In all the fuss over BBC salaries this week, I heard nothing about the quality of the presenters and the relative merits of their salaries. Bridget Kendall came to mind as an example of the very best of BBC journalists. I wonder what she got paid!
This second series of ‘Cold War Stories’ was essential listening. Just like the first series broadcast on BBC Radio Four last year, it is made up of fifteen minute episodes, each relating a specific event in the Cold War, with contributions from people who actually took part. It takes off where the last series ended with the death of Khrushchev and follows on chronologically, taking in events such as the fall of Saigon, the Prague Spring, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the birth of Solidarity in Poland. There are also episodes on the proxy war in Africa and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Later episodes cover the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Bridget Kendall is now Master (!) of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Her expertise in Russian made her an outstanding journalist for the BBC and this series reminded me of her contributions to bulletins when a trusted voice was essential.
This television series from Germany is a fascinating insight into the world of East Germany. I watched a version with an English translation of the commentary as my German is not good enough to follow completely in the original language.
The series was made up of seven films each covering an aspect of daily life in the DDR. The sub-title, ‘A History of the Other Germany’, suggests that West Germany was better known to us in the west and life behind the Iron Curtain was, for me, something of a mystery.
The films were made in 1993 when the people most affected by the regime were able to talk. What struck me was the mixture of the historic and the mundane. Daily life is daily life wherever you live, regardless of political regime. Some complaints were about the restrictions of living in the country but others were about the loss of things since the unification of Germany. Of most importance, though, were the voices of people who felt the full force of the state. Some actively sought to be provocative but there were also the people who did not understand why they had fallen out of favour.
As the series progressed, I got the sense that any country which is so scared of its own people that it had to suppress any dissent does not deserve to survive. This point was most clear in the episode which explored artistic expression in the DDR. I also gained a clear idea that the country was not as independent as it pretended; the power from the Soviet Union acted as big brother on the playground. When fortunes changed there, the writing was on the wall for East Germany.
History is told by the victors but this series is worth seeing because it does not take a simplistic approach to the subject; many voices are heard and no easy answers are given. The final moments of the last episode prove these points. Figures, famous and not, provide a one sentence answer to the question of what the DDR meant to them. It was a powerful ending to a fascinating series.
Hats off to Channel Four for realising that there is a world outside UK and that there are countries other than USA and Britain that make television programmes. This excellent series was broadcast under the umbrella ‘Walter Presents…’, the channel’s attempt to celebrate the best of world television.
I was hooked on this series about the young East German man sent into West Germany to complete a mission to ‘save his country’. There may have been some plausibility issues about an untrained and ordinary person sent to do a highly complex spying mission behind enemy lines but the programme had such heart that I ‘allowed’ these gaps and enjoyed the story.
Martin Rauch is a border guard when we first encounter him. He is compelled to go to West Germany as Moritz Stamm, a young soldier in the West German army and an aide to a top ranking General. Martin/Moritz is played by Jonas Nay the loyal East German whose commitment to his country owes more to family and the familiar than to any ideology. Unfortunately for him, his Aunt is a high ranking official in the Stasi and her need of an agent overrides her sister’s objections about losing her only son. Martin’s reservations about leaving his single mother are ignored when he is drugged and taken across the border against his will.
The Cold War was frozen in place in 1983 and the suspicion each side had for the other was clearly seen. Martin/Moritz sees up close the ease with which misunderstandings can have serious consequences and he becomes the ordinary person who tries to get his superiors (on both sides) to see that misunderstandings could lead to war. Even though the history is known, the series builds up the suspense and I was reminded that we did live through a period when we thought the other side wanted to kill us.
What the drama did best of all was to show that fear of the other side provided motivation enough to keep the Cold War going. As with many global conflicts winning is less important than making sure the other side didn’t win. Generals, diplomats, spies and politicians all play a part in perpetuating the mistrust.
The best scene of all: an overwhelmed Martin/Moritz in a West German supermarket for the first time facing the range of goods on offer.
‘Deutschland 83’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This film from 1979 is one of the many westerns produced by the DDR (East Germany) to provide an alternative history of the American West. In this case the story is set in 1850 and it is the British who are colonising Ohio, taking land from the Indians. A raiding party takes the young son of a family making its home in the backwoods. He is to be the replacement for a dead son and will be raised as a boy in the tribe.
After an initiation ceremony, he is accepted as an ‘Indian’ and, although initially a reluctant addition to the tribe, he grows up to accept his place. When in young adulthood he faces the choice of returning to the white folks, he has a dilemma about where he belongs.
