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In the GDRBernard Becker
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They came​ for me early in the morning on a grey November day in 1965, announcing themselves with a loud banging on the front door of my lodgings, a suburban house in Weimar. My landlady, a widow in her fifties and the owner of a gigantic black poodle (in the habit of greeting me by clamping his forelegs around one of my legs to masturbate and difficult to shake off), opened the door to two policemen demanding to see me. They proceeded to my room, knocking but not waiting for a reply. I was ordered to get dressed and to come with them. ‘Zur Klärung eines Sachverhalts,’ they said, using the standard Volkspolizei phrase for these situations (loosely translated as ‘to help with their investigations’). I was taken out of the house past my terrified landlady, bundled into the car waiting outside and driven to a police station.

I had an inkling what this was about. I was 18 and in my first semester at the Hochschule für Architektur und Bauwesen (School of Architecture and Construction) in Weimar, in what was then the German Democratic Republic (still known at that time as the Soviet occupied zone in the West and by cynics as ‘The Zone’). I was studying in the buildings where the Bauhaus was first established and where the careers of many famous architects, designers and artists had begun. A week earlier I had been at my desk, writing a letter to L., an old schoolmate in East Berlin. As I went to stick down the standard-issue postage stamp I hesitated over the ubiquitous image of Walter Ulbricht, complete with spectacles, receding hairline and goatee. Why was he even on this stamp? He wasn’t a president, or a monarch, or dead, or known to be very popular. He was, though, boss of many things in the GDR: chairman of the State Council, first secretary of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party of Germany), chief of the National Defence Council and head of state. He had been the driving force behind the building of the Wall in 1961 and was therefore largely responsible for my mother not being allowed to visit her elderly parents in Somerset and for her children not being allowed to visit their grandparents. (My English mother had settled in East Berlin in 1948 with her husband, a German doctor and a communist; they had met in China, working against the Japanese occupation.)

In a split second I decided to adjust the image on the stamp. Snip-snip! Schnipp-Schnapp! Two horizontal cuts across the face of Herr Ulbricht, removing a narrow strip in the middle and pushing the remaining top and bottom sections together. As the eyes and spectacles had been removed I drew new ones onto his forehead. The high forehead became a low forehead, the nose was reduced to a stub, but the goatee remained. Satisfied with the result I stuck it on the envelope and addressed it to my friend. I must have had a feeling that the alterations might be detected by officials: I didn’t put a return address on the back. I went outside and dropped it in the letterbox.

How did they find me? Not by combing the campus or doing any tedious detective work. They used a simple trick, as I only recently came to understand. Fifty years after the event L., who still lives in Berlin, had a confession to make: one day at home he received a phone call. A friendly voice said: ‘This is the Volkspolizei in Weimar. Perhaps you can help us. We have found a briefcase on a train from Weimar to Berlin and would like to return it to the owner. The briefcase contained a letter addressed to you but there is no return address on it. Do you have any idea who this briefcase could belong to?’ L. thought for a moment. The only person he knew in Weimar was his friend Bernard – surely the briefcase was his. He knew my address and was of course willing to help. So he did. The voice thanked him and put the phone down.

For some reason I have hardly any recollection of what happened in the hours after my arrest. I was released the same day but summoned to appear two months later at the Weimar district court. Present were the prosecution’s witness – the postal worker who had discovered the deviant stamp, who avoided eye contact with me throughout the proceedings – and a representative of my student group, who had to give a statement as to my general conduct and political position with regard to Der Sozialistische Arbeiter-und-Bauern-Staat (the Socialist Workers’ and Peasants’ State). I was convicted for Staatsverleumdung (slander of the state, paragraph 220 of the Criminal Code) and sentenced to eight months in prison, suspended for two years.

Soon afterwards I was called before the disciplinary committee of the Hochschule and asked to explain what I had done to receive such a sentence. ‘I defaced a stamp’, I said. The committee members were barely able to suppress their laughter but rallied in order to pronounce me unworthy of attending the institution: I had behaved dishonourably, damaged its reputation and would be expelled with immediate effect. I could, however, prove myself worthy again by taking a job among the working classes, in order to learn what a privilege it was to be studying for free. In due course I would be able to reapply provided I did not reoffend during the two-year probationary period. An appeal for leniency by a lawyer, hurriedly engaged by my mother, was rejected on the grounds that there had been ‘a number of negative incidents’ among students at the college and an example must be set right at the start of the new semester.

