A dozen years ago to this day, the Berlin Wall fell. The world was changed irrevocably.
The wave of East European revolutions, the unification of Germany, and the collapse of the Soviet Union all followed in quick succession. The world was reshaped, turned upside down.
With the opening of the wall the East German revolution changed into a capitalist counter-revolution cloaked under the guise of national re-unification.
Twelve years on much has changed in the East, where tiny 2 stroke Trabant cars spat out Russian petrol fumes and drab grey buildings of the Stalinist mould filled the skyline. Impressive rebuilding work and Mercedes cars are everywhere to be seen, factories have been refitted or closed down. These and many other changes are welcomed by almost everyone.
West German law and bureaucracy replaced East German law and bureaucracy, indeed most of the Capitalists in the East are West German; much of the bureaucracy of the East has been filled with West German officials, who "know how things work". German Monetary Union of July 1, 1990 brought improvements in purchasing ability (the quality and choice of products). However, in 1989 East German society was not poor; statistical data can be used to prove this in terms of heath care, education, pensions, housing space, food consumption; manufacturing production produced almost everything from pens to missiles. Some 25% of the machine tools of the entire Soviet Union were manufactured in East Germany, which given the long history of quality manufacturing technique was of standards equal to or close to the best in the world. All this without landlords or capitalists and in spite of the colossal waste of the Stalinist bureaucracy. East Germany was not the sick man of Eastern Europe but the strongest planned economy in the world. The manufacture of machine tools, the "means of production", was not matched by the quality of consumer production. Although shortages were rare, the consumer market was very limited compared to the vast range of consumer goods in the West. The opening of the Wall made this contrast unbearable. On their first trips to West Berlin many East Germans thought they had arrived in some sort of paradise. Only a few feet from their homes, visible from tall buildings, but forbidden to visit until you were 60 years old, were products from every corner of the world, catering for every demand you could imagine...the world capitalist market was laid out like one gigantic Leipzig Trade fair. Today the disillusion with the capitalist experiment runs deep - how else can you explain why East Berliners to this day overwhelmingly support the former Communist Party in elections?
In hindsight everything was obvious...with one of the most affluent Capitalist cities inside your own country and the walls to that city breached, how could a poorer, less free society justify itself to the people?
The East German revolution of 1989 was initiated by a number of factors. The Tiananmen square protest from April 1989 and their repression on June 4 isolated the East German leadership from the more "reforming" leaderships of Poland, Hungary and above all that of Gorbachev in the USSR.
Soviet journals like Sputnik had for a year and more opened up to reports on falsified Stalinist history, a few had covered extremely sensitive issues as far as the East German Socialist Unity Party (SED) leadership was concerned. In November 1988 Sputnik published an analysis which revealed that the pre-Nazi German Communist Party leaders had opposed a United Front with the SPD to stop Hitler. To the East German leadership, Gorbachev was a traitor for allowing such talk, as their entire credibility was founded on being an "Anti-Fascist State". To mark themselves off from Gorbachev's "Glasnost" ("Openness") they chose to align themselves directly with the Chinese leadership on June 4. The SED leadership hoped a military coup in Moscow would come to their rescue and "return the USSR to its senses". If there were people prepared to protest in East Germany they were warned by the unanimous vote in the East German parliament to support the repression of the "counter-revolutionary revolt" on Tiananmen square, Beijing.
Hungary opened its borders in Summer 1989 and many thousands of East Germans saw this as their chance to escape. West German law allowed any East German to get significant welfare support the moment they arrived in the West, as the constitution of West Germany did not recognise East Germany, and was designed around the official call for reunification as a Cold War weapon.
The emigration of workers to the West immediately led to crisis in East Germany, and travel to Hungary was banned. To prevent others from reaching Hungary, travel to Czechoslovakia was also banned; an atmosphere of crisis was in the air!
