What was the legal status of an East German once he had reached West Germany?

What was the legal status of an East German once he had reached West Germany?


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Cold War histories usually state something like "any German able to reach West Germany was automatically granted West German citizenship" to explain how easy it was to go from East to West, if only you could get round/across/through the wall.

So it's plain that once you defected, if you succeeded, you could establish yourself easily in West Germany. You were a West German. You could presumably apply immediately for a West German passport and travel, say, to France or Denmark.

As the comments below point out there was no legal distinction between citizens of the East and citizens of the West in West German law, and this was constitutionally guaranteed in the 1949 Basic Law‌​.

But what was your legal status as far as East Germany and her allies were concerned? Could you travel to the Eastern bloc countries immediately on your freshly minted West German passport? If not immediately, then after how long? Did you face immediate arrest or did the DDR, too, suddenly see you as a West German? Did the DDR formally revoke your citizenship and, if so, how quickly?


I think you need to know some background information concerning the division of Germany.

There was one Germany, the Deutsches Reich. The Allies defeated it and divided it into four parts: the British, French and Americans in the West and the Soviets in the East.

It was soon apparent that after the party more and more rifts were opening. What to do with the Germans? While the Allies all said during the war that they would work together, it was soon clear that this would not work. The Soviets wanted reparations and moved heavy industry out of East Germany. Much more important for the West was the instantiation of a one-party system and centrally governed economy like the other Eastern Bloc countries.

The Western Allies on the other hand weren't so keen to have a socialist regime. While revenge plans like Morgenthau (dismantle Germany into an agrarian state) sounded good on the paper, they opened too many questions. Who should pay for the continued occupation of Germany? In a land which doesn't have much natural resources, would you destroy the capability of a country to sustain itself ? And if the Soviet Union sooner or later recovers, you have not only lost a possible ally, but exposed your borders. So the Marshall plan (with Soviet protests) started and West Germany got a new economy and a political system modelled by the West.

So during the Cold War it was apparent that the path was divided. The three Western Allies created FRG, the Soviets shortly the GDR.

And for both people there was only one Germany! In the west you were told the evil Soviets and their supporters are illegally occupying the Eastern part of Germany. The "GDR" was never considered to be its own country, even a long time after its declaration it was only called SBZ (Soviet occupied zone in German) until 1972. So every GDR citizen was considered as a German and eligible for immigration.

In the east you were told the evil fascists have conspired to work with the capitalists to create a puppet state under their control. The western allies broke their promise to work together and only if the rest of Germany would understand the fairness of the socialist system they would rise and join their brothers in the East. If you defected into the East, you were welcomed.

(These were offical standings. The Germans on both sides did not care much about the propaganda, but both knew that East Germany was repressive, to say the least. The eastern version was not entirely without merit: many Nazis escaped, survived denazification unscathed or worked for the Americans. And as a communist you would have been in trouble in the FRG during the early years.)

So on both sides, there was only one Germany, which was unfortunately partially under control of their foes. After more and more Germans defected from the East to the West and the wish for reunification in the East was suppressed by violence during the 17th July, the Iron Curtain was built.

So:

But what was your legal status as far as East Germany and her allies were concerned?

You were a traitor, criminal and guilty of Republikflucht (2-8 years prison under bad conditions). There are known assassination attempts in West Germany, like Wolfgang Welsch and Fritz Eigendorf. Some people who were captured were offered for ransom because the GDR was always interested in western currency.

Could you travel to the Eastern bloc countries immediately on your freshly minted West German passport?

Snort. All eastern bloc countries had a good intelligence and, with exception of e.g. Yugoslavia, were under Soviet and their supporters control. Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia were not so keen to work together with the SU and GDR, but it would have been exceedingly dangerous to travel into the Eastern Bloc. Chances were good that you have been caught immediately and extradited to the GDR.

Did the DDR formally revoke your citizenship and, if so, how quickly?

Lose one of the principal opportunities for punishing you by revoking your citizenship? Fat chance.

"Cold War" is not only a word, it was a reality. The leaders of both countries hated each other's guts. 17th July was a public holiday in the FRG and even in the 80s the teachers should mark the abbreviation "BRD" for BundesRepublik Deutschland (FRG in German) as error. Why? Because the "DDR" (GDR) uses it in print.


According to an article in Der Spiegel a GDR law from 1964 stated

Da ehemalige Bewohner, der DDR weiter als DDR-Bürger gelten, könnten sie -- sofern sie sich in den Machtbereich der SED begeben -- zur Erfüllung ihrer staatsbürgerlichen Pflichten oder (bei Besuchsreisen in die DDR) zur ausdrücklichen Anerkennung ihrer DDR-Staatsbürgerschaft gezwungen werden.

Roughly meaning: "Since former citizens of the GDR retain their citizenship they can be forced, if they travel inside the influence sphere of the SED, to re-affirm their GDR-citizenship." (I'm afraid this is not a very inspired tranlation but it conveys the general meaning of the law).

(edited to add) "Republikflucht" (escape from the GDR) was a crime punishable by up to eight years in prison, so I do not not think anybody would have considered travel back to the GDR (unless he had planned to voluntarily become a citizen again, in which case he'd probably received amnesty).

Funnily enough at that time the first paragraph in the GDR constitution read "Es gibt nur eine deutsche Staatsangehörigkeit", (legally) "there is only one cizitenship for all germans".


The Kaiser’s Family Wants Its Stuff Back. Germany Isn’t Sure They Deserve It.

It has been a full century since the abdication of the last emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, but the would-be heir to his throne is still known as a prince. Technically, the title has effectively become his last name, but for Georg Friedrich Prinz von Preußen, the great-great-grandson of Germany’s last monarch and the current head of the Prussian noble family the House of Hohenzollern, the trappings of royalty still have an attraction.

It has been a full century since the abdication of the last emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, but the would-be heir to his throne is still known as a prince. Technically, the title has effectively become his last name, but for Georg Friedrich Prinz von Preußen, the great-great-grandson of Germany’s last monarch and the current head of the Prussian noble family the House of Hohenzollern, the trappings of royalty still have an attraction.

Georg Friedrich is in the midst of a suddenly high-profile fight with the German government over property once owned by the former royal family. Some of it was ceded to Germany after the dissolution of the monarchy, and some was taken over the course of the country’s tumultuous 20th-century path from democracy to the Third Reich to division to reunification. Now, the family wants its stuff back. On the negotiating table are thousands of artworks and antiquities, $1.3 million in compensation, and the right of Georg Friedrich to reside in a former family castle.

All this has come to light after the recent leak of proceedings from negotiations between the prince’s family and the states of Berlin and Brandenburg and the federal government—negotiations that were started by Georg Friedrich’s grandfather in the 1990s after the reunification of Germany. Many of the items the family is claiming ownership over have been in public hands for decades. Most have been administered by public agencies and are on display in public museums. Some, including the residence the prince is hoping to occupy, are themselves museums.

As the head of the Hohenzollerns, Georg Friedrich represents the complex legacy of a family whose members ruled Germany as kings and emperors for hundreds of years.

The negotiations over these pieces of history have opened questions over the relevance of a long-gone royalty, the country’s capacity to atone for the wrongs of the past, and, most uncomfortably, who can be held responsible for the rise of the Nazis.

They’ve also put an unwanted spotlight on Georg Friedrich, a private citizen and businessman. Though he recently launched a beer brand on the family name, Preußens Pilsener (with the tagline “Majestic Pleasure”), he serves no public role. Yet, as the head of the Hohenzollerns, he represents the complex legacy of a family whose members ruled Germany as kings and emperors for hundreds of years—a monarchy that led Germany into World War I and sparked the revolutions that birthed the republic 100 years ago.

“The last thing I need to define myself is a castle,” Georg Friedrich famously told a German political magazine when he was 28. Now 43, married, and with four young children, his priorities appear to have shifted.

A painting by Anton von Werner depicts the opening of the German Reichstag by Kaiser Wilhelm II on June 25, 1888. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Hohenzollern family claims came to light this summer when details of the negotiations were revealed by Der Spiegel, just weeks after courts denied Georg Friedrich ownership of another castle from the family’s distant past. Other news sources published a leaked excerpt of the potential compensation being negotiated, including details on the permanent right to residency in one of three palaces built during the time of the German Empire.

Many in Germany were outraged. “This country does not owe a single coffee cup to the next-born of a luckily long-vanquished undemocratic regime, let alone art treasures or real estate,” Stefan Kuzmany, a columnist for Der Spiegel, wrote after the revelations. “Even the request is an insult to the Republic.”

But requests like these have been relatively common in the 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, as families have sought compensation for land, property, and much more taken from their ancestors. Deciding the merits of these compensation requests has been part of the ongoing catharsis in a modern-day Germany that’s coming to terms with the legacies of a very complicated 20th century.

Compensation would not be allowed in cases where the ancestors in question had been complicit in the darkest phase of German history by providing “substantial support” to the Nazis—a level of support the law does not define.

For the Hohenzollern family, this concerns the spoils of many generations at the apex of German nobility—palaces and artwork and antiquities surrendered by the family after the fall of the kaiser in 1918 and even more taken by the Soviets after the end of World War II and the establishment of the communist East German state in 1949.

A law passed after the reunification of Germany in the 1990s secured the legal right for people to claim compensation for property taken from their ancestors. The one catch is that compensation would not be allowed in cases where the ancestors in question had been complicit in the darkest phase of German history by providing “substantial support” to the Nazis—a level of support the law does not define. Photographs of Crown Prince Wilhelm, the son of the former kaiser, with Adolf Hitler in the 1930s and the membership in the Nazi party of another prince have become sticking points in the compensation request of Georg Friedrich. Lawyers and historians hired by the Hohenzollern family and the German government are now trying to determine whether what was taken from the former royal family should be given back.

“What, according to this law, has to be figured out is if the last crown prince had been substantially supporting the Nazi regime or not,” said Stephan Malinowski, a historian at the University of Edinburgh who has been reviewing the records. “And this is a very tricky question to figure out.”

Cecilienhof Palace on Aug. 30, 2018. Christoph Soeder/picture alliance via Getty Images
The negotiation room at Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, Germany, on June 25, 2015. After winning World War II, the Allied Forces convened here to discuss the postwar order of Germany and Europe. Ralf Hirschberger/picture alliance via Getty Images

An hour train ride west of Berlin is the city of Potsdam, home to a complex of palaces and gardens built over the past several centuries as summer residences for the kings of Prussia and Germany and now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. On the edge of a lake a short distance from the city’s highlight, Sanssouci Palace, sits Cecilienhof Palace, a 176-room grand residence modeled after an English country manor and completed in 1917—the last such palace built by the German Empire. Now a museum, Cecilienhof Palace is also one of the three options on the negotiating table that, if the Hohenzollern family gets its way, could serve as its permanent residence.

