Beyond the Iron Curtain: East Germany and the Collapse of the Wall

After the wall was constructed, the East German population was trapped inside its country. Trips abroad were possible only to Communist Bloc countries

Following the Allied victory over Germany in the Second World War, the country was divided, and on October 7, 1949, an independent state, known as “The German Democratic Republic” was established in the area of the Soviet occupation. A few weeks earlier, the Federal Republic had been established in the western part of Germany.

East Germany’s distorted self-presentation, for dissemination in the world, 1986.

A book about the 1989 events, including texts in three languages. Published in Berlin, 1990.

At first, only a small number of countries in the world recognized the East German state, home to some 17 million people. Predictably, the countries that recognized it were mainly those who were under direct control of the Soviet regime in Moscow. Although, formally, the East German republic proclaimed its aspiration to democracy (reflected even in the country’s name), it was a very limited democracy: the control of the Socialist-Communist Party was not up for discussion. The Soviet Army forces stationed on East German soil, numbering 350,0000-500,000 soldiers, was not only the westernmost force of the Soviet Union in Europe, but also a means of pressure for maintaining the status quo: the Soviet military force there was intended to ensure loyalty, which it did until the dissolution of the Communist Bloc in 1989. The Soviet military force acted with all of its strength during the days of the civil uprising of East Germany against the communist regime in June 1953, an uprising after which a tense calm prevailed, maintained with an iron fist.​

The lack of satisfaction of many citizens with the East German dictatorship was also reflected in the mass flight to the West, which continued through mid-August of 1961. In an abrupt – but not entirely surprising action – the police and army forces established a wall around West Berlin, and also along a portion of the border between the two parts of Germany, with the goal of preventing the continued flight of citizens from East to West. This border was also the boundary between the two large political blocs, which led to a large concentration of military forces along both sides of the Iron Curtain, including Russian and American nuclear weapons.

After the wall was constructed, the East German population was trapped inside its country. Trips abroad were possible only to Communist Bloc countries. Despite this, many did not remain complacent, and tried to flee to the other side of the wall. Some succeeded, but over 200 people paid with their lives for the attempt to break free. The political leadership operated according to the instructions of the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union, and tried in every manner possible to induce citizens to sympathize with the Russian-Soviet school of ideology. The media functioned under censorship, literature and all types of publications were required to adhere to the ruling party line. Opponents of the regime were at the focus of the activity of the secret police, the Stasi, which maintained enormous archives that included (and still include) information on millions of citizens.

A booklet with the speeches given during a ceremony in the East German parliament on November 9th, 1988

According to the official ideology, residents of the German Democratic Republic lived according to humanistic principles, and therefore, there was no need to deal with the dark past of the German nation prior to 1945. In the view of the communist leaders, all of the Nazis, old and new, were in West Germany, while the socialist-communist essence of East Germany absolved East German society of scrutinizing and taking responsibility for the Nazi crimes. While the official historical narrative mentioned the Jewish victims, relative to the Communist victims, they took only second place. This reconstruction of history was apparently accepted by a considerable portion of the population, since it spared them the torturous journey of taking responsibility for the Holocaust, and recognizing the deeds perpetrated by the Nazis, many of whom were living in East Germany. This was also the root of the political leadership’s refraining from any contact with Jewish organizations or with the State of Israel, almost until the end of the East German state in 1989-1990. ​ ​

The quieting of global politics in the 1970s and the new policy of the West German government at the time towards the East, led to a certain softening in East Germany. Many countries gave it formal recognition, and the communist regime relinquished strict Stalinism and tried to improve the standard of life of the country’s residents. This social policy exacted a high price, which the planned Communist economy was unable to withstand for long. The power of the East German economy – one of the strongest in the Communist Bloc, but weak in comparison with the western countries – declined greatly, and citizens were unable to buy much with the money they earned. For most residents of East Germany, access to unobtainable, often essential supplies and products, depended on the black market and personal connections. This situation stood out in stark relief to the ideological image of communist society, which was ostensibly superior to capitalist society. And yet, millions of residents of East Germany were exposed to West German television and radio broadcasts, and gained a growing impression of the actual situation, which was precisely the reverse of what they knew in their own country.

