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Letter from Germany

Published: (Updated: ) in Australian News by .

Gordon reflects on how things rapidly changed in East Germany when the Berlin Wall came down.

The 155km Berlin wall has been toppled. Construction of the wall by East Germany commenced in 1961 to prevent defections to the west. Prior to construction approximately 3.5 million people escaped East Germany by various means. The wall reduced that number to a trickle, many dying in the process of escape.

East Germany has been internationally regarded as a leader in sports science. By opening the borders the government has presented an opportunity for fast-acting sporting interests and governmental bodies to gain access to it’s technology and intellectual property. That is the purpose of my visit.

I take a late night flight, landing in Berlin in the early hours of the morning. A breakfast meeting with the Minister for Sport is first on the agenda. In my hotel room I throw water on my face to freshen up – indeed to wake up – and change into a suit.

Downstairs in the dining room I am met by a rather impressive woman. The Minister is not only intellectually impressive but even more so because of her size.

I suspect she may have been an Olympic weightlifter is my immediate thought.

Our breakfast conversation centres mainly on the availability of the equipment and intellectual property. Although not relevant to my visit we also discussed the organisation of international sporting competitions. Australia was hosting the World Swimming Championships the following year.

As you might imagine, I was tired and jet-lagged. Some times one does strange things in those circumstances. A little like being inebriated I suppose.

I was enjoying breakfast – far superior to airline food – and as one unconsciously does when one is dining in company, I intermittently wiped my mouth with a serviette. Alas, it wasn’t my serviette.

Realising that my ‘serviette’ had an unusually silky smooth feel to it I glanced down and there, in the palm of my hand having just wiped away the remnants of my breakfast, was my tie.

“Er, how silly of me,” I exclaimed noticing the Minister was gazing at me in bewilderment.

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She must be thinking Australians have strange habits.

“Jet lag!”

*     *     *     *     *

I visited the Leipzig University, an institute internationally renowned for its sports science and technology. Walking the corridors I noticed cctv cameras and miniature microphones on the walls.

“Yes, they are everywhere,” exclaimed my host having observed me looking at the cameras. “They are not for security purposes. They are to spy on students. To ensure students don’t share information.”

“That was what our system was like only months ago. Students were provided with lockers into which they deposited the clothes they wore to university. Each day they were provided with fresh clothes. At the end of the day they changed clothes again.

“Protection of our intellectual property was paramount,” he continued. “Students were forbidden to take home lecture notes.”

This paranoia about technical information being made available to the wider world was confirmed over dinner with two professors from the University.

“I met Kristin Otto today,” I informed them. “I was surprised how tall she is.”

“Did she still have a deep voice?” one Professor asked.

Kristin Otto won four gold medals at the 1984 World Swimming Championships and another six gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. She broke world records in the 100 and 200 metre freestyle events. No surprise that in 1984, 1986 and 1988 Otto was the female World Swimming Champion.

Born in Leipzig and attending the East German Sports Academy it also came as no surprise rumours were abound that Otto had been forced to use performance-enhancing drugs.

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Speculation grew when her former swimming teammate Petra Schneider admitted being part of the state-run doping programme. Schneider later requested that one of her records be cancelled because it had been tainted by the use of steroids.

The Professor continued, “We all knew elite athletes were forced to take drugs but we risked everything, possibly our own lives if we talked about it.

Under the old regime one didn’t know whom to trust. Workmates would inform on their own colleagues.”

We then discussed the reason for my visit to East Germany but it wasn’t long before the two Professors returned to the subject of authoritarianism. It was as if they were now liberated and could speak out to complete strangers.

“If we had this discussion a few months ago,” continued the Professor, “I would be interrupted by the waiter, told I was required on the telephone and that would be the last you would see of me.”

Demonstrating some limited knowledge of local politics I asked, “I believe the movement towards reform in East Germany actually commenced in Leipzig?”

The quieter of the two Professors chimed in. “It all started with my colleague here. He is modest and probably won’t take the credit but this is what happened. Firstly, he distributed a large number of leaflets around the University advertising a public gathering in the city square at 12 noon the following Friday. The plan was to both stage a demonstration and to meet like-minded people with the courage to stand up against the regime.”

“The following Friday there was only ten people at the public demonstration – we were far outnumbered by the police. Although we nervously watched the police photograph everyone present they did not intervene to stop the rally.

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“During the following week we again distributed leaflets. Our campaign gathered momentum as the crowd size more than doubled on the Friday. As the campaign grew so did the crowds. It was apparent the police were not intending to take action; something they would certainly have done a few months before.

Within weeks we had over 100,000 people attending the lunchtime rallies. This gained traction in other East German cities and it became irresistible.”

The two Professors from Leipzig University had existed in a society where the persecution of anyone holding an alternative view to that of Government leaders was common. But they had the courage to stand up for democracy.

The author Louis L’Amour once said of America, “To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers.”

A message worth remembering.

Feature image: Leipzig Monday demonstration on 9 October 1989, first major Monday demonstration. Masses of people waiting on Karl-Marx-Platz square for the peace prayer meeting to end. Photo: Martin Naumann.

Gordon d’Venables has been, inter alia, a teacher, soldier, farmhand, lawyer and businessman. As a lawyer he travelled extensively for international clients. His letters from various times and places around the globe (PNG, England, Ireland, France, USA, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Iran and others) refer to some of his experiences.


GORDON D’VENABLES: Letter from USA, pre-Soviet Union Breakup.

GORDON D’VENABLES: Letter from Belgrade.

GORDON D’VENABLES: Letter from Iran.

GORDON D’VENABLES: Letter from India.

GORDON D’VENABLES: Letter from Saudi Arabia.

GORDON D’VENABLES: Letter from Vietnam.

Source: Tasmanian Times

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