by Michael Shaughnessy
1961 was the year that spawned the Berlin wall. Although Soviet tanks had already rolled into Berlin in 1953 on the behest of Walter Ulbricht, it was the construction of the “anti-fascist protection wall” that defined much of the forty years of East Germany’s existence. The wall symbolized the oppressive nature of the German Democratic Republic (DDR). Over 100 people lost their lives attempting to cross the border and the legacy of German division can be felt to this day.
What I have always struggled to remind myself is that despite the nature of government oppression, people went about their normal lives during this period. Our own images of hell within a country that labels itself socialist are simply not reflected in the average person’s life.
So, I was immediately drawn to a photo scrapbook I found for sale that chronicled a woman’s life from 1960-1994 in the southeastern part of Germany; especially when I recognized some of the places as I poured through it. The album offers little information other than the name of the woman: “Eva”. There are some dates, some addresses, but no real commentary like we find in the images we collect and tag today.
The photos are the simple, private moments of a couple who happened to live in socialist East Germany.
What struck me was the absence of anything stereotypically “East German”. No parades, workers’ councils, flags, etc. Only two photos held my attention due to their relevance to East German history. The first is a portrait of Eva’s husband posing next to a railing. I realized quickly the railing was in front of the Brandenburg Gate, near the Berlin wall, where today you find the French and American Embassies. The photo does not have the Brandenburg Gate in the background, though it is off to his immediate right.
In another seemingly innocuous image from the same location, the Brandenburg gate is the focus. However, the camera was lowered to take the photo from a perspective that obscured any view of the Berlin wall one might see in the background. While I can’t be sure of the intent, the staging off this photo is peculiar. There are not many “east side” photos of the gate from this era, as it was generally forbidden to photograph the wall in the DDR. The available Wikipedia photos (1, 2) of the gate from the east German side are blurred, but the wall is still visible.
The remaining photos are a catalogue of typical vacation photos; hiking, exploring historic cities, and simple personal portraits. The photos show East German history in a more human, quiet way that allows us a way to view history from a singularly personal perspective. You can click on the photos in the slide show to take you to an album where you can zoom in to see the photos in greater detail.