Berlin, Winter 1996
I am hungover and steer myself like a car through the crowds at Alexanderplatz station. Several times I miscalculate my width, scraping into a bin, and an advertising bollard. Tomorrow bruises will develop on my skin, like a picture from a negative.
A man turns from the wall, smiling and zipping up his fly. He is missing shoelaces and some teeth; his face and his shoes are as loose as each other. Another man in overalls, with a broom the size of a tennis-court sweeper, pushes disinfectant pellets along the platform. He makes arcs of green powder and cigarette butts and urine. A morning drunk walks on the ground like it might not hold him.
I’m catching the underground to Ostbahnhof to board the regional line down to Leipzig, a couple of hours from here. I sit on a green bench. I look at green tiles, breathe green air. Suddenly I don’t feel too good. I need to get to the surface quickly and make my way back up the stairs. At ground level Alexanderplatz is a monstrous expanse of grey concrete designed to make people feel small. It works.
It’s snowing outside. I move through the slush to where I know there are toilets. Like the train lines, these too are cut into the ground, but no-one thought to connect them to the station they serve. As I go down the steps, the sick smell of antiseptic is overpowering.
A large woman in a purple apron and loud makeup stands at the bottom. She is leaning on a glass-paned counter guarding her stash of condoms and tissues and tampons. This is clearly a woman unafraid of the detritus of life. She has shiny smooth skin and many soft chins. She must be sixty-five.
‘Good morning,’ I say. I feel awkward. I’ve heard stories of German babies having their input in food and their output in faeces weighed, in some attempt to get the measure of life. I have always found this kind of motherly audience inappropriate. I use the toilet and come out and put a coin in her dish. It occurs to me that the purpose of disinfectant globules is to mask the smells of human bodies with something worse.
‘What’s it like up there?’ the toilet madam asks, nodding to the top of the steps.
‘Pretty cold.’ I adjust my little pack. ‘But not too bad, not too much black ice.’
‘This is nothing yet,’ she sniffs.
I don’t know if it’s a threat or a boast. This is what they call Berliner Schnauze—snout. It’s attitude: it’s in your face. I don’t want to stay here, but I don’t want to go up into the cold either. The disinfectant smell is so strong I can’t tell whether I am feeling sicker or better.
‘I’ve been here twenty-one years, since the winter of ’75. I’ve seen much worse than this.’
‘That’s a long time.’
‘Sure is. I have my regulars, I can tell you. They know me, I know them. I had a prince once, a von Hohenzollern.’
I think she must use the prince on everyone. But it works—I’m curious. ‘U-huh. Before or after the Wall came down?’
‘Before. He was over on a day trip from the west. I used to get quite a few westerners you know. He invited me’—she pats her large bosom with a flat hand—‘to his palace. But of course I couldn’t go.’
Of course she couldn’t go: the Berlin Wall ran a couple of kilometres from here and there was no getting over it. Along with the Great Wall of China, it was one of the longest structures ever built to keep people separate from one another. She is losing credibility fast, but her story is becoming correspondingly better. And, suddenly, I can’t smell a thing any more. ‘Have you travelled yourself since the Wall came down?’ I ask. She throws her head back. I see she is wearing purple eyeliner which, at that angle, phosphoresces.
‘Not yet. But I’d like to. Bali, something like that. Or China. Yes, China.’ She raps her painted nails on the glass cabinet and dreams into the middle distance over my left shoulder. ‘You know what I’d really like to do? I’d really like to have me a look at that Wall of theirs.’
From Ostbahnhof the train pulls out and finds its cruising speed. The rhythm soothes like a cradle, hushes my tapping fingers. The conductor’s voice comes through speakers reciting our stops: Wannsee, Bitterfeld, Lutherstadt Wittenberg. In northern Germany I inhabit the grey end of the spectrum: grey buildings, grey earth, grey birds, grey trees. Outside, the city and then the country spool past in black and white.
Last night is a smoky blur—another session at the pub with Klaus and his friends. But this is not one of those hangovers where you write the day off to darkness. It is the more interesting kind, where destroyed synapses are reconstructing themselves, sometimes missing their old paths and making odd, new connections. I remember things I haven’t remembered before—things that do not come out of the ordered store of memories I call my past. I remember my mother’s moustache in the sun, I remember the acute hunger-and-loss feeling of adolescence, I remember the burnt-chalk smell of tram brakes in summer. You think you have your past filed away under subject headings but, somewhere, it waits to reconnect itself.
