Hammer and Chisels
On November 9, 1989, I was fifteen years old, and my eyes were glued to the TV screen as my family and I watched a special report with Tom Brokaw of NBC news.
The world I had come to understand through history books, war movies and spy novels; the world where my role as a Sea Cadet was helping to prepare me for an eventual navy career guarding against the Soviets at the helm of a destroyer or submarine (that is what I imagined as a child at least) - well that world was vanishing forever right before my eyes. I remember going upstairs to my room later that night, and there sitting on my bookshelf, was Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, taking its place next to his earlier book which I had devoured, The Hunt for Red October.
The Cold War was history, and a new world order was emerging.
Arguably, the most vivid and even iconic example of draconian oppression in the latter half of the twentieth century, not to mention the paranoia that existed throughout the cold war on both sides, was the institution known as the Stasi, the secret police and intelligence service of the GDR. The Stasi was regarded as the most ruthless and effective security service in the world, even surpassing their soviet overseers as the most formidable and brutally efficient.
At the height of its reign, the Stasi was reported to have employed more than 91,000 people to spy on their own people, along with 174,000 unofficial informants. Some estimates go further, and suggest the total number of informants, including the inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (unofficial informers, the IMs), was as high as 1.5 million Germans, or even more, if a former Stasi colonel of the counterintelligence directorate is to be believed.
To me, the most remarkable aspect of the Walls destruction and the eventual demise of GDR, was the underground protest movement that culminated in the “Monday demonstrations” (montagsdemonsrationen) between September 1989 and March 1990. These peaceful demonstrations, which started inside the court of a Lutheran church in the German town of Leipzig, took place every Monday evening in protest against the communist elite ruling the GDR. The demonstrators represented a diverse cross section of East German society; including in their ranks, “punks and skinheads, greens, peace campaigners, and those who desired political change,” according to Henry Porter.
Of course, the most famous chant among the dissidents was, “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people!”), an assertion which demanded a democratic republic that is ruled by the people, for the people. This demand, let alone the unauthorised gathering of people, was an unprecedented challenge to the government’s authority, and not surprisingly many demonstrators in Leipzig were arrested and thrown into the Stasi’s prison system, but the threat of large scale police intervention never materialized. Why the head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke, did not give the order, or if such an order was issued, why it was not followed, remains a mystery.
East Germans then gathered and eventually surged past the confused border guards at the various checkpoints into free Berlin and West Germany, and the rest as they say is history. Demonstrations ended in March of 1990, after which the first democratic elections were held for positions in the Volkskammer parliament, and Germany was well on its way to reunification.
On this day, the 24th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I think it is important to remember the almost suicidal bravery of the Monday protesters in the face of such a powerful, dangerous and all-knowing security apparatus, and to remind ourselves of what they were fighting for, as well as what they were fighting against.