“We need to show solidarity with the Friday strikes by schoolchildren!”

Exactly 30 years after the founding of the Neues Forum, Jens Reich has called upon researchers to once again get involved in the political discourse. The full text of his speech can be found below. Reich’s speech and a concert by Wolf and Pamela Biermann kicked off a new event series, entitled “Breaking Boundaries,” at MDC Berlin-Mitte/BIMSB.

When you visit the courtyard of this new facility, you’ll see on the right a building that from 1974 to 1990 was one of the sites along the thorny path to German unification. The building housed the Permanent Representation of the Federal Republic of Germany in the GDR (calling it an “embassy” was not possible). It became a place of importance because over the years GDR citizens seeking to emigrate – men, women, and even children – fled again and again into the interior of the building provided that the GDR’s security forces weren’t able to head them off beforehand. A high point was the diplomatic crisis of 1984 when 55 GDR citizens occupied the building for several weeks in an attempt to force their departure to the West. 

Later on, this action was repeated by another 130 would-be emigrants, who all had a common desire: “I don’t want to stay here; I want to go out into the world! I want to depart to the West and live freely!” The conflict was a harbinger of the movement among the GDR’s youth to leave in the last years of the country’s existence

Wolf Biermann und Jens Reich

When you walk out onto Hannoversche Strasse, across the street on the right corner is an apartment building that still has the worn gray plaster facade of the GDR times, while almost everything around it has been renovated with the shine and gloss typical of a now more prosperous Berlin. The balladeer Wolf Biermann used to live in this gray building with his family. In the early '60s, the authorities considered Biermann one of its most dangerous enemies of the state and kept him confined in a sort of private prison, allowing him only occasionally to roam freely. The building and all his visitors were monitored and kept under strict surveillance. You saw plainclothes officers skulking about with nothing to do, and you could guess who they were watching.

Authentic background noise from the street  

The address of this gray apartment building is Chausseestrasse 131 – which is also the title of the Biermann LP that was released on vinyl in 1968. This record can still be bought today in more modern formats. 

The songs, written in the spirit of 15th century classical political balladeer François Villon, brought Biermann international fame. But as most people in the GDR did not have access to his tapes and records, he was known in his home country only as an insider’s tip. I heard a few of his songs on West German radio in the late '60s as a guest at private events. Most of my acquaintances, like me, only knew the name from hearsay. But I remember one particular meeting where someone put this record on. 

The effect of these songs was astonishing: the poetic lyrics, which Biermann himself wrote and arranged for guitar accompaniment, were composed in a haunting, clearly understandable style that was obviously influenced by the work of Bertolt Brecht. The exquisite, melodic, virtuoso guitar part, which at times seemed to follow a separate melody to that of the singer, contributed strongly to the emotional impact of the songs. Authentic accompaniment was provided by the background noise of the street below, including the squeaking of a tram turning the corner. These sounds became the artistic hallmark of Biermann’s songs from those years, and were born out of his being forced to record in his living room on devices smuggled over to him by Western fans.

Unvarnished critique 

The real shock for me, as indeed for most people who heard his music back then, was Biermann’s incredibly sharp attack, free of any caution or consideration, on the ruling Politburocrats and their eagerly serving party comrades in all areas of official life, as well as the clear critique leveled at his fellow GDR artists in theater, literature, and music – whose opposition to the gagging of freedom was limited to the dropping of half-petulant, half-eager hints. 

The audience for whom Biermann potentially sang was the conformist silent majority of GDR citizens – at least 80 percent of the population, as would later become apparent in 1989/1990. 

I want to tell you something that Wolf might not remember. In the early '70s I attended a private performance by one of the niche theater companies with some relatives and friends. The play had been developed by the actors themselves and provided an in-depth psychological analysis of the relationship problems of young people – in other words, it was very apolitical and quite half-baked. Wolf Biermann was also invited to the performance. After some time, he interrupted the play by shouting loudly from the back of the room that this whole psycho-nonsense was awful. The order of the day, he proclaimed, now had to be political self-assertion and self-activation against the obstinate power structure of the GDR. To do this, he continued, we would have to rise to the task and develop truly contemporary theater. With this, he left – slamming the doors on the bewildered audience. The performance never fully recovered after that. 

Double isolation

I realized that this man was both brave and right. Despite the refuge of our private counterworld, I found the lack of freedom torturous – professionally, it paralyzed my scientific work. But what did that mean? What could be done? Should I go to Chausseestrasse 131, look for Biermann’s name on the buzzer (if there was one), be photographed by the numerous observers that surrounded the building and, if Biermann let me in, offer myself as a fellow dissident? That simply wasn’t an option. He would have probably taken any uninvited visitor for a decoy anyway – an insight that proved to me how the ruling powers had completely succeeded in isolating the songwriter. 

