Democracy, dictatorship, and the messy space in-between – reflections on commemorating 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall

The date: Thursday, 9th of November 1989. I vividly remember the night that is now being commemorated in multiple ways, including through a feature film called Bornholmer Straße that focuses on the East German lieutenant colonel Harald Jäger who opened the barrier at this border crossing between East and West Berlin. I lived in a flat in Cuvrystraße 1 at the time, a street on the fringes of the West-Berlin borough of Kreuzberg that bordered East Berlin, Hauptstadt der DDR (capital city of the former GDR). All my windows looked out to the river Spree, as did my balcony. The river Spree in turn ‘belonged’ in this political geography to the territory of the former GDR. One could thus say that I had entered a foreign country when standing on my balcony.

In fact, some years before this fateful November night, when I was sitting the cat of a friend for a few weeks, that cat somehow managed to fall from my balcony into the river. It was duly rescued by East German border police who were regularly patrolling the river and returned safely back to me – to my tremendous relief. I returned the favour with a bottle of vodka, gratefully received – on the advice of my next door neighbour who himself had come from the former GDR, from the town of Leipzig, sometime during the 1970s. We at the time often sat in his conservatory looking through our binoculars at the GDR watch tower across the river, observing how the two border guards there observed us – sometimes both sides even waived.

Those messy spaces in-between were ultimately what determined much of the daily lives of people on both sides of the wall, probably felt most pronounced on what was the ‘island’ of West-Berlin then. What is being commemorated now, 25 years after, however, is too often a simplistic picture of the victory of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ – where even the ‘evil’ side can have its heroes in people like Harald Jäger. There are rare exceptions. One that particularly struck me was a photo exhibition by Arwed Messmer at the Gallery Haus am Kleistpark in Berlin. Entitled REENACTMENT MSF (MSF being the abbreviation for the ‘stasi’, the secret service of the former GDR, not the rather more famous humanitarian organisation known by the same acronym) Messmer uses the medium of photography to engage with visual artefacts he found in MSF archives. The artefacts deal with attempts of illegal flight from the former GDR to the West and Messmer’s photographs and collages present the artefacts he found in a powerful and thoughtful way. We see ladders leaning against walls, forensic evidence, bullet wounds and mutilated bodies, staged re-enactments of flight-attempts that were unsuccessful under orders of the MFS, heavy vehicles trying to break through a fence – to name just a few examples. They are presented in a non-judgemental way and victims include those that were shot by East German border guards, but also East German guards shot by those who attempted to flee. Based on what critiques have called ‘documentary empathy’ the exhibition after all reminds us that documentary evidence is always partly staged to suit a specific purpose and refers us back to the messy space between absolute moral certainties.

But let us return to the night of the 9th of November, the night when the border actually opened for the first time. I was at home that evening, preparing a trip to West Germany, as we ‘Berliner’ used to say, with a friend, a trip to Cologne to be precise, the next day. My phone rang and my travel companion was on the line, saying: turn on the TV but then, reconsidering, no, go out onto the balcony. I could see another border crossing from my balcony, this one only for West-Berliner, the picturesque Oberbaumbrücke – friends who visited often said my flat reminded them of Venice because of this view. I duly stepped onto the balcony – and here they were, people crossing Oberbaumbrücke, a sleepy outpost at the busiest of times in the West-East Berlin traffic, in large numbers, but now from East into West. My friend and myself decided to go and join the event, and about half an hour later we stood at Schlesische Straße and watched people crossing the bridge, in anticipation and excitement. We left when some people started to throw bananas at our ‘East German brothers and sisters’ – there are multiple jokes about the scarcity of bananas in the former GDR – and when those ‘brothers and sisters’ started eating them. We went to our local pub, a place called Kuckucksei that luckily looked not in any way flashy enough to attract strangers that night – and has been closed long ago in the process of gentrification of the area. The next day, as everybody was heading ‘West’, we decided to postpone our trip to Cologne but go ‘East’ instead – and thus drove over Glienicker Brücke, the bridge that had a mystical aura around it because it was used in the exchange of spies between the Eastern and Western block during the Cold War. The border guards still posted there casually waved us through. We drove into Potsdam and beyond and were more or less the only vehicle driving in easterly direction, drawing some curious looks but little bother.

