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East Berlin life

May 19, 2011

Thomas Hoepker's photos of life in East Germany are currently on display at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. The images served as rare glimpses into life "on the other side" for West Germans in the 1970s.

Thomas Hoepker: Prenzlauer Berg, East Berlin, 1976
Hoepker's photos brought a taste of East Germany to the WestImage: DHM

A 50th anniversary is usually a time to celebrate - but not in the case of the Berlin Wall. This summer will mark half a century since construction work began on the structure that divided the German city. On August 13, 1961, the provisional barbed-wire fences set up by Soviet-dominated East Germany started being turned into a complex system of wall, metal fences, watch towers and what became known as a "death strip."

For 28 years, until it came down in 1989, the Berlin Wall split families, friends, neighbors, streets, waterways and the public transport system. Now, Germany is remembering what it meant to live in a divided country. The German Historical Museum in Berlin is showing photographs by Thomas Hoepker - the first West German photographer who was officially allowed to live and report from East Berlin.

Hoepker, now 74, recalls what it was like when he and his wife at the time, journalist Eva Windmöller, arrived in East Berlin in the fall of 1974. His job was to report for the magazine Stern - made possible by a formal agreement between the two German states to exchange journalists.

"It was a big city, but very empty," said Hoepker. It was very windy - especially in the new quarters that had been built after the war, and that were not very attractive to look at. And people left their house in the morning, came back in the evening, and in between nothing much happened."

Thomas Hoepker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Hoepker chats with Chancellor Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, at the opening of the exhibitionImage: dapd

However, he notes the city changed dramatically on public holidays, when the people celebrated in the streets, "all dressed up" and with "banners and uniforms."

Uncovering a mysterious world

Hoepker's reports gave West Germans their first glimpses of how "the other half" lived. Unlike the East Germans, who could watch West German TV, most West Germans had no idea what life in the GDR was like, according to Carola Jüllig, the exhibition's curator. She notes that Hoepker's photos were accompanied by texts that his wife wrote, giving insights into East German life.

"It is very interesting to read these texts and to understand how we in West Germany tried to approach this very strange country," said Jüllig.

But when faced with either empty streets or official parades, a photographer's job can become extremely difficult. It was hard for Hoepker to portray the reality of life inside the GDR. As the exhibit shows, photos of official dates did form a large part of his work.

"He took a lot of pictures on these special days, but he always tried to look at the people - how did they feel, how did they act, how did they react to these official flags and speeches?" said Jüllig.

Staged perfection

Despite this focus on "ordinary" people, Hoepker also had an interest in capturing something more official. Living in a country officially labeled as a "state of workers und farmers," he applied to the foreign ministry to be allowed to photograph a "real worker" at his workplace. However, it took a few months to receive permission from the authorities for this kind of assignment.

"We took some pictures - very boring pictures at the steel mill where the guy worked - and then they said, 'You can come home with us and see our environment,'" recalled Hoepker. "And to our amazement, they had a very modern, freshly furnished apartment, and they had this immense plate of cake on the table."

The photo he took of the occasion shows the worker and his wife sitting somewhat forlornly behind their coffee table, almost dwarfed by the enormous cake in the foreground. "State cake," Hoepker explains, was an essential prop on these officially staged occasions - as was an agent of the secret police, the Stasi, who would invariably loom on the sidelines.

Closely monitored

"To my left, there was a gentleman sitting in a leather coat, and he listened to the whole conversation - he didn't say a word, he just listened - and I'm sure he had a little button in his vest," explained Hoepker, referring to a hidden camera. "So, you can imagine that these people were not exactly outspoken and not exactly relaxed."

Hoepker and his wife were themselves constantly monitored by East Germany's secret police. This was confirmed when, long after the fall of the Wall, Hoepker had a look at his own secret service file. It contained all the reports the Stasi had written on him, faithfully chronicling every step he took. However, he points out that his wife tried to write very fairly.

"She talked about what we found sympathetic, what we found pleasant, but she also didn't mince words when horrible stuff happened," said Hoepker. "And then we got feedback and they told us, 'You shouldn't have written that, maybe we should discuss it later.' But there was no censorship, because that was clear in the official treaty that no censorship would happen."

In Hoepker's 1963 photo, a little boy rides his scooter along the Berlin Wall. The sign reads: "Footpath Soviet sector."
In Hoepker's 1963 photo, a little boy rides his scooter along the Berlin Wall. The sign reads: "Footpath Soviet sector."Image: DHM

Reality captured on film

Looking at Hoepker's pictures in the exhibition, it becomes apparent that he did find the "real life" he was looking for during his numerous strolls he took through East Berlin. There are pictures of shop windows - the few wares available arranged with exquisite care - as well as workers in dirty clothes carrying coal in large baskets, a sign that most people in East Berlin's inner city districts did not have central heating at the time. Then there are also photos of young people in fancy dress at a dancing school's final ball.

For three years, Hoepker and his wife shared this life, making many friends among the literary and artistic scene of East Berlin. But, unlike these friends, they could travel to the West and back whenever they pleased. And they used this privilege to help others.

"My photographer friends needed film; people needed coffee, people needed strange things like knitting wool or something like that - and I remember actually at one time we brought a whole dishwasher in the trunk of our car," said Hoepker. "The officials knew that, but they were not allowed to open our trunk. So we did a lot of trafficking."

Click on the link below for a look at Thomas Hoepker's photographs, which are currently on display at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. They are part of the "ÜBER LEBEN" exhibition, which also features the work of photographer Daniel Biskup, who portrayed the effects of civil war in former Yugoslavia and other former Soviet satellite states after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The exhibition runs through German Unification Day on October 3.

Author: Monika Hebbinghaus / ew

Editor: Kate Bowen