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How the Wall Fell

The Berlin Wall's fall sparked dreams of a radically democratic East Germany. Unemployment and privatization followed instead.

This fall marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of German reunification, the culmination of what the dominant narrative of the period calls the “Peaceful Revolution,” beginning with the popular uprisings in October–November 1989. In East German vernacular, this radical break with the Stalinist dictatorship is known as the Wende (“turn”), but in the political sense carries a meaning more akin to “change.”

Neither of these framings quite capture the contradictions of reunification and the way in which they prefigured similar developments in the process of European unification.

The political transformation of East Germany occurred at a remarkable speed — within a year the Stalinist political system of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had not only collapsed, but been united with the West German state. This political unification was followed by an equally fast economic unification, which sparked an unprecedented wave of deindustrialization over the next three or four years.

Thus Germany experienced its own type of the Mezzogiorno effect: the new federal states of the East became in many ways analogous to southern Italy, characterized by high unemployment, low or even negative economic growth, and financial dependence on subsidies from the rest of the country. Not surprisingly, more than two million (out of a pre-Wende population of seventeen million) easterners have left the region since reunification, a number approaching the amount of refugees who fled the country before the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

Unique to the East German experience was the population’s integration into the West German welfare system, which helped to soften the social consequences of reunification compared to the rest of the former Eastern Bloc. Of course, the necessary increases in state welfare payments reunification entailed were financed by taxpayers in both the East and the West, while the major beneficiary of the whole process was West German capital, for whom reunification opened up a whole national economy to both buy up and sell consumer goods to.

In retrospect, it is tempting to dismiss the reunification process as a coup by the West German ruling class, in which naïve Easterners were simply duped. This narrative is not only overly simplistic, it also obscures the fact that a large part of East German workers, employees, and pensioners who opposed the Stalinist dictatorship regarded national “unity in freedom” as historical progress and hoped for a better life than what they had in the GDR.

Instead, German unification should be seen as a deeply contradictory process, similar to that of nineteenth-century German unification in 1871, as theorized by Karl Marx or August Bebel. Both welcomed liberation from local tyrannies and the fostering of national unity as progressive for its time, without ignoring their reactionary character and the classes under whose hegemony these processes were carried out.

Thus, East Germans today enjoy democratic freedoms and cultural modernization, but are subjected to internal colonization as well as mass unemployment — a contradiction that also applies to the radical changes that occurred in other parts of Eastern Europe.

East Germany at the Crossroads

East German society in 1989 faced a new beginning. The majority of the population still consisted of blue- and white-collar workers, but four decades of political repression had erased any collective traditions of independent working-class activity. A kind of welfare-dictatorial compromise, in which the masses accommodated themselves to the regime in exchange for rising living standards and a certain level of personal autonomy, had fostered internal stability and an absence of visible social conflict.

The younger generation had never witnessed a strike or other forms of (non-state-directed) collective political agency, while the working class itself remained atomized. As a consequence, the political opposition that began to emerge in the 1970s developed primarily within marginal subcultural milieus, insulated from the majority of the population. In autumn 1989 these oppositional currents encountered the majority for the first time, while the masses were rediscovering political self-activity and self-organization at a very fast pace.

Some historians argue that the ruling Socialist Unity Party’s (SED) dictatorship imploded inevitably out of the destabilizing effects of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms and mass emigration to the West. Though these factors certainly played a role, they alone do not explain why such a well-established nomenklatura and their armed regime liquidated itself in a matter of eight weeks.

The swift resignation of the regime was not voluntary, but occurred under pressure from the street, which was fed by the discontent in the factories. Thus the “fall of the wall” was the result of a spontaneous democratic mass movement, centered upon mass demonstrations developing at breathtaking speed.

Between October 7 and the fall of the wall on November 9, a German “October revolution” was carried out. In these weeks not only Erich Honecker, the all-powerful general secretary of the SED, but also the central committee and the nominal government were forced to resign.

The movement’s first major breakthrough, a successful demonstration of seventy thousand in the city of Leipzig on October 9, was enabled by a split within the leadership. While Honecker wanted to deploy tanks against the protestors, a majority in the Politburo favored political solutions — a policy of “dialogue,” through which they hoped to wear down the opposition. But the strategy failed, and the demonstrations grew.

In the week before the fall of the wall, the Stasi recorded over 1.3 million participants in demonstrations and other protests across the country. Altogether somewhere between 2.5 and 5 million citizens, almost a third of the country’s population, participated directly in the movement. Even more were involved in the transformations of institutions and factories.

