BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Marc Fisher, author of "After the Wall: Germany, the Germans and the Burdens of History," what's the gap?
MARC FISHER, AUTHOR, "AFTER THE WALL: GERMANY, THE GERMANS AND THE BURDENS OF HISTORY": The gap is my term for the 12-year period from 1933 to 1945 which obviously is the--the Nazi period in German history and a time when many Germans today, a time they don't care to recall. And you notice once you're in Germany that people tend to glide over those years in conversation. I first noticed it when I first moved to Bonn, and the landlady from whom I was renting a house invited us over for coffee. My wife and I sat there, and she--it was an elderly woman who was the widow of a diplomat, German diplomat--and she told us the story of her husband's career, how he'd served in Central America in the '20s and became an ambassador in the late '20s and up until 1932, and then without skipping a beat, she said, `and in 1954, my husband became,' and she proceeded with the rest of his career, just skipping over the Nazi period. And while on one hand it can be amusing to--to hear, it also is a window onto just how that period stays with the Germans even now.
LAMB: When did you first go to Germany?
FISHER: My first visit to Germany was shortly before I went there to
work for The Washington Post in early 1989.
LAMB: How long were you there?
FISHER: I was there about 10 days on that trip and then for four years
once I moved there in the fall of 18--of 1989.
LAMB: Why did you want to go there?
FISHER: I wanted to cover a foreign country. It was something I'd
wanted to do ever since I went into journalism, as a way of sinking into
another culture and learning from scratch about another place. Germany
particularly appealed to me because it has such a dramatic and--and difficult
history. It's not a place that I had much background in. I didn't know the
language before I started training for this job, but it was a place that
fascinated me because of--of just the--the drama of its history.
LAMB: Let me jump to the end of the book where you described what happened
when you looked for a place to write the book here in the Washington area.
FISHER: I was going to take a year off from the Post to write this book.
I'd done most of the research in the course of my reporting for the newspaper,
and I approached someone I knew at the American Institute of Contemporary
German Studies--it's part of Johns Hopkins University here in Washington--and
asked if they had a desk, a chair, a phone that I could use. And a friend
there said they would be delighted to have me as journalist in residence. I
thought it was all set until I came back to Washington that summer and was
told that, well, they had a bit of a space problem, and they would like if I
could go down the block at another part of Johns Hopkins for a few months.
Well, I didn't think anything more of it until someone dumped a bunch of memos
on my desk a few months later which revealed that the institute had been torn
up, a real battle between their trustees and--and their staff about whether
they would be jeopardizing contributions that the German government made to
their institute by accepting me into their institute. And I'd been considered
a critical reporter by the German government and by its press operation. So
there was a lot of worry there. And as it turned out, there was a lot of back
and forth between the German government and the institute about whether they
would mind my coming into the institute. Finally, the--the--several high
officials in the German government said no, they thought it would be perfectly
fine and reasonable if the institute did this. And only then--in fact only
after the embassy sent some people around to watch me giving lectures in
Washington, and those embassy officials sent back reports saying, `Fisher
seems fair and reasonable.' Only after those reports reached Bonn was I
suddenly invited to join the institute for the remainder of the year.
LAMB: Who's Henning Waggoner?
FISHER: Henning Waggoner was the head of the foreign department of the
German Federal Press Office in Bonn. He was in charge--he was the keeper,
as--as we call him, of the foreign correspondents there, and his job was to
look at the reports that foreign correspondents were filing about Germany and
see whether they meshed with the government's idea of what foreign reporters
should be doing, and then take us to task for what he saw as our failings.
And he was my--my frequent correspondent both by phone and by fax and by
letter back to my office here in Washington, frequently complaining that--that
I was putting too much history into the stories, too many references to the
Nazi and Communist periods, too many comparisons with Germany as it once was.
And he also felt that I was too tough on the Germans, criticizing them for
failing to respond to the neo-Nazi violence, the anti-foreigner violence that
was going on in the first couple of years after the Wall.
LAMB: Did you ever get a sense that they were suspicious of you because
FISHER: I did. It was a question they asked me from time to time.
Different government officials would ask me, `Are you Jewish?' In fact at one
point, one of Chancellor Kohl's aides approached a colleague of mine at a
party and said, `Is--is Fisher Jewish?' And the friend said, `Yes, he is.' And
the aide replied, `Ah, well, that explains everything,' as if somehow there
was a connection there between my religion and the way in which I covered
their country for the newspaper.
LAMB: You did talk about a Jewish cabal.
FISHER: There is within the German government a sense that they have
been subject to undue criticism and attack by what they see as a Jewish cabal
of columnists in this country. They refer to people like A.M. Rosenthal of
The New York Times, William Safire of The New York Times, even Richard Cohen
of--of The Washington Post, who, by my reading, has been very sympathetic
to--to Germany over the years. But they somehow see this as not quite a
conspiracy but an effort by Jewish columnists to be particularly critical of
Germany, never cutting the Germans a break, always comparing the present day
Germans with the Nazis.
LAMB: Where did you live while you were in Germany?
FISHER: I spent the first two years in Bonn, the capital of West
Germany, and then moved to Berlin, which is the future capital of the united
Germany and was the place where everything was really happening, was where
East and West were coming together after the Wall.
LAMB: Did you have a family with you?
FISHER: I did. When I arrived in Bonn, my wife was with me, and our
daughter was born in Bonn.
LAMB: What was that like?
