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1989 – Personal Reflections on the Year of Revolutions

  • Jens G. Reich

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  • Jens G. Reich
    Humboldt University Berlin

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The year between autumn 1989 and autumn 1990 was an extraordinary one, and it altered the course of European history. For those twelve months political change took place at an astonishing speed, in contrast to the slow evolutions that took place before and in the years that followed. We all witnessed, and some of us actively participated in, the toppling of seemingly unshakeable political structures – it was a real revolution in the sense of a fundamental change in our society’s organisation. It also overturned the precarious global equilibrium of states during the Cold War.

1 The historical context

The world changed with a sudden jolt. And a twist of fate decreed that I’d find myself in the centre of that cyclone, after living for 30 years in a home that stood a mere 500 meters from that gloomy impossibility of a symbol, the Berlin Wall. The erection of the Wall in 1961 split my adult life in two parts. The first, belonged to a time before its construction; a life filled with a youthful expectation of becoming a citizen of a new Europe promising to mend the wartime atrocities of my childhood years. The second belonged to a time when I, like many others, endured life in a kind of cage in which one could breathe, live, have a family and children, but which allowed no outlet and no chance to be free, either physically or spiritually. Later on, with the consolidation of the dictatorial systems called the Eastern Bloc, the scope widened somewhat, but was always restricted to the eastern horizon, while the West remained virtual, an inaccessible nowhere beyond that Wall, from which only abstract news reached our world. The only exceptions to that rule were occasional visits from the inhabitants of a distant star, friends or colleagues from the West, who were curious to find out what happened behind that concrete curtain of the Wall in my home town of Berlin.

The central geographical position of Germany has traditionally presented every German with a choice: becoming, in a cultural sense, either a Westerner or an Easterner. Historically, most Germans turned their backs firmly on the East and were interested only in looking southward and westward. In the reminiscences of one of our greatest national figures, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the European East plays a miniscule role. Most revealing is Eckermann’s report on a visit paid to the great man by two Russians, whose names are not recorded. The visitors sat for a long time in total silence, until at last the eighty-one year old man, frustrated by their taciturnity, fell into a long and, as he later confessed, vague monologue on the United States of America. When he had finished the two silent Russians, like messengers from another world, stared at him blankly for a while, then bowed abruptly and departed. This episode is symbolic – a deaf dialogue with visitors from an alien world.

Another giant of German history, this time a political one, belongs at least in part to the “Easterners”. I have in mind Otto von Bismarck, who spent many years in St. Petersburg, and was certainly more attuned than most of his contemporaries to the proverbial “Russian soul”. But in that, too, he was clearly in a minority, as it became clear after his fall.

For me and for all those close to me – family, friends and colleagues – the Wall removed any choice: we became Easterners by imposition, not by free decision. I accepted that as a fact of life, learned some of the eastern languages, established professional contacts where and when it became possible with colleagues in the Soviet Union, in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Bulgaria; and with my family I spent years of my professional life in the East. Indeed, I found friends who remained friends even after the revolutionary change and the exodus of many to the West. Even now, 20 years later, my cultural imprint is predominantly eastern, and my interests are directed to the European East, especially to Russia – in contrast to my children, all three of whom chose the West, and since 1990 have lived in England, Spain, America, even Africa, and whose impressions of the East are mainly memories of their youth.

You will understand, therefore, how fascinated we all were by the fate of the European East during this half century of our lives and what vivid interest we took in all those fateful events, from the June 1953 uprising in Berlin, the atrocious war against Hungary in the fall of 1956, the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, the bloody December 1970 revolt of Gdansk, the civil war of Jaruzelsky against Solidarity; and how happy we were that finally, in 1989, a revolution could take place without bloodshed and suppression. It is not by accident that, after a long period of political inertia, when others took the lead in resisting the iron control from above, the decisive chain of events unfolded as it did in East Germany and later on in Czechoslovakia. It was because the party leaders here were particularly obstinate and did not allow the slightest reform. It is also not by accident that the last stage of the drama unfolded in Berlin and Prague, and later on in Bucharest and Vilnius, while countries like Poland and Hungary, which had already won their strategic victories, took a more evolutionary path of unremitting pressure and step by step advances to force the battered authorities of the local communist parties into retreat. The result was in all cases the same: socialism fell and was replaced by constitutions that offer to fulfil the dreams of the American and the French revolutions of 200 years – almost exactly 200 years – earlier. For some of the nations involved this was new; for others it was a chance to regain the freedom and self-determination that they had enjoyed in earlier times.

2 The Year 1989

This annus mirabilis from September 1989 to September 1990 before unification was the most exciting year of my life, as a citizen as well as a private person. We lived in a permanent state of high spirits and exhaustion, as if in an unending carnival where all the pressure has been lifted and everything is possible. Never before and, admittedly, never afterwards have I experienced this feeling of freedom that as ordinary citizens we could influence politics, could achieve something unheard-of together, forgetting about or at least suspending the usual pettifogging constrictions of daily life. We could express our opinions in public, and discuss them heatedly with strangers in a friendly atmosphere. The print and electronic media were transformed and freed from their bondage. Suddenly they worked in ways undreamed of earlier in the bleak days of censorship, when every piece of work underwent the same sullen scrutiny, and a dissenting opinion could lead to severe retribution, and so could a small blunder, like misspelling the name of a bigwig or party official (which occasionally happened by mistake or as a clever joke).

I know many people who say that those days were the happiest of their lives and still say this loudly when anniversaries such as this one come around. It was not only the unification of Germany that made us happy after such a long period of anomaly; we were celebrating, together with the other nations of the European East, the end of an era, the promise of freedom, the chance of true democracy – and their peaceful achievement. Meetings were arranged with civil rights activists from Poland, Hungary and other eastern countries, and they took place in a spirit of brotherhood that has now faded. I say this with a bit of nostalgia, having the fact in mind that we are now again in the common boat of the European Union. The emotion has receded, and we are now in the cool reality.

With the hindsight of twenty years, I am also driven to reflect on the special role of the West in promoting these epoch-making events. All the countries of the Eastern “Bloc” had intellectual circles and journalists who worked for the dissident movement. And all of them had tight contacts with their peers in the West, and the assistance of those in the West who upheld contacts and continued to count Eastern Europe to the community of civilized and enlightened peoples have great merits. Based on my own experience, I can say how heartening it was when visitors from the West came and brought with them an interesting magazine or book in which the latest developments of the West were discussed. Such connections and their cargo were not without risk for themselves. As a personal reminiscence I can say here that in those days we made the acquaintance of Philippe Despoix, who came over as a visitor through the wall that was impenetrable to us and risked to transport dissident writings of mine to be published in the intellectual magazine “Lettre internationale” in West-Berlin.

The uprisings in Eastern Europe were mostly led by groups of intellectuals, or took place in close coordination with them. As early as in the Stalinist 50s this was the case with the Petöfi Club in Budapest, as well as in 1968 with the “Manifesto of 2000 Words” which launched the “Prague Spring” and the Komitet Obrony Robotników (Committee for the Defence of Workers) in Poland. Also the Soviet Union has the proud record of the Helsinki Committee. And there were fearless writers with a forceful voice, above all the titanic fighter Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and more subtle intellectuals like Andrey Sakharov, to name but a few of those great figures. There was the clandestine Samizdat culture, with hundreds and thousands of texts, journals and booklets produced under the most adverse circumstances. These activities rarely involved very large numbers of the population, but they bear witness to a spirit of resistance and opposition that could not be suppressed or crushed by the powers that be, and whose triumph represented a triumph of the human spirit.

The history of East Germany is distinctly different in this respect from the other “fraternal countries” of the old Eastern Bloc. The intellectual opposition in the so-called German Democratic Republic was, by and large, weak and cowardly, and the few who spoke or sang aloud were soon expelled to the West (such as the poet Wolf Biermann). The physics professor Robert Havemann – “our” Andrey Sakharov, so to speak – was a notable exception, but the police held him firmly arrested in his dacha and we heard him only through the western media. This is a decisive difference from all the other Eastern Bloc countries. Although they all had some support from the western media, from émigré publishers, for instance, western broadcasts had difficulty in reaching audiences in the East and they were heavily jammed, so they mostly got through only to a small minority of determined listeners. The dissident movements there had to generate their resistance mainly on their own, from within. East Germany, by contrast, seemed to live with an overarching television screen showing West German programmes which were seen by everyone. And every day it produced a sort of virtual emigration from socialism to capitalism, going over to the other side in the evening and back at 6 o’clock the next morning. The TV sets were permanently switched on, and the authorities knew, and even reluctantly tolerated, the fact that 90 percent of the screens were tuned to the West and almost never to the domestic stations. The main effect of the game shows and other entertainment programmes was to show off what looked like a consumer paradise, backed up by a bombardment of advertisements for luxury goods which were all the more desirable for being out of reach. The Wall and the barbed wire in front of it constituted the only barrier between here and the promised cornucopia over there. It seems to me now that this factor was in reality more important in determining the course of events than the pressure exerted by the political opposition.

After 20 years, now, and with the emotions having cooled down, the right time has perhaps come to make a balance sheet. What is the long-term result of the happy year of 1989 for us as individuals, for our country, for Europe, and for the world at large?

What is the outcome of 1989 and 1990 for Germany, the country into which I was born, and in the smaller one of its divided parts where I have lived my adult life, and the re-united country where I now spend my old days?

3 Consequences of 1989

There are historical aspects of the great turn of 1989/1990 that belong to all of us, in a literally global sense. The over-arching antagonism of two superpowers has disappeared. Of superpowers who maintained, and still do maintain, a level of nuclear armament that can destroy all human civilization and make the whole globe uninhabitable within a few days of strike and counter-strike. Nuclear war was attempted in 1945 by America against Japan, and in 1962 we all were at the brink of death when the arm-wrestling between the US and the Soviet Union over Cuba threatened to escalate to an exchange of rockets and bombs. The experience of this stalemate of power-play had a decisive impact on our lives in the eastern world, since the West chose to give up the eastern part of Germany as well as the other countries with western tradition in the East of Europe, namely the Baltic countries, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. For their freedom the West would not, and could not, have risked the nuclear war. And the experience of the nuclear threat contributed also to our determination not to accept the division of Europe as a final outcome, because in the 80ies, when the empire of the Soviet Union was perceptibly and visibly crumbling, we were so concerned with the fear that the powers-that-be in Moscow could unleash a global war, if only with the intention to detract from their miserable economic, ecological and societal crisis.