It would be, for the family, a long-awaited return. After the 1918 revolution that brought down the kaiser, the building was one of many royal properties seized from the family. After years of negotiation, a 1926 agreement with the young democratic Weimar Republic in Germany split the assets of the former royal family, handing much of it over to the state, including Cecilienhof. As part of the deal, the former crown prince was granted the right to reside in the palace, an agreement that was set to last for three generations.

After the 1918 revolution that brought down the kaiser, the building was one of many royal properties seized from the family.

The palace quickly became the site of important events in world history. Crown Prince Wilhelm, allowed to live in Germany under the condition that he play no part in politics, hosted Hitler at Cecilienhof and in Potsdam at least three times between 1926 and 1935, according to historical documents. The most significant of these meetings was the so-called Day of Potsdam in March 1933, when newly elected Chancellor Hitler and President Paul von Hindenburg forged an alliance that led to the full Nazi takeover of power. After the German surrender in World War II, the palace continued its significance, hosting the Potsdam Conference of U.S. President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, in which the allies divided up the country for postwar occupation and the eventual division into East and West Germany—meetings many call the start of the Cold War.

“The largest part of the former estate was located within the former Soviet zone of occupation and was hence expropriated,” said Markus Hennig, a lawyer for the family. That included Cecilienhof Palace.

After reunification, as soon as the law allowing compensation for the loss of assets through expropriation or occupation was signed in 1994, the Hohenzollern family launched its appeal. More than 25 years later, the details are still being worked out.

Georg Friedrich Prinz von Preußen at Hohenzollern Castle on Aug. 16, 2017. Patrick Seeger/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

“There’s a split, I guess, in the German population,” Malinowski said. “You have, of course, on the right side of the spectrum and among the conservatives, they would say, ‘Well, they’re just claiming back what was always theirs, and there’s nothing wrong about it,’ whereas you have, I would say, a majority of people feeling something very strange is happening here.”

The artworks and antiquities being negotiated have been in public hands for 70 years, and Malinowski says it was a surprise to many people in Germany that it all could potentially become someone’s private property. (Hennig contends the Hohenzollerns have no intentions of removing items from museums.) “I think even for the majority of German citizens it comes as a surprise that there is such a thing as a former royal family,” Malinowski said. He is among a group of historians, including Karina Urbach, who see a clear connection between the former royal family and the rise of the Nazis. He is also among a group of historians, newspapers, and politicians facing legal pressure from the Hohenzollerns over statements made about the negotiations.

Unlike other members of the once dominant noble class, Germany’s former royal family members are not the target of much public attention. When Georg Friedrich and his family relocated to Potsdam in 2018, Gala, a German magazine covering the royals of Europe, briefly turned from its primary focus on British dukes and duchesses to publish a short article on the move, tucking it in a section titled “Other royal and princely houses.”

The legal privileges of noble families were abolished with the founding of the Weimar Republic in 1919, but most were able to keep at least some of their estates, including castles, forests and large stretches of agricultural land.

Though long out of power, the German aristocracy still exists. The legal privileges of noble families were abolished with the founding of the Weimar Republic in 1919, but most were able to keep at least some of their estates, including castles, forests and large stretches of agricultural land. Some have managed to turn these inheritances into thriving businesses. Hereditary aristocratic titles are also still passed down, mostly in the form of the particle “von” in surnames, which is not uncommon in German society. President of the European Commission of the EU Ursula von der Leyen, for example, got the title when she married into a family of former German nobles. There are likely thousands carrying such aristocratic lineage in Germany, but only those from a few families have the residual wealth to go along with the title, including the House of Bavaria, the House of Fugger, the House of Hanover, the House of Hesse, and most of all, the House of Hohenzollern. But wealth doesn’t necessarily draw the public’s interest. When Georg Friedrich’s 2011 wedding was broadcast on national television, the press noted a lack of enthusiasm amongst the German public. “Indifference reigns,” one noted.

Hennig argues that the German media are only now paying such close attention to the family’s negotiations because the leaked documents gave the false impression that secret deals were being made. “He’s a very discrete person. He’s not selling his private life,” Hennig said of Georg Friedrich.

The negotiations have been known to the public since 2014, he says, and what’s been covered in the press in recent months distorts the family’s claims. Like any legal proceeding, he argues, it’s entirely appropriate for negotiations to happen behind closed doors. “The royal family is not asking for more rights than a civil person but not for fewer rights either,” Hennig said.

The Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media, which is engaged in these negotiations along with the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, declined an interview request.

Malinowski says that whether the Hohenzollerns want the spotlight or not, the family’s stature and role in the country’s history makes its compensation request notably different from other cases—and therefore worthy of more scrutiny.

“Whatever a crown prince does in the 1920s has a symbolic importance because a lot of people, millions of people and known conservatives, are going to observe him. And if he sends a message to the right wing and the bourgeoisie and the nobility in the country by saying, ‘I’m wearing a swastika, and I’m supporting Hitler,’ then this has an impact. But proving this is close to impossible for historians,” Malinowski said.

“If the question was just to figure out if this man had sympathies with the Nazis, then my answer would be 100 percent clear: Yes, he had, and, yes, he collaborated with Hitler and the Nazis at the beginning of the Third Reich. I don’t think that many historians will argue against this,” he said.

For some, the connections between the Hohenzollern family and the Nazis are too apparent to ignore. The Brandenburg state chapter of Die Linke, Germany’s leftist political party, has taken a stand in opposition to the Hohenzollerns’ compensation request. In August, the party launched an initiative to gather enough signatures to bring the subject of the family’s negotiations before the state parliament so elected officials could openly debate the requested compensation. The initiative’s call for signatures argues that “[t]he great wealth of the Hohenzollern, accumulated over centuries, has been earned by the people. The former real estate and property of the Hohenzollern was (apart from personal belongings) actually state property, which was financed from taxes.”

Anja Mayer is the chair of Die Linke Brandenburg, and she calls the family’s claims “totally outrageous,” noting that lawyers for the family have issued a cease-and-desist order against the party over statements it made about the nature of the negotiations. She says the party launched the initiative simply to bring the public to the negotiating table. “It’s very important that this goes to the state parliament to make it public, to have the people and the government involved,” she said through an interpreter. Mayer contends that the state does not owe the family anything. “Obviously the Hohenzollerns collaborated with the Nazis, and someone who did that does not have any right for compensation afterward,” she said.

Adolf Hitler salutes with his followers at the Sports Palace in Berlin in September 1932. To his left is Prince August Wilhelm, a son of the former kaiser. Keystone/Getty Images

“From my point of view, the discussion to what extent the former crown prince might have supported National Socialism is misleading. All his actions were entirely led by the idea of reinstalling monarchy in favor of the House of Hohenzollern,” said Hennig, the Hohenzollern lawyer. “Obviously, he had to take utmost care with all his actions and with everything he said, particularly to protect his family. Nevertheless, the Nazis always found him suspicious. Hitler’s secretary wrote in her diary that the first thing the Führer said after the failed assassination [of him in 1944] was, ‘The crown prince is behind all that.’”

Hennig contends that the children of the former kaiser were no fans of Germany’s new experiment in democracy in the 1920s, and the only interest the crown prince would have had in someone like Hitler was as a disruptor who could open the family’s path back into power.

And even if the crown prince had tried to help Hitler come to power, some say his help wouldn’t have amounted to much. The historian Christopher Clark of Cambridge University was commissioned by the Hohenzollerns to write an expert report in 2011 about the years leading up to the Third Reich. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Clark explained how his research revealed that Crown Prince Wilhelm was almost useless to Hitler, calling him a “twit.” “The crown prince suffered from overconfidence bordering on the delusional. If one were to list Hitler’s most important supporters, he would not be among the first 300,” Clark said. “He is barely mentioned, by the way, in the literature on the Nazi seizure of power.”

The family’s connections with Hitler and the Nazis are well-known and even acknowledged publicly by Georg Friedrich. In fact, Hennig says, it was the government that called for negotiations with the Hohenzollerns to continue. Both sides have had full access to historical reports from both Clark and Malinowski, offering diverging but relevant views of the family and its connections, he says. “The initiative to intensify our communication and to initiate a round table [discussion] came from the public sector. From the beginning, it has been made clear by the government officials that those talks should be held discretely, but we also guaranteed each other full transparency about our level of knowledge and all sources involved,” Hennig said.

The renewed controversy over the negotiations spurred by the leak in July, he suggests, was likely motivated by politics. State elections were held in September in Brandenburg, one of several states formerly part of East Germany where far-right groups are gaining popularity. The state’s finance minister, Christian Görke, a member of Die Linke, had been calling loudly for the end of “secret negotiations” with the Hohenzollern family. Die Linke was hit hard in the election, losing seven of its 17 seats in the state parliament and being ousted from the ruling political coalition. Görke will also lose his position as finance minister. Mayer worries that the incoming coalition leans further to the right and may be more willing to strike an overly generous deal with the Hohenzollern family.

What, if anything, the government owes to the former royal family is still to be decided. The initiative in Brandenburg seems unlikely to pull the negotiations into parliamentary debate given the political sea change there, and both the family and the government entities involved in the negotiations have expressed their interest in avoiding formal court proceedings. But the desire to come to a mutual agreement behind closed doors strikes some as a missed opportunity to openly reckon with these complex and sometimes contradictory elements of German history—a history that’s still very much a matter of debate.

“Of course the family has an interest in order to portray the family history in a pleasant light. Unfortunately there are not so many pleasant things to discover the more you look at it,” Malinowski said. “I’m quite confident that the picture in the Weimar Republic and in the Third Reich of this family becomes darker and darker the more you look at it. Which might be said about very many German families.”

Hennig says the negotiations will continue. “Our common interest is a wide-ranging and amicable settlement,” he said.

Nate Berg is a journalist focusing on urban design and architecture.


Why the Berlin Wall rose—and how it fell

The ugly symbol of the Cold War was built to keep East Germans from escaping to the West. A decades-long fight to flee brought it down.

For nearly 30 years, Berlin was divided not just by ideology, but by a concrete barrier that snaked through the city, serving as an ugly symbol of the Cold War. Erected in haste and torn down in protest, the Berlin Wall was almost 27 miles long and was protected with barbed wire, attack dogs, and 55,000 landmines. But though the wall stood between 1961 and 1989, it could not survive a massive democratic movement that ended up bringing down the the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) and spurring on the Cold War’s end.

The wall had its origins in the end of World War II, when Germany was carved into four pieces and occupied by Allied powers. Although Berlin was located about 90 miles east from the border between the GDR and West Germany and completely surrounded by the Soviet sector, the city was also originally divided into four quarters, but by 1947 was consolidated into east and west zones.

