November 9, 2014: ask any German in their early thirties or older what they did this day, 25 years ago, and you will very likely get a pretty detailed summary of their evening. It was the day when two months of peaceful protest by the people of the GDR and hundreds of thousands of emigrants left the socialist party regime with no other option but to give in, when Günter Schabowski, the spokesman of the central committee of the socialist party announced in a press conference that GDR citizens were granted permission to emigrate and, more importantly, to travel freely across the border to Western Germany - immediately. It was the day when, after 10,316 days, after 28 years, two months and 28 days, the Iron Curtain that had ripped Germany and Europe apart, that had separated families and even ended lives of people who wanted nothing else but freedom finally collapsed under the wind of change.
I was alone at home that evening in our apartment in Eisenach, a town in the west of today’s federal state of Thuringia, the town where Martin Luther translated the bible into German in 1522, the birth place of Johann Sebastian Bach. Dad was at work, Mum had gone to a meeting of our hiking and winter sports club, my sister had moved away for training with the railway company, and I was watching the news, western German TV news… When news broke at 7:17pm. in the “heute” (today) news, I must have known that something quite significant had happened. I sat down on the floor in front of our black and white TV, no remote control, and started zapping between the western and the eastern TV channels; they all showed the same picture of that press conference. I cannot remember how long it took but it was not long, and the A4 motorway which we could see from our apartment had turned into a line of red fairy lights: cars at a standstill, bumper to bumper, as far as the eye could see. It must have been after 9pm when Mum came home; she had heard about it in town. Dad came home from work after 10pm, and the three of us gazed at the TV, gazed at the motorway. I remember seeing tears in my parents eyes, I remember feeling tears in my own eyes.
It is difficult to describe what was going on, more so what had been going on before. I was ten years old and had, of course, not experienced much from the socialist regime.
• I remember my primary school music teacher, a horribly strict and unpleasant woman; I remember the way she used to take a little record out of its sleeve with the GDR flag on the front and the Russian flag on the back, and the way we had to walk hand in hand around the classroom to the sound of the national anthem.
• I remember that my Grandpa’s aunt from the West was not allowed to stay with my grandparents when she came to visit them because Grandpa was a fire fighter; she always stayed with us.
• I remember the summer holidays when I spent the days with Grandpa at the fire brigade, which I enjoyed a lot, and that I was not allowed to even mention western radio or TV there.
• I remember a summer holiday with my family in the Czech Republic in 1987 or 1988. We walked near a field with a watch tower, a big white line across the grass, flag posts with Czech and Polish flags: the border between the CSSR and Poland. GDR citizens were allowed to travel to the Czech Republic but needed a visa to go to Poland; and we were not allowed to enter Poland via the CSSR. My Dad and I just wanted to have a look and stepped across this white line, perhaps five metres or so into Poland, when a soldier with a machine gun stepped out of the watch tower into the sunlight and asked: “Tschechisch oder Deutsch?”, Czech or German. “Deutsch”, said my Dad. The soldier ordered us to go back by waving with his gun. This must be the most frightening memory from my childhood; and I can only guess how frightened my Dad must have been that there was a soldier with a loaded gun waving at his little son.
• I remember that my uncle in the West invited my Granny, my Mum and the other siblings to his 50th birthday in 1988. the siblings’ spouses were allowed to travel, too, except my Dad. My Dad got engaged to my Mum during his time in the army in the early 1970s. He was given two options: either he calls off the engagement, or my Mum cuts the strings to her brother in the West. My Dad took a third option and quit his membership with the socialist party. This is what probably got him onto the list of those who were surveilled by the secret service. Years after the reunification, my parents told me that they were pretty certain that our apartment had been searched in our absence.
• I remember how, in 1989, the number of people who officially applied to emigrate rose dramatically. Everyone who had applied to emigrate had a white ribbon on their car aerial. Among them was the family of my friend Marcel from primary school. The last time I saw him was when our class walked past their house on our way back from the swimming class. Marcel stood behind the window and waved at us; he was crying, and so were some of us. I never heard from him again.
• I remember the Monday Rallies, protest marches during which people carried candles and banners expressing their wish of freedom of speech, democratic elections, the freedom to travel. During that time, my Mum’s cousin from Hamburg, in the west, and his wife were over on a visit, and they walked with us. Needless to say that, with secret service spies everywhere, that we all got a good thrill out of it, and our relatives from the west did not say a word during this, lest anyone recognised their accent.
All this changed this day, 25 years ago.
• We went to the west for the first time on November 15, six days after the border opened. Every GDR citizen received 100 Deutschmarks as a welcome gift. My parents bought fruit and other stuff one could not get in the GDR; and I bought a Lego police truck - with sirene and flashing lights. boy, was I proud!
• A month later, in early December, my parents and I got into our “Trabbi” trabant car and went to visit my aunt and uncle near Frankfurt. That was really exciting. We would go to see Frankfurt Airport; we would see airplanes take off and land for the very first time in reality, and not only on television. And my cousin, who has made a career as a technician in the motorsports industry, would bring me for a ride in his red Porsche 911. Having lived in a country where the legal speed limit of 75 mph equalled the actual top speed of most cars, watching a speedometer read 160 mph was quite a memorable experience for a little petrol head.
• From Christmas Eve 1989 onwards, people from the west of Germany were allowed to travel into the east without a visa. We all went to Eisenach-West, the first motorway exit in the east. There was a brass band, stands selling beer and Thuringian Bratwurst, and just as many people from the GDR had done in the other direction six weeks before, people just came over for the day, just to say Hello. It was wonderful! I especially remember a BMW with the number plate of the city near Frankfurt where my aunt and uncle live. My uncle has a BMW garage there, so my Mum went over to the driver and asked whether he knew that garage. He did. My Mum said: “That’s my brother Peter.” The man just gave my Mum a big hug, tears of joy in his eyes.
When the curtain falls, this is the end. When the Iron Curtain fell, this was the end of the world the way I knew it, but, moreover, it was a beginning. I am very grateful that I was old enough to have these memories; and I am even more grateful and proud of the GDR citizens that it all happened so peacefully.
PS, an afterthought: Whilst communism may be regarded as a system worth thinking about for some people, reality has shown that it does not work in practice. Communism condemns elites, proclaims: the same for everyone. Hypocrisy at its best! Who declares that a political system shall be communist? ...an elite. Ah, nonsense! the common people noticed this very quickly and left. In whatever way, the GDR lost 4.6 million citizens through emigration between the early 1950s and 1989, as I recently learned in a documentary. 4.6 million, that is the equivalent of the population of Ireland, gone, and most of them qualified workers who were desperately needed to keep the economy purring. They were needed so desperately that the SED regime had to keep them in the country, hence the construction of that wall. A GDR joke went: "We didn't build a wall. That's the motorway to Rostock. We just put it standing up to dry." ;)
If a system has to try that desperately to keep the people in the country and, moreover, to retain the illusion of "real existing socialism", it becomes inevitable to spy on their own citizens in order to spot traitors or people who think differently in a timely manner.
I learned some crazy stats in another documentary on the matter recently: The secret service of the Soviet Union employed one spy for every 1,500 citizens. In Poland it was one spy for every 4,00 or so, in the Czech Republic one for every 8,000. The MFS, The GDR's Ministry for State Security, the secret service, the "Stasi" had one spy for every 118 citizens.
118! If this is not crazy, I don't know what is!