‘People don’t want to look back because they don’t want to grapple with their younger selves’

Evelyn Zupke describes herself as a ‘model socialist child’ until teenage rebellion kicked in and she realised that the grand promises of German socialism were false

When Evelyn Zupke moved to Clifden, Co Galway, in 1994, locals soon dubbed the blow-in “the German lady on the bike”. Only a few close Irish friends ever learned of the crucial role she played in East Germany’s collapse five years previously.

More than three decades on, and still modest about helping bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989, Evelyn Zupke is as engaging as she is engaged with East Germany’s legacy. But when we sit down to talk in her bright Berlin office, the talk turns immediately to Clifden.

When the two Germanys became one in 1990, and East Germans were finally free to travel, Zupke was inspired by the cover image of a photo book to visit the Grüne Insel, the green island.

“Blue sea, green meadow, white cottage: I saw this picture and thought: ‘I have to go there’,” she says.


After visits to West Cork and Sligo, she moved full time to Ireland in 1994, working as a social worker and living with her young son in Shanakeever, “above the campsite”, outside Clifden.

“The first time I took the bus from Galway to Clifden, I thought I was in paradise. Even in winter, I loved the bare brown mountain ranges,” she says. Even 30 years on, she remembers her neighbour Michael Nee, the bottle of poitín he kept behind the stove and his Titanic stories.

Zupke was fascinated by Irish history and watched films and read books, in particular about how Ireland fought off English rule.

“I know my way around Irish history,” she says. “Dev, Collins, all the graveyards and biographies, also Philomena...”

With the mention of Philomena Lee, the Limerick woman whose “illegitimate” baby was sold by nuns in 1955, we have arrived at the destination of our interview.

In June 2021 the Bundestag parliament appointed Evelyn Zupke as its first federal commissioner for victims of the Socialist Unity Party (SED – East Germany’s ruling party) dictatorship. Her office liaises with Bundestag MPs on legislation and supplements the existing work – mainly research and rehabilitation – of historical institutes and commissioners in eastern German states.

Together this network offers survivors of SED injustice – including former children’s home residents and political prisoners – advice on compensation, welfare and pension entitlements and can help arrange therapy or other assistance.

Beyond that, they organise and attend events and workshops to inform western Germans – and younger generations – about why the long shadow of East German injustice is relevant to them.

While Ireland’s approach to its own church-State burden and survivors could generously be described as ad hoc, Germany – with Zupke’s appointment – is stepping up still further its engagement with the legacy of a state that vanished three decades ago. Why?

Because, she says, many people only begin to deal with their own story, and family history, some 30 years later.

“It is a show of respect for survivors, whose fate has marked them for life,” says the 61 year-old. “Having such an office, voted for by the Bundestag, allows me say to survivors: ‘I am the ombudsperson for your concerns and I will bring your concerns to politicians, explain to them why they are important, and name your pain in public.’”

We all grow up in systems, and growing up in a dictatorship is a particular challenge. Not everyone is a born hero.

After three decades, though, the focus of coming to terms with the East German past is shifting. Given the statute of limitations for prosecutions, the debate is pivoting away from perpetrators and victims and towards the 90 per cent of people in between: the Angepassten, or conformists.

While regime critics were imprisoned, tortured or deported – their children often seized and forcibly adopted – the vast majority quietly negotiated the obstacle course of arbitrary, state-sponsored chicanery.

As in Catholic Ireland, most East Germans made sure to have no run-ins with the authorities by conforming – in a million, small ways.

“These people were not perpetrators but they were unquestioning in keeping the system going,” she says. “These people often don’t want to look back because they don’t want to look in the mirror and grapple with their younger selves.”

Just recently Zupke had a meeting with a Bundestag MP who, before 1989, was an East German civics teacher, responsible for shaping young minds in the art of Marxist-Leninist thinking.

Decades later, the politician was still haunted by the memory of a 15-year-old pupil who became pregnant, disappeared for some months – possibly into a state-run facility – then returned without a baby. Everyone whispered about the young woman, the MP told Zupke, but no one helped her. The story – and the subsequent silence – has overtones of Catholic Ireland. The difference: the German MP has somewhere to go today with her story.

“She told me: ‘I just don’t understand now why I remained silent. If I could only turn back the clock and do everything differently,’” says Zupke. “I think it’s good to talk and reflect. We all grow up in systems, and growing up in a dictatorship is a particular challenge. Not everyone is a born hero.”

Born on the Baltic Sea island of Rügen, Zupke describes herself as a “model socialist child” until teenage rebellion kicked in and she realised that the grand promises of German socialism had little to do with the drab reality in grocery stores – or the 10-year wait for a car.

Where others kept their mouths shut, Zupke opened hers.

“I wasn’t really political, I never announced ‘I want to abolish this state’,” she laughs. But calling out the discrepancies set her down a different track, like a shunted train, until there was no way back.

Change is only possible with allies in politics, not beating up people now for things that happened before their time.

When her bolshie reputation saw the state block her path to university, she moved to East Berlin and an unfamiliar twilight world of regime critics and forbidden West German television.

Another life-changing experience came when she found work with disabled people in a facility run by the Lutheran church, an institution that was crucial in offering what today would be called “safe spaces” for regime critics to meet, mingle and plan.

Their most radical – and risky – plan took place during local elections in May 1989, when 150 opposition members fanned out across Berlin’s Weissensee district for the vote counts and reported back the tallies to Zupke in her apartment.

While the official result claimed 98.85 per cent support for the SED-led list – the only option on the ballot paper – Zupke’s tally showed a protest vote of up to 30 per cent.

“We knew that proving election fraud was the right pressure point, the best means to lay things bare,” she says. “We weren’t surprised by their audacity, just annoyed that they kept getting away with it.”

By exposing what everyone knew about their sham democracy, at considerable personal risk, Zupke and her activist friends hammered home a crucial nail into East Germany’s coffin.

Though the Catholic island she called home for nearly three years in the 1990s has vanished, too, Zupke is not entirely surprised to learn that there are no comparable positions like hers in Ireland.

“It’s a completely different situation in Ireland because the state and church are still there as institutions, if with different people,” she says.

Despite the differences, her memory of 1990s rural Ireland has parallels to East Germany, in particular the “silence in the families, the shame and stigma”.

“Things were known,” she says, “but not acknowledged.”

After three decades of exposed scandals and apologies offered, Ireland’s piecemeal approach to its Catholic past is no surprise – given the process is controlled and financed by church and state organisations.

Germany’s open approach to its past was not a given, but the result of hard-won lessons from its 20th-century dictatorship. Coming to terms with the past – so-called Vergangenheitsbewältigung – works only when the state isn’t afraid to step back: provide money, create full-time institutions and hand control to independent, non-tainted figures such as Evelyn Zupke.

For her, coming to terms with the past successfully comes with three non-negotiables.

“You have to secure the files and you have to open the files,” she says, banging on the table before her. “That is the foundation for everything else.”

Other non-negotiables: full-time, trained staff to accompany survivors through archives and applications for welfare, compensation and therapy. Underpinning everything, she says, a rock-solid legal foundation for everything to work.

“Change is only possible with allies in politics,” she says, “not beating up people now for things that happened before their time.”

More than three decades ago, Zupke challenged the apathy of her fellow East Germans. Now a key part of her current role is to listen to these same people, without judgment, and encourage them to reflect.

Could she imagine nudging along a similar process in Ireland?

“If there is a readiness and an interest, I can easily imagine that, even if my English now is only good enough for conversation,” she says. “You can never force people to engage with their past, you can only ever make them an offer. But it’s never too late to start.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin