Students atop of the Wall at the Brandenburg gate during the dying days of the East German regime

Students atop of the Wall at the Brandenburg gate during the dying days of the East German regime   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Robert Bechert, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) and Berlin resident in 1989

While, for millions, the 1989 opening of the Berlin Wall was rightly celebrated as a great victory for democratic rights, the build-up to the official celebrations to mark its 30th anniversary have, as before, been dominated by anti-socialist propaganda.

Around this anniversary, against the background of a looming economic crisis and increasing questioning of capitalism, there is an emphasis on arguing that the former East Germany was an economic failure that ‘proved’ that a planned economy does not work.

Some pro-capitalists go further and argue that it is the ‘legacy of socialism’ which is blocking economic growth in east Germany today.

There is a widespread feeling in the east that they were, in many ways, taken over by the western Germany elite and remain sidelined to this day. This is against the background that, nearly 30 years since the reintroduction of capitalism into eastern Germany, there is not the widespread “booming landscape” which the then West German leader Kohl promised in 1990.

Today GDP (total output) per person in the east is 20% lower than in western Germany, the same proportion as 15 years ago. Wages are also generally lower. Eastern Germany’s decline is reflected in its falling population: today it is the same as it was in 1905, 13.6 million compared with 16.4 million in 1989.

Many easterners’ 1989 hopes have not materialised while capitalism’s return brought insecurity back. One result today is the ongoing dramatic fall in support in eastern Germany for the western-based traditional ruling political parties.

In the face of this critical mood the German ruling class continually seeks to hide the fact that, initially, the revolutionary movement that opened the Wall was generally pro-socialist and that it was only later that hopes and illusions in capitalism came to dominate the protests in East Germany. They fear a rebirth of a movement struggling for socialism.

Of course, no-one can escape the fact that it was a mass, revolutionary movement of the East German people that won the right to travel the world, if not necessarily the money to do so.

But the official propaganda buries the initial revolutionary and pro-socialist character of the movement in autumn 1989 and makes it seem that, almost from the outset, the protesters’ aim was to bring back capitalism via uniting with West Germany.

The Wall

The monstrous border, with its killing zones, that the the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the then east German regime maintained, alienated millions and allowed the western powers to paint a horrible picture of a ‘socialist’ country which used force to keep its population inside.

The GDR, while not having a capitalist economy, was not a socialist democracy. Its regime was modelled on that of Stalin’s Soviet Union and run by an elite group of bureaucrats, something seen in the brutal crushing of the 1953 workers’ uprising and the continuing suppression of any serious criticism or dissent.

This led to increasing numbers moving to the west and, in 1961, the regime began building the Berlin Wall to complete the sealing of the inner-German border.

For some decades the GDR economy developed but then, like in other Stalinist states, top-down bureaucratic methods began to strangle the economy.

Crisis of Stalinism

Internationally this led to the crisis which gripped many Stalinist states in the 1980s, especially in the then Soviet Union where Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts at reforms helped stimulate movements from below.

This development had a big impact in the GDR and other countries. Increasingly in the late 1980s the changes in the Soviet Union, especially the greater toleration of open debate, were seen in other Stalinist states as an example to follow, something which the totalitarian GDR leadership tried to resist.

One of the sparks that led to the 1989 movement was the rigging of the local elections held in May that year. Protests began, but also there were suddenly opportunities to leave the country – first to Hungary, and later to the then Czechoslovakia, which opened their western borders.

For those living in the GDR a crucial difference with other Stalinist states was that West Germany would immediately grant citizenship and full welfare benefits to any East German citizens who arrived there.

As increasing numbers left the GDR many started to discuss whether they should try to leave the country or whether they should try to change it. The majority decided to stay.

Protests begin

This was the background to the regular protests that first began in Leipzig on 4 September and rapidly gained strength, particularly after clashes around the celebration of the GDR’s 40th anniversary at the beginning of October.

Soon a tremendous momentum developed. Despite attempts at repression the protests kept expanding. As the authorities began to back down from using force, the protesters grew in confidence. The numbers participating in the ‘Monday demos’ in Leipzig jumped from 70,000 on 9 October to 250,000 on 23 October.

The largest single protest was the demonstration of up to one million people in Alexanderplatz, east Berlin, on 4 November. This was a huge proportion of the GDR’s 16.1 million population.

However, this protest is downplayed in the official story, even though it played a key role in the events that led, five days later, to the opening of the Wall.

The fundamental reason for the official downgrading of 4 November is simple: its demands were not just for free elections, free media, the freedom to travel, to criticise, and so forth, but also for ‘democratic socialism’.

Speaker after speaker at the 4 November demo spoke about this and there was no opposition from the crowd.

This was not accidental. Opinion polls at that time showed majority support in the GDR for socialism in some form, sometimes expressed vaguely in the idea of a ‘third way’ between capitalism and Stalinism.

The very first leaflet issued by Democratic Awakening (DA), the group that current German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined, called for “a socialist society on a democratic basis”, despite the DA being the most right-wing of the new groups and parties then emerging in the GDR.

Taken together, these popular demands had much of the programme for a ‘political revolution’ which Trotsky and his followers first advocated in the 1930s against Stalinist rule in the then Soviet Union.

In the GDR, the small number of CWI supporters – the socialist international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated – advocated concrete steps to achieve that socialist goal which would have had great appeal to workers and youth in the other Stalinist countries, and in the capitalist west.

Airbrushing history

But now this ‘socialist’ period of the movement has been buried and official history concentrates on 9 November then jumps to the end of November and early December when East German support for a rapid unification with west Germany soared.

The reasons for this change in popular opinion in the GDR were various. There was no force that was proposing the concrete steps that were needed to build ‘democratic socialism’. The opening of the border made many East Germans see the strength of West Germany and they questioned what future the GDR would have on its own. In addition, joining west Germany was increasingly seen in the GDR as the quickest way to get rid of old GDR elite.

At that same time, West German leaders saw both a threat and an opportunity. In mid-October 1989 Schäuble, then interior and now president of the Bundestag (parliament) and former German finance minister, told the Financial Times of the danger of “uncontrolled events” in East Berlin and a threat of the “destabilisation” of the GDR. But also the German capitalists saw the chance to reunite the country under their control, as well as strengthening their international position by throwing off the last of the restraints imposed on them after World War Two.

Events sped up as protests against the GDR leaders continued and more and more GDR citizens voted with their feet. Soon, tens of thousands were leaving the GDR for West Germany, by early November the rate was 9,000 a day.

On 13 November, the first calls of “Germany, Fatherland” were heard on a 200,000-strong Leipzig demo. However, a month later, a poll in the West German magazine Der Spiegel showed 71% wanted a democratic GDR and not unification.

Calls for unification were getting more and more support, and the West German leaders decided to seize the opportunity to campaign for unification. This won massive support in the March 1990 GDR election that paved the way for unification the following October.

In many ways this was, in effect, a takeover. The clause in West Germany’s ‘Basic Law’ that, should Germany be united, it should be replaced by a “constitution freely adopted by the German people” was dropped.

The German capitalists feared that in any public debate on a new constitution there would be demands for guarantees on trade union and social rights, like jobs and housing, plus possible attempts to restrict capitalists.

Instead of unification, what took place was a German version of ‘shock therapy’ – the rapid and brutal reintroduction of capitalism seen in many other former Stalinist states.

As the planned economy was dismantled, the former GDR’s industrial production dropped by two-thirds between 1989 and 1991. Enterprises which were seen as potential competitors were sold off cheaply to their West German rivals, and sometimes then closed. The result was mass unemployment and an extremely rapid de-industrialisation of what was, before 1939, Germany’s industrial heart.

But the difference between the experience in East Germany and the other former Stalinist states was that the German ruling class also pumped huge amounts of money into the area to buy social peace.

Nevertheless, the loss of jobs, the shock of the introduction of the market that ended guaranteed jobs and housing and, later, the introduction of some cuts, resulted in different waves of protests in eastern Germany. This was especially the case in the early 1990s against job losses, and in 2004-05 against the ‘Hartz IV’ social cuts.

This is the background to the eastern German resentment that has undermined the western German parties in recent elections.


Initially, it was Die Linke, the Left party, which reflected easterners’ disenchantment, but this support was not utilised in building a socialist movement to change society. Repeatedly, Die Linke leaders have made clear that they are prepared to operate within capitalism.

This has given opportunities to the far right, most recently the Alternative for Germany (AfD) to campaign on a combination of nationalist, racist and populist slogans, and gain significant support. The resulting polarisation has sharpened the social situation.

Implicitly, there is the possibility of new movements. But from the beginning there will be a struggle over which direction such movements take. Part of this struggle will be over the legacy of 1989-90.

The revolution of 1989 is both an inspiration, showing how a repressive regime can be overthrown, but also a warning of how a revolution’s original aims can be subverted. To avoid this there needs to be a political party which can show how achieving working peoples’ objectives is linked to establishing a workers’ democracy that can lay the foundations for the development of a genuinely socialist society.

Berlin Wall timeline

  • 1945: After the defeat of the Nazis, occupied Germany is divided between Western Imperialism and the Stalinist USSR. Start of the Cold War.
  • 1948-49: Antagonism between the two blocs leads to Stalin imposing a blockade of West Berlin. The West drop air supplies to the enclave.
  • 1949: In May the USSR lifts its blockade. Also in May the western capitalist Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) is declared followed by the establishment of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in October – a mirror image of the Soviet Union.
  • 1953 June: Building workers in East Berlin strike against draconian working conditions and low pay. It quickly develops into a widespread revolt across East Germany against Stalinist rule. Soviet tanks crush the rebellion. Hundreds are killed and the workers’ leaders executed.
  • 1952-1959: 4.3 million East Germans move from the GDR weakening the eastern economy while 430,000 move from West to East Germany
  • 1961 August: East German troops are ordered to seal off the border crossings between East and West Berlin. Construction of the concrete wall begins. In response the US moves 1,500 troops through East Germany to West Berlin.
  • 1963 June: US President John F Kennedy delivers his ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech in West Berlin as a policy statement to the USSR confirming US defence of West Germany and West Berlin.
  • 1980s: Decades of bureaucratic rule drive the nationalised economies of the USSR and Eastern Bloc countries into an impasse. In response, ‘Perestroika’ – political and economic reform – is introduced by Soviet leader Gorbachev.
  • 1989: Rigging of local elections sparks off protests followed by East Germans attempting to reach West Germany through the then Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
  • October: East German leader Erich Honecker resigns and is replaced by Egon Krenz.
  • 4 November: One million people attend a pro-democratic socialism demo.
  • 9 November: The Wall is breached when the East German government announces that all GDR citizens can visit West Germany and West Berlin. In the absence of a democratic workers’ alternative, East Germany began to collapse, support for unification grew and the German capitalist class seized the opportunity to take over east Germany on its terms.
  • 1990 3 October: East and West Germany are formally unified as a capitalist state.