Over the Wall: Six Stories from East Germany

Bernauer Strasse, 1978. Factories and houses were torn down; those that remained were bricked over to form part of the wall. (John Spooner)

Bernauer Strasse, 1978. Factories and houses were torn down; those that remained were bricked over to form part of the wall. (John Spooner)

Joachim Sauer
Age 40 on November 9, 1989

Many GDR scientists needed only 1.5 grams for promotion to senior scientist or professor, says Joachim Sauer, now a computational chemist at Humboldt University in Berlin. “This was the weight of the Communist Party sticker.”

Before the wall fell, joining the Communist Party was an essential step for career advancement. For Sauer and other scientists who didn’t have the political stamp of approval, permanent postdoc-level positions were the most they could hope for. They also had to avoid making any provocative or critical statements about the Communist Party. Even so, Sauer says, “Staying quiet and keeping to yourself was not always enough.”

For example, late on a Friday afternoon in 1986, Sauer recalls the arrival of an unexpected guest in his office at the Institute of Chemistry in East Berlin. The institute’s Communist Party secretary showed up to request—in reality to demand—an opinion essay about a recent Communist Party congress, a demand completely unrelated to Sauer’s work as a theoretical chemist. The essay, Sauer was told, would be posted on the institute’s notice board for all to read.

It was a catch-22. “If you were to write what you think, you were in trouble,” says Sauer. “If you were to write what they wanted you to write, then you would deny yourself.” Sauer spent a stressful weekend searching for a solution to the impossible conundrum. In the end he says what he wrote was “okay on the surface, but had a double meaning, a small hammer that gave a message.” Sauer says the experience seems almost funny now, but not then. The essay was posted for only a few hours before officials decided to remove it.

Living behind the Berlin wall was not just personally stressful but also professionally frustrating. By the 1980s the GDR’s economic problems combined with Western embargoes meant research equipment was often outdated. As a computational chemist, Sauer says it was frustrating to be stuck behind the wall just as VAX computers were shrinking from building sized to room sized.

But sometimes equipment was unofficially available; the GDR regularly smuggled in from the West all sorts of things, from exotic fruit to medical equipment. For example, Sauer says his research institute had managed to get embargoed computers via Austria, a fact that the institute’s administrators tried to keep secret by keeping the machines in a locked room and placing the terminals in another room, one open to the scientists. Sauer says he and his fellow scientists were skilled enough to extract the system information and so learned the computers’ origin.

After the wall came down, Sauer went to work for a software company in San Diego before being recruited back to Germany. A few years later he was awarded a professorship at Berlin’s Humboldt University. Sauer continues his quantum computational research—with brief breaks to entertain international heads of states with his wife, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Sauer’s new workspace is in a recently renovated lab on Humboldt University’s Aldershof campus, where the GDR’s Institute of Chemistry used to sit, just across from a former Stasi military barracks.

Heinz Mustroph
Age 38 on November 9, 1989

India’s flamboyant Bollywood film industry may seem worlds apart from the factories of Communist East Germany, but business made them bedfellows. Before 1989 Heinz Mustroph worked as a chemist for Filmfabrik Wolfen, a government-owned company that supplied color film to primarily Bolly-wood clients.

After the Berlin wall collapsed, workers at the film company tried to keep business alive, but clients forced to pay in more expensive West German Deutschmarks soon went elsewhere. The color-film company—like many businesses in the East—couldn’t stay afloat. Without a job Mustroph partnered with some former colleagues to start a contract research company that in 1997 morphed into FEW Chemicals, a manufacturer of specialized dyes, also based in Wolfen.

Mustroph was in his late 30s when the Berlin wall fell, young enough to adapt to the new political and economic realities, even though the adjustment was not always smooth. “Although I worked much harder in the years after the wall came down than before, life is better for me now. Now, if someone wants to try something new with their lives, they make their own limits,” he says, instead of being dictated by government.