Life behind the Iron Curtain: Professor recounts personal experience in Germany



Professor Holthoefer of the Politics department.

David Micali, Crier staff

For some, East Germany was a communist country under the indirect control of the Soviet Union. For Professor Anne Holthoefer of the Politics Department, East Germany was her home for 13 years before it vanished from the map.

Following the Nazi’s defeat in 1945, Germany was split into four occupation zones controlled by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union. Although the city of Berlin was about 100 miles within the Soviet occupation zone, the city itself was split between the east and west. In 1949, the Soviet Union created East Germany and in 1961, they built the Berlin Wall around West Berlin. By the late 1980s, unknown to anyone at the time, the communist east was on the verge of collapse.

Professor Holthoefer lived in the suburbs of East Berlin, about a 20-minute train ride from the Berlin Wall. In her mind, the Berlin Wall “was around a black hole; there was nothing there.”

She was 13 in 1989, when the wall came down and lived with her mother, father, and brother. Her father worked for the Ministry of Foreign Trade. Having a civil servant job meant that her parents had to renounce their relatives living in West Germany.

By the 1980s, the East German economy had stagnated and living conditions were deteriorating, but this was not obvious to those living in East Germany. “I don’t think I noticed that,” Professor Holthoefer said, though “looking back it was very clear.” She explained that the “basics were always available, and the non-basics were always scarce.”

East Germans did not have the same level of choices as their western counterparts. The supermarkets were full, but “you’d go to the cereal aisle, though we didn’t actually have any breakfast cereal except for oatmeal and a version of rice puffs, but it would be the same cereal; fifty boxes next to each other.”

The lack of variety was not limited to food. People dressed similarly and there were only a handful of cars a person could apply for, two of which were produced in East Germany. A car application took about ten years.

At the time, Professor Holthoefer was brought up to believe that the Soviet Union “was our brother country, of course. They were our liberators and saviors,” though she wishes the reader understands the sense of irony in that statement.

Growing up, her adventure stories were of the “Soviet Union fighting this war against the evil Nazi empire,” she told the Crier, “or they would take place in Nazi Germany where you’d have the brave communist resistance fighting the Nazis. These were the hero stories I grew up with.”

The United States was considered the enemy to the point that Professor Holthoefer’s brother even thought that ‘Reagan’ was a curse word. Access to the west was strictly limited and contact drew the attention of the Stasi; the East German secret police.

The Stasi have been called by some as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies to have ever existed. They had informants in all major industrial centers and university while also planting listening devices in people’s homes.

Professor Holthoefer’s own upstairs neighbors, who were “close family friends,” were Stasi informants who had reported on her and her family; however, Professor Holthoefer would like to clarify that when the Stasi asked a person to be an informant there were only two possible answers: “yes or yes.” Refusing to cooperate could result in professional consequences, such as a lack of promotions or even being barred from one’s chosen profession, or personal consequences, such as being ostracized as a non-compliant member of society.

East Germans did not know the extent to which the Stasi spied on them. Professor Holthoefer relayed the story of family friends who had an art exhibition in a barn outside of East Berlin. While remodeling the barn, they discovered that one of the fire extinguishers had been hollowed out and contained a listening device. When the Wall came down and the Stasi records become public to those who requested them, the extent to which they spied on their own people shocked everyone.  

In 1986, East Germany had an election. In the election, the National Front, controlled by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, won 99.94% of the vote. According to Professor Holthoefer, this was not considered odd. In East Germany, the “National Front had to win” though it was “thoroughly possible to think this was a real election.” In East German elections there were three other parties one could vote for. A vote for them was considered a protest vote.

East Germany was not cut off from Western culture. East German televisions and radios picked up West German broadcasts. Professor Holthoefer’s family would watch the East and West German news. They figured that the truth was some compromise between the two. West German television broadcasted shows like Dallas and MacGyver.

There was a popular American sponsored radio station which played songs by Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, and “80s galore.” In between songs, it talked about the greatness of capitalism. Although Professor Holthoefer saw the West’s “glitz” and how it portrayed itself, “our television programming and our state propaganda told me not to trust this.” She did not have any strong opinions about West Germany and it never struck her as odd that there were two Germanys. “It was just a fact of life,” she reflected.

On Nov. 9, 1989, Professor Holthoefer went to bed. When she woke up the next morning, “the Wall was gone.” Since it was a Friday, Professor Holthoefer decided to go to school despite the news. Her English teacher had fled to West Germany. That Saturday, Professor Holthoefer and her family went to the Wall. The West German government were offering 100 Marks to any East German citizen entering the country. The first thing Professor Holthoefer bought in the west was a vinyl from the movie Dirty Dancing for 20 Marks. By 1990, East Germany was gone.

Professor Holthoefer would later go on to Humboldt University of Berlin, graduating in 2001. From there, she would get her Master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 2003 and get her Ph.D. in 2011. Now she teaches International Relations here, at Saint Anselm. In her office hangs a framed London Herald from Nov. 11, 1989. In big, bold letters, the headline reads “Berlin Wall Tumbles,” a reminder of the events of her childhood and the place she grew up.