Spring '90
"Suddenly everyone is here again“

Célébration du Nouvel An 89 à la Porte de Brandebourg
People from East and West Germany celebrate the first joint New Year's Eve in over four decades. | Bernd Schmidt © wir-waren-so-frei.de

One year after Berliners danced on the wall, Germany is one country again. But how did the reunification feel for a former inmate of Hohenschönhausen? A story about Argentinean steak at the Stasi headquarters, unexpected reunions and Berlin clubs.

By Regine Hader and Dr. Andreas Ludwig

"Suddenly everyone is here again“

The sky is cloudy. Where the horses of the Quadriga would normally tower high and lonely in the sky, there are silhouettes of people from East and West Berlin dancing exuberantly in the mist of the bonfireworks - just like on 9th of November.

They have climbed onto the Brandenburg Gate, which is framed by two additional crossings since 22nd of December. They lead from one German state to the other. The Berliners are celebrating so exuberantly that the Quadriga will have to be extensively restored afterwards. Christmas is only a few days. What would usually be a family celebration becomes a highly symbolic date in 1989, because citizens can now cross the freely. By mid-February, thirty new border crossings will open in Berlin.
The wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate.
While others are celebrating, the SED leaders are already thinking about how parts of the Wall can be profitably exploited. | Dagmar Lipper © wir-waren-so-frei.de
Mario Röllig celebrates Christmas with his parents again after more than a year of separation. In the steamy clouds of a thermal bath he fell in love with a politician from West Berlin during a trip to Hungary in 1985. They meet in East Berlin. Again and again. Over two years the Stasi functions as an extra in the documentation of their lives, so to say, as an eternal observer of their love. Finally, Mario Röllig summons all his courage, tries to flee across the green border from southern Hungary via Yugoslavia to West Berlin and fails. In the remand prison Hohenschönhausen, the days under psychological torture stretch to infinity. In 1988, he is allowed to leave the GDR. For him, the fall of the Wall and the particularly colourful and loud New Year's Eve 1998/90 were accompanied by ambivalent feelings.

"The interesting thing for me was that for a few days I wasn’t happy at all about the fall of the Wall, because suddenly all the people who made my life so difficult back in the day, were so close again. On the night the Wall came down, I didn’t celebrate. My father called from East Berlin and said, "Boy, the Wall has fallen.” I'd had a hard day's work, and had just went to bed. So I said, "Tell me, are you drunk? You can't fool around with that." And I hung up. Mario Röllig's father calls again, "Boy, the wall has come down. Turn on the TV!" "And then I turned on the TV and although I drove to the border crossing on Bornholmer Strasse that very night, lying in my parents' arms after almost two years, it didn't feel so good at first. Simply because the Wall not only separated me from my family, but because it protected me from the people who made life so difficult for me in the GDR. On New Year's Eve, Röllig is standing at the Brandenburg Gate and celebrating.
Television stations from the GDR and the FRG are cooperating on this evening: they will alternately report from both sides of the Brandenburg Gate. Black, red and gold flags flutter through the picture again and again. Historians therefore speak of a "second turn", in which the desire for a reunification of the two German states prevails.
The wall is being demolished.
The wall is being demolished. | Monika Waack © wir-waren-so-frei.de
Meanwhile, the GDR leadership is already thinking about how it can commercially exploit the Wall. On the 31st of January, they begin selling the wall segments for foreign currency. Today, they can be seen in museums in Germany, and have not only been chopped up and used as souvenirs of the Wall, but as building materials for roads and motorways connecting places that used to separate them.

