The Book of the Week is “Forty Autumns, A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival On Both Sides of the Berlin Wall” by Nina Willner, published in 2016.
The author was the daughter of an East German refugee named Hannah. After WWII, Hannah’s family residence happened to be located in Schwaneberg, in East Germany. The area was liberated by Americans, but was taken over by the Soviets in short order. Hannah’s father was the headmaster of the local school. He was forced to teach Communism to his students.
In 1948, at twenty years old, Hannah, the second oldest in her immediate family (which would eventually consist of nine children), risked getting shot or imprisoned in fleeing to West Germany. The Soviets charged such people with treason– she was young and healthy and refused to help rebuild East Germany.
East Germany indoctrinated the children with their Communist youth groups in which they recited a loyalty oath, sang jingoistic songs, had film-viewings and acted in plays. The children were rewarded for being snitches on their own immediate families, neighbors, friends, teachers– whoever said anything negative about the State. Prison terms awaited the tattled-on.
This prompted a super-serious case of brain-drain and flight of capital and a labor force from East Germany to West Germany. In spring 1953, tensions of the oppressed boiled over. Soviet tanks rolled in, leaving hundreds dead. By the mid-1950’s, the government owned the media, which spewed positive propaganda about itself, and negative about any place other than Soviet-controlled territories.
Initially, the Berlin Wall consisted of the following: concrete that was twelve feet high and one to three feet thick; a slippery, rounded top; wire mesh; electric signal fencing; barbed wire; electric alarms; searchlights; trenches; raked sand to reveal escapees’ footsteps; floodlights; tripwires; booby-traps; attack dogs; not to mention wooden watchtowers. And armed guards, too.
Just for good measure, in the mid-1970’s, the Wall was fortified with metal spikes, nail beds, fences with touch-sensitive alarms and bullet-dischargers, concrete watchtowers, tripwires that set off signal flares; concrete barriers, electrified fences, and additional attack dogs.
Unsurprisingly, by then, countless people had been shot and killed trying to get past the Wall. Their murderers were rewarded with promotions and awards ceremonies. East German government officials enjoyed luxury housing in the Wanderlitz Forest Settlement (equivalent to a corporate village full of dachas) and drove Volvos.
East Germany’s leader decided to boost national pride by investing hundreds of millions of dollars in sports research and sports medicine to churn out the best Olympic athletes. And the nation did so into the 1980’s.
Unfortunately, by the end of the 1970’s, the country was $10 billion in debt to West Germany. It got so desperate to feed its people, it awarded plots of land to individual families so they could grow their own food. It was an un-Communist move– taking power and property away from the State. But after about thirty years, the chickens were coming home to roost under the East German brand of socialism.
In modern times, in the West, it is possible to be capitalistic in one’s economic thinking, and be mildly Soviet in one’s political thinking.
Read the book to learn the fates of the different family members, and how their lives changed during and after the Cold War.