“If I’d been ordered to shoot, I would have.” – An Officer of the National People’s Army Remembers the Wende

Lutz L's National People's Army ID card (photo: author).

Lutz L’s National People’s Army ID card (photo: author).

While teaching English in Leipzig in 1999, one of my colleagues in the office was Lutz L. In his early 30s, Lutz as our office “fixer”, someone who could be counted on to deal with any issue that came up, technical or otherwise. An affable fellow, I learned that he was pursuing a doctorate in Psychology at the university on the side but that he had a been at the start of a twenty-five year stint as a professional officer in the East German National People’s Army (NVA) when the revolution of 1989 put an end to his career plans.

I was intrigued and over the months, we had several short conversations about his experiences as the member of a mobile missile battery stationed at a base northeast of Berlin, near the Polish border. He was proud of his time in the army and happily shared stories of how professional and well trained he and his Comrades were. That the force was dissolved after unification clearly rankled and I remember him echoing a sentiment that I’d read expressed by other ex-NVAers: “They got rid of the wrong army.” The West German Bundeswehr, an army made up largely of conscripts, was in Lutz’ view, a fighting force in name only. Its propensity to keep regular business hours caused him quip, “If it had come to it, you can be sure we would’ve attacked on a Friday after 5 pm!”

Towards the end of my time in Leipzig, I was invited to a party held by one of my classes of long-termed unemployed to celebrate the end of their course. Lutz was there too and at one point we ended up in a stairwell where he told me his experience of the Wende (the ‘turn’, the popular term for the revolution of 1989) inside his army regiment. A lieutenant in the second year of his stint, Lutz was 23 that fateful year and, initially, his unit was cut off from the upheavals taking place throughout the country. In the summer as masses of his countrymen flooded for the exit via Hungary and the pressure mounted, Lutz and his comrades remained blissfully unaware as they conducted maneuvers and were cut off from any source of information beyond that provided by their unit’s Political Officer.

In early October, with the situation coming to a head, outside reality began to find its way onto the base. To prevent its citizens from seeking out refuge in the West German embassy in Prague, the GDR had closed its borders to Czechoslovakia earlier in the summer. Desperate to get out and worried that the opportunity was vanishing, some East Germans began to try their luck in crossing the Oder River, the GDR’s border with Poland, in the hope of getting to the BRD embassy in Warsaw. Lutz told a story of how his unit was out on maneuvers near the river one day when they encountered a patrol of Border Troops. This was a first and Lutz asked them, “What are you doing here? Who are you looking for?” “Don’t you read the newspaper?”, was the astonished response of the Border Troops senior officer. When the soldiers asked what the officer was talking about, they got their first thumbnail sketch of the situation.

Another sign of the country’s collapse came one day when Lutz was off the base and approached by a civilian who offered him his car. Confused, Lutz asked, “What do you mean?” “I’m giving it to you. All you have to do is sign this.”, answered the man gesturing to a piece of paper. Incredulous at such a transaction in a country where acquiring a car generally meant waiting for 12 years and then forking over the equivalent of about 1.5 years wages, Lutz told the man, “I’m not signing anything. You need a doctor!” Years later, after Lutz learned that divesting oneself of all property was a necessary step for those wishing to legally emigrate from the GDR, the scene suddenly made a perverse kind of sense: the man was probably trying to get ride of his things so that none would end up in the hands of the state he wanted so desperately to leave. (continued below graphic)

A Soldier’s Companion: Army Review

The NVA’s version of The Stars and Stripes was Army Review, a monthly publication that provided a rather predictable mix of war stories, ideological indoctrination, features on the Fatherland, some “cheesecake” photos and, for the sensitive soldier’s soul, poetry. The issue in my collection is from 1965 and features a lovely cover portrait of an NVA musical unit parading in front of the Moskau Restaurant on the Karl-Marx-Allee.


(continued from above)

On October 7th, Lutz’s unit travelled to East Berlin to participate in the military parade that took place each year to mark the GDR’s anniversary. 1989 was the state’s 40th and the unit had been practicing its mass formation marching for seven months on the runway of the capital’s Schönfeld airport. “Between take offs and landings, we’d do our thing on the tarmac,” Lutz told me. “They closed the ring road around the city for the tanks to practice and even painted red and yellow lines on the highway for them to follow.”

