Christine Queitsch demonstrates the sound her pencil made 30 years ago when she drew a line through a list of candidates for East Germany’s ruling Communist party — the only option on the ballot in East Germany’s 1989 election.
Now a Seattle resident and a genomics professor at the University of Washington, Queitsch was one of many college students in East Germany that year who walked into voting booths that day to commit that act of rebellion.
Outside the voting booth, which was closed off only by a small curtain, university professors, acting as “election observers,” could hear every time students like Queitsch made the telltale pencil strike through the list. That was the only way to vote “no.”
“Our pencils shrieked and of course everyone there knew what we had done,” said Queitsch, who could have been expelled — or worse — for her action that day.
Yet the ruling party nonetheless won with an impossible 99% of the vote. Thereafter, Queitsch became more involved in a student movement that, later that year, would contribute to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
On Nov. 9, 1989, East Germany eased travel restrictions to the West, and thousands of Berliners stormed the wall demanding to be let through. Even though the 12-foot-high, 27-mile barrier splitting East and West Berlin would not be fully demolished for another two years, that date became known as the day the Berlin Wall fell.
Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of that historic day that signified the reunification of Germany and a seismic shift in the decadeslong Cold War.
“At some point you need to overcome fear and do what is right,” said Queitsch.
With 30th anniversary celebrations happening in Seattle and around the world, Queitsch and other German-born Seattleites reflect on their time in a divided Germany and their lives today in the U.S.
We’re exploring these stories as ‘walls’ loom large in our public discourse today.
A divided Europe
After the end of World War II in 1945, most of Europe was divided into Allied-controlled capitalist West and Soviet-controlled communist East.
Before 1989, a Germany divided into East (the German Democratic Republic) and West (the Federal Republic of Germany) was all many Germans like Queitsch had ever known.
Berlin, in East Germany, was further divided into Allied-occupied west and Soviet-occupied east.
Travel, trade and communication was restricted between east and west, and further reinforced in 1961 by the construction of the Berlin Wall, a concrete wall reinforced with barbed wire, armed guards and watchtowers, stretching through Berlin and the German countryside.
The isolation of east from west created social, political and cultural differences.
“Where I lived in Berlin, the wall was too tall,” said Marcus Loewe, a Seattle-based music producer who fled East Germany with his mother when he was 9 years old. “As a child I literally wondered if the birds on the other side sang differently.”
By the time the wall fell and Germany was reunified, many Germans found themselves practically speaking a different language than their neighbors. West Germans had lived for decades under the influences of English and western capitalist ideas, while East Germans had grown accustomed to a state-controlled communist system.
“There was this very clear physical dividing line, and the other side of that dividing line was almost like the distance to the far side of the moon,” said Uli Fischer, who grew up in West Germany and is now the Honorary Consul of the Federal Republic of Germany for Washington.
Life in the communist East
Discussions of East Germany during the Cold War tend to conjure up images of gray, dilapidated buildings and horror stories of secret police, repressive practices and state-sanctioned torture and murder of dissidents.
That is certainly part of the story.
But at the “Totally East” exhibit at the Goethe Institute Pop-Up in Seattle last month, Fischer and Loewe lingered over a panel of photographs titled “Tenderness.”
The exhibit features photographs by Harald Hauswald depicting life in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“It was a necessity to help each other out, because the market was just as such,” said Loewe, remembering how his family invited people into their home to watch TV because they had tweaked it to get West German television.
He remembered people enjoying their time in long food lines because it was an opportunity for them to socialize.
But Loewe’s fond memories of community in East Germany do not erase the terror he experienced there.
Loewe says that when he was 5, his father was killed by the Stasi, the feared secret security agency of the GDR, because he was vocal against the regime. No cause of death was given on his father’s death certificate.
Afterward, Loewe says, the Stasi continued spying on his family. He remembers being interrogated by a man in a trench coat while he was on a playground.
“They made us feel and they made us know that we were being watched,” he said.
“I do hope that with exhibitions like this, certain things that were just not fair… is coming more to light a little bit,” said Loewe. “It was an absolute injustice in my view. All the good things, all the community and everything, the (every)day life that they offered to people was surely not all bad, but … it’s nothing worth living.”
Queitsch and other activists hoped for a better path for East Germany. There was some good, they thought, in the communist regime but believed that it was poorly implemented.
