My 1988 – The year before the end of the Berlin Wall and the DDR

A very personal review 


This is me. At the first moment I was shocked how clearly the scanner on my printer would reproduce a photo taken by someone I do not remember on an East German camera bought in the 1980s. This photo is from an old album containing maybe ten such memories from the summer of 1988. Let me be more exact, this was taken during three weeks in July of 1988, in an East German town called Halle an der Saale, the birth place of Georg Friedrich Händel, some thirty kilometres away from Leipzig.

I am standing in the common room on the ninth floor of a student hall of residence, the “Weinberg high risers I-IV” that have 11 floors. The building I am standing in is high riser number II, where most of the Arts students lived. The residence still exists today and is set in the greenest and most beautiful valley of Halle, close to the river Saale, the Dölauer Heide and the Burg Giebichenstein built in the 10th century. The view from the long balcony on the ninth floor in 1988 was simply wonderful.

I am an Arts student just having finished my third year of a five years education to become a high school teacher of German and English. The people sitting behind me are students of German and one other subject Music, English or History. Kerstin und Thomas are two of them, I do not remember the name of the girl with the short hair.

What am I doing there? Right, I am a waitress. But not only that. Beate, a friend of mine and I are running the place where East meets West. These are the three weeks of “Interkurs. Internationaler Hochschulferienkurs für Germanistik der Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg”. Yes, you read correctly. The language course that attracted a global clientele was called Interkurs, which in German has solely the old fashioned meaning given by the Cambridge Dictionary: “formal conversation and social activity between people”.

Some of us Arts students commented to the University professors of German on the possible interpretation that our guests from the West could give this name. But our professors just smiled vaguely and said: “Ein Schelm, der Böses dabei denkt.” (Shamed be he who thinks evil of it.)

I am twenty-one years old and I am having the time of my life. It was not easy as a student to become involved in the summer course for international students. The course had been running for a long time, since the early 1970s, every summer in the same place, with about ten to fifteen university professors and academic staff, and about 50-80 people from the Sovjet Union, all Eastern European countries, the whole of Western Europe, Australia, the United States and Canada.

To those people, students of German – or East Germany, or Real Socialism, or just globetrotters between 18 and 70 years of age, our bunch was extremely exotic. To us East German young people, having the opportunity to talk to people from the West for three weeks straight, was just too amazing to believe.

One professor, one of the main organisers of the event, acted as a gatekeeper to the course. He would observe his students in lectures and seminars and pick out those he thought would represent our university and the German department in the best possible manner. He did not care whether we were firm believers in the East German system. To him what mattered most was Bildung.

When he did pick someone, he always made a public show of it. Shortly before July of 1988 he picked my best friend Matthias who was born in a small South Eastern village and is now living in Lausanne. After a lecture to approximately 150 students of German he announced that Matthias should approach the lectern. Then, in front of everybody he spoke in a deep resonating voice: “Today you showed that your education in the Bible outshines all of your fellow students. I want you to be a part of the Interkurs this year.”

We were all stunned, even though everybody would admit that Matthias had more detailed knowledge of German history and culture than anyone of us, few would expect a university professor in the GDR to say in front of so many that knowledge of the Bible could advance your options for being on the Interkurs student team.

So Matthias was drafted, and shortly afterwards, my best friend Jana, an outstanding student of German and Music. The term was drawing to a close and I was getting nervous. Why did he not pick me? My friend Tina who studied German and the classics, and with whom I shared a flat illegally but comfortably close to the University, was equally nervous and appalled that she had not been chosen. So we decided to approach professor gatekeeper ourselves.

Nobody had ever dared to do that, as we found out quickly. We asked for an appointment at his office, and I never forget the look upon his face when the two of us knocked on the door and entered the small room on the loft floor of the Institute. The look said something like: “I was expecting this.” Tina and I made our case and he consented to having us on the team.

I volunteered immediately to work on the ninth floor of high riser II because I knew that here I would meet everybody on the course. So my friend Beate and I became responsible for the “Interkurs Café” that had existed almost as long as the summer courses, and its traditions were sacred. We would get up in the morning at about 10 am, clean the place up, and then set out to buy all kinds of cakes, coffee, tea, alcoholic and light beverages, and everything that was needed to run a café, including matches to help customers light their cigarettes.

Oh, yes, the place was always full of people smoking. That was just the most normal thing in those days. I put up a record player and borrowed all kinds of vinyl records from the local library, Mozart, The Doors, Charles Aznavour and more, just to play them softly in the background and allow East and West to talk to each other.

At 2 pm when the guest students would return to their temporary campus after  lectures in the morning, we opened the café and many had their coffee and a piece of tasteful German cake from a local baker, or maybe a schnaps and a smoke, or a beer and snacks. We kept the café open until the last customer would leave, sometimes at 7 am. This would give us three hours of sleep. This was the routine for three weeks, but I did not mind at all. This was my life at its best. The world was visiting Halle an der Saale.

There were the group of loud Russian teachers of German, all women in their forties, claiming their table in the café and talking over each other. There was the Dutch globetrotter in his 50s, who had just started studying again, completely unheard of in our country with highly regulated life phases. There was the jovial older Bulgarian with his belly and urge to dance on the tables after midnight, who we had to kick out on several occasions.

We all liked talking to the nice and friendly young student from the United States, who spoke German and Hungarian fluently and who we secretly thought of as a CIA spy. Speaking of spying, rumours were that employees of the Stasi, the Ministry for State Security occupied the 7th floor of the building during these three weeks. I was never on that floor, so I would not know.

