The Peaceful Revolution of 1989

Oct 03, 2008

German Unification Symposium / Hertie Lecture at the GHI | Speaker: Marianne Birthler (Bundesbeauftragte für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen DDR)

This year’s German Unification Symposium will feature a lecture by Marianne Birthler, the German Bundesbeauftragte (Federal Commissioner) für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen DDR. Ms Birthler will speak about "The Peaceful Revolution of 1989." More information about the Office of the Federal Commissioner can be found here in English or in German.

Event Report

This year's German Unification Symposium featured a lecture by Marianne Birthler, who spoke about "The Peaceful Revolution of 1989." Ms. Birthler is the German Bundesbeauftragte für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen DDR (Federal Commissioner for the Records of the Ministry for State Security of the Former GDR), a post she has held since 2000. The office was founded shortly after unification to safeguard and ensure access to the records left by the Stasi. Prior to unification Ms. Birthler was active in several opposition groups in East Germany and became the speaker for Bündnis 90 in the East German People's Chamber after the first free elections in 1990. Following unification, Ms. Birthler entered the Brandenburg Landtag and served as the Minister for Education, Youth and Sports in the state government from 1990 to 1992. From 1993 to 1999, she held important positions in the newly unified Bündnis 90/ Die Grünen, first as Bundesvorstandssprecherin (1993-94) and then as head of the party's Berlin office (1995-1999).

Ms. Birthler's lecture began with some personal reminiscences about life in East Germany and the story of the "freedom bell" that Americans presented to the city of Berlin in 1950. Turning to the "prehistory" of the events of the fall of 1989, Ms. Birthler observed: "It was not the fall of the Wall that brought freedom. The Wall fell after the East German people had already struggled for, and earned, their freedom." She then gave a brief account of the rise of dissident groups in the GDR, which were all "closely allied with the Protestant Church" because "the churches were the only public institutions that were not subject to state control." Thus many church groups "developed into political workshops," simply because they offered the possibility of discussing social topics "in a way that would have been unthinkable outside the protected space of the church."

Birthler then focused on the crucial events of early October 1989: the "Joint Declaration" of GDR opposition groups on October 4, in which they demanded free and secret elections; mass arrests of oppositional demonstrators during the celebration of the GDR's fortieth anniversary from October 5-7; her own presence at the permanent vigil in the Gethsemane Church and the role of its Kontakttelefon as a central information exchange; and finally, the great demonstration in Leipzig on Monday, October 9, at which people feared a violent crack-down, but which passed peacefully. "Finally the liberating news arrived: the citizens of Leipzig were in the streets and demonstrating unchallenged. Not one shot had been fired. In Berlin our relief was boundless. The forces surrounding Gethsemane Church had also vanished like a ghost, and a sea of lights awaited us in front of the church as people from the surrounding buildings lit candles. Someone climbed the church tower and rang the bells. It was hard to believe: those in power were in retreat. Nothing was yet decided, but we tasted it for the first time - freedom." This, Birthler explained, was "why the 9th of October, for many people, still stands as the day symbolizing the democratic revolution in the GDR."

In conclusion, Birthler addressed the question of "whether these events even deserve the name revolution." There are historians, she noted, "who vehemently deny it, immediately questioning the role of the opposition. They argue that the Communist rulers were not delegitimized and chased out by a protesting people, but rather that the GDR ‘imploded,' that party and government would have capitulated when they were economically finished, when they could no longer count on the military protection of the Soviet Union." To be sure, Birthler conceded, "opposition groups in the GDR were weak and, until 1989, had no decisive influence on the populace. That was in part the case because millions of people had left the GDR - among them many whose strength and radicalism would be missed by the citizens' movement." But, she argued, it was therefore "all the more amazing that a relative few people from the opposition groups - three or five hundred, perhaps - essentially shaped events. They gave form and voice to the mass protests, openly questioned party legitimacy, demanded new elections, and maintained contact with the opposition groups in Poland and Czechoslovakia. They documented state tyranny, formulated public values such as democracy, self-determination and human rights, organized prayer vigils and protests against arrests, founded new and legitimate political parties, occupied the Stasi headquarters, saved Stasi files from destruction and made sure that the archives were opened, and carried through a largely successful change of elites." And if that's not a revolution, what is?

The full text of Ms. Birthler's lecture will be published in English translation in the spring 2009 Bulletin.

Richard F. Wetzell