Storming the Stasi headquarters

In Erfurt, as early as December, black clouds of smoke already rise into the sky. These are no signs of joy. Smoke blows out of the chimney of the Stasizentale. For years now, the lives of many GDR citizens here was as if in a distorted repetition: Their habits, their political thoughts, feelings, relationships, their most intimate details were written down by Stasi staff. Given to them with a whisper or a note, perhaps typed by their own neighbours, friends, relatives or by chance encounters. The Stasi used their knowledge as a means of exerting pressure on their own people.
Storming the Stasi headquarters
Storming the Stasi headquarters | © Jan Kornas
​It was anger and despair over perpetrators, who covered their tracks, that drives the citizens and women's rights activists Gabriele Stötzer, Claudia Bogenhardt, Sabine Fabian, Tely Büchner and Kerstin Schön. They lead the occupation of the Stasi headquarters in Erfurt - Rostock and Leipzig follow.

Six weeks later, on the 15th of January 1990, security forces from the Ministry for State Security in Berlin, now called the Office for Security, probably unlocked the gates. Boots scurry up the stairs, a few minutes later the files in the stairwell finally whirl from floor to floor, sailing to the ground in front of the eyes of the citizens that were critical of the regime, who feared violent attacks by the Stasi and were struggling with a feeling of powerlessness. This change from powerlessness to empowerment is mainly thanks to the young women from Erfurt, who heralded the end of the Stasi's power over the secret police files.
Meat found in the Stasi headquarters
Meat found in the Stasi headquarters | picture-alliance/ ZB | Thomas Uhlemann
Thanks to them and the squatters in Rostock, Leipzig and now also in Berlin, the files, which are evidence of violence and surveillance, but at the same time themselves an instrument of repression by the Stasi, don’t disappear in the shredder or through fire during these winter days, as originally ordered by Stasi boss Erich Mielke on the 6th of November. The moment these documents would have been dissolved into letters and strips would not only have concealed the system and methodology of the SED state, but would also have relieved the perpetrators.
Findings in the Stasi headquarters
Findings in the Stasi headquarters | picture-alliance/ ZB | Thomas Uhlemann
In the Stasi headquarters, the squatters open stuffed bags and inside find huge piles of paper. After years of queuing to get meat, fruit, sugar and everyday products, they discover luxury goods such as Argentinian beef and an in-house hairdressing salon of the Stasi. Between the stashed delicacies and the bewilderment, the feeling of a new era emerges.

The occupation of the ministry in Berlin is the end of this great development, which began in Erfurt. The only casualty that becomes victim to the storm, a desperate Stasi officer shoots himself in Suhl during the occupation, shows just how fundamentally the world is being turned upside down at this moment - and how quickly the situation could tip over.

Hair salon in the Stasi headquarters
Hair salon in the Stasi headquarters | © picture-alliance/ ZB | Thomas Uhlemann
Even the citizens' committees, which now control those of the Stasi headquarters, don’t exactly know what is to happen to the files. Documents are still being destroyed. With the Stasi Documents Act towards the end of 1991, it finally becomes clear that they should become accessible in an archive. Victims of the Stasi can inspect the files and scholars can research them.
Storming the Stasi headquarters
Storming the Stasi headquarters | © Jan Kornas
The opening of the files creates clarity. The doubts about who can and cannot be trusted dissolve into relief or disappointment. The Stasi had employed 190,000 "unofficial employees" shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall: People who passed on personal information about their friends, neighbours or pupils to the Stasi. After the exuberant reunion in October inspired great feelings of freedom, some encounters now reopen old wounds. "People who were one hundred per cent loyal to the SED were the first to go to the bank counters to collect a hundred marks of welcome money," recalls Mario Röllig.

Migrations and explorations

The Wall was mostly open now as an air of departures and new beginnings settled on the wintry cityscape. By shortly before Christmas, over 200,000 East Germans had emigrated to West Germany. A bunch of them sat huddled together inside Berlin’s Marienfelde refugee centre. It was clear to everyone there that the camp was hopelessly overcrowded – and that the situation was becoming increasingly difficult over in East Germany. There was a manpower shortage: now that 250,000 workers had left, doctors and nurses could only provide makeshift care in the hospitals. 

