Zofia Smardz
Zofia Smardz

Fellowship Title:

A Life of Limitations

Zofia Smardz
May 8, 1987

Fellowship Year

EAST BERLIN–It was just going to be a short camping trip, only five days or so, but Wilfriede had been looking forward to it for months. In all her 21 years, she had never been outside East Germany, her farthest trip afield from the family enclave of East Berlin a visit to an aunt who lived in Dresden. Now she and four friends were going to Czechoslovakia to hike in the hills and spend a day or two in Prague, a city that lured Wilfriede, an art history student, with its promise of untouched medieval and baroque treasures.

As the day of departure approached, Wilfriede grew excited and strangely nervous. She wouldn’t let herself think or talk about the trip, fearful that her eagerness would somehow jinx it all. But her bags stood packed and ready in a corner of her room a full week before the vacation was to begin.

On the bright Sunday morning when they were scheduled to leave, Wilfriede and her friends arrived at Schoenefeld Airport several hours ahead of their flight time. They whiled away the wait in the bleak airport terminal playing cards, smoking and talking. When at last their flight was called, they moved excitedly through the ticket line and customs and on to the gate.

There, their tickets and passports were checked once again by military guards stationed at the door. Wilfriede’s friends passed through and she, bringing up the rear, handed the young guard her passport with confidence. He riffled through its pages and swept his eyes over Wilfriede, then riffled through the passport again. Then he handed it back to her and motioned her to move back and stand to the side. Not understanding, Wilfriede tried to go past him and follow her friends. The guard seized her by the shoulders and shoved her roughly backward.

“You’re not going anywhere!” he shouted. “Get back behind that barrier!”

Stunned, Wilfriede stepped behind the iron guardrail he had indicated and stood numbly watching the rest of the passengers file past and board the bus that would take them to the plane. Her friends, seeing what had happened to her, had gotten off again, and one of them, Harald, was trying to talk to the guard, who merely ignored him.

After several minutes, Harald looked over at Wilfriede helplessly. Fighting back tears, she nodded to him and silently slipped her heavy backpack off her shoulders. It held all their food for the trip. She handed it to Harald over the guardrail and he kissed her on the check, murmuring “I’m sorry, the bastards, I’m sorry.”

Wilfriede watched her friends board the bus and the bus pull off toward the plane. Then she picked up her small suitcase and glanced quickly, sheepishly, at the guard. He had turned his back to her, and when the bus moved away, he walked off in stony silence. Wilfriede walked out of the terminal, got on a bus, and went home.

That was four years ago, but when Wilfriede recounts the story today, there is still a trace of pained bewilderment in her eyes. She has never understood why she was prevented from making the trip, what the guard had seen in her to make him choose her as the victim of his ruthlessness that day. There had been nothing wrong with her passport, and Czechoslovakia, after all, was the one country to which East Germans were allowed to travel without a visa. But understanding, she says, is not the point.

“There are so many irrational, illogical things that happen here and there is no explanation for them and nothing you can do about them,” she says with a shrug. “It happened, that’s all that matters, and they showed me that they were in control. That was what they wanted.”

“They” are the East German authorities, and Wilfriede believes they used her as a random object lesson to illustrate their power in all situations. If that was so, it had its effect on her. She has never tried to travel abroad again since that day, not even to Czechoslovakia. “I’m afraid that the same thing would happen again,” she says. “I’m simply afraid they will never let me go, anywhere.”

To be young and East German is to know early the bitterness of a life of limitations–external, physical, immutable.

Young East Germans lead a tightly circumscribed existence. From cradle to grave, their lives are controlled and directed by the state, which sets out special agendas for them in school, leisure pursuits, jobs and most other areas of life. Through measured steps that satisfy certain basic needs, and backed by the most efficient state security system in Eastern Europe, Communist East Germany manages, better than any other state in the Bloc, to keep the natural rebelliousness of youth in check, to squelch or ignore the drives of curiosity and the hunger for new experience and different tastes that are the birthright of young people anywhere, and no less of young citizens of the German Democratic Republic.

One of its strongest weapons is the denial of travel. Consigned to the 41,700 square miles of their diminutive, artificial homeland (roughly the size of Ohio), East German youth and young adults chafe at the restrictions on their Wanderlust that have become symbolic, for most of them, of their foreshortened options in life.

Czechoslovakia is the only country to which they may travel freely (always a relative term, as Wilfriede would attest) on their own: trips to other East Bloc countries such as Hungary or Romania can be taken only in conjunction with expensive and highly controlled group tours arranged by the party’s official Free German Youth organization. Poland, because of its recently turbulent history, is off-limits completely.