In 1949, the two new Germanies were officially founded. Socialist East Germany was wracked by poverty and convulsed by labor strikes in response to its new political and economic systems. The brain drain and worker shortage that resulted prompted the GDR to close its border with West Germany in 1952, making it much harder for people to cross from “Communist” to “free” Europe. (Revisit National Geographic's reporting from West Berlin before the wall fell.)

East Germans began fleeing through the more permeable border between East and West Berlin instead. At one point, 1,700 people a day sought refugee status by crossing from East to West Berlin, and about 3 million GDR citizens went to West Germany through the via West Berlin between 1949 and 1961.

In the wee hours of August 13, 1961, as Berliners slept, the GDR began building fences and barriers to seal off entry points from East Berlin into the western part of the city. The overnight move stunned Germans on both sides of the new border. As GDR soldiers patrolled the demarcation line and laborers began constructing a concrete wall, diplomatic officials and the militaries of both sides engaged in a series of tense standoffs.


Volkswagen’s Dark Past

WHEN I WENT TO GERMANY in the early 1970s, the roads swarmed with Volkswagen Beetles—squat, misshapen little beasts bustling about city streets or rattling along the autobahns with their noisy, air-cooled engines, curved roofs tapering to a point at the back, and, in older models, oval back windows so tiny I wondered how a driver could see anything in his rearview mirror. Their exterior ugliness, however, was nothing in comparison to the horror of riding inside one: sitting in the back seat, as I often had to when being driven around, I was oppressed by the claustrophobia imposed by the low roof, while the loud rattling and whirring of the engine behind me quickly gave me a headache, made worse in winter by the heating system’s repulsive smell. Turning corners at speed—such speed as the vehicle could muster—was a nightmare, as the car rocked and rolled and churned my stomach.

Yet the Beetle was the most successful car of its time. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when one car in three on West German roads was a Beetle, sales exceeded one million each year. In 1972, total sales of the Beetle—a truly global vehicle—passed those of the century’s most popular passenger car, Henry Ford’s Model T. It was an amazing accomplishment for a vehicle whose origins were hardly auspicious.

Though after World War II most people chose to ignore the fact, the Beetle began life in the 1930s as a pet project of Adolf Hitler. Once in power, Hitler was determined to bring Germany up to what he thought of as the modernity common in the United States and other advanced economies. Few people in Germany owned radios, so Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, introduced the Volksempfänger (People’s Receiver), a cheap and cheerful little wireless—short-wave so listeners couldn’t tune into foreign broadcasts. Fridges were even rarer, so the Nazi government introduced the Volkskühlschrank (People’s Refrigerator). Soon many other products had similar names and similar intentions. (See “Products for the People,” May/June 2015.)

THE PEOPLE’S CAR —the Volkswagen—belonged to this milieu. Although it was widely referred to by that name, its official title was the “Strength through Joy Car” (the Kraft durch Freude-Wagen, or KdF-Wagen), signifying its association with the German Labor Front leisure program that went by the same name and whose purpose was to reward German workers with affordable diversions.

From the outset, Hitler was determined to modernize Germany’s roads. In the early 1930s, Germany was one of Western Europe’s least motorized societies. Even the British had six times more cars relative to population. This was partly because German public transport was second to none—smoothly efficient, quick, omnipresent, all-encompassing. Germans mostly felt no need for cars. And had they wanted cars, they couldn’t have afforded them. The economic disasters of the Weimar Republic had depressed demand. So empty were German roads that Berlin, a lively metropolis, did not find it necessary to install traffic lights until 1925.

Three-quarters of German workers were laborers, artisans, farmers, and peasants, unable to purchase expensive products by Daimler-Benz or the country’s 27 other car makers, whose inefficient production methods and small outputs led to models that only members of the country’s intermittently affluent bourgeoisie could buy.


Early advertisements depicted the “Strength through Joy Car” as an ideal companion to glamorous Aryan couples enjoying their leisure time. Bundesarchiv Plak 003-018-028, Atelier Brach

To reach American levels of car ownership, Hitler told the automobile show in Berlin in 1934, Germany had to increase the number of cars on its roads from half a million to 12 million. To the further dismay of German nationalists, the two most successful mass vehicle manufacturers in the country were based in the United States: Ford, which opened a factory in Cologne in 1931, and General Motors, which operated the Opel car factory at Rüsselsheim. By the early 1930s, Opel cars were dominating the passenger vehicle market in Germany, with 40 percent of annual sales.

Hitler pursued motorization on several levels. Building the famous Autobahnen was one. Another was the promotion of motor racing. Hefty government subsidies brought German speedsters by Daimler-Benz and Auto Union victory in 19 of 23 Grand Prix races held from 1934 to 1937.

Ideology played an important role. In the interests of national unity, the government replaced local regulations with a Reich-wide Highway Code. Far from straitjacketing drivers, the 1934 Code placed its trust in the Aryan’s consciously willed subordination to the racial community’s interests. On the road, owners of expensive cars had to put “discipline” and “chivalry” first and set aside outmoded class antagonisms. Jews, of course, couldn’t be trusted to do this, so from 1938 on they were banned from owning or driving cars.

The automobile, Hitler declared, responded to the individual will, unlike the railway, which had brought “individual liberty in transport to an end.” So the Highway Code abolished speed limits—with catastrophic results. In the first six years of the Third Reich, accident rates on German roads climbed to become Europe’s highest. By May 1939 the regime had to admit defeat and set speed limits on all roads except the autobahns, still Europe’s most terrifying roads.

Cars, Hitler proclaimed, had to lose their “class-based, and, as a sad consequence, class-dividing character.” They had to be available to everyone. What was needed was a home-built vehicle that bridged the social divide. Hitler commissioned Austrian engineer Ferdinand Porsche to design an affordable car for ordinary people. (In a typically Nazi addendum, officials stipulated that the hood be stout enough to accommodate a machine gun if necessary.)

Ambitious and politically skilled, Porsche secured Hitler’s backing for a huge factory that emphasized streamlined production techniques. The Labor Front put its vast financial reserves at Porsche’s disposal and sent the designer on a tour of automotive factories in the United States, where he hired engineers of German extraction to take back with him to work on the new car. Hitler opened the Volkswagen factory near the village of Fallersleben, in what is now Lower Saxony, in 1938. In time an entire new town, Strength through Joy City, was to be built to house and serve auto workers.

In his comprehensive history of the Beetle, The People’s Car, Bernhard Rieger describes the elaborate groundbreaking ceremony held at the site. “Fifty thousand spectators, most of whom had been transported to the deep countryside by special trains, set the stage for the hour-long ceremony broadcast live on national radio,” Rieger writes. “In the cordoned-off area reserved for Hitler and his entourage, three models of the ‘people’s car’—a standard limousine, a limousine with a retractable canvas roof, and a convertible—gleamed in the sunshine, strategically arranged in front of a wooden grandstand that was draped with fresh forest greens from which the party grandees delivered their speeches.”

The Labor Front campaigned to get Germans to join a Volkswagen savings scheme. People stuck red stamps worth five Reichsmarks each in official savings books until they reached the 990 Reichsmarks required to buy a Beetle. Over a quarter of a million people enrolled in less than 18 months.

Impressive though this total seemed, it fell far short of what the regime envisioned. With this level of enrollment, the scheme would never even remotely have covered the costs of production. Most of the savers were middle-class, and a third had a car already the masses simply couldn’t afford the level of savings required. Moreover, as Rieger points out, the mass reluctance to part with savings reflected anxiety about the Nazis’ increasingly bellicose foreign policy.

ORDINARY GERMANS WERE RIGHT to be skeptical about the savings scheme. No individual who signed up ever got a Volkswagen—at least not from funds invested during the Nazi era. The money went into arms production. So, too, did the factory. Only 630 Beetles were made before the war, most snapped up by regime officials.

In 1939, as the Reich was whisking Volkswagen workers off to labor on Germany’s western fortifications, the Nazis were able to keep production going only by obtaining 6,000 laborers from Italy. They lived in wooden barracks by September 1939 only 10 percent of the planned accommodations in Strength through Joy City had been completed. The Italians worked to build a military version of the Beetle. The jeep-like Kübelwagen, or “bucket wagon,” saw service wherever German forces operated. The Schwimmwagen was an amphibious variant.

After Germany’s defeat, the factory and company town fell within the British Zone of Occupation. Ivan Hirst, a major in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Corps, arrived to inspect the plant. He found that 70 percent of its buildings and 90 percent of its machinery were intact. The British Zone had 22 million inhabitants owning a mere 61,000 motorcars, nearly two-thirds of them described as “worn out.” Railway track and rolling stock were in ruins. Needing rapid improvements in transport, the British military government ordered Hirst to restart Beetle production.

Applying ideas and methods derived from British colonial experience in Africa, Hirst set to work, using existing factory staff. When denazification booted more than 200 senior managers and technical experts, Hirst found substitutes or had verdicts overturned, in a triumph of necessity over legality and morality typical of occupied Germany in the late 1940s. He also managed to recruit 6,000 workers by the end of 1946.

But the resurrection had been too hasty. Mechanical and other problems dogged the cars. British auto engineers said the noisy, smelly, underpowered Beetle had no commercial potential. No one wanted to relocate the factory to Britain. So the Germans got the Volkswagen back.

HEINRICH NORDHOFF, A GERMAN engineer for Opel who enjoyed close contacts with that company’s owners in America, General Motors, turned things around. Although not a Nazi, Nordhoff had contributed to the war economy by running the Opel truck factory, Europe’s largest. His extensive use of forced labor denied him employment in the American sector, but the British did not mind. Nordhoff threw himself into the job with manic intensity, working 17 hours a day to streamline production, eliminate technical deficiencies, recruit dealers, and establish effective management. The car came in bright colors, or, as Nordhoff put it, a “paint job absolutely characteristic of peacetime.” Production figures began to climb, and sales started to improve.

But it was not so easy to shake off the automobile’s Nazi past. Strength through Joy City was renamed Wolfsburg, after a nearby castle—though some may have recalled that “Wolf” was Hitler’s nickname among cronies, so the name could be read as “Hitler’s Fortress.”

Wolfsburg was crowded with refugees and expellees from the east—some of the 11 million ethnic Germans ejected from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other Eastern European countries at the war’s end. Burning with resentment, they proved easy marks for ultra-nationalist agitators. By 1948, the neo-Nazi German Justice Party was garnering nearly two-thirds of the local vote, while vandals repeatedly daubed factory walls with swastikas and many ballot papers were marked with the words “We want Adolf Hitler.” As a new town, Wolfsburg lacked experienced politicians to counter extremist nostalgia. Only gradually were mainstream parties able to push the neo-Nazis back into the shadows.

Heinrich Nordhoff aided in this, insisting that Germans’ travails in the late 1940s were the result of “a war that we started and that we lost.” His frankness had limits: he did not mention the mass murder of Jews or other Nazi crimes. He even echoed Nazi language in urging workers to focus on “achievement”—Leistung—just as Hitler in 1942 had urged “a battle of achievement for German enterprises” in war production.