I remember learning German—so beautiful, so strange—at school in Australia on the other side of the earth. My family was nonplussed about me learning such an odd, ugly language and, though of course too sophisticated to say it, the language of the enemy. But I liked the sticklebrick nature of it, building long supple words by putting short ones together. Things could be brought into being that had no name in English— Weltanschauung, Schadenfreude, sippenhaft, Sonderweg, Scheissfreundlichkeit, Vergangenheitsbewältigung. I liked the sweeping range of words from ‘heartfelt’ to ‘heartsick’. And I liked the order, the directness that I imagined in the people. Then, in the 1980s, I came to live in West Berlin for a while and I wondered long and hard what went on behind that Wall.
A barrel-stomached woman opposite me unwraps black bread sandwiches. So far she has managed to pretend I am not here, although if we weren’t careful our knees could touch. She has painted on her eyebrows in arches of surprise, or menace.
I think about the feeling I’ve developed for the former German Democratic Republic. It is a country which no longer exists, but here I am on a train hurtling through it—its tumbledown houses and bewildered people. This feeling needs a sticklebrick word: I can only describe it as horror-romance. It’s a dumb feeling, but I don’t want to shake it. The romance comes from the dream of a better world the German Communists wanted to build out of the ashes of their Nazi past: from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. The horror comes from what they did in its name. East Germany has disappeared, but its remains are still at the site.
My travelling companion takes out a packet of West cigarettes, which seem to be the most popular brand here since the fall of the Wall. She lights up and directs her breath of smoke over my head. When she’s finished she butts out in the flip-top bin, clasps her hands around her middle and falls asleep. Her expression, fixed with pencil, doesn’t change.
I first visited in Leipzig in 1994, nearly five years after the Wall fell in November 1989. East Germany still felt like a secret walled-in garden, a place lost in time. It wouldn’t have surprised me if things had tasted different here—apples like pears, say, or wine like blood. Leipzig was the hub of what everyone now calls die Wende—the Turning Point. The Wende was the peaceful revolution against the Communist dictatorship in East Germany, the only successful revolution in German history. Leipzig was the start and the heart of it. Now, two years later, I’m on my way back.
In 1994 I found a town built by accretion. The streets wound crookedly, there were crumbly passages through buildings that led unexpectedly into the next block, and low arches funnelled people into underground bars. My map bore no resemblance to how life was lived in Leipzig. People in the know could take hidden short cuts through buildings, or walk along unmarked lanes between each block, moving above and below ground. I got thoroughly lost. I was looking for the Stasi museum in the Runde Ecke, or ‘round corner’ building which had formerly been the Stasi offices. I needed to see for myself part of the vast apparatus that had been the East German Ministry for State Security.
The Stasi was the internal army by which the government kept control. Its job was to know everything about everyone, using any means it chose. It knew who your visitors were, it knew whom you telephoned, and it knew if your wife slept around. It was a bureaucracy metastasised through East German society: overt or covert, there was someone reporting to the Stasi on their fellows and friends in every school, every factory, every apartment block, every pub. Obsessed with detail, the Stasi entirely failed to predict the end of Communism, and with it the end of the country. Between 1989 and 1990 it was turned inside out: Stalinist spy unit one day, museum the next. In its forty years, ‘the Firm’ generated the equivalent of all records in German history since the middle ages. Laid out upright and end to end, the files the Stasi kept on their countrymen and women would form a line 180 kilometres long.
Eventually, I found the Runde Ecke, and it was huge. A set of steps led up to vast metal-clad double doors with studs on them. I shrank like Alice. To the right there was a pale rectangle in the cement facade, a bit of the building that hadn’t been tanned by smog. A plaque saying ‘Ministry of State Security—Leipzig Division’ or something like it had hung there. It had been removed in a kind of fearful joy during the revolution and has not been seen since.
I walked around inside. All the desks were just as they were left the night the demonstrators took the building—frighteningly neat. Dial phones sat in breeding pairs. Shredding machines had been thrown out the back after collapsing in the Stasi’s final desperate attempt to destroy the most damning files. Above one desk was a 1989 calendar with a picture of a woman naked from the waist up, but mostly there were just Communist insignia on the walls. The cells were open, set up as if prepared for more prisoners. Despite the best efforts of Miss December, the building felt damp and bureaucratic.
The citizens’ committee administering the museum had mounted displays on cheap particleboard screens. There was a print of the famous photograph from the autumn 1989 demonstrations. It showed a sea of people holding candles, their necks craned up to the building, staring their controllers in the face. They knew it was from here that their lives were observed, manipulated and sometimes ruined. There were copies of the increasingly frantic telexes from the Berlin headquarters of the Stasi to here, where the officers had barricaded themselves in with tin on the windows. ‘Secure all Ministry Premises’, they read, and ‘Protect all Covert Objects’.
