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I fled the East for West Berlin - and found out my 'friends' had been informing on me to the Stasi

I fled the East for West Berlin - and found out my 'friends' had been informing on me to the Stasi

I’ve lived in Berlin for 30 years – but have never gone near the Wall or what’s left of it. I spent so long trying to escape over it that I can’t bear to be near it. 

Like most West Berliners on that night in November 1989, I sat at home alone watching East Germans flood through the gates at Bornholmer Straße on TV.

I found that moment bittersweet: having finally managed to escape the East in 1985, abandoning my family and friends, it fell just four years later, producing revelations about my life as an East Berliner just four years earlier along with the rubble.

I had grown up in East Germany near Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz), but at the age of 28 I was granted permission to leave; East Germany had signed up to the Helsinki Accords, which made it theoretically possible for citizens to apply to emigrate to the West.

In reality, though, the process was tortuous and opaque: you had to apply in person every year and usually your application would be declined without explanation.

The first time you applied, you were immediately blacklisted by the SED (the East German Communist Party),  making it difficult to get things like jobs and flats. If, years later, your permission did finally come it came without warning and you were given just four weeks to settle your affairs and go.

So on 6 December 1985 my parents drove me and my then-husband to Friedrichstraße Station, which straddled the Berlin Wall, with platforms in both the East and the West.

My parents were very political, both members of the SED. My father was a headteacher and my mother worked as a typist for the party’s Agricultural Department. They were dedicated to East Germany and couldn’t comprehend why I was leaving. It really broke their hearts.

They left us at the cavernous glass departures hall at Friedrichstraße station, which we called the “Tränenpalast” — The Palace of Tears. In a very narrow corridor, the GDR authorities stripped me of all my papers, making me officially stateless, and I was free to go.

As artists in the East, my ex-husband and I couldn’t exhibit or publish our work, we weren’t allowed to study and we were under constant surveillance. We knew nothing about West Berlin. All information about the western half of the city was supressed: on our maps, West Berlin was just a blank white space in the middle of East Germany.

When we arrived we drove through the city – it was Christmas and the bright lights made me so dizzy that, on my first night, I didn’t sleep a wink. For months afterwards I had a recurring nightmare that I was visiting my parents in Karl-Marx-Stadt, and when I went to get the train back to the West the door of the station was locked.

There was of course joy at having left, particularly having the freedom to paint and draw and the fact I had access to proper artists’ materials for the first time, rather than having to paint onto old sheets stretched over a bed frame. But there were things I struggled with in the West.

People seemed so uptight to me. Because almost no one in the East had their own phone, if you wanted to talk to someone you just turned up at their flat. Sometimes friends would knock on the door at three in the morning and you would pull on your clothes and head out with them for a drink.

I had also never experienced sexism before I left East Germany. When I had my first job interview in West Berlin as a window dresser, they said they liked me but I was 28 so would probably get pregnant soon, and gave the job to a man. It took me months to find work.

Fanny Melle in 1989, the year the Wall came down Credit: Fanny Melle/Fanny Melle

Although we were free, the Stasi continued to watch us. I later discovered that they had tapped my phone calls back home to my family; one time an old friend from Karl-Marx-Stadt turned up at my door saying that he had been given permission to visit the State Library in West Berlin and could he borrow 10 marks. It turned out he was also working for the Stasi and wanted to check on me and my husband’s whereabouts.

Not that we had done anything particularly seditious – we just wanted the freedom to do our work. But in East Germany you didn’t need to do much wrong to attract the attention of the secret police.

The biggest change for me when the Wall fell was that I could see my family again. My sister-in-law came over and visited me in West Berlin and was disappointed by how modestly I lived – I was a window dresser and an artist and earned very little. Where was my video recorder, she wanted to know. Where were my fitted wardrobes?

Fanny Melle in Berlin today

I went straight over to our town near Chemnitz to visit my mother and father, although my mother was very sick by then. They were still sad that I’d left, but we talked everything through and the best point we could reach was to begrudgingly agree that neither the East nor the West were perfect.

The fall of the Wall meant that the Stasi files were opened up and I was able to apply to the new Stasi Records Agency to view all of the files that had been kept on me.

I’d been part of a large artists’ circle in the East and my first solo show at a local youth club was a sell out. My files, though, revealed that the Stasi had paid the director of the club to buy the drawings to keep my artists’ circle together so they could keep spying on us all, hoping, I suppose, that our subversive meetings and publications would lead to one of us doing something really treasonous.

I was devastated. But what really broke my heart was the amount of fellow artists and friends who had informed on me. I cut out anyone that had betrayed us. 

Thirty years on, Berlin is still changing so fast that I sometimes wonder how long I’ll have a place here. But I’ve been in the West longer than I ever lived in the East and I don’t see myself as East German anymore. I suppose, finally, I feel like a West Berliner.

As told to Ben Fergusson. An Honest Man by Ben Fergusson (RRP £14.99). Buy now for £12.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514

Fanny Melle’s exhibition ‘Mehr oder weniger F.C. Melle’ is on show at the Weinhandel Smiling Kangaroohs in Berlin until 17 January 2020.