Over the Wall: Six Stories from East Germany

The secret records of the East German Stasi are now open to the public. (Associated Press/Eckehard Schulz)

The secret records of the East German Stasi are now open to the public. (Associated Press/Eckehard Schulz)

Left in limbo Rosenthal was deemed by the Stasi to be a security risk and unsuitable for a scientific career. Among the mass of very detailed, sometimes banal, Stasi reports on his daily life, Rosenthal says he came across evidence that the spy agency’s surveillance extended into West Germany. Case in point: a copy of an internal letter written by Rosenthal’s former Ph.D. adviser to the director of his new research institute in Mülheim-Ruhr, inquiring whether a position could be made available for Rosenthal in the event of his leaving the GDR. The well-intentioned and seemingly safe inquiry backfired for Rosenthal; the Stasi got wind of it, which led to even more problems for him. Rosenthal now knows the Stasi heard about this letter through Communist Party member researchers who had received permission to tour the institute in Mülheim and who had found a way to riffle through the office of his former supervisor.

Luckily for Rosenthal his impossible situation came to an end a year later in 1989. Soon after the wall collapsed, he left to join his former adviser at the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Mülheim-Ruhr. The following year Rosenthal returned to the old East for a new job leading a research department at the same institute where he had initially been blacklisted. His current circumstances would have never been possible behind the wall, Rosenthal says.

Christoph Naumann
Age 19 on November 9, 1989

Christoph Naumann knew he wanted to study chemistry at a university but could not stomach the mandatory military service for a regime he loathed. So in August 1989, just weeks before the start of the protests that would eventually bring down the wall, Naumann decided to escape by traveling to Hungary and then walking over the border to Yugoslavia. Border guards were suspicious of young men traveling alone—many had tried escaping the GDR in this way—so Naumann’s sister went with him on the train to Hungary, though in a different coach, hiding in her underwear the 40 Deutschmarks in cash that would start his new life in the West. Naumann also had help from a train conductor, who smuggled his academic records across the border. Some 20 years after he escaped from the GDR, during which he worked or studied as a chemist in France, Canada, England, and Australia, Naumann moved back to Berlin. He now lives a short walk from the Bornholmer Bridge, a former crossing between East and West, where the first crowds crossed to the West on November 9, 1989.

Beate Koksch
Age 21 on November 9, 1989

Many young adults struggle with choosing a career, but Beate Koksch always knew she wanted to be a biochemist. In 1985, 17-year-old Koksch figured that her top marks in science made her a shoo-in for a university biochemistry program. Then one day, as graduation approached, her school principal announced in front of her classmates that Koksch had been denied entry to biochemistry programs.

An extremely upset and confused Koksch faced more unpleasant surprises. An hour later she was called to the principal’s office and found a Stasi operative waiting for her. Koksch says he started by mentioning her failure to get a spot at a university. In the next breath he invited her to study at a university that trained Stasi agents. Her failure to get into a biochemistry program had likely been a Stasi recruitment ruse. “It was awful to have the Stasi ask you to join them,” Koksch says. “I thought, ‘Why me? Have I been too good?’ To think that they saw me as a good candidate made me feel sick.” At the same time, Koksch knew that she couldn’t out-and-out refuse the Stasi agent’s invitation for fear of seeming rebellious or disloyal to the regime, which could hurt her family’s career prospects as well as her own. “I said I needed to speak to my father and would give an answer tomorrow.”

That night was not a pleasant one in her household as the family brainstormed for a way out of the predicament. In the end Koksch decided on a sequence of watery excuses for refusing the Stasi offer, such as she was thinking of getting married and settling down with someone who had many family members in the West—contacts the Stasi would not approve of or permit. Another excuse involved her thinking processes: she was completely right-brained and too inept for the left-brain thinking required for social sciences.

Luckily for Koksch the Stasi believed her story. The following year she reapplied to a chemistry program at the Technical University in Leuna-Merseburg and was accepted. Today she is a professor of organic and natural-products chemistry at the Free University in Berlin.