Experience GDR History First-Hand Conversations with Contemporary Witnesses



 

Who can still imagine what life was like in the GDR? More than 30 years since the end of the GDR, the memories of Germany’s division and the Berlin Wall are fading. For young people in particular, the GDR has become a foreign, incomprehensible world. Contemporary witnesses can help change this. Their personal testimonies make everyday life in the GDR come to life. They also help people understand the difference between democracy and dictatorship.

A list of GDR contemporary witnesses – opposition members, escape helpers, political prisoners – is presented here. They provide first-hand accounts of the communist system and their lives in the GDR. They speak English and other languages and are available for in-person conversations as well as for digital interviews via video conferencing.

The following contemporary witnesses offer their talks in foreign languages:


Michael Beckmann from Frankfurt am Main / Hessen (ENGLISH)

Michael Beckmann (born in 1965 in Eisenach) grew up on the outskirts of East Berlin. He was confronted at an early age with the conflicts and contradictions of life in the GDR – his parents were members of the communist party but most of his family lived in the West. When he was 14, he decided that he would apply for permission to leave the country when he finished high school. In 1984 he followed through with this plan. After that, he was only allowed to work as a post and newspaper delivery person. In April 1986, during the SED’s XI Party Congress, he refused to deliver the newspapers for reasons of conscience. He was subsequently arrested by the Stasi and sentenced to 14 months in prison. Beckmann was only 20 years old at the time, making him one of the youngest political prisoners in the GDR. He was released to West Germany in December 1986 as part of the prisoner ransom program. In the West he had a successful career in international banking. He now works as a lecturer and business consultant.


Tim Eisenlohr from Berlin (ENGLISH)

Tim Eisenlohr (born in 1973 in Berlin) was only twelve years old when he drew negative attention for his non-conformist behavior at school and for leaving the Pioneer organization. He came into constant conflict with his teachers as a consequence of his involvement in the church youth congregation. He discovered the Berlin Environmental Library through a youth camp organized by the Protestant Church and became active in it. In November 1987, the then 14-year-old was arrested during a raid. After an eight-hour interrogation at the Stasi headquarters, he was finally released. He was active in the Environmental Library until 1989. In the summer of 1989, Eisenlohr and his family left for West Berlin. He continued his engagement with the peace movement and Amnesty International until the start of his civilian service.


Jorge Luis Garcia Vàzquez from Berlin (SPANISH)

Jorge Luis Garcia Vàzquez (born in 1959 in Havana, Cuba) came to the GDR in 1982 as an interpreter for Cuban contract workers. The Cuban secret service tried to recruit him as an informant, but he refused. After calling the U.S. Embassy in East Berlin to inquire about escape possibilities for a Cuban musician, he was arrested in March 1987 and flown out to Cuba the following week. Upon arrival, he was subjected to various reprisals, banned from working or leaving the country, and briefly imprisoned. In 1992 he was allowed to leave Cuba. He now lives in Berlin and is involved in the working group "Democracy for Cuba-Berlin."


Stephan Giering from Berlin (ENGLISH)

Stephan Giering (born in 1973 in Belzig) grew up in East Berlin. His father was a Catholic theologian and his mother was raised in a strict communist home. Through this experience he acquired early insights into very contrasting world views within the GDR. As a teenager, he openly expressed his desire to become a journalist and reporter. While serving as editor of his own school newspaper, he came into conflict with the restrictive school system. Once he realized that he would not be allowed to pursue the Abitur high school degree, he decided to flee. In October 1989, he took a train to Budapest and traveled through Austria to West Germany. He lived in Bonn until German reunification. Today he works as a freelance publicist and Berlin guide and lives once again in his hometown of Berlin. He also offers workshops on GDR contemporary history.


Peter Keup from Essen / North Rhein-Westphalia (ENGLISH)

Peter Keup (born in 1958 in Radebeul) was a successful ballroom dancer. He represented the GDR on the national team at numerous championships. Keup dreamed of participating in dance tournaments in the West and having a career there. He applied for permission to immigrate to the Federal Republic where his family originally came from, and subsequently became a target of the Ministry for State Security. After being denied both tournament and private travel abroad, he began planning his escape. He was arrested during passport control on a train in July 1981 and sentenced to ten months in prison for "preparing to flee the Republic." He was released in March 1982 and sent to West Germany as part of the prisoner ransom program. While researching his family history, he discovered connections with the Stasi. As a historian, Keup now engages in the academic research on this. He studied cultural studies at the Hagen Distant Learning University and political history at the University of Bonn. After working for several years as a contemporary witness in Germany and abroad, he became a research assistant at the Cottbus Human Rights Center in April 2020. In April 2021 he also joined the research network "Landscapes of Persecution."