The film is in German throughout which makes the British scenes interesting, but the story does avoid making one side the ‘goodies’ and the other the ‘baddies’; this was the sort of thing I was used to as a child. The British soldiers, when captured by a combination of French soldiers and the Indians, are treated cruelly. The young boy witnesses their treatment and is relieved to be spared. On the other hand, the community into which he is accepted is caring and his upbringing is loving. How a young man is supposed to reconcile this life across two very different cultures is hard to know.
This is a film to make you think about what builds an identity and where loyalty should lie. It also addresses issues of when a person switches allegiance. Is it when you know the new group meet your needs? Is it all to do with familiarity? Is it indoctrination?
‘Blauvogel’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Oliver Fritz grew up in Communist East Germany, the DDR. His book about his life is an enjoyable read because he comments on the everyday. His childhood, teenage years and early manhood were all spent in a regime which he writes about in an amused and often affectionate way. He was not blind to the contradictions of a regime which told its people they were free from capitalism but neither was he a dissident. Rather, his disillusionment with the Communist government grew as the restrictions started to affect him personally.
Throughout the book he includes jokes at the expense of the ruling class, most of them revealing a healthy scepticism of the general population. Yet he also comments on the benefits of a society that ensure health care, education and housing are all available at reasonable cost. The fact that the economy of the DDR was in such bad shape owed more to a desire to provide for the masses than a desire for a few to make money. As Fritz points out, though, the leader for most of his life, Erich Honecker, was kept in the dark about the real conditions in which the people lived and spent most of his time in office believing the reports his minions gave him.
Oliver Fritz liked lots about his homeland but his love of fashion and music and a lifestyle on the other side of the wall was attractive too.
I have read lots about the fall of the wall but the version written here is the most rewarding. In part, this is because it comes from a young man who saw freedom as the opportunity to dance in discos in the West and, in part, because when the truly historic events took place I had read so much about his ordinary life. It was fitting with the tone of the book that, when the wall fell, his parents missed it because they went to bed early.
‘The Iron Curtain Kid’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novel by Torsten Schulz and translated into English by Harry Guest is an interesting one. Originally titled Boxhagener Platz and made into a film in Germany, it tells the story of one family in Communist East Germany. Many of the inconsistencies and contradictions of the regime are shown through the eyes of young Holger who is growing up in the DDR in the late 60s. His grandmother, Otti, is in search of a new husband, number seven, despite number six being alive but ill n bed. Holger’s father is a policeman but in a lowly job and his mother is no respecter of the rules of the Communists.
Through the normal teenage activities and family events we learn about life in the DDR. From the way the head teacher who promotes communism and expects obedience to the old style Communists who think the party is full of old Nazi sympathisers, the range of characters on show illustrate that to a teenager all adults are strange.
One character is dismissive of Walter Ulbricht, Communist leader of East Germany from the 50s to the 70s, because he shared a pat form with Nazi Josef Geobbels. I looked this up and it is true! Another character asks where all the Nazis went when the DDR was formed. It is a pertinent question because, from the formation of the communist state, all citizens were treated as victims of Nazism rather than enthusiastic participants and supporters. Unlike the West, there was no ‘coming to terms’ with the past.
This novel is an engaging look at coming of age in a different time, in a different type of country and is worth seeking out.
This East German film was made at the very end of the Communist regime. It is a touching story of a young teacher who finds commitment very hard, much to the consternation of his mother who thinks he should settle down with a girlfriend and live the life everyone else is living.
Philipp has other plans, though, and other reasons for not living a conventional life. He keeps his sexuality secret and starts a relationship with a young female teacher at the high school where he works. Throughout the film we see him wrestle with questions of desire and attraction. He is conflicted over the need to live a conventional life and his wish to be as brave as the gay men he meets and socialises with. Jakob is a flamboyant young man who is a friend of his girlfriend. There is a lot of tension in the air when they meet at her apartment.
Into the film comes Matthias a somewhat shy young man who watches from afar but who makes no secret of his attraction to Philipp . There are scenes in a gay bar where many of the patrons are in drag or fancy dress. Whereas most of the men are comfortable in this scene and with themselves, the struggle continues for Philipp. An older gay man recounts the struggle he went through as homosexual during the Nazi era. The implication is that there is more freedom in the DDR. In one speech, he praises the communists for helping him where others rejected him.
At the end of the film, Philipp has a decision to make. The title may give away the ending but this film has an important message about acceptance, self- worth and freedom. The fact that this was one of the last films made by the DDR’s DEFA studios makes it an interesting document of times changing.
‘Coming Out’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?