Sonntag, 12. Juli 2009

Revolution from within - a side glance at Eastern Germany of 1989

(Translation by Julia – source: “DIE ZEIT # 29, July 9 2009)

“Time is Ripe”

September 9, 1989: 30 courageous citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) establish the “New Forum” (“Neues Forum”). They have no idea that this will kick off a landslide. By Jens Reich

“Make a revolution with Germans? That will never lead anywhere. Before storming a train station they will make sure they have a ticket…” Lenin is said to have mockingly remarked once. Why this should be a crucial obstacle for Germans to take part in a revolution, I never quite understood. Indeed we did not buy tickets, we virtually filed a revolutionary organisation like you do when founding a fishing club. The organisation did not pass, but nevertheless the revolution happened. We were not the only catalysts, there were many movements other than us. But nevertheless, we managed to activate the biggest amount of people. And without the orderly rebellion of an entire population the end of the dictatorship would have been impossible.

We – that was a group of thirty very ordinary citizens of the GDR. Each and every one of the participants of course has their own memories about how it happened that this group on the weekend of the 9th of September 1981 gathered in the house of Robert Havemann, a dissident who had died in 1981 after long house arrest, and composed the appeal “Aufbruch 89 – Neues Forum” (“New Dawn 89 – New Forum”). What I write down here is my own memory of the antecedent.

It was a hot summer, a languid holiday mood. A kind of ceasefire had settled down between the government and the dissatisfied population. The protesting civil rights activists who had debunked the fraud of the communal elections of early May had been temporarily silenced with various kinds of harassment. The politically active were in a state of shock after the bloody abatement of the students’ protests on the Square of Celestial Peace in Beijing.

For months now, civil groups had been forming, debating over reforms. Many were frustrated because the spectacular clashes often were dominated by those who wanted to leave the country and accomplished their wish by means of public protest and the occupation of embassies, whilst those who stayed inside the country and wishing to achieve changes grew demoralized by constant grueling cat-and-mouse-games with the authorities of the Department of Inner Affairs, and received protection and encouragement merely in some churches, but not from the population in general.

Attorney Rolf Henrich from Eisenhüttenstadt in those weeks traveled from place to place to hold speeches in churches and even in students’ clubs about his book “The Custodial State”, which he wrote in 1987 and on conspirative paths smuggled into the West in 1988 where it was lateron published. The response of the powers was adroit; Henrich was excluded from the SED (only significant political party in the GDR, Julia) and replaced as the chairperson of the bar association in the district of Frankfurt (Oder).

In his book, which secretly circulated in the GDR, as well as in his speeches, Henrich produced a biting criticism of the state of things. He stressed that protests would have to remain within the country, however, had to free itself from the protection of the church in order to take effect. This was not new. Members of the “Initiative for Peace and Human Rights” had been demanding this for quite a while.

What was new was that Henrich adressed “normal citizens in their middle ages and with renowned professions”. He opposed to any of the ostentatively alternative, protest-cultural, anarchic, subversive appearance of the hitherto existing civil movement, against the conspirative production of copied political flyers such as the famous “Grenzfall”. It would be more adequate to found a political movement within the framework of the legislation of the GDR, register it according to the rules and demand participation in the political decisions pursuant to the constitution of the GDR. However, the design of this constitution did not allow the foundation of political parties, so any political party would immediately be declared illegal. However, it was legally allowed to register an association within the framework of the association law, the purpose of which, of course, was the regulation of non-political unions like, for example, a chess club. The foundation of this association could be declared to be a constructive contribution to the beginning party congress discussions; even the law-abiding citizen could refer to the legal procedure, and the powers would be in a dilemma not being able to prohibit their own laws.

Foreigners ask for advice: “what shall we do now?”

In July the physician Erika Drees from Stendal visited me at our weekend home. I knew her from the Organisation of Medics against Nuclear War (IPPNW). She invited me to a meeting at the place of Rolf Henrich to discuss political issues. After a conspirative journey with observer-confusing roundabout ways, my wife Eva and I arrived at the place and found, apart from Rolf Henrich, his wife and Erika Drees, also Bärbel Bohley and Katja Havemann, which I had met at protests of the previous years, although I did not know them personally. They asked me if I was willing to participate in the foundation of a legal “Jacobin Club”. We agreed to meet at the weekend of September 9 at the house of Katja Havemann in Grünheide. Just by word of mouth each of us was supposed to invite some trustable acquaintances, if possible, not too many pastors, not only people from Berlin, not just members of the intelligenzia, not only men, not only left-wings – so to say, a cross section of the society’s mainstream.

So we gathered on Saturday, 9 September, at the house of the Havemann family. We were about 40 people, some knowing each other, some not. All of them were having the same uneasy feeling, since the Stasi was there somewhere for sure. After some mistrustful eyeing we decided to just go for it. Today we know that one whistle-blower had been among us. In 1993, we also found some snapshots in some of our Stasi-files, taken in front of the house entrance: the neighbors of the Havemann family were constant spies, having taken pictures of every visitor for years.

