People Power

Interview with Barbel Reinke,
Citizen of East Germany

Photograph of Barbel Reinke Q: Starting with your childhood ... Did you have a lot of faith in the state of the GDR?

Reinke: When I was a child, yes, of course. I was born into the state ... grew up with it, and believed that everything it did was perfectly OK. I even thought the Pioneer organization was pretty fantastic ... loved wearing my scarf ... loved going to the events ... loved demonstrating with my school friends on the first of May ...

Q: Did you think of yourself as being free?

Reinke: Yes. I did feel free until I moved to Berlin. And the Wall ... if you're in the Spree Forest, or if you live in Sachsen-Anhalt and in a big city, you don't know how constricted this Republic really was. You were simply not aware of it. I mean, I never went anywhere near a border....

I lived a perfectly normal life.... I went to school, I went shopping, I went dancing, or whatever. I had nothing to do with a Wall as such. I never felt it. And during that period no one really restricted]me, or no one ever told me "No, you're not allowed to do this or do that, or you can't go there." We never felt that.

Of course, people used to say even then ... take the Stasi [the Secret Police] for instance, it's only now that I understand what the Stasi must have been all about in those days, but I didn't understand it then. But I did know that the Party was in charge in such a small town. But I thought it was ridiculous, I simply thought it was ridiculous.

I just thought it was ridiculous what the gentlemen in their loyalty to the Party would expect of ordinary people, and I used to think that if you really want to serve your Party you would have to do that, I really don't care about that, that's got... nothing to do with what I believe in. If he says for example, the grass is red, then he has to stick to it. He can't talk me into it though. That's what I did. The grass was still green as far as I was concerned. It was as simple as that. Of course you would avoid them then.

The first time I ever really felt that I was actually locked in was when I moved to Berlin, because I saw it, and ... the first time I glimpsed it, I found it unbelievable. I thought it was really sad. Even when you went shopping, by bus, the bus would suddenly go round the corner, because you were stopped from going straight ahead. You just couldn't go straight ahead - there was a Wall there. And, being in the bus, being a little higher up, you could see over a little bit....

Just the thought that such a thing existed, locking people up, not letting them over, and ...

And that there are other people, on the other side, and that they can look over in the same way ... I thought of both of us being sort of locked in, in a way.

I felt it was quite depressing. And became quite aggressive in my behavior in response to this Wall. And then I became more interested in the relevant politics. Why should they be doing this?

In our profession, the way that happens, my husband and I were both waiters, and if any high-ups were said to be coming as guests, certain people would be released from working on that day. They would not be allowed to work on that day. It was as simple as that. We knew that, but you just got used to that ...

It had nothing to do with how professional you were, it was simply to ensure that nothing could happen, the person who is assigned to serve that person on that day is above board, no questions asked, no irregularities or whatever that might end up in any sort of discussions.

Q: What was the standard of living like in the GDR?

Reinke: The living standard wasn't bad. I have to keep saying that - first of all there was enough food, food was really cheap. And clothes you needed... and you could afford the occasional luxury ...

Q: Did you travel to other countries?

Reinke:... I rarely went to Poland, but I sometimes went to Poland, and often to Czechoslovakia, not Hungary. I found what I saw quite depressing. To give you an example, I went to Yalta once, and the Russians - that's what we were always taught - had liberated us, so in other words the liberators of our country, which is another matter for discussion, OK, but that's how we saw it ... and the people I saw in Yalta, I thought they were so miserable ... really poverty stricken, that I said to myself, "Our liberators ... live ten times worse than we, who were liberated by them."

Q: Where were the problems?

Reinke: This is what I think, the person in the GDR was always working more and more. But the point came where you just couldn't buy very much anymore for your money. People's expectations rose obviously. And the time came when it just wasn't possible to buy anything of good quality any more.

We had the Exquisit shops, we had the Delikatess shops for food, and we had the Intershops for Western currency. But the mass of the population, most people couldn't go shopping there. They just didn't have the money for that. They saw the Western goods, that's what it was, ... Western goods, but they couldn't afford them.

A small sector could afford to buy there. The other sector couldn't afford to. But both lots worked as hard as each other, you might say ... And now there was this conflict among the people.

