The fall of the Berlin Wall – the most exciting time of my life

A contemporary witness report from Erfurt, German Democratic Republic

by Katrin Kirchner*

In medial terms the year 2019 is characterised by the political change 30 years ago in the GDR. Seen from a pure historical perspective, it was the period between the local elections in May 1989 and the elections to the People’s Parliament [former East German parliament] in March 1990. However, much earlier there were already signs of impending changes. The GDR was in a deep economic and political crisis. By following with interest the reports of many compatriots from most various economic and social fields as well as one’s own observations, it became clear that things could not go on like this. The mismanagement was a serious strain for the country. Own realisations from travels to Poland, Romania and Bulgaria at the end of the eighties showed the enormous contradictions the socialist system was mired in. However – and this only became clear to me many years after the fall of the Berlin Wall – the governments of the capitalist countries made a considerable contribution to the decline of socialism. The different world system was a thorn in their side and they tried to undermine and destroy it. Coupled with the GDR government’s inability to meet people’s material and spiritual needs and introduce political reforms, they finally succeeded.

Peace and environmental groups

There were opposition groups in the GDR for a long time, mostly as peace and environmental groups under the umbrella of the Protestant Church. At that time they were open to political discussions non-believers could also participate in. In Erfurt the “Open Work” in the City mission is to be particularly emphasised, where I took part in discussions about politics and environment. In the nearby Michaeliskirche, for example, very critical photo exhibitions on air and water pollution in the Erzgebirge [Ore Mountains]and of the Bitterfeld chemical district or on Erfurt’s urban development were organised by the “Open Work”. In the mid-eighties I belonged to the women’s peace group. However, as of 1987 I had the impression that we women should rather limit ourselves to conversations about family and children. That’s why I lost interest in this group. From my Stasi [state securitiy] file I got to know that my assumption was correct: The conversations should be pushed into the non-political field. An IM (Informal Collaborator of the secret service, ed. note) had undermined our work.
Like many others, I longed for profound changes, a reformation of socialism, with freedom of opinion and travel. I am convinced that many of my fellow countrymen thought the same. Since we were deeply rooted in our social communesof family and working life and equipped with a critical eye, most of us, after detours into the other system, would have returned home purified. It was bitter that we were treated like underage children.
At the time of the fall of communism, I was already mother of a one-year-old daughter. So many people left the GDR in the summer of 1989, including one of my best girlfriends and her six-year-old child. I would have loved to leave too. Under no circumstances would I have left my family behind. An escape with a child was not up for discussion.
So, we intently watched the deteriorating situation in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) embassies in Budapest and Prague.
Full of admiration we watched the first Monday demonstrations in Leipzig. There also was resistance in Erfurt. On 26 September 1989 there was a joint presentation of the “New Forum” (Neues Forum), “Democratic Awakening” (Demokratischer Aufbruch) and “Women for Change”(Frauen für Veränderung) in the Augustinerkirche (Augustinian Church).

“On 26 October 1989 there were simultaneously prayers for peace being said in the Catholic Lorenzkirche and the Protestant Predigerkirche. Then the unimaginable happened: 30,000 people met on the cathedral square for one of the largest demonstrations. Speech choirs and banners drew attention to the demands for free elections, freedom to travel and freedom of the press.”


“We were not afraid anymore, we are not alone”

