05 November 2019

Fall of the Berlin Wall

Remembering Stasiland

The story of one of the largest state-sanctioned ransom schemes in history

By Colin Freeman

Thirty years ago this week, Peter Keup switched on the television news to see the collapse of the border that had divided both his country and his family.

As a one-time prisoner of the Stasi, the sight of his fellow East Germans taking hammers to the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 should have been a cause for joy. Yet, like the nervous-looking East German border guards, he didn’t join in the celebrations.

“At first I just wanted to turn the TV off,” he remembers. “At that time, I didn’t want the Wall to fall because it would mean having to share my new life in West Germany with the people from the East, the ones who had put me in prison.”

Peter’s anger was hardly surprising. Eight years before, he had been a successful East German ballroom dancer, coming third in the national championships. Then, after being caught trying to flee to West Germany in 1981, he became Prisoner 13-1, the only name his guards would ever address him by. It wasn’t the only time he would be reduced to a figure rather than a person. At the end of his sentence, he was sold across the border in exchange for a ransom of 100,000 Deutschmarks (around £30,000) from the West German government.

The Berlin Wall being dismantled in November 1989

“Looking back, it seems so bizarre, to turn a human being’s life into a monetary figure like that,” he says. “How did they decide how much I was worth? But I was just happy that the West German government paid the money.”

In fact, the price of Peter’s freedom was not some one-off, random figure but a standard going rate. It had been hammered out over the course of thousands of similar deals in which West Germany paid ransoms for East German political prisoners. For the German Democratic Republic, as East Germany was known, the trade in humans was a valuable source of hard currency for its creaking, command-run economy. For the West, the payments were one of the only ways to help those locked away by the Stasi, many of whom had committed no other crime than trying to flee from the GDR’s totalitarian regime.

In total, the Freikauf (freedom buying) programme ransomed out nearly 34,000 people, at a cost of at least DM3 billion. One of the largest state-sanctioned ransom schemes in history, it was carried out in strict secrecy on both sides. East Germany knew that if word leaked out that it sold its own citizens for cash, it would shatter its claims to be a workers’ paradise. West Germany knew that paying ransoms smacked of capitulating to a repressive regime, and could give a perverse incentive to the GDR to jail even more people.

Instead, Freikauf only really came to wider public knowledge with the fall of the Wall, when former GDR political prisoners were able to access their own Stasi files.

Even today, the programme’s existence remains little known outside of Germany. To date, no Cold War-era thriller has featured a Freikauf prisoner heading across Checkpoint Charlie.

Yet three decades on from the fall of the Wall, ex-Freikauf prisoners like Peter are keen to remind people of just why West Germany felt forced into such a moral compromise in the first place. Now 61, he works as an “eyewitness” at a Stasi museum in Berlin, and does speaking tours at schools and colleges, addressing younger generations for whom the GDR now seems like distant history.

Peter Keup

Too many Germans, he fears, now remember the GDR through the cult of Ostalgie, which casts the GDR in a rather gentler light. Rather than the Stasi and the prisons, they remember the quaint, clunky Trabant cars, the job security, and the ideals – even if they fell short – of equality for all. It’s fair to say that Prisoner 13-1’s story probably makes them think again.

Peter was born near the East German city of Dresden in 1958, three years before the Wall went up. Officially, it was constructed to keep the GDR’s population protected from the pernicious influence of capitalist West Germany. In reality, it was because 2.6 million of East Germany’s 17 million population had already fled west.

Peter’s family, however, had travelled the opposite direction. His father, a committed communist, had moved them to the GDR from the West German city of Essen after the Communist Party was banned in West Germany in 1956. It soon became clear that communist life did not meet the propaganda claims.

1961: East Berlin border guards adding barbed wire to the newly built Berlin Wall

“We were taught that capitalism was an unfair system that created unemployment and homelessness,” Peter remembers. “But from 1965, when the GDR allowed Westerners in for visits, my grandparents would visit from Essen, and they’d bring in coffee, chocolate, jeans, tee-shirts – things we couldn’t get. They’d also talk privately about how Western life was better. My father didn’t like it, but my mother began asking about how we might leave.”

In 1974, his mother requested formal permission for the family to leave. At the time, cross-border relations had thawed slightly, and GDR residents with relatives in the West could sometimes get exit visas.

The request backfired. Not only was it refused, it marked the family out as betrayers of the GDR cause. In an act of particular spite, calculated to divide the family, it was only Peter, then just 16, who was singled out for punishment. He was kicked out of school, where his teacher called him a “traitor”, and banned from his sports club, where he’d been a promising sprinter.

