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We Were the People: Voices from East Germany's Revolutionary Autumn of 1989 / Edition 1

We Were the People: Voices from East Germany's Revolutionary Autumn of 1989 / Edition 1

by Dirk Philipsen
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On the night of November 9, 1989, an electrified world watched as the Berlin Wall came down. Communism was dead, the Cold War was over, and freedom was on the rise—or so it seemed. We Were the People tells the story behind this momentous event. In an extraordinary series of interviews, the key actors in the drama that transformed East Germany speak for themselves, describing what they did, what happened and why, and what it has meant to them. The result is a powerful firsthand account of a rare historical moment, one that reverberates far beyond the toppled wall that once divided Germany and the world.
The drama We Were the People recreates is remarkable for its richness and complexity. Here are citizens organizing despite threats of bloody crackdowns; party functionaries desperately trying to survive as time-honored political prerogatives crumble beneath their feet; an oppressed people discovering the possibilities of power and freedom, but also the sobering strangeness of new political realities. With their success, East Germans encountered the overpowering might of thie Western neighbor—and stand perplexed before the onslaught of real estate agents, glossy consumer ads, political professionalism—and the discovery that a lifetime of social experience has suddenly lost all usable context. They became, in the words of one participant, a people "without biography."
Over all the recent events and unlikely turns recounted here, one thing remains paramount: the sweep of the initial democratic conception that animated the East German revolution. We Were the People brings this movement to life in all its drama and detail, and vividly recovers a historic moment that altered forever the shape of modern Europe.

Some Voices of the People
Bärbel Bohley/ "Mother of the Revolution"
Rainer Eppelmann/ Protestant Pastor
Klaus Kaden/ Church Emissary to the Opposition
Hans Modrow/ Former Communist Prime Minister
Ludwig Mehlhorn/ Opposition Theorist
Ingrid Köppe/ Opposition Representative
Frank Eigenfeld/ New Forum
Harald Wagner/ Democracy Now
Sebastian Pflugbeil/ Democratic Strategist
East German Workers
Cornelia Matzke/ Independent Women's Alliance
André Brie/ Party Vice-Chairman
Gerhard Ruden/ Environmental Activist
Werner Bramke/ Party Academic

Product Details

ISBN-13: 2900822312948
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 10/14/1992
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 392
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

We Were the People

Voices from East Germany's Revolutionary Autumn of 1989

By Dirk Philipsen

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8175-4



FRANK EIGENFELD, biologist and founding member of New Forum, and HARALD WAGNER, mathematician, pastor, and founding member of Democratic Awakening. "I had felt imprisoned ever since 1961."—Eigenfeld "I learned from my sports experiences that there is nothing I cannot do just because someone tells me that I can't."—Wagner

About two months into my research on the East German revolution, in July of 1990, I was invited to an oppositional Summer Academy in Erfurt, created two years earlier as an informal annual gathering ground for oppositionists from all parts of the GDR. This event had initially been set up by members of a dissident circle within the church, called the "Solidaristic Church." The overriding purpose behind the Summer Academy was to provide a relatively secure space for communication among disparate sectors of the East German opposition under the aegis of the Protestant church. As some of the founders told me, the strong but distant hope was that something collective, something "bigger," might come out of such a meeting. This hope was not entirely misplaced, as later events proved. In fact, the list of participants in the meetings during the previous summer of 1989 reads like a "Who's Who" of the East German opposition leadership. At the time of my 1990 visit, most of these people held some kind of elected position, in stark contrast to the year before.

The Summer Academy took place in the rooms of the Protestant church in Erfurt, a city of medieval origin and great beauty, despite the fact that large portions of its centuries-old architecture have been badly neglected over the last 40 years. The historic center of Erfurt is surrounded by the kind of shoddy, pragmatic, and cold architecture one can find in most "socialist" cities: six- to eight-story concrete blocks, as cheaply built as they appear overwhelmingly inhumane. Erfurt was a city of tensions and contradictions, a city in which Luther spent five years studying theology (1501–5), and where, a little less than 400 years later, in 1891, the German Social Democrats voted to adopt a "Marxist" program which they hoped would help lead Germany to a free and egalitarian future. Narrow cobblestone roads, little marketplaces, solid stone houses, some built as far back as the sixteenth century, and more than 60 churches and cathedrals exude an atmosphere of "lived history" like few other places in Europe.