This absolute threat has gone, but we did not get what Francis Fukuyama in America expected in the early 90s, the end of history with a peaceful liberal system of democracies as the final state of the world. Instead of the proxy wars such as in Africa, behind which the superpowers played their chess-game, we have now scores of civil wars and provincial conflicts, and a clash between the western and eastern world of a new type. Remember September 11 and the ensuing bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which prevail to the days and become more and more pointless and fruitless, and threaten to bring about a nuclear war between unstable states or terrorist groups, with dirty nuclear bombs even, think of Pakistan as an example.

In spite of all these difficulties and the lingering global crisis we are living in Germany in a united country which is “encircled”, as some jokers like to have it, encircled by friends. Friends, who have no hostile claims against us, neither have we against them. There are just the petty frictions that exist everywhere between competing communities and people. This year we celebrate the 20th birthday of successful re-unification. Together with our neighbour nations we succeeded in making a revolution, a fundamental overthrow of communism without civil war that has ensued in all previous revolutions of world history. We enjoy guaranteed civil rights and human rights, have a democratic political system, we can move freely, associate freely, and state our political opinion frankly and publicly. Our children can leave the country and can return to it without dictatorial regulation. What is the source, then, of this wide-spread uneasiness of the Germans with their country and with the life they are leading?

For there is uneasiness. There is permanent friction - not violent, but nagging. The Easterners feel hornswoggled by the economic and legal dominance of the West; the Westerners complain about the bottomless pit engulfing billions of subsidies every year. In both formerly divided parts there is Nostalgia of the bygone times when the others were safely locked-out by the wall. Admittedly, this unease does not affect the whole populace, but it is a real and perceptible phenomenon. As an Easterner, when, in a speech delivered somewhere in the eastern Laender, I make a joke about the Westerners, I can be sure to get at least a smiling agreement, if not applause. But the matter is more serious. The post-Communist leftist party, after having been in heavy political waters in the 90ies, when the party and security files revealed the extent of brain-washing control over the eastern population, is now in good shape and enjoys a strong electoral support in all of the eastern Laender. It might even recruit a governor in one of these regions. I do not consider this as a disaster, but as a telling symptom. It has sometimes been said that this “wall in the heads” will be pulled down bit by bit with the time that we live together. I cannot confirm this expectation. Not even among young persons who have not lived as adults in the country when it was divided. The other day, to give an example, I was at a conference in the eastern part and sat together with several biotechnological engineers living in the East. They were in their thirties, well educated and had good jobs. Nevertheless they expressed this critical attitude towards the present and a moderate feeling of longing for the old East. I asked them for an explanation of this paradox, and they told me that they knew from older people that as ugly as the GDR has certainly been, as a normal citizen without political ambition one could work protected in one’s community and needed not to be in a permanent state of uneasiness of losing one’s job. Then, 25 years ago, they said, if you had a personal conflict at the workplace, no one could fire you, but rather you could fire them, as it were. And indeed: a hospital nurse was so rare on the job market that she could easily quit and find another job the following week. This has definitely changed. The new competitive climate in the society often manifests itself along the former rift of the geographical separation line, symbolized by the Wall. It is so easy to fix a tag. Easterners and Westerners recognize each other so easily by the remnants of the long-lasting cultural separation, for example by the dialectal coloration of their intonation. And it seems that the everyday frictions tend to crystallize as a rift in the cultural mentality. Such a tension can be stirred up by vested political interest in times of crisis, as we have it now. In my mind, the task of the generation that now takes the lead is to bring the two mental cultures together in a creative manner and to embed this into a process of cultural unification of the whole of Europe. And this unification is an ambivalent task since it must not level the national traditions and identities of the numerous countries of that subcontinent.

Let me come to an end. I was born in 1939, when Hitler set out to attack Poland and to start a global war. I was six years old when my country was thoroughly destroyed and the shame of the world, and my mother fled with us children into the town of Halberstadt, which was razed to the ground shortly after we arrived. I have been brought up in the time of Stalin’s terror, lost my grandfather who died as prisoner in far Siberia. I lived my young years and my adult life in communist eastern part of the divided country, knowing that Big Brother was watching us everywhere. We founded a family, and our children had to grow up in the bureaucratic and indoctrinating oppressive climate of the socialist system of education. We lived through to the happiest year of our life when the powers-that-be, and with them the Berlin wall, were toppled by an unheard-of peaceful and friendly uprising of the whole people. And now I am living in the re-united country where my ancestors have lived. I am happy to be invited to speak to friendly people in a country that I would never have seen if the wonderful year of 1989 had not occurred.