I have always been interested in the Cold War, especially its effects in Germany following world war II, so in March 2012 I headed off to Berlin to meet a chap called Cliewe who had first hand experience of what divided Berlin was like.
I had read about Cliewe in an article in Time magazine. He was born in 1966 and lived in East Berlin until at the age of 18 when he was captured by the the East German authorities during his third escape attempt. One of 72,000 East Germans incarcerated for trying to leave their country, he served 10 months, suffering physical and psychological torture in an East German remand prison, before his freedom was bought by the West. (The G.D.R. earned hard currency and rid itself of dissidents by literally selling thousands of political prisoners to the west).
After he was purchased from the East, he lived in the relative freedom of West Berlin until the wall came down in 1989. “I didn’t expect it” he told me “I was as surprised and confused as everyone else, but I was glad none the less”.
Even today some still think Cliewe and his fellow prisoners only got what they deserved. In the article in Time magazine he told of how he had fallen into conversation with an old man on a Berlin street. When he mentioned his time in jail, the old man erupted in fury telling Cliewe “Someone forgot to kill you”. I was lucky enough to be able to meet up with Cliewe several times whilst I was in Berlin and we spent the best part of two days walking the route that the wall took through the centre of Berlin. I was amazed to see how many remnants and how much of the wall, which was in actual fact a name for what were often a series of structures consisting of a wall, a death strip and various other watch towers and checkpoints, still remained today. Ducking under fences to get into building sites and walking through more modern parks the remains were everywhere.
In the city back streets I saw the bricked up windows and doorways on the buildings that backed onto the wall and the distinctive security lights that had been mounted above entrances in the streets adjacent to the wall so that the Stasi could keep an eye on who was coming and going. In places these lights are still in use today. In other places the traces are more subtle, the block paving in the road suddenly changing from one style to another where the wall intersected it, or simply a strip of empty land spanning several streets where houses were demolished to make way for the divide.
Cliewe also took me to visit the former Hohenschönhausen Stasi Remand Prison. Now opened as a museum where he works as a guide taking people around the site, reciting first hand what it was like to be incarcerated in such a place without ever being convicted of any crime other than disagreeing, or criticising the government. As we walked amongst the rubber lined cells and interrogation offices I found it hard to believe that all of this had been going on just a few years ago; well within my lifetime. While I was going to school, Cliewe had been locked up – a political prisoner, hoping upon hope that either the communist system would collapse, or as eventually happened, his freedom would be bought by the West.
After finishing his work at the prison museum Cliewe shows me a block of flats on the way back to the train station, and points out one particular name on the list of door bells.
It is the former governor of the remand prison where so many political prisoners were incarcerated and abused just a few years previously. Now retired, the governor lives in these flats just a couple of streets away from the prison, blending in to everyday Berlin life as just another old man. No doubt most people who happen to meet him will be unaware of his dubious past, but with the Stasi employing one officer for every 180 east German civilians, one thing is for certain; he will not be the only elderly man in Berlin with a secret. I find this odd mix of the new living with and accepting the old so readily without question quite hard to understand and wonder if it is out of necessity, out of choice, or simply because nobody really has the will to do otherwise any more.