Given this state of affairs, the political leadership adopted some opportunistic measures. One was a sudden move towards closer acquaintance with Jewish issues. In November 1988, the East German Parliament (which was in effect a powerless body) held a memorial event for Kristallnacht, and even established a Jewish historical research center, the “Centrum Judaicum,” in the building of the New Synagogue in Berlin. Through the “Jewish channel,” leaders hoped to forge a better relationship with the American government, and in so doing, to obtain economic benefits.

The program for the ceremony in the East German parliament, in German and faulty Hebrew.

From the 1980s, dissident groups were formed by skeptical citizens, mainly among congregations from the Protestant Church. The secret police tried to permeate these circles and to slow their spread, but in the second half of this decade, the trend was irreversible. More and more citizens submitted official requests to leave the country, others tried to flee through the Soviet Bloc countries, and in the autumn of 1989, hundreds of thousands gathered for a non-violent demonstration against the regime. The political leadership, which comprised mainly elderly members of the establishment who lacked an understanding of the changes of the time, found no suitable answers for the demands of the demonstrators, and in October 1989, the Communist government fell to the pressure of the demonstrations. This time, in contrast to 1953, the leadership in Moscow, headed by Michael Gorbachev, who advanced the reform of Communism (perestroika), did not intervene.

In the stream of events, the opening of the borders on the evening of November 9, 1989, was almost unpreventable. During a press conference on various topics, one communist leader spontaneously declared the decision to enable citizens to travel throughout the world without limit. Following this, thousands of citizens at the border crossings in Berlin gathered, demanding they be opened. Ultimately, the soldiers of the border guard gave in and opened the gates to the west. The opening of the borders changed the dynamics of the “quiet revolution”: From November 9, growing numbers of demonstrators stopped calling for social changes in East Berlin: they now demanded unification with the Federal Republic. And indeed, unification was achieved after discussion with the former Allies (the United States, Soviet Union, England and France) on October 3, 1990.

Under the Watchful Eye of “Big Brother”

Relations between the Communist Parties in Israel and East Germany

In contrast to the growing formal and informal ties that began to develop between Israel and the Federal German Republic already in the 1950s beginning with the reparations agreement, no ties developed between the eastern part of Germany and the Jewish state. Apparently, the disconnect did not stem from one side only: alongside East Germany’s obvious fear from contact with Israel, which in all likelihood would have led to demands for reparations (which, indeed, were submitted by the Israeli government, but remained unanswered), the Israeli leadership knew that any contact with the Communist German state would cause problems in the relationship with the Federal Republic. The West German government was at the time adhering to the Hallstein Doctrine, which prohibited official ties with East Germany and with any entities that recognized this country.

Copy of letter sent by MaKI to its sister party in East Germany, 1960

Despite the lack of connection between the two countries until 1990, ties were conducted between the ruling Socialist-Communist Party in East Germany, and the Communist Party in Israel (MaKI), and continued after MaKI split in June 1965 and one stream formed “The New Communist List” (RAKAH). In the party’s archives at the National Library, a number of letters were recently discovered that attest to ties between the parties, which viewed one another as comrades in the anti-imperialist struggle. The letters received from the leadership of the ruling East German government were written in German. Most of the letters from East Germany in the correspondence files bear the signature of party leader and East Germany head of state Walter Ulbricht.

The letters, from the 1960s and 70s, discuss the various topics: Most are greetings for party occasions marking independence celebrations for East Germany, and long abstracts about Soviet policy in the context of the Communist bloc in Central and Eastern Europe.

These letters were written formulaically in a manner characteristic of the Communist Party, lauding the Soviet ideological position and condemning the deeds of the imperialist West. The very fact that Walter Ulbricht’s signature appears on most of the letters shows the importance he attributed to these announcements to the communists in Israel. It should be noted that this was the most heated period of the Cold War, when the world was at the brink of a nuclear war between the super powers. At this time, the division of Germany was also completed, with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The Communist leadership in East Berlin understandably was using every means to close itself off from the capitalist enemy.