Nazi big shots Hermann Göring (above) and Robert Ley (at right, below) admire early VWs. ©Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy

Whatever the rhetoric, the workers certainly did “achieve.” While the badly damaged Opel and Ford factories were struggling to get production under way, the Volkswagen plant was already turning out Beetles in large numbers. Efficiency rose steadily during the 1950s as Nordhoff introduced full automation on lines pioneered in Detroit.

In August 1955 the millionth Beetle rolled off the line, painted gold, bumper encrusted with rhinestones, before 100,000 onlookers. Twelve marching bands played Strauss tunes, belles from the Moulin Rouge danced the cancan, a black South African choir sang spirituals, and 32 female Scottish dancers performed the Highland Fling to the sound of pipers. Reporters enjoyed lavish entertainment, while the event, and the accomplishments of the Volkswagen factory, were brought to the public in a 75-minute movie.

The Beetle achieved iconic status in West Germany as a typical product of the 1950s Wirtschaftswunder, or “economic miracle”—not flashy or glamorous, but solid, functional, dependable, inexpensive to acquire and run, and easy to maintain: everything the Third Reich had not been. As West Germany became a “leveled-out middle-class society,” the Beetle became the leveled-out middle-class car of choice.

Lacking obvious national symbols, Germany west of the fortified border that divided it from the Communist east fixed on the Beetle as an icon. Car ownership suited West German society’s retreat into private and family life in reaction to the Nazi era’s overheated, over-politicized public sphere. The liberty to drive anywhere, whenever you chose, was celebrated as a pillar of Western freedom during the Cold War.

The Beetle’s Nazi associations faded in a historical car wash that ascribed its origins to Ferdinand Porsche’s genius. Veterans fondly remembered driving its cousin, the Kübelwagen. Younger individuals liked the little car’s utilitarian sobriety. The Beetle represented for Germans the “new landscape of desire” of the sober, conservative 1950s.

At the same time, the Beetle was making giant inroads as an export, with an especially fruitful market in the United States. Sales of the Beetle—also called the “Bug”—took off in the U.S. in the mid-1950s. By 1968, Volkswagen was shipping more than half a million Beetles a year across the Atlantic, accounting for 40 percent of production. At least five million Americans bought Beetles. By the 1970s the car had even become a countercultural fixture, with aerospace-engineer-turned-mechanic John Muir’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive selling more than two million copies.

Foreign sales sustained the company as Germany’s Beetle era ended. The 1973 to 1974 oil crisis, changing fashions, tough new safety regulations, and failure to maintain the pace of automation caused domestic sales to slump. With the end of the “economic miracle” came the end of the Beetle. West Germans began to demand vehicles that were faster, roomier, more comfortable, more elegant. In 1978 the factory at Wolfsburg stopped manufacturing Beetles.

In 1997, Volkswagen introduced a “New Beetle,” appealing to the American fashion for retro-chic but making clear that this vehicle fully met 21st-century motorists’ demands (“Less Flower. More Power,” one ad put it). Its curving silhouette deliberately invokes the original.

Yet owners of old Beetles know it’s not the same. They rally with their vintage vehicles at locations worldwide to admire antique models and imaginative custom jobs. One meeting has occurred annually since the 1980s in Nuremberg at the scene of the 1930s Nazi Party rallies, in front of the rostrum where Hitler ranted. Nobody seems to notice. The Beetle has long since become globalized, detached for most people from its Nazi origins.

In 1998, New York Times columnist Gerald Posner mentioned to his mother-in-law, whom he described as a “conservative Jew,” that he had bought a New Beetle.

“Congratulations darling,” she replied. “Maybe the war is finally over.”

Adapted from The Third Reich in History and Memory by Richard J. Evans with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © Richard J. Evans 2015. Feature photo: © Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy. Originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of World War II magazine.


Women In German Society

For centuries, a woman’s role in German society was summed up and circumscribed by the three “K” words: Kinder (children), Kirche (church), and Küche (kitchen). Sometimes the fourth “K” is mentioned: Kleider (clothes). Throughout the 20th century, however, women have gradually won victories in their quest for equal rights. In 1919 they received the right to vote. Profound changes also were made by World War II. During the war, women assumed positions traditionally held by men. After the war, the so-called Trümmerfrauen (women of the rubble) tended the wounded, buried the dead, salvaged belongings, and began the hard task of rebuilding war-torn Germany by simply clearing away the rubble.

In West Germany, the Basic Law of 1949 declared that men and women were equal, but it was not until 1957 that the civil code was amended to conform with this statement. Even in the early 1950s, women could be dismissed from the civil service when they married. After World War II, despite the severe shortage of young men that made marriage impossible for many women, traditional marriage once again became society’s ideal. Employment and social welfare programs remained predicated on the male breadwinner model. West Germany turned to millions of migrants or immigrants–including large numbers of GDR refugees–to satisfy its booming economy’s labor requirements. Women became homemakers and mothers again and largely withdrew from employment outside the home.

In the east, however, women remained in the workforce. The Soviet-style system mandated women’s participation in the economy, and the government implemented this key objective by opening up educational and vocational opportunities to women. As early as 1950, marriage and family laws also had been rewritten to accommodate working mothers. Abortion was legalized and funded by the state in the first trimester of pregnancy. An extensive system of social supports, such as a highly developed day-care network for children, was also put in place to permit women to be both mothers and workers. Emancipated “from above” for economic and ideological reasons, women in the east entered institutes of higher learning and the labor force in record numbers while still maintaining the household. East Germany had to rely on women because of its declining population the situation was made more critical by the fact that most of those fleeing to West Germany were men. Because of these developments, about 90 percent of East German women worked outside the home. They made up about half the membership in the two most important mass organizations of the former GDR–the Free German Trade Union Federation (Freier Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund–FDGB) and the Free German Youth (Freie Deutsche Jugend–FDJ). In 1988 slightly more than one-third of the membership of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands–SED) consisted of women. In contrast, only about 4.4 percent of West German women were members of a political party.

After several decades of conforming to traditional social patterns, West German women began to demand changes. Following patterns in Europe and the United States, emancipation in the Federal Republic originated “from below,” with women themselves. In the 1970s, the women’s movement gathered momentum, having emerged as an outgrowth of student protests in the late 1960s (see Citizens’ Initiative Associations, ch. 7). Rallying around the causes of equal rights (including the right to abortion, which was somewhat restricted in West Germany), the movement succeeded in having legislation passed in 1977 that granted a woman equal rights in marriage. A woman could work outside the home and file for divorce without her husband’s permission. Divorce was permitted when the marriage partners could no longer be reconciled.

Women also made gains in education in both Germanys. By the mid-1960s, East German women accounted for about half of all secondary school graduates who had prepared to study at institutes of higher learning in the GDR by the 1975-76 academic year, they were in the majority (53 percent). To assist women in completing their studies, an extensive support system, including supplementary payments and child care, was provided. Expanded educational opportunities for West German women were slower in coming and never equaled the levels reached in the east. Only in the early 1980s did West German women qualify for admission to universities in the same numbers as men. Although fewer than that number pursued college and university studies, between 1970 and 1989 the percentage of female students increased from 31 percent to 41 percent. Two factors were believed to be responsible for the discrepancy between eastern and western rates of attendance at institutes of higher learning: West German women had a stronger orientation toward traditional familial relations and they had dimmer prospects for admission to particular academic departments and for professional employment after graduation. Despite significant gains, discrimination remains in united Germany. Income inequalities persist: a woman’s wages and salaries range between 65 percent and 78 percent of a man’s for many positions. In most fields, women do not hold key positions. Generally, the higher the position, the more powerful is male dominance. For example, women are heavily represented in the traditional care-giving fields of health and education, but even in such fields there is a wide disparity between the number of females working in hospitals (75 percent of total staff) and schools (more than 50 percent) and the number of female physicians (4 percent) and principals (20 percent in the west and 32 percent in the east). In the late 1980s, only 5 percent of university professors in West Germany were women.

Although substantial barriers to equality of the sexes in Germany remain as a result of a persistently patriarchal family structure and work environment, women have managed to gain isolated high-profile victories. A separate national office for women’s affairs was created in West Germany in 1980, and similar agencies have been established in most Länder in united Germany. Since the mid-1980s, offices responsible for working toward women’s equality have been active, first in West Germany and after unification in the new Länder . The Equality Offices (Gleichstellungstellen ) have as one of their tasks ensuring that women occupy a more equitable share of positions in the public sector.

Some women have succeeded in reaching positions of power. One of the most successful women in politics in the 1990s is Rita Süssmuth, president of the Bundestag. In the field of industry, Birgit Breuel assumed the leadership, following the assassination of Detlev Rohwedder in April 1991, of the Treuhandanstalt (Trust Agency), the powerful agency charged with privatizing the former East German economy. Other influential and prominent German women in the mid-1990s are Marion von Dönhoff, coeditor of Die Zeit, and Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann, director of the Allensbach Public Opinion Institute. Yet despite this progress, a 1991 article in an influential weekly magazine made it clear how far women must go to achieve equality. The magazine’s list of the 100 most powerful people in Germany included only four women.

Almost all segments of eastern German society encountered tremendous difficulty in the unification process, but women suffered the most. Some reports indicated that two-thirds of working women in the new Länder were unemployed, and many more were turned into part-time workers as a result of privatization, downsizing of firms, and elimination of support services such as day-care and after-school centers. To improve their prospects for employment, some women in eastern Germany reportedly were resorting to sterilization, one of the factors contributing to the steep decline in births from twelve per 1,000 in 1989 to 5.3 per 1,000 in 1993.

While women in East Germany were encouraged to participate in the workforce, this was not the case in West Germany, where a woman’s primary role was understood to be at home, taking care of her family. In recent years, more women are working for pay. Although most women are employed, many work part-time in the European Union, only the Netherlands and Austria have more women working part-time. One problem that women have to face is that mothers who have young children and want to pursue a career may face social criticism. In 2014, the governing coalition agreed to impose a 30% female quota for Supervisory board positions from 2016 onwards.

Among the issues that demonstrated differences between women of the old and new Länder, one of the most contentious was abortion. In 1991 there were about 125,000 registered abortions performed in Germany, about 50,000 of which were in the east. Although the number of registered abortions in both parts of Germany had been declining in recent years, the actual number of abortions was estimated at about 250,000. For a time following unification, the restrictive western and permissive eastern legislation on abortion continued in force. In June 1992, however, the Bundestag voted to ease abortion restrictions and to permit the procedure during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy with compulsory counseling. Resorting to what had been a successful policy in the early 1970s, those opposed to the new law, including Chancellor Helmut Kohl, appealed to the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe to nullify the new law. Just before it was scheduled to take effect, the law was blocked when the court issued an injunction. Subsequently, a new restrictive law came to apply in all of Germany.

