Berlin Wall Memories: An East German’s Account of the Culture of Fear

November 9, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015

West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall early 11 Nov. 1989 as they watch East German border guards demolishing a section of the wall in order to open a new crossing point between East and West Berlin, near the Potsdamer Square. (Gerard Malie/AFP/Getty Images)
West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall early 11 Nov. 1989 as they watch East German border guards demolishing a section of the wall in order to open a new crossing point between East and West Berlin, near the Potsdamer Square. (Gerard Malie/AFP/Getty Images)
The Berlin Wall, a symbol of division between Eastern and Western Europe for three decades, fell on Nov. 9, 1989. The winds of change in Eastern Europe shook the foundations of the wall. Images of Germans, relieved as they stood on the finally crumbling structure, capture the era. The wall’s collapse rippled back across Eastern Europe, and largely peaceful revolutions ended communist rule in one country after another. The Soviet Union fell just over two years later. Two decades on, we revisit the wall’s collapse and shed light on its significance.

HAMBURG, Germany—Fred Hosse, 60, was one of the many East Germans who wished to escape to the West. He was a silo foreman for a state-owned enterprise in Madgeburg, a small German town. In the spring of 1984 he was dismissed after defending his subordinates in front of the director.

After Hosse attempted to get out of East Germany, communist authorities demanded that he retract his exit request and began to make his life difficult.

He was made to report to the police biweekly for interrogation. The process was the same each time: After waiting three hours, he was called into an interrogation room where police and interrogators demanded he take back his exit request.

There were two police officers besides the two interrogators in the room, he said. "They stood behind me, close to the wall, and had to look at the ceiling at all times so they could concentrate on my voice, disposition, and mood," Hosse recounted.

Around the same time the interrogations were going on, Hosse’s applications for employment were unsuccessful; he believes the two were connected. Even his daughter was segregated and harassed by teachers and fellow students, he said.

Though he was not intimidated by the treatment, he soon realized that his home was being watched around the clock and that he was being shadowed wherever he went.

Hosse did not understand until after the collapse of the wall why he had to wait so long for his exit permit. In 1990 he found out that his best friend of 17 years was a spy.

Looking back, he considers himself fortunate. "It could have been much worse,” he said. “I could have disappeared suddenly, like so many others."

Just two weeks prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hosse finally received his exit permit. "It's possible that they knew at that time that the wall would fall soon," he said.

Even when he was granted permission to leave with wife and 10-year- old daughter in 1989, the police didn’t make it easy. He was not allowed to exit at the closest border crossing and had to take a detour via Bavaria, over 600 miles away.

He could only take with him what he could carry in a small case; the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, confiscated everything else, including his furniture and the house.

Thinking back over the past, Hosse said, "The communists were as bad as the Nazis."