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.