At ‘my’ 25th anniversary of that night in November 1989, I was not in Berlin, but in Maputo, Mozambique. I was there courtesy of the German embassy and the Instituto Cultural Moçambique-Alemanha (ICMA) who were hosting me at a joint event on the evening of the 6th of November, not the exact date of the ‘fall of the Berlin wall’ but close enough. The event on that evening consisted of two parts: the opening of an exhibition entitled from Dictatorship to Democracy that had been curated by the Institute for Contemporary History, Deutschlandradio Kultur, anEinladung Ausstellungd the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship. After some drinks and snacks this was followed by a panel discussion of my recent book Legacies of Socialist Solidarity – East Germany in Mozambique where I argue that the blank slate on which post-socialist democracy and capitalism can be built does not exist. In contrast, in multiple ways socialism or socialist ideals are not only still present in people’s memories and identities, but can serve as a valuable guide for navigating the present. My book uses the case study of the biggest education exchange programme between two socialist countries, the former GDR and the then People’s Republic of Mozambique, which saw 899 Mozambican children complete their secondary schooling in a boarding school in the former GDR from 1982 to 1988. They returned to a changed Mozambique as young adults in late 1988 or early 1989 – and were in many ways betrayed by the FRELIMO government. With me on the panel were in fact three alumni of the School of Friendship, the Escola da Amizade, as it is known in Mozambique, who contributed their own memories and thoughts.

The event at ICMA was very well attended and a lively debate ensued, as in multiple ways people in the audience shared their own perceptions and memories of the GDR and tried to make sense of it all – why were this bright young children sent so far away only to have all their knowledge and expertise ignored once they returned? I was particularly touched by the many words of thanks I received for having written this book, but the question remains, why did it take a foreign academic to do so, and why are there no publications available on what was a flagship programme and its aftermath in Mozambique and in the Portuguese language? Part of the answer relates to the FRELIMO-instigated process of ‘organized forgetting’, a process in which the socialist period is being distorted in official public discourse – in order to lay the foundations for the contemporary political elite to continue to enrich themselves.

The morning of the 6th of November I had actually spent with another group that suffered in a different way from the messy politics of socialist development cooperation between the former GDR and Mozambique and its aftermath. This group is more in the limelight due to political demonstrations that have taken place in regular intervals for almost 25 years now – the so-called madgermanes, Mozambican contract workers in the former GDR. They have a fixed abode in the park Jardim 28 de Mayo in Maputo where some of them meet everyday, a space easily recognised by the GDR flag among others and the poster of a cash machine that says ‘out of order’. Their main grievance is that they have not been paid their full wages and social security contributions for the work they carried out in those days of socialist cooperation. Their full story is recounted in detail in various media appearances and other publications. It is not for me to judge the validity of their claims – as in fact this was the first time I visited them. But after having sat with them for a couple of hours it became abundantly clear that neither the former alleged ‘dictatorship’ nor the subsequent democracy has addressed their grievances in any meaningful way, neither on the German nor the Mozambican side. At the end of the day, the madgermanes were let down by different governments in different guises in their quest to reclaim a meaningful life.

My own personal 25-years-since-the-fall-of-the-wall commemoration did not end in Maputo but subsequently took me to Chimoio. At the Lamimos Lodge near Cruzamento de Tete, a space that also runs cultural events and is owned by two Escola da Amizade alumni, another discussion about my book and its quest to write people into history who have thus far been largely ignored was organised on the 8th of November. In the audience were people from the whole region and from Beira who had attended the Escola da Amizade – and like in Maputo, the major enduring message was that finally somebody acknowledged their history, a fact that made them tremendously proud – even if in a language not all could read. One of those present, called Mano in the book, had a visit from his former East-German guest-parents earlier in the week and they visited Gorongosa National Park together. As it happened, while in the park some other (West-) German tourists heard them speak German and asked Mano why he spoke German so well. When he answered he went to school in the former GDR they said that must have been horrible. No, Mano replied, it was wonderful, he received a good education, caring second parents, learned many new skills, got new ideas – and those from the West who now spoke so negatively were not the ones who helped a country like Mozambique and a poor child like himself at the time to get an education, thus they should rather not pass judgement.

Here they all were, Mano and his fellow graduates from the Escola da Amizade, who had built their lives after a lot of initial difficulties and suffering – the latter largely brought about by their own government to which they had felt great loyalty for so long. They have prospered in a way that would not have been possible at the time without socialism and its interpretation of solidarity – however flawed this concept of solidarity was on the edges, partly based on the self-interest of the ruling parties and their elites.

This cohort of people, including those I could not see during this visit to Mozambique in places as far away as Nampula and Pemba, are my personal reason to commemorate 25 years since the fall of the wall – not with some glamorous event but in the midst of a group of people whose lives were determined by the messy political transitions of the 20th century, transitions that can only be fully grasped when looking at the long durée, but who have not forgotten what solidarity can mean in practice.

Background sources:

The exhibition by Arwed Messmer is accompanied by a  book, entitled ‘Reenactment MfS’, published by Hatje Cantz, see:

For the concept of ‘organized forgetting’ in the specific context of Mozambique see: Anne Pitcher, “Forgetting from Above and Memory from Below: Strategies of Legitimation and Struggle in Postsocialist Mozambique”, Africa 76 (2006): 88–112.

For further information on my book, see: and also an earlier blog:

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2 Responses to Democracy, dictatorship, and the messy space in-between – reflections on commemorating 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall

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