In recent years, in Germany, as in other Western countries, there has been a rapid increase in unmarried cohabitation and births outside of marriage. As of 2014, 35% of births in Germany were to unmarried women. There are, however, marked differences between the regions of the former West Germany and East Germany: significantly more children are born out of wedlock in eastern Germany than in western Germany: in 2012, in eastern Germany 61.6% of births were to unmarried women, but in western Germany only 28.4%.


The Berlin crisis

The Berlin Crisis refers to a political and military standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1961, following a Moscow ultimatum that US and Allied troops withdraw from the German city of Berlin. The Americans, led by recently elected president John F. Kennedy, refused. The crisis ended with the erection of the Berlin Wall, which divided the city until the end of the Cold War.

Background

By the 1950s the German capital had become a divided microcosm of the Cold War. East Berlin was controlled by the communist government of East Germany while the western half of the city was occupied and supplied by the United States and its allies.

Life in Berlin’s communist section was beset with problems. While a large number of East Berliners supported communism after the war, many became disillusioned with its lack of progress and freedom. The East German government placed pressure on workers with ambitious production quotas and targets. Essential items like food, clothing and accommodation were subsidised by the government – but there were often shortages or long queues. East Germany’s industrial priorities meant that fewer consumer goods and luxuries were produced.

East Germans were always mindful of the Stasi (‘State Security’), one of the Soviet bloc’s largest and most pervasive secret police agencies. From the early 1950s, it was difficult for East Germans to travel to nations beyond the Soviet bloc. The border between East and West Germany was transformed into a line of barbed wire, fortifications and guards, running from Czechoslovakia to the Baltic Sea.

East German workers rise up

By mid-1953, tensions between East German workers and their government had reached fever pitch. The government demanded increases in work quotas but without any increase in pay. This corresponded with a shortage of foodstuffs and basic consumer goods – including rationing of electricity supplies.

In June, several hundred construction workers went on strike in East Berlin, after the government threatened to cut their pay for not meeting production quotas. This strike grew into a mass protest involving around 40,000 people, most calling for a reduction in quotas and some political reforms. In time, some protesters were bold enough to demand the removal of the East German government.

Police and Soviet troops moved to confront the protestors on Unter den Linden (‘Under the Limes’, a well-known street). The police fired on the crowd, killing at least 55 people, though the actual death toll may have been ten times that amount.

Exodus from the East

The worsening situation convinced many that escape from the Soviet bloc was necessary. West Berlin became a conduit for political refugees from East Germany and other communist nations. The city’s borders were lightly manned in comparison to East Germany’s national borders, so illegal crossings into West Berlin were difficult but still possible.

The better living and working conditions in West Germany drew a steady flow of refugees from the East. By 1950, more than 1.5 million Germans had crossed over to West Berlin. Once there, they were free to relocate anywhere in West Germany or western Europe.

During the 1950s, refugee numbers increased annually: from 144,000 (1959) to 199,000 (1960) and 207,000 (1961). The professional classes – doctors, lawyers, teachers, the college-educated in particular – formed a significant portion of westbound refugees.

Khrushchev’s ultimatum

In East Germany and the Soviet Union, there was growing concern about this exodus of Soviet citizens. Of particular concern was the effect that a ‘brain drain’ of educated and skilled workers might have on Soviet bloc countries. In 1958, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev issued an ultimatum to the Western powers in Berlin:

“The Soviet Government, guided by a desire to normalize the situation in Berlin in the interest of European peace and in the interest of a peaceful and independent development of Germany, has resolved to effect measures on its part designed to liquidate the occupation regime in Berlin. It hopes that the government of the USA will show a proper understanding of these motives and make a realistic approach to the Berlin question.”

Khrushchev announced that West Germany, America, Britain and France should sign treaties to turn over control of West Berlin to the East German government. He gave the Western allies six months to finalise this. Once Khrushchev’s deadline expired, any future access to West Berlin would be entirely a matter for the East German government.

Khrushchev’s ultimatum generated headlines but the western powers called his bluff. They declared their intention to remain in West Berlin, asserting that they had the legal right to do so. When Khrushchev’s ultimatum expired in May 1959, nothing happened. Khrushchev’s gambit failed and he was forced to withdraw his demands. Foreign ministers from the four powers met in Geneva in mid-1959 to discuss German reunification, though nothing was agreed. The Berlin situation was further eased in September 1959 when Khrushchev visited the US and met with President Eisenhower.

Kennedy calls Khrushchev’s bluff

John F. Kennedy’s election to the US presidency in November 1960 emboldened Khrushchev, who fired off more implied threats about Berlin.

The Berlin Crisis followed a summit in Vienna in June 1961, where Khrushchev told Kennedy he intended to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany. One of the implications of this treaty would be the nullification of the old Soviet-Allied agreement guaranteeing road, rail and air access into Berlin. The question of access rights to Berlin would then be up to the East Germans, who would almost certainly revoke access.

Kennedy, however, did not back down. In a July 25th address to the nation, the president ordered substantial increases in American intercontinental ballistic missile forces, the addition of five new army divisions, and increases to the nation’s air power and military reserves. He declared a willingness to use American military force to defend its rights to access Berlin:

“So long as the communists insist that they are preparing to end by themselves unilaterally our rights in West Berlin and our commitments to its people, we must be prepared to defend those rights and those commitments. We will at times be ready to talk, if talk will help. But we must also be ready to resist with force, if force is used upon us. Either alone would fail. Together, they can serve the cause of freedom and peace.”

Borders closed

Early August 1961 saw a flurry of meetings between government representatives and foreign ministers on both sides. The Americans, British and French met in Paris and resolved to ignore Khrushchev’s provocation. To respond to it would invite further Soviet aggression, and possibly war. At this time, Khrushchev was considering a KGB plan to divert American attention from Berlin by stimulating rebellions and unrest in Africa and Central America.

The pivotal decision with regard to Berlin instead came from East Germany. On August 12th, the government there signed an order to seal the border between East and West Berlin. By the following morning, the border had been closed and work in erecting a permanent wall had begun.

A historian’s view:
“The Kremlin leader [Khrushchev] had always considered the western city of Berlin a ‘festering sore’ on the German Democratic Republic, but also the ‘testicles of the West’. “Every time I want to make the West scream,” he remarked, “I squeeze Berlin”. At times during the prolonged crisis, the world seemed to teeter on the brink of war. [But] it now seems that traditional, top-down bipolar models of Cold War dynamics, painting Khrushchev as the driving force, are misleading. Some of the reasons lay closer to home, made in the GDR. Hope Harrison has even provocatively suggested that a weak GDR effectively blackmailed Moscow into propping it up, becoming the East German tail that boldly wagged the [Soviet] dog.”
Patrick Major

1. By the 1950s East Berlin was tightly controlled by the state, its people deprived of essential and consumer goods.

2. This led to unrest, such as a series of rolling strikes and protests in 1953 demanding reductions in work quotas.

3. Many despairing East Berliners fled the city into West Berlin, the numbers of refugees increasing to 207,000 by 1961.

4. Fearing a ‘brain drain’ of skilled workers, Khrushchev issued a 1958 ultimatum for the US to leave West Berlin. A second ultimatum in 1961 instigated the Berlin Crisis.

5. This ultimatum was ignored, however, Khrushchev again attempted to pressure the West after the election of John F Kennedy as US president. Kennedy staunchly resisted Khrushchev’s demands and visited Berlin to show solidarity with its people.


Baerbock embodies the once-fringe party's emergence as a force capable of conquering the German political centre.

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Two years ago the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s top broadsheet, conducted a “wordless interview” with Annalena Baerbock. In it, the co-leader of the country’s Green Party replied to the questions with photo answers.

She’s considered tough – where does she get her strength? Baerbock responds ­sitting cross-legged, holding up a stick-person drawing of her family. What would she do if Björn Höcke (a notorious far-right politician) were her neighbour? Baerbock brandishes the German constitution at the camera. What does she do when ­no one’s watching? This time she has a bar of ­chocolate between her teeth. Then comes the big one: can she imagine being German chancellor one day? The Green co-leader performs a rather impressive handstand. Her meaning is clear: yes, I’m up to it.

Now she has the chance to prove it. On 19 April she walked on to a stage in Berlin with Robert Habeck, her co-leader. He stepped forward and announced that the “pugnacious, focused, strong-willed” Baerbock would be the Green Party ­candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor.

Quite aside from the pandemic-era precautions – there was no audience to cheer Baerbock – the scene would have seemed strange viewed even from the recent past. Germany’s Greens have never before run a chancellor candidate. And when Habeck and Baerbock were elected as the party’s co-leaders in January 2018, he was clearly the senior of the two.

But two things have changed. First, the Greens have risen from winning 8.9 per cent of the vote in the 2017 general election to polling around 21 per cent now a fact that, along with the Covid-era woes of Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), makes thinkable a prospect that was long unthinkable – of the Greens constructing a majority Bundestag ­coalition, ousting the CDU from the federal government and taking the chancellery for the first time ever.

Second, where Habeck would once have been the obvious choice, the balance in the leadership duo has shifted: Baerbock was little known in national politics when she became co-leader, but has gradually built up her profile and burnished her reputation as a tough, impressive operator. Now, at only 40, she will very probably become either vice-chancellor or chancellor in the next German government.

Baerbock’s handstand is emblematic of another important fact. The Greens’ road to power is a balancing act. In recent years the party has overcome the brutal past ­battles between its realo (pragmatic) and fundi (idealistic) wings. Baerbock and Habeck, both realos, have presided over remarkable unity and discipline. But how will Baerbock and the party cope with the unprecedented scrutiny of the upcoming campaign? Can it hold its leftish supporters while winning centrist “Merkel voters” from the CDU? If it comes to power, will it be able to reconcile its environmentalist, ­socially ­transformative ideals with the harsh realities of government? To understand ­Baerbock’s story, which is intertwined with that of the party, is to begin to answer these questions.

The Greens emerged from West Germany’s 1968 student movement and the “new left” – post-materialist, environmentalist, libertarian – that it helped catalyse. The party was founded in West Germany in 1980 from a coalition of causes, especially pacifism and opposition to nuclear energy. Prominent figures in the early days included Petra Kelly, an activist who had campaigned for Robert Kennedy in the US the artist Joseph Beuys and Joschka Fischer, a former student protester from Frankfurt. The party secured its first Bundestag seats in 1983.

