In an authentic and unadorned way, these photos tell of a country that no longer exists, yet remains preserved in these images. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ostzeit presents photo series by the best chroniclers of the German Democratic Republic, culled from the first-class inventory of the Ostkreuz Agency. Founded on the concept of authorship in 1990 by photographers fromBerlin and Leipzig, the agency was named after a Berlin train station. Anyone wanting to enter East Germany had to pass through this station.
Ostzeit offers sensitive pictures of the GDR and its people: Sibylle Bergemann’s unrivaled, humane photographs of the legendary Berlin dance hall Clärchens Ballhaus. Werner Mahler’s long-term study of Bad Berka in Thuringia. Harald Hauswald’s photographic essay on the drabness and hidden comedy of everyday life in the GDR. Ute Mahler’s revealing photos of the May Day Parade in Berlin in 1980. French photographer Maurice Weiss’s documentation of the final hours before the collapse of the Wall and reunification. And last, but not least, Bergemann’s emblematic images of the creation of the Marx-Engels monument, which, ironically, are now part of the German Parliament’s art collection.
Excerpt from the Book
What I Might Have Been
by Marcus Jauer
The night the Berlin Wall came dow n, I was at dance class. We stood in front of the Haus der Pioniere, the boys with the boys, the girls with the girls, and we waited. That summer Dirty Dancing had opened at the movie theater. A wild, young dance teacher from the wrong side of town meets a nice girl from a good family. He shows her how to dance, and all of the other things that go along with that, and at the end he’s a little less wild, and she’s a little less good. Our girls really liked this movie, and so they convinced our dance teacher to teach us the mambo, along with the fox trot and the waltz. He was an older gentleman with a comb-over, but he was patient. On that night, I was wearing a brightly colored shirt, which seemed to suit the person I was at home, but for the person who stood with the others on the street, it seemed to slowly rob me of my courage. I still recall how I started sweating beneath my parka. Then Atze came and said that the Wall was down.
Actually, his name was Thomas, but he made sure that everyone called him Atze. He adopted the nickname as if it were a special quality. Weird Atze. Sometimes he would start singing in the middle of class, and when the teacher warned him, he would keep on singing. “Woman singt, da lass dich ruhig nieder, böse Menschen haben keine Lieder.” (“Settle down where folks sing, bad people don’t have songs.”) The last time I talked to him, ten years ago, he told me he wanted to leave the small town where we went to school, but as long as he had to take care of the German shepherd dog that his father had left him, he couldn’t go. He never left. At the same time, he was the first one who had wanted to take off.
On that night, he rode up to us on his moped, tore his helmet off. It was true, he said, he’d just heard it on television. The Wall was down. He wanted to leave right away, and we should all go with him. But we hesitated. We stood around the moped and thought about how big the West was in general, and wondered what we would do once we got there. I had to think about how mad the girl I danced with was every time I couldn’t get the steps for the mambo. If I were to go to the West, I wouldn’t have to come back again. Anyway, Atze went off by himself that evening, on his moped, as far as he could go on the freeway. Everyone else went to dance class. Dirty Dancing at the Pionierhaus. That was the collapse of the Wall for me.
At the time I was fifteen years old. I’m now thirty-five. In the meantime, I’ve lived longer without the Wall than with it. I attended university in Munich, I work for a West German newspaper; I can decide for myself what I’m going to write about. My best friends are from the West, my favorite books, the music I listen to, the films I see.
I saw the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen in my life in Nepal. It was four a.m., everything around me was enveloped in a bluish gray. I stood in front of a hut, looking at an eight-thousand-meter-high mountain, on whose peak a bright red streak could be seen. It came from the sun coming up behind me. Its light flowed down the mountainside like lava. Of course, I realize that if I hadn’t seen this particular sunrise, another one would have been the most beautiful I’d ever seen in my life. But I’m happy it was this one.
This fall, it will be twenty years since the country I was born in began to vanish. Sometimes I think that everything about it must be long gone from my life. But then I see pictures, pictures like the ones in this book, and I realize that it isn’t so. Then the country seems as real to me as if it were still in existence. I can see myself in it. I ask myself what I would have done if the Wall hadn’t collapsed. What might have become of me?
“That’s not so hard,” says one of my friends. He comes from the West, so some things are easier for him. “Either you would have been there, or you wouldn’t have been there.”
“Working for the secret police.”
“There were more than just two careers in that country,” I say.
“I know that,” he says.
The area where I grew up is south of Leipzig. It’s very flat; there are no mountains or hills, and in some places there is nothing to block the view of the horizon. That’s because everything that used to be there—houses, trees, landscape—has disappeared into an enormous pit. The area where I grew up was brown coal country. Behind the village where my family lived, there was an open-pit mine, from which our only protection was a single street. The forest had already been chopped down, and at night, when it was quiet, we could hear the squeaking of the chains of excavators. The lake where we swam in the summer was surrounded in seven places by smoking chimneys, power plants, briquette factories, and a carbonization plant, and when snow fell in winter, the soot soon colored it gray. I still remember that we schoolchildren were once supposed to write an essay about the year 2000, when all of the coal supplies would be gone. We were supposed to imagine how nice it would be when the pits had been flooded and turned into lakes, and we would have beaches, harbors, promenades, and bike paths along the banks, as well as a new forest. Basically, that’s what happened. Just in a different way.