Katarina Witt, socialism′s most beautiful face | German Reunification | DW | 07.01.2009
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German Reunification

Katarina Witt, socialism's most beautiful face

Katarina Witt was the GDR's poster athlete, everybody's darling in both East and West Germany.

Katarina Witt

'I was merely an object,' says Witt

"Every afternoon my friends and I would leave kindergarten and go to the skating rink, and I always knew that ice-skating was for me," wrote Katarina Witt in her 1994 memoirs. "Gliding along and twirling while everyone watched -- that's all I ever wanted. And I knew I could do it."

She was right. She went on to enjoy a glamorous but controversial career as one of the world's most successful competitive figure skaters, only retiring from the spotlight in 2008. She certainly came a long way from her humble beginnings in what was then known as Karl Marx Stadt, now Chemnitz.

Meteoric career

Katarina Witt (right) and her coach Jutta Mueller

Witt (right) and her coach Jutta Mueller

By the time she was 11, Katarina Witt was attending a special school for sports-talented children, called the Kinder und Jugendsportschule, and representing club SC Karl Marx Stadt for the GDR, coached by Jutta Mueller.

Perky and charming, Kati was everything the GDR wanted of its athletes: Her family toed the political line and she herself was a member of the communist youth organization, the FDJ. Her reward was the best training available and she made the most of it.

Talented and charismatic, she was ambitious and hard-working. Her discipline soon started to pay off, both in national championships -- she was GDR figure skating champion from 1981 to 1988 -- and on the international stage. In 1983 she won the first of six European championship titles; Gold at the Olympic Games in Sarajevo in 1984, and the first of four world championships the same year.

An all-German girl

By the time she scooped her second Olympic gold in Calgary in 1988, she was being celebrated as a pan-German icon, single-handedly breaking down the psychological wall between East and West Germans. In the real world, the Wall was still firmly in place. Looking back, Katarina Witt admitted that her battle for gold against US skater Debi Thomas was about far more than sports:

"It was a class war, undeniably," she once said. "For the Americans as much as for us. It was a face-off between two opposing political systems."

Katarina Witt performs at the Calgary Olympics in 1988

Witt at the Calgary Olympics in 1988

By this time, Witt was spending increasing amounts of time abroad. Unlike her fellow GDR citizens, she enjoyed unrestricted freedom to travel, and was happy to take the opportunities that came her way.

After her triumphant win in Calgary in 1988, she gave up competitive figure skating to make her showbiz debut appearing in the US Holiday on Ice show between November 1988 and March 1989 -- a move that caused a sensation back home in the GDR.

The rough with the smooth

Despite her forays into enemy territory, she remained communist Germany's best-known and beloved daughter, adored not only for her looks and talent but also because she was, basically, a nice little earner.

Eighty percent of her takings from Holiday on Ice went into the GDR kitty, but she didn't complain. She knew which side her bread was buttered: As the politburo's pet, she enjoyed plenty of privileges denied to her fellow countrymen, from a new car whenever she wanted one, to a television and the home of her choice.

All this was held against her once the Berlin Wall came down. The woman once dubbed "the most beautiful face of socialism" by Time Magazine soon found herself lampooned by German tabloids as a Party puppet.

In 1992, she took legal action against a number of papers which had alleged that she worked for the GDR's secret police.

Katarina Witt

One of the world's most successful ice skaters

In subsequent years, she also tried, in vain, to prevent publication of her Stasi file, which revealed that she had cooperated fully with East Germany's feared secret police.

But although she was categorized as a "favored" citizen in the GDR, her every move was monitored. From 1973 on, she too was extensively spied and informed upon.

Her 181-page Stasi file was as shocking to her as it was to her public.

"I wish I had never found out some of it," she wrote in her autobiography. "I was neither an informer nor a rebel. I wasn't a victim either -- I was merely an object."

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