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.


Photo Gallery: Coming to Terms with a DDR Past

Foto: ADN/ dpa

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.

Cracks Had Begun to Appear in the Snow Globe

But cracks had begun appearing in the snow-globe, and the real world began flooding into our building on Alexanderplatz. Tens of thousands of people were fleeing the country, and those who stayed slowly started venturing out onto the streets.

Fritz Wengler was dealt a body blow, but he wasn't about to give up. He had never been loud or screamed like others did. Rather he hid his power behind a thick working-class accent and a face that looked like a sketch by the cartoonist Loriot. But he was tough. We fought like lions over my small, timid article until late into the evening. In the end it contained Honecker, FDJ leader Eberhard Aurich, and a constructive closing sentence, but also the girl who wept for her departed friend as well as the opening questions that were unusual for a newspaper that had always had an answer for everything.


Photo Gallery: Coming to Terms with a DDR Past

Foto: ADN/ dpa

Shortly before midnight the proofed text returned from the typesetters. The open-plan room was almost deserted. Fritz Wengler and I stood together at his desk and read it through one last time. Neither of us were completely happy, but it was getting late.

"Promise me you won't change any more, Fritz," I said, and he shook my hand. Then I got into the 17-year-old Polski Fiat my brother-in-law had given me before he fled to the West and I drove back into the dark, real world, to some party where no-one talked about torchlight processions and certainly not about Aurich, and drank a few beers. When I opened the newspaper the next morning all of my open-ended questions had been answered "Yes."

Does the youth of today still need flag-waving and chanting to express what it feels? Yes.

Got Cold Feet

I felt the ground open up under my feet. Wengler wasn't in. I ran to the duty editor-in-chief, Dr. Arnold, spluttering something about copyright. Karl-Heinz Arnold was the office snob. We called him "the Doctor." He drove a blue Mazda and had had the benefit of a humanist education. "What do you know about copyright, boy?" he retorted in his nasal twang. A colleague said he'd understand if I quit, but added that it would be a shame because Glasnost was right around the corner. Wengler later had someone inform me he had got cold feet.

We both stayed on at the newspaper. I made a career out of it, Wengler did not. He wasn't voted out or insulted or called to account in front of some committee. He was simply shunted off into a corner at the newspaper. He remained deputy editor-in-chief, but no-one gave him any work to do. The new editor-in-chief cut him down to size, perhaps because he reminded him too much of himself. Wengler was charged with looking after young reporters, East Germany's small and mid-sized companies, and issues related to hunting because one of his friends was a hunter. At the very end, I saw him wandering through the corridors with a small handcart distributing writing materials. In 1993 Erich Böhme, the publisher, offered him a golden handshake, which he accepted and retired. I had only seen him once in the last 16 years, at the funeral of photographer Wulf Olm. I had never discussed that October night with him nor his broken promise.

As I stand in front of the confusingly packed nameplate of the apartment block on Fischerinsel, a short old man comes over and asks me in a broad Saxon dialect who I'm looking for. "Wengler," I say. "What do you want from Fritz?" the man asks.

I look at him. The man is 70, maybe 80, with a wild determined look in his eyes and a barbecue fork in his hand. "I want to talk with him," I say.

'Careful with that Fork'

"I see," the man says. "Come with me. I want to show you something."

He leads me to the mailboxes, and demonstrates how he can fish letters out of any of them using just his barbecue fork. That wasn't possible with the old GDR mailboxes, he says, but the tenants had to pay for this crap nonetheless. He says he's not prepared to put up with it any longer. He's going to sue the crooks. "Crooks!" the man cries. "I really have to get going," I say. "I'll take you to him," he replies.

The second floor smells of the garbage chute. The old man wheezes ahead of me and rings the bell.

Fritz Wengler looks at us with interest. He is 75, his clear, friendly face and unfathomable dark eyes have hardly changed. Before I can say a word, my guide begins shouting, launching himself into a furious diatribe in which he attempts to link Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, the international financial world and the fate of the apartment block on Fischerinsel. "They're all crooks!" the man cries. "But that's all over now. The building used to belong to us, the people. And we're going to get it back. We're suing, Fritz!" he shouts, brandishing his barbecue fork.

"Careful with that fork, Rolf," Wengler says. He ushers me into his apartment and closes the door.

"He's a decent guy: An engineer," Wengler explains. "Unfortunately he's a bit confused nowadays." It's the same tone of voice he had used when defending my department head, who had drunk too much and rammed his Lada into a garden gate in Basdorf in the summer of '89. "He's a good comrade," he had said.

At an important gathering, Wengler had once complained to regional Party leader Günter Schabowski that there they didn't serve decent frankfurters at publishing house canteens. "Frankfurters?" Schabowski had said, and laughed. Wengler hadn't understood what was so funny. After all, the champions of socialism needed decent sausages.

'How Did You Know?'

Fritz Wengler has been the apartment block's tenants' representative for many years. He leads me to a small, shady room containing two bookshelves and a round table. A thermal coffee pot and two cups stand on the table. His wife briefly introduces herself, then withdraws. Fritz Wengler closes the door. We are alone. We can talk man to man.

"So," he says, and I quickly tell him I want to talk about the torchlight procession article.
"I know," Fritz says.
"How did you know?"

"Why else would you be here? I turned everything on its head with a single 'Yes'. I'd never been in a situation like that before either. I've often thought about it in recent years," he says. "Sugar?"

He says he vividly remembers that day. He tells me of the directives he had had to follow as editor-in-chief. Directives issued by Joachim Herrmann, the Politburo agitprop secretary and Wengler's former editor-in-chief at Junge Welt. He dives into the bowels of the system of directives. "They all knew one another," he says. There had been directives he didn't understand but that hadn't come from nowhere. They had been issued by people he had known for years -- confidants, so to speak.

