New exhibition reveals role of gay community in Berlin Wall’s fall

The role of gay people in bringing down communist East Germany from within is getting fresh attention three decades on, at a time when sexual liberation is still a battleground.

New exhibition reveals role of gay community in Berlin Wall's fall
A segment of the former Berlin Wall running along Bernauer Strasse in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

Art exhibitions, films and city tours are casting a new spotlight on LGBTQ life in the now defunct state, capturing the imagination of generations born after the Berlin Wall tumbled on November 9th, 1989.

“It was a high-wire act,” said East German art expert Stephan Koal about the life of Jürgen Wittdorf, a long-closeted gay artist whose daringly homoerotic works decorated even official buildings of the Stalinist regime.

Koal has co-curated a major retrospective of more than 250 pieces by Wittdorf for what would have been his 90th birthday.

Although it’s being staged in a sleepy eastern Berlin suburb, the exhibition has been a surprise success with more than 20,000 visitors since it opened in September.

As sexual autonomy comes under fresh attack around the globe, even in EU members such as Hungary and Romania, Wittdorf’s work is seeing a renaissance four years after his death.

Part of that renewed interest comes from a contemporary understanding of the “courage” required for LGBTQ people to fly beneath the radar, Koal said.

“Gay people were an important part of an incredibly exciting subculture,” he said, along with overlapping groups of intellectuals, churchgoers, environmentalists and squatters that finally spilled onto the streets in East Germany’s peaceful revolution.

“The regime saw the gay scene as a threat.”

‘Bubbling beneath’

Born in 1932, Wittdorf was a long-time member of the German Democratic Republic (GDR)’s ruling SED party, living off official commissions for his art.

The communist state decriminalised gay sex in 1968 — a year before West Germany — but it remained a serious social taboo.

Years before that reform, Wittdorf pushed the envelope with graphically lustful works featuring young men’s bodies that he managed to pass off as Socialist Realist heroism.

One work that stands out is a print that hung in the official Academy of Sport in Leipzig featuring buff athletes soaping up together under the showers.

Karin Scheel, artistic director of Biesdorf Palace, which is hosting the Wittdorf retrospective, said the collection was a “nearly buried treasure” that explored the limits of social repression in an authoritarian state.

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A post shared by Jürgen Wittdorf (@jurgenwittdorf)

An Instagram account dedicated to Wittdorf shows off his works.

“In the GDR these were just depictions of athletes,” said Scheel, who co-curated the show. “Today we see it totally differently — under these prints there’s something huge bubbling beneath the surface.”

Wolfgang Winkler, 86, a retired librarian visiting the show who met
Wittdorf a few times, said the role of LGBTQ people in East Germany’s churning underground had long been “underestimated”.

“History just swept it aside, what Wittdorf achieved with his work,” he said. “But for those of us who knew about it, it was a sensation.”

Berlin’s chief culture official, Klaus Lederer, who is also gay and from the east, hailed new efforts to correct the “erasure” of Eastern artists and their battles for freedom.

Although most gave way to gentrification and online dating, a few of the gay bars and cafes of East Berlin are still around, such as the Sonntags Club (Sunday Club) which is now a stop on popular tours of the Prenzlauer Berg district’s LGBTQ history.

Since 2021, an annual East Pride Berlin demonstration has paid tribute to the LGBTQ pioneers in the “resistance” behind the Iron Curtain as well as embattled communities in eastern Europe today.


One of the stops is at the Gethsemane Church, a centre of anti-regime protest and the birthplace of the rights group Lesbians in the Church.

Sexual liberation also drives the new movie “In a Land That No Longer Exists” set in East Germany’s world of fashion in the summer of 1989.

Director Aelrun Goette, who was herself discovered as a model on the street in East Berlin, tells the story of Suzie, a teen who escapes a state-mandated factory job by posing for a style magazine.

There she meets the designer Rudi — based on GDR style icon Frank Schäfer, author of a rollicking memoir about his life as a gay punk in then bohemian Prenzlauer Berg.

Even as they work in the official clothing industry, Rudi leads Suzie into East Berlin’s wild, creative underground — a “niche” Goette said could be found in most dictatorships.

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A post shared by Jürgen Wittdorf (@jurgenwittdorf)

“Either you’re free everywhere or you’re not,” Rudi tells his protegee. “If you’re not, then the West can’t help you either.”

