history in motion

history in motion - street photography

east berlin, former east germany

There’s a novel in this image. A multi layered historical narrative at a very special moment in time. Immediately after I shot the photo I experienced one of the very few moments I have been in real fear for my own life.

We’re looking at the “Altes Museum” as the backdrop, the oldest museum in Germany designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel and built between 1823 – 1830 to house the Prussian Royal Family’s Art Collection.

What attracted me to the image was the contrast between the upstanding, confident, valiant, “head held high” heroic statues with the “beaten down” old lady relying heavily on her walking stick to maintain forward motion. She is the subject of the title – History in Motion.

I put her in her late 60’s – early 70’s. She was around 35 when the Berlin Wall was built so the best years of her life were spent under a brutally repressive regime. The “beaten down” look was characteristic of most East Berliners, the vast majority of whom were forced to become informants for the Stasi.

Family members would be informing on other family members with sometimes fatal consequences for the person informed upon. It was a joyless society built on fear and mistrust which was  very evident as I walked the streets. Heads held down, no passing eye contact, no smiles.

This was accentuated even more as the time the image was shot it was a few days before the Berlin Wall came down. Fear and anxiety had considerably ramped because the situation could have gone either way. The specter of East German troops and Russian tanks on the street was very real.

At the time the Russians “liberated” East Germany she would have been around 20 years old. She undoubtedly would have fallen victim to the savagery unleashed on the civilian population, particularly the women, by the occupying Russians.

She was a survivor of a very dark period in history about to experience the joy of a new beginning, a new chapter of history, as the Berlin Wall crumbled a few days later.

Just as I shot the image I heard a very loud siren barreling down the Unter Den Linden behind me. It screeched to a sudden halt with the siren still blaring. I looked round to see a Green Lada unmarked car with a couple of revolving blue lights on its roof. It had four very large leather jacketed, square shouldered occupants who to a man were sending intimidating stares directly at me.

My immediate response was to try as hard as I could not to laugh. The sight of four, very serious, 200 muscular pounds each men sat in a car designed to convey probably half of that weight, and bedecked by two ice cream cone loudspeakers each with a flashing blue light by its side, was comical in the extreme. But when the gravity of the situation hit me a nanosecond later I thought “Oh shit – what do I do now?”

These guys were obviously Stasi and they had specifically stopped to check me out. A tall westerner wearing a big smile on his face and carrying a camera tended to stick out like a sore thumb on the East German streets.  It was a very tense time as I’d remarked earlier. The authorities were being hyper vigilant and anything considered even slightly out of the ordinary was brutally cracked down on – no questions asked. I could quite easily be “disappeared” without any compunction.

I smiled, turned my back to them and continued to stroll and shoot pictures. My heart was pounding as I expected  any moment to have my collar felt .

Moments later, what felt like hours, but was probably only seconds, I heard another set of blaring sirens speeding down the Unter Den Linden from the same direction. They can’t have called reinforcements in could they? I waited in dread for the squealing of  brakes as it got closer but instead heard the gunning of an engine and screaming of tires as the original Stasi crew went racing off after their brothers!

I quickly turned round and nearly lost consciousness. My body was kicking my ass! I’d “forgotten” to breathe since the moment I’d turned my back on the Stasi crew. I half collapsed on a huge ornamental boulder on the perimeter of a garden and drunk in huge gulps of air. My hands were shaking and my back was covered in sweat. I’d just dodged a pretty huge bullet.

It was time to head back to the other side of the wall…

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  1. Regina says

    What a story! I have a girl scout badge from going to see the wall. I’d so love to get back to see Berlin now. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Holger says

    Lot of people say, never again. But it happens again! When the brutality of a system is mean enough, it happens again.
    anyway, I will strugle against or run away.