In 1958, the 27-year-old West Berlin journalist Hans-Joachim Helwig-Wilson set off with his camera through the German Democratic Republic (GDR). On the streets, at rallies and sporting events, outside shop window displays and by the sectorial borders in Berlin, he recorded his impressions for West German newspapers. Originally from East Berlin, he was interested in the visible contradictions between propaganda and practice in the development of socialism, and in the way ordinary people dealt with this situation. 1958 was a year of economic upturn in the GDR; food ration cards could finally be abolished, and social measures met with general approval. The number of people escaping to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) declined and continued to do so in the following year. In 1957, the first sputnik had been sent round the world – which seemed to prove that the socialist camp was strong. The leaders of the GDR declared it their aim to catch up with and overtake the FRG economically within a short time. At the same time, however, tensions between East and West increased, culminating in the Second Berlin Crisis (see pictures 32 and 33 and „The Wall“). In the autumn of 1959, the ruling National Front, dominated by the Socialist Unity Party, recorded the usual 99% victory in the parliamentary elections. However, it was no secret that the populace was disgruntled at having been denied a real election. The number of escapees started to increase dramatically, as a result of the forced collectivization of agriculture, the resulting food shortages and the uncertainty caused by the Second Berlin Crisis. The people‘s apparent support for the regime was revealed as (self-)deception on the part of the ruling party, and this party‘s ambitious goals were revealed as completely unrealistic. The answer to this crisis was the violent closure of the East Germans‘ escape route. Helwig-Wilson documented the fall-out from these events in numerous photographs of everyday life. On 13th and 14th August 1961, he witnessed, with his camera, the building of the „wall“. A few days later, he was arrested by the state security service (Stasi) and taken to the central prison for people awaiting trial in East Berlin.
In 1996, I met him there. He was giving visitors a guided tour of the former prison, which was being turned into a museum. He described vividly the withdrawal of rights and the humiliations which he, like so many others, had suffered during his detention and imprisonment. Bitterness about his sufferings and about the fact that those responsible had not been brought to justice after 1990 gave his descriptions an oppressive and sad intensity. When I saw his pictures years later, it was like meeting him for a second time. The irony and curiosity in these pictures made me think of the French photographer Robert Doisneau. When asked what made a good photographer, he had compared the photographer with the camera film: „they both need a sensitive surface.“ Helwig-Wilson‘s sensitivity allowed him to document vividly a formative era in the GDR. But it was this very sensitivity which made him especially defenseless in the Stasi prison. Perhaps these pictures will prompt you to visit one of the former Stasi prisons now open as museums. These can be found in Berlin, Dresden, Frankfurt (Oder), Halle, Magdeburg, Potsdam, Rostock and Schwerin.
Each picture appears with commentary on its historical context. (The captions that Helwig-Wilson himself added before handing them over to the press can be read in the original German version of this site.) If you wish you may add your comment in the guest book by e-mail.
We would like to thank Herr Helwig-Wilson for making the pictures available and for his patience and informativeness. The daughter of the photographer, Gabriele Helwig, holds the copyright for his pictures.
Elena Demke and Gesa Henrici, Berlin, April 2001
Translation and adaption: Angela Billington and Elena Demke