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A Piece of Time: Professor Kopstein Talks About the Fall of the Berlin Wall

by Elyse Joseph

As news spread of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989, as Eastern and Western Germans — now known as simply Germans — rejoiced in the streets, UCI political science professor Jeffrey Kopstein raised a borrowed pickaxe and chipped off a piece of the barrier that had embodied the rift between capitalism and communism during the Cold War.

Since the previous year, Kopstein, then a UC Berkeley student, had been in Berlin researching his dissertation on East Germany. He crossed the wall from West Germany frequently during his days, though he could not stay there overnight as a Canadian citizen living in West Germany without a visa.

He had friends in communist East Berlin who were not so lucky. Those who lived on that side of the wall could not travel to any capitalist countries, especially not West Germany. They could not speak freely; an estimated one in 20 East Germans functioned unofficially for the regime as informants.

An expansive no-man’s land stretched from the wall’s Eastern face, and dozens were killed by border guards no older than 18 in attempts to cross and reach the West.

If, by some other means, they could escape, every East German was guaranteed citizenship in West Germany. Some East Germans stormed the West German Embassy in Czechoslovakia, demanding assistance to get out of East Germany.

Another group traveled south from communist Hungary across capitalist Austria’s northern border. The Hungarian government did not attempt to stop them.

But for West Germans there were three ways to cross. They could go by car or by the U-Bahn, or subway. Or, they could cross on foot through the military “Checkpoint Charlie,” a heavily-guarded gate where, had either side fired a shot, World War III would have begun. This was the most interesting way across the border, so this is the way Kopstein usually went.

Before anyone entered East Germany, East German border guards had to search — sometimes strip search — them and inspect their belongings. One border guard asked Kopstein whether there was any polite way to ask someone to spread their legs.

“I don’t think there is a polite way to ask that,” Kopstein replied.

The university at which Kopstein was conducting his research was located in East Germany. Kopstein knew that his advising professor was one of the regime’s informants, but he did not worry too much; he was a student and not much of a threat.

But Kopstein did have to break a few regulations. He smuggled his copy of George Orwell’s “1984” over the border in the bottom of his backpack under something unassuming — some clothes or a wet swimsuit. He never got caught.

He had read the book as a pre-teen in his birthplace of Toronto, Canada. He grew up in a Russian-speaking household, “in a world where capitalism and communism were confronting each other with nuclear power,” as he describes it.

He had always been interested in the communist parts of the world. He wondered why and how such regimes could be so oppressive. That is what sparked his interest in political science.

When he was in high school, his family moved to California, and he later completed his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. As he worked on his Ph.D. research in East Berlin, he could not get a visa. Canada did not have relations with East Germany, so for a Canadian citizen, obtaining a visa would have been near impossible.

However, at a dinner with some professors, Kopstein met a visiting East German official who, he learned, could get him a visa in exchange for gifts. This is how Kopstein obtained a four-month visa to study in East Germany.

After the Berlin Wall came down, during the days of celebration in the streets of Germany and all over the world, Kopstein pushed away a twinge of worry that a reunited Germany might bring back a resurgence in Naziism, as Germany was the epicenter of the Holocaust, and Kopstein is Jewish. His father shared this fear and refused to visit Germany for years after the wall came down.

Nonetheless, Kopstein returned to East Berlin.  This time, he requested access to the old regime’s archives, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. There, he found the files of information on individuals that informants had provided over the years. He found his own.

“I was disappointed that my file wasn’t bigger,” said Kopstein.

He also found out why the East German government had restricted its citizens in so many ways: fear. The administrators of the regime had been terrified of the very citizens they were supposed to protect and serve. They had employed informants and guards and lived in a private neighborhood separately from their constituents, commuting into Berlin under heavy guard in order to govern.

Using East Germany’s old archives, Kopstein finished his dissertation and his first book, “The Politics of Economic Decline in East Germany 1945-1989.” The university where he had been affiliated in East Germany purged its administration of  informants, and Kopstein’s old advisor was stripped of his professorship. He was forced to find a new means of survival, though Germany’s well-developed welfare system kept him from total ruin.

When the wall fell, Kopstein said, “the West was riding high,” but now it is overburdened and people have begun to reject its pillars of democracy, trade and international institutions. He stressed that it is important to understand the difference between living in freedom and living under tyranny.

Kopstein kept the piece of the wall he had chiseled off. It now sits on his mantle in the home he shares with his wife and children with a picture of the Brandenburg Gate where Germany’s capital was divided in half.