“We’re staying here!” – 9 November 1989 in Jüterbog

by Henrik Schulze

In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, I had been honorary town historian in the Brandenburg district town of Jüterbog for about five years. In addition to researching the city’s important history, suddenly the opportunity arose for me to experience a revolutionary political upheaval at first hand and to document it immediately. On 7 May 1989, local elections were held, and for the first time opposition groups had been able to keep a watchful eye on them. I secretly noted the evidence of electoral fraud, also happening in Jüterbog and hid the notes in the files on medieval history. One had to reckon with unexpected home visits from investigators.
The communist rulers believed that by using various tricks they could consolidate their rule. However, as this did not remain secret, they dug their own grave. It seems to be a principle of history that declining regimes are doomed to make mistakes.

Opening Hungary’s borders

Starting in the second half of the year, the GDR state power went rapidly downhill. From August onwards, Hungary opened its borders to the West. The 40th anniversary of the founding of the GSR was on 7 October 1989 and was to be celebrated in a spectacular manner. Yet, it did not turn out to be celebration. On 2 October, the Jüterbog regional Volkspolizei (German People’s Police) office noted “that the citizens [...] did not return to the GDR from a private trip to the HPR (abbreviation for Hungarian People’s Republic)”. Similar official notes were also listed on October 4, 11, 14, 26 and 27. When passport- and visa-free travelling to the CSSR (Czechoslovak People’s Republic) was temporarily suspended on 4 October, there was no longer an external border we GDR citizens were legally allowed to cross.

First demonstrations also in Jüterbog

First in Leipzig and later in more and more cities, large numbers of people took to the streets to demonstrate against injustice and for basic democratic rights. On October 30, about forty young people took part in the first small demonstration in Jüterbog, a town of about 15,000 inhabitants at that time, with more than 40,000 Soviet soldiers stationed in the surrounding. However, quite differently from the Volksaufstand (upheaval) from 17 June 1953, this time the Soviet tanks remained in their garages.
The SED leadership soon noticed that “big brother”, as the Soviet Union was called in factional party language, gave no support. Thus the GDR comrades were in a losing position. They were still struggling against the upheaval. On the morning of October 31, the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) secretary for agitation and propaganda of the Jüterbog district committee boasted during the training of functionaries of the FDJ (Free German Youth, SED Youth Organisation) in a hefty fashion to want to crush ecclesiastical opposition groups this very evening.
In order to better control the political disputes, the SED had issued the slogan: “Get off the streets, get into the halls”. But it didn’t work out. More than 2,000 people came to the evening meeting in the restaurant “Central”, where the hall was not big enough. So they went to the market square in front of the town hall. Here, there was a vivid, but peaceful discussion. Fortunately, the citizens didn’t know that the SED district command had alerted its “combat groups of the working class,” a paramilitary militia. All around the market square, they were hiding on depots with their submachine guns, on the alert. The First Secretary of the SED party’s sectional leadership team, at that time a woman who had taken office only recently, had officially command over the “comrade fighters”. After the GDR joined the FRG, she, now a member of the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism), moved to the Bundestag for several years as a member of parliament. Today she is still a member of the city council for The Left Party.

Freedom to travel was the greatest wish

After more than half a million people had gathered in Berlin the day before for the largest demonstration in the history of the GDR, there was a manifestation in Jüterbog with a record number of about 6,500 people on November 5. The calls for freedom and more democracy against the autocracy of the SED became more and more courageous. Their demands could be read on the demonstrators’ banners. In addition, several pictures with the portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev, being the decisive bearer of hope, were to be seen. Topics such as free market economy and German unity were not mentioned at the time. Merely freedom to travel was the greatest wish at that time.

9 November in Jüterbog

In order to discuss the accumulated problems in an objective manner, a forum under the leadership of the Protestant Church was agreed upon. This took place on 9 November, a day steeped in history. That evening, the Jüterbog Nikolai church, one of the largest town churches between Berlin and Leipzig, was filled to capacity with around 1,000 people. In the last rows there were only standing room. The motto of the evening was in memory of 9 November 1938: “Jews and other persecuted persons of state power”.
In front of the altar, a table was positioned in the manner of a presidium. There sat: the council member of the regional bureau for the interior, the director of the regional bureau of the Ministry for State Security (MfS, today called “Stasi”), the director of the regional police authority (VPKA) and others. Some of the officials and officers had come against the explicit advice of the SED party leadership. With the level-headed moderation of the pastor, the attendees of the meeting could air their accumulated frustration with the SED rule. Impressive individual fates were talked about. The officials in the presidium made an effort for understanding and popular affinity. There was constant movement at the entrance door, though this was hardly noticed in the hall. But suddenly one of those who arrived later shouted: “The borders are open! We have just come from West Berlin!” He held Aldi bags in the air. Someone called back from the nave: “We’re staying here”. He received spontaneous applause from the assembly. It meant that we would first finish our work here. But perhaps it also meant that we will be staying in the country ...
Yet, there was a noticeable bloodletting. From the beginning of the year (1989) until 31 October, 131 people from Jüterbog district had left the country for the West. Solely in November, there were an additional 192, among them four doctors and three dentists.