Unlike the democratic movements in the other Eastern Bloc states, the revolutionary wave in East Germany penetrated deep into a majority of the country’s smaller towns and villages, and lasted much longer, into February 1990.

The mass involvement of workers, artists, and engineers gave this movement the character of an authentic people’s movement. The well-known slogan from the period, Wir sind das Volk! (“We are the people!”), was an expression both of the heterogeneous composition of the movement itself as well as of how participants perceived themselves.

The resignation of the old guard and the fall of the wall brought political freedom and democratic rights to the citizens of the GDR, while the so-called “roundtable” negotiations between the SED and representatives of the opposition led to the first democratic elections on March 18, 1990. Most importantly, these negotiations led to the adoption of a new draft constitution of the GDR and the drawing up of a “social charter” outlining the social rights of citizens that were to be defended in negotiations with the West.

These roundtable negotiations, which occurred not only on the federal but also the regional and municipal levels, temporarily constituted what socialists would describe as a situation of dual power, held on the one hand by the existing ruling state apparatus, but contested from below by the self-organization of the masses.

This process marked, in my opinion, the beginnings of a kind of red-green citizens’ democracy — a social, ecological, and antifascist republic. In this new GDR, which I call the second GDR, plebiscitary and ecological rights were enshrined next to democratic and social rights such as women’s rights, which the West German trade unions, women’s movement, and other social movements had advocated for decades.

These rights included a plurality of property forms in a mixed economy, certain trade union and environmental rights, a liberalized abortion law, and the inclusion of participatory ballot measures in national elections. And, of course, the despised Stasi was unequivocally abolished. Because the East German people were increasingly demanding unification, many resolutions of the roundtable took an all-German perspective into account.

What was emerging in the East was not socialism, but a kind of radical-democratic republic, spurred on by the demands of the mass movement and inspired at least partially by previous developments in West German social movements. Nevertheless, the democratic revolution remained fragile, as the opposition lacked a coherent political force capable of converting the movement into durable forms of state power.

Following the fall of the wall, East German employees turned their attention to the workplaces, to the caste of party bureaucrats who administered the GDR’s economy. As the revolution spread into the factories, workplace-level party organs and party-directed militias were dissolved. Employees began to organize initiatives for independent unions and shop councils, albeit to a limited extent.

After the fall of the wall and the revolutionary penetration of state institutions and factories the SED government collapsed. At the beginning of December a younger generation of reformers around the figure of Gregor Gysi (now a prominent leader of the European Left Party) took over the party in a kind of palace coup. Throughout this period, the popular desire to abolish and eliminate the Stasi remained a constant theme.

The Reversal

A crucial aspect of the shift in mood among workers after the fall of the wall was the emergence of an unregulated market economy in the East. The state economic managers liberated from central control began to act in an independent, capitalist manner.

Many East German employees were frightened of the prospect of a capitalist system run by the old SED nomenklatura, whom they distrusted. Faced with this stark reality, many employees, even workers, opted for the efficient and rationally organized capitalism of West Germany, in which trade unions were well-established, powerful entities, instead of the uncertainties that a capitalist GDR presented.

The first demands for reunification surfaced at demonstrations in November 1989. But a public opinion poll in December 1989 revealed that even at this stage over two-thirds of those polled favored a democratic, independent GDR. This mood would reverse dramatically in the weeks to follow.

Beginning in December, the situation of dual power that had emerged in the previous weeks was disrupted by the start of electoral campaigns for the upcoming elections in March. At this point, West German parties began to actively intervene in East German politics.

The newly established Social Democratic Party of the GDR and the oppositional group “Democratic Awakening,” which suffered a split following its decision to orient itself toward the West German Christian Democrats, quickly linked up with the political machines of their Western counterparts and began occupying the political spaces opened up by the revolution.

The SED, now renamed the SED-PDS (PDS standing for “Party of Democratic Socialism”) and outfitted with a new leadership, launched a political counteroffensive in the form of a campaign against the perceived danger of a far-right revival in East Germany.

This campaign succeeded in uniting the still strong but disintegrating apparatus of the SED, together with well-known Stalinist party members and officers from the secret police. Appropriately enough, it was connected with a campaign for a new secret service with the old personnel. Even at this time a circle of Stasi officers in the Thuringian city of Gera publicly called for a counterrevolutionary coup d’etat.

