The Promise How a Newspaper Tried to Prevent East Germany from Collapsing

It was just one single word that Berliner Zeitung editor-in-chief Fritz Wengler inserted into my story. For me, it was betrayal. For him, it was an attempt to put the brakes on history.


The poplars stand like a green wall around the tall, gray apartment block on Fischerinsel, the neighborhood in former East Berlin that is home to Fritz Wengler -- a man who 20 years ago made a promise he couldn't keep. The trees rustle in the fall wind, and it seems to me as if they used to lose their leaves much earlier than they do today.

Wengler has lived in an apartment on the second floor for the past 40 years. And in that time nature has gradually enveloped the building like Sleeping Beauty's castle. Standing in front of the entrance, I again wonder if I should leave him alone. The temptation is great. After all, it would mean leaving me alone -- and this newspaper, whose history we are a part of.

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I have waited 20 years; two decades during which living and dead memories have fought one another, as an employee at the office which looks after the files of the former East German secret service, the Stasi, once told me. The living memories are fading. In recent days public broadcasters have shown their end-of-communism movies in what has become as predictable an annual tradition as the airing of tired Christmas specials.

The movies about this revolution portray a gloomy world dimly illuminated by the warm light of revolutionary candles and the cold glare of the neon lighting in the long, bare corridors of Stasi headquarters. This tele-visual world is populated by good and bad characters like a fairytale forest. You need only find your place in it. The actor Heino Ferch as a tunnel-digger or a Stasi officer, once with a wig, once without. Victim or perpetrator, lamb or lion, black or white.

The images drape themselves over the memories. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck filtered out all red tones from his film "The Lives of Others" to conjure up a suitably drab image of the former GDR. I'm now convinced that the autumn sun set earlier in East Germany than it does today.

Our Paths Crossed Inextricably

Before the darkness descends completely, I decide to call Fritz Wengler and ask him if he'll talk to me.

"What about?" he asks.
"I want to find out who I was," I reply.
"I see," he says, and I imagine him smiling on the other end of the telephone line -- smiling at my naiveté.

Twenty years ago Fritz Wengler was the senior deputy editor-in-chief of the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, and because the editor-in-chief was having problems with his heart, Wengler was temporarily at the paper's helm through this revolutionary period. At the time I was in my mid-twenties and a young editor. We didn't work together much, but our paths crossed inextricably on the night of October 6-7, 1989.

The Berliner Zeitung had sent me out to report on a torchlight procession by the communist youth group Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ) through the city center on the eve of the 40th anniversary of East Germany (GDR). As I recall, I walked from Alexanderplatz through a pitch-black Scheunenviertel to the Neue Wache, where a platform had been set up for the press. The Stasi anoraks rustled in the dark, and I had to show my ID at least four times before I got to Unter den Linden. Once there, I felt like I had landed on an island; the last remaining sliver of land on which you could celebrate the country's anniversary in peace. The GDR was going under, and the torchlight procession was the orchestra that continued playing as the Titanic sank. The marchers clattered out of the darkness, and I ran over and asked some of them what they were doing. Most had come from afar and were happy to be in Berlin. Some of them simply wanted to see Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, some knew they didn't really represent their country anymore, and others wanted to make a stand for the country they held dearly.

"GDR, our fatherland!" and "Gorbi!" they cried, waving their torches and flags as they disappeared back into the darkness.

My Hands Were Shaking

When I returned to the newspaper two days later, dozens of plain-clothes officers were waiting in the foyer. Perhaps they expected people to storm the editorial offices, which certainly would have made sense.

I sat down at my desk and wrote an article that began with a series of questions. "Are torchlight processions still relevant?" was the first. I didn't answer the questions because I wasn't brave enough to write "No." My hands were shaking as it was. I had been an editor at Berliner Zeitung for two years. Prior to that I had spent four years studying journalism in Leipzig. Those years had taught me that you could always find clear answers to difficult questions provided you looked at them from the right perspective.

I quoted a few people I'd spoken to at the procession. One girl said she was sad because a friend of hers had gone over to the West. And she had cried even though East German leader Erich Honecker had told the refugees that no-one would shed a tear for them. I mentioned Gorbachev, Daniel Ortega too, but not Honecker.

I sent the text down to the 4th floor, where the editors-in-chief sat, and I waited. Eventually my phone rang, and Fritz Wengler asked me to come see him. Wengler sat at his desk in the open-plan room and stared at the manuscript.

A few months earlier he had handed me back an article about a group of disgruntled girls at a cosmetics factory with the words, "I don't get it, Alexander." He had looked at me, paused, then added, "But I'm sure you'll manage." I had returned to the girls and asked them about things they were content with at work and in their country. They had pondered my request and then scraped together all the positive things they could think of. I put these in my article, which even Fritz Wengler then understood. The young women didn't mind. They knew what was expected of me.

Triple Temperature-Zone Fridge

I had wanted to become a sports reporter, but the state graduate steering commission had sent me to the business section of Berliner Zeitung for three years. I had just one more year to wait. That wasn't long in a country in which you were always waiting for something. And I didn't want to leave the country because I was convinced that I was living in the better part of the world, or at least in the one with the best perspective. So I wrote about the new Berlin-made triple temperature-zone fridge that constantly had problems with one of its temperature zones; about the first cassette recorder with removable speakers, a marvel from Treptow whose speakers refused to detach when required; and about an automatic gas station in Weissensee which pumped gas even when it wasn't supposed to.

Nothing worked, but would eventually work one day. That was the general attitude.

I wrote about a trade fair for the master craftsmen of tomorrow, the spring meeting of the FDJ and about the World Festival of Youth and Students. It was never-ending. The newspaper was like a capsule locked in its own value system. None of my friends or relatives in the real world took my articles seriously. Criticism and recognition were handed out within the organization like in one of those globes where it snows when you shake it. Nevertheless, I was pleased if I was praised. We described an imaginary world inhabited by people constantly seeking constructive solutions and fridges in which all the temperature zones worked. We had little contact with the real world outside. Only once, after I had written about a new type of flue smoke desulphurization unit at Rummelsberg power plant, did a woman write to me and suggest I come visit her balcony to see for myself how black her washing gets from all the soot. I wrote her a polite letter and she wrote a polite letter back, surprised that I had answered. Maybe she was surprised that I actually existed.

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