There was the middle aged guy from the French part of Switzerland, who had a crush on my friend Beate, and who would tell me once a week that he was going to buy me a theater in Switzerland. And who was I? I was a young woman of 21, taking it all in.

My hair was curled, with the help of perm chemicals, but it looked deceivingly natural. I used little make up – just lipstick and mascara, and not every day. I did not shave at all. Not under my arms, nor my legs. There was simply no one saying that this is what a woman had to do. I sewed my own clothes; jackets, trousers, skirts and dresses, and I knitted my own pullovers. There were not many nice things to buy in the local clothes shops, although the particular outfit I am wearing on that photograph was purchased.

This was the culture of East German University students in the 1980s, far from aerobic videos shown on West German Television. Yes, I lived in a a single party satellite state of the Soviet Union. The rigid system limited our freedom, but this again had certain cultural effects on its people that seem liberal compared to the some of the ideals of beauty and success today.

I loved my study subjects, especially North American literature. Besides my university studies I was a student at the Händel Conservatory where I had finished a 17-year piano education the year before and now studied jazz piano. I also was a member of the University student theatre, where I performed for four years. All this education and cultural activities did not cost me anything.

Beate and I were nice to our café customers, but also strict. There was no harassing or fighting allowed between the two global systems in the café Interkurs, no talking down of West or East, and it simply never happened, at least while I was there. I suppose the people coming to Halle in 1988 were mostly not against the communist system, and if they were, they kept it to themselves to be polite. But of course, we were asked about how we felt living in a country that had no freedom of speech, no democratic system, and no right to travel where you wanted.

How could we possibly answer these questions? Well, I told those who wanted to know that I was aware of this, but that I still had a good life, considering the circumstances. I was more or less honest about it. On the one hand I knew that I could not talk in detail about my political views to people I did not know, and on the other hand I found these questions sometimes awfully patronising.

And yet, though I enjoyed life in 1988, with all my good friends close to me, and an interesting university education in a dirty, but culturally interesting town, the young woman in the photo from 1988 was starting to have an idea that she kept closely to herself.

Look at me, I am twenty-one!I love travelling. I go abroad every year, to the countries that DDR citizens were allowed to go to. Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria were unproblematic. Poland was restricted for some years, due to Solidarity activities. To travel to the Soviet Union you needed to apply for a visa, and not everybody would get one. Yugoslavia was not considered communist enough, so DDR citizens were not allowed to travel there.

I had enough money for travelling Eastern Europe for a whole month during summer. As students we got paid an acceptable sum by the system every month. It was more than enough to cover food, theatre and cinema and the occasional night out. When I got a legal flat a year later, it was still enough to pay my rent, which was below thirty East German Marks per month. I would save my money to use for travelling.

I was young, and I wanted to see the world. I was not interested in West Germany. I wanted to go to France, to the UK or to the United States. These were the countries that meant most to me because I had grown up close to West Berlin, where I had listened to the Allied Forces radio channels, such as AFN and BFBS, watched American movies on West German TV and felt up to date on British and American music culture.  And I loved the French culture I knew from movies featuring Annie Girardot and Michel Piccoli.

I felt drawn to West European culture, and the thought of not being able to go to London or Paris made me angry. Yes, of course, DDR citizen were allowed to go to the West and visit it all. But we were not allowed to do this before we had reached the official age of retirement in the DDR, which was 65 years. That meant waiting for another 44 years.

This was the reality I lived in. I knew that people trying to flee East Germany would be thrown into prison or shot during an escape attempt. That was not an option. My oldest half brother had applied with an “Ausreiseantrag“, a formal request to leave the East and settle in West Germany in 1973, when he was 19 years old.

He immediately lost his job at the theatre Freie Volksbühne in East Berlin and was only allowed to work early hours in a bakery ever since, to keep himself alive. Ironically, his Ausreiseantrag was granted 16 years later, a week before the Berlin Wall came down. So this was not an option for me either. So what was left?

I secretly made a pact with myself in 1988. I would see Paris before I turned 25. This was my first year of Interkurs. Next year I would prepare and I would make my move. I would find a nice guy from the West, preferably somebody who was not interested in the opposite sex, and I would ask him to marry me.

A fake marriage, the only way to leave DDR without being shot or losing your job. The thing was, I did not  want to leave East Germany for ever. I only wanted to travel and stay abroad as long as I wanted and to return. But this was impossible in 1988. And the thought of this changing within a year was unimaginable.

By July of 1989, everything was different. My younger half brother had escaped the DDR in May of 1989, after Hungary had started taking down its border defences towards Austria. Now he was living in Hannover. Gorbachev told the East German government to loosen their grip. What did they reply? “There is no need to change your wall paper because  your neighbour is doing it.” Right.

But things were moving. I and many others felt it. In July of 1989, the thought of leaving East Germany was the last thing on my mind.  There was a change in the air. And I had hopelessly fallen in love with a guy from Poland during the summer course. So much for marrying a guy from the West. The Polish guy was engaged, so that did not quite work out the way I wanted.

Still I did not know what would happen to me and to 17 Million DDR citizens during August, September, October and November of 1989. That, however is a completely different story. As far as I remember, the summer of 1988 was the last summer when I had no doubt that things would remain the same for many decades to come.

About Stefanie RJ

Friend, mother, wife, researcher, thinking and speaking German, Norwegian and English in no particular order on an ordinary day. Study technologies in societies and the possible different futures we should be minding. View all posts by Stefanie RJ

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