25 years on: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ‘deutsch-deutscher Krimi’

On a wall in my study hangs a Falk map of Berlin, on which the Berlin Wall is marked with a subtle rosy line. It’s the map I used on my year abroad in Germany, in the tumultuous year of 1989. In the space of six months I visited West and East Berlin (via Checkpoint Charlie), stayed with an East German family in Karl Marx Stadt (relatives of my German boyfriend), and then, rather disbelievingly, watched the Wall fall on TV with my great-aunt (who had seen it go up in 1961) before heading back to Berlin, this time to climb through a freshly created hole in the Wall and ponder the craziness of history while standing in the former no-man’s land.

This image of the Berlin Wall was taken in 1986 by Thierry Noir and corresponds with my memories of it in 1989

9th November 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the remarkable day that East Germany collapsed without a single shot being fired. It’s being commemorated with a programme of events in Berlin, culminating in a Lichtgrenze (Border of Light), which sees 12 kilometers of the Wall’s former route lit with 8000 helium lights as an act of remembrance and as ‘a symbol of hope for a world without walls’. This is what it’ll look like at night:

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Lichtgrenze installation, 7-9 November (http://www.bauderfilm.de/lichtgrenze/)

Of course, one of the myriad ways in which the legacy of the East German past is still being explored is via crime fiction. Here are some examples of recent Krimis that engage with the so-called ‘deutsch-deutscher’ (German-German) question. (Unfortunately only the first one is in English translation at the moment, but hopefully the summaries below will give non-German speakers a flavour of what’s out there. And who knows, perhaps some publishers might be tempted?)

Simon Urban, Plan D (Schoeffling, 2011; Harvill Secker translation, 2013). This gutsy alternative history imagines a 2011 world in which the Berlin Wall did not fall. A blackly humorous satire, it follows the misadventures of Volkspolizei (People’s Police) investigator Martin Wegener, while giving readers an insight into life in East Germany and its historical contexts. I reviewed it favourably in 2013, and posted an East German glossary that explains some of the key events and terms in the novel.

Christa Bernuth’s Innere Sicherheit (Inner Security; Piper, 2006) is set in the East Germany of the early 1980s, before reunification seemed likely. GDR police investigator Martin Beck (a nod to Sjöwall/Wahlöö?) looks into a fatal case of Republikflucht (‘flight from the republic’) that’s not all it seems. Why has the victim been shot with a bullet used by the West? And what are her links to the West German terrorism of the 1970s? There’s an extract available (in German) on the author’s website.

Uwe Klausner, Stasi-Konzern (Stasi Business; Gmeiner, 2014). Retired police chief Tom Sydow is strolling through a West Berlin park on 9. October 1964 when shots ring out. A man has been murdered, but perpetrator and corpse quickly disappear. Sydow discovers the victim was meeting a Stasi officer and is pulled into a case that leads to the top of the East German secret police. This is the sixth installment in the historical ‘Sydow’ series. The fifth, Kennedy-Syndrom, is set in August 1961, just as the Berlin Wall goes up.

Oliver G. Wachlin, Wunderland (Wonderland; Emons, 2008). This humorous ‘Berlin-Krimi’ takes place as the Wall is falling in 1989. West German police investigator Hans Dieter Knoop views a corpse by a lake who’s wearing ice-skates … even though the water’s not yet frozen. He sets about solving this puzzle in the midst of the historical jubilation around him, and receives some unexpected visitors from the East. The second in the series, Tortenschlacht (Death by Cake), plays in 1990, shortly before German reunification.

Jay Monika Walther, Goldbroiler oder die Beschreibung einer Schlacht (Roast Chicken or the Chronicle of a Slaughter; Orange Cursor, 2009). Set shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in Warnemünde, this novel shows former East German citizens floundering economically in the new order. The villains are former Nazis from the west, who co-opt eastern neo-Nazis, former Stasi members and disgruntled former GDR citizens into activities such as extortion, smuggling and importing women as sex workers from eastern Europe. A bleak view of the reunited Germany.

As this small selection shows, there’s a huge amount of diversity in crime novels that engage with the East German past – in terms of the historical moment they examine (from 1961 to 1990), the perspectives they adopt (investigators from East and West), the themes they pick up (political repression, corruption, the impact on ordinary people of major social and political changes), and the style in which they are written (satirical, thriller, comic). They link to other legacies of the German past (National Socialism, left-wing terrorism) and sometimes form part of larger historical series attempting to process twentieth-century German history (Klausner’s ‘Sydow’ novels). All of them form part of a wider boom in German-language historical crime fiction, which was triggered by 1989 and the renewed interest in Germany’s ‘double past’ of fascism and communism – Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘age of extremes’ writ large. I’ve just finished a chapter on this subject for the University of Wales Crime Fiction in German volume, which has been very illuminating to write. A final point: only one of the authors above actually had lived experience of East Germany – Oliver Wachlin, who was born in the GDR in 1966. The latter is obviously not a prerequisite for writing crime about the GDR, but I find it interesting nonetheless.