Annalena Baerbock was born in the same year as the party, and into the same bourgeois-bohemian constellation of causes. She has described growing up “between sugar beet fields and football pitches” with two sisters and two cousins in an old farmhouse in Schulenburg, a village near Hannover in the north-western state of Lower Saxony. It was something of a hippy household: her parents, a mechanical engineer and a social education worker, took their ­children on demonstrations against the Reagan administration’s stationing of Pershing missiles in West Germany and against the nuclear waste disposal facility at Gorleben. “Yes, there were water cannons there,” she has recalled, “but after the demo we went home and had cake.” The CDU then chancellor Helmut Kohl was a bogeyman in the Baerbock household.

After school – where she was a champion trampolinist – she studied politics and law in Hamburg, hoping to become a war ­reporter, before in 2005 taking a master’s in international law at the London School of Economics (LSE). The year that Baerbock spent in London was significant for several reasons. The Green Party leader was then in a long-distance ­relationship with Daniel Holefleisch, who would go on to become her husband. It was the year she joined the Greens and began her rapid rise through its ranks. And it was the year when the party’s first spell in government, as the junior ­partner in a coalition led by Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats (SPD), came to an end and Angela Merkel ascended to the chancellery.

The timing of Baerbock’s decision to join was significant. Having in 1993 merged with Alliance 90, a product of the old East German civil rights movement, the Greens had moderated some of their positions ­under the realo pre-eminence of Fischer and in 1998 had formed the “red-green” government with Schröder.

The party’s influence over its two terms had been felt in policies on renewable energy, civil partnerships and a modernised citizenship law. But the defining moment had come early on, in 1999, when Fischer as foreign minister persuaded a ­tumultuous party conference in Bielefeld to support Germany’s first conflict deployment since 1945: the Nato campaign against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. It was a turning point: proof of the Greens’ ­evolution from protest party into a force that could rise to the ­difficult choices that come with power.

Bielefeld represents a generational caesura, according to Alexander Clarkson of King’s College London. “The split in the party encompassed the boomer and early Generation X generations,” he says. “If you were later Gen X or millennial going into the party after 1999, you knew what it stood for.” Baerbock, Clarkson argues, is typical of this: “She’s not someone who went through some anguished long night of the soul.”

Fresh out of the LSE, Baerbock started working for Elisabeth ­Schroedter, a Green MEP. “She seemed shy and introverted at the start,” recounts one former colleague in Brussels and Strasbourg. “But she soon emerged as a good organiser, moderator and chair… she spoke fluent English and could take the initiative.” From there she moved to Berlin, from 2008 advising the Green group in the Bundestag on foreign and security policies. Though new to the city, not yet ten years into its restored status as capital and still something of a building site, Baerbock had a ready-made gang there.

“You had a whole power network of people from Lower Saxony who had settled in Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg, Mitte and ­Friedrichshain [trendy districts of Berlin] as students or in their first jobs,” adds Clarkson, a fellow product of the state. “Anyone who made that shift would find a ­seilschaft [political fraternity] to fit right into, especially in the media or a party like the Greens.”

Baerbock and Holefleisch settled in Mitte. They made, says a friend, a “good couple” – and every bit a political one. Holefleisch, himself marinated in Green politics since childhood, worked in the party headquarters, and they moved among others who worked for the party, its MPs or in its think tank, NGO and media hinterland. It was the perfect trampoline for Baerbock’s ambitions. Alongside her day job, she was a spokesperson for the party’s Europe ­policy group and, boldly, sought and won the ­leadership of the party’s branch in Brandenburg, the former East German state that surrounds Berlin.


Annalena Baerbock at a protest against expanding open-pit lignite coal mines in the Lausitz, Brandenburg, October 2013 (Credit: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

It was a period when, not far from the Baerbock-Holefleisch home, a form of ­political alchemy was bubbling away in the glass-and-steel complex by the Spree River that houses the chancellor’s offices. Merkel had only limped into the top job at the 2005 election. But over the subsequent years she honed the mix of inscrutability and ­versatility that became her method ­presiding over the modernisation of family policy, an end to compulsory military ­service and the switch-off of Germany’s nuclear power stations.

That such policies were lifted from her coalition partners or the opposition Greens did not seem to bother voters. Merkel’s ineffable inoffensiveness propelled the alliance of the CDU and the Christian Social Union (CSU), its Bavarian sister party, to gains at both the 2009 and 2013 elections. How was a party like the Greens to gain purchase on such an incumbent?

Baerbock arrived in the Bundestag as a newly elected MP for ­Brandenburg in 2013, Merkelism’s electoral high-point. Now with one small daughter, and another soon to follow, the family had moved to Potsdam, the old summer court of the ­Prussian royals on the edge of Berlin and nowadays the capital of Brandenburg. ­Baerbock struck her fellow MPs as conscientious and ambitious. Ulrich Schulte, a veteran Greens-watcher and author of the new book Die Grüne Macht (The Green Power), writes of comparisons to the earnest, frenetically high-achieving character ­Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books.

Baerbock became the Greens’ parliamentary spokesperson on climate policy – just as the subject was rising up the national ­agenda – and berated the government for its reluctance to close coal-fired power stations, while also beginning a long-standing engagement with miners in the Lausitz, a coal region in eastern Brandenburg. To thundering applause at the Greens’ conference in 2015 she accused coal-friendly ministers of “not just conning the climate but conning workers”. A colleague ­remembers: “As the 2017 election approached she was one of the names mentioned as a future leader.”

Her status as a rising star was confirmed after the vote when she was one of the party’s negotiators in talks to form a three-way coalition with the CDU/CSU and the conservative-liberal Free Democrats (FDP). Participants from both the CDU/CSU and the Greens were surprised at how well they could discuss their differences and possible compromises it was the FDP that blew up the talks by flouncing out.

Germany ended up with yet another CDU/CSU-SPD grand coalition, but the failed negotiations had exposed some important developments. The Greens were now in coalition with the CDU in three federal state governments and it was clear they were capable of forming a shared “black-green” agenda at the federal level too. They were moving towards a political centre that under Merkel – for example in her liberal response to the 2015 refugee crisis – was also moving towards them.

They were also soon to elect a new leadership. At an event in Frankfurt around that time I asked Fischer whom he saw as his natural heir in the party. Without hesitation, he replied “Robert Habeck”. It was not an unexpected response. A novelist, philosopher and translator (including of WB Yeats and Ted Hughes), Habeck had recently been confirmed as deputy minister-president of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein in the new, CDU-led government there. An ­undogmatic realo who communicated in clear, emotive language and was at one with the black-green zeitgeist, he was the obvious front-runner.

The party’s leadership is double-headed, one man and one woman. It was assumed that, to balance Habeck’s politics, the co-leader would be a woman from the party’s left. Several contenders dithered over ­running. Baerbock, though a realo, concluded (in the words of a friend) “fuck it, I’ll do it” and seized the initiative. She ­announced her candidacy a day before Habeck confirmed his, and in her pitch at the party’s conference in January 2018 said the co-leader needed to be more than just “the woman at Robert’s side”. The two were elected, his 81 per cent to her 64 per cent.

Habeck and Baerbock make a strong leadership team. “They operate as a unit,” explains Omid Nouripour, a Green MP. They have unfurled an audaciously ambitious common project: to claim the centre of German politics and society for the Greens.

“Habeck and Baerbock are aiming at society as a whole, all of us,” argues Schulte, “no longer just die-hard eco-voters. They don’t bother with lectures and the usual pile-on rituals of politics, but instead speak in an inclusive language.” Part of that ­language is the word heimat, an emotive term meaning “homeland” or “roots” traditionally associated with the German right, but which Habeck and Baerbock have consciously sought to appropriate for progressive politics.

Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, pictured in 2019 after being re-elected to the federal executive board of the German Greens. (Credit: Alexander Koerner)

Initially, Baerbock was indeed the junior partner. But over time that has changed. The project, and the increased polling numbers it has generated, has come to be just as much associated with her as with Habeck: her willingness to campaign outside of the party’s traditional comfort zones (in the Lausitz region for example) her “radical but statesmanlike” mantra her relatability as a parent of school-age children.

In 2018 Baerbock made the joint second most appearances of any politician on the evening political TV talk shows that set much of the German media agenda, behind Habeck. In 2019 she overtook him to become (as one newspaper put it) the “queen of the talk shows”. She managed a similar overtaking manoeuvre when the two went up for re-election at the party’s conference that year, soaring past him to secure a record 97 per cent support.

Now, as in the past, her formidable ­network has played a part. Unlike Habeck, Baerbock already had a personal, political and parliamentary infrastructure of support in Berlin when she became leader. “Annalena knows federal politics better,” says a colleague, “where you are really ­under scrutiny and the real power battles take place.” Her close allies include some other members of the party’s younger generation of leaders such as Katharina Dröge, a fellow MP, and Michael Kellner, the party’s federal whip (both to her left politically). Katrin Göring-Eckardt, one of the party’s two lead candidates in the 2017 election and a fellow member of the party’s Protestant segment, has been a mentor.

Another supportive figure has been ­Merkel herself. The chancellor rates ­Baerbock and has been known to pull her aside for private chats in the Bundestag. It is tempting to wonder whether Merkel considers Baerbock more or less of a political heir than she does the successor generation in her own CDU. The Green co-leader does little to dismiss the notion. In a speech at an event to mark the CDU’s 75th birthday last year Baerbock offered the party advice. Just as the Greens had once failed to adapt (opposing ­reunification and the Maastricht Treaty), she argued, so the CDU should not make the same mistake on ­climate protection today.

Such was the backdrop to Habeck’s and Baerbock’s deliberations over the chancellor candidacy. He is the better story-teller and has been a minister before, but can struggle with detail. Baerbock lacks executive experience (unlike any previous chancellor of the federal republic) but is good on detail, relatable and disciplined, steely even. “She has that relentless control and awareness of detail that is reminiscent of Merkel and [Helmut] Schmidt,” says Clarkson. That, and the beneficial optics of a younger ­woman candidate going up against the ageing, male candidates from the other mainstream parties, seems to have tipped it for her.

In her acceptance speech, Baerbock framed her candidacy as “an offer, an invitation [to German citizens] to lead our diverse, rich, strong country into a good future”. She talked about the environment – “the task of our time, the task of our generation” – but also ranged across more everyday issues such as education, social care and digital public services. Her tone was optimistic and undogmatic. The ­country urgently needs renewal and a fresh start, she argued, but it should also be confident in itself: “Germany has so much potential. We invented the car and the ­bicycle… We developed a vaccine in very little time.”

Baerbock’s candidacy will be confirmed at the party’s pre-election conference from 11 to 13 June. There, party members will also finalise a Green manifesto for the election, the already-published draft of which is a quintessential Baerbock-Habeck fusion of party ideals and bold forays into the territory of other mainstream parties.

Major policy points include €500bn of new investments in green infrastructure and industry, accelerated climate targets, higher taxes on top incomes and digital firms, an easier naturalisation path for migrants and new fiscal reform and integration in the EU. The legacy of the ­Bielefeld moment is plain to see: the ­manifesto proposes a tough line on Russia and China, strong transatlantic ties and the option to use military force for humanitarian ends.