The service in the Protestant Kaufmannskirche on 7 October 1989 – the 40th anniversaryof the founding of the GDR – was a powerful milestone. It was followed by a discussion on “40 Years of the GDR”. With 800 people the church was already overcrowded, so that the service had to be repeated two hours later. Hans Jochen Genthe, at that time pastor of the parish, gave the sermon. It was a sermon with many parables, with philosophical acuity and great vision. Never before I had heard such clear words on the state of the nation at a public event. After the sermon, anyone who wanted could pick up the microphone, give his name and raise issues which affected him. This had never happened before. Finally the spell was broken. We didn’t want to hide anymore, we weren’t afraid anymore. We knew we were not alone. At the end of the service it was said that police and combat groups had been brought into position in the nearby Posthof to “welcome” the worshippers. Therefore we got the urgent advice from the pastor not allow ourselves to be provoked and to go home peacefully. “No violence” – that was again and again the call of 1989. But the situation was very serious. The hospitals in Erfurt were on call to be able to take in any injured persons. But, since Mikhail Gorbachev was in Berlin for the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the GDR, it would not have been very becoming for the state leadership to arrest worshippers after the service or even to perpetrate a massacre. So nothing happened, and that once again inspired people not to let themselves be intimidated any more.
In autumn of 1989, the events started happening very fast. On 9 October a discussion of the “New Forum” with 4,000 people took place in one of Erfurt’s largest churches, the Predigerkirche. Once again, police and combat groups were ready, and again the event could take place without violent clashes.
On 26 October 1989 there were simultaneously prayers for peace being said in the Catholic Lorenzkirche and the Protestant Predigerkirche. Then the unimaginable happened: 30,000 people met on the cathedral square for one of the largest demonstrations. Speech choirs and banners drew attention to the demands for free elections, freedom to travel and freedom of the press. Later, the demonstrators moved to the branch office of the Ministry for State Security (MfS) in nearby Andreasstrasse.
On 9 November 1989, peace prayers were held simultaneously in four Erfurt churches to commemorate the victims of the Crystal Night (Reichspogromnacht). Afterwards, 80,000 people gathered on the cathedral square. They loudly demanded the resignation of the mayor. One day later, the mayor resigned her office. My husband and I were also present on the cathedral square with our little daughter. We did not think it was possible what we experienced there. Almost a third of the Erfurt residents had joined to the biggest protest of our city holding candles in their hands.

“The power of the community”

My wish was fulfilled, that the people protested against the conditions, not only complaining about the grievances among friends, but loudly made their voice heard, out in the street. That was a stunning experience for me. The people had slept long enough and did not want to be lulled any longer. We felt the power of the community, how strong we are, how much we can achieve if we don’t fight alone.
The 9 November 1989 had even more surprises in store. Throughout the day there was a peculiar atmosphere in the city. After the demonstration we went home and switched on the announced Chinese feature film in the GDR TV. It did not take long, and the film was interrupted because of an important message. Günter Schabowski, member of the SED Central Committee, appeared on the screen and announced the new travel regulations. But, since he was stammering enormously for our standards – because obviously he had not read the paper handed over by Egon Krenz on the way from the Central Committee building to the International Press Centre – we did not take his words seriously. In reply to the question from the Italian chief correspondent of the news agency ANSA from which date on the exit regulations remained valid, Schabowski declared: “That will happen immediately, as far as I know, immediately.” Well, we thought it was a trick to calm the upset people so that the government could gain time.

A new era is dawning

The next morning, I heard two women in the supermarket say that at Checkpoint Charly the GDR people had run over the border soldiers to run into the West. I didn’t understand that either. Only when I switched on the television again and saw the events at the Berlin Wall did I understand what had happened and that a new era was finally dawning.
On 4 December 1989, citizens of Erfurt stormed the MfS branch office in Andreasstrasse after noticing that heavy smoke was rising continuously, suggesting that the Stasi files were being burned. The occupation of the Erfurt “Stasi” was the first in the GDR, even before Leipzig. A citizens‘ committee was founded. Together with my neighbour I had the idea to take part in the citizen guard. So we signed up for the night watch from 5 December to 6 December 1989 in the Stasi building. With the citizen guard we wanted to prevent the Stasi from destroying even more documents. We were assigned to the seat guard in the pretrial detention building. An organiser of the citizens’ committee showed us some parts of the complex. We were left speechless. We had seen prisons in movies. But now we were sitting in front of real prison doors with inspection flaps from the seventies of the 20th century. There were no more prisoners in there. But we suspected that the cells had probably been used until recently. On the walls of the stairways we saw black stripes of rubber truncheons that had failed to hit a person. Then we were led into the prison yard, a cage, cross-barred at the top. Shocked, we stood in the yard of the Stasi complex and saw huge mountains of paper. These were files of critical citizens that had been sent through the shredder. The mountains were several metres high. An incredible rage seized us. So many people had been spied upon, and by no means all were enemies of socialism. Many only wanted reforms.