FISHER: It was actually a fascinating experience. We were a little
concerned about having--going through that process in a foreign language. We
went out of our way to find a doctor who could bring us through the process in
English. And then when it came down to the hours of delivery, we actually did
everything in German and--and had a great time doing it. And so that--that
was very--it was also very revealing about the differences between our health
systems. My wife, as--as all German women do, stayed in the hospital for--she
stayed for six days. Many German women stay for 10 days after a normal birth.
We actually had to argue our way--that--way after six days. My wife is
pregnant again, and we've just been informed by our insurance company here in
Washington that we'll be permitted 24 hours in the hospital after birth. So
it's a very different approach to health care.
LAMB: Did you both, you and your wife, speak German?
FISHER: We both learned it for this adventure of being a foreign
correspondent over there, and our German got to be pretty good, certainly well
enough to do interviews and do my work in Germany.
LAMB: How did you learn it?
FISHER: At first, I studied with a language school here in Washington,
and then I went to Gerte Institute in Germany for an immersion course. But I
think I probably learned most of my German by--simply by going out and talking
to Germans. And I actually credit the fall of the Berlin Wall for my
achieving any level of fluency. In Western Germany, you can get by with
English. So many people know English so well that there's no real incentive
to speak German because you don't have to do it. When I went over the East, I
found that suddenly I did have to use German because the only second language
that was widely known was Russian, and it's not one of mine.
LAMB: You tell a lot of stories in the book about people that you met. Who,
of all the ones you talk about, are--is your favorite?
FISHER: I think my favorite is probably the--the story of the Hatz
family. It's an Eastern German family that showed great courage. In just a
few weeks before the Wall came down, they decided to give up everything and
leave East Germany and go through this torturous circuitous route through
Prague and then through the West German embassy there out in West Germany.
And, of course, they had no way of knowing the Wall would come down and that
their efforts would--would have been a lot easier if they'd just waited a few
LAMB: Refresh our memory on the date that the Wall came down.
FISHER: November 9th, 1989, quite unexpectedly, after an evening press
conference in East Berlin, the government spokesperson issued a very ambiguous
statement that made it sound as if East Germans suddenly had the right to
travel. No one quite knew whether that meant that they could leave right then
and there. But within hours, thousands of people massed at the Berlin Wall,
the border guards didn't know what to do, they asked their Soviet commanders
for some sort of guidance. No guidance was forthcoming. And pretty soon, the
crowd basically overwhelmed the bord--the--the border guards, and the Wall was
LAMB: Go back to the Hatzes.
FISHER: The Hatzes. Echehart and Elka Hatz, a--they're nobody special,
they're not famous, you won't find them in any other book...
LAMB: How did you find them?
FISHER: I found them by putting a classified ad in a very small
newspaper in an East German village looking for people who had emigrated from
East Germany to West Germany and then come back. Because I'd heard that this
was going on, and I wanted to collect a bunch of such people and write a story
LAMB: What did you say in the ad?
FISHER: I said, `American news correspondent seeks families who have
tried the West and decided to come back home.'
LAMB: How many answered?
FISHER: We got about 12 answers in a town of just a few thousand people.
And long letters, I mean 10, 20, 30-page letters detailing their experiences
in the West in a very emotional way because this was a far greater transition
for many people than they had ever expected, and crossing over into what they
had always assumed was the country of their cousins, a country that would be
more or less like their own, with the exception of a very different political
system. And when they went over there, they found that so much had changed in
the years since the war, so much had changed just during two generations of
living under a totalitarian system on one side and a capitalist or a social
welfare system on the other side, that they really did not get along, and
there was a great deal of antagonism.
The Hatzes' experience was that they went over to--to Western Germany, and in
those first weeks after the revolution, they were greeted with wonderful
kindness, I mean, just an extraordinary display, where people would come up to
them and offer them money. They were offered jobs, they walked into a
restaurant and got to talking to the owner, and the owner said, `How would you
like to run this place?' And they ended up taking over this snack shop and
running it for a few months.
But they also found that within a few months that they--first of all, they
were incapable of dealing with the structure of the West. They found
themselves getting in debt to a bank without really understanding what
indebtedness was all about. They found themselves buying things on
installment plans and not understanding how they worked. They didn't
understand just the basic day-to-day mechanics of Western life. And they got
in a lot of financial trouble.
They found that their friendships were a very different quality. You know, in
Eastern Germany, people's public relationships--their relationships that work
with their neighbors were very reserved because you never knew who was secret
police, who might be informing on you. But privately, when you found the few
people you could trust, they had rich close friendships. So they go over to
the West, and they find that on the surface people are very friendly, but it
takes a long time to break through and form true friendships. And they
weren't used to that process, and it was very difficult for them, one of the
main reasons they went back home to East Germany.
LAMB: So when they went back, what did they do?
FISHER: When they went back they were greeted by their friends as these
wise folks who--who had gone to the West and understood the Western system.
So all of the inadequacies they felt in West Germany--they came home, and
suddenly they were the conquering heroes, they were the only ones who'd been
exposed to what many people saw as a colonial power. And--and so they found
themselves advising all of their friends and neighbors about--about Western
life. They stayed in their own village right near Berlin for a while and
couldn't find work, found that there were too many reminders of the
difficulties that had made them leave East Germany in the first place, and so
they just closed up everything and went off to a rural village quite far from
Berlin. And they settled in there into a very quiet, isolated kind of life.
LAMB: How'd they make money?
FISHER: The husband was on disability from a back injury that he
suffered. And the wife did some odd jobs from time to time. They didn't have
very much money, that's another reason they moved out into the rural pla--area
where it was--they could live quite inexpensively.
LAMB: Did you sense they were happy?