My favourites were the pictures of protesters occupying the building on 4 December 1989, squatting in the corridors with the surprise still on their faces, as if half-expecting to be asked to leave. As they entered the building, the Stasi guards had asked to see the demonstrators’ identity cards, in a strange parody of the control they were, at that very moment, losing. The demonstrators, in shock, obediently pulled their cards from their wallets. Then they seized the building.
Large and small mysteries were accounted for when the files were opened. Not least, perhaps, the tics of the ordinary man in the street. This document was on display:
SIGNALS FOR OBSERVATION
1. Watch Out! Subject is coming
—touch nose with hand or handkerchief
2. Subject is moving on, going further, or overtaking
—stroke hair with hand, or raise hat briefly
3. Subject standing still
—lay one hand against back, or on the stomach
4. Observing Agent wishes to be terminate observation because cover threatened
—bend and retie shoelaces
5. Subject returning
—both hands against back or on stomach
6. Observing Agent wishes to speak with Team Leader or other Observing Agents
—take out briefcase or equivalent and examine contents.
I pictured the street ballet of the deaf and dumb: agents signalling to each other from corner to corner: stroking noses, tummies, backs and hair, tying and untying shoelaces, lifting their hats to strangers and riffling through papers—a choreography for very nasty scouts.
Towards the back of the building, three rooms housed Stasi artefacts in glass cases. There was a box of fake wigs and moustaches alongside small tubes of glue to affix them. There were women’s vinyl handbags with builtin microphones disguised as flower petals in a studded decoration. There were bugs that had been implanted in apartment walls and a pile of mail that never reached the west. One of the envelopes had a child’s handwriting on it in coloured pencil—a different colour for each letter of the address.
One glass case contained nothing but empty jars. I was staring at it when a woman approached me. She looked like a female version of Luther, except she was beautiful. She was fiftyish, with high cheekbones, and a direct gaze. She looked friendly, but she also looked as if she knew I had been making mental ridicule of a regime which required its members to sign pledges of allegiance that looked like marriage certificates, confiscated children’s birthday cards to their grandparents and typed up inane protocols at desks beneath calendars of large-breasted women. This was Frau Hollitzer, who runs the museum.
Frau Hollitzer explained to me that the jars in front of us were ‘smell samples’. The Stasi had developed a quasi-scientific method, ‘smell sampling’, as a way to find criminals. The theory was that we all have our own identifying odour, which we leave on everything we touch. These smells can be captured and, with the help of trained sniffer dogs, compared to find a match. The Stasi would take its dogs and jars to a location where they suspected an illegal meeting had occurred, and see if the dogs could pick up the scents of the people whose essences were captured in the jars.
Mostly, smell samples were collected surreptitiously. The Stasi might break into someone’s apartment and take a piece of clothing worn close to the skin, often underwear. Alternatively, a ‘suspect’ would be brought in under some pretext for questioning, and the vinyl seat he or she had sat on would be wiped afterward with a cloth. The pieces of stolen clothing, or the cloth, would then be placed in a sealed jar. The containers looked like jam bottling jars. A label read: ‘Name: Herr [Name]. Time: 1 Hour. Object: Worker’s Underpants.’
When the citizens of Leipzig entered this building, they found a large collection of smell samples. Then the jars disappeared. It was not until June 1990 that they turned up—in the ‘smell pantry’ of the Leipzig police. But they were empty. Apparently, the Leipzig police had taken them for their own use, even in the period after the fall of the Wall when democracy was beginning here. The jars still bore all their meticulous labels. From these it was clear that the Leipzig Stasi had collected smell samples of the entire political opposition in this part of Saxony. No-one knows who has these scraps of material and old socks now, nor what they might be keeping them for.
Later, Frau Hollitzer told me about Miriam, a young woman whose husband had died in a Stasi remand cell nearby. It was rumoured the Stasi orchestrated the funeral, to the point of substituting an empty coffin for a full one, and cremating the body to destroy any evidence of the cause of death. I imagined paid-off pallbearers pretending to struggle under the weight of an empty coffin, or perhaps genuinely struggling beneath a coffin filled with eighty kilos of old newspapers and stones. I imagined not knowing whether your husband hanged himself, or whether someone you now pass in the street killed him. I thought I would like to speak with Miriam, before my imaginings set like false memories.
I went home to Australia, but now I am back in Berlin. I could not get Miriam’s story, the strange second-hand tale of a woman I had never met, out of my mind. I found a part-time job in television, and set about looking for some of the stories from this land gone wrong.