Andreas Kosmalla from Neuruppin / Brandenburg (ENGLISH)

Andreas Kosmalla (born in 1962 in Weimar) grew up the son of a pastor in Thuringia. In school, he was exposed to discrimination and denied access to the Abitur degree. Since his school and apprenticeship days, he has been involved in church youth and peace work in Jena. He led youth congregations and played music in the underground church scene. In 1986, after completing his military service as a construction soldier in Prora, he became involved with the working group on military service issues (Arbeitskreis Wehrdienstfragen) at the city youth parish office in Jena, which provided counseling and training seminars to young conscripts. He began his studies in 1987, during which he used opportunities available at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena to organize activities around "Glasnost and Perestroika". From autumn 1989 until the Thuringian state elections in October 1990, he was involved with New Forum Jena. He later worked as an educational consultant in extracurricular youth education for more than 20 years and helped shape East-West church-based youth work through committee work at the federal level. Since autumn 2015, he has been working as a refugee shelter manager in northwestern Brandenburg.


Angelika Margull from Berlin (ENGLISH)

Prof. Angelika Margull (born in 1944 in Wernigerode) studied painting in West Berlin. In 1966 she met the escape agent Hasso Herschel and spent two years carrying out courier trips to East Berlin on his behalf. When the trips became too dangerous for her, she attempted to deliver a final message in August 1968. This led to her arrest and a four-and-a-half-year prison sentence for "aiding an escape." She was released to the Federal Republic in January 1970 as part of the prisoner ransom program. She had studied graphic art at the Braunschweig Academy of Fine Arts and painting at the Berlin University of the Arts beginning in 1965. Since 1973 she has exhibited her works in solo and group exhibitions in many cities in Germany and abroad and has received numerous art awards. From 1995 to 2010 she was Professor of Artistic Principles at the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam and a visiting professor at the Nanyang Polytechnic University in Singapore in 2000 and 2002.


Hans-Jochen Scheidler from Berlin (ENGLISH)

After studying physics at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Hans-Jochen Scheidler (born in 1943 in Wollhaus) planned to pursue post-graduate studies at the Academy of Sciences in Prague in September 1968. Together with four friends he protested the suppression of the Prague Spring by the Warsaw Pact troops in August 1968. They distributed some 800 fliers made with letter stamps that read: “Citizens - Comrades! Foreign tanks in the ČSSR (Czech Socialist Republic) only serve the class enemy! Think of the prestige of socialism in the world! Demand truthful information at last. No one is too stupid to think for himself!" Scheidler was subsequently arrested and sentenced to two years and six months in prison for "anti-state agitation." He was released early in December 1969. Afterwards he was forced to work in as a technician in the VEB Messelektronik in Berlin. Years later, he was employed at the Berlin-Friedrichshain hospital, but despite several attempts, was denied a scientific career as a physicist.


Birgit Schlicke from Wiesbaden / Hessen (ENGLISH)

Birgit Schlicke (born in 1969 in Görlitz) grew up near Cottbus. After her parents applied to leave the country, she was denied further education. She had to leave high school and work as a temporary letter carrier. In 1987 she submitted her own application to emigrate. Letters of complaint to the government authorities in the GDR, a letter to the West German International Society for Human Rights (IGFM) and a protest march led to her arrest in March 1988. Sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment for "treasonable communication of information," she served the time in the Hoheneck women's prison. Although the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, Birgit Schlicke, who had already spent almost two years in prison, was not released until November 17. In the West, she acquired her high school diploma (Abitur) and studied American studies and political science in Tübingen and Washington, D.C.


Martina and Rüdiger Schmidt from Stockelsdorf / Schleswig-Holstein (ENGLISH)

Martina and Rüdiger Schmidt (both born in Rostock in 1960) studied theology, among other things, and became involved with the Mecklenburg Protestant Church in the 1980s. They had close contact with Joachim Gauck, who served as the city’s youth pastor at the time. Their commitment to youth and peace work, their rejection of both military duty and construction soldier service and their critical attitude toward the GDR’s ideologized educational system made them targets of the Stasi in 1982. They observed how people tried to adjust their daily lives to arbitrary harassment and coercion by the GDR regime and sought ways to lead a self-determined life, albeit unsuccessfully. In 1986, they were finally allowed to leave the GDR and immigrate to the Federal Republic. The couple now lives near Lübeck. Their book Mauerbruch - eine Heimatgeschichte was published in 2012; they published Mauerbruch - eine Zeitreise in 2021.


Hannelore Schneider from Mainz / Rhineland-Palatinate (ENGLISH)

Hannelore Schneider (born in 1950 in Hoske) worked as a teacher in Cottbus. Her Christian worldview and strong sense of justice brought her into conflict with the power structures of the SED dictatorship. When she applied to leave the GDR in 1986, she was dismissed from the teaching profession. From 1987 to May 1989, she was involved in the ecumenical environmental group in Cottbus. Her activities there included exposing election fraud in the local elections in Cottbus and organizing human rights events in Protestant churches. This led within three days to her expulsion from the country along with the other members of the group. After the Peaceful Revolution, she intensified her educational work through various seminars at the Cottbus University of Applied Sciences.


