1989 - New Lives, New Truisms

Oct 03, 2012

German Unification Symposium / Hertie Lecture at the GHI | Speaker: Ingo Schulze

Born in Dresden in 1962, in the then German Democratic Republic, Ingo Schulze studied philology at the University of Jena. He has published more than twenty novels and short story collections, which have been translated into more than 30 languages. The English translations include Adam and Evelyn, New Lives, and Simple Stories. Ingo Schulze is a member of the German Academy of Language and Literature in Darmstadt and the Academy of Arts in Berlin, where he has served as a director of the literature section since 2010. He lives in Berlin.

The Hertie Lecture and German Unification Symposium is generously supported by the Hertie Foundation.

Event Report

The German Historical Institute's 2012 Hertie Lecture was delivered by Ingo Schulze on the topic "1989: New Lives, New Truisms." Schulze began the lecture by relating that when he travels abroad he is often asked where he was when the Berlin wall fell on November 9, 1989. He argued, however, that a different date was far more important than the iconic fall of the wall on November 9, 1989, or German unification on October 3, 1990. This was October 9, 1989, which Schulze called "the day of decision." The so-called Monday Demonstrations had been taking place in Leipzig for several weeks. Schulze himself had participated for the first time on October 2, when the demonstration had been stopped along the Ringstrasse by a police cordon. Later that week, during the official celebrations of the GDR's 40th anniversary on October 7, counter-demonstrators critical of the regime had been brutally beaten by the police in Berlin and other cities. As a result, everyone feared a violent crackdown on the Leipzig Montagsdemonstration on the following Monday, October 9. But, to everyone's surprise, 70,000 people mustered the courage to join the demonstration and the authorities did not intervene. Schulze describes this as the "breaking of the dam," which gave birth to the peaceful revolution of 1989; from this point onward, "everything seemed possible." The fall of the wall was simply one of the consequences of the complete transformation of the political situation.

While many of those who had been at the forefront of challenging the regime hoped that the time had come to construct a "socialism with a human face," events took a very different turn. According to Schulze, the outcome of the GDR's first free elections, in March 1990, was largely determined by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's decision to join forces with the Eastern CDU, previously one of the "block parties" loyal to the communist SED. While the coalition of East German civic activists, Bündnis 90, garnered only 2.9% of the vote, the CDU received 40.8%, almost twice as much as the next-strongest party, the SPD at 21.9%. This set in motion the unification of Germany under the aegis of West Germany. Schulze argued that the introduction of the DM predictably spelled the end of East German industries and noted that GDR citizens did not receive a single cent from the Treuhand's liquidation of East German industrial infrastructure. Privatization triumphed.

Referring to Francis Fukuyama's 1992 book The End of History, Schulze argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite states led many to conclude that ideological opposition to Western capitalism had disappeared; that there was no alternative left. This made GDR citizens feel "as if they had returned from the future." In the newly triumphant West, the commodification of all areas of social life continued unabated. The main purpose of politics was to reduce the role of the state in order to unleash the power of the free market. Political language made the primacy of the free market appear natural rather than historically contingent.

By contrast, Schulze noted, GDR citizens used to live in a society "in which money was not everything." The attempt to completely discredit the GDR by labeling it a Unrechtsstaat (a state built on injustice), he argued, has sought to bury positive aspects of GDR life, such as the right to work, modern family law, healthcare free of charge, and free child care. East Germans' demands in the fall of 1989, Schulze reminded his listeners, were freedom and democracy -- not the privatization of the means of production. Why, Schulze asked, shouldn't freedom and democracy be compatible with socialized ownership of the means of production? During German unification and thereafter this question was never addressed by the media. In 1947, by contrast, even the CDU's political program had called for a social and economic order that would serve the common welfare rather than the capitalist striving for the maximization of profits (Ahlener Programm).

Not even the financial crisis of 2008, Schulze contended, produced a serious challenge to the primacy of the free market. Just as before, it is taken for granted that governments are supposed to calm the markets. In this context, German Chancellor Angela Merkel used the revealing term "marktkonforme Demokratie" (a democracy that conforms to the markets). Instead of politicians trying to calm the markets, Schulze suggested, economic actors ought to win back the confidence of society and its politicians. Instead of a democracy that conforms to the markets we should be demanding that markets conform to democracy.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, Schulze concluded, deserves to be celebrated. But November 9, 1989, did not mark the dawning of a new age. "We need to see it as a day on which the alternatives to the Western status quo fell into oblivion -- for the time being. We need to expand this day to include the tradition of October 9. Those who do not wish to accept a market-driven democracy today and instead demand markets in line with democracy stand in the tradition of that peaceful revolution of the Fall of 1989."

The lecture was followed by a lively question-and-answer session. The full text of the lecture will be published in the spring 2013 issue of the GHI Bulletin.