In the bleak years that followed the building of the Wall, I noticed that there were only two people in prominent positions throughout the GDR who opposed the bureaucratic dictatorial regime of power openly, unequivocally, and at high personal risk: Wolf Biermann, the political balladeer, and Robert Havemann, the natural scientist, professor of physical chemistry, and member of the German Academy of Sciences.  

The two were close friends. One fought with the weapon of political song, the other with lectures and writings that called for political reforms. They both had the intention of making this ossified system capable of survival; neither wanted to abolish it. 

The leaders of the SED regime clearly recognized that both these political activities would be extraordinarily dangerous for their state if these figures managed to mobilize the East German youth. They, too, were later to be proved right in their fears. 

Professional bans and house arrests

However, the authorities could not simply break the two men – as they usually did with opponents of the regime – by placing them in camps or in prison. This was probably because they were too well known in the West, and they likely enjoyed a certain level of protection from extreme treatment because of their antifascist past (Havemann had been sentenced to death by the notorious Nazi executioner Roland Freisler for alleged treason and awaited his sentence in the same Brandenburg prison where Erich Honecker was held for ten years; Biermann had lost his father to Nazi terror in an extermination camp.) 

Instead, the authorities imposed professional bans on the dissidents. Biermann was banned from performing and publishing in 1965 until his expatriation in 1976, while Havemann was expelled from his university professorship and from the academy by majority vote, and his position in photochemistry was dissolved. GDR scientists bear a moral burden for allowing this to happen. Both men fought back with interviews and publications in the West, but in the isolated GDR, only a minority even knew of their plight.  

In addition to these sanctions, Wolf Biermann’s apartment building was surrounded by an invisible fence of civilian-clothed observers, while Havemann’s bungalow became the scene of a court-ordered house arrest that took on a particularly grotesque form. The Stasi manned all access points – from the road and the lake – around the clock, registering the few visitors who were allowed to pass for political reasons (including informers). Robert Havemann, his physical strength weakened by lung disease but his resistance forever strong, endured this situation for a very long time until his death in 1982.  

A historic backfire

But the state had grossly underestimated Biermann. The GDR’s rulers found him increasingly troublesome, and eventually even dangerous. So, in the autumn of 1976, they employed a trick to get rid of him for good. They granted Biermann permission to travel to the Federal Republic of Germany for a concert, with the assurance of his return. But once he was there, they stripped him of his GDR citizenship so that he could not come back. Without a passport, Biermann was made an emigrant against his will.  

However, this measure proved itself to be a historic backfire. The forced expatriation mobilized many GDR professionals in the cultural sector, as well as intellectuals, academics, students, and numerous respectable citizens to join political protests and sign public petitions. The Biermann case was to be the first nail in the coffin for the authoritarian bureaucratic state. 

I had more direct experience of Robert Havemann than I did of Biermann. I attended his lectures on the philosophy of natural sciences in the '60s, and was fascinated by his transformation from philosophizing SED bigwig to dissident. But I personally lost respect for him when I witnessed how, on two occasions, he authoritatively dismissed female students during discussions on his theses for naively defending their Christian worldview. 

Hesitation, caution, and cowardice

Fifteen years later, however, I received a personal invitation from Havemann. Grünheide, his place of exile, was adjacent to a village where a group of us rented a multi-family communal house every weekend, which proudly displayed the name “Summerhill” at the entrance. We had named it this because we wanted a place to give our children the freedom to do what they wanted on two of the seven days of the week, before the school drill continued on Monday with the morning roll call. Clearly, we caught the attention of Havemann’s people. One day, a Wartburg pulled up in front of our property and a young man and woman stepped out. They asked us if we would like to attend an evening discussion on modern educational concepts at the Havemann home. One of us gave an indecisive response, and said we’d let them know. After a group discussion, we decided not to attend. “We might as well hand over our keys and apply to leave the country!” was the general reasoning.  
In addition to this shared impulse of caution or cowardice, I had my own personal motives not to accept the invitation to the house in Grünheide – always surrounded by several surveillance cars – which I did not want to voice to the others: the State Security Service had already summoned me several times to the Ministry of Science and Technology for unpleasant official interviews, because one of my research group members had “illegally fled the Republic.” The Stasi pressed me to explain why, as the group leader, I had not noticed and reported this intention; why, in fact, my official reports to management always certified that the employee showed political loyalty to the state. Given this incident and other political activities in my private life, I did not wish to accumulate yet more black marks against my name.  

When the lab is no longer so important 

Despite these reasons, I have felt uneasy about my decision ever since. After all, the man was unbelievably brave and had spoken out about problems in the state, especially in the realm of science, which I also found unacceptable. We also knew that he was severely ill as a result of his detention in a Nazi prison and in need of solidarity.  