Oppositionists from every Eastern European country, including the Baltic republics and the Soviet Union, participated in the 1990 Summer Academy. For seven intense days, 46 people from 11 countries (I was the only "Westerner") talked, debated, ate, drank, laughed, sang, and argued with each other. We read prepared papers to each other and had discussions about the past, present, and possible future of each and every East-Central European nation; it was an experience, in short, that was as unusual as it was exhausting, energizing, and enhancing.

On the very first day of the conference, I had a long conversation with two East German oppositionists, Frank Eigenfeld from Halle and Harald Wagner from a small town near Leipzig. Neither of these men had been mere spare-time oppositionists; they had quite literally lived for "a free and democratic but also egalitarian" East Germany all their adult lives. Both turned out to be invaluable sources on the internal dynamics of the growing civic opposition movement during the 1980s. But above all, they in many ways represented—as close as one can get to "typical" examples—the organized East German opposition at large. Not nationally known, yet widely respected in their communities, not fighting for personal fame but rather for a better society to live in, articulate but not condescending, they had consistently pursued their objectives despite great personal hardships and many severe setbacks. Both were quite unpretentious, which I initially misread as a possible sign of insecurity, or even weakness. At first, I thus viewed them as people who could not really be "serious candidates" according to my notion of "genuine and dedicated oppositionists in a police state." The quiet but very determined way in which they explained the intricacies of political dissent in the GDR quickly revealed that this impression was quite wrong. Much of the Western cultural baggage I had brought with me concerning how people think, or how they "usually" interact with each other, it turned out, simply did not apply in the opposition milieu of the GDR.

In the following section, Frank Eigenfeld and Harald Wagner incisively address some of the problems and presumptions shaping democratic political organizing. For instance, one of the most basic issues of political activism—in East Germany as in any other modern society—revolves around the question of what to do in order to translate a "good idea" into a "tangible result"—a frustrating problem routinely simplified into the elementary decision of whether to work "within the system" or "outside of it." As the following interview makes clear, the real political issues were, and are, much more complex. In many cases the very distinction between "inside" and "outside" seemed impossible to make. In the movement's initial stages—and this interview focuses on these early stages—the tasks of simple survival far outweighed such lofty strategic questions. Eigenfeld and Wagner here illuminate the many arduous steps that needed to be taken in order to get from articulating political grievances to organizing local grass-roots groups and, ultimately, to some kind of larger network of oppositional groups nationwide.

The two activists agreed to participate in a joint interview late one evening, after a full day of discussions and events. As the three of us sat around a small table, Eigenfeld unpacked a bag full of home-grown fresh vegetables and some Czechoslovak beer ("you never know whether you can find good stuff when you go on a trip in the GDR, so I always take along as much as I can") and began to tell me about his childhood and youth, his experiences with the East German state, and about the twists and turns of how his initial grudging acquiescence to communist party control developed over the years from private dissent to increasingly outspoken resistance. He was born in 1943.

Frank Eigenfeld: I had realized very early, even before the Wall was built, what it meant to live in the "East" as opposed to the "West." The exchange rate, for example, was 1 Mark West for 5 Mark East at the time, and in addition our wages were much lower than in the West. So even though there were plenty of things in the stores in West Berlin, there was very little I could buy with my money....

The Wall was erected one week before my eighteenth birthday. This was the first genuine shock in my life. All of a sudden it became strikingly clear to me that there are certain people out there who have the power fundamentally to curtail your wishes and your plans. This was something I wasn't used to from home, and something I was never able to accept. To this very day I am deeply moved by resentment when I am in Berlin and I see the Wall.

