A visit to what was once the border between West and East Germany reveals the challenges facing the reunified nation.
The reunification of Germany has a personal resonance for Engler, who, as a 7-year-old boy, experienced the bleakness of East Germany during a visit to relatives in 1967. “It was as if the color movie I had been watching in West Germany suddenly turned to black and white,” he recalls in his debut book. In 2011, 22 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he returned to Germany to assess how the project of reintegration was progressing. “What role should memory play to preserve this forty-year epoch, where two cultures grew up estranged from one another?” Engler asks. The book is structured around the author’s visits with two men—Rudi Zietz and Gerhard Lehmann—who worked as guards on different sides of the border. Their reminiscences alternate with Engler’s own reflections. One stretch of the former Communist German Democratic Republic, the author writes, “had the desperate look of being left behind,” while Zietz’s years of patrolling the border for West Germany had “heightened his senses, as he was constantly on the watch for any movement and sound.” In Engler’s perceptive and powerful analysis of reunification issues, he raises provocative questions about how Germany can push forward while still honoring its Cold War heritage. Zietz now works on “preserving a small piece of the GDR’s past,” supporting a museum in a small East German town. “There were many people who were against it,” the town’s mayor tells Engler. “They said, ‘Why do you want to keep the past alive?’ ” Lehmann, who joined the GDR’s border police in 1950, still feels the stigma of being associated with the repressive Communist state and graphically expresses his estrangement from wealthier West Germans. “Don’t make me feel as though every time I eat a piece of bread I have to say, ‘thank you,’ ” he asserts. Lehmann seeks acceptance of his past, Engler writes in this book filled with sharp observations, but he is among those East Germans who have become “wandering immigrants from a country called the GDR...living in a society where your past is nearly erased.”
The author deftly explores the important question of how Germany can move on while still respecting its Cold War past in this illuminating book.