This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
For millions of people, the 1989 opening of the Berlin Wall was rightly celebrated as a great victory for democratic rights. But the build up to the official celebrations to mark its 30th anniversary have, as before, been dominated by anti-socialist propaganda that exploits the crimes of Stalinist rule in the former East German regime, the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Around this year’s 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. In September, the German government Ombudsman for the east said that the fact that many easterners today feel “collectively and individually disadvantaged … results from the fact that the east Germans had the misfortune to have been on the wrong side of history for 40 years”.
In reality, there is a widespread feeling in the east that they were in many ways taken over by the western Germany elite and remain side-lined to this day. This is against the background that, over 29 years since the reintroduction of capitalism into eastern Germany, there is not the widespread “booming landscape” which the then West German leader. Helmet Kohl, promised in 1990.
Many Easterners 1989’s hopes did not materialise. Capitalism’s return to eastern Germany saw one of the fastest and biggest collapses of an industrial economy ever witnessed. It re-introduced into eastern Germany mass unemployment and all the insecurities of capitalist society.
Today, GDP per person in the east is 20% lower than in western Germany – the same figure as 15 years ago. Wages and often pensions 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. This decline is forecast to continue, with a further 25% drop expected by 2035.
One result today is a dramatic fall in support in eastern Germany for the western-based traditional ruling political parties. This led the German president Steinmeier to recently describe what he saw as “new, deep cracks” in Germany. Steinmeier added that today, nearly 30 years after unification, “many East Germans still don’t feel heard, let alone understood”.
Although over the years living standards have risen in eastern Germany, and 65% of easterners feel the present economy is better than in the former GDR, recently there has been a fall in the number of east Germans feeling that their own lives have got better. An opinion poll published on the eve of the anniversary, found that 60% of easterners feel their personal lives had improved, down from 67% ten years ago. The impact of the market economy is shown by the fact that 76% of easterners feel that social cohesion was stronger in the former GDR than now, an opinion shared by 46% of west Germans. Also, today, 77% of easterners feel that the achievements of people in the GDR are not sufficiently valued today, a belief shared by 49% of west Germans.
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. It was only later that hopes and illusions in capitalism came to dominate the protests in East Germany. Given the widespread support in Germany now for the nationalisation of property companies, and this year’s public debate over nationalisation of some large companies, the German ruling class fears 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 having the money to do so. But the official propaganda buries the initial revolutionary and pro-socialist character of the movement in autumn 1989. It makes it seem that, almost from the outset, the protesters’ aim was to bring back the capitalism via uniting with West Germany.
Internationally, the 9 November anniversary of the Wall’s opening is generally exploited by many capitalist governments to allow them to appear that they were always on the side of “democracy” and free travel. This is complete hypocrisy; the rulers of both capitalist and the former Stalinist states were always willing to support and ally with dictatorships if it was in their interests.
After West Germany joined the US-led NATO military alliance in 1955, the then Bonn government was happy to be allied with the Portuguese military dictatorship, a founding member of NATO, until it was overthrown by the 1974 revolution.
As far as free travel is concerned, in many ways it is increasingly restricted to those with money. Internationally, visa restrictions are being continually tightened while the Berlin Wall has been replaced by new barriers, east and south, as the European Union has worked to construct a “Fortress Europe”. Internationally, when the Wall was opened in 1989, there were 16 militarised border fences in the world, now there are 65 either completed or under construction.
The monstrous border, with its killing zones, that the GDR leaders built, alienated millions. It allowed the western powers to paint a horrible picture of a “socialist” country which used force to keep its population inside.
Initially there was some enthusiasm for the creation of the GDR. Partly this reflected the widespread support for socialist ideas throughout Germany immediately after the Second World War. The GDR was, at first, seen by a section of the population as more “anti-fascist” and “progressive” than West Germany which was clearly capitalist and had a large number of ex-Nazis in key positions in the economy and state. This popular support for the GDR meant that, for some time, it was possible to move between the two Germany states.
GDR not a socialist democracy
But the GDR, while not having a capitalist economy, was not a socialist democracy. Its regime was modelled on that of Stalinist USSR and run by an elite group of bureaucrats. This was brutally shown by the crushing of the 1953 workers’ uprising and the continuing suppression of any serious criticism or dissent. This led to increasing numbers of people moving to the west. In 1961, the regime began building the Berlin Wall to complete the sealing off the inner-German border.
For decades, the GDR developed but then, as with other Stalinist states, the top-down bureaucratic methods began to strangle the economy. Internationally, this led to the crisis gripping many Stalinist states in the 1980s, especially in the then Soviet Union, where 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, as first Hungary, and later the then Czechoslovakia, opened their western borders. For those living in the GDR, a crucial difference with other Stalinist states was that West Germany, one of the world’s richest countries, would immediately grant citizenship and full welfare benefits to any East German citizens who arrived there.
As increasing numbers left the GDR, many East Germans started to discuss whether they should try to leave the country or whether they should try to change it. The majority decided to stay.
