Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


A little Communist, Notmsparker, in Poland in April of  1980.

A little Communist, Notmsparker, in Poland in April of 1980.

What happened in Europe in the late 1980s – the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of communism in Poland, perestroika in the former Soviet Union as well as the collapse of a whole social and political system east of the Iron Curtain – had immense consequences not only of political and economic but also of very personal nature.

Suddenly your world was no longer there. All of a sudden, none of the rules you lived by or traditions you followed mattered. It was by all means a good and welcome change but also one which, as always, came at a price.

For those born in those lost countries, even today, it is quite painful to be confronted with often negative and disparaging comments about what life in Eastern Europe before 1989 must have been like. “Grey” is the word that is used a lot. “Sad and frightening” say many Westerns when asked. Occasionally these comments, also such which appeared on this blog, are outright hostile or even, sadly, offensive.

As someone who grew up in one of those “grey, sad and frightening” places, I tend to fire back. I want to remind people that those you might pity for being limited and enslaved still tended to live normal lives, that our basic need to feel safe, healthy and loved, to eat enough, sleep enough and be needed by others, still was – and is – pretty much universal. That people´s lives tend to be what they can make it and that it is something they will always strive to do. Even if the limitations are great and even if, from the outside, it might appear to be little that they achieve.

Seen from the safety of the Western world, East Europeans often appeared to have been imprisoned, limited and deprived: to go anywhere abroad you had to apply for your passport to be released from the state storage (you did not keep it at home) and as often as not, you got a “no” as an answer. It was not your decision to take. Just as in many cases you could hardly decide for yourself what job you would get or where you would work. But for most Poles, Czechs or East Germans, the life “within the prison walls” was just as normal as elsewhere. Not every suppressed citizen is a revolutionary at heart – you only notice the walls when you actively try to walk through them.

Not to speak too lightly of all the terror, difficulties, shortages and persecution that took place east of the Iron Curtain before 1989, it is also equally important to speak of the bright sides of everyday life of the Schmidts, the Kowalskis and the Havels. For many people around you this is the only life that they had. And I, for once, having been born too late to have experienced the true menace of the communism in Poland but early enough to have consciously lived through the poverty, the confusion and the cuts of the 1980s, now and then think that I would do anything to visit that lost country again. “Grey, sad and frightening” as it might have been, it was also home.

Here is a great BBC film about life in East Germany which provoked today´s post.

7 comments on “THE LOST WORLDS

  1. Rolf
    Nov 21, 2015

    I will have to watch the film later – thank you for the link!

    I feel touched by your text, but I am struggling for the right words to find.

    I am born in West Berlin, our family had relatives in the GDR, and we visited them quite often.
    But indeed the first impression of East Berlin was “grey” – and of course I had good times with my relatives and later with friends and love as well, and as the visits became more, I was often searched in order to discourage me from going there, and of course the cruelty of the wall was clearly visible every time I crossed the border at Bornholmer Brücke.

    And I know East Berlin has gone. Places I knew have gone, not only in East Berlin, and people from East Germany were forced to adopt to a very different system that is not always a kind one…

  2. solitaryproletarian
    Nov 21, 2015

    I watched that documentary before. It is quite good for the BBC. In Ireland, everything we hear about East-Europe and Germany under communism is negative. I’m sure there were a lack of fundamental freedoms, but much of what we hear is propaganda too. In the USSR, there were some things which Irish capitalism can not provide – and we are not so democratic in Ireland either!

    • notmsparker
      Nov 22, 2015

      In 1988, when I went to the UK for the first time (my passport was released:-), people asked some truly astounding questions: “Is it true that wild animals walk in the streets of your cities?” (they do, but in villages and not in cities and only in winter and almost exclusively in the areas where there are plenty of spreading forests, like in the Mazury Lake District) or “Do you have any shops in Poland?” (yes, we did – despite shortage of many things we were not so much into open-air barter either;-). But what truly killed me was the moment when my host-mother believed milk in Poland was black (she asked me if I wanted my cereals with cold or with hot milk and I took a moment too long to consider my answer, so she wanted to know if we had milk in Poland at all; I felt compelled to give a cheeky answer but she fell for it and called a neighbour to tell her about the latest discovery. I bet there are still some good people in Carlisle who think that Polish milk is comes in a much darker shade:-) But seriously, I did not blame them – what they saw on TV was all they knew about us. And TV tends to show things from most attractive or shocking angles. Its good always to keep that in mind.

  3. auntyuta
    Nov 22, 2015

    What you write about Lost Worlds, dear NotMsParker, I think is very much worth reading. It is so important not to lose track of how certain changes in society do affect the average citizen. Thanks for telling us your experiences about all this and for including that video. I would very much like to reblog this post of yours. 🙂

    • notmsparker
      Nov 22, 2015

      You and Peter have experienced that loss so much more. It seems to be one of those things that influence us for the lifetime. And the older I get, the stronger its impact, I feel. You’re welcome to share anything that’s posted on my Blog:)

  4. auntyuta
    Nov 22, 2015

    Thank you so much for that, dear B. We find this too that with age the interest in what we experienced earlier on increases. We went through World War Two. This still does influence us. For instance we do not like to go into debt, and we try not to waste any food. 🙂

  5. auntyuta
    Nov 22, 2015

    Reblogged this on auntyuta and commented:
    NotMs Parker writes how “it is quite painful to be confronted with often negative and disparaging comments about what life in Eastern Europe before 1989 must have been like.”
    There is a great BBC film included about life in East Germany which provoked NotMsParker’s post.

    Here is a great BBC film about life in East Germany which provoked today´s post.

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