There had never been anything like it before in East Germany.
On Nov. 4, 1989, half a million people — factory workers, teachers, students, artists and writers — streamed into Berlin’s Alexanderplatz to make a stand for a renewed East Germany without dictatorship, to say: “We are the people.”
“Just to be in this mass of people was amazing,” said Henk Jonas, an East Berliner who was an 18-year-old student at the time. “I couldn’t really comprehend how many people there were. It was unimaginable. Everybody there had the spirit of the year; everything was open, free. We all had a grand goal,” he recalled.
That goal was not to abandon the German Democratic Republic (GDR), but to fix it.
After 40 years of authoritarianism, police surveillance, grim living standards and environmental plunder, the country was plainly broken. In the month before, all sorts of signs and wonders had taken place. Demonstrators had faced down the Stasi in Leipzig. Erich Honecker, dictator since 1971, had just resigned. Anything seemed possible.
And so on that characteristically hard, gray, Berlin November morning, the writer Christa Wolf, who became one of the most known authors to emerge from the GDR, could address the massive crowd and say: “I want to speak of revolutionary renewal. Revolutions begin from the bottom. Top and bottom change places and these changes will turn the Socialist society upside down!”
Christa Wolf was one of 22 speakers on the platform, which dramatically included both dissidents and former GDR insiders, such as Christa’s namesake, Markus Wolf, East Germany’s former spymaster, who had quit his job and written a book in support of the reform movement.
This mixture of dissent and determination to redirect the GDR’s affairs made the atmosphere in the square electric, remembers Marina Achenbach, a reporter and author who grew up in East Germany, managed to move to the West, but slipped through the border on Nov. 4 to attend the demonstration.
“We were very excited, happy. Everyone made their own placards. As Christa Wolf said, ‘this day would never be given to us again,’” she said.
And although, in this turbulent month, the talk of unification with the West was getting louder, the mass of people in Alexanderplatz were very clearly against such an idea.
“There was nobody there that was arguing for a unification of Germany. Nobody. There was no thought of that,” Achenbach said.
“In the GDR at this time, the opinion that they didn’t just want to become part of West Germany was very common. But it was still astonishing that so many people would turn up to say, ‘We’re staying here, we will change this country,’” she said.
And the change they wanted was that the GDR would finally live up to its Socialist ideals. Gregor Gysi, then a young reformist lawyer and now the leader of the Left Party in the German parliament, told the crowd that they were striving for “the melding of socialism, humanism, democracy and the rule of law, all within the term GDR.”
But five days later, the GDR entered its death throes. The Berlin Wall was breached, and, in the view of many of the intellectual reformists, the chances of creating such a utopia were gone. The massive economic magnet of West Germany, with its dramatically higher living standards and opportunities for work and travel, was too powerful to resist. A year later the GDR had disappeared.
Twenty years later, what has become of those that even in the depths of the GDR’s oppression, dreamt of the just society, the socialist ideal?
For many years, “they were pushed to the side,” said Klaus Schroeder, head of the GDR Research Network at the Free University in Berlin.
“Many East Germans said that they should have made a new state — a reformed, complete Germany. The Federal Republic also needed reform. But the Federal Republic did not reform itself, instead they patted themselves on the shoulder and said, ‘how great are we?’” Schroeder said.
But after Germany’s general election last month, it suddenly became clear that the “Socialist” tendency in German politics has returned from its dormant two decades.
The Left Party, led by Gysi — the young idealist who addressed the half-million in November 1989 — and a former Social Democrat, Oskar Lafontaine, won more than 11 per cent of the vote, an unprecedented result for the so-called “far-left” in the united Germany.
In other words, large swathes of the former East Germany, and almost all of the former East Berlin, are now represented by the direct political descendants of the reformers that tried to save the GDR from within in its final days. The East German state may have gone, but those that believed in what it could have become, remain.
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