FISHER: I sensed that they were relieved finally to be somewhere where
they could be away from stress. They--they were somewhat fragile people, and
they really craved stability, which is something that's true of the country as
well. It's a country that craves stability. And so I--I felt they were
symbolic in a way--that they illustrated this tendency among Germans. I don't
think they were happy, no, they were--they had this very deep nostalgia for
something that never really existed, a kind of false nostalgia for the
communist past. They recalled the security of the communist system, the
cradle to grave security, the child care, the health care that the communist
system offered, and they conveniently forgot how difficult the system could
be, the system that had driven them out of their country in the first place,
that had attempted to break up their marriage simply because they had refused
to take part in what they considered to be fraudulent elections.
LAMB: What would happen in this country if we were told we couldn't read
something like "Mein Kampf"?
FISHER: Oh, I think we'd have at the very least lawsuits if not public
demonstrations. It's--we don't like in this country to be told what not to
LAMB: What--what is it?
FISHER: "Mein Kampf" was the tract that Adolf Hitler wrote. It was the
basic statement of his philosophy, and it was the book in which he laid out
what he was going to do as far as taking over Europe, eradicating the Jews,
and so on.
LAMB: What happens if you get caught holding one of those in your hand in
FISHER: It's illegal, and it--the book is banned, as are any Nazi
symbols. You probably won't go to jail, but the book will be confiscated, you
might be fined, you might well be prosecuted. And there are a few copies that
are available in libraries for serious students, for graduate students, but
it's not--I read "Mein Kampf" in high school. I know many high schools around
the country here, teachers ask their students to read at least part of "Mein
Kampf" to understand what lies behind that period in history. German students
don't have that opportunity.
LAMB: Who is Anna Rasmus?
FISHER: Anna Rasmus may be known to some people as the Nasty Girl.
There was a movie made about her a few years ago by that name. She was a
young woman in the Bavarian town of Passau, right near the Austrian border, a
lovely city with beautiful buildings and--and a river going through the center
of town. And Anna Rasmus from a very young age decided she wanted--wanted to
learn about what her town was like during the Third Reich, at the time
of--when her grandmother was young. And so she asked her parents and her
grandmother, and no one seemed to want to talk very much about it. She ended
up writing a school paper about her hometown in the Third Reich. She won a
big prize for it, but she also won the animosity of many of her fellow
Well, as soon as that happened, she got even more intrigued, and she began
researching further, and she found things such as that there--despite the
denials of many people in town, there was actually a concentration camp, a
small concentration--concentration camp in her town. She also found out that
some of the most prominent people in her town, including her own priest, had
been prominent Nazis, which they'd managed to deny over the years. She forced
the town to open up its archives so she could find old documents and
newspapers that showed these facts. And she published three books about her
hometown during the Third Reich. And as a result she was ostracized, her
daughter was tormented in school, her house was vandalized on several
occasions, her husband left her because he couldn't take the--the constant
attacks. And Anna Rasmus is now living in the Washington area. She has left
Germany after courageously sticking it out for more than a decade. She
finally decided enough.
LAMB: Why did she came here?
FISHER: She came here both to complete her research. She's--she's
working on a fair number of documents that are held at the National Archives
about her home region during the Third Reich. And she also came here because
she found it a more tolerant society.
LAMB: What's she like?
FISHER: She's a very--she doesn't seem tough at all, yet when you--when
you hear her story, you imagine this fierce woman who's able--has the
confidence to stand up to--to an entire town's wrath. Actually, she seems
very un--unassuming, almost timid. She's very funny. She has light sparkling
eyes, and a big head full of curls. When I first met her, she was wearing
these pink fluffy bunny slippers, and hardly seemed like a serious person, and
yet she's--she's intensely bright and intensely committed to this idea that
Germans have an obligation to look deeply into their past, understand it, and
confront their elders and--and--and ask themselves, `What would I have done,
where would I have stood during that time?'
LAMB: Where did you talk to her?
FISHER: I spoke to her in her home in Pasau, which was a small
townhouse, a modern townhouse, not far from the university where she worked.
LAMB: What's the story mean?
FISHER: I think it means that even today, half a century after the war,
there are Germans who are struggling to come to terms with that period and
trying to understand how their relatives behaved and--and trying to put
themselves in the mindset of--of 1933 and what I would have done. And there
are also Germans who just don't want to hear it anymore, who think
it's--enough time has passed, why are we beating ourselves with this issue
over and over, why do we let the rest of the world constantly judge us by the
standards of--of a half-century ago.
LAMB: Who's Bruno Ritter?
FISHER: Bruno Ritter is a Polish-born Jew who watched as his whole
family was destroyed in the Holocaust, as his mother was deported from in
front of his eyes, he watched as his entire village was emptied out by the
Nazis. And he managed to escape on several occasions from the Nazis who were
cleaning out his Jewish ghetto. He eventually ended up in a concentration
camp, a series of concentration camps, and was liberated and taken under the
wing of a young American lieutenant from Kansas City, who taught Bruno Ritter
English and eventually took him home to Kansas City where Bruno attended high
school and ended up back in the US Army, this time as a soldier rather than as
a ward. And he ended up back in Europe translating for the US Army and spent
the rest of his life in Germany working--managing a PX for some time and--and
now in retirement selling insurance.
The remarkable thing about Bruno Ritter is that he went about 35 years without
mentioning the fact that he was Jewish or the fact that he lost his entire
family, without mentioning that to anyone, including two wives. He--even his
own daughter didn't know. He never told a soul until the moment when he read
in Stars and Stripes, the American military newspaper, that Josef
Schwamberger, a Nazi commander who had been the commander who cleaned out
Bruno's hometown of Jews, that commander was being extradited back to Germany
and would stand trial for war crimes.