Then, when the weather turned almost summery for a few days in mid-February, many West Germans travelled to places they only knew from Theodor Fontane novels. They went on hikes across the Mark Brandenburg, accompanied in spirit by Herr von Ribbeck auf Ribbeck im Havelland (The generous protagonist of Fontane’s 1889 literary ballad: he gives pears from his tree to passing children).  Front-seat passengers pored over road maps looking for towns with magical-sounding names: Stralsund and Wismar for Störtebeker fans, Quedlinburg and Görlitz for history fans, plus Leipzig and Dresden of course. The region reminded many of them of the 1950s, as though it were still waiting for a new era – which had in fact long since dawned on the other side of the inner German border. The gates of the National People's Army barracks had long since stood open and the soldiers were fishing – without a trace of the strict discipline that used to reign in the GDR’s armed forces. Many a West German day-tripper came home with a growling stomach because the handful of restaurants, cafés and inns there were, if open at all in winter, overrun with Western weekenders.

"I really liked the island of West Berlin in those days. At first, it triggered troubled and melancholy feelings in me – a new era was coming. But a lot changed in a very short time without any major proclamations.” The first clubs started up in the run-down buildings in the middle of East Berlin. “A lot was possible without official authorization. Now, after 28 years of stagnation – in West Berlin, too –, it was time to celebrate freedom. West Berliners had been stewing in their own juices for such a long time. And things were much worse over in the East. Suddenly, it all burst open! It was a matter of taking their lives back into their own hands."

People used to play Monopoly in one country and Bürokratopoly in the other, but, for a while there, clubs like the Tresor held parties without having to wade through mounds of red tape beforehand – and without any commercialism. Pop-up bars sprang up in private ground-floor flats whose residents sold bottled beer through their windows. The new decade brought life back to dilapidated downtown East Berlin. Just a stone’s throw from what used to be the border, run-down buildings and ruins were now transformed from symbols of stagnation into hotspots of free-form experimentation. "Club culture back then was not about business or consumption or making a quick buck,” explains Mario, “but simply about trying new things and celebrating freedom."
Party in East Berlin 1990
While the GDR is slowly falling apart, the party scene in Berlin is flourishing. | © picture-alliance ZB Manfred Uhlenhut
Mario Röllig was in favour of reunification: "After my failed attempt to escape from the GDR and my time in Stasi prison at Hohenschönhausen, I thought to myself, ‘At last, the system is going under.’” But the sense of community in East Berlin was also gone by that spring, Mario adds, and would not be returning anytime soon. Despite mixed feelings, he was still happy about his fresh start in West Berlin, though he had to focus on his private life and making a living after the fall of the Wall too. "Everyone had to look to themselves first and how to get by."

It wasn’t till he met up with old school friends again and those who’d witnessed his coming out as a gay man in East Berlin back in the mid-’80s that he would revisit some of his more painful memories of life on the other side. "We meet up at events, readings, panel discussions and films and talk about what it was like back in the day. The liquidation of companies pulled the rug out from under many of my friends and their families. So they had to take charge of their own lives for the first time. That was a very arduous and sad process for many of them because they could feel the callousness of this new society too.”

Mario goes on to describe how these emotions turned into xenophobia in some cases. "They were afraid people from Vietnam seeking to settle in Germany might suddenly be better off than Germans.” And indeed, just a few years later, the saddest pictures of a united Germany would be all over the press: hostels for asylum-seekers ablaze on the front pages of the papers. 

New careers and old baggage

Some former neighbours of Mario’s parents who’d worked for the SED state apparatus suddenly landed jobs as managers and department heads. "A woman in the Internal Affairs Department who’d rejected people’s applications to leave the country suddenly became head of the employment office in Treptow-Köpenick. Thank God a whole lot of people recognized her and she was relieved of that post. But many others got a leg-up in the new country through old-boy networks, through contacts, and nabbed seats on the city council or even the German Bundestag – as Stasi informers!”

Mario underwent another commercial apprenticeship in the mid-1990s, working in the cigar department at West Berlin’s most famous department store, Kaufhaus des Westens (known as KaDeWe for short). "Actually, everything was all right. I was socially active in a Berlin Aids support group at the time and still on the works council, but not otherwise politically active. For many years after 1989/90, I didn’t care which of these model Communists were carving out careers in a united Germany.” But he would soon be made painfully aware of just that.

