Harald Hauswald, “Officially, there were no unhappy people in East Germany”

Harald Hauswald,©OSTKREUZ

Harald Hauswald,©OSTKREUZ


From East Berlin’s dissident scene to the punk movement and the football hooligans, photographer Harald Hauswald has always been around, insistently looking and pointing his camera at what someone with a less discerning eye would probably pass by. An observer, a witness and a chronicler of life in the GDR, Hauswald is a photographer with a feeling for the meaning of that fleeting expression on a person’s face; just look at all those images that he snapped.

On the way to the Ostkreuz Agentur, which he co-founded back in 1990, I happened to witness a verbal confrontation between a street photographer and a woman he had just photographed, while she had been checking her reflection in a hand mirror. It must have been a nice photo; but she got mad at the guy…


Do you find that privacy concerns regarding street photography are justified?

I think it’s become a problem and we have been making too much out of being photographed on the street. What is absolutely understandable is that one should not risk taking a picture of a person who runs the danger of being denunciated. This is completely different. But when it’s only a portrait of someone on the street, I find the whole thing no more than fuss and nonsense. And what’s worth noting, is that this suspiciousness towards street photography has nothing to do with politics; it’s the media that is partly to blame for people being cautious. People have simply been reacting to the aggressiveness of the yellow press.


What was it that got you interested in photography in the first place? You were still a teenager when you starting taking pictures, right? 

My father was a photographer. So I apprenticed for a while. But I gave it up and did a series of odd jobs, until I came to East Berlin and that was when I started getting serious about it.


What brought you to East Berlin?

A woman; my girlfriend did not want to go on living in a small town so I followed her to the city. That was in 1978 and I was 22 years old. At first I worked as a telegrams delivery boy; a job nobody knows of today. At the time very few people owned phones, and I would take the telegrams to their apartments. I would do the rounds on foot, through Prenzlauer Berg. And along the way, I was taking pictures. That’s how it all began.


What were your impressions of East Berlin when you first came to the city?

It was extremely exciting. I came from a small town and everything here seemed amazing. What was especially appealing about East Berlin were the contradictions between the government’s official version of reality and what I could see with my own eyes.


What were your plans coming to Berlin? Did you consider going to the university?

Oh, no, the university was out of the question for me. I was politically not good enough for this country. They would never have allowed me to study. First of all, anyone who wanted to study had first to join the army for three years. For me, that was absolutely unthinkable. I did go to the army for 1,5 year, because if I didn’t I would have to do prison. But three years? No, unthinkable. Let alone I would have been rejected by the university anyway; a guy with long hair, who was touring with a rock band?


So you were not hiding your opinion of the regime.

Not really. I was feeling locked up. There was a wall and outside that wall, there lay a world that was totally inaccessible to me. It was a kind of prison.


Did it take a long time before you could exhibit your work, in East Berlin?

That happened in 1981. At first I had been taking pictures just for myself, or for friends. Then in 1981 I exhibited a series of pictures of my daughter, in a Youth Club.


So it was possible to exhibit your work in youth clubs? Were there no restrictions?

I couldn’t show everything. There were pictures that I would never have been allowed to show.


For instance?

Photographs that showed the state in which the apartments were in, from the inside. Or certain photographs from Alexanderplatz. For instance, there is a picture I have taken of three men inside the U-Bahn; the expression on their faces is anything but jolly. So this is a kind of photo that would never have been exhibited in the GDR.


U-Bahn line A, East Berlin, 1986 ©Harald Hauswald/OSTKREUZ

U-Bahn line A, East Berlin, 1986 ©Harald Hauswald/OSTKREUZ


Why so?

One should not show anything that painted a negative picture of life. Officially there were no depressed or unhappy people in the GDR.


There was however a circle of dissidents, artists and intellectuals, who were allowed to move freely in certain spaces?

No, it was not like we were left in peace. We would organise exhibitions in churches, for instances, but there would always be at least one Stasi agent around who would then go back and write a report. There are many of those in my Stasi file. Or there were spies; unofficial Stasi collaborators. So it could be the case that an exhibition was free of censorship –as was my first big one in the Samariter Kirche, in 1983- but the spies were unavoidable.


The scars of the war must have still been visible in East Berlin. Did people of the war generation talk about their experiences during the war years?

