What a year it was! 1989 had been a notable year anyway, and then came the events that turned out to be so revolutionary – everything that was happening on and around October 7, 1989, and that finally led to the Wall opening on November 9. Until then, I had always lived in the west of the GDR, in the Harz Mountains close to the border with West Germany. Of course, that was the part of Germany that had been occupied by the Soviet Union and was in the Eastern Bloc. There was no suggestion that anything was ever going to change about that. Until the summer of 1989, that is.
At that time I was a passionate diarist, and my journals help me recall the events back then. That summer I was almost 18, and I was caught up between my own personal problems as a teenager and the exciting political events. In my diary I use the formulation “inner turmoil.” The long summer vacation – eight weeks of relative freedom – was just coming to an end. The impressions of my trip to the Baltic Sea and to Potsdam with school friends, and pleasant weeks in my hometown of Nordhausen were still fresh in my mind, when something new and unexpected pushed itself to the fore: Hungary, a Warsaw Pact nation, had begun opening up its border to the capitalist West. At that time, Hungary was a favorite travel destination for people in the GDR. Many of my classmates went there on vacation in the summer of '89. More and more people were taking advantage of the new gap in the Iron Curtain to flee to the West – and now these included siblings of my close friends and some of our neighbors, too. Increasingly, I pondered what my future would be like. In my diary I ask myself: “Will the GDR soon be empty? Something has to finally change, but when?” Well, that certainly happened quicker than expected!
For me, a real turning point was hearing about the experiences of classmates who had taken part in demonstrations in Leipzig shortly before October 7. I began to read the writings of the New Forum; I joined the demonstrations; I voluntarily watched “Aktuelle Kamera” (the GDR’s daily news show) at 7:30 p.m.; and I debated the issues with school friends and teachers all day long. My safe, straightforward daily routine of school, handball, and fun with friends was turned upside down. Normal schoolwork took a back seat. And that in my final year of school, when I should have been preparing for exams! At the time I wrote: “It’s impossible to be indifferent to all this.”
My diary entry on November 6, 1989, reads: “Today a draft of a new travel law was proposed.” I have no entry for November 9. In retrospect, that silence is very meaningful. The entry on November 10 is bursting with euphoria: “I’m so glad to be alive in the present day. So much has happened in the past few days, or past few hours even! I’m so happy! … Events are following hot on one another’s heels … Yesterday I attended a discussion in the Hall of Friendship about public education – the debate got very heated. In the evening they announced that we can now travel wherever we want with just a stamp in our passports – including to West Germany … Just look at what we as a people are capable of achieving!“
What comes next?
Today, we all know very well what happened next. But back then it was an exciting, uncertain time when anything seemed possible. The mood was “Lambada” and “Wind of Change.” What was old and outmoded had to be discarded! It wasn’t until afterwards that we properly realized how things could have turned out instead. In autumn 1989, my brother was still doing his compulsory national service as a soldier in the GDR’s National People’s Army. And so my worries about him cast a frequent shadow over the bright joy I was feeling otherwise.
After several weeks my friends and I went back to our normal teenage lives, but with one important difference: the five-day week; there was no more school on Saturdays! We often used the extra time we had gained to ride to nearby Duderstadt and Bad Sachsa, just over the border, and attend our very first “West discos.” And we were finally able to hike on the Brocken Mountain – very important for people who live in the Harz Mountains. For almost two generations, the people of my town had only been able to look at it from a distance. My schoolmates and I also started rethinking our college plans, particularly with regards to where we were going to study. And of course the big new topic in the political sphere was the reunification of the two Germanies, the withdrawal of Russian troops from East Germany, and future NATO membership for a united Germany. Everything was in motion, many things were being scrutinized, and nothing seemed impossible.
My goodness, how long ago 1989 is now! And today? Today I am thankful that I lived in East Germany. I am also thankful for the experiences of autumn 1989. I am thankful for what we were and the opportunities we had, and thankful for what we have become after 30 years. I am thankful that autumn 1989 enabled me to gain a pan-German perspective for the first time, and then to gain a European and global perspective, which is a natural and enriching part of my life today. For me, autumn 1989 is all about the spirit of freedom. Preserving that spirit requires effort, and it represents a personal obligation – the obligation to remain socially aware and socially active.
The events of 1989, especially those of November 9, 1989, reach across time to this day. What I experienced then has very much shaped who I am today.
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