He still had fond memories of the past, of the time before he fled the country for love and to escape the constraints and narrow-mindedness of the GDR, but had repressed his memories of imprisonment. "On 17 January 1999, I can still remember it well, I came to work in the morning, KaDeWe, sixth floor, and set up my cigar stand. Suddenly there’s a man in his mid-forties standing in front of me, tanned, in a dark suit, at first I thought he was some celebrity. Then it was such an ‘aha’ experience: I know this guy. And all of a sudden, the scales fell from my eyes: he was the Stasi officer who’d harassed, interrogated and psychologically tortured me for months twelve years before, back in 1987, in the Stasi prison in Hohenschönhausen! When I recognized him, I turned white as chalk and started to tremble.” The former Stasi officer didn’t recognize Mario, however. "I felt like was looking the devil in the eye. Before that, I’d often thought to myself: where do I stick the gun if I ever see someone like him again? You can daydream or think about that sort of thing, but of course you can't do it." When that very scenario presented itself, however, other considerations flashed through Mario’s mind: "I'll punch him in the face because he sure as hell deserves it. On the other hand, I thought, ‘No, I'd be out of a job and a punch in the face will only bring momentary satisfaction, it won't help me come to grips with the past.’” All the same, Mario would really like to know "what makes the officer tick now. Until that moment I hadn't grappled with these issues at all and I didn't know anyone who’d apologized to their victims.”
The shopping mall KaDeWe
Mario Röllig meets the Stasi officer who had psychologically tortured him in the prison in Höhenschönhausen at the KaDeWe | © picture alliance / dpa | dpa
As his tormentor was about to go, Mario tugged on his sleeve: "Excuse me, we know each other!" "Where from?" he asked. "You were a Stasi officer in Schönhausen prison." And Mario recalls: "Suddenly his friendly face went stone cold and he said, ‘So what. What do you want from me here now?’ Nobody came to my aid. The people in the department store were probably totally shocked themselves. I told him who I was, that I got arrested in 1978 for trying to escape and he interrogated me. He wanted two to eight years in prison for me because I’d allegedly betrayed my fatherland by attempting to escape. And suddenly he raised his voice and started shouting: Hadn’t I understood that I was in prison for good reason! What should he apologize for? Repentance is for little kids." He turned around and left.

In that instant, all that Mario had experienced, and which he thought he had already processed, welled up inside him: "It was just bottled up deep down inside.” He stepped out into the hallway and screamed. The in-house nurse gave him a sedative and sent him home. "I got really sick at home. I took an overdose of sleeping pills. A friend I was supposed to meet that night found me amid the empty pill tubes. I was brought back to life at the hospital, but I’d lost the will to live because I asked myself what for, when people like this Stasi officer have such good lives in our united Germany.”

Mario didn’t want to talk to the doctors. They didn’t know what they could do for him because everything seemed fine in his private and professional life. Then the chief physician learned from his parents that Mario had been locked up as a young "escapee" at the Stasi’s political prison in Hohenschönhausen, East Berlin. "He knew I was traumatized and came to my bed with a flyer from the Hohenschönhausen Memorial. ‘Young man, if you don't want to live anymore, then they’ve achieved what they wanted back then. The best thing – not for everyone, but for you – is to go over there and tell them what you went through, and then you’ll feel better.’ And I've been doing just that for over twenty years now," adds Mario.

Western wares

As spring gradually came to the grey cities and the trees began to bud, the future of the GDR still hung in the balance. Should and could East Germany go a "third way" and create a better form of socialism?