West German TV and Radio with stations, some run with US finances, like Radio in American Sector, (RIAS) bombarded the East with daily news of their human haemorrhage. At this point in September 1989, small protests broke out in Leipzig demanding "Wir wollen raus!" ("We Want Out!"). The crisis led to a split of the intellectuals from the SED leadership who began to align themselves with the few hundred dissidents working through the churches. An alliance to initiate public dialogue and discussion formed around "Neues Forum" ("New Forum"). New Forum called for Gorbachev type reforms, discussions opened in church meetings at first of a few hundred and quickly rising to thousands. Then they took to the streets, changing the slogans of the demos, from "We Want Out!", to "Wir bleiben Hier!"..."We’re Staying Here!" This signalled the start of the revolution.
In a matter of weeks society in East Germany was completely transformed, from almost total passivity, millions of people participated in political life; the air was filled with tension. In every bar and every workplace, every house and every school, discussions which started as whispers, with eyes over the shoulder, turned into open argument as the atmosphere of stagnation gave place to explosive protest. Slogans emanating from the demonstrations echoed everywhere, ringing in the ears and minds of the masses. In Berlin the 40th anniversary of the founding of the German Democratic Republic on October 7, 1989 was the occasion to breach the dam and bring revolt to the capital. Gorbachev arrived to join the official celebrations, this helped to undermine the SED leaders, and made difficult immediate repression - should a demonstration break out in Berlin...and break out it did.
A few pioneers of the tiny dissident movement had called a demo on the main gigantic square Alexander Platz. There in the early evening hundreds of youth went to see what would happen. The protestors blew whistles and suddenly, from a few hundred dispersed people, a demonstration gathered with a power which only the advent of revolution reveals. Police ranks were lined up to stop the demonstrators, which the police had no experience of, their faces were visibly shaken. They stood in front of the bridge to protect parliament, by this time perhaps two thousand protestors were gathered, they threw small coins to the police ranks symbolising that they were simply paid guards of corrupt and repressive bureaucrats. With a swift, sweeping change in consciousness the scenario of an uprising stood metres from the centre of State Power, and half a mile from the Berlin Wall.
The demonstrators, marched past Rosa Luxemburg Place towards the traditionally red workers' districts of run-down housing called Prenzlauerberg. There the people leaned out of their windows and joined the demonstrators; the feeling of power was overwhelming. The front lines of the demonstration were confronted by lines of Free German Youth (FDJ) Order Troops. (The official state youth organisation.) These FDJ lines scattered as some 15,000 demonstrators with their arms raised shouted as one...."keine Gewalt!, Keine Gewalt! KEINE GEWALT!" "no Violence, No Violence, NO VIOLENCE!" Power was passing to the streets. At the top the hill, the secret police, the STASI, began to slug at people randomly, causing general confusion and fear; some of us escaped through the back alleys and houses of the district...others were beaten up...some 1047 were arrested.
Two days later on October 9 the city of Leipzig faced insurrection. The murky details of these events remain a mystery to this day. (I am not sure if the truth was ever revealed in spite of years of claim and counter-claim by the officials involved and Western press and State.) What we know is as follows. The SED leaders ordered the Army to place machine guns on the main post office in Leipzig. The SED leaders sent people to warn the factory workers of trouble in the town centre that night and that they should stay away. That night "troublemakers" were to be offered a discussion with a spray of machine gun fire...what the SED had called "the Chinese solution". On hearing this at factories across Leipzig the workers denounced the appeal to stay away, held meetings and marched to the town centre. Some 50,000 joined the protest. If one bullet would have been fired an armed uprising was certain. Claim and counter-claim have surrounded that date. Unfortunately the leadership of the opposition did not generally report these events as they feared it would incite uprising across the country. The failure of the SED to act decisively to crush the protests, their last minute withdrawal from the brink, meant general internal collapse of the bureaucratic state apparatus. No further attempts were made to use force.