So, too, and above all, is the West. Unlike other young East Europeans, East German youth have practically no prospect of ever seeing the West Unless they are willing to turn their backs completely on friends, family and familiarity and abandon the GDR for good. Even under recently liberalized East German rules that allow citizens to visit West Germany if they have relatives there, a trip to the Federal Republic, the glittering, magical Mecca toward which young East Germans instinctively yearn, remains a fantastic pipedream for most. While West German youth have grown to think of East Germany as a foreign country, their counterparts in the GDR, despite all the propaganda and indoctrination of the state, still view the Federal Republic as a second homeland, a part of their national heritage, a place someday to visit and get excited about.

The near-impossibility of ever seeing it, however, is made all the more frustrating by the fact that it is available, every day, by a flick of the television dial throughout most of the GDR. In an effort to appease the public by satisfying its craving for entertainment and for knowledge about the way its German cousins live in the West, the regime of Erich Honecker has gradually allowed the infiltration of West German television. Today, all but 20 percent of East Germans–those who live in a small area around Dresden, where the Western signals don’t penetrate–can pick and choose among a variety of West German programs for evening viewing, and even the East German authorities acknowledge that their own drab programming is regularly eschewed by most viewers for livelier Western fare.

But while Western TV may be the current opiate of the masses, its effect on the youth of East Germany is, more often than not, unsettling and debilitating. The tantalizing prospect of so much abundance and freedom so near at hand breeds resentment among the young of the shortcomings and shortages of their own society. “Young people go wild here, because they see what there is on the other side, but they can’t touch it, can’t get their hands on it,” said one West German diplomat in the GDR. “It’s a resentment many have difficulty handling.”

In East Berlin, the resentment is doubled by the physical proximity of the West and the stark, corralling reality of the Berlin Wall. Martin is a 23-year-old writer who lives in a small apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, a district of East Berlin that runs along the infamous Wall. From the window of his third-floor walk-up in a building that nearly abuts the Wall, Martin can look directly out over the steel and concrete barrier and right at a neon-bright West Berlin bar not more than 100 yards away. In the evenings, he can hear the vibrant rock music that shakes the building’s walls, and he can watch the revelers coming and going until the wee hours of the morning, listen to their laughter and their shouts in the street, the sound of their cars starting up and driving off into the night. He has watched this nightly pageant for three years, and it has yet to lose its bittersweet allure.

“I watch what goes on over there, and I don’t know sometimes whether to laugh or to cry,” Martin says. “I know I can’t have any part of it, and that makes me angry, but at the same time, I still believe I’ll be over there someday. As long as I can see and hear the difference between life here and life there, I have to believe that.”

One evening in Martin’s apartment, his friend Jonas, 25, confesses to more dire problems with the specters of the Wall and the West. A Leipzig native who came to Berlin to study medicine, Jonas is obsessed by the barriers that keep him from exploring a world he longs to see.

“In my mind’s eye, there is this locked door,” he explains, savoring a glass of French wine brought over by a visitor from the West, “and I am always pacing in front of it, back and forth, back and forth. I want more than anything to get that door open, to pry it open with my bare hands if I have to, but I know that I can’t, that all I can do is to wonder endlessly what is behind it. I try, but I simply can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t get it out of my mind.”

A friend of his from Leipzig, Jonas says, came to Berlin with him when they both entered the university, but developed a similar obsession and returned home a year later, and has never been to Berlin since. “He left because of the Wall,” says Jonas with a wry laugh. “He couldn’t stand to be so close to it. It was too real; it forced him to confront the truth about our lives every day, and he couldn’t deal with it.”

The truth about the lives of young East Germans goes far beyond the inability to travel that is, for most, an immediate and tangible preoccupation. Beneath it roil dissatisfactions and frustrations that stem from fundamental problems with the system and its values and demands, frustrations that go so deep that more and more are willing to give up everything and leave the country for good if they can.

It has become fashionable in some parts of the GDR, especially in the northern regions, for groups of teenagers to make pacts promising that as soon as they all turn 18, they will apply for emigration to West Germany en masse, reports Lutz Rathenow, a young East German writer who has been censored by the regime and can only publish in the West. For all the fanciful nature of such declarations, this is hardly a frivolous step: application to emigrate traditionally means one to two years of harassment and even imprisonment before one is allowed out–if that is, indeed, the final outcome.

The total number of emigration applications has in fact risen–last year, there were a record 800,000 applications to leave the country, a number that represents about 5 percent of the population. There is no statistical breakdown on the identity of the applicants, but most experts agreed that most number are young East German adults under 30 seeking a freer life in West Germany.

