Life in East Berlin in the 1970s

Your correspondent wouldn’t like this blog to get too narrow (or too serious, although this post will not help much there). The following recollections from my two years with the Australian Trade Commission in Berlin, German Democratic Republic, were prompted by my sister, whose book club is looking at Anna Funder’s excellent work “Stasiland” ( ). She asked for a brief backgrounder, and here it is.

The overall impression of East Berlin was, on the one hand depressing, on the other, drabness: unpainted and bullet pockmarked buildings in poor general repair. !n winter the all pervading smell of briquette dust was quite overwhelming. (The only heating fuel available was brown coal briquettes, just the same as were used in Melbourne in the fifties.) Clothing was drab, restaurant interiors, such as existed, were likewise drab. Only one wine was available and then only sometimes: “Bulls Blood” from Hungary. Rough red, but it did have the right effect. Service, without entrepreneurial hope of reward, was extremely poor and characterised by rudeness. There were regular shortages of anything but the staples, and what could be bought was invariably of poor quality. If an East German saw a queue, they would join it immediately, and only then check what might be on offer. It was no wonder that shopping and entertainment for those that had access was all done in the West.

Of course the term East Berlin was frowned upon. Border guards on the road corridors from West Germany would regularly set up a minor confrontation. “Where are you going?” they would ask. “East Berlin” you would reply. “Hauptstadt” they would respond (meaning capital of the German Democratic Republic”. There you would stay until you were prepared to acknowledge “Hauptstadt”, and you would be on your way. To us this was a joke. But to them it clearly was not.

Control and surveillance were the realities of life. Control through “security guards” posted outside embassies and houses in the diplomatic quarter. There was no security threat: they were there to report on comings and goings. It was not good for locals to have links to foreigners. Control also by the wall, in which a number of checkpoints were available to diplomatic staff, although all other foreigners had to utilise Checkpoint Charlie where mirrors were passed under cars, long wires thrust into petrol tanks and boot contents inspected. Diplomatic staff were generally not checked on crossing into West Berlin. The most unlucky occasion was an embassy chef who had an East German girlfriend. He used to smuggle her out to West Berlin on his night off so they could go dancing. The girl had no intention of escaping. They had bad luck however: she was discovered in the boot on the way back in to East Berlin!

Surveillance was covert but present. Telephone calls were monitored. All local staff and trades people were supplied by a central agency, the Service Bureau, including gardeners to those diplomats lucky enough to live in a house. Accommodation, of course, was also supplied by the Service Bureau. It was a standing joke: if the garden looked unkempt, the spouse would ring up her husband to complain about the state of the grass and rail against the inefficiencies and incompetence of the system. The gardener would turn up next morning.

The Bureau also supplied local office staff. If a secretary was requested they would send an interpreter, invariably blonde and good looking. “Can you take shorthand”? “No”. “Type”? “Only a little”. Then, shifting closer to the usually male interviewer, in a show of intimacy: “But is there anything else I can do for you”? The Australian Trade Commission employed such a girl. Happily she was intelligent and quickly learned some shorthand and to type better. But we did have to protect a couple of visiting businessmen from her not inconsiderable charms. Of course we all knew she had to report regularly to the security agency, STASI, although she would not admit it. Sensitive matters had to be discussed in a secure room which had been swept for listening devices.

The neighbours also had to report (or in this next instance it may have been the security guard). One Guy Fawkes night we invited friendly embassies around for a show of fireworks which we had brought in from the West. It was a great and somewhat noisy evening with Roman Candles, Catherine Wheels, rockets and crackers. The very next day the Ambassador was called in by the Foreign Ministry to be roundly dressed down for permitting explosive devices to be let off at the Embassy.

The Communist hierarchy extended throughout society. High officials lived very well indeed, as did Olympic athletes. You could tell status by the car they were driven in. The top people were driven in Volvos. Lesser officials were looked after in Russian built limousines. Lower down the scale of success you might actually have a Polish Fiat to drive.It you could bring in foreign exchange you got special privileges. One example was a famous lawyer who was known to be able to negotiate exit visas for East Germans. At great cost. In Deutsche Marks of course. He used to drive around in a yellow Mercedes and seemed to be able to cross between East and West at will.

