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East Berlin

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Image Source: NATO 

What was daily life like for youth in the Soviet Russia sector of the city?

While West Berlin was quickly rebuilt with our help, the rubble left by Allied bombs remained for decades in East Berlin. Children played in ruins and in gutted lots under massive photos of Soviet Premier Khrushchev, blood-red Soviet flags, propaganda posters depicting NATO soldiers carrying armloads of missiles, and billboards turned toward the American sector that proclaimed in all caps: “Marxism means Peace!” “Ami (Americans), go home!”

Shortages of bread, milk, and soup were constant. State-run butcher shops were often empty except for cans of “People’s Own Enterprise” goulash. Black market pop-up stands selling things like sugar instantly sparked long lines as word spread among residents. If East Berlin children managed to escape with their families to West Berlin and the American-led refugee camp in Marienfelde, they were stunned when handed bananas—which they often hadn’t ever seen before, let alone tasted.

Just as Hitler had carefully inculcated and groomed German youth, Soviet Russia also saw children as the “best human material” for building a lasting workers' utopia. In the GDR, strict discipline, standardized possessions and opportunities, and unquestioning faith in the Communist Party’s authority were taught early on, even to the point of toddlers being potty-trained to go all together in state-run daycare.

Pre-teens joined the Pioneers and paraded for communist martyrs and in holiday parades. At age fourteen, East Germans were expected to participate in Jugendweihe, a formal “youth consecration,” pledging their allegiance to the “great and noble cause of socialism” and to defend their nation. They attended after-school courses and camps teaching Marxism and basic soldiering to qualify for their next important membership—the FDJ, Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth, ages 14-25), a requirement to advance to university.

Young East Germans were encouraged and rewarded for spying on one another. If teenagers didn’t shout the state-prescribed greeting of “Freundschaft!” (Friendship!) with enough exuberance, or admitted to being religious, or goofed off during a classmate’s presentation on a Soviet martyr, or didn’t wave a flag high enough during a parade, their “friends” might report them to school authorities, destroying that person’s chances of going to university. Offenders might also be pulled in front of a peer tribunal for questioning and a Selbstkritik (self-criticism). My character Matthias’ poignant recounting of what his supposed friends accused him of—everything from his less-than-neat personal appearance being disrespectful of “workers’ dignity” to Kulturbarbarei (spreading culture corruption) because he tuned his radio to catch American music broadcasts from the other side of town—were culled from memoirs of real-life survivors.

Despite these serious dangers, many East German youth so longed to hear Western music they even managed to make pirated recordings of American jazz bands on old, discarded chest X-rays that they cut into record-like discs.

Knowing they had clandestine listeners in East Berlin and beyond, RAIS (Radio in the American Sector) carefully crafted Voice of America programs to bring them news of the outside world. And while the primary function of the American Forces Network (AFN) was to provide entertainment for American service members and their families, its DJs were well aware that many other people were listening in secret as well.

So, too, were GDR authorities and secret police. In addition to the stiff penalties the GDR slapped on citizens caught listening, it created an official dance to counter the lure of  “degenerative” American songs and dance. Called the Lipsi, the dance was an arms-length, odd mixture of waltz and rhumba movements in 6/4-meter—which, according to GDR authorities, was pure, free from “trash, hot music, or wiggle-hip”  like The Twist or Elvis’ “pelvis gyrations.”

Given such hardships and repression, it was no wonder that brave East Germans attempted to escape. But that risky decision took incredible courage and considerable luck to achieve. 

Take a moment to remember your geography. After WWII, the Allies occupied Germany to restore order and purge it of Nazism. It was divided. The United States, Great Britain, and France took the Western half to establish a new democracy. Soviet Russia retained the country’s Eastern zone. It fenced off the western border of East Germany, adding a wide “protective strip”  that Russian guards carefully patrolled and no one could approach without an official pass.

Now, remember that Berlin was buried 100 miles deep inside Soviet-occupied East Germany. Even though the city’s western sectors were overseen by the Americans, Brits, and French, the Soviets encircled and closed Berlin off as well.

Within Berlin itself (up until August 1961) residents could cross its internal sectors--from communist to democratic and back. As such, it became the only escape hatch to the West still open. If freedom-seeking East Germans could somehow get past the guards and checkpoints ringing the city, they then would have to fake their way across town into Berlin’s American sector, where they could finally seek asylum in the Marienfelde refugee camp and eventually be airlifted to the safety of West Germany.

Trying to escape this way was treason. So, attempting it was not to be taken lightly. Fugitives had to leave behind everything to slip through forests at night and then bluff their way past checkpoints. Any suitcase, any pockets bulging with belongings, might get them pulled aside and questioned. They had to move quickly, fearing not only guard patrols and dogs but neighbors who might report their absence. Most were caught along the way, charged with Republicflucht, and sent to re-education labor camps.

If East Germans did manage to escape, family and friends who remained behind could be imprisoned for three years in punishment for not betraying their loved ones and alerting authorities.

1961’s Miss Universe was actually a GDR refugee representing West Germany. An electrical engineer, she had been well-employed and favored in the GDR’s socialist state and had no plans of leaving—until she was threatened with jail for not turning in her own sister and mother. The GDR condemned her as being seduced and prostituted by the West, a victim of Abwerbung (Americans wooing away talented citizens) and Menschenhandel (Western abduction, capitalist “man trade”). According to East German propaganda, no one in their right mind or of their own free will would want to leave.

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