Lothar Schulz from Berlin (ENGLISH, FRENCH, ITALIAN, RUSSIAN, SPANISH)

Lothar Schulz (born in 1950 in Alt Ruppin) studied thermal mechanical engineering at the Technical University of Dresden and worked as a coordinating engineer for the assembly of a Soviet nuclear reactor in Lubmin/Greifswald. Highly motivated and with strong knowledge of Russian, he was recommended for a post-graduate program at the Energetic Institute in Moscow. His participation in the study program was cancelled, however, when he refused to join the SED. After many efforts to advance professionally and following the rejection of his application to leave the country, he engaged in a banner campaign against the SED in the center of East Berlin in early April 1978. He was arrested and sentenced to one year and ten months in prison for "interfering with state activities." Following an amnesty, Schulz was released into the GDR against his will in December 1979 and kept under observation by the Stasi. In May 1981, the GDR unexpectedly allowed him to leave the country and resettle in the Federal Republic. Schulz worked for many years as a successful international project manager and consultant for Western industries in the field of software systems and logistics.


Burkhard Seeberg from Münster / North Rhine-Westphalia (ENGLISH)

Burkhard Seeberg (born in 1954 in Münster) was a member of the German Communist Party (DKP) in the Federal Republic. The mathematics student met his girlfriend in East Berlin in 1973. A lively exchange ensued between the young woman from Rostock and the young man from Münster. The couple spent all the visiting days allotted to West Germans together in the GDR. It was during these visits that the Stasi became aware of Seeberg. Although the Stasi has assigned informants (IM) to report on him and his girlfriend, the agency learned nothing of the couple's plans to escape. Burkhard Seeberg had a fake passport with GDR entry stamps made and the young couple attempted to leave for West Germany via Hungary in August 1979. But the escape attempt failed because the stamp in the passport had the wrong color. Seeberg and his girlfriend were arrested. Seeberg was convicted of "anti-state trafficking in human beings" and sentenced to three years in prison. After the Federal Republic paid ransom for his release, Seehberg arrived in the West in September 1980.


Holger Timmreck from Hamburg and Lima / Peru (ENGLISH and SPANISH)

Holger Timmreck (born in 1959 in Pirna) grew up in a home that critical of the regime. As a child, he learned that his father had been imprisoned by the Stasi for ''anti-state agitation.” Timmreck dreamed of a career in sports. He graduated from high school and wanted to become a sports teacher, but despite his good academic record, he was not admitted to university. He was accused of not being able to educate young people in the spirit of socialism. Frustrated, he trained to become an agricultural engineer. In August 1980, he tried to flee across the green border from Czechoslovakia to Austria. The escape attempt failed and he was arrested and sentenced to two years and four months in prison. As part of the prisoner ransom program, he arrived in the Federal Republic in February 1982. He studied at the German Sports University in Cologne, specializing in sports journalism, and later worked in the sports editorial departments of RTL and Premiere. In 2011, he moved to Lima, Peru, where he worked as a teacher at the German School.


Gerd Zimmermann from Berlin and Los Angeles / USA (ENGLISH)

Gerd Zimmermann (born in 1948 in Dresden) was a successful child actor at the Dresden State Theater. After passing his acting exams at the Babelsberg Academy of Film and Television, he trained in the field of “production,” which was his true interest. He did not see his future in the GDR, which is why he and a colleague planned an escape in April 1975. After the original plan to use a work visit to Cuba failed, they decided on an improvised escape via the Rhodope Mountains to Greece. They were arrested there by the Bulgarian State Security Service. Zimmermann was sentenced to two years and three months in prison but arrived in the Federal Republic in September 1976 as part of the prisoner ransom program. He had a successful career as a film producer there and in the U.S. He now lives in both Berlin and Los Angeles. In his talks as a contemporary witness, he addresses issues such as the SED’s controversial cultural policy and the difficulty of making films under the supervision of the Stasi. He was also involved in the filming of the book Jakob der Lügner (Jacob the Liar), the only GDR production ever nominated for an Oscar in the category of "best foreign language film.”




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We have prepared 10 tips to help you prepare a successful meeting with a contemporary witness.

Please keep in mind that contemporary witnesses from the GDR describe history as they remember it, often addressing traumatic experiences of flight and repression as well as painful events from their time in prison. These descriptions can sometimes conjure up vivid images in the listener’s mind and evoke feelings that make it difficult to maintain a critical distance to the eyewitness testimony. We therefore encourage you to use our tips on conducting a follow-up discussion.

For further information, please consult the flyer from the Contemporary Witness Office.