The Fall of the Berlin Wall

The Socialist 5 November 1999

TEN YEARS on from the mass movements which swept Eastern Europe, toppling the Stalinist dictatorships, ROBERT BECHERT who lived in Berlin during 1989/90, remembers the original ideals of the East German revolution and challenges the idea that it was a movement for capitalism.

THE NOVEMBER 1989 breaching of the Berlin Wall has come to be a defining moment in world history.

It heralded not only the collapse of the East German Stalinist regime but the end of the Soviet Union and the other regimes which falsely claimed to be socialist.

But what lay behind these events? Are the official commentators correct that the movement was for “democracy”, “German unity”, and “a desire for capitalism”?

To most East German people, the Wall’s opening was a victory against the totalitarian regime and for the right to travel freely – one of their most sought after demands.

An examination of the demands of the revolution show that capitalism was not the desired alternative. But in the West it is used to symbolise the collapse of an attempt to build an alternative to capitalism.

That East German leaders could only maintain their rule behind a fortified border, shooting at their own people trying to leave, gave the West a wonderful propaganda weapon.

Also by the 1980s, with mass unemployment in Western Europe, privately Western leaders saw the ‘Iron Curtain’ as a useful immigration control. They could condemn a system which refused free movement while hypocritically ignoring their own tightening restrictions on East-West travel.

Ultimately, we witnessed East Germany’s collapse into West Germany, opening the way for capitalist restoration throughout Eastern Europe and the former USSR. Western rulers quickly took advantage, proclaiming a ‘new world order’ and the death of ‘socialism’.

We have to dig to discover what the majority of East German citizens actually wanted in 1989.

The revolution was not initiated to import the instability and insecurities of the market economy. Much of the real history of the revolution is suppressed, particularly its first aspirations and the mass struggles after the wall opened. Some accounts of the 1989 revolution do mention the popularity of the idea of creating a socialist ‘third way’, neither stalinism nor capitalism, in the early days of the revolution.

This is why unification with the old West Germany was not immediately raised. The East German revolution did not start as movement to join the West. The slogan “We’re staying here!” replaced “We want out!” as the mass protests swelled at the end of September 1989.

Some commentators now argue that the idea of a socialist ‘third way’ collapsed because it was utopian. But it did represent the only real alternative which would have benefited most East German people and could have paved the way for a unification of Germany in the interests of the majority.

The brutal impact of capitalism has meant that glorification of ‘the market’, even the so-called social market economy, has less effect in former East Germany. But these ideas do still have currency in former West Germany – there is still hope that the ‘miracle’ years of the post-war boom can be recaptured. But this will not happen.

The repeated cuts packages recently introduced by all German governments flow from the current stormy period of capitalist ups and downs. This will eventually revive a popular search for an alternative to capitalism.

Within the East German revolution there were powerful elements of what Trotsky (the Russian revolutionary leader who gave his life in the struggle against Stalinism) called the political revolution – a revolution which would overthrow the totalitarian elite and allow the working masses to democratically run the nationalised economy and start creating a genuine socialist society.

Ideas of a socialist ‘third way’ were an attempt to preserve what were rightly seen as the more progressive elements of East Germany. But there was no force, no party, which could concretely show how these aims could be won. The result was growing support for unification which was seized upon by the then West German chancellor Kohl.

The East German revolution changed the world. It closed the chapter of stalinism but, unfortunately, the way it unfolded meant that it was capitalism rather than socialism that profited.

The dam finally breaks

THROUGHOUT AUTUMN 1989 exhilaration gripped those who participated in, or even just closely followed, the birth of East Germany’s revolution.

From September onwards the rising tide of mass action could almost be physically felt. As the revolution surged forward people felt growing self-confidence and a sense of liberation. When, in October and November, the mass movement began to achieve successes there were moments of pure joy.

But alongside the mounting excitement was anger directed towards the old regime, exploding into deep bitterness as the privileged elite’s corrupt lives were exposed.

