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Comics about the fall of the Wall
German history in pictures

Remembering in pictures and words: comics about the fall of the Wall.
Remembering in pictures and words: comics about the fall of the Wall. | Photo (detail): © Carlsen-Verlag

For 28 years, the Wall divided Germany into two parts. Numerous comics and graphic novels remind us of the dictatorial regime that ruled the GDR and the peaceful end of the East German state. They tell of people and events that are part of the collective memory of a whole generation.

Mawil: “Kinderland” (Children’s Country)

“Form 7a ready for class. Peggy Kachelsky is absent,” Angela informs the teacher at the beginning of the lesson, her hand raised in military fashion. “I went to where she lives to bring her the homework, but there’s never anyone at home,” adds another of the girls in the class. A typical school situation in the GDR. On the wall is a photograph of Erich Honecker. The linoleum floor squeaks when you walk on it. Another classmate, Mirko Watzke, suspects that Peggy won’t be coming back.

Kinderland is the title of a graphic novel by Berlin-based comic artist Mawil (Markus Witzel). In nearly 300 pages, he describes what it was like to be a child in the GDR shortly before the fall of the Wall. With a few bold strokes, he draws a rich panorama of this era. First there’s the Russian teacher loudly spouting her socialist slogans while secretly watching Western TV channels at home. Then there’s the outsider from another class in the same year. Mirko makes friends with him and eventually, as a mark of trust, introduces him to the Catholic church community he belongs to. Finally, there are the parents who whisper about friends’ attempts to escape and, on the evening the Wall is opened, drag Mirko off to the West, although he would much rather have played in his table-tennis tournament.

The story Mawil tells is powerful: both touching and exciting, funny and profound. The illustrations, the dialogues, the pace – this comic gets it all right, down to the last detail: the typical Berlin dialect, the military-style summer camp, and the way the two protagonists gradually become closer. A pleasure to read – that was also the verdict of the jury that awarded the Erlangen Max-und-Moritz Prize. They voted it the Best German Comic of 2014.

Peter M. Hoffmann and Bernd Lindner: “Herbst der Entscheidung” (Autumn of Truth)

Leipzig in autumn 1989. Seventeen-year-old Daniel is about to take his school-leaving exams. He’s supposed to enlist for three years of military service in order to secure a place at university. “Three years in uniform and living in barracks – I can’t take that … and if I’m posted to border duty, I might even have to shoot at people trying to escape,” he thinks. But his teacher makes it quite plain: “Either you sign up or you can forget about going to university.” One evening, Daniel stands at the window watching his next-door neighbours write slogans on placards. He soon makes friends with the civil rights activists and starts distributing leaflets and attending the prayers led by pastor Führer at the Protestant St Nicholas Church. During a peaceful demonstration, his girlfriend Katrin is arrested. Now Daniel is more determined than ever to fight for his freedom …

The book Herbst der Entscheidung is a collaborative work. The author Bernd Lindner, a historian at the Leipzig Forum of Contemporary History, is an expert on the history of the GDR. He ensured the historical accuracy of the narrative – unfortunately at the expense of the story’s dramatic elements. The Leipzig comic book artist Peter M. Hoffmann provided the illustrations – bold black-and-white brush and ink drawings that are particularly effective in the mass scenes and the close-up portraits. Historical figures also appear in the text and images, including Leipzig pastor Christian Führer, writer Christa Wolf and Marianne Birthler, who was later to become Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former GDR.

Kitty Kahane, Alexander Lahl and Max Mönch: “Treibsand” (Quicksand)

The Berlin team of authors Max Mönch, Alexander Lahl and Kitty Kahane tell the story of the fall of the Wall from the perspective of an American narrator. New York journalist Tom Sandmann is assigned to report on events from Berlin. But when thousands of Berliners flock to the border crossing at Potsdamer Platz on 9 November 1989, the journalist is in hospital with an inflammation of the jaw.

Treibsand explains why the GDR was disintegrating long before the watershed events of 1989. The book tells the story of opposition activists, people fleeing the country and government functionaries, focusing on events inside the political system: meetings and infighting within the crumbling one-party regime. Historians Alexander Lahl and Max Mönch did a lot of research for the story. The authors, who call themselves “cultural engineers”, wanted to know what went on in the ministries after government spokesman Günter Schabowski announced the opening of the border. What they found out was incorporated into the comic. For illustrator Kitty Kahane, work on the comic also meant coming to terms with her own past: she was born in East Berlin in 1960 and was an art student when the Peaceful Revolution took place. Her skewed, spidery drawings and figures have a childlike quality to them – an exciting contrast to the bare historical facts.

Simon Schwartz: “Drüben” (Over There)

“There is no return for traitors” – these are the words of the East German official as he gives the Schwartz family their exit visa to freedom. When the couple arrives with their young child at the home of friends in West Berlin, the first thing they do is celebrate. Fleeing to the West is the first conscious memory of Simon Schwartz, who was born in 1982 in Erfurt. In his comic Drüben, he gives a compelling portrayal of his family’s departure.

In laconic black-and-white images, he looks back at how his parents grew up, studied and lived their lives; how they became increasingly sceptical about the political system in the GDR and eventually decided to apply for exit visas. Schwartz is a keen observer: with a few strokes of the pen, he conjures up striking scenes that make his parents’ doubts and fears tangible, without ever adopting a whining or accusatory tone. The family’s decision to leave the GDR leads to surveillance and harassment. And when they finally arrive in the West, they don’t find it easy to make a fresh start.

Recommended comics:

Susanne Buddenberg, Thomas Henseler: “Tunnel 57. Eine Fluchtgeschichte als Comic” (Tunnel 57. An Escape Story in Comic Form), Ch. Links Verlag 2013

Susanne Buddenberg, Thomas Henseler: “Berlin. Geteilte Stadt (Berlin. Divided City), Avant-Verlag 2012

Flix: “Da war mal etwas” (Now, Wasn’t There Something…), Carlsen-Verlag 2009

Peter M. Hoffmann, Bernd Lindner: “Herbst der Entscheidung. Eine Geschichte aus der Friedlichen Revolution 1989” (Autumn of Truth. A Story from the Peaceful Revolution of 1989), Ch. Links Verlag 2014

Olivier Jouvray, Nicolas Brachet: “Fluchttunnel nach West-Berlin” (Escape Tunnel to West Berlin), Avant-Verlag 2014

Kitty Kahane, Alexander Lahl, Max Mönch: “Treibsand. Eine Graphic Novel aus den letzten Tagen der DDR” (Quicksand. A Graphic Novel from the Final Days of the GDR), Metrolit Verlag 2014

Claire Lenkova: “Grenzgebiete. Eine Kindheit zwischen Ost und West” (Border Zones. A Childhood between East and West), Gerstenberg-Verlag 2009

Mawil: “Kinderland” (Children’s Country), Reprodukt Verlag 2014

Simon Schwartz: “Drüben!” (Over There!), Avant Verlag 2009