So I left the college and Weimar and began working on a building site in East Berlin, digging subterranean trenches through the recently demolished area behind Alexanderplatz; the trenches were for the central heating pipes from the new power station to the apartment blocks that were replacing the old tenements. I was learning about the ways of the working classes in whose interest the government of the GDR was governing, or so they said. I never made it back to Weimar to study architecture.

Last March, some half a century later, I had a letter from the Landesverwaltungsamt (administrative office) of Thuringia, in Weimar, informing me that I had been ‘professionally rehabilitated’. This meant that in future, for the calculation of my pension, my occupational category would be upgraded from the lowly ‘manual worker’ to – lo and behold – ‘architect’ for the period from October 1970 to January 1976 (the year I left the GDR). The authorities had decided that ‘architect’ is what I would have been but for that stamp. My conviction was judged to be invalid and 50 euros or so added to my monthly pension. Perhaps my student prank was worth it.

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Letters

Vol. 39 No. 1 · 5 January 2017

Bernard Becker’s piece about being arrested in Weimar for mutilating a postage stamp reminded me of the time I spent in Berlin in the 1960s (LRB, 15 December 2016). I lived in the West but most Saturdays would cross over at Checkpoint Charlie or Friedrichstrasse and spend the weekend in the GDR. I had met an East Berlin family who put me up on their sofa and in return I smuggled in Deutschmarks and other things unavailable in the East.

To get into the GDR you had to walk through a maze of barbed wire, tank traps and other obstacles, floodlights and watchtowers to a reception centre. There you were herded into a large room with aggressive guards in jackboots shouting at you. Around the walls were numbered letter boxes with a small curtained window above each one. You posted your passport in a letter box then waited in front of the window. The curtain would eventually open, you would be shouted at to look up, the curtain would close, you were marched to another slot in the wall and the passport was pushed out. Then you were made to change five Deutschmarks into five Ostmarks. A large sign greeted you: welcome to the german democratic socialist republic, a city of dusty streets where people waited at pedestrian crossings though there wasn’t a car in sight and nobody met your eye.

I once stopped at a coffee shop and sat at the counter. I waited. And waited. The person next to me was served. And another. And another. A waiter – eyes averted – walked past: ‘Can I have a coffee?’

‘Nein.’

‘Warum nicht?’

‘The waiter serving your position is absent today.’

‘If I move to the next seat will I get a coffee?’

‘Of course.’

Given that one in 17 citizens was known to work for the Stasi, and now it seems the number was higher, it wasn’t surprising that the locals in the bar I went to on a Saturday night at first viewed me with some suspicion. But they soon came to the conclusion that even the Stasi wouldn’t go to the lengths of recruiting someone with an Irish passport to root out deviants in a dive in Prenzlauer Berg. One of the older locals once asked me to go outside with him. ‘I want to tell you a joke,’ he said.

‘No problem.’

‘This granny writes a letter to her daughter in Dresden and goes to the post office for a stamp. Gets the stamp, but it won’t stick to the letter.’ (Walter Ulbricht’s face was on all the stamps.) ‘Back she goes to the desk. “This stamp won’t stick!" she says. “Don’t be stupid of course it does," says the post office official. “You must be spitting on the wrong side."’

Jim Smyth
Dublin

Vol. 39 No. 2 · 19 January 2017

Jim Smyth’s stories about the suspicion he incurred visiting East Germany reminded me of the time I was arrested in Texas at the height of the McCarthy era (Letters, 5 January). I was on 24-hour leave from my ship, the SS Oslo, which was tied up in Houston. In those days merchant seamen didn’t need passports, just ID cards, but special rules applied during the McCarthy years; we had to sign and carry with us a chit, on which was written: ‘I undertake not to overthrow the government of the United States by force.’ I forgot to take mine with me when I went window-shopping in Houston, and because there were no pavements there, I was the only pedestrian, so I suppose I drew attention. To compound the crime, I was in the uniform of a foreign power (i.e. the UK), presenting a clear threat to the state.

A police car about the size of a small fishing vessel pulled up alongside me and two tall policemen got out, wearing high heels and enormous cowboy hats. They asked for my chit, which I’d forgotten, then my seaman’s card, which I’d also forgotten, and finally asked if I had any other form of ID. I did, but hesitated. Would they be more likely to jail me if I showed it, or if I didn’t? With some anxiety, I handed over my membership card for the English Folk Dance and Song Society. They reacted as if they’d swallowed scorpions. I was bundled into the car; one of the men sat close enough to shoot me if I tried to escape, but far enough away to avoid contamination. They drove me back to my ship, frogmarched me onto the gang-plank, and told me never to set foot in Texas again. I never did.

Fabian Acker
London SE22

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