Before heading to Berlin, the troops were gathered to hear from the Political Officer who had been given the task of inoculating them against the virus of dissent that had infected the GDR. He warned them to maintain discipline in the face of provocation, pronounced the nascent citizens’ group Neues Forum (New Forum) “an imperialist counter-revolutionary movement” (much to the confusion of the troops. As Lutz noted, “It was the first time I’d heard of them.”)  I asked how he’d reacted to the sermon and was amazed at his honesty. “I believed it. I went into the NVA out of conviction. I’m not one of those who now says that they weren’t for [the socialist system]. I was and if I’d been ordered to shoot, I would have.”

A National People's Army toy soldier as manufactured by PGH Effelder (photo: author).

A National People’s Army toy soldier as manufactured by PGH Effelder (photo: author).

The rest of the month passed in a state of heightened alert on the base. On November 1st, after SED leader Erich Honecker had resigned, the unit was put on the highest state of alert due to an impending public rally scheduled for East Berlin’s main square ,the Alexanderplatz for the 4th. The soldiers were fitted out with battle gear and rations for 100 days were laid away. The senior officer explained that there were fears the demonstrators might storm the Wall and that the unit would be deployed to the outskirts of Berlin on the day of the demonstration. Saturday morning came and went without the troops receiving orders to move. The demonstration started at 10 am and still no word. Then, at 12:30 pm, Lutz remembers the call came from NVA HQ: they were to stand down.

“And that was the end of it for us stationed in the north of the country. We were essentially on peace time footing The Wende was over for us, even before the Wall opened the next week,” he explained. By mid-month, the unit had even received  its first visitors from the West. Interestingly, he told me that the NVA units stationed in the south of the country, under a different commander, remained on alert until late February 1990, just prior to the first free elections.

After that election, changes came quickly. The prominent citizens’ right activist and Lutheran pastor Rainer Eppelmann took the newly created post of Minister of Disarmament and Defence in the new, democratically elected government and immediately dismissed all the NVA’s senior and political officers. Lutz didn’t think much of that decision, telling me that the worst of the Political Officers had already been removed the previous fall and the ones who remained were, in his eyes at least, “innocent”.

For Lutz, the new reality hit home and hard: “When I realized what had been done with us, I was really devastated. I was ready to give my life for those men and when the truth came out, I was broken, empty. I was emotionally really near the end.” I asked him if he’d drawn any lessons from the experience and nodded: “There’s no government worth pledging your life to – I won’t make that mistake again.”

A "Discharge Doily", a tatted lace cloth presented to NVA soldiers at the end of their service (photo: author).

A “Discharge Doily”, a tatted lace cloth presented to NVA soldiers at the end of their service (photo: author).

After pausing for a moment, he continued: “It’s ironic, but I certainly don’t feel as if I’ve lost out the way things have gone, although you might have expected that. Strangely it’s the ones who brought the Wende about who are the losers, the people who were out on the streets chanting “We are the people!” or “We are one people!” – here he raised his voice and cried out in an annoying way suggesting how little he still thought of these actions – “They’re the unemployed and saying “Build the Wall back up again!”. And as for the intellectuals, the New Forum types, well, they didn’t get the “reformed socialism” they were looking for either. Look around,” he said gesturing to the city outside, “could we be much further from that?”

As I spent that year in Leipzig and immersed myself in the recent East German history, I found myself repeatedly reflecting on what sort of place I would have found in that society. As the son of a Lutheran pastor, I likely would have found myself on the outside of the system, unable to study at university and looking for a niche to call my own. 21 when the Wall fell, it’s entirely possible that I’d have been completing my compulsory army service in the NVA at the time of the Wende. Or would I have had the courage to be a conscientious objector and insist on being allowed to complete the alternative service as a “Construction Soldier”? Such a move would have labeled me as an outsider for life, but it’s possible that I’d would have had little to lose. Listening to Lutz, someone only two years older than me, relate how his commitment to the system extended to a readiness to fire on his fellow citizens if ordered made me think. I wondered what I would have done in similar circumstances and could come to no conclusion.

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