When Ritter read that, he suddenly decided his silence had to end, and he
would face--he would go and volunteer to the prosecutors that he would testify
against Schwamberger. He went and did that, and his story--he--when I met him
in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in--in Bavaria, he was--he still had great pride
in--in--in the strength that he'd had to keep this secret for so long. And
yet he was so eager to tell the story and to remember his parents and to
remember what Schwamberger had done, and he had witnessed as Schwamberger
had--had stood and actually shot people, and he'd witnessed as
Schwam--Schwamberger and his dog had walked--paraded through the ghetto,
ordering that Jews be shot.
LAMB: Where is he today, where does he live?
FISHER: Ritter lives in--in Garmisch, a very pretty town in Bavaria.
LAMB: How old is he?
FISHER: He would be in his late 60s now.
LAMB: And how did you find him?
FISHER: I found him through a reporter I knew at Stars and Stripes, who
he had contacted after he read this article about Schwamberger.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
FISHER: I grew up in the Bronx in New York City.
LAMB: Your parents, are they still alive?
FISHER: Yes, they're both alive and still living there.
LAMB: What do they do?
FISHER: My father is a professor at the City University of New York, and
my mother teaches in the New York City public schools.
LAMB: And what does your dad teach?
FISHER: He teaches education, trains teachers, and teaches the
psychology of education.
LAMB: And your mom?
FISHER: She's a reading teacher at the elementary level.
LAMB: What influence did they have on you when you were growing up, as, you
know, to become a journalist?
FISHER: Well, there hadn't been any journalist in my family. I think
they instilled in me a great curiosity, which I think is the basic ingredient
of any journalist. They also--also a great love for reading, which is another
prerequisite for--for being a good journalist. They--I think they were
perhaps somewhat perplexed that I didn't go into academia and amazed that I
would go into a job where you don't get the whole summer off to think and--and
explore other--other areas. But certainly, they--they got me going in the
direction of--of wanting to discover the world and understand other people
and--and communicate that somehow.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
LAMB: Why there?
FISHER: It was a place that appealed to me in part because of its--its
tradition and history as--as a great university and also because it had a very
strong history department which I was very interested in. It was--it's also
where I got in.
LAMB: What year did you get out?
FISHER: In 1980.
LAMB: And how about journalism, when was the first time you thought you
wanted to be a writer or a journalist?
FISHER: Well, I--I probably could trace it back to having edited a fifth
grade newspaper in school, but I didn't get more involved until my high school
newspaper, and then proceeded to work as a stringer, a part-time correspondent
for a number of newspapers while I was in college to help pay the freight of
LAMB: What was your degree in, by the way?
FISHER: It was in history.
LAMB: And your first job.
FISHER: My first job was at the Miami Herald in Florida, where I did
everything from chase police calls to cover city councils and zoning--zoning
meetings and just the--the basics of journalism.
LAMB: Were you there when the famous Gary Hart story was written?
FISHER: Actually, I was at The Washington Post, but I covered it for The
LAMB: And how long have you been at the Post?
FISHER: Since late '86.
LAMB: Where did you meet your wife?
FISHER: I met her in New York through mutual friends.
LAMB: How long you been married?
FISHER: I've been married 11 years.
LAMB: Now if somebody said to you, Marc Fisher, you have to live in Germany
for the rest of your life, what would your first reaction be?
FISHER: I'd rather be home, and that's--I probably would say that about
almost any country, but I think I'd be quicker to say it about Germany because
it's--it's a more different culture than we might expect or certainly than I
expected as an American. I think we like to think of Germany as being very
much like our country and Germans being very much like ourselves. And, you
know, Germans are perhaps the largest ethnic group in this country--about one
in every four Americans has some German heritage. So both because of that.
And because so many Americans have spent time in Germany as tourists or in the
military, we tend to think of them as being very much like us. And they are,
to some degree. And certainly since the war they've become more so, but it's
still a very different place with very different traditions and very strict
rules, and very--a much more organized kind of life than we have.
LAMB: When did you find yourself becoming uncomfortable?
FISHER: From time to time, it wasn't a constant thing. I very much
enjoyed living in--in Berlin, especially, and there were some aspects of
German life that I absolutely loved. So I--the discomfort was transitory just
from time to time.
LAMB: What did you love?
FISHER: I loved the bakeries. The--the Germans make some of the best
bread around. I loved the seriousness of the culture in some ways. It's a
place where people are proud of the fact that they--they read books, and that
their television covers serious topics, and they--they like--they like to
criticize us for being too frivolous a culture and for being a bit silly.
They perhaps take themselves too seriously. Germans are not known for their
sense of humor, but--but there is something rigorous and--and really quite
invigorating about being in a serious place.
LAMB: You mentioned somewhere in your book that there's something like only
12 scholars in the entire country that are studying the Nazi era.
FISHER: It's been--it's not been a topic that's attracted a lot of
attention from German graduate students. And one friend of mine in Germany
devoted his graduate studies to the Nazi period and was shocked to find
himself virtually alone in the country. There is a great deal of interest
conversely in Jewish issues, and a great many German students who are studying
the Jewish past of their own country. But as far as studying the actual
German involvement in the Nazi period that--there's much less interest in it.
LAMB: You have a string of statistics early in the book: 42 days vacation a
year, the average student graduates from school about 29 years old, that you
retire at age 59 or before.