But lower down the orders things were much more chancy; fail to report on your neighbour or be seen chatting too often and too cheerfully to a westerner, then suddenly life could change. The delays to get in to see a dentist would get longer and longer, a place in a good school would suddenly no longer be available. Your name would disappear suddenly from the waiting list for a car (the foul smelling, two stroke Trabant, which we affectionately called “Paper Racers”.)

Treatment of pensioners was, however, different. Since they were of no further use to the state, they ere allowed access to the West. One day a month or twelve consecutive days in one year. At the prevailing exchange rate such visits were very expensive and beyond the means of many. The hope of course was that pensioners would go and stay, thus saving the state some money. Some did and this lead often, later, to poignant scenes at checkpoints where grandma, having come back for the day, would be seen sadly farewelling their family from the East. One day Irene took our cleaning lady over to see a Nativity play at a West Berlin church. She sat most of the time in tears, not having been able to experience such an expression of belief since the wall went up ten years previously.

Occasionally someone would allow some perfunctory contact, like one old pensioner who walked his dog past our house on his regular visits to his Kleingarten, those little plots of community land so common throughout Germany. He must have toed the line well to have retained the right. In the fruit season he took to leaving a small bag of fruit on our gatepost. A sort of friendship offering where more open intercourse was unwise. We had difficulty knowing how best to respond, until we hit on the thought of leaving some bulbs for him to plant. We believe he was well pleased.

The locals were mostly humourless, at least during their interaction with westerners. There were only two jokes, which were repeated interminably. To understand the first it was necessary to be aware that nearly all true Berliners had fled to the West. Most of officialdom came from Saxony to the South. Since topics of conversation were limited, the question “Where are you from?” was commonly asked of Germans. The response: “From Saxony. The fifth occupying power”.

The other joke was one repeated by border guards: Trying to be pleasant to the guard as you passed through the checkpoint you might say: “Lousy weather eh?” This would invariably bring the response “It’s coming from the West”.

There was another joke which we learned from a West Berlin bus driver: Little Red Riding Hood would regularly be stopped en route to her Grandmother’s by a couple of Volkspolizisten. They would always check her basket and confiscate the coffee beans (an item virtually unobtainable in the East). One day the Volkspolizist asked her: “Little Red Riding Hood, how come you always have coffee beans?’ “Ah” said Little Red Riding Hood, “I have a brother. He is also a Volkspolizist”.

Living in Berlin in those days brought other, qualified, benefits, such as easy access to Potsdam, Leipzig, Weimar, Saxon Switzerland and Meissen. Life outside Berlin is, however, another story.


About johnofoz

An occasional correspondent, with particular interest in music.
This entry was posted in Books, Memories of the Past, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Life in East Berlin in the 1970s

  1. RM Richardson says:

    I am looking for someone to explain the banana importation situation in the DDR 1978 and 79. I was told they were banned prior to those dates by US fruit companies, but during 78 and 79 they were available due to trade with Nicaraugua. I need this ASAP for a dchool project. Can you help me with any information? Thank you i advance. RM Richardson

    • johnofoz says:

      With the exception of ginger, which we sold to the GDR in the seventies in competition to the Chinese, we had no interest in the fresh produce market. Our focus was on commodities (lead, zinc, cadmium, wool, grains) and some specialised manufactures and services. I have no recollection of bananas in the market place. Such “exotic” products were rare at that time. The import of such items would have been only possible under some form of barter, or offset, arrangement and it is quite likely such deals could have been arranged by traders working with Nicaraguan suppliers. We,as diplomatic personnel, were able to source such items from West Berlin.

  2. Byron's Muse says:

    Very interesting article! Berlin is amazing city even now, I’m particularly fond of Wedding and Mitte. What I would give to be able to travel through time and visit West Berlin in the late 1970s; Iggy Pop, David Bowie… Enjoyed your article, love hearing things at first hand!

  3. Pingback: Documentación extrema (7) | De tropas de frontera – Esquinas Dobladas

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