Hero or coward?

Professor Thoralf Niendorf, Head of the Research Group Experimental Ultrahigh Field Magnetic Resonance

The year 1989 saw a nonviolent revolution take place in the GDR. I was in my penultimate year of physics studies at the Karl Marx University in Leipzig.

In September 1989, my brother had fled across the “green border” from Hungary to Austria and after a few days in a reception camp in Bavaria, he ended up with friends in Bremen. Afterwards, the Stasi collected information on my parents and myself. As we found out later, neighbors, former classmates and colleagues of my brother, and team members of my soccer club were all involved in these activities. 

I had transcripts, in the form of a 'Studienbuch' but certificates were issued in the West German system.
Prof. Dr. Thoralf Niendorf
Thoralf Niendorf Professor for Experimental Ultrahigh Field Magnetic Resonance

That year, the winter semester in Leipzig had begun in early September. In their lectures, professors who toed the party line expressly warned us physics students against participating in the Monday demonstrations. To avoid being discovered by informers, I always snuck out through the back entrance of the student dorm in Linnéstraßewith my fellow students to go to them. During the march from Augustusplatz via Georgiring, I wouldn’t have been able to escape the police and paramilitary units waiting on trucks in the side streets, as I had a cast from my ankle to my hip due to a soccer injury and had to hobble along on crutches. At the demos, we easily recognized the Stasi with typical army haircuts dressed in leather jackets lurking around everywhere, hypocritically asking us what was going on. 

Initially, people at the demonstrations demanded greater democracy. But by early November, the crucial question of reunification became an open subject of chants and discussions. 

On November 9, I took the train from Leipzig to my hometown Jüterbog. As a member of the young Christian community, I was invited to participate with my father in a panel discussion with representatives of the SED district leadership, the District Council, and the local Stasi in St. Nicholas Church. At around 8 p.m., the large medieval church doors swung open, and a man ran breathlessly into the huge church, shouting: “The Wall is open!” We all looked at one another in disbelief. We were so happy that we could barely fathom the news and flocked home excitedly to watch the latest developments on TV. 

My family stayed awake until the early hours of November 10. Then my father left Jüterbog for Berlin-Friedrichstrasse station at about 4 o’clock in the morning. He had applied in September 1989 for a visit permit for the birthday of a distant relative in the Ruhr area. To our surprise, the permit had been granted at the end of October with a starting date of November 10. Of course, this was all a ruse on the part of my father, for his real intention was to visit my brother who had fled via Hungary to his new home in Bremen. 

I should have risen up much earlier.
Prof. Dr. Thoralf Niendorf
Thoralf Niendorf Professor for Experimental Ultrahigh Field Magnetic Resonance






So my father left in the early morning of November 10 with his visa and went through the normal checkpoints of the SED regime through the Tränenpalast – the Palace of Tears – at Friedrichstrasse station. It was an extremely paradoxical situation, for meanwhile I drove my Trabant – left behind by my brother – over the inner-German border near Marienborn on my way to Bremen. There, our family celebrated a reunion. I immediately took the opportunity to visit the University of Bremen Physics Department to find a supervisor and a topic for my thesis. Fortunately, I found both in the thesis group of Prof. Adalbert Mayer-Heinricy, for whose openness and courage I am infinitely grateful. Other professors rejected my request outright, as they weren’t sure about my transcripts and curriculum, which wasn’t congruent with the University of Bremen system, and were afraid of being reprimanded by the university administration. I had “transcripts,” in the form of a “Studienbuch” but “certificates” were issued in the West German system. 

Was I a hero? No, I was a real coward, for I should have risen up much earlier. The same holds true today. I was reminded of this again at the Wolf Biermann concert, part of the “Breaking Boundaries” series that took place a few weeks ago, on September 9, 2019, at BIMSB in Hannoversche Strasse 28. At the concert, balladeer Wolf Biermann sang in his still-powerful voice: 

You, don’t let yourself become hardened
in these hard times. Those who are overly hard will break,
those who are overly pointed will pierce and break off immediately.
You, don’t let yourself become embittered in these bitter times.

Niendorf's daughter holding the sign "We need a global solution to beat the pollution" together with many other activists at a Fridays for Future demonstration on June 21st 2019 in Aachen, North Rhine-Westphalia.

That same evening, I sent a WhatsApp message to my two daughters, now 14 and 17 years old, telling them these Biermann lyrics still hold meaning now and will forever. But it’s very difficult for my daughters to understand the context. What young person can really comprehend the political lunacy of a divided country, despite all the history books, personal memories of their parents, relatives, and friends and their attempts to talk about history in the former four-sector city of Berlin? This is also why I am writing these lines. As a concert souvenir, Wolf Biermann gave me a copy of the poem sheet he read from that evening, signed backwards, with a personal dedication. 

Applied to the present day, I was all the more surprised and delighted to see that my youngest daughter was pictured in the middle of a photo taken at a Fridays for Future demonstration with a banner reading “We need a global solution to beat the pollution.” It appeared in the online edition of ZEITon June 22, 2019. She obviously learned something from my own cowardice. I am encouraged by this.


© ullstein bild/BPA