What will follow could be the most competitive and lively German campaign in years. Baerbock will lead the Greens with Habeck at her side. Her main rival for the chancellorship will be Armin Laschet, the avuncular, moderate, plodding leader of the CDU and minister-president of the state of North-Rhine Westphalia (announced as joint CDU/CSU candidate on 20 April after an unseemly internal struggle with the CSU’s leader Markus Söder). The SPD’s chancellor candidate will be Olaf Scholz, Merkel’s current stolid but uncharismatic vice-chancellor and finance minister.

It could get rough. The better the Greens do in the polls, the more the CDU/CSU and FDP will accuse them of being in league with radical leftists and the more the SPD will accuse them of being bourgeois ­do-gooders who do not get social justice. Rivals may seek to inflame and exploit the divisions that linger below the harmonious unified surface, ­particularly on foreign policy. A glimpse of these came in January when a think tank close to the Greens caused ­uproar in the party by publishing a paper that supported the use of US nuclear ­weapons to shield Germany.

The aftermath of the election on 26 September will, as ever, come down to the ­numbers. It may be that the only arithmetically and politically viable coalition will be one led by the CDU/CSU, with the Greens as partners. The price of their support would likely be the incorporation of large parts of their landmark ­environmental and ­investment agenda into the coalition agreement, and several major ministries ­probably the ­powerful finance ministry, plus perhaps a new climate mega-ministry and the foreign ministry. Baerbock would end up as vice-chancellor and, perhaps, foreign minister.

That is the most likely outcome. But it is far from the only conceivable one. Perhaps Baerbock and her party will withstand the pressures of the campaign and make the most of their strengths, particularly their ability to harness an appetite for change in the country. Perhaps the CDU/CSU, wracked by corruption scandals, internal disputes and weariness after the long Merkel years, will struggle and fall far enough that the other parties can oust it.

This could mean a government of both the Greens and the SPD plus one of the FDP or (less likely) the socialist Left party. Neither the FDP nor the Left would make an easy negotiating or governing partner, but informal soundings via back channels have begun. The result, assuming the Greens are the largest of these other parties, would be a Chancellor Baerbock.

A party colleague predicts her chancellorship would be “European and transatlantic” in essence and that “the expectations and ambition level would be massive. There would be a lot of attention to how she handled ethical and moral questions.”

Will it come to that? Will Baerbock’s road from the water cannons and street ­protests of Cold War-era West Germany take the Greens all the way to the leadership of Germany in the 2020s? Against a backdrop of pandemic, climate crisis and favourable shifts in the party-political ­landscape, the circumstances have never been as ripe for it: “This could be the chance for the Greens to take the chancellery,” asserts Christian Odendahl of the Centre for European ­Reform. Perhaps, just perhaps, ­Baerbock is the right person, in the right place, in the right time, to pull off that handstand.

Correction: Katrin Göring-Eckardt is not Annalena Baerbock's predecessor as co-leader, as this article previously stated, but the Greens' former election lead candidate. This has been amended.


And again

This time, they had to succeed. So they had to make the balloon a lot bigger.

The men doubled the size of the balloon to 4,200 cubic meters, which would require about 1,300 square meters (13,993 square feet) of fabric. They used everything they could find -- taffeta, umbrella fabric, tent nylon and bed linen. Because officials were looking for people buying large amounts of fabric, the men and their wives drove all over East Germany to acquire the material. Wetzel, who had returned to a full-time job, called in sick from work to sew the balloon night and day, with the help of Strelzyk's older son.

After five weeks, the balloon was nearly done. The men felt like they were racing against time, worried they could be discovered any moment. The forecast on Sept. 15 looked perfect, so the families hurried their preparations, finishing the stitching of the balloon at 10 p.m.

Wetzel and Strelzyk drove to the highest hill near Pössneck to see if the wind was strong enough for flight. It was.

They rushed home to gather their families and the balloon, taking nothing with them beyond school and identification papers. The two families arrived at the launch site around 1 a.m. and waited to be sure they hadn't been followed.

Only a few days after the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, artists started painting the east side of the structure. This area became the East Side Gallery. It's the longest preserved piece of the Berlin Wall, with over 100 artists from 21 countries painting images on a 1.3km stretch of the former border.

Half an hour later, they started to set up the balloon. Within five minutes, it was fully inflated. Everyone jumped into the basket. They didn't have time to be afraid.

"We were under so much pressure that we just functioned," Wetzel said. "There was no room for any feelings whatsoever."

The flight didn't start smoothly. Wetzel and Frank stood at opposite corners to cut the anchor ropes, but they didn't release them at the same time, causing the balloon to tilt into the flaming burner. The fabric caught fire as the last anchor shot up from the ground and grazed Frank's head. They quickly put out the flames using a fire extinguisher. But a hole in the top of the balloon meant they had to fire the burner the entire flight.

At 2:32 a.m., the balloon soared into the sky, reaching an altitude of 2,000 meters and hitting the 50-km-per-hour winds that pushed it along. There was no way to steer the balloon, and the families were at the mercy of the wind.

No one spoke -- until they spotted three bright searchlights in the distance. It was a border crossing.

It was the next moment that posed grave danger: The burner went out. Efforts to relight the flame only worked for brief spurts. They were out of gas, and the balloon fell rapidly before landing in among the trees.

Had they made it to the West? They didn't know for sure, so they started walking south. Soon they spotted a sign for a power plant called Überlandwerk, something they'd never seen in East Germany. Farm machinery in the building, and the eventual arrival of the West German police, confirmed it. They had landed in Naila, West Germany.

The flight took 28 minutes. They had made it to the West. They were free.

The town of Naila gave the families apartments and aid to get started. Disney bought the rights to their story and released a film, Night Crossing, in 1982. Last year, a German filmmaker released a thriller about the escape, called Balloon.

Ten years later after arriving in West Germany, Wetzel watched the Berlin Wall's collapse on TV.

"I had felt that something was going to happen, but I didn't think it would go that quickly," he said. "The moment was indescribable."

Fiona Weber-Steinhaus translated Wetzel's thoughts from German into English.


Thank you!

The German photographer Arwed Messmer has a new book from Hatje Cantz called Reenactments MfS which gathers a “collage” of this evidentiary material from those escape attempts from among the hundreds of thousands of documents he found in an archive held by the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records. TIME LightBox spoke with Arwed Messmer about his project and the complicated nature of photography as a “witness” for State repression.

TIME LightBox: Your new book Reenactment MfS presents images from the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, MfS (commonly referred to as Stasi) archives. How did you access these files and documents? Are they open for anyone to access?

Arwed Messmer: It is possible to access the archive for research or journalism, and this was the basis for my artistic research there. Basically, anyone who can properly justify research interests is given access to the files. Protecting victims is a high priority, and all the files I wanted to see were first checked and names made anonymous. This was the case for both photos and text.

TIME LightBox: You mention the book is a &lsquocollage.&rsquo Can you write a little about this approach?

Arwed Messmer: Maybe collage is a little confusing in this context. What I mean is that I combine very heterogeneous images using my own aesthetic criteria and assessments of messages and content.

A lot of people are interested in the time of a divided Germany but you have made several books inspired by the subject, some with coauthor Annett Groeschner (The Other View: the Early Berlin Wall, Berlin Fruchtstrasse on March 27, 1952). For you, what is the attraction to this subject and time?

I have always been interested in recent German history, but I never once considered becoming a historian. I moved to Berlin in late 1991, and since then my interest in history has become more and more present in my photo projects. In 1994 and 1995 I worked on the Potsdamer Platz, Anno Zero (Potsdamer Platz, Year Zero) project, which took a look at the great physical gap right in the center of Berlin, after the Wall had come down but before new developments had been built. For that project I was awarded the Otto Steinert Prize by the German Society for Photography in 1996.

TIME LightBox: You are old enough to have experienced East Germany first hand. Did you ever live or have family that lived in the East during the time of the Berlin Wall?

Arwed Messmer: We had relatives in East Germany and visited them frequently. But I grew up in the south-west of West Germany, and from that perspective East Germany was not significant. We looked rather to Switzerland, France, or Italy.

The nature of photographs is that they mutely show facts but they often lack any context with reality. So as &lsquodocuments&rsquo of proof they are not very reliable, especially since many of the images you have chosen are reenactments of &lsquocrimes.&rsquo What purpose do you think they actually served for the state?

Many of these pictures were surely made within the kind of standard crime investigation routine you can find all over the world. In these reenactments I suspect that the East German authorities wanted to at least keep up the semblance of the rule of law, by giving state prosecutors visual evidence, even if a later trial verdict was already pretty certain at the time of arrest.

TIME LightBox: Aside from the pretense of evidence, do you think that these photographs might also have been made with the intention to humiliate the people who were caught?

Arwed Messmer: I would say that the humiliation caused by this form of documentation was more like collateral damage, and that it was accepted as simply part of the process. Of course when I saw these photos of families for the first time I was reminded of Abu Ghraib.

TIME LightBox: By leaving off captions to the individual photographs (except in an index that appears in a small booklet separate from the main book) and re-contextualizing the images, you are leaving the viewer to do a lot of guessing as to what they are looking at and how the images relate to one another in the sequence. I am reminded a bit of Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel&rsquos book from the 1970s, Evidence, which represented images from science and industrial archives. Can you tell us about how you chose the images and then constructed the sequence for the book?

Arwed Messmer: A reference to Evidence makes sense, since I use archive images whose provenance is not clear, and often remains unclear. In Reenactment MfS my theme is much more closely defined, compared to Evidence. Here I deliberately concentrated on only one specific issue&mdashescape attempts across the Berlin Wall. This was a way of managing the mass of material I found in the Stasi archives, and also of staying focused. A key decision was to separate the images from any explanation of their content. With classic captions these images would be &lsquoread&rsquo very differently. Recontextualizing them by using the booklet is an active process, and it has to be a bit like work.

TIME LightBox: Your own photographs appear throughout the book and they often could be mistaken as Stasi archive photographs. Can you write a little about including your own photographs made in specific places around Berlin and the &lsquoRevisited Places&rsquo series?

Arwed Messmer: If you look closely, it is easy to see that the &lsquoRevisited Places&rsquo series is not based on Stasi material. I was not aiming to set some kind of pictorial counterpoint here, so the series was intended to blend in well with the whole book. I would say that there is less clarity as to provenance in all the photos of objects and crime-scene exhibits, so that it is not always immediately clear what was photographed by me in 2014, and what was photographed by the Stasi and then I later manipulated and used freely. By freely used I mean both technically and in terms of contents. There is no certainty here, but some of the ambiguity can be clarified when using the appendix, above all the false links that viewers make when looking at these images.