During the weekend we phrased the appeal of foundation. Rolf Henrich and I contributed a draft. I later destroyed mine (unfortunately) because I did not want to have it on me as an evidence to the Stasi in case of my arrest. There was a vivid discussion about both our drafts which finally were merged. I contributed more of a general part, while Henrich provided practical strategies of registering the association. We carefully avoided any political jargon, but described the social stagnation and resignation without referring to a specific political program. After some dispute we decided to not make an explicit statement in favor of the GDR and of socialism; we wanted to let the people decide about the future of the GDR and its social system, the people who we called to join in. We called the thing “New Dawn 89 – New Forum” and finished with the words “time is ripe”. 30 persons (10 women, only 3 pastors, and again 13 from Berlin) signed with their names, address and profession.

Bärbel Bohley and Katja Havemann copied the paper and sent it to newspapers and agencies of the GDR, and also leaked it to some familiar western journalist. The first group forwarded it unanswered to the Secret Police, whereas the second group published it in their newspapers in the west.

The echo from the media was overwhelming. Bärbel Bohley, who was well-known in the west due to her forced exile in the west two years ago, had to give up to 30 interviews per day. And we also were affected , since we had a telephone, and our number was in the telephone directory. In the evenings after returning from work we did not have even one quiet moment since the telephone was ringing constantly.

Lateron I listened again to those interviews or read copies of transcripts in western newspapers. I don’t like them. They sound so tame, so cautious. Due to an indiscretion we knew that our telephone calls were intercepted and recorded. Thus, despite our decision to rise above the parapet, we still were cautious to not provide strong evidence to the Stasi that could be used against us in a possible trial.

The real surprise, however, was not the echo from the west, but the one we received in the east. We were downright buried in affirmation. We received numerous calls, many frome phone booths, courageous ones with names asking for an entry form; also some anxious ones yet without names: “We would be willing to work with you after legalisation”. An anonymous person sent us an encryption technique for producing secret messages: “You are going to need it”.

Like all the others whose addresses were easy to track, we received hundreds of postcards and letters every day – not only reluctant ones, no, some sounded relieved and determined: “We can not bear it any longer, everybody just talking of leaving the country - we have to do something right here!” Our doorbell was ringing constantly. Strangers demanded to be asked inside, wishing a short talk for advice: “What shall we do now?”

Every day a post van leaves baskets full of letters at Bärbel Bohley’s house

The authorities tried to quell the flow of support for the New Forum. News agencies and TV reported that an application, signed by two people, was handed in, considered, and defeated. Aims and concerns of the association applied for contradicted the constitution and formed a subversive platform. According to our experience, this was the first step towards arresting and charging the “ringleaders”.

Being exposed, though, to problems assailing the government from all sides, the powers could not decide to take action. In Prague, thousands of people had occupied the embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany (BRD) and demanded to be allowed to leave to the west. Inside the GDR, the movement grew into an avalanche. The leadership attempted to bolster the protests by giving in step-by-step.

We had decided to collect lists of signatures from all over the GDR with names and addresses of supporters at Bärbel Bohley’s place in order to apply the necessary legitimation to the registration of our association at the Ministry of Interior. Within a short period of time this had lead to baskets full of letters being delivered to Bärbel Bohley’s house by a post van every day. On September 20 we already had 2500 signatures, and by late October it should be 200 000 declarations of accession including names and addresses – by far outnumbering the growing quantity of requests for departure.

At the same time, more and more people were taking courage and attended the first larger demonstrations in Leipzig. The crowd was no longer chanting “We want to leave” but “We are staying”, “admit the New Forum” and “We are the people”. When finally the powers decided to apply force, which in the beginning of October lead to orgies of clubbing and arrests in Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin, it was already too late. A non-violent movement of the people step by step dismantled the formerly concrete-solid system, enforcing a democratic reshaping and the opening of the Wall.

In all places groups of the New Forum were forming. The founders were known throughout the country due to their signatures on the countrywide circulating appeal, and they participated in uncounted organized discussions; however, they had become a rather small, if active part of the movement.

The time between autumn of 1989 and the beginning of 1990 was marked by an anarchic rebellion. History today focuses on some big events and key dates, losing sight of the rebellion being partly unorganized, in parts loosely coordinated by groups of the New Forum and other civil movements and spreading across the country like a large fire, entirely paralyzing the ruling class which was dependant on centralized orders.

The 30 founding members of September 9 did not have any premonition of the avalanche they would kick off. We had acted without any heroic emotions, driven by our feeling that it was high time to act against the gradual decay. The peoples’ rebellion accidentally put us on the stage of historical change.

Today it seems to become a fact-like conviction that the autumn civil movement served as an ignition and then became useless, lost support and was overrun by the ongoings because they representet utopistic goals. This judgement is not correct. The peoples’ rebellion generated the first victorious and peaceful revolution in German history, has established political freedom and democratic civil and human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, free movement, destruction of the whistle-blower system and free elections.

It was a strategic necessity not to put the reunion of Germany on top of the agenda. Everyone who did not forget 17. June 1953, the Hungarian October of 1956, the end of the Prague Spring of 1968 and the civil war against Solidarnosc of Poland in the eighties clearly knew this. We by no means wanted to provide a pretext for pushing the button of the ejection seat Mr Gorbachev in Moscow was sitting on. Two years after that, the mossbacks in Moscow attempted overturn him and turn back the wheel. But with us in Germany it was already too late for that.

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