Socialist Worker

The revolutions of 1989 - bringing down the Wall

Gabi Engelhardt was a leading member of the underground left in East Germany when the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989. She spoke to Yuri Prasad about her experiences, and the unfinished business of the revolution that she and her comrades helped

Issue No. 2176

The events of autumn 1989, and the end of the East German state, can be traced back to the spring and summer before the Wall came down – and even further back in history as well.

The revolutions of 1989 stood in the tradition of the revolts of East Germany in 1953, Poland in 1956 and 1968 in Czechoslovakia.

In East Germany people “voted with their feet”, by leaving for West Germany. The worldwide deterioration of the economic and political situation in 1989 – particularly in the Eastern Bloc – saw the trickle turn into a flood.

I was part of a group who decided that we didn’t want to leave, and give up our homes, families and lives – we wanted to make change at home.

The international crisis, the incapability of the East German ruling class to respond to the increasing desire for political and social reforms, and their support for the attacks of the Chinese army on the protesters at Tiananmen Square all came together to ignite the fire.

I was a member of a left group in Karl Marx Stadt (today known as Chemnitz) that later would become the United Left.

In 1981, as a young activist in the peace and human rights movements, I had already lost my job as a typist in a local newspaper. Many others fared far worse and some were even imprisoned.

In those days we were forced to meet in churches, despite the fact that most of us were not Christians.

They were the only places where we could speak relatively openly about what we thought about our state, or those of other so-called “socialist” countries.

We talked about a lot of different issues, such as cruise missiles, environmental protection and human rights. After hearing about the massacre in Tiananmen Square, we organised a meeting about the situation in China.

We thought only a small number would come, but the church was full to overflowing – although we suspect that at least half of those who came were members of the Stasi secret police.

People were afraid that something like Tiananmen Square would happen in East Germany if we rose up.

Because of the Stasi presence, we organised for everyone to leave the meeting together, rather than in small groups, to prevent them arresting us.

From 1987, East Germany experienced a major economic crisis. There was a massive shortage of basic goods in the shops and by 1989 people were saying that they couldn’t cope any more.

Then on 7 October, during the holiday to mark the 40th birthday of the East German state, something really significant happened. We came out of the churches and took to the streets.

Actors and people from the church groups had decided to organise a meeting to discuss the developing crisis and the demands of the Neue Forum (civil rights movement) and other new organisations. The meeting was intended to be held in the town theatre, but it was cancelled by ruling party officials.

We decided to meet there anyway. But when we arrived we were surrounded by members of the paramilitary state task force, all dressed in raincoats. They were trying to prevent us from gathering. People who went into the theatre were told the meeting had been officially cancelled.

But we wanted to do something, and so we started to march. In the centre of town, in front of the big monument of Karl Marx, the dignitaries were holding a birthday celebration for the state.

Some of us wanted to go there to protest, but others said no, because there would be a clash. We all still had Tiananmen Square in our minds.

We decided to march to the central tram station, where we thought there would be safety in the large crowds on the streets because of the holiday.

But we weren’t safe. In front of our march of about 800 people were large numbers of police, and behind us were the task forces. They started to attack us with water cannons and arrested 26 people.

The state believed that it could frighten us off the streets – but it miscalculated.

The normal people on the streets that day were being attacked as well. The police could no longer tell the difference between the “bad” and the “good” people and even arrested bystanders.

After that protest we knew something significant had changed. Many of us had friends or family members who were soldiers at that time, and they told us that the regime was close to declaring a state of emergency and that troop carriers were stationed in the side streets.

But the army itself was in crisis, knowing that it couldn’t use its troops against us as the soldiers sympathised with the protests and had started coming to the demonstrations that followed.


The head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke, is said to have speculated as to whether this was 1953 again. In that year a mass uprising spread across East Germany and was ultimately suppressed by divisions of Russian troops that were stationed in the country.

But it was clear from what Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian leader, was saying that there was not going to be a repeat of that. That gave us confidence and within a month of that first demonstration our marches had grown from 1,000 to 50,000 – and that’s in a town with a population of 350,000.

People found out that they no longer had to be afraid, and all the pent-up bitterness and anger in society was coming to the surface. Suddenly political discussion was everywhere.

Open meetings had to be held in three churches at the same time because one wasn’t enough to let in everybody who wanted to take part. The newspapers were starting to dissent too.

Even people in the ruling party openly acknowledged that there was a need for reform, but it was too late. There was no way they could put a lid on the situation. This was a revolution in the making.

Everywhere people were speaking out. On our demonstrations we chanted, “We are the people”. There was a feeling that we could do anything. The movement had not yet spread to the factories, where the economic power was, but it soon would.

At the time many of us hoped that once we got rid of the repressive state bureaucracy, we could build a new socialism in the East. It was only later that most of us realised that it was not possible to build real socialism on the base of what had been called socialism in East Germany.

As the demand for freedom of travel came to symbolise our demand for democratic rights, it became impossible for the ruling party to keep the Wall closed.

But when it opened the border, the crisis deepened, because suddenly people could compare their lives with those of people in West Germany.

The so-called socialism of East Germany meant shortages of nearly every kind of basic goods and no democratic rights. Capitalism in the West seemed to have a lot more to offer.

The slogans on the demonstrations changed from “We are the people” to “We are a people” – a clear demand for German reunification. The protests grew to 150,000 people in January. For some among us, that was a sign that although we’d made a revolution, we’d nevertheless lost and that capitalism had won.


It was only some weeks later that I began to look at the changing nature of the movement as a reflection of the way political demands were translating into economic and social ones. The demand for reunification was really a demand for better living standards.

The ruling classes of the East and West feared the movement and quickly came to an arrangement that put Germany back together. Reunification came from above.

That reflects a problem in the left’s leadership. We didn’t have a clearly defined group of any size when the revolt began, so as the movement took off, ideo­logically, we had little to offer.

The hopes of 1989 quickly began to fade as economic recession gripped the reunited state. There was a massive wave of factory closures and rocketing unemployment.

We were told by the new and combined ruling class that we must not ask for higher wages because that would lead to more joblessness and factory closures.

There is a kind of nostalgia for the past among unemployed and low waged people in the East today. People miss the certainty of a job, a home and basic social security – though in reality, the economic crisis that gripped East Germany made that untenable.

The impact of the recession today means that even in the West many workers feel that there was something better about the old system than the fear of the future we have today. But there is also a realistic assessment that there is no way back.

Within two years of the 1989 revolution, we were on the streets again. This time we were fighting factory closures.

And in 2004, similar demonstrations returned in the battle against the government’s attempt to slash social security.

All three waves of protests had started on Monday evenings, and they became known as “the Monday demonstrations”.

The ruling class still has something to fear from the events of 1989. And now, as the working class in the East and West of Germany are no longer divided, we have a greater opportunity to launch the kind of united fight we need.

The central lesson that 1989 teaches us is that socialism cannot be imposed from above – it must rise from below.

In this way the spirit of the revolution continues to live on today. And, if I’m asked why it failed to deliver the changes that we wanted, I say the revolution isn’t finished yet.

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