It Was About the Existence of the GDR

"It was based theoretically on democratic centralism. You know all that," he says. I nod. "Marx was a dictatorial editor-in-chief," Wengler says with a wry smile. Marx. Now he has solid ground under his feet.

"We were issued the following instructions for the anniversary: We won't let them spit in our soup. We have every reason to be proud of ourselves, and the torchlight procession is the centerpiece. We knew that all hell was breaking loose out there, but the youth of the GDR would show the world what we had achieved. That's what Achim Herrman kept repeating over the phone. I don't know how often he called me that evening. More-or-less constantly. 'Is everything all right with that torchlight procession, Fritz?' It was always the same. He must have called from the municipal parliament. Then your piece landed on my desk, and I knew we couldn't run it like that."


Photo Gallery: Coming to Terms with a DDR Past

Foto: ADN/ dpa

He pauses, sips his coffee and says, "For three reasons." I can sense him growing -- and I shrink back into a young editor again. There were always three reasons why things weren't right. "Firstly, the questions. Secondly, the 'Gorbi' cries and the omission of Honecker, and finally the girl who was crying because her friend left the country," he says. "I wanted to keep the girl in. I really wrestled with my conscience. But in the end I wasn't sure anymore. That's why I added the 'Yes.' My head was on the line, after all."

"But you promised me you wouldn't."
"This wasn't Osang's opinion we were printing. It was our editorial position. And I went to bed with a guilty conscience that night, believe me."
"Guilty towards me?"
"Towards my party. Towards my country," he says and looks me straight in the eye.

I Am a Cog

I am a cog -- a tiny part of a machine. At this moment in time Fritz Wengler is my living memory.

I remember all the times I was warned to ensure my personal interests matched those of the society in which I lived. It was always automatically about everything. If you fell asleep in class, you were putting global peace at risk. And sometimes you had to kill your personal interests to bring them into line with those of your society. In the light of this, an agreement between two men is not worth much.

It is strange how all this comes flooding back in this small room. Maybe it's better that you see nothing but trees when you look out of the windows.

Fritz Wengler doesn't meet his former colleagues anymore. He occasionally sees one at a demonstration, he says. On his bookshelves there are historic tomes about the Hapsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, the Huns, and the Celts. They sit alongside memoirs of East German celebrities such as Frank Schöbel, Eberhard Esche, Inge Keller, Gisela May, and Gaby Seifert as well as the sort of communist-era reference manuals about the world and about socialism given to young people at Jugendweihe celebrations, a secular coming-of-age ritual. My individualism must seem pathetic to him; so self-centered and whiny. He says he doesn't want to hide behind anyone. "If you want to become the Pope, you have to be Catholic," he says. "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."

It wasn't about me, it wasn't even about the Berliner Zeitung, he explains. It was about the existence of the GDR.

'Consensus Can't Get You Anywhere'

"Did you think about me for one second when you added that 'Yes'?" I ask, realizing I am on the verge of tears and have a job fighting them back. I get smaller and smaller.

"Oh, come now! Of course I wasn't oblivious to the fact that I was ruining a young journalist's article and maybe also his reputation. But I had a job to do," Fritz Wengler says. "My party had given me instructions, and I had identified with them. I was convinced we could save the country if we just held firm. Consensus can't get you anywhere."

He tells me how, as a student member of the FDJ, he had been sent to guard the House of Ministries in Leipziger Strasse against insurgents on June 17, 1953 -- the day when widespread demonstrations broke out in East Berlin. He talks about troublemakers and troop units and tricky situations. But in the end they had got everything under control again and he could return to his FDJ school, he became a youth brigadier at the Upper Spree cable plant and wrote an inspiring diary about the life of a brigadier, a journal that got him first into the Bitterfeld writers' conference and eventually a job at Junge Welt newspaper.

"I once did what you did at the Berliner Zeitung: Going out, writing, then going out again. I was quicker than the others and always had a good eye," he says. He explains how he wrote his pieces to rub people up the wrong way and how he used every opportunity to present a snapshot of reality.

"He's reeling me in," I think. Perhaps he wants to say that October 7, 1989 could be for me what June 17, 1953 had meant to him; an experience that could have made me tougher, wiser, more insightful, and maybe one day first deputy editor-in-chief, in which capacity I would attend weekly meetings of the Central Committee's Agitation Committee and receive instructions that I wouldn't always understand, but would follow nonetheless because they hadn't come from nowhere, but rather been issued by people I would know; confidants, so to speak. I could have been yet another representative of a power that wouldn't have existed without me.

Fifty Years

A little later, Wengler's wife brings us a bowl of potato chips, and we nibble a few like old acquaintances; confidants, so to speak.

"We've now talked about that single 'Yes' for four hours," Wengler says.

I tell him that the torchlight procession article comes back to haunt me every now and again whenever someone with a grudge against me photocopies it and mails it out to all and sundry to show what kind of a person I used to be.

"So you want to be rid of it?" Fritz Wengler asks, with a pitying smile.

He tells me he's read everything that's ever been published in Germany about the French Revolution. It was 50 years before historians started doing the Jacobins justice to any extent, he says.

Fifty years.

Fritz, my editor-in-chief, sits there reading his historical books, waiting for history to do him justice. Many years ago he made a promise that was far greater than the promise he made me that October night. He kept one by breaking the other. That's how he sees it, and that puts me in his boat. His 'Yes' will remain in my article forever. Even when the living memory is long gone, Fritz Wengler and I will remain inextricably linked in this article in this newspaper.

Some things simply can't be put right.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt