Thursday, December 4, 2014

East Germany's Last Hurrah ~ The Weeks Before Mauerfall, Part 5

By mid-October 1989, East and West Germans alike were cracking jokes about a deserted East Germany. Hopefully the last person to leave would turn off the lights. The concept of Mauerfall had not yet taken hold in the German psyche. "Reform" was the rallying cry of the day. At the top of the demand list was removal of all travel restrictions for East Germans. When this demand was put forth by Neues Forum leaders, the possibility that it would soon be a moot point had likely occurred to no one. Neues Forum was an East German citizen's committee that evolved through weeks of massive protest marches across East Germany. Still, in October 1989, nobody was saying "Ok. Let's just call this whole division thing a failure and start over as just one country".

October 7, 1989 - Supreme-dictator-for-life Erich Honecker and his minions carried on as if the autumn of 1989 was business as usual in the DDR, presiding over celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the DDR's founding on 1949. In this picture, Honecker is in the front, to the left of the two men in uniforms. Mikhail Gorbachev is to the left of him. Gorby's staring off to the side, looking like he doesn't really want to be there ("Good grief. How long is this parade going to go on?"). Look at the men in the first row, Gorbachev excepted. Their average age was late 70s to early 80s. These Germans grew up with the rise of Hitler and never knew anything but government by brutal totalitarian regime. These were the people in charge of East Germany when its people literally quit that country forever.

October 7, 1989 - DDR stands for Deutsche Demokratische Republik or German Democratic Republic. Yes, indeed. East Germany's ruling dictatorship actually incorporated the word "Democratic" in the new name they chose for the part of Germany that was ceded to the Soviets in 1945. They could have named it anything, like "Exalted Stalinist Domain" or "Great Soviet Victory Territory". But no. They called it a democratic republic, you know, just like West Germany next door. East Germany's government made ample and constant use of egregious doublespeak that would have put George Orwell to shame.

October 7, 1989 - Behind the show of force and the facade of military parades, things looked a little differently. At least 10,000 people protest in Plauen, East Germany, to demand free elections and the freedom to travel. Police use water cannons to disperse them. Dozens of protesters were injured; 61 were arrested.

October 7, 1989 - 3,000 people march in East Berlin and demand democratic reform. They chant "No violence!" and "Help us, Gorby!" Police use batons and arrest more than 500 to subdue the crowd. Similar events play out in the East German cities of Potsdam, Leipzig, Ilmenau, Halle and Magdeburg.

October 8, 1989 - An aging dictator doubles down in the face of urgent demands for change and refuses to compromise. Honecker's second-in-command meets with politburo members and the Stasi. There is a general consensus towards less restrictive policies. Honecker rejects them categorically, declaring "There will be more clashes and they must be suppressed before they even start!"

October 8, 1989 - Signs of open dissent: The Fire Department in Plauen decries their deployment against protesters, calling such use of firefighting resources preposterous.

October 8, 1989 - Vigils and candelight ceremonies continue at East Berlin's Gethsemane Church. Protesters refuse to be intimated by the significant police presence.

October 8, 1998 - 2000 people attend a service inside Gethsemane Church while police and Stasi surround the Church.

Police and Stasi soon surround a group of protesters in Dresden. The situation escalates until church representatives mediate between demonstrators and government powers. Protestors designate 20 citizens to represent them, which becomes known as "Gruppe der 20" (Group of 20). Dresden's mayor accepts negotiations with the Group of 20, and demonstrators disperse peacefully. Group of 20 representatives demand freedom of the press, freedom to travel, free election, release of all political prisoners and official recognition of the citizen's group Neues Forum (New Forum). Meanwhile, in Berlin, police and Stasi use armored vehicles, batons and tear gas against protesters, resulting in dozens of injuries. 524 East Germans are arrested. Behind the scenes, Erich Honecker is under increasing pressure to resign and hand power over to his protégé Egon Krenz. Honecker refuses.

October 9, 1989 - The government-run East German media report none of this. The headline reads, rather confusingly: "The development of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) will continue to be the work of the entire German people."

October 9, 1989 - This headline is equally vague in its mysterious optimism: "Always forward, never backwards, that is and shall remain our compass."

October 9, 1989 - In Dresden, for the first time, the impasse ends. Representatives of the state / party and citizen representatives are talking to each other. Results are announced at several churches in Dresden that evening.

October 9, 1989 - Without a specific travel policy in sight, confusion continues to reign at border crossings. East German border personnel set their own rules. In Berlin, guards at border point Friedrichstrasse refuse to let West Germans or citizens from other countries enter East Germany.

October 9, 1989 - East German churches played a pivotal role in amplifying dissent and providing spaces for citizens to assemble en masse. There was nowhere else in East Germany where large groups of people could assemble without drawing an immediate police response. On October 9, Leipzig saw its biggest demonstrations yet, which began with prayer meetings in churches all over the city. The picture below shows the interior of Nikolai Church in Leipzig's urban center. It's floor space and standing room only. The meetings call on citizens to protest peacefully and non-violently, even as the Leipzig police and local Stasi mobilize to quash the protest.

After the prayer meetings end, 70,000 people people march in Leipzig.

