The story of Berlin is intrinsically linked with the stories of failure, of revolution, and of malevolence. Of course, the human spirit can (and does) overcome the fiascos like what Berlin experienced in the last 75 years; people will always be people. But to consider Berlin, one cannot overlook its troubled past. It is a trite conversation in the context of European history but the political and societal upheavals in Berlin have certain immunity to ho-hum omission. And so, drawn to this inevitable branch of German history, I chose the men of the Mauer—the guards of the Berlin Wall.
I wanted to find the story of the Berlin Wall guards because I thought it succinctly encompassed the story of Berlin’s breakdowns. The Nazi regime and Soviet occupancy are both well known, and vilified worldwide, but the conditions of those who composed the underbelly of those machines are often disregarded. But they matter. The Berlin Wall stood for 38 years as the symbol for the Soviet insurgency and these guards were its poster boys. I had heard that the situations that these guards—and as I will reveal later, they would more aptly be called “boys”—worked in were tedious yet tense, dour and disrespected. That is all I knew going in.
And I mean it, really. I have a story to tell--my story. So, bitte, sit and listen.
When I was three years old my mom was struck across her brow by a Berlin Wall guard's baton. He stood in front of her, stolid against her defiance, as if daring my mother to raise a finger in his direction. I hunched behind her, wanting to run but frightened into submission. I remember her scream then, but nothing beyond that. I still don't know why she was hit and arrested; she doesn't talk about the incident. No one in my family ever says anything about that time anymore. It's like we were all trained overnight to live with this nagging stitch in our sides and a hair on our tongues.
My father handled his business well. He was a bright, gregarious statesman in the DDR hub in Berlin starting in '67, following his brother and uncle into the system. He and my mom would complain that work "consumed" him, but he always made time for us. Promises used to glide off his tongue that we would fish in the Spree or hike in the Alps once the DDR expanded. Always strive to succeed, he'd murmur at dinner or when he read the papers. We lived comfortably, my two little brothers and my mom and dad, near where my mother grew up in northern Neukölln. I wore red to school every Wednesday all the way through primary school for him. On the morning I was due to register and interview for the military in my 17th year, he woke me up an hour early and we smoked two Havana cigars on the veranda. He said he was proud of me; proud to have his oldest son join rank and file for his country. When the government report arrived--to send me on assignment to Prague, and then to active duty in Afghanistan--he pulled some strings to keep me in Berlin. It's better to stand in place than to fall in war, he said. Anyways, we'll go fishing soon.
My dad died of heart failure five months after I started as a municipal guard on the Wall, on 2nd October, 1987. My captain at the time, a mean fucker named Heinrich, gave me a week's leave with pay and coldly reminded me of this "generosity" whenever I talked back after that. I missed my family. My mother adjusted well after my father's heart gave out, but the DDR was poor when he died and we never received our due compensation from the state. (Thanks, Honecker! You ass.) I had my own flat in Kreuzberg but seldom used it. It was capacious but bare. I liked to go home after work for a warm meal and to see my mother and brothers. Finn started smoking cigarettes and so I had to stop lighting up after meals in the house, but Lukas was still young and inviolable--he liked striking matches for me. My mother was never ungrateful for my visits; you know how moms are. She rested more assured even if I was just sleeping in my old room. The bed was small but so am I.
Work was always the worst part of my day. I got into the practice of tying my boots too tight just so my ankles wouldn't ache during a long shift. The insufferable repetition of the day-to-day grind wore me down more than the walking. Picture yourself clutching to childhood career dreams while standing at an ell or pacing behind concrete demarcators for forty-eight hours a week. The problem was that any excitement was worse: blaring sirens and shrill whistles made every hair stand erect for a moment as the rush of the moment stirred you from a numbing reverie. Then after a moment, and this is the lowest part of any week, I realized that every iota of this delight is at the expense of some poor civilian like my mom. I heard my own whistle and remember cowering behind my mother as someone wearing that same damn uniform beat her. It was my job, certainly not a career but my debut in the system nonetheless, and I hated it.
The West never really gave a shit about me. What we did, who we arrested, what we stood for--all pointless to them. I used to look out across the bare strip on the West side and imagine helicopters rushing over to give me ice cream and magazines with Brooke Shields on the cover and fly me to Amsterdam. The Eurythmics staged a concert in Spring '88 and I found myself crying that night as I saw the lights flicker on the window of my apartment. I despise The Eurythmics, but I'll be damned if I didn't envy what they symbolized that night. The West had style, they had Twinkies. The only little treats we got were the random bits we managed to confiscate. When the system started to break down in '89 and blockades between East and West sides were less strict, the other guards stole contraband from fellow DDR Germans without discretion. I never took anything. I'm no bottom-feeder.
Dealing with my old compatriots in the East was the most difficult. They didn't like me, or the guys I worked with. (I mean, I didn't like the guys I worked with. But it's the principle.) I heard some stories about guards who had to arrest their teachers or old friends. One poor guy accidentally shot a woman in the thigh when her hat blew off towards the Wall and she chased it a little too close. Thankfully, I never had to bear that sort of weight. I'm too timid.