Reply letter of Walter Ulbricht to the MaKI Central Committee, in which he agreed to the Israeli party’s request that East Germany receive “progressive” students, and in which he asked what subjects the Israeli students were hoping to study in East Germany.

Other matters discussed in the correspondence between the two parties were the verification of personal data regarding communists who moved from Israel to East Germany or vice-versa, a request for a supply of ideological textbooks from East Germany to Israel, and even the request for a printing press for the publication of newspapers in the Arabic language.

In April 1960, members of the Israeli party contacted its German sister party regarding the possibility of sending five “progressive” students” to East Germany for study. As secretary of the Socialist Unity Party, Walter Ulbricht responded favorably to this request and agreed to accept five students to universities and colleges in his country, on condition that their mastery of the German language was satisfactory. He added that this move should not be publicized at the time, since it did not suit the current political situation. The correspondence files contain several additional letters that relate to this, but it is not entirely clear whether the project was ultimately implemented. Of course, hosting Israeli students in any case in East Germany, and particularly in 1960, was an unconventional move. The fact that Ulbricht gave his personal approval, regarding a matter that under normal circumstances would not have reached the desk of the head of state, shows the importance that functionaries attributed to this move. And yet, the correspondence files of the Israel Communist Party (MaKI) show that party clerks during the same period also contacted other countries in the Communist bloc. It is likely that in these cases, matters developed with greater ease, since the State of Israel conducted official diplomatic ties with all of the Eastern European countries until the Six-Day War, with the exception of the German Democratic Republic.

Governments and Crises: Memories of Israel’s and Germany’s Ambassadors

Due to the complexity of the relations between the countries, the role of the German ambassador in Israel and that of his Israeli counterpart in Germany were most certainly among the most challenging faced by members of the diplomatic corps in the two countries

Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany in 1965, many served as ambassadors for the two countries in Tel Aviv, Bonn and Berlin. Due to the complexity of the relations between the countries, the role of the German ambassador in Israel and that of his Israeli counterpart in Germany were most certainly among the most challenging faced by members of the diplomatic corps in the two countries. It is reasonable to assume that the ambassadors were aware of the demanding requirements and expectations of these representatives of their countries vis-a-vis a foreign government: skills in the art of diplomacy, preservation of national interests, understanding of the other side’s positions, realistic assessments regarding possible measures, and more.

Asher Ben-Natan’s book

For the past 50 years, ambassadors who have served in these positions have met with great success, and became relatively popular among the public of the host country. The political goals of both sides were ostensibly identical – improving ties with the other country, while preserving self-interest. And yet, self-interest was defined differently in each of the countries, due to the difficult history of the Holocaust period, which stayed with – and still lingers in – the relations between them. The West German public expected rapid “normalization” between Germans and Jews, and it was often not clear whether this was a kind of obfuscation and repression of historical guilt. In contrast, considerable portions of the Israeli public opposed the establishment of diplomatic relations or even any form of ties between the two countries, out of a fear that it would cause the horrific crime and its victims to be forgotten. The official Israeli representatives needed to heed the demands of the Israeli public, anticipating clarifications regarding the topic of collective and individual guilt of Germany and the Germans, but were also interested in advancing ties with the Federal Republic, since these ties were essential to Israel’s diplomatic and economic development.

Meroz’s book in Hebrew, 1988

During the first years of the relations, the presence of Germany’s ambassadors in Israel sparked demonstrations and other forms of public opposition.

It is well known that during the first trip of Rolf Pauls, West Germany’s first ambassador to Israel, to visit representatives of the Israeli government in 1965, the ambassador met with catcalls and even violence on the part of angry demonstrators. Klaus Schütz, who served in this same position between 1977 and 1981, also encountered catcalls while the German national anthem played during his official reception at the president’s residence in Jerusalem.