Protesters chant: "We are the people!",  "Recognize New Forum!", "Freedom!", "Gorbi, Gorbi!"

In Leipzig, 10s of thousands of people march through the city's historic center. Many carry lit candles.

Demonstrators in Leipzig disperse peacefully. Thousands of protesters came to Leipzig to participate and are now returning home.

Other protest marches across East Germany also end peacefully: East Berlin, Magdeburg, Jena/Gera. Halle is the only exception - 39 people are arrested there.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

In Which I Go Get My Chunk Of The Wall

During the first week of November 1989, East Germany's totalitarian government is in full retreat.

A border point with Czechoslovakia is open - nobody there tries to prevent East Germans from crossing to reach the West anymore. About 300 East Germans per hour leave that way during the first few days of the month. The Czech government, overwhelmed by the flood of refugees, demands that East Germany open its borders with West Germany directly. So many people are fleeing East Germany that it causes blue collar and skilled labor shortages. Stasi agents are ordered to work as, e.g., bus drivers and locksmiths to keep up appearances. Meanwhile, West German refugee camps and makeshift shelters in public buildings are severely overcrowded.

East Germany's stark economic and environmental crises come into sharp focus. The government is broke and has no assets. Stories come to light illustrating desperate acts of a dying power structure. For example, during the declining years of the East German dictatorship, solvency issues became so critical that Honecker ordered historic cobblestones dug up from East Germany's once grand cities to be sold secretly to cities like Paris and Florence for repair of their own historic districts.

For four decades, East Germany burned massive amounts of brown coal without emission controls. Industrial waste and runoff was dumped wherever it was convenient. By the late 80s, all bodies of water in East Germany are so polluted they are biologically dead. The rest of East Germany's ecosystem is in a similar state of collapse. The actual state of affairs shocks even the most astute of Western observers of East German affairs.

On November 4, East Berlin sees the largest single anti-Communist protest since demonstrations started six weeks prior: Half a million people march through East Berlin to government buildings, demanding democratic reforms, representation in government and freedom to travel. Gorbachev refuses to mobilize Soviet troops in East Berlin and orders them to stay in their barracks.

According to the Stasi, 50 demonstrations take place in East Germany on Wednesday, November 8 - protests in all states and all districts, all of them vocally hostile to the ruling SED party and its enforcement arm, the Ministry of Homeland Security.

Also, on November 8, Germany's largest daily (Bild) reports that the East German government has resigned and its Politburo would soon follow. The paper adds that 35,000 East Germans are now in West Germany, with another 45,000 hoping to enter.

On Thursday, November 9, 1989, Honecker successor Egon Krenz announces drastic reforms to East German travel laws. How these reforms would be implemented in practice remains unclear. Meanwhile, Berliners take matters into their own hands.

Within a few hours of Krenz's semi-announcement, demonstrators in Berlin test the most formidable and deadliest barrier between East and West Germany. On several points along the Berlin Wall, East and West Berliners alike convince border guards to lay down their weapons and let people pass from and to both sides. Many border guards are weary, stoic, and I'm sure, totally confused, given that most of them are in their late teens to early 20s and never knew anything but totalitarianism. None of them use force, and many of them join the jubilant crowds - East Germans walking into a forbidden part of their city for the first time in 40 years - with West Berliners cheering them on. But not all of them.

West Germans greet East German border guards at an official border crossing point in West Berlin on November 9, 1989. Look at how young the guards are!

West Berliners help East Berliners scale the Wall on November 9, 1989. You can tell that the picture was taken on the East Berlin side because the Wall has no graffiti on it. East Berliners attempting to graffiti the Wall would have been arrested or shot.

For those readers who don't remember November 9, 1989, it was a day of such historic impact that "Where were you and what were you doing when The Wall came down?" is a commonly asked question.

I was in Los Angeles, a grad student at UCLA, in what was supposed to be my last year before earning my doctorate in cognitive science. It was a dark time for me in academia. Over seven years
of undergrad and graduate work at three top US universities I had constantly battled sexual harassment, running the gamut from daily microaggressions to inappropriate behavior to assault. I had already decided against a career in academia.

By late 1989, I was beyond frustrated. My two primary PhD committee members refused to accept any dissertation proposal I suggested, insisting that I take on an area of their own research instead. I suspect that my turning down and humiliating another faculty member who had cornered me in my office
a few months before hoping for some "special favors", had something to do with my being stonewalled as I struggled to clear this last hurdle before earning my PhD.

I was very angry at the situation and furious at an academic system that enabled such hostile environments. The weeks leading up to Mauerfall saw a sequence of events in Europe that both fascinated me while all of it also seemed like it happened worlds away with little impact on my life and grad school woes in Los Angeles.

You'd think someone like me with a vested historic interest in the fate of both Germanies would have gone to Berlin simply to be part of a cultural and geopolitical shift I'd predicted just a few years earlier. To be part of History. That is not how it happened.

