Cold War

What Was It Like Living In Cold War East Germany?

Thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a woman shares her experience living on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

It is three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The concrete barrier separated the East from the West for 28 years during the Cold War.

The Wall surrounded the Western half of the city where British, American and French Forces operated.

Over the Wall in the East, a Soviet Army was poised for the conflict that would never come.

The German capital was split into two, with East German citizens largely banned from travelling to the West.  

Guard at the Berlin Wall 071119 CREDIT BFBS.jpg
A guard monitoring the Berlin Wall during the Cold War.

Life on the other side of the Iron Curtain was far from easy.

Those who lived in the East remember those years as a time of shortages, being spied upon and feeling trapped.

This explains why, over the nearly three decades of the Berlin Wall, thousands of people tried to escape from the East to the West.

While the Cold War never resulted in direct military conflict, 140 East Berliners were shot trying to cross into the West.

When the Wall came up, in 1961, a sixth of the East German population had already moved West.

East German workers constructing the Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 and would stand for more than 28 years (Picture: PA).

One of those who stayed behind was Heidi Brauer, who still vividly remembers how bleak and punctuated by shortages life was.

"If you wanted to buy a car that was a small Trabby Trabant you had to wait for 10 to 12 years," said Heidi.

"We could buy in the wintertime maybe 1kg bananas or oranges but that was it. And with clothes that was the same. You had to organise to look around."

The Communist-controlled state also disapproved of religion and Heidi Brauer attended a church.

Despite doing well at school she was prevented from going into further education.

"When I wanted to go to the next higher school, the Gymnasium they call it - I wasn't allowed for political reasons," she said.

"That was the first time I noticed I don't want to live in this state. I don't call it my homeland."

When the Berlin Wall came down, Heidi found "a huge Stasi file" on her.

In one year of spying on her, the Stasi had accumulated 1,500 pages of content collected by 12 different spies.

"And I hadn't done anything," she added.

Heidi Brauer as a young woman during the cold war 071119 CREDIT BFBS.jpg
Heidi Brauer tried sending letters and photos to her father in West Berlin. The letters were intercepted by the Stasi.

"I was shocked. I hadn't expected anything. I knew our telephone was tapped. I knew," she said.

"I noticed that the letters I was expecting never arrived. I found them twenty-five years later in my file. And photographs as well."

She used to send letters and pictures to her father, who lived in West Germany at the time.

"When I sent him pictures he never got them. They were in my file."

East German border guards standing on the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in 1989 (Picture: PA).

Heidi Brauer often broke the law by watching West German television.

She learned English by listening illegally to the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) - the British Forces Radio station broadcasting in West Berlin.

She risked prison multiple times by phoning the station.

"I never phoned from home and I knew nearly every public phone in East Berlin so I changed every time," she explained.

"I felt like a bird in a cage. I couldn't leave the cage but one day the window was open and I could listen to the birds outside the cage."

Footage of West Berlin during the Cold War 071119 CREDIT BFBS.jpg
Life in East Germany was characterised by shortages, spying and fear.

Today, Heidi Brauer helps refugees escaping other 'cages', in places like Syria.

However, 30years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, she has new fears.

The growing threat of nationalism and right-wing extremism are her top concerns.

"Before the Wall came down they called 'We are the people' – "Wir sind das Volk'," she said.

"Now the right-wing took this phrase and we have to say no.

"You are just a minority. 'Wir sind das Volk'. We are the people."