In the GDR

Bernard Becker

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.