After the Wall

Peter Pulzer

The other wall, the mote famous and aesthetically more distinguished one, the one designed to protect China from the barbarians, inspired Kafka to one of his most profound reflections: ‘Try with all your might to comprehend the decrees of the high command, but only up to a certain point; then avoid further meditation.’ I do not suppose the rulers of the German Democratic Republic studied Kafka. They were merely nature imitating art. For a time they managed to inhibit meditation among their subjects, though without inducing comprehension. When meditation resumed, so did comprehension, for reasons Kafka would have been the first to grasp. The rest we know.

Die Mauer was published on the first anniversary of the breach in the Berlin Wall, the act that signalled more clearly than any other that comprehension had reached a fatal level. The bilingual text which includes a long interview with Willy Brandt is by Dr Fischer, the superb photographs of the Wall that take up most of the book are by Count Schulenburg. It is dedicated to Dr Fischer’s uncle, murdered in Auschwitz, to Count Schulenburg’s father, executed for his part in the plot against Hitler, and to the victims of the GDR regime, especially those who died trying to escape.

It is a problematic dedication, because it raises, without answering, the old question of whether, and how, the great tyrannies of the 20th century can be equated with each other. Those who commemorate the uniqueness of the Holocaust should certainly not ignore other genocides. Those for whom the Soviet Union was the evil empire need to remember other evil empires. All the same, the GDR was not the Third Reich all over again. Unlike the Soviet Union, Hungary and Romania at various stages, it was a prison, an exceedingly repulsive prison, but not a charnel house.

Those who know about these things tell us that being released from prison can be as great a trauma as being sent there, that the prison walls can remain real even when they have been left behind. The Berlin Wall, built in 1961, had two purposes. Short-term, it was to save the economy of East Germany by putting an end to the mass exodus of the population; in the first 12 years of the state’s existence over two million people had left. Long-term, it was to turn a state into a nation – not merely to reconcile the population to the regime through modest economic recovery.

That required an ideological turnabout. In the Fifties the proclaimed aim of the Communist regime had been to bring about German unity. They were the true patriots, the West German political class the traitors to the nation. Was it not Ludwig Erhard who, at American instigation, introduced a new currency, Konrad Adenauer who put liberal capitalism above unity, the Western allies who rejected Stalin’s offer of a neutral united Germany in 1952? Once the Wall was up, this changed. The 1968 Constitution still described the GDR as ‘a Socialist state of the German nation’; the 1974 Constitution described it as ‘a Socialist state of workers and peasants’. No further mention of its German character, instead only of its ‘permanent and irrevocable’ alliance with the USSR. The GDR’s national anthem, with its reference to Deutschland einig Vater-land, continued to be played, but not sung.

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