Both of them left. It also once had huge manufacturing sites for airplanes – the famous Gotha airplanes in World War II that bombed Paris and London. Later, the manufacturing was changed to trains. The last thing before the Wall came down, it produced car parts for the Wartburg produced in Eisenach. It did that still for a while when Opel took over the Eisenach plant, but now Opel itself is struggling. I think they’re closing down too.
What do you think the future is for places like Gotha?
Close by you have Weimar. The population there is actually rising because it has become a famous retirement place. That might be something that Gotha is good at too. It has a small town feel, a big castle, a sizable amount of culture. It once had its own symphony orchestra, which it now shares with Suhl. It now travels back and forth. They have an Italian night once a year for the whole city. They have a baroque festival. They have an opera festival at the Castle where there’s one of only six theaters with the original baroque stage machinery. There’s a modest future there. But not in manufacturing. I don’t see much of a future there in terms of new development. It has its beauty to visit and not too much else.
I’d like to ask you about how East Germany is depicted, particularly in movies like The Lives of Others and Goodbye Lenin. I’m curious about your reaction to that.
The Lives of Others was a movie that was too early for its time. It’s like Schindler’s List for the Holocaust. You could only make Schindler’s List about the good Nazi after all those movies about the bad Nazis. As one of the first movies about the Stasi, The Lives of Others was too early. You needed those first movies to depict the Stasi as bad as they were and then you can come back with one about the good Stasi man. I didn’t have too many problems with the Stasi. But I know people who had lot of problems, and they did not encounter any good Stasi who tried to save them.
Goodbye Lenin is a fun little thing! It definitely shows how that system fostered lies — on the side of the mother, the father, and later on the side of the children toward the mother – as people lied to each other in order to survive. Think of my approach by the Stasi: they wanted me to lie about that as well.
Otherwise, in general culture, you have a lot of Ostalgie, and it even creeps in here as well. We have to see the system for what it was. You can talk about how it was not so bad for some people. I tell my students that we had normal lives. We didn’t think about it as if we were locked up all day long. We had work to do. We had things to do. But it was still under the surface a totalitarian system. There are now movies coming out – Last to Know — I don’t think that’s available yet here. Also there’s The System: To Understand Everything is to Forget Everything, which they showed recently in DC at the Goethe Institut. Those are a little closer to reality and also show how Stasi issues are still playing out today.
When you bring your students to Germany, is there a moment when you see light bulbs go off in their heads, when they come to some understanding about what it was like?
Yes, a little bit. I taught them a course on representations of the Holocaust. That was in the forefront. But we visited the Topography of Terror, the ruin there, with the Wall right next to it. They were delighted to see that. But it was more of a touristy nature. And you can’t really see the Wall any more, not long stretches of it.
When I talk about my life in East Germany, some students get a handle on it. I have students here for four years and come to talks occasionally and get a little bit of a better understanding of the time. And I show them some movies that tie in over time.
Have you heard of the organization Third Generation East?
It’s made up of young people in former GDR who were quite young when the Wall fell. They feel as if their concerns are not being addressed in Germany today.
Yes, it’s kind of the Holocaust generation thing all of over again — this situation of not talking.
They are going around Germany promoting conversations about the past. I did an interview with a representative. Her awakening experience was when she was studying in France. If she told people that she was German, people had one reaction. If she told people she was from East Germany, their reaction was very different. They either exoticized her –
Yes, I get that occasionally.
Or on the other side, it was a negative reaction as if she were a poor creature.
I always used to get the question, how was it like to live under communism? Do you have 50 minutes? It’s not something you can answer in an elevator speech.
Americans don’t have a lot of time. You have to boil it down to a Hollywood pitch. Are there people here who are genuinely interested?
Yes, among my students too. One of my students reads everything from Honecker to Hoxha. He’s doing an honors thesis right now on the Strasser brothers, the left side of the Nazis, and how those ideas are still showing up today among neo-Nazi groups that are outside of the neo-Nazi mainstream.
When you look at unified Germany today, are there things that you wish had been done differently — in terms of political or economic or social reform?
We can always wish! But there are certain economic pressures that you can’t avoid. I would have wished that maybe the SPD could have won the elections and the unification process could have been easier. I would have wished that there would have been payment before restitution not restitution before payment. That crippled East German society for a long time. The rightful owner had to be found and restituted first. Only if there was some genuine interest, you could pay them. Things in the courts would have gone quicker after unification with the restitution of property. Since all the judges were in the Communist Party, and they were all let go, there was a shortage of judges to look into that. A lot of time was wasted that could have been used to rebuild East Germany.