The famous image of the East German Trabi busting through the Berlin Wall

Here are a few extra links to articles and websites about the former East Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Coverage has been excellent:

A brilliant collection of video clips from rbb (Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg) that chronicle the history of the Berlin Wall and its fall. They can be viewed in German or in English.

Before and after shots of the Berlin Wall and the city from The Guardian. Click on the old image and the modern one appears – quite uncanny!

Great piece on the fall of the Berlin Wall by Timothy Garton Ash, a historian who was also an eye witness – some great images too.

An interesting piece by Philip Oltermann, on how some positive aspects of GDR society (from football to gender equality to education) are only now being properly acknowledged.

Over at Kafka’s Mouse, PD Smith has a great post on the changes to urban Berlin in the wake of reunification, with before and after images.

The British Museum currently has a major exhibition on exploring German history through a variety of objects. It’s called Germany – Memories of a Nation, and runs until January 2015. There’s a companion Radio 4 series: you can listen to an episode on the two Germanies here – the object in question is a wet-suit that was used in an escape attempt from the East in 1987.

40 thoughts on “25 years on: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ‘deutsch-deutscher Krimi’

  1. The wonderful movie The Lives of Others [2006] was a moving portrayal of life in the GDR. When I saw it on TV I was reminded of Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin, because of the way everyone was watched by someone all of the time.
    It is hard to believe that the German Democratic Republic was praised in the West for its achievements in sport and other matters, while citizens were disappearing into the Stasi prisons.
    Thanks for this roundup of East German connected crime fiction.

    • You’re welcome, Norman. I liked the Lives of Others too, although interestingly there was some criticism of it not being accurate enough (e.g. Stasi operatives would not have been allowed to carry out surveillance on their own, precisely to prevent the kind of identification with the suspect that occurs in the film). But very well made and a sobering depiction of what life was like in the GDR if you got on the wrong side of the authorities. I can see why it reminded you of Fallada’s Alone in Berlin.

  2. Lovely post, Mrs. P, and how wonderful that you were able to be in Berlin when the wall when down. What a moment that was, and how it changed so much for so many people… Thanks too for this roundup – some great hings here.

    • Looking back, it was an amazingly fortuitous year to be in Germany. I wish I’d taken more pictures and asked a few more questions, but it was great to be there and that map on the wall is a lovely daily reminder.

  3. Also Joseph Kanon has a new book out, ‘Leaving Berlin’, all though it’s set in 1946, the year I was
    born, Armistice day, what they term ‘a demob baby’!Some interesting books there.

    • Thank you for this lead, Brian. I’d love to find more German krimis preferably written – or at least set – in that immediate post war period. Mrs P, do you have any suggestions?

      • Hello Miranda! One that springs to mind is Pierre Frei’s Onkel Toms Huette: Berlin (Heyne 2005), which is an interesting read, though not perfect (some odd narrative logic and a bit too much melodrama, but quite good on women’s experiences of the war). It’s published in English under the title Berlin. The others I can think of are in English: the third of Philip Kerr’s ‘Berlin Noir’ trilogy (A German Requiem) and Joseph Kanon’s the The Good German, which evoke the immediate post-war period very well.

        I’ll let you know if I think of any more. There’s a good German one set in the final days of the regime: Birkefeld and Hachmeister’s Wer uebrig bleibt, hat recht (dtv, 2004).

  4. This post was wonderful. I will have to read it twice if not 3 x to get all the info processed! I visited Berlin in 1980. I’ve never forgotten it. Impressionable as I was the trip to West-Berlin chlled me to the bones. Officers checking ID of the train passengers and then they walked along the train with mirror’s on litte wheels to check under the train. Freedom never tasted so good, once I was back in The Netherlands.

    • Thanks, N@ncy. Ah yes, the wonderful security checks. I remember the officers on the train (usually asking you to pull your hair back from your face or to see your ears) and the dogs. There was always that horrible pause by the border and then a sigh of relief when the train started moving again. But were they officers from the East or the West? Can’t remember, which is odd!

      • That is true, I forgot about the dogs and that ‘sigh’ of relief. We all sat in slience until we were over the border. If my memory serves me correctly they guards looked at met with.an expression of ‘sourire et souffri’ …so they must have been East German.

  5. I need to take time to look through all the wonderful links you posted – and perhaps get my hand on some of those books. I too have amazing memories of the year 1989 and plenty of friends in both West and East Germany who gave me a blow-by-blow account of the joys and pain of the reunification process. Thank you so much for collecting all this information and sharing with us!

    • Thanks, MarinaSofia, and you’re welcome. I’m finding that this anniversary is bringing back lots of half-buried memories. Quite strange to think that was all 25 years ago (seems like yesterday on the one hand, and like centuries on the other)!

  6. I can clearly remember sitting watching the TV news coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall together with our 20 year old (West) German au pair. Maike was a ditzy blonde but with her heart in the right place. She turned to me and said ‘Is this an English joke programme?’ not until her parents phoned her would she believe it had really happened. Even then her response amazed me ‘We will be swamped with Oosties who will ruin everything..’ How times have changed, she eventually fell in love with and married a chap from East Germany and they have three kids they brought to London to meet our family!!