Back in 1961, just like today, I simply perceived such constraints, whether on a political level or on a personal level, as very unjust. Wherever I can, I try to defend myself against it. I don't think the implementation of such restrictions can ever be justified, whatever the cause may be. A political structure like that simply has no right to exist.... But still I, as most everyone else, did not know how to respond to all this. I felt unable to respond; I felt completely powerless....

Of course, these things were part of our discussions at home or at work, but there was nothing we could do. We all felt a sort of helpless rage. We talked about it, we felt angry and shocked, but we never did much about it.

Political discussions picked up in earnest during the Prague Spring of 1968. I can remember—we listened a lot to Radio Prague—that we invested a lot of hope in a possible new development. Most of all we hoped that this new development would also begin to take place in the GDR....

So you can imagine the horror we felt when Czechoslovakia was occupied in '68. During that period we spent most of our days listening to the radio, hearing the calls for help from Prague. Again we experienced this feeling of powerlessness, the feeling that there was nothing we could possibly do....

There were very few signs of solidarity in East Germany. A small number of people wrote slogans on streets or on walls, but we could not find anything meaningful to do in terms of putting up some resistance [to the violent crackdown of the Prague Spring].

So this was my second experience with a system that cold-bloodedly killed certain important developments, a system that I thus came to perceive as simply inhumane....

During the seventies, hope blossomed again because of the Warsaw Pact treaties with the Federal Republic, and when those did not end up changing much, we began to hope again during the so-called Helsinki process....

In 1977–78, the debates surrounding the arms buildup began. Again, it became very clear to me that a danger was developing here that could be potentially disastrous. The saying at the time was that "the Germans can see each other from now on only through a fence of missiles." ...

In light of all these developments, it increasingly dawned on me that one cannot always continue to sit still as a victim and say "it's terrible what's happening around us, but basically we are helpless."

Once I had fully realized that, I consciously moved away from this position of powerlessness and began to think about what one can do, at least as an individual. You see, this was, for me, very similar to the dynamics of the Third Reich. We had asked our parents about their position during that time, knowing, or at least being able to know, what had happened around them. But what had their role been? To what extent had they been responsible? In short, there was a growing desire in me to become active in order not to have to accuse myself of not having "done anything."

My wife and I thus joined a so-called "open group" [in 1978] that had been founded by a open-minded pastor in Halle. We quickly developed good contacts with the members of this group since they pretty much shared our objectives. Soon thereafter we began to organize a number of initiatives....

There were only a few older people like us. Most of them were young activists.... The group called itself "Open Work." We dealt with a variety of problems, concerning the school, the workplace, or the parents of some members. We were open toward all these problems and tried to deal with them in any way possible, always trying to point out the larger political relevance....

In addition, we began to develop ideas as to how we could try to get involved with the whole debate surrounding the arms race. For example, we began to stage small demonstrations. To our utter surprise, we actually managed to conduct these demonstrations in the beginning. Obviously, nobody within the state apparatus had expected any such activities. I can remember when we organized the first one in Halle, on the occasion of a so-called official "peace meeting"—it must have been around '81—all the "blueshirts" [members of the party-controlled Free German Youth, an organization not dissimilar to the Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts in the United States, except that it had a more blatantly ideological, party-oriented emphasis] were ordered to go there, and we, a colorful and mixed bunch as we were, started off in order to participate as well. The official slogan back then was "Make Peace Against NATO Weapons" [Frieden Schaffen und gegen NATO-Waffen]. Sure, we were opposed to NATO missiles as well, but we were also against the Soviet missiles that were supposed to be deployed throughout the country.

In any case, we successfully "participated" and got all the way to the grandstand where all the district party bosses were standing. At first, they simply did not seem able to grasp at all what was happening down there. But immediately after they had realized what we were doing, they attempted to cover us up by surrounding us with blueshirts who carried flags, banners, and so on.

Those blueshirts, of course, also did not understand what was happening at all. When we began singing a few harmless songs (we numbered about 80) they began to yell "long live the party." Nobody else was yelling that, so everyone else began to look at what was going on, and we suddenly got a lot of attention. Anyway, we caused a great stir, and they could not prevent it anymore. But this was the only time we were that successful and did not have to deal with any forms of repression, summonses, and such.... They only took pictures of us that time....

