Page last updated at 17:27 GMT, Friday, 13 March 2009

My lost world of Communism

By Kerstin Fischer
Assistant Producer, BBC Two's The Lost World of Communism

Twenty years after the Berlin Wall came down, citizens of what was East Germany recall the country of their past for a new BBC TV series, The Lost World of Communism.

Kritsin Fischer
As a teenager, I never imagined that communism would collapse and that my country would disappear virtually overnight as it did 20 years ago
Kerstin Fischer

I grew up in communist East Germany, just outside Leipzig in Saxony. In my youth I, like so many others, joined the mass organisations of the Communist Party such as the Young Pioneers.

I vividly remember singing socialist songs like 'Build Up, Build Up Socialism'.

I was something of a poster child for socialist youth and I was even selected as my school representative of the Free German Youth.

As a teenager, I never imagined that communism would collapse and that my country would disappear virtually overnight as it did 20 years ago.

When the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989 I was 17-years-old and my career under communism was already mapped out; I was preparing to work as a journalist for a state-run newspaper.

Twenty years later I find myself working for the BBC on a TV series about The Lost World of Communism.

Hijacked by Stalinism

Communist East Germany was born out of the ruins of the Second World War. "Stalin's unwanted child" was how it was referred to.

The country's leaders claimed they were building a socialist paradise on earth but from the start my country's communist ideals were hijacked by Stalinism.

BBC Two, Saturdays, 9pm

14th March: 'A Socialist Paradise': East Germany
21st March: 'The Kingdom of Forgetting': Czechoslovakia
28th March: 'Socialism in One Family': Romania

Walter Ulbricht was the dominant figure of East Germany's political leadership in those early years, and a Stalin devotee. While researching for this programme I met his former assistant Wolfgang Leonhard who told me one of Ulbricht's favourite sayings.

"It has to look democratic but we must have everything under control."

Leonhard talked about how he got so scared of how communism took a "wrong turn" under his boss, how old comrades who had survived the war inside Germany, often in concentration camps, and who were genuine anti-fascists were sidelined in favour of those totally loyal to Moscow.

A dictatorship was born.

I met an extraordinary variety of people in making the film. Some were Stasi officers and informers, others had heartbreaking stories of hardship and brutality under the state.

But there are also stories of strippers, architects, housewives and artists, ordinary citizens simply trying to get on with their lives in our socialist state. Here are some of their stories.


Erika was just 14 when she was arrested in eastern Germany

One of the many victims of the socialist state system was Erika Riemann. Now in her late seventies, Erika was just a 14-year-old schoolgirl in 1945 when she was arrested for drawing a bow on a picture of Stalin hanging in a classroom. She was sentenced to 10 years in the gulags of eastern Germany.

We met at Sachsenhausen, the former Nazi concentration camp outside Berlin, which the communists used as a prison.

Here she was subjected to persistent abuse, such as the psychological torture of a mock execution. "We had to go into a shower room," she recalls. "They told us they would do what they (the Nazis) had done to the Jews - that there wouldn't be water coming out of the showers, only gas. "

After her release in 1954 Erika escaped to West Germany but her past remains with her. "I feel I have to make people aware that more things happened here after the Holocaust, that there was a Stalinist era too."

I was shocked by my experience of meeting people such as Erika but admired their strength and resilience under such abusive treatment.


Producer Kerstin Fischer and activist Horst Kreeter
Kerstin Fischer and former activist Horst Kreeter

In school, the uprising of 1953 in East Germany had been presented to us as a counter-revolution by reactionary forces such as former Nazis.

It was fascinating to hear a first-hand account of what really happened and why. On 17th June 1953 the people rose up against The Workers' and Peasants' State. What had begun as a strike by construction workers over pay had turned into wider demands for free elections and the resignation of the government itself.

The young Horst Kreeter, a petrol pump attendant living and working on the outskirts of Berlin, ended up in the thick of the action that day.

The East German authorities had been caught off guard and called upon Soviet troops and tanks stationed outside Berlin.

As Kreeter recalls; "At 11.30 we heard the tanks, the chains of tanks. Then we realised the Russians were coming. The crowd started howling. We threw stones at the tanks and seeing the tanks firing in your direction, the sheer sound of it causes you to piss in your pants."

Later Horst Kreeter passed a corpse run over by a Russian tank. "There was a blanket over it and a wooden cross which said 'murdered by the Soviet Army.'"

At least 50 demonstrators died that day. Thousands were arrested. Executions and other reprisals followed. From now on security and control of the people became the communists' top priority.

Following the uprising, Horst Kreeter agreed to work for the Americans, ended up in prison and on his release fled to West Germany. He was one of millions of my fellow citizens who escaped to the West throughout these years.


Peter Bluemel and the Sandman
The Sandman is still filmed today but without the political subtext

One of the iconic faces of East Germany is a television puppet called Sandman. The Sandman was children's entertainment with a propaganda purpose.

As a child growing up in East Germany, I was glued to the TV in the early evening. It was my ritual before being put to bed.

Designed to win our hearts for socialism and send us happy to bed, he took children on a journey through a landscape of socialist ideals - visiting Moscow's Red Square, holidaying in friendly socialist countries like Cuba and Vietnam, joining socialist youth in a Pioneer camp, rolling up in a Trabant car before the 'People's Palace', The Palace of the Republic.

I met former Sandman director Peter Bluemel, who remembers his work on this children's programme with great fondness. East Germany's favourite children's TV show, he recalls, "had to transmit class-consciousness and feelings of solidarity."

Abiding memories

Undoubtedly, some former East Germans miss certain aspects of their country. Welfare programmes, full employment and access to culture are often cited in this respect.

But my abiding impression after being involved in the making of this documentary is not one of nostalgia but of admiration for people's strength in the face of unbearable suffering, and of their resilience, individuality and creative resourcefulness in the face of an often brutal dictatorship.

That's one thing I can never forget.

BBC Two's The Lost World of Communism is on Saturdays at 9pm.

14 March: 'A Socialist Paradise': East Germany.

21 March: 'The Kingdom of Forgetting': Czechoslovakia.

28 March: 'Socialism in One Family': Romania.

The series is accompanied by 'The Lost World of Communism' by Peter Molloy, BBC Books

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