Over the Wall: Six Stories from East Germany

Berlin’s open-air East Side Gallery exhibits paintings and graffiti on some remaining segments of the wall. Most were painted in the months following the border opening in 1989. (flickr/woowoowoo)

Berlin’s open-air East Side Gallery exhibits paintings and graffiti on some remaining segments of the wall. Most were painted in the months following the border opening in 1989. (flickr/woowoowoo)

Gunter Fischer
Age 46 on November 9, 1989

The GDR’s decaying equipment and a lack of basic research supplies meant scientists didn’t have the resources to do science, but they did have plenty of time to sit in their offices and think, says Gunter Fischer. As a biochemist at Martin Luther University in Halle during the late 1980s, Fischer used his free time to think about how proteins fold. He came up with two theoretical ideas that garnered the GDR scientist rare Nature papers in 1987 and 1989—publications he acquired without asking for, or receiving, the necessary consent from the Stasi or his university administration.

At the time, getting a paper published in a high-profile Western scientific journal generally required East Germans to collaborate with a Western scientist—another taboo, says Fischer. All professional contacts between Eastern and Western scientists had to be sanctioned and mediated by the Bureau of International Relationships. Fischer says it was frustrating to work with this bureau. “If I wanted to write a letter to a U.S. or Italian scientist, I could not do it directly. I had to go through the bureau. But if you didn’t hear a reply, you didn’t know if the bureau had even sent the letter or whether a response had been received, or whether it had been thrown into the wastebasket.”

Typically, contact with Western scientists was only possible by traveling to conferences in Poland or Hungary, where rules about international interactions were laxer than in the GDR. However, for the last 300 years Fischer’s hometown had been the headquarters of the Leopoldina, a scientific academy. Even during the years under the GDR regime it was able to host scientists from the West.

There Fischer met Franz X. Schmid, a biochemist at the University of Regensburg in then West Germany who visited the Leopoldina once or twice a year. Schmid helped Fischer get his work published in Nature, and he repeatedly made official requests for Fischer to give a talk in Regensburg. Fischer also received many invitations from the scientific community in the United Kingdom, but as late as September 1989 he was denied a travel visa. Fischer says his Stasi files state that these refusals were because he was not a Party member “and because I wasn’t convinced that the Communist system was best and thus I wouldn’t give a good impression about the GDR to the hosts.” Somehow the Stasi never realized that Fischer had published in Nature. “In those years I guess the Stasi had other problems. Or maybe they were behind in their reading of journals.”

Fischer was finally granted a travel visa in November 1989 and was in Bayreuth, West Germany, when he heard that the wall had come down. “I could barely believe it. I thought I had to accept that I would spend my whole life in the GDR.” Fischer had a wife and children in the East and never considered escaping.

Fischer is currently the director of the Max Planck Research Unit for the Enzymology of Protein Folding, the only director at one of the 80-plus institutes in the Max Planck Society who worked as a scientist in the former GDR.

Federal elections will be held in Germany in 2013, the seventh since reunification. More than two decades have passed since the cold war ended, and it’s tempting to see the Berlin wall as an increasingly antiquated artifact—just a large, steel-reinforced, concrete structure that fell down years ago. But for many people—from scientists to street cleaners—the spying, bullying, and oppression they lived through behind that wall will continue to be part of a very personal chronicle.

Sarah Everts was a 2011–2012 Ullyot Scholar at CHF's Beckman Center. She is currently the European correspondent for Chemical & Engineering News. A version of this story appeared in C&EN in 2009.