There were no more controls at the borders, so West Germans could safely zip over to East Berlin to snap up cheap goods – which they did, en masse. The official exchange rate for changing West to East German marks was 1:1, later 1:3, but on the black market the rate was 1:10 and falling. Meanwhile, East Germans were buying up expensive consumer goods, although they cost more there than in the West. They were afraid that, given the relentless depreciation of the East German mark, their savings from those long years of hard work might not be worth anything in the end. Western consumerism caught on, with thousands of variations on the same products put out by various brands. They didn’t need the stuff, but it was the antithetical answer to years of longing and queuing. The craving for Western consumer goods made East German products appear unappealing and inferior. As a result, the East German economy was hovering on the brink of collapse.
Two women in a supermarket
Now that border controls have been dismantled, many West Germans buy in the GDR and many East Germans buy in the FRG. | © picture alliance / ddrbildarchiv | Manfred Uhlenhut
The transition took visible form in the temples of consumption and money: West German banks began setting up new branches in jerry-rigged shipping containers. The first retailers appeared, vending colourful tropical fruits for Western currency, or used cars whose fresh paint jobs sparkled in the spring sunshine and whose scratches seemed to tell of freedom and adventure. The hankerings of a whole nation now carried price tags.

Mario Röllig viewed this rampant consumerism in the first months after the Wall came down as an expression of political will, too: they wanted the West’s system. Longing and pain would be numbed by compulsive consumption, as is the way of the world in consumer societies like West Germany since the 1950s.
GDR citizens protesting
Many GDR citizens protested for a monetary union. | © picture alliance Wolfgang Weihs | Wolfgang Weihs
People on both sides of the former divide tried to take advantage of the ensuing free-for-all, which the state executive authorities were helpless to do anything about. Polish vendors would set up stands at the "Polish market", where West Berliners took advantage of the favourable exchange rates on the black market to buy cheap in East Berlin. But people there suddenly found themselves in front of empty petrol pumps at service stations and empty shelves in the department stores, so a new ordinance was issued: FRG citizens were henceforth only allowed to make purchases in East Germany with West German currency. Free enterprise was introduced there in January. And the Treuhandanstalt was established to transform the state-run economy into a market economy, e.g. by privatizing or shutting down companies. This step remains controversial even now, in hindsight, and may have been responsible for a great many of the social disparities and problems that persist to this day. The West German government, on the other hand, banked on a monetary union to stem the flow of money and people from east to west. The warnings on banners for the Monday demonstrations that read “Kommt die D-Mark, bleiben wir, kommt sie nicht, gehen wir zu ihr” (“If the Deutschmark comes, we’ll stay, if not, we’ll go to it”) now seemed all too realistic. Consumerism was driving political developments… towards reunification in a single Germany.

A supermarket shelf full of soups
Soups in abundance: For some East Germans, the variety in West German supermarkets was overwhelming. | © picture alliance ZB ddrbildarchiv

Common Cause

In the wake of these transformations, the spectrum of existing political parties could no longer encompass the reality on the ground, the thoughts and everyday lives of people on either side of the divide. Various groups and institutions in East and West Germany were eager to engage in meaningful exchange. But the established parties had divergent visions for the future of the two German states: The PDS (Democratic Socialists), the successor to the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany), clung to independence and called for East Germany to go its separate "third way". Some East German bloc parties, on the other hand, suggested forming multi-party coalitions, but they had no parliamentary clout. They soon found West German parties to partner with, however. The two free-market parties received the support of the West German FDP (Free Democrats), whilst the East German CDU (Christian Democrats) joined forces with their West German counterparts. In February 1990, members of the East German civil rights movement formed an alliance called Bündnis 90. After their tremendous achievements in standing up to the SED regime, they now pinned their hopes on East Germany’s democratic development as an independent state, so it was only natural that they should do without West German partners.

