Stuck at home with the kids as History rushes by
Berlin —We had the same ritual at AFP’s East Berlin bureau every day. Around 8:30 am, Charles-Henri Baab, the bureau chief, would emerge in a bathrobe from the part of the vast apartment that served as his living quarters. “Anything happening?” he would ask me.
Most of the time, the only thing I had to tell him was the latest monologue by a member of East Germany’s communist politburo, or the latest newspaper article on an ‘economic miracle’ in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), delivered to us in reams of paper spit out by the country’s official news agency or a government daily.
It was rare to find anything interesting in the state-controlled press, which I picked up every day as I arrived at the bureau at 8 am. We had a single telephone line, but it was fickle and bugged by the Stasi secret police. You had to catch just the right moment to get a dial tone. The reporter stationed in the bureau would often go to West Berlin to make his phone calls.
Most of the stories that we dealt with in the 1980s, when I started working for AFP dealt with sport. East Germany was one of the leading sporting nations in the Soviet bloc that — thanks in large part to doping — produced a range of stars in swimming and track and field.
This bland existence hummed along until the fall of 1989, when demonstrations against the regime began in Leipzig and gradually spread to East Berlin.
The protests were fuelled by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glastnost, that fired up similar unrest elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain. During the demonstrations marking GDR’s 40th anniversary, the crowd appealed to Gorbachev — “Gorbi, help us!” By November, the entire country was simmering.
At the bureau, the sleepy ambiance changed into a more tense, exciting one, especially when we got to report on actual news, like the departure of Erich Honecker from power.
On November 9, 1989, nothing special was cooking and I left the bureau around 4 pm, as usual.
The furthest thing from my mind was the Berlin Wall a few kilometers away. I had lived behind it most of my life — I was only six when it went up literally overnight in 1961 splitting the city in half and separating families and friends — and I saw it every day when I went to get my daughter from daycare when she was young. I had lived behind it, went to university behind it, married and had two kids behind it.
It may seem strange now, but we managed to lead our lives in GDR. When you don’t know what you’re missing, it’s not that bad. We knew what we had a right to do and we avoided expressing our opinion in public.
By early November 1989, the discontent rumbling in the country was all that we and our circle of friends and acquaintances talked about. We realized that something was happening and kept talking about how things would evolve. But never in our wildest dreams did we think that the country that we had lived in, the hardline regime behemoth, would just collapse.
So on November 9, I was at my house with my husband and my 7- and 9-year-old, as I was every evening. Around 7 pm Guenter Schabowski, a member of the GDR politburo, gave his press briefing, a daily dull and drab affair. Except that on this particular day he suddenly announced that East Germans were now free to travel to the western part of the country. Effective immediately.
The announcement stunned the journalists. Our Bonn correspondent, Luc de Barochez, who had come to help with coverage of the protests along with other AFP reporters, was covering the presser and rushed back to the bureau. It promised to be a long night of work — East Germans would be able to cross into the West freely for the first time in 28 years! — but still no-one suspected the full consequences of that announcement. I don’t think anyone at that point actually thought the Wall would fall that night.
Meanwhile, I was blissfully unaware of the news at all as I put my kids to bed. You have to remember that there was no Internet and no cell phones back then. So I only learned of the news when I turned on the television, probably after 10 pm as was our custom. The announcement was the top story on the West Germany television, which we watched religiously.
My husband and I were dumbfounded as we watched the scenes unfolding so close to our house on TV — thousands of East Germans has rushed to the checkpoints and after some uncertainty, all of a sudden the checkpoints were open and they could just pass through — without papers, without interrogation — to cheers, flowers and sparkling wine from West Berliners on the other side.
It was a somewhat surreal scene at our house — History was happening a few kilometers away, but we couldn’t go witness the momentous moment. The kids were asleep and there was no question of leaving them alone in the house to go take a tour of West Berlin…
The next day, I came to work to a changed office in a changed land. Correspondents flooded in from throughout the AFP network. I specifically remember one, Frederic Bichon, who flew in on the first plane from Bonn the following day. He never did make it back to Bonn — a colleague in the bureau ended up organizing his move to East Berlin.
My days of monitoring the dreary East German press were over. The years that I spent compiling archives from it and the Western German outlets now came in handy as I helped reporters with stories by giving them contacts, suggesting places and ideas.
I finally made it to West Berlin two days later, on Saturday, November 11, along with tens of thousands of other East Germans. My father-in-law had come 200 kilometers, from Halle, for the occasion. Kids back then had school on Saturdays, but my daughter’s class was nearly empty — only two pupils showed up. Seemed like all of East Germany had gone to the other side of the Wall.
At the time, each East German got a welcome present from West Germany — 100 deutschmarks (about 50 euros) per adult and 50 marks per child. We spent our money on a VCR. I remember my little boy in awe of all the things on sale in the shops in the west of the city. He just couldn’t understand why we couldn’t buy everything for him.
All that November, people kept coming to visit us from all over the GDR, friends who wanted to see West Berlin. Euphoria reigned all around.
And then slowly, step by step, the euphoria retreated and the difficulties of our new life became more and more apparent. We had to learn so many new things. Having lived behind the Iron Curtain all our lives, we didn’t know a lot of elementary things that people in the West took for granted. One of the most difficult was the choices now offered to us. When you’ve lived all your life with just one savings bank, one insurance company, it is overwhelming to suddenly have to choose one from a sea of options.
The state-run East German economy and all the inefficiencies that came with it quickly imploded and a lot of people lost their jobs. I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t.
I began to work for AFP in 1984, thanks to my language skills. In East Germany, you didn’t choose your studies — so I couldn’t pick which languages to study and was assigned Russian and French. But as I had an uncle who lived in the West, I was prohibited from travelling there — too much of a risk that I wouldn’t come back.
Since I was an interpreter who couldn’t work abroad, I was funnelled to an institution that was a subsidiary of the foreign affairs ministry and that provided personnel to foreign organizations, which weren’t allowed to look for local staff on their own.
I had some memorable assignments. Once, I found myself replacing the Ecuadorian ambassador during his holidays… without speaking a word of Spanish. I also worked at the embassies of Guinea Bissau, Belgium and Tunisia and an Italian bank before being hired by AFP, which wanted someone to answer phones and monitor the news.
The Stasi secret police that permeated so much of East German society left me alone for the most part during those years. I imagine they didn’t really need me, since there were bugs everywhere in the AFP bureau, so they heard everything that went on in any event. I realized this one day, when I was summoned to headquarters and berated for not having told them that I was pregnant — I had told my husband of my pregnancy from a phone in the bureau a few days before that.
After the wall fell and GDR imploded, I stayed on with AFP — I was a repository of information on things in East Germany and I really enjoyed this new work, helping correspondents write about the changes taking place.
I can’t say that I miss the GDR. Not at all! I belong to those East Germans who came out better following the reunification. There were many who found themselves out of a job, without the security that they had in GDR. You could understand them — it’s hard to enjoy freedom when you live in poverty and your quality of life is worse than before. I was lucky to avoid that fate.
My children today have so many opportunities that they would never have had if GDR had remained.
But on many points, East Germany came out worse after reunification. I saw this clearly, so I wasn’t overcome with emotion on October 3, 1990, when the two Germanys officially reunited.