East Germany, its failures and successes
Beyond the Wall, Part 2
Communism in East Germany came crashing down in rapid time, stunning the world and accelerating the revolution that had already overtaken Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1989.
I was four years old – an excited little girl with unruly, pitch-black hair that resisted every attempt to control it. Wrapping my hands around the handrail of the rotating visitor platform of the Berlin Television Tower, I was straining for- ward to get as close to the panoramic glass panes as I could. As my feet lifted off the carpet, I went unusually quiet. I gazed down 203 metres at the streets below in amazement, trying to take it all in. The little cars whizzing around Berlin looked marvellous, like my precious collection of Matchbox toys.
There were lots of tiny people too and yet more were coming. Delighted with the spectacle of Berlin from above, I turned around and shouted slightly too loudly, ‘Papa, come and see! All those people look like little ants!’ I pointed downwards eagerly, jumping up and down so I could see better. ‘And look! There are police cars everywhere!’ At last my words seemed to arrest my father’s attention. He’d been buying drinks for me and my pregnant mother from the fancy restaurant in the centre of the observation platform. But those last words made him stop in his tracks. Looking down at the increasingly crowded square at the foot of the Fernsehturm, his face went white. He recognized the armoured vehicles as belonging to Paramilitary People’s Police units. Many of the people I was pointing at were protesters. The government clearly expected trouble and was readying itself to respond. ‘Katja, come quick, we need to go,’ he urged. But I stood rooted to the spot, transfixed by the miniature chaos that was unfolding below. My knuckles turned white with my determination to cling on to the handrail if need be. Just as things became really exciting my father wanted to go. Without listening to my protestations or my mother’s questions, he pulled us both along, back into the lift.
On the long journey down, troubling thoughts went through my father’s mind: what if the protests escalate? How will the police react? Both questions worried him, but it was best to sit it out at home, outside of the capital. If things were to take a violent turn, at least his young family would be safe. We rushed back to our second- hand white Trabant, which my parents had secured for the extortionate price of 8,000 marks a couple of years earlier to avoid the long waiting times for a new model. The drive home was filled with animated conversation, which I listened to intently from the back seat, my eyebrows furrowed in deep concentration. None of it made any sense but it all seemed very thrilling.’
Within weeks, the Wall was down, the Stasi finished, and East Germany was in the process of abolishing itself – with great haste.
In the elections of March 1990, the DDR’s first and last free vote, almost all parties stood on a platform of reunification. Around half the votes went to a coalition promising a quick union under the slogan ‘Never again Socialism’, while the East German SPD, promising a more cautious form of reunification, won just 22 per cent.
The People’s Chamber ceremoniously dissolved itself, the German embassies in East Berlin and Bonn were closed and there was an official event in front of the disused Reichstag building in West Berlin. Many people waved banners and flags welcoming what they saw as a long-overdue reunion. A few protested one last time against the loss of their state… At midnight on 3 October 1990, the German Democratic Republic ceased to exist.
Inevitably, the transition was traumatic for many.
Over the four decades of its existence, the GDR had built up entirely different political, economic and societal structures from those of the FRG. Yet, Wolfgang Schäuble, the West German Minister of the Interior who led the reunification negotiations with the East, declared that change would have to come from the GDR only. “This is not the unification of two equal states,” he insisted. “There is a constitution, and there is a Federal Republic of Germany. Let us start with the assumption that you have been excluded from both for forty years. Now you are entitled to take part.” The direction of the negotiations was not up for debate, the question was only how quickly the measures could and should be implemented.
A body was set up, the Treuhandanstalt (Trust Agency) or Treuhand for short, tasked with selling state property, ‘but its lack of expertise, oversight and personnel led to chaos and corruption and the process was seen by many East Germans as an undignified “bargain-basement” sellout of their country. Many workers who had been proud of their trade and earned good money in their jobs now found themselves preparing machinery and vehicles for West German companies who bought them cheaply (often for the symbolic value of DM1) and took them away. Others were asked to dismantle their own factories and workplaces wholesale, effectively working to make themselves redundant. The feeling of helplessness many experienced as their country was dismantled would stay with them for decades to come.’