When the DDR began to crumble and my two checkpoints practically became tourist spots, I was fired. There was no ceremony and no blast of fury; just a silent stony whimper and the final check in the mail a week and a half later. I watched the parties on TV; fatuous revelry poured into the streets like a once-mighty river coasting through an obliterated dam. I scoffed at the time, but now I understand their, I don't know exactly how to say it... glee. I'm still not completely happy though. I've been freed from working on the Wall for, what is it?, 20 years next month? Any work programs for servicemen were hopeless because the situation with our old government was so bad by the end. And it is well documented how the Westies made ridiculously paltry (to use a nicety) attempts to assimilate us into their broadened system. Basically, we had no choice but to slip away and eke out any opportunity that passed. I know some guys who are very successful and some others who fell by the wayside. We haven't talked much in years, even my closest friends from the guard. What is left is to work and step in line with the folks around us. We carry expiable feelings and heavy pressures with no outlet... But waking up with guilt in your stomach is easier if you are well fed.
This is why I've been eluding people like you, John. I am sorry if I or my fellow guards frustrated you, but it's a lifestyle--ja know? I've spent 20 years repairing the three-year gap in my life. I went to University in '91, throwing a fake Polish or French accent into my admissions interviews to cover my trail. I learned English so I could get over to the Netherlands or England, or even America. (It stings to want to go to America, knowing what my dad would think were he alive--honestly, I worked near Checkpoint Charlie for a year and a half and spat every time I saw your flag billow on a German wind.) I went westward and found a job in Dusseldorf as a mechanic. I've managed to create a pretty good life here. But I hope and pray my lies do not unravel. I can't go into details, of course, but my swines are bacon if the wrong people start asking questions. Only my wife knows that I was a DDR posterboy. Putting up with stupid tricks and invented histories is a pitiful way to go, John. I'm impressed that you were able to track down my address but please do not contact me again. I am sorry if this displeases you or hinders your project, but even this contact is probably not worth the risk. I wish you all the luck in the world. Give a proßt to Berlin for me.
As they say in the old country, Auf Wiedersehen!
Berlin was the trip of a lifetime because of the friends on the trip and dynamics of Berlin itself, but the matter at hand (the guards) always stood firmly in front of me. The trouble was finding them. It became a silly habit to ask people we’d meet if they knew any Berlin Wall guards. It is the equivalent of walking around New York asking passers-by if they’ve broken bread with Frank Sinatra—yet I held hope. I spent hours on some days just asking for a point in the right direction. Those who gave me a second of their time did not avail themselves, besides telling me to go to a museum or to shove it up somewhere. Three full weeks in Berlin and I never found the wraiths of the Wall: nothing, not even a whiff.
That is not to say, contrary to what you might have thought, that ‘Honors in Berlin’ came and went without gleaning information. Clues to the guards’ experiences were out there, I just had to look at the problem from another angle. Their absence, then, was my crutch—which prompted a couple simple yet pivotal questions: what drove these men to the shadows and what keeps them behind that veil? Sure, their role in the Soviet machine was blatantly denigrated; no one blames them for seeking solitude and privacy. But now, 20 years after expulsion from that mandatory (and unpopular) duty, there is still no hint of their livelihoods. Even lifelong denizens, Manuela and her good friend, a former GDR cadet named Andreas, couldn’t help. Understanding the guards while potentially never meeting one required understanding their environment.
It was not enough for me to see the old black-and-white photos hung in street side galleries or the Mauer Museum. Piecing together the guards’ plight meant feeling the city, letting the metaphysical clues waft around me like a ubiquitous haze. The entire basis of my argument assumes that guards were hard to find in Berlin because most of them left town in ‘89 or soon after. But what made Berlin unsuitable? I posited early on that both West and East Berliners were vindictive to the bone; guards faced ostracism. But in my four-week experience, I found that very few people are better suited than Berliners to absolve past transgressions. (Going through Nazis and Soviets in less than three generations has a way with toughening skin and changing perspectives.) They knew the guards were often 18-year-old kids born into the GDR’s regime, sent with rifles onto a turbulent pedestal. It was unfair. To paraphrase Sean Maguire: it’s not their fault; it’s not their fault; it’s not their fault. I do not believe the guards left Berlin to find solace from fellow Germans.
My best hypothesis is that Berlin was too poor. As young recruits they integrated themselves early into the GDR machine. And as Andreas related to me, once you began working for the state it was most convenient to continue that career path if your shoulders and stomach could handle the job. “The Berlin Wall guards were drafted to the position because they were respectable and politically loyal,” he said, “and not necessarily because they were smart or influential.” I extrapolated that the guards were thus completely out of work once the GDR caved, whether or not they were still working on the Wall in 1989-1990. Most of their livelihoods must have depended on the success of the government once ingrained in the system. Since “Berlin Wall guard” is a terrible bullet point on a résumé and these boys might not have any other work or education experience, jobs would be few and far between. And the West certainly wouldn’t rush to their aid. Southern and Western Germany is the epicenter for most of the industry and agriculture, while Berlin lacks marquee corporations. What jobs there were in 1989 would not go to the poster boys of the Berlin Wall or the older captains and brigadiers who served before them. When Erich Honecker resigned as the GDR party leader and Egon Krenz took over and eventually dissolved the East German state, the money dried up. The guards must have left town and covered their tracks to find work.
The burning question remains, though: Why would they bother to keep hidden after so long? The simplest answer I can offer is probably the most accurate. They hide because it is easier. The struggle to transition to freer, capitalistic society compounded the problems of unemployment. Getting tossed into the cage they used to tend was also a difficult reality to face. Fingers could be pointed and indignation could come flying. So why risk it? A former guard of the Berlin Wall may not necessarily have been through Hell and back like those who fought in war or served in Hitler’s Germany, but with occupation as a Berlin Wall guard came intense political symbolism and fiery opposition. So if I were to ask why the guards choose secretive reclusion in Berlin and abroad, I suppose the most appropriate answer is—wouldn’t we all?