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!"

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