Goette said the time had come to tell a story about how “cheeky, insubordinate” East Germans liberated themselves, little by little then all at once.

“Things were already falling apart in the late 1980s” in the GDR, she said, allowing subcultures to seize the moment when it finally came.

The movie’s success has a certain symmetry with the first gay-themed feature film to be released in East Germany, “Coming Out”, which premiered the night the Wall fell.

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94-year-old Israeli recreates his German childhood in miniature

94-year-old Mosche Samter has brought his childhood memories of Germany before the Nazi seizure of power to life in hundreds of hand-crafted miniature models.

94-year-old Israeli recreates his German childhood in miniature
Mosche Samter holding his miniature model of a shoe shop. Photo:DPA

A classroom straight out of the 1930s, an authentic shoe shop with German advertisements hanging from the walls, and a scene from a synagogue as a community begins to pray. These are the happy memories of 94-year-old Israeli Mosche Samter, who spent his childhood in Germany before the Second World War.

After he fled to Israel with his family, Samter often longed for the lost world of his childhood. One day, after noticing a broken shutter on his terrace door, he had the idea to bring his memories to life with his own hands. His first thought had been to throw the old piece of wicker away. “But then I thought: I can make something out of this,” says the bright-eyed 94-year-old.

Samter began to craft miniature models of the scenes from his childhood. He built a tiny replica of the shoe shop where his father had worked. The store’s name, “Schuhwaren-Haus S. Hamburger” is clearly inscribed on the front and an advertisement in German hangs on the wall: “Schwarze Woche – Jetzt Schuhe kaufen!,” meaning “Black week – Buy black shoes now!”

The inside of Samter's miniature shoe shop. Photo:DPA

The only Jewish child in class

Particularly close to his heart is the model of his old classroom in his hometown of Reichenbach in Saxony. “I was the only Jewish child in the class,” explains the friendly old man with bushy eyebrows, who still speaks German without an accent. Old-fashioned wooden desks and chairs are positioned in rows one behind each other. On the tables are tiny ink bottles and styluses. “I used shoelace eyelets for the black ink,” explains Samter, something with which he remains pleased to this day.

A small black and white photo hangs on the wall, in which Samter can be seen amongst his former classmates. The year is 1936: the year his family fled Germany to what was then Palestine. At that time Mosche was still known as Herbert. But soon after his arrival in his new home he was rebaptized. His German name remained with his childhood memories in Germany and a Hebrew name took its place. “The teacher said: ‘There aren’t any Mosches in the class so I’ll call you Mosche,” Samter remembers, laughing. “Since then I’ve been Mosche.”

Circled: Mosche Samter, with his former classmates. Photo:DPA

During the Second World War Samter served in the British army. When the North African Campaign led by German General Erwin Rommel began in 1941, everyone was worried the “desert fox” would be able to advance with his troops all the way to Palestine. “Naturally all young Jews were called up to serve in the English military. That was our good deed.”

'I had a good childhood'

His family had even greater worries during this time as news of the Holocaust spread. “We had relatives who were still in Germany, and who were in danger, or who'd already been killed”, he said. His father’s sister and her family were murdered by the Nazis. When the war ended, Samter travelled back to visit his relatives in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). “My last German relative is still alive and is living in a retirement home in Hanover”, said Samter.

His flair and enthusiasm for the crafts stems from his early years. “I went to a craft work group even before I started school,” says Samter. “There we worked mainly with a fretsaw and plywood.” Throughout the years he has enjoyed building toys for his own three children and his 27 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

In September Samter will turn 95. His pace of life has slowed down and he has difficulty walking and a caregiver to help him in his everyday life, but his eyes are alert. And it is since his retirement that he’s fully delved into his complex miniature worlds.

For the past 30 years since his retirement he has created around eight models a year. Two years ago the widower decided to open a showroom to show off his treasures. His private museum Great Mini World in Jokneam Illit in the north of Israel currently has dozens of his models on display to the public.

The question as to which model is his favourite, he cannot answer. “I’m fond of them all.” The motifs are very diverse. One creation shows tiny violins and other musical instruments, another Jews praying in a synagogue.

The strongest creative motivation is, however, nostalgia. The model-builder enjoys thinking back to the times before the Nazi seizure of power and his flight out of Germany. “I had a good childhood.”