The beginning of the end of GDR economy

Expecting economic ruin, people started panic purchases in the state shops. While the turnover of the retail trade in the district was about 6.8 million GDR marks per month, it rose to 9.2 million in November and then dropped enormously, because now everyone wanted to buy western products only. That was the beginning of the end of the GDR economy.
The year 1990 began with an election campaign and finally led to the accession of the GDR to the domain of the Basic Law (West German Constitution) on 3 October 1990, based an some article 23, which had actually already been deleted from the Basic Law on 29 September. Many had hoped for the creation of a constitution discussed by the citizens and adopted by referendum, but they refrained in favour of the old FRG Basic Law. The Bonn government did not want to take any risks, and probably was not allowed to do so either, because this would have toppled prerogatives of the victorious powers.

Mass unemployment and corruption

The euphoria of unity celebrations was followed by disillusionment. Many had the impression that here had been a “hostile takeover” of the GDR. In economic terms, this was the responsibility of the Treuhandanstalt (trust agency), a term that nowadays has still a mostly negative connotation in East Germany. It is associated with a series of plant closures that could not solely be attributed to dilapidated facilities; sometimes they only served to remove competitors from the market. Other keywords are mass unemployment and blatant cases of corruption.
The majority of key positions in the state, the judiciary and the media have been filled by West Germans. The word “Seilschaften” (boy networks) was a fashionable term in the nineties. For example, the local editorial offices of a regional newspaper still had two East Germans from time to time. West German journalists explained to the former GDR citizens how life in the GDR used to be.
It is not uncommon for civil servants to have been persuaded to go to the East, people they could most easily do without in the old authority. Later, countless scandals came to light because, among other things, the salary of the “praised and transferred”, the “Ostzuschlag” (east surcharge), which was despicably called “Bush Money“, was too low. The creative travel expense accounts of top civil servants were occupying the courts for a long time.

Emigration especially among young people

Economic constraints take their toll. If you are mobile and flexible, you go where you can earn money. In addition to the old federal states, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia are the main destinations, especially among young people. The population of the town is dropping by almost a third. While Berlin’s immediate environs, known as the “bacon belt”, are booming, the remote province is impoverished.
Nevertheless, the town of Jüterbog has become visibly more beautiful. No smoke from lignite heating systems pollutes the air during the winter months. The facades of the houses are brightly coloured. Pavements and streets are visibly renewed. While the possession of a telephone in the GDR was an extraordinary privilege, in a historically short time every apartment got a connection. One quickly gets accustomed to achievements that previously seemed unattainable.

Growing political crisis since 2015

In the second decade after German reunification, satisfaction could have returned to the country. But at the latest since the so-called refugee crisis from 2015 onwards, a growing political crisis has emerged in the country. The word “GDR 2.0” makes the rounds. The GDR civil rights activist Bärbel Bohley, who died in 2010, predicted shortly after the collapse of the GDR: “They will be adapted a little so that they fit into a free Western society. The troublemakers will not necessarily be arrested either. There are more subtle ways to make someone harmless. But the secret prohibitions, observation, suspicion, fear, isolating and exclusion, branding and muzzling of those who don’t adapt - that will come back, believe me. Institutions will be created that work much more effectively, much more subtle than the Stasi. Constant lying will also come back, disinformation, the fog where everything loses its contours.”

The Protestant Church now a state organ “loyal to party line”

The Protestant church, in 1989 a protective shield of the opposition and pioneer of the peaceful revolution, now appears as a state organ “loyal to party line”, which itself persecutes opposition members and political deviators. Recently a protestant bishop was forced to resign because he had belonged to a “reactionary” student movement and was said to have written “right-wing” articles in his youth. For this close solidarity with the Merkel government the church pays a high price in the form of hundreds of thousands of resignations. In the state of Brandenburg, the proportion of members of the Protestant Church fell from 20 to 15 per cent of the population between 2004 and 2017, with a further downward trend.

Calls, to report politically conspicuous citizens

In the meantime, even government agencies have issued calls to report politically conspicuous citizens, which is also possible anonymously. The newspaper “Welt” confessed in May: Only around one in five Germans feels free to express his opinion in public. Refugees and Islam are regarded as taboo topics. The Central German Radio (MDR, Thüringen-Radio) asked: “What are delicate topics where you can put your foot in it if you talk about them? 71 per cent of respondents chose refugees, 66 per cent Muslims and Islam. Countless watchmen work day and night to check the online commentary pages of the mass media, delete deviant texts and block awkward users temporarily or permanently. Whether inadvertently or deliberately tolerated, the following ironic comment was made on the site if Focus magazine: “You can express your opinion, of course, this is even guaranteed by the Basic Law as a right, provided it is the ‘right’ one and how does a person find out which is the ‘right’ one, quite simply, it has to be mainstream-conform, and the audience has to be suitable, and consist mainly of brainwashed parrots!“
Even during the collapse of the GDR, I documented important facts, photographed rallies and demonstrations, and even before the introduction of the D-Mark, I published a small booklet on my own, reminding of what happened. Possibly, fate wants me to have another opportunity to record such historical events from the inside as a contemporary witness for posterity.    •

*    Henrik Schulze has written a comprehensive history of the largest garrison of the Soviet army outside the former USSR under the title “Jammerbock IV”. It can be obtained from his antiquarian bookshop www.jueterbook.de.