LAMB: And as a matter of fact, I think I've seen a statistic since you wrote
it, there was something like an average of $29 an hour in wages, but it's
already up to 31. Eighty-one people. What's going on here with this $31 an
FISHER: Germany has the highest labor costs in the world, and it's--it
is a country that has a social welfare system that people really have grown to
depend on and that they--they feel proud of. They're willing to pay vastly
higher taxes than we pay, and they feel they get something in return. They
get some of the longest vacations in the world. It's -it's not a very hard
working country, you don't get the sense when you're there that people--that
people's jobs come first. I think they have a much healthier balance between
work and the rest of their lives than we do. And they--they cherish that. On
the other hand, it's hard for companies to justify paying all those labor
costs when they can look right nextdoor to Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic
and find workers at 1/8th to 1/12th the cost. So that's why we're seeing a
lot of German companies shipping jobs out of the country, and that's beginning
to worry a lot of German industrialists.
LAMB: How long can they keep up this kind of wage and vacation policy?
FISHER: I don't think they can keep it up for much longer. If you look
at the Scandinavians, who went through a similar process, it just doesn't add
up after a while, especially as the population continues to age.
There's--the--the Swedes in particular have had to roll back a lot of those
benefits, and I think we're going to see the Germans doing so, as well. And
that's not going to come easily, a lot of Germans are going to resist that.
They've grown quite accustomed to having six or seven weeks vacation a year,
to working a 30 or 33-hour work week. It's--it's a nice life.
LAMB: Stores are not open after 6:30 at night, not open on Saturday
afternoons or all day Sunday.
FISHER: Right. It's--that's very frustrating for an American. I've
hardly ever met an American who--who could--was ever able to get accustomed to
that living in Germany. It takes a lot of the simul--a lot of the spontaneity
out of--out of life. And if you decide on a Saturday afternoon you want to
have some friends over for dinner on Sunday, if you haven't gone out and
shopped for it, you're out of luck, because nothing's open again until Monday.
And over a holiday weekend, stores can be closed for three or four days at a
time. And to an American used to just popping out at--at midnight to get a
carton of milk, that's--it can be maddening. Germans defend it on two
grounds: First of all, they say everyone--the--fairness is the main argument
they use. Why should anyone have to work evenings or weekends when--when
other folks don't have to?
In fact, I had a German language teacher at one point who grew up as the
daughter of a shopkeeper, and she resented the fact that when she was growing
up she always had to stay behind on Saturday mornings while her friends were
out on a drive in the country with their parents. And she said she never
wanted to have to go through that again or impose that on her kids. And yet
when she came to the US to live for a few years, she loved the convenience of
going out to the 7-11, or something. And so when she was moving back to
Germany, I said, `Well, wouldn't you like that to continue?' She said, `No,
no, that's fine for you, but I want to have a fair system where no one has
that--that advantage over anyone else.'
LAMB: You say the government gets into the naming of children?
FISHER: Yeah, the government actually has a list of names from which you
may choose, and if--if you pick a name that's not on that list, you have to
get special government permission for that name. If you--if you choose a
foreign name, the government will consult with the embassy of the country
where the name comes from, and find out if that's a legitimate name in that
country. And the--the city clerks who handle namings frequently turn down
permission for names if they're not sex specific or if they are--are libel to
open the child to ridicule. And so the kinds of exotic names that we saw in
this country particularly in the late '60s and '70s just wouldn't pass muster
LAMB: What about this thing about a form that had to do with the size of
LAMB: They were--they denied that there was such a thing?
FISHER: Yeah. The--the German Interior Ministry, at one point a couple
of years ago, developed a form that immigration officers, or border officers,
could use to categorize people who were coming into the country seeking
political asylum, and part of that form included a series of diagrams of
different nose shapes. There were no labels on them, calling one by one
ethnicity or another, but it was clear that that was the intent. And at
first, the government denied that this existed. And then when someone who'd
gotten a copy passed it on to me, I was able to show it to them, and
they--they did finally admit that it existed but said that it had no--no--was
not derogatory in nature.
LAMB: Did you have to tell them what your religion on a--I remember some
reference to a form.
FISHER: Yes. All residents in Germany are required to keep the
government apprised of where they are and where they live. And so when I
moved from Bonn to Berlin, I had to file documents saying that I was moving
and--and where my new address would be and so on, and part of that form that I
had to fill out demanded to know my religion. And given my American
background and my reading history in the McCarthy period, I was loathe to do
that. I didn't want that kind of private information going to a government
form. Also, I just wanted to test the system and see what this was all about.
So I said, `No, I--I decline to do that.' And the clerk got very upset and
went and got a supervisor, and they brought out law books, and they showed me
that indeed I was required to do this. So just to test it a little further, I
said, well, I--I don't want to do that, if--if there's something you have
to--to file about me or something, you go ahead and do that, but it's not a
question I'm going to answer. And so they wrote a code down there, I don't
know what the code meant, but they wrote a code down and sent me on my way.
LAMB: You say that six million of the 81 million people that live there are
FISHER: Yeah, auslander, foreigners, and the--the German word means
out--outlanders, people from--from outside the country. Of course, we
probably wouldn't consider most of those people to be foreigners, many of them
had been in Germany for generations, particularly among the Turks, who make up
almost half the foreigners in Germany. Many of those Turks have been there
for two or three generations, and in some cases among the younger ones, they
neither speak Turkish nor have ever been to Turkey, except for an occasional
visit to a grandparent. And they consider themselves Turks who--Turkish
Germans or--or--or Turks in Germany, and yet the government considers them
foreigners and has sought in recent years to send them home by offering them
financial incentives. But most of the Turks don't want to go home at this
point. They've been in Germany as long as they can remember, and they
consider it their home. Unfortunately, they're not--they don't have all the
privileges that Germans have, and Germans still perceive them very much as a
group apart from the natives of that country. German citizenship is still
defined by a 1918 law in which a German is someone who has German blood.