“Nothing happened to my brother and sister, but my own life was turned around 180 degrees,” he says. His teacher even told him that if he withdrew his support for the exit visa request – effectively denouncing his own mother – he could be given a new family to live with. “I didn’t know it then, but this was a common tactic to set family members against each other,” he says. “I refused.”

Unable to progress to university after being forced to leave school early, Peter trained as a typesetter and channelled his athletic prowess into ballroom dancing. He eventually made it to the East German national team, although because of his blemished political record, he was forbidden to compete outside of the Eastern bloc. Occasionally he’d bump into Western dancers at international contests in the GDR, which whetted his appetite to leave all the more.

The ballroom dancer

In 1981, he decided to escape. His plan was travel to Hungary and swim by night across the Danube to Austria, covering his face with black shoe polish to avoid being spotted. But en route a train inspector became suspicious because he only had a one-way ticket. Police strip-searched him on the spot and found binoculars and a compass hidden in his bag.

From then on, Peter became Prisoner 13-1. He spent months in solitary in a Stasi jail, enduring 30-hour interrogations, before being sentenced to 10 months in an “aggressive, violent” prison where he was held in a tiny cell with 17 other inmates, many of them ordinary criminals.

Then, at the end of his sentence, a Stasi officer called Peter to see him. “You don’t want to stay here, and East German society doesn’t want you either,” the officer said. “Maybe the best thing is to give up your citizenship.”

Peter was then handed a “depatriation” form, put on a bus with 20 other prisoners, and driven to the border. He had no idea what was going on, although what followed was already a well-honed procedure. The buses were even equipped with rotating West and East German number plates so they could move between the two sectors without attracting attention.

“I remember the driver saying ‘welcome to West Germany’,” Peter says. “I didn’t get it even then, although I remember a fellow prisoner just screaming as we crossed the border – not out of joy particularly, just a release of tension.

“The West felt completely different, there was no propaganda anywhere, and the shops were so much better stocked. I almost found it too much at first, but it was a chance to start a new, free life.”

Peter headed for Essen for a joyful reunion with his grandparents. However, West German officials advised him to keep quiet about the ransom that had secured his freedom. “They told me that West Germany had paid a ransom, but said that if it became public, the programme might stop,” he says. “They said: ‘a country that sells human beings is strange, but so too is a country that buys them’.”

Peter adjusted well to his new life, opening his own dancing school in Essen. The rest of his family were allowed to leave the GDR in 1984, although his father committed suicide two years later, unable to adapt to life in the West and depressed by the shortcomings of his communist dream in the East. He and his son were not on good terms, partly because of their political differences.

Another shock came when Peter looked up the Stasi file of his older brother Ulrich, who had died in 1993. “I looked it up purely out curiosity, and it turned out he had signed up as an informant,” he says. “It didn’t say why he’d joined, or what he did, but it did say that there were 18 other Stasi spies paid just to watch him in turn – it showed the madness of the whole thing.”

Today, Peter still finds it emotionally difficult going back to the former East Germany, which continues to lag behind economically, and is now a stronghold for the anti-immigrant far right. The east is also where he often hears a rose-tinted view of life under communism.

Guards watch over the Berlin Wall in 1970

“The children there often hear their parents saying life was better in the GDR, and that the post-Wall era has brought too much uncertainty,” he says. “To me, that’s bullshit. They forget that the price they paid was to lose their freedom.”

Another price, he points out, was the discord that the GDR caused in his family life, which even a DM100,000 ransom couldn’t repair. As well as the rift with his late father, he is still yet to find out exactly what his brother did in the Stasi. A TV researcher, he says, has now located a previously unseen file which sets out in detail all the informant reports that his brother made, and for a forthcoming documentary, Peter will be opening it before the cameras.

“Maybe he informed on me and my parents,” he says. “Am I worried about what I might find? Yes.”

Photographs Getty Images and courtesy Peter Keup

Further reading

Jason Lutes’ almighty graphic novel Berlin provides a remarkably detailed picture of life in the city during the 1920s and 1930s as the Weimer Republic was disintegrating and Nazi and Communist pressures were building.

Alone in Berlin, the 1947 novel by Hans Fallada, charts the resistance to the Nazis through the story of one couple. Also available in translation as Every Man Dies Alone.

Anna Funder’s book Stasiland caused a sensation in 2003 with its eye-opening portrait of the extent of the Stasi’s reach – practically turning an entire population into spies.

David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy of albums – Low, Heroes and Lodger – especially the ice-cold atmosphere of Low  – capture the mood of the divided city in the ’70s. The title track of Heroes is the anthem of liberation and self-determination – and his concert by the Wall in 1987, heard in East Germany, is said to have helped inspire the popular uprising that destroyed the Wall in 1989.

For a detailed view of events leading to and following the fall of the Wall, try Elizabeth Pond’s Beyond The Wall: Germany’s road to unification.