“What has become of our dreams and ideals?”

Today, 30 years after these events, I see many things through different eyes. What has become of our dreams and ideals of that time? What has become of the demand for freedom of the press and freedom of opinion?
The actual time of the turnaround passed quickly. For the frame-up of the powers had already begun anew. Hagglers and usurers on both sides of the border played into each other’s hands, did business with properties and houses, bought our nationally owned enterprises, only to liquidate them shortly afterwards. The sellout of the GDR took place so rapidly that we, ourselves involved in the working process or in the education of our children, did not realise it in detail. Only years later did we read in books, for example in “Wehe dem Sieger” (Woe to the Winner)”  by Daniela Dahn, what had gone on behind the backs of the GDR citizens. We learned how functioning modern companies were dismantled, how machines and plants were sold at crash-prices and how the expertise of an entire generation was suddenly was of no value anymore.
Calls for reformed socialism gave way to calls for a rapid reunification. But what would the face of this reunited Germany look like? The GDR had no chance to reform itself. Too quickly the system of the old FRG with the D-Mark was put over us. The dreams of autumn 1989 did not come true for many. The big companies closed one after the other. Many lost their jobs. Rents rose rapidly. Within two years they increased tenfold in some cases. Suddenly many people were seized by something they before had known only from books: Existential fear. Some acted quickly, looking for work in the “West”. The price was high. Often marriages and families broke up, and the country started bleeding to death.

Dismantling of the education system

We have paid a high price in another regard. One of the best education system of the world has been dismantled bit by bit and replaced with West German experiments with children. Kindergartens and crèches closed in great numbers, teachers and kindergarten teachers were dismissed. A decade later, the authorities that childcare facilities and staff were lacking. Far too uncritically our ministries of education had adopted the new requirements from the West. The result is well-known: children who do not meet the minimum requirements for admission to school, who cannot properly write, read and calculate after elementary school, who fail in secondary education and a quarter of whom drop out of school. Functioning universities and colleges fell victim to the austerity measures of the EU Commission with their Bologna process, literarily documented in Christoph Hein’s “Verwirr­nis” (“Confusion”).

Treasure troves East German cities

In any case, I would like to draw a positive balance for the redevelopment of our cities. They have become true treasure troves through the investment of many committed people and have given a tremendous boost to tourism. Likewise, the diligence, the imagination and perseverance of many founders of small and medium sized enterprises were rewarded after the turnaround. Thus they created a new career perspective for themselves as well as for many others. Our environment has become cleaner, the roads have been modernised. We got the freedom of travel. There are opportunities for intercultural exchange for students and young adults. We can learn foreign languages and, above all, can apply them. All this would not have been possible without the turnaround.

And peace?

And yet the turnaround has a bitter aftertaste for me. If I had anticipated 30 years ago that only the Warsaw Treaty, but not NATO would dissolve and that – few years after the reunification – in Europe – war would be waged again, I would probably not have taken to the streets. In the wake of the USA, the German people is underage again and is involved in many wars and conflicts in the world – under threadbare pretexts, sonicated by continuous propaganda. We former citizens of the GDR have indeed been educated very internationalistically, and peace was a great asset to us. I would never have thought that Germany would again participate in wars and in the incredible agitation against Russia. We Germans should never forget what we have repeatedly done to the Russian or Soviet people. The fact that they nevertheless have allowed for the reunification is a great sign of reconciliation. We should remember the events of 30 years ago, full of gratitude, reaching out to the East and to all peoples and raising our voices against war, incitement, slander and lies.     •

* Katrin Kirchner, born 1962, A-levels 1981, interest in politics since adolescence, study of cultural studies, mother of four children, retraining as a medical assistant 1996-1998, work in a dialysis center until 2015, since 2016 nutritionist, participation in “Aktionskreis für den Frieden Erfurt” from 2008 to 2014.


(Translation Current Concerns)

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