IN 1989 mass demonstrations, strikes and confrontations brought lightning-fast transformation to the Stalinist states that most people thought would never change.
Very quickly defenders of Western capitalism, who hate such displays of popular power, claimed the political revolutions in the East were in their name. They talked of the “final triumph of capitalism” bringing an “end of history”, and of “a new world order” of peace and prosperity.
Socialist Worker at the time wrote, “We are told that events in East Germany show the failure of 40 years of socialism. Nothing could be further from the truth. In East Germany society is dominated by a ruling bureaucracy—the officials, bureaucrats, managers of enterprises, police and army chiefs. They exploit and oppress the mass of the people just as surely as rulers in the West.
“What rulers East and West fear, and what socialists East and West should look to, is the creation of workers’ organisations which fight for real democracy, not swapping one system of capitalist rule for another.”
Since then we have seen repeated major wars, and a growing chasm between rich and poor as neo-liberal policies and corporate power seize hold of every country.
The two East German activists interviewed here explain why the same ideals that motivated them to tear down the Berlin Wall 15 years ago are today driving the movements against war and capitalist globalisation.
Gabi Engelhardt from Chemnitz (formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt) was a member of the East German opposition group United Left, and active before, during and after the upheavals of 1989. Today she is active in a new left wing party, the Wahlalternative fur Arbeit und soziale Gerechtigkeit.
You were active in the opposition before 1989. What groups were around then?
Apart from the opposition inside the ruling Socialist Unity Party, which wanted to change the party from within, there were many other groups too.
They mostly met under the protection of the church, peace and environmental groups, women’s groups, gay and lesbian groups.
It was mostly about human rights and more democracy, against the Stalinist party dictatorship. We wanted socialism with a human face.
When did you first see signs of changes in society?
Glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union kicked off a debate about restructuring society in East Germany, too. New Forum was founded in illegality. The government clamped down, and people were arrested on the slightest excuse.
But a growing number of people found the courage to walk tall at last. The discontent of East Germans had grown steadily, but supposedly 99 percent still voted for the Socialist Unity Party and its allies. The opposition responded with an initiative to expose electoral fraud in the May 1989 local elections.
And at the same time people were voting with their feet. Thousands left the country.
In the summer people who had applied to emigrate started meeting openly in front of the city hall. That would have been unimaginable before.
Did the opposition groups support the emigration movement?
The opposition groups were at the forefront of the democracy movement, and later led the demonstrations.
Many of us didn’t want to go to West Germany. Our slogan was “We’re staying here”. The day before the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the founding of East Germany, 1,000 people demonstrated against the regime, even though we feared that Soviet tanks might come to the aid of the government.
What was your experience of the upheavals of 1989?
The whole of society was politicised. Workers and housewives came to the office of the Democratic Opposition Platform, the alliance of opposition groups.
One policeman said, “If they order us to act against our own people again then we’ll turn the weapons on them.”
There was a thirst for information, and people tore the leaflets from our hands.
In overflowing churches people discussed together how to move forward.
At the beginning nobody believed the regime would fall. I think the demonstration on 9 October in Leipzig, when tens of thousands came, was actually already the beginning of the end of the one-party state.
At the 40th anniversary of East Germany, on 7 October, the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, told Honecker, the East German leader, that he couldn’t count on Soviet support any more, and then it was clear that the regime was finished.
After that hundreds of thousands came to the Monday demonstrations all over the country.
The end of the dictatorship was marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the storming of the Stasi headquarters in Berlin.
Which lessons from 1989 are relevant today?
We mustn’t allow ourselves to be manipulated by our rulers. And we have to organise if we are to put up any resistance.
Because of the Stalinist repression we were not able to begin building structures and intervening until the movement had reached its peak.
That meant we were often overwhelmed by the events, even though we were right in the thick of it.
Next time we find ourselves in a situation like that I want to be sure we have an organisation to cope with it.