East Germany's October 'Spring'

A German journalist recalls Leipzig in 1989 and the protests that led to the fall of East Germany.


    Leipzig was the place to be in October 25 years ago - a place of both fear and of excitement. It was in this city, in the country then known as the German Democratic Republic, that the "Monday demonstrations" took root before spreading to the whole of East Germany. One month later, this peaceful revolution would bring down the Berlin Wall. It was in Leipzig that I watched the protests unfold as a young journalism student at the Karl Marx University.

    The first protest had taken place in early September. No East German newspaper would report it, no TV crew was present. There were no social networking sites yet but the rumours had started. Something big was happening, something extraordinary. The protesters met under the roof of the Nikolai Church for a "Friedensgebet" - a prayer for peace. It was no coincidence that the protests had started in a house of God. The church in the GDR had always been a highly political meeting point, particularly for young people with "different opinions". They were closely watched and infiltrated by the secret police. In September 1989, the "Friedensgebet" was no longer about peace and disarmament. There was more at stake; the protesters demanded a more democratic society.

    New sense of possibility

    On September 4, 1,000 people marched, emboldened by the new sense of the possibility of freedom sweeping Eastern Europe. It was a risky and brave move. East Germany was a country that had its people under surveillance and everyone knew the powerful Stasi, the secret police, would not tolerate open opposition. But the time was right. Something had to change.

    The protest movement in Leipzig got bigger and more vocal. They were out on the streets for the first time. They demanded the right of freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of travel, and freedom to vote not just for one party.

    Thousands of East Germans had fled during the summer months. The "iron curtain" in Hungary was no longer as impenetrable. The West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw became refugee camps for East Germans hoping to to start a new life in the West. In Poland, the opposition had forced the communist government to sit down in roundtable talks. The political climate behind the "iron curtain" had long started to change.

    On September 30, the first of two trains left Prague heading to West Germany. On board were thousands of refugees from the East German embassy. This was a victory for freedom but a miserable day for the party and country leader Erich Honecker, who had seen no other way out of the crisis than to grant permission.

    I was in Budapest in the summer of 1989 and I remember watching the film "Dirty Dancing" while waiting for a flight back to Berlin. It had been a tough holiday with little money as the GDR mark was worth almost nothing in Hungary. While West Germans enjoyed a cheap holiday at the resorts in Balaton, East Germans felt like poor relations. Meanwhile, the East Berlin government was doing everything it could to bolster the economy. They were even selling their political prisoners to the West for 100,000 Deutsch marks per prisoner.

    The protest movement in Leipzig got bigger and more vocal. They were out on the streets for the first time. They demanded the right of freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of travel, and freedom to vote not just for one party.

    I had a good life in GDR and I could never have left my friends and my family behind. I could not have taken the very real risk of never seeing my parents again. But I could understand those who did. It was the first real chance of escaping the GDR without risking your life since the wall had been built nearly 30 years earlier.

    Hundreds had died between 1961 and 1989 while trying to cross the border into the West. Growing up in the GDR and having parents who had both experienced the horror of World War II, I always believed I lived in the better part of Germany.

    In 1989, I was 21 years old  and although I was a committed communist at the time, I would have loved a romantic journey to Paris. That was my big dream - a politically incorrect dream for a member of the socialist party.

    Socialist credentials

    As a journalism student at Karl Marx University, the so-called "Red Monastery", I was definitely privileged. To get a place at the journalism school you not only needed to be an academically promising student but you needed to have impeccable socialist credentials and a clean political past. What better way to control the next generation of journalists? To be a student there, it was preferable to come from a working class background and already be a party member who was willing to work for the state's propaganda machine in the way Lenin had laid out 70 years before. We learned how to write, to film and to take good photos. The Russian language was for most of us the weakest subject but without a good knowledge of Russian, there would be no journalism diploma.

    The 'Chinese solution' was very possible. It had only been months since students in Tiananmen Square were crushed with tanks. We had seen the pictures on TV.

    Outside our university windows, the world began to change. Most of us felt a lot of sympathy for the protesters but we were also not brave enough to join them in the early days. Our lecturers became nervous. Extra party meetings were organised and the message was clear: Joining the demonstrations would automatically lead to exclusion from university and the end of a career not yet begun in a country where you were given no second chances. I was not brave enough on October 9. It was the first time I'd ever seen fully armed police in helmets and protective gear with barking dogs.

    The GDR security force had planned to stop the demonstration on October 9, if necessary, with force. The "Chinese solution" was very possible. It had only been months since students in Tiananmen Square were crushed with tanks. We had seen the pictures on TV. 

    The leaders of the protest movement were targeted for arrest on the order of the head of State Security, Erich Mielke. But the police force was not prepared for so many people on the streets. Some 70,000 people took to the streets on that day and the police just stood by and watched.

    Just two days before this decisive Leipzig demonstration, party leaders had met to celebrate East Germany's 40th anniversary. While watching the parade in Berlin, it must have become clear to Honecker that there was obviously no help from his Soviet superpower partner to end the protest movement.

    When I joined the protests on October 16, it was not so risky any more. The speed of events was breathtaking. Soon the whole country was engaged in roundtable talks and Honecker was overthrown by his own "Genossen" and kicked out of the politburo.

    There was only panic, how were they to keep the socialist party - SED - in power? New faces were needed. And Egon Krenz, always expected to be Honecker's predecessor was a bad choice in this respect. Nobody trusted him, and nobody wanted him. The time for the SED was over.

    One last desperate manoeuvre in this battle was the introduction of a new legislation to make it possible to cross the border. Krenz did not intend to open the border on November 9. The plan was to win time by allowing every citizen to apply for a passport. Millions of citizens, millions of passports. This would take a minimum of four more weeks - so went the calculation.

    'Now, right now'

    November 9 was only supposed to be the day of the press conference to present the new travel law live on TV. Typical for press conferences of those days, Guenter Schabowski had to read from a piece of paper without fully knowing the content himself. A journalist asked when the law was going to be implemented, and Schabowski answered: "Now, right now."

    The news was out. In the East and the West, the media started to report about an opening of the borders in Berlin, while the border guards had not been given any information on how to handle the situation. Thousands of Berlin citizens arrived at the border crossings. The first ones received border stamps in their "Personalausweis",  but soon there were so many, the stamps and the border itself was forgotten. The wall separating East and West was falling around them.

    I was not in Berlin that day. I had lived most of my life in a small town called Eisenach directly on the motorway from east to west. Eisenach, which is now in the middle of Germany, used to be the last exit for GDR citizens on this motorway. Only West Germans knew what the road looked like if you kept driving on this motorway. There were no obvious signs like this is the last exit, you are not allowed to drive further, but everyone knew you better get off here or you are in trouble. Up until today I remember driving for the very first time on this motorway, directly west.

    Karin Lukas is a TV journalist and presenter who has been based in Berlin, Moscow, and London as a correspondent for the German television news channel n-tv.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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