Monday became the most important day of the week. It was the day of the Leipzig protest. From mid-September onwards anticipation grew about the size of the protest – what would its demands be? what would the authorities do?

The speed of the protests’ growth was astounding. Once fear had been overcome it was as if a dam had broken. A torrent of protest swept onto the streets of numerous East German cities and towns.

The rocketing size of the Leipzig protests is still stunning and inspiring to look at:

September 4 — 1,200

September 15 — 1,500

September 25  — 8,000

October 2 —  20,000

October 9  — 70,000

October 16 —  120,000

October 23 —  250,000

October 30 —  300,000

November 6 —  400,000

This was an upsurge from below. While a few opposition activists played an important part, the revolution was a volcanic explosion.

September and early October saw the tremors increase. The clashes around 7 and 8 October, East Germany’s 40th anniversary weekend, showed an increasing willingness to struggle.

The regime’s decision not to use force against the 9 October Leipzig march did not buy the Stalinists time. It only served to allow pent-up frustration and hostility to the ruling elite to burst to the surface. Soon there were protests in very part of the East Germany.

The Honecker ruling clique in East Germany went into a state of shock and rapidly began to disintegrate. Their social base had gone and the determined mass opposition was irresistible.

Internationally, this movement evoked an enormous wave of sympathy among ordinary working people and youth. Hopes were raised that the old style stalinist dictatorship would be removed. And, because of Germany’s central role in Europe, the possibility of transformation of the entire continent was posed.

Excitement peaked when the Berlin Wall was opened on 9 November. People could see that mass action was capable of changing things. It was a warning to governments everywhere that they could not rule with impunity.

The ‘1989 October revolution’

AS THE revolution raced ahead, generalised demands were appearing but these were not for capitalism – they contained many elements of a socialist programme for overthrowing Stalinism. Hopes were summed up in the repeated, almost universal singing of the “Internationale“, the song of socialist struggle.

Prominent German capitalists took note. Eckhart van Hooven, then a Deutsche Bank Board member, commented that the East German people are fighting for freedom “but not necessarily for capitalism” (London Financial Times 11 November 1989).

A November opinion poll reported that 86% of East Germans said they wanted socialist reform, 9% another path and only 5% wanted capitalist restoration.

The 4 November Berlin mass protest, the first peak of the revolution, reflected this. About a million people came to Alexanderplatz for a rally which opened with the words: “This is a Socialist demonstration”. No-one objected.

Home- and workplace-made banners showed this mood. Some attacked the Stalinists’ false claim to be Marxist by, for example, comparing the East German revolution with the 1917 October Russian Revolution.

Many slogans came directly out of the November 1918 German revolution, particularly those calling for ‘räten’ (councils, the German for Soviet) and for “all power to the councils”.

“We are the people and we are millions”.

“Long live the October revolution of 1989”.

“Use your power – Found workers’ councils”.

“Against monopoly socialism, For democratic socialism”.

The mood was internationalist as well, with slogans calling for solidarity with oppositions in China, Romania and Czechoslovakia.

There were also demands for an end to the top leaders’ luxury enclave in the Wandlitz suburb of Berlin. Only one banner raised the idea of unification.

The question for most protesters was how to start to create a really socialist society. But the participants had no clear idea of what steps were necessary.

In the absence of a socialist alternative, over time, the West German ruling class was able to step in, offering capitalist unification as the answer to all problems.

“Ever since the end of the war, we’ve been looking out of our windows every morning and hoping for socialism. But it never came… I’m proud that people (in the world) are watching us now, because at last we are waking up.”

Ewald, a glazier talking to London Guardian journalists in a Berlin bar in 1989

“There is nowhere you can go in DDR [East Germany] today where the words ‘hope’ and ‘socialism’ do not form a constant counterpoint… But the word ‘socialism’ in East Germany is no more than a generalised ideal, carrying the connotations of social justice, equality, greater choice and a decent standard of living… the concept of socialism hangs over the parties like a blue sky against which the more hopeful politics of East Germany are emerging”.

Impressions of Guardian journalists, 6 November 1989