Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Pertti Ahonen's "Death at the Berlin Wall" - a review

“Death at the Berlin Wall”

by Pertti Ahonen
OUP, £60.00, 309pp, index, notes, bibliography.

Nostalgia for aspects of life in the GDR, it seems, it still current.  In modern Berlin one can buy any number of products that one graced East Berlin households; the Trabant has acquired cult status; even the humble Ampelmann – who stood guard at pedestrian crossings in the East – has become an icon. 

For all that apparently innocent “Ostalgia”, Pertti Ahonen’s new book Death at the Berlin Wall, is a powerful antidote.  Ahonen examines a selection of the 136 individuals killed at the wall in its 28-year lifespan; from its earliest victim, Günter Litfin, in August 1961, to its last, Chris Gueffroy, in February 1989, who was shot and killed just nine months before the Berlin Wall fell. 

Some of the stories that he relates are well-known; such as that of Peter Fechter, whose fatal shooting in the August of 1962 unleashed a wave of outrage in the west; or that of the Wall’s youngest victim; 11-year-old Jörg Hartmann, who was killed trying to escape to his father in the spring of 1966.  Others are much less prominent, at least in the west, such as the stories of the “socialist hero-victims”; border guards Peter Göring, Reinhold Huhn or Egon Schulz, who were killed in shootouts with West Berlin policemen or desperate would-be escapers. 

Aside from engagingly relating such episodes, Ahonen seeks to analyse the popular and official reactions to the deaths; the propaganda resulting from both sides and the effect that they had on the ongoing politics of the Cold War and the division of Germany

His insights are fascinating.  One is astonished, for instance, by the breath-taking cynicism and mendacity of the GDR’s politicians in their attempts to discredit those who would flee the ‘socialist paradise’, yet the story that Ahonen tells is one which is much more nuanced than the simple one that might be told by a latter-day Cold-Warrior.

Rather Ahonen places the undoubted horrors that unfolded in the Wall’s shadow into a much wider context of developing procedures for policing such an unprecedented physical division, as well as question of the west’s recognition of the GDR itself.  He also suggests that the reactions to the deaths – on both sides of the divide – were as much an expression of the needs of domestic consensus and identity-building as they were the products of simple propaganda and ‘news-management’.  In many ways, he suggests, the Berlin Wall was not only a political icon and the most visible symbol of the division of Europe, it also became a highly sensitive barometer of Cold War tensions.

Ahonen provides an admirable combination of narrative and historical analysis, which skimps neither on the human stories at the book’s heart, nor on the forensic and painstaking research that serves to contextualise them.  It helps, of course, that Ahonen is a gifted writer, who is able to combine those elements into a highly readable, coherent and compelling account, but it is especially heartening to see an academic historian giving free rein to his writing and indulging in some good old-fashioned storytelling. 

Yet, aside from these necessary nuances and complexities, it is the sheer inhuman contempt that the GDR had for its would-be escapers that sticks most vividly in the reader’s mind.  Those wounded would be denied prompt medical attention, those killed could be anonymously cremated as “scientific material”, and those family members left behind would be intimidated, spied upon and persecuted.  The case of Michael-Horst Schmidt is one of the most shocking.  Shot and wounded in an escape attempt in 1984, the 20-year-old was dead on arrival at hospital 3 hours later, by which time the East German authorities were already beginning to weave a web of lies and obfuscations to blacken their victim’s name and shamelessly exculpate themselves.  It is stories such as these that should make Ahonen’s excellent book required reading for all those who still hanker for the ‘certainties’ of life in the GDR.

[This review first appeared in "History Today" in January 2012]

© Roger Moorhouse 2011

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