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.

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