It was thus for pragmatic reasons that I indirectly ignored my responsibility as a scientist to truth and collegial solidarity. Not until several years later, after many intensive discussions with friends, particularly activists of the Polish Solidarność movement, did I gradually realize that circumstances can arise in which it is more important to be politically active than to continue to quietly pursue one’s own research in the laboratory or the library. I needed a long time to come to terms with this realization and didn’t act on it until the early '80s. The consequence was an interruption to my career. As a general hypothesis, I have since asked myself whether we – that is, the people who kept silent – could have ended the GDR’s existence five or even ten years before 1989 if we had engaged in active protest earlier, instead of ill-humoredly putting up with the status quo indefinitely.  In any case, the Poles led the way in many respects.

Founding appeal of the New Forum

It is futile to speculate whether the time had been ripe earlier. However, in autumn of 1989 – exactly 30 years ago today – we incorporated such insights into the founding appeal of the citizens’ initiative Neues Forum (New Forum). Historians today judge that, lacking a developed program, this appeal was politically completely naive. Yes, that is absolutely true. It was naive like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and that was precisely our intention. We absolutely wanted to avoid convoluted political language! The appeal sought to express the sentiment shared by almost everyone, even persons in the anteroom of the SED Politbüro, that things could not continue as they were. We said: Our economy is bankrupt, environmental conditions are appalling (case in point: the “silver lake” near Bitterfeld), young people are leaving by the hundreds of thousands, and the Poles, the Hungarians, the Baltic people, and even the Russians are showing us one can no longer keep silent and retreat, with closed eyes, into a shell of indifference.  

It was the naive reference to our legal intentions and the Constitution of the GDR that prompted hundreds of thousands of the hitherto silent, disgruntled majority across the country – not just in a handful of key places, but also in villages – to join the mainstream movement of regular citizens and bring about the collapse of the heavily armed regime. “Collapse” was not explicitly mentioned; the focus was on reforms. We were always cautious, keeping in mind the invasion of Prague in 1968, the Soviet military intervention in Budapest in 1956, and the tanks that rolled through the streets here in Berlin in 1953. One had to think carefully about what could be talked about, and had to consider which demands might frighten off the people one wanted to reach and send them back to their silent shells. Yes, that was naive. It is probably the case that only a movement like this could trigger this revolution – I wouldn’t describe it as “peaceful,” but rather as “non-violent” – and work through the difficulties. 

Another collapse is possible

And what about today – can we translate our mistakes and failures into lessons for the future? 

We are living in a completely new world. As a natural scientist, I can take positions on important issues concerning the future. Though I don’t run the risk of being arrested and jailed, I must still remain determined. It is so easy to relinquish to others the necessary task of giving public commentary on policy issues, particularly in areas that require the painstakingly acquired expertise of natural scientists. 

All important issues of the future are global in nature (and no longer local to the GDR). They can be grouped together under a diagnosis (expressed in biological terms) that sees Homo sapiens as dangerously overstraining the carrying capacity and stress tolerance of this planet’s biosphere.  

Although I am now decades older, I am still troubled by the question of whether it is undeniably necessary that the current generation of active scientists leave the apolitical “splendid isolation” of our profession and become politically engaged. As biologists and physicians, we have to loudly communicate our indisputable professional expertise and provide proof that humans are living far beyond their means and overstraining the carrying capacity and stress tolerance of the entire biosphere of the planet with growing intensity. The global dynamics of our way of living is clearly approaching a tipping point, after which a return to the previous state of dynamic equilibrium will no longer be possible. The time horizon here is several decades, perhaps 50 years at the most. And the systemic collapse will affect the young people of today who already have or will have children.

Retreat is not an option

We, as natural scientists, need to show solidarity with the naive Friday strikes by the schoolchildren, and help ensure they are equipped with the appropriate detailed knowledge. And it’s not only about climate change, but mainly about how the entire planet is being dramatically overstrained: the pollution of land and oceans, the depletion of ground and drinking water resources and of raw materials, intensive agriculture, large-scale livestock farming, soil erosion, the decreasing biodiversity, melting polar ice caps and the thawing of huge swathes of permafrost, and the collapse of vital terrestrial and marine ecosystems such as tropical forests and coral reefs. All of these things combined are driving us toward a crisis. Doubts about this have nothing to do with free political debate, but constitute an obstinate disregard of the interests of future generations. 

In the past, I and everyone in the GDR were denied personal and civil freedoms, and it was our responsibility to fight for our liberation. Many people, also in the scientific community, gained their freedom in 1989 in a rather passive manner instead of taking action themselves. 

Today, I and we all have political freedom, and it is our responsibility, without hysterical alarm, but also without quiet resignation, to inform the public of the dangerous crisis that our planet faces and to help find ways to reduce the threat.  

That I have learned from my experience and from my mistakes. This time we can’t retreat into our shell and contemplatively – and haughtily – wait until the crisis of our planet is no longer manageable.