It depends. Before I came here, my father had told me extremely little about his part in the war. He was in the anti-aircraft, stationed in Crete, Greece. I remember seeing a couple of photos but that was all. And in school we were being taught all about the bad fascists, but nothing about Stalin. It was all about how the GDR had driven away the fascists. Officialy, there were no fascists in our country. No, no, just about 40 former Nazis sitting in Parliament…In East Berlin, though, in the circles where I moved there were quite a number of older writers, who would speak openly and write about the war years. Paul Gratzig, for example. These writers would not only write, but also do readings in apartments, where we would also engage in long talks.


How often would these readings in private apartments take place? Would you say they were sort of an institution in the dissidents’ circles?

Yes, they were. They would happen very often in apartments or in a theatre. These were dissidents that were not only politically opposed to the regime; they were also fighting censorship in the arts. And because censorship was so tough, people were writing between the lines in order to be published. But they would also write openly, they would write texts that would have never survived censorship  – and those could only be read privately, for a limited audience.


Were these readings tolerated?

Partly, they were. In many cases, however, they were forbidden and people would be driven away. Ulrike und Gerd Poppe, for example, very often organised readings in their place. Maybe once a month, we would gather there. They lived on the fourth floor and the Stasi had put a microphone under the roof, so that they could listen in to all that was going on. For a long time we had not realised, but then Gerd spotted a cable hunging and ripped it off. And it happened that in many cases the police would suddenly show up: they would stand at the entrance, ask for everybody’s IDs and then send people away. I remember another time when we were supposed to gather for a reading at their place on Rykestrasse, but the police arrived and it had to be cancelled. But then people were redirected to the apartment of Ludwig Mehlhorn who lived close by, at Kollwitzplatz.


May 1st demonstration on Alexanderplatz, 1987 ©Harald Hauswald/OSTKREUZ

May 1st demonstration on Alexanderplatz, 1987 ©Harald Hauswald/OSTKREUZ


You earlier mentioned how exhibitions would take place in churches. Does this mean that places of religious worship were offering a space of freedom for the opposition?

Since the GDR was so radically atheist, the Church was not in good terms with the state. The churches enjoyed some degree of independence, because the state did not have full access to them; well, at least in theory. Because they were always somehow present, quite often in a ridiculous fashion. For instance, there were the Blues Masses and the Peace Workshops that Rainer Eppelmann organised at the Samariter Kirche. And I remember one event where the Stasi had released a stink bomb inside the church and people could not bear to stand inside for more than five minutes…We would have to go out to get some fresh air, then back inside, then out again…You know, those Blues Masses had started out with a public of around 200 people and with time they would take place in other churches, too, and draw thousands of people from all over the GDR; that was at the beginning of the 1980s. Those events had almost nothing to do with religion and everything to do with opposition to the regime. After all listening to the blues and to rock music was a rebellious choice in itself in the GDR.


You were there at the Bruce Springsteen concert, in 1988 in Weissensee, right? How was that concert ever possible?

The authorities had to somehow appease the youth. But I bet they had not expected those 200,000 East German youth singing their hearts out, passionately shouting „Born in the USA“. And waving American flags…Had anyone attempted such a thing on Alexanderplatz, it would have meant prison.


With your photographs you have also chronicled the life and times of the East German Punks. What were this movement’s characteristics?

They were dismissive of the state, they had this “I want nothing to do with you” attitude. They had no interest in politics whatsoever. About the first wave of the Punks, that appeared in 1980 – 81, two things are important to know: first, that many of them had formerly been Skinheads. And second -and this is quite funny- is that a great many of them were children of Party officials, of Stasi people, of military men…


So they did not belong to the Opposition.

No, definitely not. That came later. Regarding those first wave Punks it would be accurate to say that those kids were actually opposing their families, rather than anything else…And this first wave was successfully suppressed by the state; they were either sent to the army or forced to abandon the country or sent to prison.


Why were they sent to prison, if they were not actively opposing the regime?

Simply because they were punks, because of their unconventional looks. For instance, they were not allowed to sit around on Alexanderplatz or anywhere in the Mitte for that matter. They were considered bad advertisement for the country. Their ID cards were taken away from them and they could not move freely about the city. That was why they used to gather in Plänterwald, in Treptow. But with time, the Punk movement became more political, as they were forced to join the Army or be thrown in prison. And so the second wave came along; around the mid ‘80s. So while the first punks did not want to mix with the dissidents, the second were starting to become a little more involved in politics. This was also possible through the Church which had opened up to them – the Galiläa Kirche offered space for their bands to conduct rehearsals. And so the first punk concerts in churches were organised.


