"All types of people lived in these buildings. You could really count on each other in good and in bad times." Ursela Müller
"You never knew if your neighbor was working for the Stasi or who else was listening to your conversations." Gustav Müller
“You can’t trust anybody anymore these days, you know,” the 86-year old Gustav explains while making copies of our passports. “I do this just in case I have to report you to the police,” he smiles as he welcomes us into his living room. Gustav Müller and his 90-year old wife Ursela have been living in typical East German ‘Plattenbau’ for over 50 years now. They have seen things change around here. For the better and for the worse.
Gustav and Ursela moved into this flat with their three kids in 1962 after being on the waiting list a few years. With more than 40.000 East Germans waiting to get a house from the government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) at the time, they were lucky to get their place relatively quickly. It was a so-called ‘try-out flat’. Former engineer and teacher Gustav explains: “This was one of the first flats of its type. The great thing about that was that it was fully furnished and it came with the most modern things like a fridge.” Many apartments looked the same during the GDR. It was part of the many policies the government implemented to emphasize that everybody is equal and to increase the community feeling.
The government also made sure that people from every layer of society lived together in the same building. “Workers, we middle class people and the higher class all lived in the same flats. We celebrated birthdays together, all the kids always played around here. You could really count on each other in good and in bad times. Unfortunately, that’s all gone now,” sighs Ursela.
Something else that is gone are the black floors that came with the apartment. Gustav chuckles: “When we moved in here the floors were shiny and black. You could see everything. Women always had to wear pants here!” Quickly Ursela interrupts her husband: “you can not say that Gustav!” She shrieks as she shakes her head. The furniture the couple sits on dates back to the GDR. They have decorated the living room with lots of flowers. Gustav wraps his arms around his wife and as he proudly tells us that soon they will be married 65 years.
Piece of meat
But while they miss the community feeling of the former socialist state, they also remember the constant fear of being watched. “We were one big community, but you never know if your neighbor was working for the Stasi (Staatssicherheit – the secret service of the GDR) or who else was listening to your conversations. You would always have to be careful about what you say, as people were always spying.” Because of this widespread fear for the Stasi, there was almost no crime in the GDR. “People felt like they had to behave. It was very safe everywhere,” Gustav explains. Especially Ursela feels unsafe in the city nowadays.
It wasn’t only the Stasi who was controlling the daily lives of GDR citizens. The plan economy of the GDR resulted in shortages of everyday products. “Also, the good products were always sold to the West, and we stayed here with the rest. With meat for example, the nice pieces went over the Wall, we got the smaller bits that weren’t as nice,” says Ursela. Unlike the meat, the people of the GDR were rarely allowed to travel to the West. It meant going through long administrative processes or it was simply not allowed.
After the wall came down, Gustav and Ursela saw many neighbours moving to the western parts of Berlin and Germany. Gustav: “They thought they could make it there. But many people couldn’t quite integrate in that capitalist system. They were excellent workers, but couldn’t deal with the market economy in the West.” Most of them returned disillusioned.
Gustav and Ursela never felt the need to leave their flat. From their 58m2 apartment they saw Berlin change significantly. They lived through the GDR times, saw the Berlin Wall fall, and now live in the capitalist system of reunited Germany. Still, they are proud to live in their ‘Platte’. Missing some parts of the GDR doesn’t mean they’re not happy that period has come to an end. “Freedom is what people need after all. To travel freely is a great good,” Gustav says with a smile, while giving back our passports.