Exploring The Freest Country In The World

This is a story of a different GDR from the one that tends to get remembered and talked about. It is a story of a free GDR.

1989-1990 was a time of tremendous openness and possibility in East Germany, and large numbers of ordinary citizens experienced an exhilarating and unprecedented sense of freedom. The memory of that freedom has since been obscured by the teleological sense that everything in the revolutionary country during the year of transformation was moving toward a specific, preordained goal: national reunification. What is now remembered more than the democratic revolution in Leipzig and elsewhere is the fall of the Wall in Berlin—a decision made by the desperate Politburo rather than a revolutionary demand made by people on the streets.

In September and October of 1989 East German citizens in Leipzig, Dresden, Berlin and other cities and towns throughout the country went out onto the streets and demanded democratic reforms in their country, including freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Their slogan was “Wir sind das Volk” (We are the people). What was happening in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) at that time was nothing less than a peaceful revolution powered by ordinary citizens fed up with dictatorship and tyranny.

Erich Honecker, East Germany’s long-term leader, resigned on October 19, 1989, but by that point real power no longer lay in the hands of the country’s socialist party, which was already rapidly collapsing. It lay in the hands of ordinary people. On November 4, 1989 citizens in East Berlin went out onto the street in a massive demonstration demanding democratic and constitutional freedoms. Instead of marching to the Berlin Wall and demanding its opening, they marched around the city demanding freedom.

Five days later, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened by a confused and mistake-prone Politburo, and East German citizens found themselves free to travel to the West. Large numbers of them, however, continued to demonstrate every Monday for political reforms in the GDR and for a revised constitution. On January 15, 1990, citizens stormed secret police (Stasi) headquarters in East Berlin, demanding a halt to the destruction of records as the revolution progressed.

All of these events are now part of the history of German reunification—the coming together of the country after over four decades of separation. However, the citizens who went out onto the streets demanding democratic reforms in September and October of 1989 were not calling for national unity or even the collapse of East Germany as a separate state. They were insisting on full political freedom in a democratic and socialist GDR. It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9 that voices began to be heard calling for national reunification and shouting “We are one people” rather than “We are the people.” The change from the definite to the indefinite article meant a transformation in the thrust of the revolution itself—from radical democratic transformation and toward national unity.

By now the revolution in the GDR tends to be conflated with the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification on October 3, 1990. The central national memorial to these events, soon to be opened in Berlin, is called the Monument to Freedom and Unity, as if freedom and unity were the same thing. And as if national unity had been the goal of the East German revolutionaries of September and October 1989. The monument is to be inscribed with the two slogans “Wir sind das Volk. Wir sind ein Volk.” (We are the people. We are one people.), even though in historical reality the two slogans were not used together. They were mutually exclusive, and the latter slogan replaced the former one.

The goal of The Freest Country in the World is to revisit the memory of the revolution itself before it became obscured by the seeming certainties of a western-dominated reunification. It is to examine a moment of freedom that left powerful traces in the lives of ordinary people. Indeed, it is to explore an East Germany that was unprecedentedly free, as well as the subsequent memory—and erasure—of that freedom and that memory.

STEPHEN BROCKMANN is Professor of German with courtesy appointments in English and History at Carnegie Mellon University. The Freest Country in the World is now available in both hardback and ebook.

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