The Berlin Wall sickness
that still lingers today
By Stephen Evans BBC News, Berlin
It’s 50 years since the Berlin Wall went up, splitting the city in two, dividing families, and leaving some people plagued by a sense of imprisonment. Many still bear the psychological scars.
Even today Gitta Heinrich doesn’t have walls around her home in Berlin. Her fences are made of trees and bushes rather than bricks. Inside, she keeps the doors open between rooms. She avoids confined spaces with crowds of people.
Gitta suffers from “Mauerkrankheit” – Wall Sickness – and it stems from her life right up against the Berlin Wall in the village of Klein-Glienicke on the edge of the city.
It’s a strange place, though not as strange as it must have seemed on August 13, 1961 when the barbed wire was rolled out to cut it off from the neighbouring houses only a street away – only a jump away for some, who went to their balconies and dropped over the wire.
When the Wall went up, Klein-Glienicke became an island of East Germany in West Berlin. The boundary between the Soviet Zone and the American Zone zigged and zagged in that part of Berlin near Potsdam.
“The whole village was like a prison – wherever you went, you had to see the Wall” – Gitta Heinrich
Because of the quirks of the route, the village was surrounded by the Wall apart from the road in and out – the barrier came up one side of the entrance road, snaked around the village and then down the other side of the entrance road. Outside was West Germany – inside was East Germany.
Gitta was on a cycling holiday with her boyfriend on the Baltic when the barriers went up – rolls of barbed wire, initially, followed by the Wall and the watch-towers.
They heard the news and tried to come back by train, only to find the services across Berlin halted. They circled the city and finally got back to her home village. He was refused admittance by the guards because he was not registered as living in Klein-Glienicke.
And there she lived, passing in and out through the narrow road to the relative openness of the rest of the German Democratic Republic.
“The whole village was like a prison”, she says today. “Wherever you went, you had to see the Wall.”
When the Wall came down, she went to see a doctor because she felt anxious and uneasy. The doctor told her she had Wall sickness.
“It was an illness with a deep impact on the psyche,” she says. “It was this real feeling of narrowness.”
The Wall remains inside her, affecting her attitude to space and crowds.
What might seem strange is that Mauerkrankheit was an illness of the East and not of the West.
It was, after all, West Berliners who seemed to be cooped up and isolated, on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain.
When the East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, ordered the building of the Wall, it was portrayed as a barrier to keep the fascist West out – what came to be known as the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart.
But the accepted view now is that it was to keep East German migrants in. They were the ones constrained. After all, the “death strip” of mines and guards with fingers on triggers was in the German Democratic Republic.
West Berliners could get out if they really wanted to – there were three road corridors through East Germany to West Germany and flights were also available. But for East Berliners, the Wall was a block.
“Before 13 August, people from East Berlin could, after getting permission through a long procedure, come to West Berlin to visit relatives. But after the 13th, this possibility didn’t exist,” Klaus-Michael von Keussler, a West Berliner who helped those in the East to escape, told the BBC.
“Even people who were very close to the regime couldn’t travel easily.”
So Wall sickness was an East German syndrome. It was diagnosed by a psychiatrist in an East Berlin mental hospital, Dr Dietfried Mueller-Hegemann, who detected a listlessness and a lack of purpose in his patients.
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He coined the phrase in a short learned treatise in which he described, for example, a 31-year-old dentist who was found wandering round a port on the Baltic looking for a boat to China, a 40-year-old saleswoman who would just sit with her jaws two inches apart, or a seamstress who imagined she was being pursued by lesbians.
Dr Mueller-Hegemann noticed at least 100 cases in the 1,600-bed hospital where he worked, until he himself fled to the West in 1971. The symptoms included depression, delusions of persecution and repeated suicide attempts stemming from a “very depressing life situation after 13 August, 1961″.
And if that was the situation in the general population of East Berlin, imagine how much worse it must have been in Klein-Glienicke.
Here there were surreal, heart-breaking moments. In September 1962, there was a funeral in the village but some family members had moved to the West in 1958 – and would have been detained if they had returned.
The priest decided to hold much of the ceremony right up against the barbed wire and raised his voice for the benefit of two daughters who were looking through at their own mother’s funeral.
Ruth Hermann, the grand-daughter of the dead woman, said: “We could not come across – we had only fled to the West a short time before. My father, my mother and her oldest sister were in black mourning clothes under police protection on the West side.
“Through the barbed wire fence, they could see the funeral procession with the coffin, the pastor and the family members from the East, all dressed in black.”
The scene was captured for posterity by a photographer for the Berliner Morgenpost.
Other pictures of Klein-Glienicke from that time reveal a surreal normality.
A garden with a child smiling, with a wall just beyond – or rather, the Wall.
A rather grand but empty building – and there’s the Wall extending from it. Ordinary suburban houses – divided from each other by a familiar-looking high wall. Another ordinary suburban house – overlooked by a watchtower. A vegetable patch, in unused land where the concrete-coloured Wall turns a corner.
It all looked so normal then. And so abnormal now.