According to Queitsch, the state-provided free health care, free high-quality child care, better rights for women than in the West, housing and safety from violent crime.
“What Westerners often saw were these gray buildings, that there was very little to buy in stores and all that, people who were not super well-dressed, but the fundamentals were absolutely covered in a way that they are not covered here (in the U.S.),” said Queitsch.
The East German student activists wanted an alternative form of government that was neither capitalist nor communist. In retrospect, Queitsch realizes their vision was somewhat Utopian and neglected the economic realities of the time.
Still, that sense of hope kept Queitsch in East Germany even after Hungary opened its border with Austria in the fall of 1989, one of several events that eventually led to the dismantling of the wall.
She was in Hungary when the border opened, and most of the students she was with took the chance to escape. Queitsch took a train returning home to Halle, in east-central Germany.
“I was like, ‘OK, the border is open now, something is going to change now. This was the moment I was waiting for,’” she said.
But aside from Queitsch and two other passengers, the train was empty.
The fall of the wall and histories repeated
Back in Halle in the fall of 1989, revolution was in the air. Protesters had already taken to the streets in Leipzig and Dresden, and people in Halle soon followed suit.
Despite the heavy presence of police and military forces, a terrified Queitsch marched with 100 others on Halle’s central marketplace to protest the East German regime.
“This was the year of the Tiananmen Square (massacre) and the tanks had been rolling. It was very clear that our army was mobilizing and that they had no hesitation to shoot us,” said Queitsch. “I’d never been so scared in my life and I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared since.”
Queitsch and her fellow protesters were jailed and interrogated. Even though they knew they were being watched, they returned the following week with posters made clandestinely in an old house.
An unpredictable sequence of events reverberated throughout Eastern Europe: After Hungary opened its border, Poland’s communist government fell. East Germany announced an easing of travel restrictions, triggering a wave of Germans demanding passage to the West.
Thousands gathered in the streets throughout Germany and at the Berlin Wall, demanding to be let through. East German soldiers, unable to handle the large crowds, and uncertain about orders to fire on the crowd, eventually just let people through.
East Germans and West Germans alike rushed the wall in celebration, passing through the gates, climbing over the wall and taking hammers to it.
Loewe remembers revelers partying into the night in his apartment.
Fischer was already in the U.S., where he cried as he watched the wall fall on television, something he never believed could happen in his lifetime.
“It was incomprehensible. It was just not possible,” said Fischer. “All the joy and people climbing on the wall and coming through those gates from the East to the West, and people happy. I don’t know, it’s just too many emotions going on at that time that you just couldn’t restrain. It’s such a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
Eventually, the wall was demolished. Today, pieces are on display internationally in memory of the peaceful revolution that brought down a divided world. Several pieces can be found in Seattle: in Fremont, at Seattle Center, and one under the Highway 99 bridge commemorating Boeing’s role in the 1948 Berlin airlift that brought supplies to people in blockaded West Berlin.
Three decades later, Queitsch fears that we’ve learned little from history. While the situation in East Germany then and the situation in the United States today are different in many ways, those who lived in East Germany see some parallels.
“At the time we were convinced that the opening of the Berlin Wall would be the signal for greater freedom, for greater equality, for greater democracy,” she said. “Now looking back — I’m 50 years old — I look at the world and I’m like, ‘Wow. Where did we go so wrong?’ I’m back on the streets (protesting) and I’m not entirely sure how this all went so wrong.”
Loewe, whose husband quit a job in the state department to protest Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, agrees.
“Do we ever learn lessons? I don’t think that’s happening,” he said. “What’s happening right now in the U.S. is very comparable to a textbook approach to how to kill democracy… If you sleep in a democracy you might wake up in a dictatorship.”
Nonetheless, Queitsch has hope. As a professor, she works with the next generation’s best and brightest every day.
“I see myself in them… This is a generation of people who are actually very involved in the society around them. They’re eager to do good. … I see them marching. I see a country that’s become incredibly diverse,” Queitsch says. “That does give me hope, but I’m also very fearful.
“My grandparents sat around kitchen tables and discussed the state of world affairs and were very worried about their future and basically could not do anything to prevent the rise of Hitler. I guess it’s a function of age. I am very fearful, too.”