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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Memorializing the fall of the Berlin Wall

Published: October 30, 2009
Section: News

Brandeis hosted both a pro-democracy official and a unique German Cold war Hero, Tuesday at the event “Twenty Years After,” a remembrance of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, sponsored by the Center for German and European Studies.

Marianne Birthler, the German federal commissioner in charge of the records of the former Communist regime’s secret police force—the Stasi, as well as Wolf Biermann, a famous singer-songwriter and critic of the Communists in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) were the main commentators.

Their speeches were focused on Germany’s past both before and after the war, and the repercussions these events have had on today’s world.

While introducing the event with her department colleague Prof. Melanie Sherwood, Professor Sabine von Mering (GRALL) explained to the audience that she and her fellow professor had grown up on opposite sides of a divided Berlin.

“Twenty-one years ago, this would have been impossible,” von Mering said.

Bither explained to the audience the Stasi mindset, as a way of explaining what German life was like under the Soviet Union.

“The Stasi were by design meant to keep the whole of society under its control,” she said. “They were the shield and sword of the party—it is interesting: they were not the shield and sword of the people or constitutional rights.”

Birthler then discussed with the guests the role her agency has taken in bringing the long-repressed former GDR in unity with West Germany and incorporating it into the world of Western democracies.

“[The commission] informs the public about the structure and methods of the Communist dictatorship, educates on the conditions [of the regime], ”she said.

“We give every citizen the right of access to their files, and also, a right to know information about informants on them[selves],” Birthler said.Over 1.7 million people have availed themselves of this opportunity, and Birthler said the records commission is expecting there to be 100,000 requests this calendar year.”

Birthler indicated the importance this can then have on academia.

“All students, from all countries, can gain experience from the primary documents” in the Stasi archives, she said.

She left the crowd with a notable point “Living with history and coming to terms with your past is very important to a free, democratic society,” Birthler said.

Biermann agreed with Birthler also expressing his passion for keeping an accountable record of a dark time in German history.

“I was one of the first allowed to see the files in 1992—[the Stasi had] 8,000 sheets of paper on ‘Biermann,’” he said. “You see that you are [apparently] very important to people,” Biermann said, but that in itself can be frightening.”

Biermann, whose parents died in the Nazi prison camp Aschwitz during World War II, is a veteran citizen of not one but two totalitarian regimes.

“I was interested in how [the Stasi period] relates to the Nazi times,” he said, “and I compared.” Biermann noted that the Stasi had an average stockpile of 50 times more information compared to that of the Nazi Gestapo.

He said the comparison says something about the strength of the occupied German people.

“The Communists needed more [secret files] because so many people resisted,” he said.

Biermann then sang several self-written songs regarding the German resistance.

“The power of the [soviet] regime was our fear,” Biermann explained. “The function of my songs in this time is to diminish the fear.”

To von Merring, who grew up listening to Biermann’s songs, his preformance was “powerful and inspiring.”

“I grew up with [listening to] him [Biermann],” von Mering said. “He represents to us a symbol of the Cold War and that it’s over. It’s a big deal for me.”