Shortly after Mauerfall - no more than one or two weeks later - I noticed a department store in Beverly Hills advertising and selling "certified pieces of The Berlin Wall" for $25. I was absolutely livid at this crass commercialism. I went to the store, found the counters where they were selling the pieces and laid into the salespeople. I realize it wasn't their fault; they didn't set policy. But they were there and they stood there, showing increasing discomfort as I berated them. Anyone within earshot could hear me. By the time I got to "I hope you cleaned all the blood off these Wall pieces!" (it was the decade of HIV hysteria) and "What are you going to sell next? Pieces of the ovens in Auschwitz?" a couple of security guards had shown up to escort me out of the store. That was the first time I'd ever been kicked out of a place of business and I knew enough to keep my mouth shut. I figured I'd made my point.

The store was in a mall and once outside I plopped into a nearby chair, alternately wanting to scream and cry. Then, without conscious thought or consideration, it hit me. I knew what I had to do. 

That same day, I bought a ticket to Berlin for that same week, with my one and only credit card I'd saved for emergencies. I boarded the plane with little more than my passport, a change of clothes, a hammer, a chisel and a sack. On the plane I began to see for the first time how much my focus on navigating the vagaries of academia had preoccupied me to the point that historic events that changed the world seemed little more to me than a spread in the LA Times. I started to get really excited about going to Berlin - and seeing it being transformed in a way that had never existed in my lifetime. 

Once I landed in Berlin, jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, I grabbed the first taxi I saw and said "Take me to The Wall!" "Where at The Wall?" the driver asked.
I replied: "To a place where there's a cross, where someone died".

I don't remember which part of the Wall I arrived at except that it wasn't near the Brandenburg Gate. It was mid-day. I picked a spot on the graffiti-decorated wall segment in front of me. For the next hours, I used the hammer and chisel and pecked, chipped and banged away at the cement barrier in front of me as if my life depended on it. I know that sounds like it was fun, but I didn't experience it that way. That day in Berlin, I channeled all my frustration over having grown up in a divided Germany, all my current anger about US academia and didn't stop taking chunk after chunk out of the wall until the hammer was ruined, the chisel was a small stump. As dusk was falling my hands were bloodied and raw. I was so exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally that it was a wonder I found my way to the nearest train station with my sack holding 30 pounds of Wall rocks. 

I took a train west to my hometown and my parents' house. Like all westbound trains shortly after Mauerfall, it was overcrowded and filled with cheering, celebrating, not-too-sober Germans. I was too tired to socialize or participate. Once I found a seat I struggled to stay awake. I do remember that it was during this surreal train trip that the solution to my impasse with academic forces occurred to me: I would give it until the end of the year. If my situation still remained the same by January, I would quit. Go into the private sector, like I'd already planned. Life was too short and too full of history to stay miserable over a situation I could neither change nor control. So like thousands of East Germans starting over at that time, I promised myself I'd pick up the pieces to create a new life and career out of whatever I'd come back to in Los Angeles. After all, I'd emigrated with the goal to live in the U.S., not only American academia.There was life outside the Ivory Tower to be embraced!

Once I arrived at my parents' house, I dragged my sack inside, dropped it in my parents' living room and said: "Here. I TOLD you that my generation would tear down this cursed Wall!" I opened the sack. "Here you go - nothing left but rocks, rebar and dust!" My mom was speechless. My dad looked at me with that mixture of disbelief and pride he reserved for those times when I did something that even he didn't expect. 

I told my parents why I had come to Berlin to get my own Wall rocks - to have a piece of German history, of course, but also to counteract those so blinded by greed and ignorance that they'd sell the Berlin Wall for profit. I left a good part of the rocks with my parents. I took about 20 pounds back to L.A. Since then, I have gifted pieces of the Wall to those I meet with an interest in Cold War history and an appreciation for the world-changing events these plain-looking pieces of concrete represent. My Wall rock cache is down to a handful of rocks and dust, less than a pound. Each time I look at them I like to think that I gave away more pieces of the Wall as gifts than that reprehensible department store ever managed to sell. 

All that remains of my Wall rocks in 2014

East German border guards atop the Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate, looking into West Berlin on November 9, 1989. Guards weren't allowed to climb the Wall, or interact with Westerners in any way other than official capacities.

Everybody on top of the Wall! Berliners from both sides occupy a hated symbol of Cold War oppression. The Brandenburg Gate, Berlin's trademark attraction, ended up on the Eastern side of the Wall in 1961. The chariot atop the Gate always faced west. Once the Iron Curtain was in place, the East German government moved the chariot and turned it around so it faced east. Until Mauerfall. By the time Berliners celebrated New Year's 1990, the chariot faced west again.

A "border of 8000 lights" now runs along the former 27-mile (40-km) path of the Wall that divided Berlin for 40 years. Official demolition of the Wall and removal of intact segments didn't start until mid-1990 and took two years to complete.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Nobody Knew What Would Happen Next ~ The Weeks Before Mauerfall, Part 4

The pictures in previous posts clearly show that East German refugees were wildly fond of denim and jeans. This is no coincidence, nor is it merely due to the fashion of the times. True, denim-everything was in fashion in the late 80s, but, alas, East Germany, all of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union didn't follow western fashions, nor did those countries make denim products. Jeans were decried as a symbol of US decadence, while demand for them skyrocketed among young people. I remember travel advisories from the 80s that warned not to wear jeans items on trips to the Soviet Union, lest you'd wake up in an ally in your underwear. East Germany tried to appease its citizens by hurriedly producing its own communist "jeans" brand, causing much mirth among the populace.

In many cases, daily deprivations were what drove East German citizens to the far side of desperation, willing to face down the guns and take their chances with becoming homeless, penniless refugees. In East Germany in the 80s, you couldn't buy the clothes you wanted. You couldn't buy the groceries you wanted, watch more than one channel on TV (MTV? LOL), read more than one newspaper, or have any choice at all in matters that westerners take for granted - from which kind of car to buy to location of residence to deciding what's for dinner. A lot more East Germans would have been willing to put up with a senile, obstinate communist dictator if western consumer goods had been freely available. Young East Germans, mostly, wanted ALL the stuff. It was the 80s, after all! 

One thing the East German police state couldn't stop was radio waves. By the late 80s, western radio waves were saturating East Germany. Small portable radios made it easier to listen without being spied by the Stasi. West German radio stations, along with Radio Free Europe and an ever-elusive number of underground stations broadcasting from inside and outside East Germany had become a life line for East Germans who wanted to get out of there. That is also how East Germans who'd never left that country figured out what they were missing, all of the choices, big and small, that existed in the west. Desire for access to western consumer goods drove the disintegration of East Germany as relentlessly as determination to flee a failing dictatorship.

When I traveled to Dresden after Mauerfall, I heard from local residents that the geographic area around Dresden was known to East Germans as "Tal der Ahnungslosen" (valley of the clueless), owing to the fact that local geography interfered with clear reception of radio waves from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Later, once I'd begun to appreciate the sheer determination and creative genius some East Germans directed at gaining access to western resources, I wished I'd paid more attention to mid-to-late 80s rumors that technologically precocious teens on both sides of the Wall in Berlin had found a way to run cables through East Berlin's abandoned subway tunnels to the west, creating a network of phone and modem connections that enabled unmonitored communication lines - free from surveillance by East Germany's security apparatus, but also unnoticed by West Germany's government-run phone company and its NATO overlord. I don't know if these stories are true. Even though they came from credible sources, I dismissed them as wishful thinking embraced by fans of the nascent cyberpunk subculture. A few months after Mauerfall I realized that I'd most likely concluded wrong. Taking advantage of new tech and existing tunnels that older East Germans had forgotten about and that younger East Germans didn't even know were there - that was EXACTLY the sort of thing creative, resourceful East Germans would do. 

[If the cables-through-subway-tunnels story is true, it deserves to be told. Perhaps someone reading this blog has a lead that might point me back to the origins of this story. If you know of any info you can share, please contact me, in English or German, ctaake23 at gmail dot com.]

By early October 1989, this very same determination to bring about change, to be in charge of their own lives, even at high risk and personal cost, continued to drive East German refugees to West German embassies in eastern Europe and to East German border points with countries that shared a border with West Germany. East German government hardliners grew more and more desperate, redoubling efforts to keep people locked inside East Germany, by force, if necessary, even as the Soviet leadership continued to insist it would not interfere. The trickle of East Germans fleeing their country had turned into a steady stream, a major embarrassment to the East German leadership as it geared up to celebrate the country's 40th anniversary in a show of force and patriotism.


October 2, 1989: An iconic image makes headlines around the world. Michael Fleischman (33), from East Berlin, attempts to climb the fence of the West German embassy in Prague. Czech police wrestle him back down as hands from inside the fence try to hold on to him. A West German member of the press intervenes, frees Fleischman from the Czech police and takes him inside the embassy.

October 2, 1989: A letter from a time when average people doing normal things made history. East German refugee Silke explains the West to her parents. She describes West Germany as "one giant Intershop", a reference to East Germany's one and only sort-of chain department / grocery store. Laughably understocked and selling largely Soviet goods, "Intershop" soon became synonymous with East Germany trying and failing to quench its citizens' thirst for consumer goods. 

Communications such as this from refugees who'd reached the west to family and friends left behind in East Germany emboldened more people to flee as well as to continue their demands for internal reforms. Not all East Germans were willing to leave everyone and everything behind to start over in the west. But by the late 1980s almost all of them wanted to go shopping there.

October 2, 1989: As the number of East Germans seeking to leave climbs to 1,600 again at the West German embassy in Prague, 20,000 people take to the streets as part of a Monday Evening Demonstration in Leipzig, demanding reforms.

October 2, 1989: Protesters in Leipzig chant "Freedom, Equality, Fraternity" (evoking France), "Gorbi! Gorbi!" and "Legitimize Neues Forum!" (New Forum - a proposed platform to give reform activists a voice in East German government)


From the Stasi archives - October 2, 1989: Special police units, dogs and batons are used to try to disperse the crowds in Leipzig. The Stasi arrest 20 people as western journalists document events. Eventually, demonstrators leave. In the doc below a policeman reports to the Stasi that police deployed to the scene feared for their lives and well-being as they faced unprecedented, emotional crowds.


October 3, 1989: The situation at the West German embassy in Prague is quickly deteriorating. 4000 East Germans are now on the embassy grounds. Gates are closed to new arrivals due to severe overcrowding inside. 2000 people are camped outside, with more arriving by the hour. Refugees scale fences and other structures to enter embassy grounds.


October 3, 1989: 300 East Germans storm barricades in front of the West Germany embassy in Prague. The Czech police uses force; 11 people are injured. East German radio announces that all borders with Czechoslovakia are closed, that a metaphorical wall now surrounds East Germany.

October 3/4, 1989: The Czech government provides trains to transport 1000s of refugees waiting at the embassy in Prague.  West German officials at the embassy announce that everybody will be taken to the west. Yet confusion and delays cause fear and panic as East Germany is reluctant to cooperate. Trains leaving Prague will have to travel through East German territory, passing through the city of Dresden, a major center for demonstrations and dissent. As the first trains depart towards the west, they are held up by East German troops at Bad Schandau near the West German border. Stasi agents uncouple several cars with refugees aboard and send them back to Dresden. Supreme-dictator-in-charge Erich Honecker has not consented to let the trains pass. World leaders and his own politburo are getting increasingly annoyed with him. His presumed successor, Egon Krenz, suggests the government find a way to work with protesters. Honecker rejects the idea outright.

Thousands of demonstrators occupy Dresden's main train station, encountering heavy resistance from the Stasi and army. Water cannons and tear gas are used, hundreds are arrested. Eventually authorities lose control of the station, while Dresden's police chief mandates that protesters are not to be let into the station. Stasi leadership suggests deployment of army tanks at Dresden station, as the crowd grows to 20,000. The Czech government threatens to find its own solution for transport of refugees to West Germany if the East German leadership continues to obstruct train travel. Demonstrators in Dresden set police cars on fire. The East German Politburo decides to let trains leave Bad Schandau into West Germany and to let other trains from Prague pass through Dresden into the west. Stasi Dresden reacts by deploying 600 army personnel armed with machine guns at the train station.

October 4, 1989: East German flags torn down in Dresden during protests. The Stasi investigates the incident, no arrests.

October 5, 1989: This East German newspaper proclaims it's illegal to leave East Germany; former residences of refugees are being seized and reassigned immediately.

October 5, 1989: The first of a dozen trains from Prague arrives in Hof, Bavaria, West Germany; celebrations ensue. These people don't look TOO worried that they no longer have a place to live in East Germany.

October 5, 1989: Tears and joy - Is this really happening?


October 5, 1989: Red Cross volunteers in Ahrweiler, West Germany, prepare 2000 sandwiches for refugees expected to arrive within two hours.

October 5, 1989: A government-controlled East German newspaper publishes a special edition to commemorate the 40th anniversary of East Germany and proclaims that the country "has done outstanding things for the benefit of the people".


October 5, 1989: Refugee Center, Hof, West Germany. Army personnel help care for 1000s of new arrivals.


October 5, 1989: Starting over from nothing. Refugees in Ahrweiler, West Germany, looking among donated items for winter clothes that fit.


October 6, 1989: Candle light vigil for peace in Prenzlau, East Berlin. Protests for peaceful reforms spread across East Germany. Some of them turn violent in confrontations with Stasi agents and army personnel.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Freedom Trains! ~ The Weeks Before Mauerfall, Part 3

By late September 1989, East Germans were attempting to flee to the West in unprecedented numbers. The decision to leave the country without permission was treated similarly to how going AWOL is treated in the US military. The East German word for it was "Republiksflucht" (fleeing or deserting the republic). Getting arrested for Republiksflucht meant lifetime imprisonment and forced labor, along with severe consequences for the offender's family members, such as being denied a phone (that would be a land line, not a cell), a car, a promotion or admission to college.

The East German dictatorship had a strange way with words. Republiksflucht was akin to treason, yet East Germany wasn't a republic. The country's official name was DDR = Deutsche Demokratische Republik (Democratic Republic of Germany). Yet democracy was nowhere to be found, freedom was what you had when the baker had more than two kinds of bread to sell, and choice was an alien concept for many East Germans, as evidenced in this excerpt from an earlier blog entry:

Around 1990, in my hometown Bad Oeynhausen, soon after West Germany made the unprecedented decision to exchange worthless Eastern currency 1-to-1 for hard currency Deutschmarks, I ran into a woman, 40ish, in a supermarket, who was clearly from the East, based on her clothing. I decided to be a good Western ambassador and introduced myself. She regarded me with the kind of suspicion born from a lifetime of living in fear, but then opened up a little. She told me this was her first trip to the West. That she’d come across the border from her small town in the East by train to shop in the Western markets she’d heard about. She’d been told my hometown was a small, safe place with plenty of shops far enough away from the former East/West border that they weren’t continually picked clean. We were right next to the train station. I realized this woman was likely experiencing her first exposure to what food shopping in the West is like, what I took for granted my entire life. She looked at the large display of meats and sausages in front of us and frowned. She asked me "What do I get?" "Anything you want!", I answered, with a smile that was supposed to convey "Isn’t it GREAT?" She kept frowning and said "But who tells me what it is that I want?"

In September 1989, East Germany mobilizes its army in anticipation of squashing internal dissent by deploying trained troops in groups of 100. Government-controlled newspapers in large cities print propaganda in the form of "letters from readers" demanding an end to the "anti-socialist witch hunt" and the right to live in peace and apart without being bothered by other governments or countries. None of this stops East Germans from trying to reach West German embassies in Eastern Europe. The situation in Prague is growing particularly dire. As fall weather sets in, more people are forced to sleep outdoors.

September 27, 1989: The number of East Germans at the embassy in Prague climbs to 1380. There are not enough tents for the stream of new arrivals.

September 27, 1989: Efforts to stop East Germans from fleeing are becoming more desperate. A train with East German soccer fans en route to a game in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, is turned back and nobody is allowed to get off in Ostrava or anywhere else in Czechoslovakia. East German soldiers use dogs, tear gas and batons as the train stops in Prague. The train with all passengers aboard returns to East Germany.


September 28, 1989: 2,500 East Germans are camped on the grounds of the West Germany embassy in Prague. More are arriving constantly.

September 29, 1989: The grounds at the West German Embassy in Prague have turned to mud. More refugees are sleeping outdoors as temperatures plunge. The German Red Cross warns about inadequate sanitary conditions and the risk of infectious diseases. Every hour, the need for a resolution grows more urgent.

From the Stasi archives - September 29, 1989: Stasi report on the "repatriation" of 95 East German citizens who were arrested at the Czech border.  The total number of arrests at that border crossing in September is 1083.

September 29, 1989: East Germany's supreme dictator (Erich Honecker, here seen in his younger years) is pressured by Soviet government representatives as well as members of his inner circle to let the refugees at the Prague embassy travel to West Germany. Honecker finally relents and permits refugees at West German embassies to board special trains that will take them to various entry points in West Germany. 

That same week, the East German government is gearing up for a massive celebration and show of force to commemorate the 40th anniversary of East Germany. Honecker derides and dismisses the refugees, saying they aren't worth shedding a tear for. Another of his famous quotes has him proclaiming that the Berlin Wall will persevere for a thousand years, so there! (What is it with German dictators and thousand-year rule?) 

Rumors that Honecker is gravely ill surface at about the same time. His most likely successor will be Egon Krenz.

September 30, 1989: West Germany's foreign minister and a representative from the Chancellor's Office arrive at the embassy in Prague. The atmosphere is tense and expectant.

September 30, 1989, early evening: West Germany's foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher appears on the embassy balcony in Prague to announce that those who have been waiting in uncertainty, deprivation and fear will be allowed safe passage to West Germany. Hundreds of East Germans camped at the West German embassy in Warsaw, Poland, receive similar good news. 

Here is video clip of the moments just before and after Genscher delivers the good news. Listen to the crowd's reaction as he utters the words "Ihre Ausreise" ("your departure")! Many had been camped on embassy grounds in horrible conditions for weeks.

Preparations begin immediately. Refugees are taken by bus to the train station. Six trains are chartered, bound for various destinations in West Germany. Trains must travel through East Germany en route and many refugees are nervous, fearing the Stasi will snatch away their dream of freedom at the last minute. West Germany's Genscher assures the crowd of safe passage through East Germany.

That weekend, the word "Freiheitszϋge" (Freedom Trains) becomes a household word - in BOTH Germanies. It may well be the first language-based concept that transcends division by way of shared experience. Like Mauerfall.

The above events mark a major turning point, highlighting that East Germany lost its iron grip of control over its citizens. Power had shifted. The will of the people MATTERED, for the first time in 40 years. I remember calling my dad on Sunday morning, October 1, 1989 (US coverage on pre-Mauerfall events was pitiful and I called Germany to get good info). He read me the headline of the largest German daily that covered half of the front page: "Jubilation in Prague! All can leave!" I said "What!?" and he replied "Yeah." (We never did need many words to communicate a lot). Like most Europeans, we had both feared a much grimmer outcome. He and I both knew, somehow, the world wouldn't be the same after this day. This is one reason why the new all-German holiday celebrating German unity is October 3. The world media would focus on Berlin soon enough, but it was here, in Prague, more than a month before Mauerfall, that the Iron Curtain's unrelenting stranglehold on Eastern Europe finally eased.

September 30, 1989: The first East German refugees from the embassy in Prague board one of the Freedom Trains.

October 1, 1989: The head of the German Red Cross in Prague reports that living conditions at the embassy had been catastrophic. The extent of it is becoming clear only during cleanup. For the first time in weeks the embassy grounds are deserted.


From the Stasi Archives - October 1, 1989: A Freedom Train from Prague - code named "Sonderzug 23 362" travels through Dresden. The trains are locked and no stops are scheduled on East German territory. Still, trains must slow down to pass through major city centers. In Dresden, three people jump the train. East German police can't stop them.


October 1, 1989: The last of six Freedom Trains departs Prague, leaving the embassy empty.


October 1, 1989: Joyous reunions in Hof, Bavaria. West German soil! Scenes like this are typical of events that transpire at a handful of West German train stations that day. Families that were forcibly separated are reuniting, for good. Many meet adult relatives for the first time. Others had not seen each other for decades.


October 1, 1989: Good bye, East Germany. Refugees from the embassy in Warsaw, Poland, are overjoyed to arrive in Helmstedt, West Germany. Notice the sign the guy in the middle is holding up. It is an oval international car symbol (metal, like they used to be) that says "D" for West Germany at the time (now Germany). Look closer and you'll see that something on either side of the "D" was X'd and whited out. That would be the "D" and "R" that spelled DDR (East Germany). Naturally, nobody could find anything in East Germany that in any way, shape or form referenced West Germany in a neutral, much less positive way. So this guy improvised and did it well. In coming months and years it would become evident just how resourcefully clever East Germans had grown at improvisation. Like almost superpower clever - also a skill conspicuously lacking in their West German counterparts.


October 1, 1989: The first train from the Prague embassy arrives in Hof, Bavaria, in the West. The German Red Cross distributes warm meals. Those arriving at West German train stations during the first days of October are largely families with children and young adults.

From the Stasi archives - October 1, 1989: Meanwhile, back at Stasi Central... A Stasi agent reports that arrival of the Freedom Trains in West Germany caused media spectacles most decadent. He also notes that it was "disgusting" to witness the new arrivals cheer with joy.

October 2, 1989: Let us in! One day later, a new wave of East German refugees arrives at the embassy in Prague. They are eventually let in.

From the Stasi archives: October 2, 1989: An East German government official tells the West German Office of the Chancellor that "Allowing East Germans to leave from embassies was a one-time event and won't be permitted again!"

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The West German Embassy In Prague ~ The Weeks Before Mauerfall, Part 2

After hundreds of East Germans were able to depart East Germany for West Germany once Hungary temporarily opened one border crossing in September 1989, what everybody wanted - nobody more so than the East German communist power structure - was for things to "go back to normal". That is to say, everybody hoped East German citizens would quiet down now and go back to suffering and living in fear without complaints. It was a nice fantasy that would be shattered within a few short weeks. East Germans had gotten a taste of freedom. The most determined of them continued to risk their lives in a desperate bid to make sure the door that briefly opened to the West would not slam shut again for good. Hungary wasn't the only escape route to the West. East Germany also shared borders with Poland and Czechoslovakia - Warsaw Pact countries - where it was easier for East Germans to travel. 

The West German government always made it clear that its standing policy was to welcome and support any East German citizen who could make it to West German soil. By definition, this included West German embassies. Not long after the first few hundred East Germans arrived in West Germany via Hungary, East Germans began an Occupy movement way before it was a thing and crossed into other East European countries, making their way to West German embassies there, seeking asylum and refusing to leave. This soon caused a worsening refugee crisis at the West German embassy in Prague, Czechoslovakia, which was unprepared to deal with the influx of people. The situation grew increasingly desperate as basic services such as sanitation or tents were in short supply. The fall weather grew inclement. Hunger and disease were pressing concerns. Yet more and more East Germans continued to arrive at the embassy in Prague, hoping for a path to freedom.

West Germany did not have an embassy in East Germany. The closest thing to an embassy that existed in East Germany during the Cold War was a position entitled "Permanent representative of the West German government in East Germany". This accommodation was in title only, and did not confer diplomatic status or treat the space were the representative worked as sovereign West German soil. In order to reach a West German embassy, East Germans had to leave their country. And so people fleeing East Germany headed for Prague.

Meanwhile, inside East Germany, the council of Protestant Churches urges internal reform: Demands for more than ONE party, newspaper and TV channel, as well as unrestricted travel and economic reforms. For 40 years in East Germany, churches were neglected. The brand of communism practiced in East Germany had no use for religious or spiritual pursuits. Many churches in larger cities were never rebuilt after they were bombed out during WWII. Religion and religious services did not figure prominently into East German daily life. On the surface. In reality, religious practices continued, partly in "approved" churches, partly underground. The social networks people formed through church involvement eventually became stepping stones of peaceful dissent. Pastors like Christoph Wonneberger at Nikolai Church in Leipzig became the face and organizers of church-centered demonstrations that grew from a few hundred initially to attract more than 1 million protesters in the final weeks before Mauerfall.

From the Stasi archives: A telegram from supreme dictator Erich Honecker to the East German communist party, SED (Socialist Unity Party) sent on September 22, 1989. Yes, it really does start off with "Dear Comrades". It admonishes party members to squash enemy activities at the root as well as to target and isolate the leaders of these "counter-revolutionary activities". East German communism was based on Marxism and the concept of The Revolution that would transform society so that all the wealth is spread around, private ownership doesn't exist and everybody is equal. That was, in theory, East Germany's goal, so any activities threatening the status quo were branded as "counter-revolutionary".

September 22, 1989: Refugees at the West Germany embassy in Prague. The West German Red Cross uses a portable kitchen to serve a meal: pork chops, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut. It seems like a small detail, yet that meal is as German as German gets. The fact that both East and West Germans knew this foreshadows how much East Germans weren't really refugees, but simply Germans looking for a new home.

September 23, 1989: More and more East Germans arrive at the West German embassy in Prague. The portable kitchen is being moved to another location where it is needed. 

September 23, 1989: Governments watching events unfold don't really grasp what is coming down the pike. This document transcribes a conversation between Gorbachev and U.K. prime minister Thatcher, where she insists that Great Britain totally opposes German re-unification. Umh... okay, noted.

September 20, 1989: Internally, the Soviet ambassador to East Germany reveals his government's position - "We will support East Germany, but not at the cost of our interests in West Germany and Europe. Translation: "No. We will not send troops, guns and tanks to East Germany to keep their people from fleeing to the West." This Soviet hands-off approach to events in East Germany was crucial in allowing the events to unfold that led to Mauerfall. Soviet invasion was also the One Thing many West Germans feared, including my mother. The U.S. also showed restraint, despite military advisers to Bush Sr. pushing him to "take Eastern Europe". Whenever I hear an American claim that "we won the Cold War!" I point out that, no, we didn't. First, events leading up to Mauerfall were about peaceful change, not war. Second, if anyone won anything, it was Mikhail Gorbachev for choosing to de-escalate. 

September 19, 1989: 510 East Germans refugees are now camped out on the grounds of the West German embassy in Prague. The flag in the picture is that of West Germany.

September 19, 1989: Correspondence between West Germany's secretary of state and embassy in Prague. A decision is made to close the embassy temporarily. This does not discourage the arrival of more refugees.

From the Stasi archives: September 20, 1989 - Secret police report regarding flyers in the city of Arnstadt, inviting East Germans to come to a peaceful protest on September 30 and to openly criticize the arbitrary policies of East Germany's communist ruling party, SED. The Stasi documented the flyer, reproducing it in full, including the poem that appeared on the flyer. Here's a translated sample:

What kind of life? - When freedom was stillborn and everything seems lost.

What kind of life? - When fear rules every day, where the end never seems to end.
What kind of life? - When a very few have everything and there's no way out for people like us.

September 24, 1989: The number of East German refugees at the embassy in Prague climbs to 865. In the previous 24 hours alone, 135 East Germans scaled the fence of the shuttered embassy to reach West German soil - or at least the glimmer of a chance to reach West Germany itself.

September 24, 1989: Possibly due to pressure from East Germany, the Czechoslovakian government begins tight controls on its borders with Hungary in a bid to prevent East Germans from leaving the country and to persuade them to return to East Germany. Instead, refugees continue to mass at the embassy in Prague, as the weather turns frigid.

September 25, 1989: A demonstration in Leipzig, East Germany, attracts a record 5,000 participants demanding internal reform. A few days earlier, protesters had filed for permission to make Neues Forum (New Forum) on officially permitted group working to have a voice in government. East German functionaries turned down the request. Protesters chant "Legitimize Neues Forum!"

From the Stasi archives - September 26, 1989: East German secret police is out of its league, unable to stem the flood of protests and acceptance of Neues Forum. The report states that some East Germans were overheard saying that "These sort of things simply cannot continue to happen on Monday evenings!" The document also contains a lot of waffling about how the Neues Forum movement itself isn't an actual threat to anything and that it can be made to go away if they just zero in on the "instigators". 
Translation: "Gaahh!! What are we gonna do?!"

From the Stasi archives - September 27, 1989: East Germany's defense minister calls for increased army mobilization in East Berlin as well as for more effective "border protections". Like many alarmist Stasi documents from the time, specific details on how to accomplish all that are conspicuously absent. 

September 26, 1989: West Germany's intelligence service (BND) concludes that "there is nothing about these current events that suggest they are an explosive mix that could lead to a repeat of June 17th, 1953", the date of an uprising in East Berlin of the type that hastened the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

From the Stasi archives - September 25, 1989: Stasi telegram about a demonstration at the Nikolai Church in Leipzig. Protest organizers used the term "Monday Prayer Services" and "Prayer Services For Peace" to refer to gatherings that doubled as demonstrations for the Neues Forum platform. Whoever wrote this report appears to be particular incensed by this use of language and constantly puts the words "Montagsgebet" (Monday Prayer Services) and "Friedensgebet" (Prayer Services For Peace) in quotes. The author is also alarmed at the pastor's calls for expanding Monday Prayer Services to other days and locations since the Nikolai Church in Leipzig can no longer accommodate the number of protesters.

September 25, 1989: Czechoslovakian military police guard the entrance of the closed West German embassy in Prague. East Germans refuse to move.

September 25, 1989: Owning a Trabant (aka Trabi) was a sign of being a good East German citizen loyal to the party line. The East German state did produce cars (a single make and model, of course) and doled them out via waiting lists and background checks to people the government considered somehow deserving. The fact that East Germans were photographed fleeing East Germany in their Trabants was particularly embarrassing to the East German propaganda machine. Photo shows refugees arriving at West German embassy in Prague.

From the Stasi archives - September 24, 1989: A telegram from the Stasi leadership to its rank and file exhorting Stasi agents to step up detention of East German citizens attempting to cross East Germany's border with Poland. This may have been a rare instance of actual foresight by the Stasi leadership, but... too little, too late.

September 26, 1989: East Germans continue to arrive on the grounds of the West German embassy in Prague. Children peak through a fence, facing an altogether uncertain future.