What they are fleeing is a realization, come to most of them only gradually, that the system which has guided their lives from childhood, while providing them with most of their physical needs, has deprived them of certain spiritual or psychological values that are equally important. The ideological bankruptcy of the system, as in most of the East Bloc countries, has disillusioned them, while the empty propaganda that continues to barrage them can hardly be taken seriously anymore.

“Many of these kids have basically decided to stop throwing back the balls the state throws to them,” said an American diplomat in East Berlin. “The rigidity of the system turns them off, and they’re subjected to too much indoctrination, which, given the information they get from the West, they find unbelievable, if not laughable.”

Adam Wenders (not his real name) is a 24-year-old mechanic who finally emigrated to West Berlin last August after waiting two years for his application to be approved. In the course of those two years, he lost three jobs due to official pressure on his employers and spent a year in prison. There he was beaten severely once on charges of disloyalty to the state. He arrived in the West all alone, with no friends or relatives, and was having trouble finding both an apartment and a job. At the dilapidated offices of Hilfe mit Herz, a volunteer organization that helps East German refugees get settled in the West, he admitted that life in West Berlin was going to be harder than he had imagined. But that caused him no regrets over his decision to leave the GDR.

“You know, I was raised under the red banner, like all East German citizens, and in the beginning, I seized it and all it stood for eagerly,” he said. “But my eyes opened up gradually. First, in the army, I began to chafe against all the regimentation. Then when I went to work, I noticed how the fix was in on everything–I mean, how certain people had all the privileges and all the power, from the manager on down to the shop foreman, and you, the average guy, had no say in anything.

“Now I know nothing will ever change in the GDR. There’s a rigid policy. It says: ‘’Go into your houses and be quiet.’ Nothing else is allowed. The only way you can get ahead is to shout ‘Yes’ and ‘Hurrah’ and march along. That’s not for me.

“For me, it’s a question of democracy, and freedom, and my own personality–whether I’m allowed to have a personality of my own or not.”

That, it turns out, is a fundamental question for most young East Germans.

“The hardest thing about life here is the feeling of being forced to do and think certain things, the sense of ‘You must’ always being pounded into your head,” said Sasha Andersen, a 31-year-old underground poet who was the spiritual leader of a counterculture group of young intellectuals in East Berlin until his own emigration to the West last fall, after he had “had enough” of the harassment and difficulties that plague the young men and women who come closest to being the “dissidents” of East Germany.

The forcing measures of the East German Communist Party begin from the moment a child enters school at the age of six. He is automatically enrolled in the Young Pioneers through the age of 13. At 14, he enters the Free German Youth and undergoes the Jugendweihe, a rite of passage similar to a religious confirmation ceremony. Membership in the Free German Youth is obligatory until age 25, and a young person’s fervor in its service can make a big difference in the kind of job he lands after high school graduation or in whether or not he makes it to the university of his choice.

But while 90 percent of young GDR citizens belong to the organization, most lose interest in its dull, politically oriented and ideologically-colored activities well before they leave high school, and develop a healthy resentment for its intrusion into their lives at the same time. Brigitte, a 19-year-old whose attire reflects East Germany’s modified punk tendencies, recalled the first time she realized how much control the party hoped to exercise over her.

“I guess I was about eight or nine, and they told us in the Young Pioneers that we were to march in the May Day parade,” she said, shaking her head and smiling ironically at the memory. “Well, May 1 was a beautiful day, so my parents took me to the beach instead. But at school the next day, I and two other children, were called up before the class and reprimanded in front of everyone for not having shown up for the march.

“I was mortified. I mean, I was little, I didn’t understand why I was being ridiculed. I didn’t understand what I had done wrong.” She crossed her legs and puffed on her cigarette, the smile on her face disappearing. “I’ve hated them ever since.”

Similarly, young East German males resent the increasing militarization of society, marked by a growing emphasis on military studies in the school curriculum and the linkage of educational and career opportunities with participation in military activities. One young high school graduate related his efforts to apply for training as an auto mechanic. There would be no problem, he was told, as long as he agreed to do three years of military service first. If he refused, there probably wouldn’t be any places available…

To many East Germans of the older generations, the state’s paternalistic attitude toward its young appears, on the surface, desirable and attractive. But even older GDR citizens have been brought up short when confronted with the realities of the state’s ultimate product.

A few years ago, East German cinemas released, with great fanfare, a documentary film titled “The Children of Golzo,” a 15-year project that had followed a handful of young people in a small town from adolescence through the completion of their education to the establishment of their careers. They all appeared to be great successes–one had become a doctor, another an engineer, another a lawyer, etc.

