Sun, Oct 03, 2010 - Page 13 News List

A tale of two Germanys

By Noah Buchan  /  Staff Reporter

Berliners sing and dance on top of the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the opening of the border between East and West Germany, in East Berlin on Nov. 10, 1989.

Photos: Bloomberg

Stefan Wolle wears many masks: historian, museum director and expert on the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police. More recently, he’s stepped out of the ivory tower to consult on the script for a soap opera, Weissensee, a Romeo and Juliet-style story of forbidden love set in the former East Germany that debuted last month. Some commentators have likened it to the US show Dallas.

“It’s a real soap opera,” Wolle said, emphasizing the “real” as though he still can’t believe that he worked on it. He added, “I read the script and it was absolutely terrible, a catastrophe. It was not the language from the GDR [the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany] or the thinking of the GDR.”

Soap operas, of course, are not known for giving an accurate depiction of reality. But Wolle said he was glad to be a part of the show, which saw 5.6 million viewers tune in for the first episode, because it drew considerable attention to the atmosphere of anxiety that pervaded life in the former communist state.

“The critics were not so bad on it, either. We might even make a second series,” he said.

Wolle’s effort with Weissensee follows a trajectory of revealing as much as possible about life behind the Iron Curtain. At the Round Table — a committee advising the interim East German government — he was regarded as the expert on Stasi files. In March 1990, together with Armin Mitter, he brought out the first edition of the secret Stasi files. The book became an immediate bestseller in East Germany, selling more than 200,000 copies in its first three months.

Since 2002, he has worked on the staff of the Free University of Berlin and in 2006 was elected Scientific Director of the GDR Museum in Berlin, where he describes his approach as “bottom up, not the top down.” The politics and ideology of the GDR, although featured, take a back seat to what clothes people wore and how they worked and interacted.

Lecture Notes

Is Germany Really United? is today at 2pm at the International Convention Center of the Chang Yung-fa Foundation Building (財團法人張榮發基金會國際會議中心), 11F, 11 Zhongshan S Rd, Taipei City (台北市中山南路11號11樓). The lecture is free. Arrive early to ensure seating

Is Everyone Happy With Democracy? The East German Experience is on Tuesday at 10am at International Conference Hall, College of Social Sciences, National Taiwan University (臺灣大學社會科學院國際會議廳), 21 Xuzhou Rd, Taipei City (台北市徐州路21號). The lecture is free, but those attending must register online at

NOTE: Both lectures will be given in English

“There are even trunks where visitors can touch the shirts and trousers from the former GDR,” he said. On Saturday, the museum will expand to twice its current size and add a restaurant serving food, “GDR style,” he said.

A somewhat weary Wolle sat down with the Taipei Times early Thursday morning, three hours after arriving in Taipei, to talk about two lectures he will give in Taipei: Is Germany Really United?, today, and Is Everyone Happy With Democracy? — The East German Experience, on Tuesday.

Taipei Times: Last November I spoke with Joern Mothes, a human rights activist in the former East Germany, who described himself as a dissident. Would you fall into that category?

Stefan Wolle: This is very difficult. I had no love for the GDR, but I wasn’t an activist in the human rights movement. I was in the background. In the last years of the GDR, it was possible to work in the Academy of Sciences and at the same time go to activities in the church.

For many, there was a kind of balancing act between the two. It was a little bit dangerous.

(Protestant churches in East Germany often served as venues for opposition activities because of their relative freedom from state control. Although some participants were not religious, they were united in their opposition to the regime.)

TT: That must have been very difficult: on the one hand seeking change, and on the other working at an institute that essentially maintained the status quo.

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