Asher Ben-Natan, the first Israeli Ambassador to Bonn, was also received by a large crowd on landing at the Cologne Airport in 1965, but no catcalls were sounded; the throngs, including journalists, were curious to see the official attaché of the Jewish state in Germany and to hear his first remarks on assuming his post. The ambassadors and consulate employees of both countries were witness to an ongoing series of critical incidents that posed a threat to the character of the relations, and were involved in devising solutions during times of crisis: the supply of German arms to various countries in the Middle East that threatened Israel’s security, the Six-Day War in 1967, the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in 1972, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the hijacking of Israeli and German airplanes during the days of left-wing terror in the 1970s, the Lebanon War in 1982, and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany in 1989-90.

The job of the ambassador, given the complex web of relations between Germany and Israel, including guilt, responsibility and the desire to develop “normal relations,” in addition to the complicated historical background, provided interesting angles for the composition of personal memoirs.

It therefore comes as no surprise that there is an impressive list of memoirs by ambassadors from both sides, and even a collection of articles that brings together texts by Israeli and German ambassadors over the decades.

The first to record their recollections of the activity between Israel and Germany was Felix Eliezer Shinnar, who was the director of the Israeli delegation in Germany, which opened immediately following the Reparations Agreement of 1952 in Luxembourg. Shinnar remained in this post until the establishment of diplomatic relations, and was involved in paving the way for improving them. Shinnar’s memoir was published – simultaneously in Hebrew and in German – already in 1967.

Asher Ben-Natan, the first Israeli Ambassador to Germany, beginning in 1965, published his book, “The Audacity to Live,” only in 2002, and a year later in Germay. This book is an autobiography, and also includes chapters about Ben-Natan’s work as an ambassador. These chapters were also published as a separate volume in 2005, but only in German.

The first ambassador from Germany to publish his recollections was Klaus Schütz. Already before his appointment in 1977, Schütz served as the Mayor of West Berlin, and in this role gained experience in managing sensitive situations. Schütz’s book was published in 1992, only in Germany. A description of his days as ambassador to Israel does not occupy a significant portion of the book, and perhaps this is why it was never translated into Hebrew.

Another Israeli ambassador, Yohanan Meroz, served at the embassy from 1974-1981, and published his report in 1986 in Germany, and two years later in Hebrew, under the title: “Was it All in Vain? – An Israeli Ambassador in Germany’s Summing Up.” Meroz lived in Bonn during difficult years for West-German society, under the shadow of terrorist attacks by left-wing extremists who collaborated with Palestinian activists – what makes his composition most interesting.

Niels Hansen, who was Germany’s ambassador to Israel from 1981-1985, wrote a non-fiction work that does not revolve around his memories as a diplomat, but rather the relations between the two countries during the tenure of Konrad Adenauer and David Ben-Gurion. In this aspect, this voluminous work greatly resembles that of Shinnar mentioned above. A compendium of articles from 2005 brings together additional texts on the topic, featuring writings by other ambassadors who did not publish books on their years of diplomatic service: Rolf Pauls, Eliashiv Ben-Horin, Jesko von Puttkamer, Benjamin Navon and others. The book, however, was published only in German, like many of the books mentioned here, while in Hebrew the only books available are those by Shinnar, Ben-Natan and Meroz.

Even the book by Avi Primor, who was ambassador to unified Germany, was never published in Hebrew. Books of this type, so it seems, found more readers among the German public – at least according to the estimates of the writers and the Israeli publishers.

Shakespeare’s Signature

​Shakespeare's Signature at the National Library

The cover of a first edition copy of the book Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences by Cornelius Agrippa (1569)

​In a riveting article published in Haaretz on 16.11.2012, Dr. Avner Ben-Zaken reports that the National Library may be in possession of the original signature of none other than William Shakespeare. Said signature is found on the cover of a first edition copy of the book Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences by Cornelius Agrippa (1569). Dr. Ben-Zaken examined the specimen closely after hearing about the book from Hava Nowerstern, the librarian in charge of the National Library’s Edelstein Collection of history, philosophy and sociology of science.  Ben Zaken’s interest in the book derives from his research on the connection between magic and science during the Renaissance, a subject in which Cornelius Agrippa is a central figure.