LAMB: Could you have become a German citizen?
FISHER: No. I would not be eligible for German citizenship unless I
lived there for an extended period of years and then only after I'd passed
various language and culture tests, and--it's a difficult onerous process. It
can be done after a long period, but I would have had to have given up my
LAMB: Gabrielle Puchel?
FISHER: Gabrielle Puchel was her maiden name.
LAMB: Say that again, Puchel?
FISHER: Puchel. And she is better known in the book as Gabrielle Jonan,
which was her married name. It's a story of a dedicated brilliant young woman
who--an East--East German woman who fell in love with a Greek student who
lived in West Berlin and came over the Wall for occasional day visits.
LAMB: What year were they...
FISHER: This was in about 1969, or so. And Westerners were allowed to
come through the Wall as long as they exchanged a certain amount of money each
day, and then they had to leave by the witching hour of midnight.
LAMB: Easterners couldn't go the other way.
FISHER: Exactly. And the--this Greek student went over and courted
Gabrielle, they eventually married and had a son. And...
LAMB: But you say they had a son before they got married.
FISHER: Actually yes, they had a son first.
LAMB: Why couldn't they marry, or--or could they?
FISHER: It would have been very difficult for them to get government
permission to marry, simply because he lived in the West and she lived in the
East. There was no prospect of her being allowed out of the country, and he
was not likely to move to the East. Their hope was that if they married, the
government would allow her to leave. And there were occasionally cases
where--where people were permitted to leave when they married a Westerner.
But there were also a good number of sham marriages that were created
expressly for the purpose of freeing someone from the East, and so the
government was very wary of--of giving permission to--to these people. So
they had a son, they then married and soon after that the husband was arrested
when he was entering East Germany. He was arrested and charged with being a
CIA spy. He was--it now appears in retrospect, given some of the documents
that have come out, he was actually talking to the CIA, but he seemed to be
talking to the CIA about getting his wife out of East Germany. In exchange,
they had enlisted him to find out about his--his wife's life and about the
place where she worked. She was--she had a low level job in the Cuban embassy
in East Berlin.
So there was some, if you want to call it, spying or cooperation or informing,
whatever--whatever it was, that was going on. He ended up in jail. She
decided that--she heard from--from friends who had connections with the secret
police that she was going to be arrested. She decided she had to get out.
And so--it's a lengthy story in the book, but just--the condensed version is
that she eventually did find her way through very dramatic means including
hanging from the bottom of a--of a truck on her way from Bulgaria to Turkey,
she did eventually get out of the country. But she left her three-year-old
behind with her parents. And within months after her departure, the
three-year-old was taken away from her parents and given to a loyal communist
couple who had been seeking to adopt a child for a long time. This was one of
hundreds of cases that took place in East Germany known as forced adoptions,
where the country--where the government took children away from dissidents or
people who were not in the government's good graces and gave those children to
good loyal communists.
Gabrielle did not see her son again for 19 years. She fought an incredible
battle through the United Nations, through the Germ--West German government,
through the press in an effort to see her son again. And she did not find him
until he managed to contact her on his own when he grew up and became a
somewhat rebellious teen-ager in East Berlin. He eventually did come over to
the West to live with her right around the time the Wall came down. And yet
they lived together for only a year. They had grown so far apart. He had
been raised with such different values from those that she would have given
him that it was really irreconcilable.
LAMB: You talk about the fact that they spent hours on the phone.
FISHER: Yes. In the months before they were able to meet physically.
Once they had established contact, he called her from East Berlin, and they
would spend six, seven, eight hours a day just talking on the phone, and it
was--that was the period--the one time when she felt like she did have her son
back. Because there were so many things--he had--he had these little wisps of
memory from--of his real mother. He always asked his adoptive parents,
`Didn't I have an aunt or someone who had long black hair? Didn't I have an
aunt who had a little dispenser on a coffee table that--that sent out
chocolate eggs?' And they would often--they would simply deny these--these
little memories that he had of his real mother. And so here finally was his
chance to--to bring those memories back and to learn who his mother was and
for her to find out what had happened in all those years.
LAMB: But you take it even a step further, because she had another child by
FISHER: She did, she had a younger son named David who she brought up as
she would have wanted to bring up her first son. And he became an
accomplished violinist. He's played concerts here in the states many times.
He's--he's really quite a superb young man, and an intellectual, someone who
has, as Gabrielle has, a love for books, a love for learning, and she's--she
talks very bitterly about having given up this child, who--who--who she
thought could be a great pianist, and what she got back was a--a working class
young man who had no great dreams in the world and who had no great love of
learning. And she's very bitter about this, seems overly bitter. When you
meet her you get the sense that, well, couldn't she just leave those issues
aside and--and love him for what he is? And yet she feels so--so much like a
piece of her life has been stolen from her that she cannot overcome that.
LAMB: Did you talk with her?
FISHER: I spoke with her at great length.
LAMB: How did you find her?
FISHER: I initially found her through a group of parents of kids who
were involved in these forced adoptions. They had banded together in an
effort to persuade the government to release the documents that would show
just how organized this forced adoption program was under the communist
LAMB: Where's this photo from?
