Saturday, November 7, 2009

20 Years Ago 6: Wir sind das Volk!

Translation: we are the people!

1989 was the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the so-called German Democratic Republic in the Soviet occupation zone, in eastern Germany. During those 40 years, public displays of dissatisfaction with the Communist regime had been brutally suppressed.

In the wake of Josef Stalin's death in 1953, East Germans tested the limits of their freedom, and found that those limits had not been significantly expanded in the dictator's absence.

Construction workers went on strike in East Berlin. Demonstrations followed, there and in other cities. Soviet troops used military force to end the revolt.

The 1953 East German uprising is often cited along with the invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, as an occasion when the Soviet Union considered it most necessary to use force to preserve its hold on Eastern Europe. (Since Soviet troops occupied East Germany pursuant to the Yalta Agreement, they did not need to invade, that time.)

Then, after the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, people who tried to cross that barrier into West Berlin were routinely shot.

But, by October 1989, things had obviously changed. Events earlier that year, such as the Austro-Hungarian border opening and the Polish election that voted out the Communist regime, had not elicited a negative response from the Soviet Union. Unlike earlier successors to Stalin, Mikhail Gorbachev, who became the Soviet Communist leader in 1985, did not use force to prevent those types of things from happening.

The debate about Gorbachev's motives will probably go on forever. Did a moral compass, that was missing from his predecessors, cause him to promote freedom for those long-oppressed countries? Or did he simply feel powerless in the face of strong opposition from the likes of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul? I lean toward the latter.

As I noted above, the 1953 demonstrators are generally thought to have been testing their limits amid the power vacuum that followed Stalin's death. In 1989, East German dissidents had much more concrete reasons to believe that they could push their cause publicly.

As autumn of 1989 approached, anti-government demonstrations began. In Leipzig, these grew out of Monday evening prayer meetings at a Lutheran church. They spread to other cities, and continued to be held on Monday nights. By October, demonstrators' numbers swelled into the hundreds of thousands.

One of their chants was, "Wir sind das Volk!", which I translated at the top of this post.

Desperate to save their crumbling regime, the East German Communists fired their general secretary, Erich Honecker, on October 18. However, his successor, Egon Krenz, was not in power very long.

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