Ben-Zaken ties together the image of the sorcerer-scientist who intervenes in natural processes in order to obtain a systematic description of phenomena and that of Shakespeare, actor turned playwright who “wrote plays in the forms of experiments… conducted by one who, just like Agrippa’s sorcerer, mixes the practical with the theoretical… .”


The cover of a first edition copy of the book Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences by Cornelius Agrippa (1569)


Ben-Zaken takes the reader on a tour of the intellectual milieu that Shakespeare became part of when he came to London from the country. As turns out the Agrippa’s Vanitie was a primary text among the intellectuals of the time. Not only is its influence manifest in works by several of them, such as Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nash, but the book and its author are mentioned by name. Moreover, Ben-Zaken reminds us that Agrippa’s book, and his intellectual philosophy, played a foundational role in the works of Francis Bacon, the principal advocate of experimentation as a means to investigate reality. Bacon compared conducting experiments to a theatrical performance in front of an audience. The experiment, like the dramatic event, is in need of the affirmation of an audience. Ben-Zaken describes the unfolding of an intellectual revolution involving a blending of the practical and the philosophical.  Cornelius Agrippa’s book played an important role in this revolution and Shakespeare embodied several of its central principles in his activities as an actor and playwright who broke with convention and experimented with various points of view.

Experts have concluded that the signature on the cover of the National Library of Israel’s copy of Cornelius Agrippa’s book is comparable to other signatures attributed to Shakespeare. Such signatures exist on several documents, among them a deed of ownership on his house and his will and testament. However, the existence of his signature on a book by Cornelius Agrippa amounts to confirmation of a physical, tangible connection between Shakespeare and the intellectual zeitgeist that influenced his writing. Avner Ben-Zaken points to several instances where the explicit presence of Agrippa’s Vanities can be identified in Shakespeare’s plays: As You like It, the Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, and particularly the Tempest. Furthermore, signs of Cornelius Agrippa’s ideas regarding the four humors of man abound in Shakespeare’s plays, among them Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard II, and Richard III.



The discovery of Shakespeare’s signature in the National Library’s collections rekindles our interest in why it is we find the signatures of famous individuals so fascinating. The signature of a well-known person or historical figure furnishes us with a sense of closeness, almost intimacy, with that person. Autographs are coveted by collectors and the National Library features the immense Chevadron Collection of such treasures. An autograph is a historical artifact, even when uninformative and out of context. When one appears on a book, as in the present case, it is a voice from the past saying: “Shakespeare held this book, this very book, in his hands.” Moreover, on a book so strongly associated with Shakespeare’s work, his autograph bears physical testimony to that book’s importance to the acclaimed bard. The excitement at discovering an autograph is similar to that of an archeological discovery. One knows with certainty, when walking in the galleries of the Coliseum or among the pillars of the Parthenon, that he is walking in the footsteps of history and the written word. In one respect, an autograph is even more authentic: the movement of a hand, the ink, the slight tremor, the slanted script, the use of space, the very place where Shakespeare rested his hand, the pages he traced with his fingers, the ink he blew upon to dry.

All the alleged Shakespearean autographs are controversial. The argument is rooted in disagreements over the figure of Shakespeare, who we know precious little about despite his artistic prowess. Ben-Zaken ties the roots of the argument about Shakespeare’s origins to his not being a certified product of a university. Moreover, Ben-Zaken avers that the iconoclasm that characterizes Shakespeare’s work was also fodder for those who doubted his authorship. In this context, any autograph of Shakespeare’s supports the belief that he did indeed mix in the intellectual circles of his time and that his oeuvre emerged from this world. The autograph on Agrippa’s Vanities is a significant and exciting addition to those who espouse this view. The book came to the National Library from Sidney Edelstein (Hebrew Wikipedia entry), who probably purchased it from William Stoddard, an early 20th century Shakespearean scholar.  Edelstein placed his collection in the custody of the National Library and thus, brought Shakespeare to Jerusalem.