But after the film had run only a few weeks, it was abruptly withdrawn from the cinemas and since then has rarely been shown again. Instead of the positive reaction authorities had expected–”Aren’t we all proud of these fine GDR citizens”–the public found the film curiously depressing and negative. “It was incredibly sad, because you looked at these young people, and at 23 or 25, their lives were over,” explained a Dresden schoolteacher who had seen the film. “The most they could hope for was a new car, or a new apartment, or getting married. There was no sense of initiative or motivation, no sense that they were striving for more in life. Everything was taken care of, and these fine young minds had settled for that.”

The regimentation and drabness of life continues in adulthood, at the workplace and elsewhere, and East Germany’s young people find themselves seeking an escape wherever they can find one. Even those who do not think of emigrating, who have made their peace with living in the GDR, turn inward, opting for what has come to be known as “internal emigration” and an involvement in private life that shuts out the unwanted reality of the omnipresent state.

In the last half-decade or so, the Lutheran Church has become a haven for alienated and disillusioned young people seeking a freedom of expression they cannot enjoy anywhere else. Less religious than youth in other East European countries, East German youth embrace the church not as a spiritual refuge, but as a locus of political and social activities outlawed elsewhere in the communist state.

One chilly night in November, the square around a large church in East Berlin is filled with parked cars and a sense of life and movement that is rare even on sun-filled days in this grim capital. Inside, the pews in the nave and in the loft that runs around three sides of the church are packed with people, most of them young. Collectively, they evoke a scene from the ’60s–there’s lots of long hair and ponytails on the men, the garb of both sexes runs to army surplus jackets, blue jeans and boots.

On a makeshift stage set up in front of the altar, a well-known underground performer, Stefan Krawczyk, and his actress wife are performing a satirical political revue that has the audience rapt with attention and appreciative with laughter and applause. The skits the couple skillfully run through touch on all the topics that cut to the bone of East German concerns. In one, a couple in love express their emotions in the hollow language of official ideology; in another, a young man raves about his love affair with his new stereo set in a send-off of the materialism that has overtaken much of society; in another, perhaps the most poignant, a young couple pass from excitement to elation to depression, defeat and frantic recrimination as their application for travel to West Germany is denied.

After the show, the audience stands around in clusters, discussing it and wondering whether Krawczyk, who has been banned from the legitimate East German theater for several years, might be arrested for this performance. Stasi (state security) agents were certainly in the audience, and even the neutrality of the church cannot protect him if the authorities want to punish him.

None of the audience, however, feels at great risk for having attended. The church’s shield is still strong, despite the fate of the peace movement which it harbored in 1982-84. Shaken by the spontaneous formation of the East Bloc’s only autonomous peace movement, numbering tens of thousands of young people, the Honecker regime ultimately managed to defuse the issue by expelling most of the group’s leaders and allowing many of its members to emigrate to the West.

Today, what is left of the peace movement operates even more guardedly and far less visibly than before. Gone are the famous “Swords to Ploughshares” badges that raised the ire of authorities in the past, and few demonstrations take place anymore. Seminars and discussions groups are more the order of the day. And to a great degree, the movement has channeled its concerns into other areas, specifically environmental issues, which are highly pressing all over Eastern Europe, but far less threatening to the regime.

For this effort, the church still provides the physical umbrella. But while recognizing its obligation to the country’s youth and its role as the only institution that can effectively represent human right issues, it works harder today to control the tempo and the extent of any dissident activity.

That is, in many ways, all right with East German youth, who find themselves looking for a direction for their protest, as they do in life. “Young people today are much more seeking, more impatient than generations in the past,” said the Rev. Rainer Eppelmann, an East Berlin pastor who was a leading figure in the former peace movement and is heavily involved in youth affairs. “They are less willing to adapt than their parents were. They seek to turn their ideals into reality, but they invariably run into an existing reality that is far different from what they would like it to be.”

In the face of such reality, it is little wonder that so many young East Germans opt for escape–either literal or figurative. And it is equally little wonder that they avoid open protest or organized opposition. For all their dissatisfaction with it, the East German state still fulfills certain basic needs–security, a guaranteed job, a home and income–if they toe the line, and provides swift and not always subtle repression if they don’t.

“Young people here aren’t going to rise up in revolt,” said a West German diplomat in East Berlin. “They’re always very aware that there’s a stern security system watching over them, and that in many ways, they’re better off than youth in the rest of Eastern Europe. Most of all, though, they know in their hearts, though they hate it, that as long as they are here, they really have no control over their fate.”

©1987 Zofia Smardz

Zofia Smardz, a reporter on leave from  Newsweek, concludes her reporting on the young generations of contemporary Eastern Europe.

Zofia Smardz
Zofia Smardz