It’s been a very busy week or so since my last post; this weekend was Der Tag der deutschen Einheit, or German unification day which meant I had Thursday and Friday off. Lots of good times were had with some of the other assistants, including a trip to Leipzig Zoo, apparently one of the finest in the world and a really good day out if you happen to be in this neck of the woods!
We also had a European-style night out that goes on until sunrise, something I’ve never managed in the UK. One of the great things about Germany is that night-out food isn’t the greasy wouldn’t-eat-it-sober-if-you-paid-me fayre I’m used to at home; even if you want a kebab it’s guaranteed to be far tastier, but on this particular evening I ditched that and went for the quesadilla option instead. When in Rome! I stumbled into bed at about 6, only to be woken up at 8 by 3 police officers banging on the door asking if I’d heard any screaming. I hadn’t, but I tell you, there’s no bigger test of your language skills than stringing a comprehensible sentence together whilst semi-drunk and semi-conscious in front of 3 rather large, leather-clad policemen! Hopefully the fact that I was umming and ahhing a lot didn’t make me look suspicious!
Anyway, down to the serious part. As Mr. Nicholls – my German teacher from school – would say, time for a history lesson! As you may know, Germany was split into the communist East and the capitalist West after the end of the Second World War. The west, guided by the Allies, developed into a modern democratic society that continues today in the modern unified Germany. The east, however, was essentially a dictatorship that had the one of the most effective spy networks ever seen called the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security, or Stasi for short). By the early 1980s about 1 in 7 East German citizens was an employee or informant (formal or informal) of the Stasi, which personally would translate into about 4 members of my immediate family being paid by the state to report if any of us expressed any kind of antiestablishment or anti-Communist views. Anyone who didn’t show absolute loyalty to the Communist Party was consigned to a life in a dead-end job, living in an undesirable house and being bumped to the bottom of waiting lists for things like cars because, as a typical Soviet regime, the government controlled everything and if you dared to not support it then – at the very least – it made sure that you weren’t supported in return.
Despite full employment and social benefits like free childcare that people are sometimes desperate for in our society today, the standard of living was much lower than in the West and because everybody was paid the same wage, there was no incentive to work hard and so society was stagnating. In order to prevent people from escaping to the West, a fortified border was put up in 1961 and dozens of people died trying to cross it in a bid to reach freedom.
By 1989, after 40 years of the regime, the people of the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik or German Democratic Republic) had had enough, and the protests which ultimately lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of West and East began right here in Leipzig. Every Monday, people gathered at the Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas’ Church) for peace prayers, and then went on a non-violent march around the city centre. These demonstrations grew every week, and on 9th October 1989 70,000 people took part. They were met with the police and army who had shoot-to-kill orders from the government, but mercifully the order was ignored and the demonstration continued peacefully. Two weeks later, out of a population of around 500,000, about 320,000 people packed into Augustusplatz to protest for their rights. Two weeks after that, the government bowed to the pressure and the Berlin Wall opened, paving the way to German unity which happened on 3rd October 1990. The demonstrations in Leipzig, the whole of East Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe (except Romania) will always be an example of how peaceful protest can have an effect.
So, why the lecture? Every year, on 9th October there is a festival in Leipzig to commemorate the contribution of its citizens to the revolution, which is where I was yesterday. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves: