Thursday, October 30, 2014

It Started At The Austrian-Hungarian Border - The Weeks Before Mauerfall, Part 1

[Want less text? Scroll down for tweet-sized bits] 

I recently discussed Mauerfall 1989 with a friend, remarking on the staggering volumes of paper evidence that East Germany's secret police apparatus left behind, when its power dissipated like magic, after East Germans collectively decided no longer to ignore the man behind the curtain. My friend remarked: "It seems that's always been the downfall of you Germans. You throw a dictatorship and keep meticulous records of it." Indeed. Actual Stasi members became harder and harder to find after Mauerfall, but the records of 40 years of surveillance of millions of East German citizens were soon discovered, hidden away, neatly filed and centralized, in mountain caves near Jena.

In the weeks after Mauerfall, one of the first of many contentious issues between Easterners and Westerners arose over the question of what to do with these documents. East Germans wanted them destroyed. Many feared being exposed as Stasi agents, others feared personal and family secrets that might come to light. Still others argued that those documents represented the very core of what was wrong with East Germany, a record of terrible invasions of privacy. With freedom, they argued, should also come freedom from a Stasi paper trail. I can't help but agree with that, even as the historian in me wants to smack me upside the head.

As with practically any other issue that arose after Mauerfall, Westerners got what they wanted: the records were preserved for posterity. It was never said out loud during the back-and-forth over this or any other issues, but after West Germany bought East Germany's worthless currency 1-to-1 in July 1990, I started to sense a distinct subtext along the lines of: "Look, guys. We just exchanged your worthless monopoly money for Deutschmarks that are actually worth something. The least you can do in return is trust us not to screw you over."

Today, the Stasi records are stored at and curated by organizations such as the Center for Contemporary History / Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung in the Eastern city of Potsdam and the BStU. Take a look at the site if you really want to know the German phrase behind that acronym. It loosely translates as "we keep Stasi records here" and its motto is "The better we can understand dictatorships, the better we can shape democracy", which gets creepier the more I think about it.

While some of these archives are public, others are open only to those individuals who are the subjects of the files. The BStU has created an entire process through which former East Germans can gain access to their own Stasi files. But, I'm pretty sure, in the end, they have to give the originals back.

@Mauerfall89 on twitter is a German-language account that has been tweeting Stasi records, along with other documents and media. This blog is a good place to make these tweets more accessible to English speakers. They resoundingly illustrate how Mauerfall was not a one-day event with a distinctive beginning and end. I can easily argue that the end hasn't been written yet. As to the beginning? It was a confluence of factors, but above all, it was a generational revolt. That part of my prediction turned out to be prophetic, even though The Wall crumbled much sooner than even I expected.

It was a movement spearheaded by those who desperately wanted to leave, along with more moderate voices who called for reforms in East Germany. As East Germans began to flee via Hungary, demonstrations started to take place in East Germany's large cities, Dresden, Leipzig, Jena, Gera, Potsdam and others. Churches played a pivotal role. Pastors became the leaders through which congregations grew into demonstrations. Soon, the term "Montagsdemonstrationen" became a household word, as Monday evening newscasts in West Germany showed large numbers of East Germans demonstrating peacefully in the cities, Monday after Monday.

The reform movement got a name: "Neues Forum" (New Forum). It continued to demand true democratic reforms, even as party hardliners in East Germany instructed the Stasi and, later, the NVA (Nationale Volksarmee, East Germany's army) to crack down on these events, as well as root out and punish the leaders. Regardless, by late October 1989 Neues Forum protests were held in 170 locations across East Germany, with more than 1.1 million participants.

In early September 1989, it was East Germans massing at border points with Austria in Hungary that attracted the attention of the world. Even at the height of tyranny, East Germans could still travel under some circumstances, just not to the West. It was impossible for the average East German to cross a border into West Germany, but East Germans could cross into Hungary, another Warsaw Pact country. Desperate East Germans who had nothing but what they could carry begged and pleaded with Hungarian border guards to let them pass through Austria into West Germany. Throughout the Cold War, West Germany granted de facto citizenship and assistance to any East Germans who could make it to West German soil. In September 1989, that is what East Germans camped out at the Hungarian/Austrian border wanted.

Think about this situation: Thousands of East Germans, with more arriving daily, waited at the border with Austria in Hungary while the world decided their fate. They would rather die than go back to their homes in East Germany. All they wanted was to leave behind everything in East Germany and travel through Austria to West Germany to being again. The East German government, was, of course, livid over this, but the Stasi and NVA had no real authority in Hungary. The Austrian and Hungarian governments just wanted to get this resolved. They sure didn't want to shoot, arrest, detain or interrogate anyone.

If you were to believe the cold warrior textbooks, all hell should have broken loose right around then. And many, like my mom, believed that to be very likely under the circumstances. You'd have Russia threatening to invade Hungary and East Germany, West Germany going GSG-9 and rescuing the refugees on their own, a larger US-USSR conflict and the spectre of nukes at the global level - simply for shaking up the status quo.

What actually happened was very different. On September 10, 1989, the Hungarian government quietly decided to open its borders and let the East German refugees pass, later stating that it did not obtain prior authorization from the Soviet Union. Nor did the U.S. play a crucial role in this decision. Buses were provided and the first of what would become millions of East Germans were allowed to enter West Germany. At the time, very few people anticipated that this event would open the flood gates. It was widely seen as a one-time deal made for humanitarian reasons. Even I did not see Mauerfall coming in September 1989.


Two days later, in an open letter, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl thanked the Hungarian government for "this act demonstrating its humanity." He doesn't refer to the people from East Germany as "refugees", as media around the world began to do. He calls them "our compatriots", a term stressing the fact that West Germans welcomed East Germans with open arms. In the article he also talks about the will of the German people to become one country again as akin to a moral obligation.

As soon as Hungary opens its border with Austria at midnight on September 10, 1989, East German refugees storm the border in a rush to cross:

Thousands of East Germans arrive in West Germany for the first time, after traveling through Austria from Hungary. The expressions on these faces taking it all in says it all.

Just get me out of here! East Germans in Hungarian taxis hoping to cross to the West.

Meanwhile, inside East Germany, Prayer Services For Peace begin in Leipzig's Nikolai Church. About a 1,000 East Germans attend; Stasi arrive and arrest 89.

The ruling SED party's politburo members meet to discuss events in Hungary. In the excerpt from the minutes below, Comrade Mittag holds forth on how Hungary has broken its loyalty to East Germany under the guise of humanitarian actions, on how the West German propaganda machine continues to churn, lying about everything. Comrade Mittag identifies the problem as "that hole in Hungary" and strongly suggests that it be handled internally, without involvement of other countries or governments. He wants this matter handled by the Stasi and the Ministry of the Interior. This type of response from the East German government has been described as "inaction due to having no clue what to do about this or how to stop it from happening again" (yes, the Germans have a word for that). So the proper East German response was to put other branches of the government in charge.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Growing Up In West Germany, With One Parent From [REDACTED]

Growing up in West Germany, I frequently felt like I was living in "The Twilight Zone" - The pervasive, all-around cultural denial that there was anything at all wrong or even noteworthy about this divided Germany situation into which I had been born. Adults took it for granted. The division was presented as established history, fact and future in schools. There were no discussions about how long the division might last. The answer was obvious.

My peers weren't a lot of help, either. My parents had kids about 10-12 years later than average, which put me in school with people whose parents had just missed having personal memories of WWII. Mine weren't so lucky. Between them, they saw enough suffering, death and cruelty by age 20 to last a thousand lifetimes.The fact that both of them escaped those years with their lives is nothing short of extraordinary.

As a result of their wartime experiences, both my parents struggled with severe, undiagnosed and untreated PTSD throughout their adult lives. This made for some highly unusual childhood memories. Like the time when I was 5 and walked under a railroad overpass holding my mom's hand just as a train passed overhead. Suddenly, my mom was curled up in a fetal position on the sidewalk, terrified, wailing for the noise to stop. Or witnessing similar reactions when she would dive under the coffee table for cover when the sound of falling bombs suddenly came on TV. Another time I found her huddled in the farthest corner of the darkest basement room, her right hand frantically kneading the sand in a large sack next to her. My question "What are you doing, mommy?" went unanswered. My father, struggling with his own demons, dismissed these things as trivial. My peers couldn't relate and thought I was making things up. My extended family stubbornly adhered to the "Don't talk about the war" code of silence.

When she was 14, my mother lived through the firebombing of Dresden, a grand Eastern German city that she adored. She grew up in bohemian luxury with her parents and brothers until February 14, 1945, when wave after wave of white phosphorus incendiary bombs reduced the city to charred rubble, to horrific suffering and torturous death that would be compared to Hiroshima. With her brothers and father drafted into the war years earlier, my mom and grandmother fled their bombed-out home with only the clothes on their backs, in the middle of winter, for six long weeks, barely surviving on the kindness of strangers. From south east Germany, they walked hundreds of miles, always hiding from the advancing Red Army, to my hometown in the north west, where my grandmother had family.

The alarming behavior I had noted with much consternation as a child was caused by my mother being in Dresden when the bombs began to fall. As a constant reminder, she had a large scar on her arm where a chunk of white phosphorus stuck and burned deep into her flesh. In the months prior to the bombing, Dresden residents lived through many bomb alarms and drills. My mother told me how much she hated those because they seemed pointless; no bombs ever fell after the warnings. One of the measures Dresden residents took was to equip their basement rooms with large sacks of sand, since burning white phosphorus cannot be extinguished with water. During the two days and nights of bombardment that turned my mother's beloved city into unrecognizable rubble littered with charred corpses, my mom huddled with my grandmother in the corner of their basement, digging her right hand into a sack of sand over and over again in utter terror, hoping, praying that they would be spared, that the next wave of bombs wouldn't turn their hiding place into a fiery coffin.