Q: Did you have to educate your children carefully , did you have to teach them to be careful?

Reinke: ...They never talked about anything they shouldn't at school.... And what they watched on television - that was their business. It was later on that I realized that that was not wrong, because it was my children who taught me what I should be watching, and what I shouldn't be watching. And that included Western television.

Q: Did they try to discuss politics with you ... in what way?

Reinke: Yes, my children ... if I watched the "Tageschau" or "Tagesthemen" too much, then they would turn to me and say, "Listen, you really ought to watch 'Aktuelle Kamera' again, or you won't know what's going on." So that you can compare things. But it also went the other way, very much the other way.

My children had got so far ... I can remember one particular example, when our Mr. Honecker said that this Wall would have to last for another hundred years, and it gave me such a shock ... I just burst into tears so hard watching the television when I heard that.

I said, "That can't be, that just can't be true." And my son, Mike, said to me ... he came over to me and he said, "No, Mummy, I can tell you for a fact, this Wall will not last for a hundred years. You will walk through this Wall in no more than two years."

And I turned to him and said, "What makes you so sure of that?"

"I can just tell you, that man's simply crazy."

And I thought to myself, "That's lovely, my son, if you're right, then that's good."

....The fact that it really only lasted another year or so, that was a dream come true. A dream, ... I always say, when you talk to people now who didn't experience that day, which, I always said ... he slept through a momentous event, he really missed something big.

Q: In the summer of '89, when all those young people left via Hungary ... how did you feel and what did you do, how did you react?

Reinke: When I heard on the television how many young people were leaving this country, I thought it was desperately sad. I thought it was sad that no one was doing ... something to try and get these people to stay here. To listen to what these young people have to say to us, namely, that they don't like one thing or something else. That they see no future in this country. That they don't just want consumerism, but that they want to be free. That they want to be free to make their own decisions, to decide what they want to do, whether it's something negative for me or not, but I want to be able to decide for myself please. And not only always have to be told by the state that this is good for you, and that is not good for you. That did upset me. And what made me even sadder was that no one noticed it.

On the outside, of course it was noticed ... statistics were being kept, they were being counted, but on the outside it wasn't noticed. We were still being told that these were totally bad people who were leaving, and let them go, and they were just getting in the way of the building of the GDR, and all that idiotic rubbish, but no one ... noticed that these people could have been giving us a sign.

The problem was we didn't have a workforce any more. They started a call up, for example, not officially in the Aktuelle Kamera, but the Charité didn't have any nurses any more. I rang them as well. They just didn't have enough nurses to fill the places to care for the patients in their hospitals. It was so bad by then.

Doctors were leaving, many doctors, and above all many, many nurses were leaving, and we didn't ... have so many that we could easily say that we could do without them, it wouldn't have been so bad, the way they said, we, the GDR state will handle it, but it just wasn't possible any more.

But somehow people tried to help the people who stayed behind, and through them, the others, the patients, the sick people left behind in the hospitals, to see that they would get help so that they don't just lie there and not get any medical treatment.

You did get moments of panic. But the fear was about what will happen, not fear about ... how were things going to go on ... how can anything change here, with those blockheads in the government. How can anything change if they don't even see why the people are actually leaving.

They didn't even take in that they were leaving, but why they were leaving ... that wasn't even discussed. There simply wasn't any discussion about why the people were leaving.

But in those days we were afraid. Really afraid. The future and what was going to happen and so on.

Q: Coming to the 9th November. Describe that evening, how did you hear about it, what did you do?

Reinke: Every Monday we would stage a demonstration. And we would march around Berlin. It always just went past the Wall. That the Wall would ever fall, or that WE would toppled the Wall, that thought never entered our minds. And that wasn't in our minds, because we wanted to change the GDR, and not necessarily to see this Wall, to see this Germany as a whole.

The 9th of November came, and I was home, and was doing some household duty,

I heard the Tagesthemen at 22:30 and I heard Herr Schabowski,... with "the borders are open, and whoever wants to leave the country, may leave. And that straightaway. Or needs a passport." And the commentator who spoke after that showed the open wall as such.