There could have been more of a social component in reunification. Although I have to say: to form your own destiny is something that you just have to live up to. Especially for the older generation, however, the ones who were already 40 or 50, that was difficult. Their lives were so easily dismissed, not at an official level but at a popular culture level. They were basically told: we do it differently now and what you did was not right. But that’s not something you can prescribe, it’s a human issue.
When I talk to people of our generation, who were in their late teens or twenties when the Wall fell, they were able to reinvent themselves. If you’re too young at that time, you don’t need to reinvent yourself.
Like my sister, she was seven.
Are there any examples of people you know from your generation who took that opportunity, who were on one path and then switched to another and became something completely different?
One of my friends who was very much under Stasi supervision, he had to learn some manual labor. He actually studied law after reunification at Humboldt University. He is now working in Thuringia. Another friend in Dresden was a mechanical engineer in the automotive industry. He stopped doing that and started advertising, and worked for the Saxon parliament doing advertising campaigns for a while. Now he’s in some different department there.
And you too.
Yes, me too. Though I’m still in education. But if you’re in a small department like I am, you do German 101, and it’s not that different from high school, especially when high school students coming in as freshman.
Have you changed any of opinions or your own philosophy over the last 23 years?
Yes. I thought that East Germany could have been reformed. That was probably unrealistic. That was probably just wishful thinking. Today, I see that. The patient was really too far advanced.
How long did you hold on to that perspective?
Maybe two years. Once I was in Western Germany, I gave that up. I didn’t really have a right to complain especially since I got a better deal out of it.
Any specific thoughts about what the German government or German institutions can do today to deal with the legacy of the GDR past or to harmonize the eastern and western parts of the country?
I think the harmonization is taking care of itself. The younger generation is doing it themselves. The people who were born after the Wall fell don’t really see themselves as east Germans. But I don’t live there any more, so that might be wrong.
There is already investment support in place if firms want to go east, start up a company. But you can’t force them to go there. It’s really sad that the eastern part of Germany has become basically an area where only old people and very young are still living. The productive middle generation is missing. With the exception of the big centers, like Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden — and even Erfurt seems to be doing okay — the smaller towns seem to be suffering.
They’re suffering in a way that small towns in western Germany are not suffering?
That’s a good question. With the whole reunification tax, the small towns in western Germany probably suffered too. When I lived in Cologne, I heard a lot of bad sentiments from people, for instance about the closure of public pools. There was not enough money from public coffers because of the tax paid for the east. I assume smaller cities probably had problems like that as well. It’s what we call the strukturschwachedebatte (the debate over weak infrastructure). It might be similar to East Germany. West Germany did a pretty good job developing the small towns for years, and it has to be done in the east as well. But I don’t think anything new or revolutionary needs to be done.
And in terms of GDR legacy, has anything lived on in any positive way?
Rotkapchen sekt, the sparkling wine, has survived. Also, it was always that people in East Germany, once they knew each other, were much friendlier than people in the West, where there was much more distance between people. But that seems to be lost as well now. I don’t know if much else lives on that was specific to East Germany. Maybe the idea that we are responsible for each other. And the idea of equality, that people are all equal, even though plenty of people were not equal. Germany with its social market economy does a pretty good job of retaining that approach, especially compared to here where, before the elections, you hear the Republicans talking about everyone for themselves. That’s the other extreme. Germany tries to maintain a pretty good middle ground in terms of keeping a social net. If you think about Hartz IV, the social net could be a little finer so that people who fall on hard times can get a decent living.
Can you distinguish between the nostalgia you have for German in general and the particular nostalgia you might have for East Germany?
I’m more nostalgic for Thuringia itself, not Germany itself. I lived in Cologne for six years too. I liked it, I think it’s a cool city, but I don’t have nostalgia for it. But I’m really into historic architecture, old churches: those are the things that I really miss. I might be different, as an immigrant child too, since I never formed really close relationships. We were only a nuclear family, with no relatives living around us. I miss my parents and sister, but it’s different from people who have extended family, which represents home for them.
The last three questions are quantitative. When you look into the near future and think about the prospects for Germany, how would you rate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being optimistic?
9 or 10.
When you look back from 1989 to today, how would you evaluate what has changed or not changed, on a scale from 1 to 10 with 1 being most disappointed and 10 most satisfied?
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?
10. I could never have dreamed of being a professor teaching German. I took Russian just so I could be a German teacher to begin with. In hindsight, it was worth the sacrifice of learning Russian.
You could have ended up in Irkutsk.
Fredericksburg, April 17, 2013