The SED-PDS campaigned backfired. An anti-socialist wave rose and conquered the masses, even the workers. Rather than rallying East German workers around a vision of an independent and democratic GDR, the opposite occurred: the majority of East German society unified against a possible return of the old East German apparatus. This is the point at which the conservative current became hegemonic.

East Germany’s majority turned to the only force that seemed capable of guaranteeing political stability, economic prosperity, democracy, and the prevention of the return of the SED government: the West German government, led by Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl. Many East German workers also perceived the Kohl government as the safest bet to ensure a swift introduction of the West German Deutschmark.

The conservative-neoliberal forces deployed the tried and tested conservative slogan of “No experiments!” and changed the existing slogan of “We are the people!” into the slogan “We are one people!” to galvanize public opinion against the possibility of a radical democratic, social, and ecological GDR as an alternative to West Germany. Though most people taking up the slogans probably did not realize it at the time, they had adopted the language of conservative and German nationalist forces.

As political and social questions became closely entwined with those of the free-market economy and fears of the old regime’s possible return, Kohl and the West German political establishment exploited this opportunity to consolidate hegemony over the movement in the East. This consolidation found expression in the outstanding victory of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the first democratic elections on March 18, 1990.

The majority of workers voted for the CDU and continued to do so in following elections. The oppositional organizations of the citizens’ movement, which had authentically represented the masses at the beginning of the revolution, failed miserably. Divided into three competing lists, their combined vote total barely reached 10 percent.

It is unclear whether the 1989 revolution could have had a different outcome. Crucial to the failure of the movement, however, were the weaknesses of the GDR opposition. On the one hand it had neither the will nor the ability to pick up the power that had been “lying on the streets,” so to speak, in November and December. Instead, it pursued a negotiated solution through the institutions of the roundtable, in which it was outmaneuvered.

Additionally, most of the opposition vastly underestimated the importance of the employees and even the workers, but also workplace activity to the potential success or failure of the revolution. Nor was the opposition able to relate positively to the genuine desire of the majority of East Germans for national reunification or articulate a coherent alternative to solve the ongoing economic and social crisis going on in the country, which gave additional momentum to the forces of West German conservatism and reaction.

Lastly, the opposition greatly overestimated the danger posed by the decrepit and seriously weakened SED apparatus, blinding it to the much greater danger posed by West German capital and its patriotic campaign.

Workers Left Behind

The abandonment of independent East German “social experiments” in favor of “proven German capitalism” in the form of national unity and radical privatization policies gave German reunification a decidedly reactionary character. Unification was accompanied by an outright defeat and demoralization of the West German left and the dramatic fragmentation of German society under the weight of neoliberalism. The total collapse of the East German economy was the result.

Following the initial popular, democratic uprising, many East German workers operated as a kind of “counterrevolution from below” against the incipient East German citizens’ democracy, many under the tutelage of the West German bourgeoisie. This specific form of counterrevolution did not restore the SED dictatorship. Instead, it eliminated the remnants of the Stalinist “revolution from above” post-1945, such as state-owned enterprises, and also eliminated the revolutionary structures of the 1989 uprising in favor of West German capital.

Although historical analogies are often problematic, the counterrevolutionary alliance of 1990 is comparable to that of the Thermidor against the revolutionary Montagnards in France, or perhaps even more appropriately to the bottom-up alliances between peasants and the urban bourgeoisie in the Russian revolution. 1990 constituted, if you will, a “Thermidor from below.”

Nevertheless, we find remnants of the revolutionary events of 1989 in the self-activity of the East German population today, such as the so-called Monday demonstrations against the austerity measures and increased sanctions against the unemployed instituted by the Social Democratic–Green coalition in 2003–4.

Ultimately, developing an analysis of the East German revolution does not only carry implications for the question of German unity or the restoration of the capitalist system as an abstract case. German reunification was intrinsically linked to a fundamental shift in the social and political balance of forces in Germany and to the victory of neoliberalism more generally — a phenomenon which has affected all levels of society in a dramatic way.

The reactionary sea change in German society was thoroughgoing and complete. The majority of East German jobs were not modernized as promised, but instead liquidated by mass privatization. Thus East German workers never reached the goal they sought to achieve through reunification, namely the West German–style welfare capitalism of the Bonn Republic.

In a sense, the fall of the GDR brought with it the end of the Bonn Republic and thus the European postwar constellation as a whole. Late twentieth-century Germany was marked most significantly not by the end of Soviet empire in the East, but rather by that of welfare capitalism in the West.