FISHER: That's the photo from the night of German unification, when the
two Germanys became one, October 3, 1990. And a glorious night when there
were tens of thousands of people at the Brandenburg Gate, which is the
building you see there, a great symbol on Untredenlinden, the main boulevard
of East Berlin. And people were out waving flags and shooting fireworks in
the air. It was a very moving moment.
LAMB: Where were you?
FISHER: I was within a few feet of where that picture was taken, talking
to people about what it meant to be one Germany again and talking to--I--I ran
into a--a young woman who was holding her infant daughter up against the
Brandenburg Gate, against the--the concrete itself, and she kissed the Wall,
and she held her baby's lips up to the wall. And she was an Eastern German,
it was the first time she stepped over into the West. And she was in her
early 20s and yet went on at some length about how difficult her life had been
and how she thought she would never adjust to life in the West, it was simply
too complex, too different from what she'd grown up with. But she prayed that
her daughter would--would be able to make that adjustment.
LAMB: You traveled to Halle and met the--the--the psychologist or
LAMB: ...which--which one did you meet?
FISHER: His--his name is Hanzio Hem Maaz, M-A-A-Z.
LAMB: But what is he, a psychologist?
FISHER: He's a psychiatrist.
LAMB: Psychiatrist, and you called him the psychiatrist, what, of the East?
FISHER: Yeah. He was one of the few--he's a psychoanalyst, actually,
and--and he was one of the very few psychoanalysts who were permitted to
pursue that specialty in East Germany where they didn't have much patience for
that field. And he went to extraordinary lengths while the Wall was still
standing to have contact with Western members of--of his profession, and he
would invite Western psychoanalysts from Britain and France and West Germany
to come visit him in Halle. He would tell the authorities that they were
relatives coming to visit. And he learned a great deal from them, and he
began even before the Wall came down a psychoanalytic practice where he would
sit patients down and talk to them not only about their personal problems, but
he felt there was an important element in many of their problems that stemmed
from the repression of the experience that they and their parents had had in
the Nazi and communist periods. That going through three generations of
dictatorship had to have a deep psychological impact on these folks. And he
felt that a lot of problems they had with child-rearing and with their own
coping with daily life stemmed not only from things going on within their
family but from this larger issue of a whole society in denial about its past,
a whole society that had--that did not allow itself to mourn for those who
died in the war or to confront those who had been part of the--the genocidal
LAMB: Who's the lost generation?
FISHER: The lost generation, unfortunately, is--is just about everybody
in Eastern Germany who's over the age of 47, 48, somewhere in there. Those
are the folks who the planners in Bonn in the--in the German government say
will never work again. It's simply one of the ways that the society is coping
with bringing two countries together. They had to close down most of the
industry in East Germany because it was inefficient, polluting, unnecessary,
making things that no one's needed for decades, and in that process hundreds
of thousands, even millions of people were thrown out of work. Well, the
government set about trying to retrain the younger people for the kinds of
work that the economy needs now, but they decided there really was no way
to--to offer jobs to the older folks. And so they'll probably be on the dole
for the rest of their lives.
LAMB: Where did you get the phrase Wall in the Head?
FISHER: The Wall in the Head comes from a German phrase meaning the same
thing, and it's--it's a phrase that a lot of Germans use to describe just how
deep the differences are between East and West Germans, the--the sort of
unexpected division, even after the country began pumping millions, hundreds
of millions of--of marks into East Germany to rebuild that country from
scratch. Basically had been untouched since the war, many buildings still had
shrapnel damage on them. Despite that economic commitment, there wasn't the
kind of psychological and social commitment to bring the two peoples together.
And so Eastern and Western Germans think of themselves in such different ways
that people say, `Well, there's a wall in our head that prevents us from--from
dealing with each other on the same terms.' A lot of Eastern Germans say that
they consider themselves second-class citizens in their own country, and that
doesn't look like it's changing any time soon.
LAMB: What is Vonlitz?
FISHER: Vonlitz is a--was the place not far from Berlin, a very pretty
leafy suburb where the East German members of the Politburo, the leadership of
the communist regime, had their getaways, their weekend and summer cottages.
And East Germans talk about it as if it's this luxurious plush collection of
mansions. To our eyes as Americans, it looks like a kind of low-rent suburb.
They're not very attractive houses, they're not very large houses. But by
communist standards, it was luxurious. By communist standards, they--they had
their choice of fruits that were imported from the West. They had electricity
that always worked. They had better cars and--and better lawns and--and
swimming facilities and recreational facilities. So it was a life of luxury
that when it was discovered, and when--when the East Germans learned that this
existed after the Wall came down, they were absolutely outraged, and they
marched en masse to Vonlitz to protest these leaders who had--had been
preaching that everyone should live the same life, had--had actually reserved
this amount of privilege for themselves. By--by the standards of almost any
other country in the world, this was quite modest. I mean if you look at what
kings and prime ministers reserve for themselves even in the best of
democracies, it's--it puts Vonlitz to shame.
LAMB: Who is Karl Edward von Schnitzler?
FISHER: Karl Edward von Schnitzler is a Western German aristocrat who
grew up in one of the wealthiest families in Germany, and he became the
renegade communist in the family who spurned his parents' riches and
their--their manner of--of living and decided to fight the--the good red fight
in the time before World War II. He then became a propagandist for the East
German government and spent his--most of his adult life as host of a TV show
called "The Black Channel." And this was a weekly compendium of film clips
from West German TV, and he added his own wildly propagandistic commentary
where he would accuse the Westerners of being imperialists and all the--the
communist language that--that we were so used to hearing during those years.
No one took him seriously in the East, he was so overblown, such a caricature
of the propagandist that people used to watch him for just a few moments and
get a laugh out of him and then turn the--the channel.
