COURAGE rarely failed Bärbel Bohley. Others quailed at the hands of the East German secret police, the Stasi. Frail but steely, she mocked them: an eye for the absurd, she said, helped to keep her mental distance from those “brutal, cold, murderous, contemptuous people”. “I will get out of here; you won’t,” she once snapped at an interrogator.
She was right. Born in the ruins of Berlin in 1945, her early life was shaped by the post-war division of her country into western (soon West) Germany, and a Soviet-occupied zone that claimed to be the “German Democratic Republic”. But in the end it was not the bullying communists who shaped the wiry little painter. It was she who shaped them—and their downfall.
Her life as an artist started in her 30s, after unhappy early stints in industry and teaching. Her métier was brightly coloured pictures with dark angry lines, part abstract, part-figurative. Her inspiration, she said, came from Käthe Kollwitz, the great radical pacifist painter and print-maker of the Weimar years, venerated in post-war East Germany. The regime liked that, and her work: she won prizes, including a trip to the Soviet Union. But the promised Utopia turned out to be shockingly grim and grey. In 1980 the idealistic socialist convictions of her youth, long undermined by the regime’s hypocrisy, finally crystallised into ardent opposition.