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Former East Germans tell stories about defection and life under authoritarianism

<p>Panelist Uwe George talks to the audience about the time he and his friends attempted to escape East Berlin.</p>
Panelist Uwe George talks to the audience about the time he and his friends attempted to escape East Berlin.

The University of Memphis celebrated and remembered the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall by holding a discussion panel of several eyewitnesses of the event that united East and West Berlin.

UofM Provost Thomas Nenon opened the presentation that the fight for liberty is not exclusive to 20th century Germany.

“Similar things are happening around the world,” UofM Provost Thomas Nenon said. “I was with a colleague from China’s University of Hong Kong this weekend, and there are momentous events happening that can really shape what happening in Asia over the next few years, and the outcome is not at all clear. And they literally are still motivated by that strong motivation for freedom and what people are doing for freedom.”

UofM history department chair Dan Unowsky talked about how West and East Germany’s split was based on the way the allies from World War II came into the country and not on any natural boundaries. He said the two countries were very similar when first occupied.

“Even though there wasn’t a great difference at first between the two, they went very different directions after 1949,” Unowsky said.

Unowsky mentioned the “Stalinization” of East Germany involved a far-reaching apparatus of control, including groups like the NVA and the Ministry for State Security. At the same time, the country wanted to compete with the west in entertainment.

“At the same time, there was an effort in East Germany to provide some kind of consumer existence to compete with the west because everybody can watch it on TV,” Unowsky said. “So this was a problem for East Germany, but much of that was funded with loans from West Germany.”

Unowsky said stagnation cropped up in the Soviet bloc from events like the Prague spring, leaving no true ideologues of Stalinism left. He felt this was best explained by one of his experiences on a trip to East Germany before the fall of the Iron Curtain.

“We young students were visiting Dresden,” Unowsky said. “We didn’t know anything, and the communist youth guy was on the bus with us telling us how great communism was. And we see this truck stop, and out of nowhere, people came away from work, wherever they were, with a bag or a basket to get watermelons. It meant there was something for sale, and they went and got in that line. And they hope to trade that for something they really needed with someone else who was in a line somewhere else. The system had failed the population on its most basic level.”

Mikhail Gorbachev was another factor, according to Unowsky. His “Sinatra Doctrine” of allowing the communist countries to do it “their own way” loosened the Iron Curtain allowing countries to drop communism.

“Honecker [Former East Germany’s Prime Minister] says, ‘look everybody’s demonstrating. They all want free travel. People are getting sucked out of our country, and they’re going west. We’ve got to crack down. You’ve got to support me in a crackdown,’” Unowsky said. “And Gorbechov says ‘You have to do it your way.’”

Doreen Penrod, a teacher at Houston High School in Germantown, TN, and a former East German citizen, said shows similar to Sesame Street that were broadcast by West Germany were illegal to watch when she was growing up.

“As a child, I did not understand,” Penrod said. “I was like, ‘What’s wrong with Sesame Street?’ It wasn’t East German, and because of our proximity of our town to West Berlin, we could receive those stations.”

Penrod always wanted to be a teacher, but when it came time for her to choose a career, she was blocked by the Soviet government.

“Back in East Germany, you were directed into a profession, and some of my friends were directed into the teaching profession, and I was not,” Penrod said. “And I’m like ‘I want to be a teacher. This is important to me. I want to be a teacher.’ So I found out later it was because of the relatives we had in the west.”

Uwe George, another former East German, told his story about his path to defection. He said he rebelled against the status quo from when the communist party tried to force him to join the Free German Youth (FDJ).

“When I grew up, we had the youth party, that’s the FDJ,” George said. “And I was about 14 and my friend Carson, he was about a year older than me. We just didn’t agree with that. It seemed a lot like the Hitler Youth, from what we heard was really bad, and here we were supposed to join a youth party that was pretty much the same thing.”

George and his friend Carson made a pact to leave the country for the United States as soon as they were able.

“We loved American music,” George said. “Carson and I were especially big Elvis fans.”

After several failed attempts to leave the country formally, the pair decided to go straight over the wall into West Germany. There were several scrapped plans before they found the best one.

“We had some strange plans because we were younger and thought everything was so simple,” George said. “We had a little Hollywood in our heads. One of the ideas was to just hijack firetruck, extend the latter out in front of it, and rig it to run into the wall. And we’ll fall off on the other end off the ladder.”

After studying the border without being seen, for months. The duo, now joined by a fellow ex-boyfriend of Carson’s ex-girlfriend, Peter, planned to scale the barbed wire fence with a specially built ladder, run across the fenced-off area with guard towers and scale the concrete wall on the other side without tripping any alarms or traps in the zone.

“He [Carson] was over, Peter was on top of the wall, and I was on the ladder,” George said. “And they started shooting. I never really heard a real gunshot before. It sounded like I stepped on something, but we had our minds set, and everything was like a white flurry.”

Having successfully made it over, George and Carson made their way to the United States after being interrogated for hours by the British and French. Their first encounter with an American was the least funny joke at the time that George had ever experienced.

“The first thing he said was, ‘Well boys. Congratulations. I really want to send all three of you back… You’re not really any good to me, because you didn’t join the army,’” George chuckled. “He started laughing like it was a joke, but it wasn’t really funny at first.”

Panelist Uwe George talks to the audience about the time he and his friends attempted to escape East Berlin.

Leading lecturer Dan Unowsky provides background information for life and attitudes that were present in East Berlin.

People in the crowd listen to stories about life during the time of the Berlin Wall.

Uwe George discusses his escape route to West Germany. The East German defector successfully crossed the Berlin Wall with two friends.

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