Since you were talking about these stages between resignation and hope, how would you characterize your relationship toward the existing state in East Germany, to socialism—however one may interpret that word—and what specifically did you mean when you said that you had hope that something might open up or change? Was it hope for ...

Eigenfeld: ... Well, hope for liberalization, for more freedom. Something free and democratic, but still egalitarian.

I had felt imprisoned ever since 1961.I never got rid of this feeling. For me, the people who were responsible for that fact were the state's leaders; it was the party, it was the society in which I lived. Therefore, I also always argued against the excuse invoked by many of being merely "normal fellow travelers," because we all had to realize what the actual situation in our country was like, and that most of us were not doing anything about it. I simply could not fathom that, particularly in light of what had happened in the Third Reich. I thus never, in any way, identified with this state, or with what it represented.

My only hope was to get out of this prison, to get out legally, through normal channels, as a result of a normal development, without having to leave it. My hope was that this could be achieved through the so-called "East Treaties" and with the Helsinki process.

And beyond this opening, did you have any ideas as to what should become of the GDR?

Eigenfeld: I cannot remember that I had any concrete ideas about that. My hopes did not encompass the idea that the existing state had to be toppled, if that's what you mean.... I would always have accepted the existing state if it had only lived up to its promise of granting basic human rights.

In fact, I believe to this very day that citizens all over the world care very little about who exercises political power, that is, as long as it is exercised in such a manner that everybody can move around freely. Whether it is a monarchy, Mr. Kohl, Mr. Ulbricht, or the New Forum, that, to me, is not significant. And I don't believe it is significant to most other people either.

Well, that is in fact a fascinating question which we should come back to when we talk about New Forum and what it did and could have done during the Fall of 1989. But let's first turn to you, Harald. Could you also provide us with some relevant biographical information?

Harald Wagner: Perhaps in contrast to Frank, I am a person with close ties to home. I was born in 1950 and grew up in a tiny village with a population of 70. I am still living there. I was raised with a deep appreciation for the environment and for some sort of inner freedom. My parents were completely apolitical. With the exception of one person, there was no one in my environment who could have been considered "political." Yet when it was time to go through Jugendweihe [the party substitute for church confirmation], I simply refused to go along. If someone asks you to do something you don't want to ... well, from very early on I valued my right of self-determination, even against my parents' will ...

... It sounds as if you were not socialized "properly." Were you some sort of genetic rebel?

Wagner: [laughing] ... Well, maybe. Since I really wanted to finish school and get my Abitur [highest German school diploma, required for university entrance], I probably should have ... well, but I didn't.

In the fifth grade I got to know someone who would turn out to be a very important person not only for me, but in fact for this country, a man who later became state representative of the Saxon state church for environmental questions. He was the son of my parish's pastor. He became a very significant person in my life.

In a small circle which he organized, we began to read things like the first report of the Club of Rome as early as 1970–71, and subsequently wrote a petition to the Council of Ministers. One could say that I was thus politicized early on concerning environmental questions.

The other experience that was very important to me was that I did a lot of sports—decathlon, to be specific. I continuously moved up, first participating in competitions in the biggest district town, then in the state's capital, and then on the national level, and I realized that I was just as good as all the others. That experience would later turn out to be extremely important in political terms as well....

I learned from my sports experiences that there is nothing I cannot do just because someone tells me I can't.... I think the barrier which one has to overcome in order to realize something like that, however, is very high. There are too many pseudo-needs. In any case, in 1970 I began to study math in Leipzig, and ever since that time we tried to do environmental information work within the church.... The church was the only place that was relatively safe from the encroachments of the security police.


Excerpted from We Were the People by Dirk Philipsen. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Behind the Wall: One Objective, Many Voices,
PART I A LONG TIME COMING Roots of Dissent and Opposition in the German Democratic Republic,

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