LIFE IN A DICTATORSHIP
Communist dictatorships were established throughout Central and Eastern Europe after the Second World War, including in East Germany.
The construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 sealed the division of Germany.
Life in the GDR (German Democratic Republic) was shaped by the suppression of free speech and restrictions on personal rights. The state responded to criticism with persecution, imprisonment and deportation.
Throughout the existence of the GDR, there was protest and resistance against the rule of the SED, the state communist party. However, the SED dictatorship was not ended until 1989 after a revolution.
The extent of the mismanagement in the GDR became apparent in the 1980s, typified by urban decay, destruction of the environment and a shortage economy.
ZETTEL FALTEN (FOLDING THE PAPER)
The concept of a free election did not exist in the GDR.
All candidates were on a single list, known as the "Einheitsliste" or unified list. Voters could either accept or reject this list. The leading role of the SED was written into the constitution.
Voting was commonly referred to as "folding the paper" (Zettel falten). According to official figures, around 99 percent of eligible voters cast their vote.
Rumors of manipulation of election results continued to arise.
During the local elections of May 7, 1989, members of the opposition wanted to find proof of the election fraud by taking up their right to monitor the counting of the votes.
The comparison with the final official result showed deviations in the number of votes counted in East Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig and other parts of the country, proving that the election was rigged.
The underground magazine "Wahlfall 89" (Election 89) published figures documenting the election fraud.
More and more East Germans were no longer prepared to accept this deception.
The call for free and democratic elections grew ever louder and became one of the most important challenges of the coming months.
WE WANT TO LEAVE!
More than 100,000 people applied to leave for the West within the first year alone. They had lost all faith in the political leadership and could no longer see any future for themselves in the GDR.
In May 1989, Hungary began to dismantle its border security fences with Austria. This was reported in Western media and led to the biggest exodus in the history of the GDR.
Many fled to West German representations in Prague, Budapest, Warsaw and East Berlin.
Tens of thousands left the country in the summer of 1989.
AUFBRUCH 89 (Initiative 89)
The exodus changed the shape of the GDR. Many people overcame their decades-long lethargy, sought out similar-minded people and organized themselves. New groups, movements and parties were formed.
The inaugural meeting of the Neues Forum (New Forum) civic movement took place on September 9 and 10, 1989, in Grünheide, near Berlin.
Unification was a political communication platform that strove to conquer the silence in the nation.
Almost at the same time that the New Forum was born, a new social democratic party, the SDP, was established. Civic movements like "Demokratie Jetzt" (Democracy Now), "Demokratischer Aufbruch" (Democratic Awakening) and "Vereinigte Linke" (United Left) were also founded.
They demanded a democratic society with free speech and freedom of the press.
However, the SED defended its sole claim to power and outlawed the foundation of all new groups. Their founders and sympathizers were pursued by the Ministry for State Security.
Despite the state ban, the East German people joined the new parties and movements in their thousands.
40 YEARS OF THE GDR
"Vorwärts immer, rückwärts nimmer!" (Always forward, never back) (SED leader Erich Honecker on October 7, 1989)
In spite of the exodus and the growing protest movement, the SED staged celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the GDR with processions and parades.
The official festivities did not go off without disturbances, however. Thousands of East Berliners gathered spontaneously at Alexanderplatz and stormed the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic) where the government had organized a banquet. This led to the largest protest demonstrations in East Berlin since the popular uprising of 1953.
During the evening, the demonstrators were forced back. They turned towards the Gethsemanekirche (Gethsemane Church) in the Prenzlauer Berg district of the city.
On the eve of the festivities for the 40th anniversary of the GDR, the communist youth organization, FDJ (Free German Youth), marked the occasion with a torchlight procession.
Peaceful demonstrators were surrounded and beaten up. The police arrested large numbers of people who were standing in the streets near the Gethsemanekirche, including residents who were not involved.
Some demonstrators fled to the Gethsemanekirche looking for protection from the police.
Eye witnesses and people directly involved recorded their memories of the battles on the streets on October 7 and 8. Some of these records were self-published illegally in small quantities.
RELEASE OF THE DETAINEES
The Gethsemanekirche in East Berlin became a focal point for resistance and revolution in the autumn of 1989.
News reached here from all parts of the GDR by means of a special telephone line. Thousands of citizens and international media were informed about many events. Reports in the West German media based on this information were then in turn received in East German living rooms across the country.
On October 2, 1989, opposition members called a solemn vigil and demanded the release of demonstrators who had earlier been arrested in Leipzig.
Many people were angry about the violent actions of the security forces and supported the solidarity movements.
The church was filled with more than 3,000 people every day.
Many young people in particular even spent the night in the Gethsemanekirche.
WE ARE THE PEOPLE!
Around 70,000 people gathered in Leipzig on October 9, 1989, as part of the Monday demonstrations.
Demonstrations had been ended violently in many cities across the GDR in previous weeks. The atmosphere was tense.
Nobody knew if the SED leadership would use force to break up the peaceful resistance on this particular day.
"We are the people," the demonstrators cried. Against all expectations, the security forces did not intervene.
Tens of thousands of people overcame their fear and joined the protest march through the streets of Leipzig.
EGON KRENZ ANNOUNCES TURNING POINT
On October 18, 1989, Egon Krenz took over from Erich Honecker as state and party leader.
Following the protests of recent weeks, the new SED head feigned readiness to enter into dialogue. Krenz promised a change in direction and announced a turning point for the GDR.
However, the people could no longer be appeased. They did not accept Krenz. He had already been part of the inner circle of power for too long.
THE PROTEST GROWS
At the initiative of the New Forum, local actors and artists organized a major demonstration on November 4, 1989.
The SED leadership granted its approval for the demonstration, albeit with the intention of using it to serve its own ends.
Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Alexanderplatz. This became the largest demonstration against the system in the history of the GDR.
Artists, civil rights activists and members of the state leadership elite spoke on the podium. Most of the speakers from the SED were booed.
The message from the banners was clear – the demonstrators wanted this party out. They wanted democracy in the GDR.
DOWN WITH THE WALL!
The mass exodus of people was continuing apace since summer 1989. Tens of thousands had left the GDR in the first few days of November alone. The situation was becoming increasingly unsustainable for the GDR leadership.
On November 9, 1989, at the end of an international press conference, Günter Schabowski, a member of the SED Politburo, announced new travel regulations. All East Germans would now be permitted to travel to the West.
When questioned by a journalist, Schabowski confirmed that the new regulations would be effective immediately and without delay.
News of the new travel regulations was broadcast on West Berlin media and then also received throughout the East. Many East Berliners flooded to the border crossings and forced them to be opened after 28 long years.
"Wir fluten jetzt, wir machen alles auf" ("We're overflowing, we're opening everything up"). These words uttered by a border guard signaled the lifting of the first barrier at 11:30 pm on November 9, 1989, at Bornholmer Straße.
Further border crossings were opened in the ensuing hours and days.
East and West Berliners embraced and celebrated the opening of the Wall together.
The eyes of the whole world were watching: international media reported live from the fall of the Wall, an event long desired but which people had begun to believe was no longer possible.
Kurator, Projektleitung — Sello, Tom (Robert-Havemann-Gesellschaft e.V.)
Text, Umsetzung — Dr. Schäkel, Ilona (Letternleuchten Text | PR)
Unterstützung — Wir bedanken uns für die Unterstützung durch den Berliner Landesbeauftragten für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen DDR.