Nina Willner – the first female Army Intelligence Officer to lead missions in East Berlin at the height of the cold war – could very likely fill a book with stories of her own adventures evading and outwitting her counterparts in the Stasi, the East German security forces. Writers like John le Carré made entire careers out of such raw material, but for her nonfiction debut, Willner chooses another path.
Some of her own adventures round out the pages of Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall, but mostly this is the story of a much quieter and more quotidian kind of bravery, although no less moving. In these pages, Willner dramatizes the dangers and heartbreaks of a divided Germany by telling the story of her family, particularly her grandparents: Opa, an introspective schoolteacher, and Oma, whose indefatigable spirit fills the book.
The story begins in the ruins of war. A defeated Germany lay prostrate before two conquering armies: the Allies approaching from the west and the Russians approaching from the east. There was no question in the minds of German women crawling out of the rubble as to which new overlords they preferred. Rumors were already widespread about the raping and pillaging done by the advancing Russians, despite assurances from the American troops that Stalin’s Soviet forces were intent on a benevolent and orderly military occupation.
The Russians were more or less orderly but far, far from benevolent. Their efforts at creating and isolating East Berlin began almost immediately, with clear portents of what was to come. “If you want to get out,” one person tells another early in the story, “do it soon.... In less than a year, this place will be one big prison.”
In 1950, the new state of East Germany began a systematic war against the people trapped within its borders. A vicious state police force was established, and in 1961, the year Willner was born in the United States, the Berlin Wall was erected, cutting a nation in half and stranding millions of Germans, including many of Willner’s relatives, behind concrete and barbed wire. The stories Willner recounts about some of her relatives – forced out of their professions, like her grandfather was, or pressed into brutal border guard service, as her “gentle and sweet-tempered” uncle Kai was – not only horrify on the personal level but do grim stand-in duty for the kinds of things millions of families were suffering.
Through it all, however, Willner’s grandmother never loses her faith in the future. “No one can say what will happen or if things will change, but all I know is, justice will win,” she says in a typical outburst. “Truth will prevail and justice will win.”
It was a difficult thing to predict for most of the four decades of East Berlin’s life. The spectacle of a people held in an open-air prison created, as Willner puts it, “a shared sense of disgust at what the Wall represented.” This disgust turned to heightened outrage in 1962, when an 18-year-old bricklayer named Peter Fechter attempted to scale the wall near the infamous Checkpoint Charlie and was shot down by border guards and left to bleed to death “in plain view of onlookers from West Berlin.” In the US, as a young schoolgirl, Willner learned why she couldn’t bring her grandparents to school events like her classmates did.
But the long arc of the justice Oma believed in slowly began to swing in East Berlin’s favor. The reforms instituted by Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev (the inadvertent hero of this story, as he almost necessarily must be) weakened the very foundations of the kind of state that could keep shooting runners off a wall in front of international news cameras.
Willner’s grandmother died in 1978. Her grandfather died in 1984. In 1987, President Reagan made his famous “Tear Down This Wall” speech, and on Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell at last and 16 million East Germans were free to cross the border and reunite with friends and loved ones. Willner ends her drama with tales and photos of family reunions, and when she walks down the big streets of Berlin, she’s struck by how much the present clashes with the past: “Leipzigerstrasse today is filled with coffee shops, clothing stores, and life energy, no longer the near-abandoned gray stretch of road that we used to race down, trying to lose our surveillance.”
Clashes like this abound in “Forty Autumns,” which succeeds at being both a poignant parable of hope and, at times, a harrowing ghost story.
Steve Donoghue regularly reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor.