Over the Wall: Six Stories from East Germany

West Berliners looking over the wall to East Berlin, 1963. (Granger Collection, New York)

West Berliners looking over the wall to East Berlin, 1963. (Granger Collection, New York)

An irregular sequence of bronze circular plaques lies parallel to Bernauer Strasse, a street where the Berlin wall once split the neighborhood of Mitte from the neighborhood of Wedding. They tell of successes and failures among those who jumped from windows of apartment buildings that abutted the wall, shimmied down ropes, or navigated underground tunnels: “30.09.1961, Flucht, Frau K und Kind”—Mrs. K’s escape with her daughter. “07.07.1968, Fluchtversuch und Festnahme”—“attempted escape and capture.” Other reminders of this city’s Communist past are more chilling: crosses near Berlin’s Spree River mark where people were shot to death trying to flee to West Germany.

More than 50 years have passed since 1961, when the Berlin wall was built, and 23 have passed since it was torn down. The plaques and crosses are just the overt reminders of the desperation felt by many living behind the wall in the formerly Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR)—a desperation that spurred some to find any way possible to escape repression, at great risk to their own life and that of their families.

Scientists were not immune to the spying and harassment suffered by ordinary citizens of the GDR. They too were under surveillance by the Ministry of State Security, or Stasi for short, and were prodded to show loyalty to the regime, which sometimes meant reporting on the activities of coworkers. But on November 9, 1989, everything changed. Against the backdrop of months of protests that had begun in Leipzig and then spread across the GDR, Communist Party officials met for a rather mundane General Assembly. The group decided to relax travel restrictions to the West in order to appease protestors—but critically, the decision did not include a detailed plan for implementation. After the assembly Günter Schabowski, a Communist Party official who had missed the travel-relaxation discussions, gave a press conference. As he read out a rather lackluster list of the day’s achievements—in which was buried the plan to ease travel restrictions—journalists asked when the new travel rules would be enacted.

In the now quintessential example of how an improvised answer can change the course of history, Schabowski waffled and then answered “sofort”—“immediately.” As West Berlin radio and television announced the new freedom to travel, people on the East side of the wall who had tuned into the German news flocked to several border-crossing stations. The station guards were quickly overwhelmed; they had heard the same news reports and failed to reach any authorities who might have clarified the situation. Succumbing to the pressure of the crowds, the guards opened up barriers that were never to close again.

The flood of people that spread to the West and the subsequent reunification of Germany also had a massive impact on scientists in the former GDR. As teams of West German scientists traveled to the East to evaluate which institutes would remain open and which would be closed, thousands of former GDR scientists lost their jobs. Money flooded into the East, meant to build dozens of shiny new institutes indistinguishable from their Western counterparts. Some of these new institutes hosted researchers who worked in the former GDR, but many were led by West German or international scientists.

Germans refer to the entire transformation—from the Berlin wall’s collapse to German reunification—with a gentle euphemism, “die Wende,” or “the changeover.” This simple word embodies the massive changes that occurred after the wall came down, including opening the Stasi’s huge archives to the public. Since 1989 many scientists who suffered behind the wall have taken stock of this past. Here are a few of their stories.

Uwe Rosenthal
Age 39 on November 9, 1989

“The Stasi’s code name for me was ‘Nickel’ because I worked with nickel catalysts,” says Rosenthal. After the wall came down, Rosenthal requested the hundreds of pages of Stasi surveillance files collected on him in an effort to make sense of the difficulties he had experienced in the years before the changeover.

In 1989, with a Ph.D. and a nearly completed German habilitation, then a prerequisite for an academic career in science, Rosenthal’s career should have been on an upward trajectory. Unfortunately for Rosenthal his Ph.D. adviser had fled the GDR the previous year, after receiving a travel visa to attend a family birthday party. “The Stasi believed he was selling research secrets to the West,” says Rosenthal, adding that the idea was preposterous. In reality his adviser had just wanted freedom unavailable in the GDR. “I was totally rattled,” Rosenthal says of the time after his adviser’s escape. “I was under complete surveillance.”