LightBox Newsletter

TIME LightBox: For future projects, do you foresee these archives continuing to be a part of your work?

Arwed Messmer: For two months now, I have been working on a new project about the Red Army Faction, one of former West Germany&rsquos great traumatic events. The nucleus of this project is one single photograph from a police archive. The aim is again to take today&rsquos viewpoint and use a mix of found images, processed or manipulated images, and new images of my own. I want to take a look at this subject through the (pictorial) perspective of the state under threat at the time. I have received a scholarship, and so should be able to concentrate on this project in 2015.

I expect to be busy in the archives for some while. I do not want to develop one unified approach, even if I will always have my own personal preferences. Every object or photograph I find, every theme, has to have its own appropriate form and approach. In addition to this RAF project I am also working together with the writer Annett Gröschner on a new project based on a large collection of photographs made for urban planning purposes in Berlin in the 1960s. But considerable financial resources will be needed to be able to properly research and process this material, and to produce an exhibition and high-quality book.

TIME LightBox: Many of your projects exist as both books and exhibitions. Is one more important to you than the other? When you are working on something new, are you imagining it already as a book, and if so, does that influence the way the project evolves?

Arwed Messmer: The books are always more important for me than the exhibition. “The Other View” as well as “Reenactment MfS” developed as books first. So, I would say I am a “book photographer”, not a “wall photographer”. I guess to be focused on the book, makes a difference.

Translation from German to English by Greg Bond.

Reenactment MfS by Arwed Messmer is published by Hatje Cantz.


Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee, 1861-1914, German Admiral

Admiral Maximilian von Spee was one of the most famous German sailors of the First World War, winning his fame at the battle of Coronel, the first British naval defeat for a century. He is normally described as a successful cruiser commander, but Coronel was a conventional battle between two naval squadrons.

Von Spee was born into an aristocratic family in 1861. He joined the German navy in 1878, only seven years after its creation. He rose steadily through the ranks, serving as a lieutenant on the 1884-85 mission that established Germany&rsquos empire in west Africa. He returned to the Cameroon as the port commander in 1887, but was soon forced home by illness. He then served on the training ship Moltke, before being appointed commander of the first class cruiser SMS Deutschland in 1897. Originally built as a central battery ironclad battleship, she had been rebuilt as a cruiser in the 1890s. In 1897 she was serving on the China station, returning during the Boxer Rebellion.

In 1905 von Spee was promoted to captain and given command of the battleship SMS Wittelsbach. In 1910 he promoted to rear-admiral, and was appointed second Admiralty officer of the Scouting Forces of the High Sea Fleet. Finally, in 1912 he was appointed to head the Cruiser Squadron in East Asia. This was the most coveted post in the German navy, as the squadron contained some of the most modern cruisers and had a wide and varied field of operations.

At the outbreak of the First World War von Spee&rsquos squadron contained the armoured cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and SMS Gneisenau and the light cruisers SMS Emdenand SMS Nürnberg. He had bases at Tsingtau, the German colony on the coast of China, and at Rabaul on New Pommern (New Britain, off the north east coast of New Guinea). At the start of the war, von Spee with the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau was at the island of Ponape, at the eastern end of the Caroline Islands.

This placed him in the centre of German&rsquos Pacific empire, but a long way from either of his main bases. It was also a long way from any of the main trading routes in the Pacific. In any case, von Spee did not believe that either of his bases were safe. It was possible that Japan would enter the war, making Tsingtau nothing but a trap, while Rabaul was too close to the Australian battlecruiser HMAS Australia, which von Spee is said to have believed could have destroyed his entire squadron. Von Spee was left with two choices &ndash either head west into the Indian Ocean, or east to South American.

At first he did neither, preferring to wait in the central Pacific. He stayed at Ponape until 6 August. While he was there he was in touch by radio with Yap, and by cable from Yap to Tsingtau. While at Ponape he was joined from Honolulu by SMS Nürnberg. On 6 August he sailed for Pagan Island in the Ladrones, his first war rendezvous, staying there from 11-13 August. While at Pagan Island he was joined by the Emden, the Prinz Eitel Friedrich and a number of supply ships. Supplies would be his biggest problem over the next few months, in particular coal. He had three main sources of coal &ndash pre-arranged supply ships, captured British or Allied ships and friendly Germans in neutral states.

On 12 August, while von Spee was at Pagan Island, the radio station at Yap was destroyed, isolating von Spee. From Pagan Island, von Spee moved to the Marshall Islands. It was at this point that the Emden was detached from the main squadron, and sent into the Indian Ocean, where she would become one of the most successful German commerce raiders of the war. He also sent Nürnberg to Honolulu, in the hope that she could discover the location of the main British forces in the area.

Once at the Marshall islands, von Spee was joined by the Cormoran. He also learnt that Japan had indeed joined the war. His only real option now was to head east, to attack British trade on the west coast of America. On 29 August he left the Marshall Islands, and headed towards Fanning and Christmas Islands, to rendezvous with the Nürnberg. At the same time he detached the Cormoran and the Prinz Eitel Friedrich.

The Nürnberg returned from Honolulu on 6 September with news of the New Zealand expedition to Samoa. Von Spee decided to take his squadron to Samoa in the hope that he could find some isolated ships to attack, for the first month of his cruise had been largely futile. On 14 September he reached Samoa, but found no ships and a garrison too strongly dug in to attack. He then sailed east to Tahiti, where he sand the French gunboat Zélée on 22 September. From 25 September-1 October he was at the Marquesas Islands, where he was able to seize some French Government funds and fresh food. Finally, on 1 October he left the Marquesas Island and headed for Easter Island.

Von Spee&rsquos final squadron came together at Easter Island. On 3 October his radio operator had made contact with the Leipzig and the Dresden and von Spee ordered them to join him at Easter Island. The next day further radio messages were intercepted by a wireless station on Fiji. The British ordered Admiral Craddock to concentrate his squadron on the west coast of South America.

Easter Island had been part of Chile since 1888. Von Spee and his squadron repeatedly used Chilean territorial waters for actions that were in breach of her neutrality, both at Easter Island and later at St. Quentin Bay in the gulf of Penas. This would late give the British all the legal justification they needed to hunt down and destroy the Dresden in Chilean waters. For the moment it allowed von Spee to take on coal and prepare for his next move.

On 18 October he left Easter Island, arriving at Mas-a-fuera Island (now Alejandro Selkirk Island) on 26 October. This island is just over 400 miles off the coast of Chile, and would be used by von Spee again in November. On 29 October he reached the vicinity of the Chilean port of Valparaiso, but chose to remain out of sight from land while communicating by radio with Germans on shore. He soon discovered that Craddock and his inadequate squadron was in the area.

On 31 October HMS Glasgow, cruising off Coronel, heard radio signals from the Leipzig. At the same time von Spee learnt that the Glasgow was at Valparaiso. Both von Spee and Craddock decided to bring their main squadrons to Coronel, each hoping to catch an isolated cruiser. On 1 November the two squadrons came together at the battle of Coronel. This was von Spee&rsquos moment of glory. HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth were both lost, along with 1,600 men and Cradock.

Von Spee&rsquos victory at Coronel sent shockwaves throughout the Royal Navy. His squadron was expected to appear off the Panama Canal, at the Cape of Good Hope, in the West Indies, off the coast of Canada or in any one of a dozen suddenly vulnerable spots. The Admiralty responded with a massive movement of ships, reinforcing every station they thought he could reach. Most significantly, Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee with the battlecruisers HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible were sent south with orders to chase von Spee anywhere in the Pacific or south Atlantic.

This disruption was von Spee&rsquos last achievement, for after Coronel he showed no real sense of urgency. His first action was to take Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Nürnberg into Valparaiso to make sure that the Good Hope had indeed sunk. He then returned to Mas-a-fuera to take on coal, then returned to Valparaiso on 15 November. On 21 November he reached St. Quentin Bay in the Gulf of Penas, where he was joined by four German liners carrying coal. He lingered there until 26 November taking on coal.

It was not until midnight on 1-2 December that his squadron finally rounded the Horn, heading into the South Atlantic. Even then he did not hurry. Soon after entering the Atlantic he captured a British barque carrying coal, and spent three days at Picton Island transferring that coal into his ships. Finally, on 6 December he set sail for the Falklands.

The plan to attack the British wireless and coaling station at Port Stanley was apparently not von Spee&rsquos. He had wanted to head straight out into the Altantic then scatter his cruisers on the trading lanes, but his staff officers had convinced him to attack the Falklands. This now looks to have been a foolhardy operation, but in many ways von Spee was unlucky. Admiral Sturdee and his battlecruisers reached the Falklands on 7 December, and were only planning to stop for three days. If von Spee had not captured the British barque, then Sturdee would have arrived at the Falklands well after von Spee had left. The only British ship at the Falklands would have been the battleship Canopus, by then deliberately beached to improve her gunnery. Despite having four 12in guns, she would have been outgunned by von Spee&rsquos squadron.

Instead, von Spee arrived at the Falklands on 8 December. As he arrived, the Canopus opened fire. Her first salvo fell well short, but her second came with 100 yards of the Gneisenau and some shrapnel may even had hit the German ship. Von Spee&rsquos lookouts sighted the distinctive tripod masts of the British battlecruisers, and he gave the order to turn and flee.

Sturdee had been operating with even less urgency than von Spee, but on 8 December he made up for that. His battlecruisers were soon at sea, and a long chase followed. Once he was in range of the German squadron, von Spee turned back with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, in the hope that he could win time for his light cruisers to escape. At just after 4.00pm the Scharnhorst sank, taking von Spee with her. His two sons were also killed in the battle, along with 2,000 other German sailors. Only the Dresden escaped from the battle of the Falklands, to be hunted down and destroyed while taking refuge in isolated Chilean waters.

Despite his great reputation, von Spee was not a greatly successful cruiser captain. He took very few prizes, although he did disrupt trade on the west coast of South America. His fame rests on the battle of Coronel, where he won one of the few decisive naval battles of the First World War. This victory, and the panic it caused, was perhaps more disruptive than the activities of even the best commerce raiders. The defeat at the Falklands was perhaps unlucky, although given the scale of the British response to Coronel, von Spee could hardly have expected to remain at large for too much longer.

Coronel and the Falklands both demonstrated the changing nature of naval warfare in 1914-1918. In earlier wars inferior squadrons of ships had a chance of causing serious damage to their attackers before being forced to surrender. Now minor technological advantages could produce very unequal battles. Von Spee&rsquos victory at Coronel damaged a major prop of British naval strategy.

The pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee was named after von Spee in 1934. In something of a twist of fate, she too met her end in South American waters, being scuttled after the battle of the River Plate in 1939, but only after a rather more successful career as a commerce raider than von Spee, sinking 50,089 tons of shipping.