I thought to myself, that can't be true. People are walking back and forth there. One by one, that's how it was then. There wasn't that mass of people on the way at that stage. But individual people were really going back and forth. I screamed so loudly here at home, even though I was all alone. I just screamed out loud, just for myself, "The Wall is open."

In the house I could hear ... I called my husband, ... and my husband confirmed it to me on the phone, and said "Darling, yes, the Wall is open, you can go." And I just said "Where to?" Said, "I'll just go now." He was working, and my neighbors here in the house came along. But it wasn't planned.... It was just by chance. And we drove off in the car. I would have been happy to walk. But we drove off and went to Checkpoint Charlie.

... But we couldn't get through. Everything was still closed there and we needed to fill in a pass form, which I filled in. The evening continued ... we carried on, at the travel agency, on the Alexanderplatz, the people were standing in a queue to apply for a passport, at night, at midnight. I thought to myself that's sheer madness. You saw the Invalidenstrasse, and you saw the Bornholmerstrasse, the Wall is open, I don't need any passport to get through there. So we drove on to the Bornholmerstrasse, all of us, and I left the others then.

I walked slower and slower... briefly over the Wall ... I sort of took a step back first, I just wanted the feeling ... but there were too many people for me, and they were all so happy. And I was alone. I was still alone at that point. I wanted to have my husband or someone with me, someone like that, not some strangers.... I went with an elderly gentlemen, we both went over the Wall ... we went arm in arm, and briefly went over together. It seems he didn't want to go alone either, or something. It was such a peculiar feeling. And I went to a telephone booth to ring my husband, but now in a bit of the West, but really just in a small bit.

But I was alone and walked the whole way back all alone from the Bornholmerstrasse back here to this apartment. That was very interesting as well. I kept walking against the tide, everyone was going forwards, except for me, I was going back.

Because I thought to myself that I have to meet my husband and you have to do this with him ... I arrive home, and find a big white note stuck to the outside door saying "I am in the West." My husband, who'd come home from his shift, saw that ... not here, so he went off as well. Quite understandably.

... It was maybe half an hour and my husband rang. He said, "Darling, where are you for heaven's sake." So I said, "Well, I'm sitting here, with a brandy in my hand and I'm waiting for a call, and where are you?" And he said, I'm standing at the Reichstag with friends and we're waiting and you can have your dream come true, you can walk through the Brandenburg Gate'. Because I'd always wanted to go through there. I don't know why, I just always wanted to walk through the Brandenburg gate. I said, "Give me five minutes."

Right, off I went again, from here, along Unter den Linden, in the middle a woman hugged me, "It is such a beautiful day," she says. And I went to the Brandenburg Gate ...

Q: You arrived at the Brandenburg Gate ...

Reinke: I arrived at the Brandenburg Gate, and the Brandenburg Gate was shut. Not closed as such, it just had a string of soldiers standing there, memories of the 7th and 8th October, I got a terrible fright. I thought, why is it I can't get through here ... And I knew perfectly well, my husband was on the other side. ... So, he was waiting for me at the Reichstag.

And I thought to myself I can't get through here. That can't be. Then I became terribly frightened and thought that those people had tricked us again. They had simply shut down the Wall again, they had just showed us what it was like to run backwards and forwards.

And I really started panicking and desperately wanted to get through ... with all my might. Here, just here is where I wanted to get through. And I tried to explain this to the soldier. But he didn't move.

I can remember he was two meters tall and one meter wide, he really was very large, and stood there with his boots, legs wide apart, I kept looking at those boots, I never even looked him in the eye properly. I was in a panic at that point. I thought to myself they can't, they just can't do that to you, I want to get through here, right here, not anywhere else. He kept saying to me, I could go through somewhere else. ... I didn't even take it in properly, I just said, "No! I want to go through here."

I felt he was a block. I thought never again will someone say you can't go through here. You're not allowed to go there, you're not allowed to do that. No more. I'm going through. And I want to go through right here, at the Brandenburg Gate, and that is possible.

And I tried to explain this to him. It just wasn't possible, because he didn't listen or react to me at all. And I talked myself into a panic. ... At that moment, someone came running across the square, and asked what's going on here. That's when I realized that other people were explaining to this officer who had just come that I wanted to go through here...