It must have been hard to get people to trust you in the GDR and allow you to observe and take pictures of them; especially people that were involved with the opposition. How did you manage to win them over?

The first thing I did was to approach Rainer Eppelmann, introduce myself and ask him if I could do an exhibition of my work at the Samariter Kirche. We got to know each other, I did the exhibition and his inner circle came to see it; they saw that he trusted me and they realised they could too. What I have always done is search out the key people in each milieu. If the important people in a movement accept you and trust you, then the rest will follow.


Early East Berlin Punks, Kastanienallee, Prenzlauer Berg 1982 ©Harald Hauswald / OSTKREUZ

Early East Berlin Punks, Kastanienallee, Prenzlauer Berg 1982 ©Harald Hauswald / OSTKREUZ


At the beginning of the 1980s you started working for the western media. How was that ever possible?

I was not receiving commissions at first, no. What first happened was that photographs of mine were published in the western media – but I had not been commissioned yet. This way my work became known in West Germany. And so I started receiving commissions. It is important to remember that East Berlin was a special status city and there were around twenty Western journalists living and working here. I knew some of them and they were the ones who would smuggle my pictures to the other side. This was also my protection. The fist time I got arrested my friend Lutz Rathenow, with whom I had collaborated on a book, called his journalist friends and they made sure that my arrest was announced in the news, on RIAS. It was not good for the GDR’s international image to be reported that a photographer was arrested; that his crime had been nothing more than taking pictures. This saved me. Had they decided to charge me, I would have been convicted to 10 – 12 years in prison.


Were you spared further arrests and questionings?

Of course not. That was different. I was called in for questioning many times, I was questioned for hours, my place was searched thoroughly twice – twice that I know of…And I expected it to happen, no doubt, but it still was extremely frustrating and demeaning.


At the questioning, how did you explain the fact that your pictures were published in western media?

I told them that those were pictures that I had given as a present to an old school friend of mine, who later fled to the West. It had been his decision, I told them, to pass on the photos to the press. That was my story.


Did you ever apply for a permit to leave the country, for good?

No, I didn’t make any Ausreiseantrag. I had my girlfriend and my two children, I wanted to be with them. And I also wanted to keep on doing my work. I wished to stay put. When I was 17 years old, I had thought differently.


How differently? You had thought of fleeing to the West?

More than that – I did attempt to flee. The plan was to reach Austria by way of Hungary. I put it into action. I went through the Hungarian border and kept moving until I got caught 10 klm away from the borders to Austria. There was me, walking through an open field looking at a tree in the distance…and then the tree suddenly comes to life and it’s holding a Kalashnikov. So they arrested me, questioned me the whole night, then took me by train to the borders with Czechoslovakia and stamped my visa – this was the visa I had used to travel from the GDR to Hungary. Had I shown it stamped on my way back to GDR, at the borders, I would have probably been arrested by the East German border police. So I claimed I had lost it. By the way, what was clear to me after that attempt, was that the official maps of whole areas had been intentionally falsified. That was how I had landed at a military exercise field.


FDJ (Free German Youth) supervisors, during the Bruce Springsteen concert, "Radrennbahn", in Berlin-Weißensee, 1988. © Harald Hauswald/OSTKREUZ

FDJ (Free German Youth) supervisors, during the Bruce Springsteen concert, “Radrennbahn”, in Berlin-Weißensee, 1988. © Harald Hauswald/OSTKREUZ


Since then you managed to have the Stasi compile a huge file on you. Going through it, did you come to any bad surprises regarding the people who were spying on you?

You are refering to the IMs? Stasi’s unofficial collaborators?There were around 35 of them reporting on me at different times. Friends and acquaintances, all of them, who did that voluntarily. But thank God, not one of my close friends among them.


How did it feel going through your file?

A, well, they prepared a very detailed diary of my life for 12 years. Unbelievable as it may sound, there is a report for every single day of my life during those years – that thing is 2,000 pages long…But truth be told, there are some funny episodes in there, it’s hard not to laugh.


For instance?