Well, when the Wall finally came down, he was ousted from his job, and people
were thrilled to see him go. He was just a reviled character in East Germany.
He--to the point where he could hardly even stay in his own home, people used
to come down to his house and harass him and threaten him. He later--later
on, there was another sort of false nostalgia for him, and he went on the--the
book circuit and the lecture circuit and did quite well reminding people of
what they missed from the--the communist days, and the security that they had
and the guaranteed jobs and so on. So he--he likes to think that he had the
last laugh. Of course, he is only too happy to take advantage of the many
freedoms he now has under the Western system.
LAMB: Did you talk to him?
FISHER: I spoke to him at his home on the outskirts of Berlin. Again, a
fairly modest place, but far more luxurious than the average East German had.
LAMB: Did you ever see his show?
FISHER: I saw some tapes of it. It had actually gone off the air right
around the time I arrived in Germany.
LAMB: In the same chapter, you write about Egon--is it Zeidler?
FISHER: Zeidler, yeah. Egon Zeidler is a man about the same age as von
Schnitzler, in his early 70s, and Zeidler ran a little grocery store, one of
the few shops in East Berlin that had managed to remain private throughout the
communist period. He was threatened with having his shop nationalized on many
occasions, but he's a very wily clever guy, and he managed to get around it
sometimes by paying bribes, sometimes simply by either sheer force of his
personality. He was a guy who I was just charmed by, and I kept going back to
his store every few months because he was able to explain the Eastern economic
system to me, as well as some of the--the mentality of the--the communist
political system, and I just was charmed by his stories. Here's a guy who
grew up absolute--a born entrepreneur. He would have flourished in the West,
and yet he got stuck over on the Eastern side, and his life was essentially
one story after another of his attempts to bring a little bit of free
enterprise into the communist system. And every step of the way, he would be
He started a little business at the airport where he would clean people's cars
while they were away and then deliver the cars to them upon their return. He
was put out of business by the government. He started up this grocery store,
and the government came after him with all sorts of trumped up tax charges.
He eventually had to divorce his wife on paper and transfer ownership of the
store to her just to keep the--the shop going. The shop is still--still
running, but the sad and ironic part of his story is that he has been defeated
by the fall of the Wall because right after the Wall opened, several Western
German supermarket chains came in and opened up supermarkets within a few
blocks of his little grocery. And they were easily able to undercut his
prices, and his customer base dissipated. And so he's now staying alive
solely by subsidizing his own store. He--he runs it at a loss because it's
what he enjoys doing.
LAMB: You said that after the Wall came down that there were consultants that
traveled to the East to talk about even things as sensitive as body odor.
LAMB: What's that about?
FISHER: I went once with a dynamic West German woman who was a former
Pan Am stewardess who ran a little etiquette school, and she offered her
services to Easterners who wanted to learn how you're supposed to behave in
Western society. And hotels in particular would hire her to come in and train
their staff, because under the communist system, there was simply no reason to
behave nicely to your customers, customers didn't really matter. There was a
limited number of rooms, they were rented out, and the hotel didn't
particularly care whether the customer came back or not. Well, under the
Western system, they had to start caring pretty quickly about retaining their
customers, and so they needed to--to learn how to behave. They would invite
her in, and she would train them in smiling at customers, in being polite to
customers, and I was at one session where some of the students were resisting
this and said, `Why should I put on a false smile for a customer who's going
to know that I don't--I'm not really his friend? Why would I be shaking his
hand and smiling at him?' And so she had to explain from scratch why it is
that we have rules of etiquette and what people's expectations are when
they're on vacation, and indeed, it did get down to the question of body odor.
And she said--she said, `Do you think that you have an obligation as a hotel
worker to smell pleasant to--to the customers?' And several people raised
their hands and said, `No, it's none of the customer's business.' And so once
again she explained patiently why we do this. And some of the students were
quite intrigued, and others were quite resistant, they thought this was part
of the--the phoniness of--of Western society.
LAMB: What's your job now?
FISHER: I write for the Style section of The Washington Post, which is
our feature section, which is a place that gives me extraordinary latitude to
write about everything from the O.J. Simpson trial to the wardrobe of Mayor
Marion Barry to more serious political stories.
LAMB: Do you have another book in mind?
FISHER: Not quite yet, but I'm always probing and looking for something
that--that will captivate me enough to--to make it worth a book.
LAMB: What's your wife Jody do?
FISHER: She's a lawyer here in Washington. She is a former prosecutor
with the US Attorney's office, here now working as a defense lawyer.
LAMB: What about the experience of writing a book, what was it like?
FISHER: It was very different from anything I'd done before. The
newspaper and magazine writing I'd done because in shorter pieces, it was
always possible to keep everything in mind and know where the different parts
of the story fit in. With a book there's such a mass of material that you
don't quite--you can't keep it all in mind, so you have to have a much better
system, the architecture of the book, where things should be, how one part
fits in with another, and that was--that was very challenging, very rewarding.
LAMB: Harder or easier than daily journalism?
FISHER: The daily life is easier because you're not running around
chasing after material and--and trying to snare interviews. But the--the
intellectual challenge is greater. You're sitting in a room all alone. It's
you and a mass of materials, and you've got to figure out how to tell the
story in an attractive and coherent way. And that's--that's the great fun of
LAMB: Four years plus in the life of Marc Fisher. This is what the book
looks like, "After the Wall: Germany, the Germans and the Burdens of
History." Thank you very much for joining us.
FISHER: Thanks very much.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this tr