Saturday, November 9, 2013

Wir Sind Das Volk!


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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.


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As I sat there, watching those dark and grainy images of floodlights and flashbulbs illuminating scenes of jubilate East Germans flooding through the checkpoints and climbing on top of the Wall itself along with West Germans, despite water hoses and the fear of worse coming from the border guards on the eastern side, I knew I was witnessing something historic, and that life was about to change radically. 

PhotoOf course, Mr. Brokaw was telling his viewers that this moment was historic. He was being clever in suggesting that the East German people had chosen a chisel over the ionic sickle emblazoned on the Soviet flag, as a few energetic East Berliners among the crowd used hammers and various tools at their disposal to break away and partially demolish sections of the wall, but it didn’t take a globe-trotting anchorman or political science major to realize that this night was going to be a game changer.


PhotoThe 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.

Now, Red October was a fun and exciting yarn about a rogue Soviet Submarine Commander taking his new and super quiet nuclear missile sub out for a joy ride, later made into a movie with Sean Connery, but Red Storm was an entirely different breed of book. Clancy, who recently passed away, was a master of his genre, and very few writers then or now would have been able to depict what a conventional war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact would have looked like, and yet make it somewhat readable, but that is what he accomplished with Red Storm Rising in 736 pages of jargon thick, techno babble prose. I picked it up, removed the bookmark (I was about halfway through reading it), and placed it back on the shelf, never to open it again.

The Cold War was history, and a new world order was emerging.

Checkpoint Charlie

It is probably hard for most of us, especially those young enough to have missed the cold war, to recall what life must have been like for those living in the grip of communism under the cloak of the Iron Curtain. This must be particularly acute for the Germans, as the German Democratic Republic was the only communist state to disappear as a nation, and once Germany was reunited, the memory of the Berlin Wall and all that it represented faded into history.
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 I once visited the German suburb of Friedrichsadt, the home of the infamous Checkpoint Charlie, and all that is left is a cheap tourist stand where visitors can have their picture taken with the “You Are Leaving the American Sector” sign as a backdrop, alongside poses with actors dressed as border guards and allied soldiers. There is also a little museum  (where I picked up the postcard above) devoted to the Wall, and in one section, there was a map showing exactly where the Wall was situated.

PhotoWhile looking at it, I thought how remarkable it was for the free enclave of West Berlin to have existed at all, 100 miles deep into enemy territory and encircled as it was by 155 km of Wall and the might of several Soviet tank and infantry divisions behind it. The museum space was also filled with several black and white photos of watchtowers, barbed wire and some of the more dramatic escape attempts, where the Grenztruppen der DDR, or border service, shot would be escapees down like dogs.

PhotoBut one photo stood out for me; that of a young army solider, Hans Conrad Schumann, who was captured on camera jumping over the barbed wire to freedom during the original construction of the Wall. In later life, he was quoted as saying, “Only since 9 November 1989 have I felt truly free." Some 2,100 other guards, soldiers and policeman would follow his example.

PhotoThe photos reminded me that while traveling on the train to Berlin from the port of Rostock, where the cruise ship I was serving on was docked during a port visit, I noticed many of the watchtowers were still standing; maybe serving as stark, bleak monuments to the nations darker past, but I would have thought these cursed eye sores, with their rusting tin metal adorned with graffiti, would have been the first things to go.

PhotoAt its peak, the border guards numbered 47,000 soldiers, the largest border force in the Warsaw Pact next to the Soviet Union, and they were an all-volunteer force, unlike their army counterparts whose ranks were filled with draftees. The most public face of this border force, and perhaps the most vital in terms of internal security, was the Pass and Control units, whose function was to process travelers transiting through the GDR’s border crossing points. These guards, dressed in the uniform of the Grenztruppen border guards, where actually members of the 6th Main Department of the Ministry of State Security, Ministerium fur Staatssicherheit der DDR.

The Lives of Others
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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.  