I used to live on Kastanienallee and right next to my apartment was my workspace. So one day there’s this stranger knocking on my door and I let him in. He asks me if I have any photographs of a specific neighbourhood park, but because he looks suspicioulsy around the room I tell him I have nothing and send him away. It was clear he was Stasi. So many years later, I stumbled upon that guy’s report of his visit to my studio. “Hauswald is not an intelligent person. There are no books or writing material in his apartment”, he had written down. The guy had not even realised he was inside a photographer’s studio…

An even better story has to do with a party I had thrown in my place. There were many people, also friends from the West, as well as a friend who had placed an Ausreiseantrag and was waiting for it to be approved and was complaining that it was taking ages. So he jokingly asked our western friends if they could lend a hand and help him flee. And we devised a plan, there and then, saying how the following Wednesday he would drive the S-Bahn from Schönhauser Allee directly through the Wall and I would go along to take pictures of the great escape. Of course it was total bullshit and we were laughing our hearts out. And then I read in my file that on that designated Wednesday, they had doubled the guard on the Wall at that specific post!


Did you expect that the end of the communist regime would ever come?

The beginning of end of communism had come before the Wall was even erected. It had come with the Uprising of 17 June 1953 in East Germany, with the Hungarian Revolt of 1956, with the Solidarity Movement in Poland, the Prague Spring in 1968 – the Opposition was always there, always active. Then the end came in Hungary, that’s where it happened.


Did you expect that the Wall would ever fall?

No, not that. There was talk about reforms. Even inside the Opposition, there were many who believed that it was possible to reform the system without bringing it down.


What did you think?

I believed it was impossible to reform it. I was for bringing it down. To me it was clear that socialism would never function. This political ideology would never work. Neither would their notion of equality. But I never imagined that the Wall would actually come down – what I expected was that it would finally become easier to travel.


How did it feel that night when it was announced in the news that East Germans would from that minute on be allowed to travel to the West?

I was off to West Berlin! That evening I was working in my dark room where on a desk I had placed a small TV. When I heard in the news that we were free to travel, right there and then, I went to my girlfriend who had already gone to bed and urged her to get up and get ready to go. She was so shocked that it took me a half hour to convince her. We went all the way to the checkpoint at Chauseestrasse. It was around 21:30. Around 40 people were standing about 300 metres away from the Wall. We approached the guard and asked “So we can now go have a beer in Kreuzberg?” “Of course you can”, he answered. “Then let us through”. At which he said that he was expecting for groups of 30 – 40 people to be formed. That’s what happened and then I handed him our ID cards, went through the checkpoint and walked on.

I could already see the West Berliners standing on the Wall. The West German guard opened the gate, waved me in with his hand, I went through and as I emerged on the other side, there in front of me was an old friend who had left the East 13 years earlier.  He wanted to go through to East Berlin to meet his brother. And then another few metres away was standing another old friend who had went over the West two years earlier. With him we went to a pub in Kreuzberg, “Kukucksei”, in Wrangelstrasse –it has closed by now- where another friend of ours was working. That was a guy who had been part of the East Berlin pub scene and knew everyone, so it didn’t take more than an hour and the whole of Prenzlauer Berg was gathered in that place. Later that night we came back so that we could pick up my daughter and take her with us to spend the whole weekend with friends in West Berlin.


Did you have your camera with you?

No, I couldn’t. It somehow was too personal.


Were you aware at the time that you were finally free, that things would never again go back to how they had been?

Absolutely. I had that feeling of freedom, of finally being able to go anywhere. And I did take advantage of it. I travelled to Paris, for an exhibition of 200 artists from the GDR. That was where we decided to found the Ostkreuz Agentur, by the way, in 1990. Then I accepted two invitation to exhibit in Switzerland, then another exhibition at the invitation of Greenpeace in London, then Italy, then I went with a film crew to do a project in Petersburg and Siberia. And then my holiday began – I was off to Egypt, Morocco, Kenya. All that in the space of just one year.



Interview by Katerina Oikonomakou, January 2014BerlinInterviewslogo


On February 18, listen to Harald Hauswald and Lutz Rathenow talk about their book “Ost Berlin, Leben vor dem Mauerfall / Life before the Wall fell” (Jaron Verlag) and watch the documentary “Radfahrer – Die Überwachung des Fotografen Harald Hauswald durch die Stasi“ by Marc Thümmler. At Babylon, 20:00.