All the initiative lay on the streets, general celebration was reflected in gigantic demonstrations every single Monday throughout that Autumn and Winter of 1989. The main squares of the every city and town thronged with mass meetings often with over half the population present. Speakers railed against the ruling elite; everything wrong with bureaucratic planning was exposed and lambasted: mismanagement, corruption, and dictatorship. In early September the Marxist tendency at the prestigious Humbolt University in Berlin raised the slogan of a "Rate Demokratie" ("Governance by Elected Councils"). An initiative group was founded which accepted all the demands raised by the Marxist tendency. They called a mass meeting of the students in the University and won a huge majority to elect student representatives from every class, and to set up the first independent newspaper in the country. The power of the FDJ, the official youth organisation, vanished. Like a prairie-fire every university in East Germany followed suit, even one Military Officers' College established a Soldiers' Council to emulate the students' actions.
November...events moved like lightning...political parties and movements sprung up like mushrooms. Inside the SED genuine Communists spoke out. Almost all organisations and parties of significance stood for a Planned Economy, Socialism and Democracy. Demonstrators sung the Internationale and called for the creation of a "democratic socialism". Of Marx you heard said, "he would turn in his grave if he saw what they had done in his name." Until early November 1989 not a single voice was heard calling for a market economy or the removal of the Berlin Wall. The SED leaders acted, Honnecker was removed, but was replaced by Egon Krenz, arch- Stalinist and the main Tiananmen apologist in the Party leadership, his Dracula like features helped make him a leader whose time was limited to weeks.
Power lay on the streets...it simply was there to be taken by conscious action and leadership...the sad tale of many a twentieth century revolution. A demonstration of some half a million snaked its way through Berlin on November 4, 1989, and a vision of a new society was presented to the people.
Stephan Heym wrote:
"Dear Friends and fellow citizens, it is, as if a window has been thrown open after all the years of stagnation in spiritual, economic, and political life, after the years of stupefaction, the thrashing out of phrases and bureaucratic arbitrariness, of official blindness, and deafness. What a transformation!
"Less than four weeks ago with platforms erected here around the corner, arranged march- pasts were orchestrated for the 'nobleness'...
"And Today! Today here, we are assembled by free will, for freedom and democracy and for a Socialism worthy of the name!
"One person wrote to me and he speaks the truth...In the past weeks, we have overcome our inability to speak and now are in the process of learning the right way...and this...and this friends...in Germany...where until now so many revolutions have gone astray and where the people always remained silent under the Kaiser, under the Nazis, and later also..."
Heiner Müller Actor announced the formation of an "Initiative to form Independent Trade Unions" to 500,000 people called under influence of the Marxist Tendency. Müller read out the aims:
"We want to participate in all decisions on the aims and forms of production - from the factory to the Peoples' Parliament...to this belongs the election and recall of all officials in the state including amongst others factory leaders."
According to comrades inside the East German army, on November 4 the army was preparing for an uprising by the demonstrators. In fact this was probably the last day that such an uprising could have taken place successfully. His military unit had discussed the issue and resolved that if they were called on to attack the protest they would refuse to act. Had the leaders of the demonstration called for the occupation of the TV, radio and press, a peaceful political revolution would have been of the order of the day.
The next day November 5, 1989...mass meetings were called by the SED leaders to diffuse the mood. In front of the Berlin town hall, an old Socialist speaker rose up to huge applause saying: "Lenin said, revolution takes place when the rulers can no longer rule in the old way...and the people refuse to be ruled in the old way."
A worker got up to the podium and said what I heard on that day for the first time, "we must take down the Berlin Wall" to which he got very little applause and then qualified his statement by saying..."we can replace it with a fence". The reason for the reluctance on the part of large parts of the population to raise the issue of the Berlin Wall directly was that the people knew the removal of the wall would bring Capitalism. The masses did not, at this stage, want this.
The SED leadership were in mortal fear, they knew that the anger could not be contained and they knew the past history of such anti-Stalinist revolts. The "Chinese Solution" was now impossible...so, to save their skins...they made the decision to open the Berlin Wall and the open the road to capitalism.