    • What a fascinating story, herschelian. That reaction to the possible influx of ‘Ossies’ was a very common one at the time (the reality was more accurately that businesses from the West went over to the East to hoover everything up on the cheap). I’m glad that love led her to a more nuanced view!

    • Thanks, Keishon. At the moment, as far as I know, only Simon Urban’s novel has been translated into English. I’ll check out the others and will let you know if there are more. Or do you read German (forgive me, can’t remember)?

  7. What an absolutely stunning post, Mrs P: many thanks for sharing your expertise. This is fascinating stuff, both in terms of the books and in terms of your own personal experience of the Wall’s fall. Off to add several of those novels to my “Wanted” list . . .

    • Thanks very much, realthog, and you’re most welcome. I should just add (will add a note to the post) that only one of the novels has been translated to date as far as I know. Will check this out and specify if others have as well. A nice area for English-language publishers to explore…

      • only one of the novels has been translated to date as far as I know

        That’s what I’ve been finding. And Plan D hasn’t been published in the US, just the UK. Grr. On the other hand there are some v. cheap s/h copies of it on Amazon, so at the moment temptation is warring against the general rule not to buy through the Great Satazon.

      • Apologies – I should have made that clearer! And I’m familiar with the temptation you describe. At least if you buy from an independent seller on the site, you’re helping to support trade beyond?

      • At least if you buy from an independent seller on the site, you’re helping to support trade beyond?

        Out of my purchase cost of $4.78, Amazon will take something approaching $2.30, leaving the vendor with about enough to recoup shipping costs.

  8. Thanks for all this information. This a fascinating part of history. My father’s Air National Guard unit was called up and sent to France and Germany for a year when the Wall went up.

    • How interesting! It must have been a very tense time to be stationed in Germany, right at the height of the Cold War. I’m sure he had some fascinating stories to tell.

  9. Thank you so much for this post, Mrs P. What a richness of new Wende books to look forward to. I would love to see more DDR authors. Was Dagmar Scharsich one? Die Gefrorene Charlotte (Ariadne Krimi, 1993) was set in East Berlin in the last days of the DDR. Given its publication date, it must have been pretty fresh. This book certainly had a great impact on me as it was the first voice of life the other side I had really heard.

      • Thank you so much for this link. I remember after reading Gefrorene Charlotte keeping a look out for the next book. Her very sporadic output explains why I didn’t find anything, but I’ll definitely order in Der Gruene Chinese. And many thanks, too, for your suggestions above of books set in post-war Berlin – Kanon and Frei are both unknown to me. It feels like such rich soil for potential krimis. I also half remember that one of Christian von Dithfurth’s Stachelmann series dealt with the post-war re-employment of Nazi-sympathising judiciaries (there not being enough de-Nazified legal professionals) and how these treated German communists in the immediate post-war period. The books are of course set more recently but I love the device of having a protagonist who is a struggling doctoral student specialising in the National Socialist period.

      • Yes, von Ditfurth’s Stachelmann series tackles various aspects of the Nazi past via its historian-detective, and is one of a large number of German crime novels that are set in the present and then ‘investigate’ the Nazi past. I have a database of Nazi-themed crime novels that you might be interested in seeing, which contains lots of German examples. You can access it via the blog’s ‘About’ page, and then click on links in the document for discussions/comments about particular texts on the blog.

        By the way, are you familiar with the Krimi-Couch website? It’s one of the leading German crime fiction webpages and is pretty comprehensive. I search for stuff there all the time: http://www.krimi-couch.de/ 🙂

  10. Lovely post, thank you for sharing your fascinating memories. I visited Berlin not long after the wall came down, and the memories are strong ones. I visited again earlier this year – for the first time in 25 years. What changes, and what a beautiful city.

    • Thanks, Moira – returning after 25 years must have been quite something! Yes, it’s an amazing city; one that you can go back to time and time again (would love to live there for a year at some point). What I can never get over is how much history from different periods is layered there. Once you become sensitized to that it’s almost overwhelming. Sometimes the only thing you can do is retreat to a bar for a restorative beer!

  11. Re using independents on Amazon, try going direct to their sites. For Years I was buying 2nd hand books from World of Books on Amazon, & realised it was just as easy to go direct, no real difference in price & they have a brilliant site.
    Getting away from the German theme Mrs P, have you read any of the Malcolm Mackay ‘Glasgow
    Trilogy ‘? Just started the third & last in the series. Very interested to see how he ends it! Would be interested to hear what other people think of his style, no empathy or good guys here!
    Hope ‘Leaving…’ is as good as ‘The Good German’ which is superb, shame about the film! I shall
    have to start calling myself Demob Baby!

    • Good suggestion, Brian – thanks for that pointer for us UK readers – will check their site out.

      I’ve not yet read any of the Glasgow Trilogy, but have now made a note. I did recently read the first in the William McIlvanney ‘Laidlaw’ series, also set in Glasgow, which I liked very much. It was published back in 1977, but has held up very well.

      Demob Baby has a certain ring to it (could also be the name of a band?!)

  12. Pingback: Deutschi Crime Night and the ‘Crime Fiction in German’ volume | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

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