This was the background to the regular protests that first began in Leipzig, on 4 September, and which 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 protestors grew in confidence. In fifteen days, the numbers participating in the “Monday demos” in Leipzig jumped from 70,000 on October 9 to 250,000 on October 23.
The largest single protest was the demonstration of up to a million people in Alexanderplatz, East Berlin, on 4 November. This was a huge proportion of the GDR’s 16.1 million population and a highpoint of the revolution’s development. 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.
As the ‘Berliner Zeitung’, five years ago commented, “In the official revolutionary calendar November 4, 1989, has never really found its entry. 9 October is celebrated as the triumph of nonviolent resistance, November 9 for world historical reasons. And then there is also 3 October. But how is it that this day on Alexanderplatz has faded so quickly in the united German memory?” (November 4, 2014)
“Socialism is not conceivable without democracy”
The fundamental reason for the official downgrading of November 4 is simple – its demands were not just for free elections, free media, the freedom to travel and freedom to criticise but also for “democratic socialism”. Speaker after speaker made this call on the huge demonstration and there was no opposition. Typically, one of the rally’s first speakers, the actor Jan Josef Liefers, said that the old structures cannot be renewed, they must be destroyed: “We must develop new structures, for a democratic socialism. And for me that means changing the division of power between the majority and the minority”.
The well-known writer, and later Bundestag member, Stephan Heym, argued that the Alexanderplatz crowds had freely rallied “for freedom and democracy and for a socialism worthy of the name” and ended his speak by saying, “The socialism – not the Stalinist one, [but] the right one – which we finally want to build, for our benefit and for the benefit of the whole of Germany, this socialism is not conceivable without democracy. But democracy, a Greek word, is the rule of the people.” This summed up the rally’s mood.
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 “Demokratischer Aufbruch” (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 Soviet Union.
In the GDR in 1989, a small number of CWI supporters 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.
But now this “socialist” period of the movement has been buried and official history concentrates on November 9 and then jumps to the end of November and early December, when East German support for a rapid unification with West Germany began to soar.
The reasons for this change in popular opinion in the GDR were various. There was no force that was proposing 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. West Germany’s attraction was that then it was the world’s third strongest capitalist power and not a Portugal or Greece. In addition, joining West Germany was increasingly seen in the GDR as the quickest way to get rid of the GDR elite.
At that same time, West German leaders saw both a threat and an opportunity. In mid-October 1989, Wolfgang Schäuble, then interior and now 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 their defeat in the Second World War.
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, and 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. But the calls for unification were getting more support. The West German leaders decided to seize the opportunity to campaign for unification, as the easiest route to completely remove the old leadership and rapidly raise living standards. This won massive support in the March 1990 GDR election that paved the way for unification during the following October.
In many ways, this was, in effect, a takeover. From the point of view of German capitalism, it was an opportunity to extend its rule to eastern Germany and expand their international power with a reunited Germany on their terms. The clause in West Germany’s ‘Basic Law’, which stipulated 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 democratic decision-making process on a new constitution there would be demands for guarantees on trade union and social rights, like jobs and housing, plus possible attempts to place limits on the rights of capitalists.
In 1990, Schäuble bluntly told an East German delegation with which he was negotiating unity details, “Dear friends, the GDR is joining the Federal Republic, not vice versa … What is happening here is not the unification of two equal states”. Instead of unification what took place was a German version of “shock therapy”; the rapid and brutal re-introduction of capitalism as seen in 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 to West German companies 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 heartland.
But the difference between the experience in East Germany and the other former Stalinist states was that the German ruling class 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 over job losses, and in 2004/5 against the “Hartz IV” social cuts.
This is the background to the continuing eastern German resentment that has undermined the western German political parties in recent elections in the east of Germany.
Initially it was the DIE LINKE (the Left party), which reflected easterners’ disenchantment but this support was not utilised into building a socialist movement to change society. Repeatedly DIE LINKE leaders’ have made clear that they are prepared to operate within capitalism and have, on this basis, participated in local and regional governments.
The result of seeking to work inside the capitalist system, and with pro-capitalist coalition partners, is that DIE LINKE leaders have often gone along with, and even initiated, different forms of cuts. Inevitably this led to disappointment amongst the party’s support base. 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 to 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. On the one hand, that revolution’s story is a demonstration of the power of a mass movement, but, on the other hand, it also shows that a revolution needs to be able to take concrete steps to achieve its goals. Without this political clarity, a revolution’s aims will not be achieved or, in the worst case, will face the threat of counter-revolution.
In that sense, 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 needed to be a political party which could have shown how achieving working peoples’ objectives is linked to establishing a workers’ democracy that could lay the foundations for the development of a genuinely socialist society. It was the absence of such a force that enabled the German capitalists to divert the revolution onto the path of capitalist unification. What was missing was a mass revolutionary force to develop the movement that not only could have transformed eastern Germany but also set an example internationally that there is a socialist alternative to Stalinism and capitalism.