The Girl Behind the Wall by Mandy Robotham: A Novel of Divided Berlin
BY ELISABETH LENCKOS
As a child of divided Berlin, I read Mandy Robotham’s novel, The Girl Behind the Wall (Harper 360, 2021), with great interest. Its publication is timely, since the notorious ‘Operation Rose’ went into effect exactly 60 years ago on the 13th of August, when German citizens awoke to a city whose Russian-occupied, Eastern zone was completely sealed off from the Western—American, British, and French—parts of Berlin by a vicious ‘death strip.’ The Wall, a deadly combination of cement fortifications, barbed wire fencing, attack dogs, exploding mines, razor-sharp ground covers, and observation towers occupied by troops with ‘shoot to kill’ orders, the ‘anti-fascist protection barrier’—as the German Democratic Republic termed the structure—stayed in place until 1989, in effect creating two Germanys with separate political identities.
During the ensuing years, nearly two hundred people died attempting to flee from East to West. The few who were successful used the most ingenious methods: hiding in the boots of specially rigged cars, flying in hot air balloons, clawing their way through Berlin’s sewers and underground train systems, or laboriously digging tunnels that led from the cellars of East German buildings to those in the West. No visit to today’s Berlin is complete without walking the ‘Mauerweg,’ which winds its way along the former Wall and indicates via plaques embedded in the ground the points where these tunnels originated and how far they reached into Western soil. The first was excavated in 1961, the final one in 1985. While some men and women were so lucky as to escape through these secret passages, others were betrayed, so that the Stasi—the East German State Security Police—subsequently arrested, harassed, and often tortured them, before they were finally punished with long prison sentences. If these individuals had families, their relatives were usually implicated in their supposed crime. If they had children, Mrs Honecker, the wife of the long-serving head of the GDR, personally saw to it that they were forcibly adopted or sent to orphanages.
Mandy Robotham told me she researched this extraordinary chapter of German history by visiting Berlin and its history museums, especially the former Stasi Headquarters, which document in detail the subtle, but effective mental torture methods the organization used on its citizens, and Hohenschoenhausen, the infamous political prison where, she recalls, “the tour guide took us in to a cell and shut the door. In just a few minutes, the sense of those walls closing in was intense. You could imagine the bleak outlook and the hopelessness. All the details of the prison [in the novel] are based on fact and what I saw with my own eyes – the repeated interviews, suggestion, threats, and even the doors of the interrogation rooms being padded; my heart cranked when I saw them. The glass bricks in the cell window do number 28—I counted them”.
Robotham states that although the Berlin Wall is within her living memory, she remains baffled by the fact it ever existed. “There seem to be a lot of spy novels set around the Wall when it stood, but few about the erection of it. I was so shocked to read that it went up in one night, I felt there had to be something in that – fantastical and yet real. I read a true story about a woman visiting her son, staying the night and being devastated to be separated from her beloved cat. I thought, imagine if that was a person. A relative. Your sister even? And it went from there. To me, it remains unbelievable.”
But even though Robotham wanted to tell the story of the divided Germany, she felt strongly that since “there are always two sides to every story… I wanted to use the characters to illustrate both sides of life – that yes, maybe living in the East wasn’t what many people aspired to, but that life carried on, and some were contented. Life was ‘normal’ (from a western perspective) in many respects. People are often tarred with the politics of their government, but that underneath, we’re all just people trying to do the best for our family and friends.”
As a result, she made the decision to centre the narrative of The Girl Behind the Wall not on a single heroine, but on two deeply bonded sisters, Jutta and Karin. While Jutta finds herself in West Berlin, Karin winds up in the East. But although Jutta discovers an escape route for Karin—a secret passageway through an abandoned building near the death strip—her sister makes the decision to remain in the GDR for love, a decision Jutta eventually comes to accept as she falls in love herself. When I asked Robotham what compelled her to write a romance set during such a dark and difficult time in Germany’s history, she had this answer: “No one can live life in a constant state of siege – World War II proved that, along with successive, modern-day conflicts. So, if I’m watching the news about war zones across the world, I’m always looking beyond the reporter to the people in the background, how they look, what they’re buying, the faces of the children playing. War doesn’t dampen the need for contact, love or sexual desire. Far from it.”
Robotham, a former midwife, knows of what she speaks. As historians attest, the lust for life to which she refers survived even the hunger years—as the ten years after the end of World War II are called in Germany—continuing through the division of the country, and the founding of the German Democratic Republic. Like Karin and her husband, many East Germans who believed in the socialist cause arranged themselves with the ruling conditions in order to find some sort of happiness. However, the majority, like Karin’s Otto, became disillusioned with the system because of the insidious treatment of their loved ones at the hands of the Stasi, whose cruelty broke their faith in the righteousness of the socialist state.
Rather than Karin, it is Jutta who is arrested on one of her forbidden forays into the GDR. The treatment she experiences by the Stasi builds up to the most harrowing scenes in the story, and only a daring attempt by Jutta’s American lover can bring her a reprieve from her suffering. Therefore, the sisters are unable to see one another again until 1989 when history finally brings them, and the two Germanys, together. As Robotham concludes: “Personally I remember the felling of the Wall very well, played out on our television screens night after night. Unlike the erection in 1961, the fall of the system seemed to be bubbling for a while, politicians meeting day after day, and I was aware of a real apprehension: would it happen? When? In a novel, I always feel there has to be a resolve, either good or bad. I’m a reader who hates things to be left in the air, with unanswered questions, unless we’re promised a speedy sequel. And so, the meeting for me is the reward for everything the sisters (and the readers) have been through. I hope it’s realistic too – families were separated for years on end, and it did fracture and break relationships. As ever with my books, it’s the idea that true bonds will always triumph. And I hope that’s not fiction!”
About the contributor: Elisabeth Lenckos holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and has published books on Jane Austen and Barbara Pym. She serves as an Editor of the Palgrave-Macmillan Encyclopaedia of Romantic-Era Women Writers and on the Social Media Team for the Historical Novel Society. She is writing a novel about a family in 20th-century West Berlin.