He fetched another officer, he opened up this chain, and he said to another officer, who introduced himself to me, whether he would accompany me, if I wanted to go through.

I said that was very nice of me [sic], I was so excited now, I thought it was quite fantastic of him to accompany me.

We went arm in arm, even though this was an officer of the border guards, I would like to say, but even among that lot there are some very nice people, and he was a very nice man, and as we walked along to the Brandenburg Gate, we told each other little bit about our lives. So quickly, I never realized how quickly you can tell someone about such things, about what had happened.

He told me that he had been involved in ... constructing the Wall, why, and why he thought what was happening now was all right ... and why it had to be built then. I told him that it wouldn't have been necessary and that now my children were also in the army, and that's how we talked with each other, and then we stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

I couldn't go on first of all, and he said to me, "Frau Reinke, now we're going to go right through the middle, in the proper manner, not in any other way, if we're going to go through, we're going to go through where it's the most beautiful, right through the middle." So, we walked through and I realized when we got to the other side that it truly was a very solemn feeling, and it still is that for me today.

Later on, when we'd walked through, I realized that behind it there was still a great big wall.

And he said to me, "If you'd like me to, I'll lift you over it, Frau Reinke." I said, "No, thank you, we'll go back now."

But actually, putting it like that, I was still not in the West. I'd been wandering around all night, but I was still not in West Berlin. I had walked through but I was back again.

... I decided to get away from all this mass of people, and went along here ... back to Checkpoint Charlie. Because I didn't want to clamber over this Wall. Went to Checkpoint Charlie, went through, there ... was no one there any more, and it was open, and finally walked through all alone, and was standing on the Kochstrasse.

I was standing on the Kochstrasse and everyone was shouting out: "East" or "West." I thought to myself, are these people crazy ... and someone shouted at me, but in a friendly way, "Where are you from?" and I said "From the East" and "Where do you want to go? 'Cause we're going to the Reichstag," and I said, "Oh, yes, please, I have to go to the Reichstag as well."

It was a car with a load of young people, with green and red hair all over the place, and I said, "Please I have to go there too." "Come along, and we'll take you there." They drove to the Brandenburg Gate, and one of the young men had to get out there because the others wanted to go somewhere else and so did he.

And I said "Oh, please, I want to get out here too, but please tell me the way from here." ... He went to the Brandenburg Gate and said, "Look you have to go here and here and here to get to the Reichstag."

I said, "Thank you very much" and got to the Reichstag all alone. I was quite alone there, I ran around, but there was no Walter to be seen. There was no one to be seen.

They were all at the Brandenburg Gate!

Q: Why was the Brandenburg Gate so significant?

Reinke: The Brandenburg Gate was important for us because, first of all, we, as East Berliners could ... not approach the Brandenburg Gate at all. We couldn't get to it at all.

The Wall actually started for us at the Wilhelmstrasse going towards the Brandenburg Gate. The other bits, as we said, we had no access to. And the big Wall was behind the Brandenburg Gate, again. And on this big Wall, behind the Brandenburg Gate, you could ride a motorbike, it was so wide and so wide at the top, people could happily pass each other by on the top of it. You could see that later on.

And the Brandenburg Gate ... if you didn't want to climb up the Tower, or if you just wanted to have a look, as an East Berliner, you went to the Brandenburg Gate. Because the Wall was low to look at. You could see the Brandenburg Gate. You could even see over to the big star, you could see that, you could actually see the West in that sense.

If there were any events, for example, rock concerts which were held at the Reichstag, we could hear them. We would go and stand at the Brandenburg Gate, standing in front of the Wall, Wilhelmstrasse, Unter den Linden and would listen.

When speeches were given at the Brandenburg Gate, we ... , we weren't allowed to, but we did it, ... we stood on the other side and ... it was all audible. Whatever was being said on the other side, if any politician made any announcement, we could hear it, and sometimes we could even see it. And that is why, for every Berliner, the Brandenburg Gate was the Gate to the West...the Brandenburg Gate, it is, it is the Gate to Freedom....

Note: Red text is available in RealAudio.

About the Series | Episodes | Timeline | Your Stories | Thematic Overview | Teacher's Guide

People's Century | WGBH | PBS Online | Search PBS | Feedback | Shop | ©