I went to school with the same kids for nine years and did not come across a peer who had one parent from the West and the other with firm roots in what was then East Germany. Or anyone with a parent struggling with war-related post-traumatic stress. Or if they did, they didn't talk about it. The area of West Germany where I grew up was relatively untouched by WWII and it was easy to pretend the war hadn't changed Germany forever. There was no one I could go talk to about my deepening confusion. There were no support groups for "children of parents with severe PTSD". In fact, the term PTSD didn't even exist. It wasn't until the mid-80s, after I had earned my first psychology degree, that I began to comprehend the nature and scope of my parents' emotional wounds. 

My mother's PTSD also meant that Dresden was a non-topic while I was growing up. Just like she believed the Berlin Wall would never fall, she was convinced she would not see her city again, that it was forever lost to her. I quickly learned not to ask questions about Dresden, or about details of my mother's childhood there. When I did, the topic would invariably bring the worst trauma of her life to the surface, triggering overpowering emotions that distressed her and confounded me.

Once unimpeded travel became possible in late 1989, both my sister and I decided one of the very first things we needed to do was to visit Dresden with our mother. We did so a number of times in the years after Mauerfall. My first trip to Dresden came in late 1990, just after the first all-German elections and six months after the currency union.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Rocky Road To Reunification

I have often wondered how outsiders viewed German reunification, those who never lived in either West or East Germany. What did it look like to you? How did you envision the merging of 63 millions West Germans with 16 million East Germans after four decades of forced cultural and political separation? Did it look like 40 years of cultural divergence was erased during those magical days in Berlin in November 1989, during Mauerfall (fall of the wall)? Did anyone anticipate the impending culture clashes that swiftly engulfed neighboring countries over national identity issues as old as Europe itself?

At the time, my joy that Mauerfall had corrected a great wrong in this world and my youthful focus on wanting to shake up the status quo of German division rarely had me contemplate the larger ramifications. I never envisioned reunification to be a likely consequence of giving East Germans the same freedoms West Germans took for granted. Contemplating a post-Mauerfall future, I envisioned two Germanies, with both populations living in freedom, yet maintaining separate national identities that I expected would likely take a few generations to reconcile. At least that seemed like a prudent way to think about it.

What actually happened was much closer to an expansion into five East German states that increased West Germany's territory by 45% while increasing its population of roughly 60 million by 25%. As a point of reference, reunified Germany is about the size of Ohio. In 1990, the combined population of both Germanies was 75 million. Today it is about 80 million.

One way to frame this is as an exercise in aggressive assimilation that wrested the option of becoming a sovereign country from East Germans before they, as a nation, even understood what that meant. With a certain amount of unease, West Germany's western neighbors were left to witness an accelerating reunification and structured assimilation process that took about a year to run its course. In December 1990, Germany held its first all-German free elections since the Nazi era.  

It may seem that these elections marked the most important event in formalizing newly established ties between countries and peoples that had been forced to live apart for decades. Alas this was West Germany - Europe's powerhouse economy! A more critical step than all-German free elections came in the form of East Germany's adoption of the West German currency, Deutschmark, six months prior to the first all-German elections. It was a solid currency at the time, while East Germany's was worthless.

"Adoption" in this case is misleading. There was no governing body in East Germany that could have administered such a move, much less financed it. Currency unification was a bailout. For a short time during the summer of 1990, East German currency could be exchanged 1:1 for Deutschmark at West German financial institutions. The strain on West Germany's economy was severe and foreshadowed the exorbitant price tag Germans would pay to be(come) one country again. 

The argument was that most of those Deutschmarks exchanged for East German currency would go right back into the West Germany economy. Did they ever! The unprecedented currency exchange program almost instantly caused shortages of consumer goods and groceries to an extent that made the initial days and weeks after Mauerfall look like a minor supply-and-demand glitch. It probably caused bad flashbacks to post-WWII shortages in older Germans. These shortages were felt most acutely by West Germans living closest to East Germany, or, in the case of West Berlin, IN it.

Almost all West Germans were affected by them, one way or another, as East Germans for the first time ever, went shopping, en masse. For many months after July 1990, it was all but impossible to find used cars for sale in West Germany. Or used appliances, furniture and other durable goods. Second-hand markets thrived in West Germany for products known for their quality and longevity. These markets were struggling to restock inventory long enough that a sizable number of West Germans began to realize that the road ahead would be rougher than anything West Germans had navigated to date, paved with resentment, contention, competition, economic hardship and all-around cultural upheaval.

It was also a time of jaw-dropping learning experiences. People on both sides came together in wonder, sharing life stories and ideas, creating new opportunities, new lives and a new future.