East Germany, 1989: when power was in the street

Within a few weeks in the autumn of 1989 a regime fell which had seemed invulnerable for decades. While Reagan and Thatcher seek to take credit for these momentous events, the truth is that millions of East German people took their destiny into their own hands. Olaf Klenke recalls the final days of the regime.

Photo: Daniel Antal, flickr

It’s the 11 September 1989. Hungary opens its Austrian border. In three days 15,000 East German citizens flee to the West. In Prague and Warsaw thousands of refugees occupy the West German embassy and demand to leave the country. They are mostly young workers, male and female, who won’t give the “Workers’ and Peasants’ State” of the German Democratic Republic another chance.

The emigration movement shakes the ruling Germany Socialist Unity Party to its foundations. Barbed wire and walls become permeable. Every East German has relatives, acquaintances and colleagues who have left the country. The party leadership responds with lies and contempt. The state newspapers report alleged kidnappings. Head of state Erich Honecker declares that he is “not shedding any tears” for the fugitives. More and more people long for freedoms. At the start of September a thousand protesters take part in the “Monday demonstration” in Leipzig – by the end of the month there are 8,000. Alongside the demand “we want to leave”, an increasing number of demonstrators shout the defiant slogan “we’re staying here” and demand the legalisation of the opposition group New Forum, which has just been formed.

In the party leadership memories reawaken of the workers’ rebellion of June 1953, when the regime could only be saved by Soviet tanks. The party elite responds to the movement with repression, breaking up the protest by force. At the start of October demonstrators in Dresden and other cities become involved in street battles with the police. At the same time the Stasi [the state security police] warn of the seething mood in workplaces. There are scattered, spontaneous workers’ struggles in the south of East Germany: in Altenberg 600 miners organise a go-slow to get the Czech border reopened.

When on 7 October, East Germany’s national day, protests take place in 18 cities, soldiers and police use rubber batons and mass arrests against both demonstrators and non-participants. In Plauen, a city near the Bavarian border with a population of 80,000, the police are none the less taken by surprise by the size of the demonstration. 15,000 people, mobilised by a few leaflets and word of mouth, gather in the city centre without really knowing what to expect. The deployment of two fire engines, functioning as water cannon, doesn’t stop them. They march around the whole of the inner city and agree to meet again on the next Saturday. Their demonstration is the first one not to be violently attacked by the security forces. In the following days the firefighters, who are volunteers, condemn the improper deployment of their vehicle. In some shops, police officers are no longer served.

After this week, violence is in the offing on the next Monday demonstration in Leipzig on 9 October. The city is in a state of emergency. The sparks of protest have come from here, and here is where the party wants to smother them. In the media and in workplaces there are warnings about bring in the army. Hospitals have blood supplies at the ready. But the people are no longer intimidated. In the evening 80,000 people march through the inner city and defy state violence. Soldiers refuse their orders, as has already happened in the previous few days. The local party leadership shrinks back from the use of force. The movement celebrates its first great victory over the party regime.

After the breakthrough in Leipzig the movement can no longer be stopped. In small towns the police still attack protests with batons. But from the south the demonstrations spread. In the cities hundreds of thousands take part in the protests. At the start of November, in Berlin and Leipzig alone, a million people are on the streets. After decades of repression, the mass demonstrations overcome feelings of powerlessness. “We are the people” becomes the slogan of a movement which wants fundamental social change. Activists organise discussions everywhere. Between 30 October and 5 November alone, the security forces report 230 “politically motivated events, attended by almost 300,000 people.” By January 1990, 250 different campaign groups have been registered. Committees to Reassess Stasi Power are established, houses occupied and galleries and bars opened. Students set up independent organisations, women’s groups open cafes and prisoners demand to take part in the administration of the prisons. In workplaces, workers raise demands for democracy and improved working conditions. In one Berlin electronics factory what started as a notice board where people could submit items for discussion grows to a length of several hundred metres. In several barracks, recruits elect soldiers’ councils. Pressure from the street forces the party to make concessions. State television begins to report on the demonstrations. Head of state and party leader Honecker resigns from all positions on 18 October. But people also mistrust the new government, and under the slogan “the wall must go!” they demand freedom to travel.

On the evening of 9 November, party official Günter Schabowski announces at an international press conference that the border will be opened. Responding to a journalist who asks when the new ruling will come into effect, Schabowski, without knowing the details, replies “As far as I know… immediately, right away.”

This only accelerates a process which can in any case no longer be stopped. Tens of thousands of people gather at the border crossings in Berlin and literally break down the barriers. With the fall of the wall the party loses control over the population. Revelations about the privileges of the party leadership, and their attempts to justify their power structure and to delay reforms further inflame discontent. At the start of December, demonstrators in Erfurt and other towns attack the Stasi headquarters. The party’s apparatus of repression is falling apart.

During the days the power is “in the street”. But now there’s the question of control of the workplaces. On the demonstrations, the demand “get the party out of the workplaces” is raised. On 3 December the entire party leadership resigns. On the same day, delegates of New Forum, the only national and influential resistance group, meet to discuss how to deal with growing demands for a general strike. A two-hour general strike had already taken place the previous week in Czechoslovakia, and this was followed closely in East Germany. In many workplaces people now began to discuss why they weren’t doing the same. The first New Forum workplace groups were already established by now.

The New Forum meeting hears further appeals for strike action when one of its leading members arrives late. Jochen Tschiche reports from a 100,000-strong demonstration in Magdeburg that all the demonstrators asked him what was supposed to happen now? The workers at the Ernst Thälmann heavy machine plant, which employed 12,000 people, were determined to go on strike, and asked him what he thought the demands of the strike should be. He passes on the question to the meeting: “What do I tell them? What demands should be raised?”

A strike movement would have been the next step in drawing further layers of the population into activity. If there had been strikes in big workplaces in the south and in Berlin, the government would have had nothing left to counter them with. The slogan “New Forum to power”, which was raised on demos, could have been a reality. But the opposition group shrinks back from overthrowing the party and setting up an alternative government. The people at the head of New Forum reject the demand as “premature” and instead sit down for “round table” talks with representatives of the old regime. They share the goal of preserving East Germany. The civil rights groups hope for a “third way” leading to a autonomous East Germany. Here they become increasingly irrelevant. The majority of the movement is more radical. They don’t want negotiations with the old elites. They want the destruction of the whole party power structure.

In the first weeks of 1990 the movement reaches a new peak. In dozens of workplaces, workers strike against the party’s threat to remain in power. On 15 January in Berlin, demonstrators storm the Stasi headquarters. They shout “Down with the party” and demand the resignation of Hans Modrow, the new head of the government. With his back against the wall, Modrow invites the civil rights groups to join a transition government. They accept the offer so as to prevent the fall of the government.

Neither those in New Forum who criticise the direction of the government, nor the many newly active men and women, have at their disposal the structures which are needed to counter this with an alternative leadership. And so a power vacuum develops, which Helmut Kohl can exploit in the months to come.

This article was originally published in German by the Marx21 website.


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