According to British author Henry Porter in the afterward of his excellent spy novel, Brandenburg, “[this] meant that every sixth or seventh adult was working for the Stasi by making regular reports on colleagues, friends, and sometimes lovers and relations.” 

Porter continues by explaining how the Stasi was controlled, “Run from a vast complex in Normenstrasse, Berlin, the Stasi was a state within a state. It had its own football team, prisons, and special shops selling foreign luxuries, holiday resorts, hospitals, sports centres, and every sort of surveillance facility. Large and well equipped regional offices were in every city…thousands of pieces of mail were opened every day, over 1,000 telephones were tapped, and 2,000 officers were charged with penetrating and monitoring every possible group and organization.”

Porter reports that this effort far exceeded the joint operations of Britain’s security services, the MI5 and MI6, and the Stasi took spying to absurd lengths those services probably never dreamed of, “…in museums in Leipzig and Berlin you can still view the sealed preserving jars containing cloth impregnated with the personal smells of targeted dissidents.” 

Less reported on, but even more disturbing, was the Stasi speciality of psychological harassment of perceived enemies, known as Zersetzung. This mental abuse and secret persecution caused many victims to have nervous breakdowns and to commit suicide. 

Perhaps the most relevant question for today’s world, Porter wonders, “…what the Stasi would have done with today’s technology – our  tiny radio tracking devices, biometric identification, number recognition systems and the rapid processing power of surveillance computers. One things for certain: the reformers in Leipzig would have had a much harder time of it.”

Wir sind hier! (we are staying here)

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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. 

A month later, soon after the 40th anniversary celebrations of the GDR, the few hundred gatherers at the church swelled into more than 70,000 and similar protests in other German cities saw unprecedented crowds gather at city squares. By the end of that month, nearly 320,000 protesters in Leipzig were chanting, “We are staying here!,” in contrast to the earlier chants of, “We want out!,” and the thousands of Germans who had fled to neighboring Czechoslovakia or Poland.
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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. 

The only thing we know for certain is that the government was pressured into making changes, which eventually led the party boss of East Berlin, Gunter Schabowski, to announce at a press conference on November 9th, the government’s decision to allow private travel for citizens to West Germany, including West Berlin, with permission. Reportedly, these changes were not due to come into effect for another day, giving the border guards time to prepare, but when asked by reporter Tom Brokaw when these new regulations would come into effect, Schabowski announced, “As far as I know, effective immediately, without delay.”

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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.

“Ich bin ein Berliner” 

PhotoSeveral years later, the tradition of the Monday Demonstrations was continued in defiance of the US led war against Iraq in 2003, and later, more protests were held in relation to domestic political issues in Germany. Most recently, thousands of Germans have demonstrated against the National Security Agency over allegations by whistleblower Edward Snowden that the American agency has been conducting widespread surveillance and other espionage activities against German citizens, including their Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

PhotoThe “Snowden files” reveal the NSA has far exceeded its mandate, and has in fact conducted illegal surveillance and spying on law abiding citizens around the world on a massive scale that would have been the envy of any Stasi officer.

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. 

It may be a stretch or grossly unfair to compare the NSA to the Stasi, but in terms of capability and reach, the American intelligence community, along with allied agencies in Canada and the UK, far exceeds anything the Stasi ever dreamed of. The abuse of that kind of power is arguably the biggest threat to privacy, liberty and freedom that has ever existed. 

Germany may be only one of a growing number of nations whose leaders and people are protesting the actions of the NSA and her allies, but when I hear about the recent demonstrations in Germany, I feel that it’s time we think of ourselves as Berliners. Like President John F. Kennedy said in his famous speech in Berlin on June 26, 1961, 22 months after the erection of the Berlin Wall, one of the darkest periods of the Cold War:



“Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis romanus sum [“I am a Roman Citizen”]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner”…All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

I am a Berliner!

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Posted by Steve Brydon

Note: Source material for this blog post came from the book Brandenburg by Henry Porter, NBC news archives, Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, Wikipedia, archive.org, and Google images.

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