The election campaign of the Volkskammer election: Posters and stalls
In March 1990 the first democratic election in the GDR takes place | © picture alliance / zb | Eberhard Klöppel
Events had been coming thick and fast for several months: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Two-Plus-Four Talks, the nosedive of the East German mark. It felt as though time were suddenly racing by, twice, even three times, as fast as in the preceding decades in order to make up for the immobility and failings on both sides of the Wall. Even the parliamentary elections to East Germany’s Volkskammer were brought forward to 18 March 1990. These were to be the first and last truly free and democratic elections held in the German Democratic Republic. It was the first time voters had a real choice. They didn’t have to vote for a multi-party coalition’s single ticket anymore, but could choose between the candidates, who really were running against one another. The 93.4 per cent turnout seemed almost utopian – and more typical of sham elections under dictatorial regimes. But this time around, people flocked to the polls out of conviction, or at least to have a say in their nation’s future.

Two-Plus-Four Treaty

The Allied powers saw the early Volkskammer elections as a sign that German reunification might be imminent. With the exception of the US, they were sceptical about the prospect: Should Germany really be restored to its former clout as a power bloc in the middle of Europe? As Margaret Thatcher put it: "A united Germany is simply too big and powerful to be one more actor in Europe.” Shortly after the Wall came down, French President François Mitterrand aired doubts about the prospect, writing reunification off as a "legal and political impossibility". So the prevailing sense in Berlin of a new era dawning was accompanied by an awareness of a shift of power, for the two German states were key parts of the whole Cold War system. The Soviet Union was particularly opposed to the idea of a reunified German state joining NATO. On 10 February 1990, everything changed: in a conversation with Helmut Kohl, Gorbachev gave the go-ahead to reunification.

A few months before that, on 7 October 1989, demonstrators shouting "Gorbi, Gorbi, help us!" had already pinned their hopes on the Soviet leader to usher in a policy shift in East Germany. But no sooner had Gorbachev departed than the protests were brutally quelled. And now, just a few months later, he’d cleared the way for the Two-Plus-Four Talks to begin between East and West Germany and the four Allied powers that had occupied Germany and Berlin since German defeat in World War II.

The resulting treaty assured Germany of the Four Powers’ full support, and they pledged to waive any special rights they held in the reunited country. The two German states, for their part, officially recognized the German borders as drawn in 1945. The people of West Berlin in particular breathed a sigh of relief. The medium-range missiles stationed in East and West Germany, for example, served as constant reminders that they were still at the mercy of the Cold War powers.
Celebrations infront of the Reichstag
For many GDR citizens, the reunification meant prosperity, the economic change, however, also brought along a lot of challenges. | © picture alliance/ dpa | dpa
In early July, identity checks on the inner-German border were also officially discontinued. For 45 years, East Germans had associated the border with promise – as well as prohibitions, punishment and pain. Opening the border now symbolized the opening up of East Germany, and went hand in hand with Germany’s reunification in matters economic, monetary and social. Things moved quickly after that: East Germany adopted much of West Germany’s legislation and its economic and social security system, the Deutschmark became the sole currency, and in late September, East Germany withdrew from the Warsaw Pact, the political and military alliance between the Soviet Union and its several Eastern European satellite states. Germany’s Unification Treaty followed. The new federal states in the east acceded to the West German constitution about two weeks before the signing of the Two-Plus-Four Treaty.

On 2 October 1990, the eve of official reunification, the Volkskammer convened one last time. In just 181 days, it had made active contributions towards achieving unification. Its efforts were duly honoured at this last assembly, amid a by and large optimistic outlook for the future.

The very next day, the 3rd of October, 1990, Germany was reunited.

The country now had to contend above all with economic, social and environmental challenges, which many of its citizens, especially those from “Eastern Germany”, thought would be handled differently. On that momentous October evening, however, they put aside their misgivings and breathed a collective sigh of relief.

But German reunification was also the point of departure for new economic power dynamics within the country, against the backdrop of which biographies like Mario's would come to be reinterpreted and reappraised, and in which German society as a whole would have to seek and find new shared values.

Mario talks about his efforts to share his own past experiences with the next generation: "Lately I’ve been on the road a lot: giving talks at universities, schools and various foundations, too. This is, so to speak, my revenge for the injustices done to me at the time: the good life I have today as payback for those terrible memories of the past." He pauses, then adds, "I can’t do this too often, though, or I'll never get my thoughts out of prison."