25 Years Ago Today: Tiananmen Square’s shadow on the GDR

Tiananmen Square and the GDR

As I have followed the recent news coverage on the 25th anniversary of the massacre of peaceful student demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square at the hands of troops of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on June 4, 1989, it is important to recall that this event was not only a turning point in the development of Chinese society and polity, but also reverberated around the world – particularly through what was then known as the East Bloc and particularly in the German Democratic Republic.

Beijing's Tiananmen Square (photo: Voice of America)

Beijing’s Tiananmen Square (photo: Voice of America)

The GDR leading up to June 1989

To most outside observers, the situation in the GDR of June 1989 was pretty much what it had been for most of the preceding 40+ years of Communist rule. The Socialist Unity Party seemed to have things well in hand and appeared to be successfully resisting the gentle prodding of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev towards greater openness or reform, but we now know that this was not in fact the case.

I was in West Berlin for January and February 1989 and from that vantage point at that time, it certainly didn’t seem like things were changing in the East. Our teacher at the Goethe-Institut was a native West Berliner and I remember a conversation we had with her about the situation at a party one evening. Balancing her 4-5 year old son on her knee, she told us that she thought that change would come to the East and that the Wall would fall eventually: “But probably in his lifetime, not mine.” With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see signs that change was coming to the East and sooner than my teacher, or most others for that matter, expected.

Indeed, on January 15, 1989, while I was struggling to master the subjunctive II tense at the West Berlin Goethe-Institut, protestors on the other side of the Wall were disrupting the “Demonstration of Berlin Workers in Memory of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg”, an annual ritual organized by the Party to honour the memory of the revolutionary socialists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg on the anniversary of their murder in 1919. This event was a carefully organized propaganda spectacle, and when Western TV cameras captured images of plainclothes Stasi officers violently arresting demonstrators hoisting banners with the Luxemburg quote “Freedom is always the freedom for the one who thinks differently”, Party leaders were outraged that this open challenge to their authority had managed to succeed.

SED leaders congregate to mark Liebknecht-Luxemburg March at East Berlin's Memorial Place of the Socialists (photo: Bundesarchiv, 183 1989 0115 011, Rainer Mittelstädt).

SED leaders congregate to mark Liebknecht-Luxemburg March at East Berlin’s Memorial Place of the Socialists on January 15, 1989 (photo: Bundesarchiv, 183 1989 0115 011, Rainer Mittelstädt).

Later in the spring, further signs of unrest became visible outside the East German capital as well. On May 7, 1989, grassroots activists mobilized to monitor the municipal elections taking place throughout the GDR. Though subject to harassment in many voting locales, a large number of citizens managed to carry out their work and produce independent voting results that put lie to the official numbers giving the slate of SED-approved candidates the support of 98.85% of voters. A handful of Western correspondents in the GDR helped get this information into their reports and into the homes of the many East Germans who turned to West German media for their news.

June 4, 1989 in the GDR: An Eventful Day
The Pleisse River is covered in central Leipzig in 1951 (photo: Deutsche Fotothek, df_roe-neg_0006196_010, Roger & Renate Rössing).

The Pleisse River is covered in central Leipzig in 1951 (photo: Deutsche Fotothek, df_roe-neg_0006196_010, Roger & Renate Rössing).

The date of June 4, 1989 was to prove to be an important one on the road to the Wende that fall. In the city of Leipzig, later the centre of protest against the regime, local environmentalists tried to register a march to draw attention to the catastrophic health of that city’s Pleisse river. This waterway runs through the Saxon city but had largely been covered over and transformed into a waste water canal for the region’s heavy industry. Authorities banned the planned march, but a church service organized around the theme went ahead and attracted more than 1,000 attendees. When a number of individual church goers attempted to make their way to the river after the service, police and Stasi intervened and some 83 were arrested. A webpage chronicling the Wende year in Leipzig describes the importance of this event as follows:

“By engaging with this ‘prepolitical’ theme, these [grassroots environmental] groups helped create lay the groundwork for the articulation of independent, political views. They established the preconditions that later allowed for the open formulation of the political demands that would contribute to the breakdown of the [state socialist] system.” (Pleiβepilgerweg am 4. Juni 1989, www.runde-ecke-leipzig.de, accessed on June 4, 2014)

Free Elections in the People’s Republic of Poland
High Noon in Poland: Solidarity election poster for June 4, 1989 parliamentary elections (Wikicommons user Wistula).

“High Noon”: Solidarnosc election poster for June 4, 1989 parliamentary elections (Wikicommons user Wistula).

And events in several of the GDR’s East Bloc neighbours were giving Party leaders in East Berlin more than a few headaches. After years of pressuring the Communist leadership, Poland’s trade union movement Solidarity had managed to negotiate “freer elections” for June 4, 1989. When the results came in, they were more dramatic than had imagined possible. Indeed, Solidarity captured 35% of the popular vote, but more tellingly, it had won every one of the 161 parliamentary seats it had been allowed to contest under the compromise election rules! For their part, the ruling Communists saw their vote plummet from 55% to 37%. Though the GDR had long since closed its borders to its Polish neighbour in an attempt to contain any ideological contamination emanating from the social upheavals taking place there, SED leaders were likely shaking their heads at how their Polish counterparts were allowing power to be wrested from their control.

Tiananmen Square: The GDR’s Response

Much more to their liking was the brutal response of the Chinese Communist Party to the challenge mounted to its rule by student protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The Party’s official mouthpiece Neues Deutschland (New Germany) trumpeted the official line on the top of its front page of the paper’s June 5, 1989 edition: “Chinese People’s Liberation Army Puts Down Counter-revolutionary Uprising” (ND, June 5, 1989). This hardline response was virtually unique amongst the East Bloc countries and was clearly intended to send a message to domestic opposition. Indeed, when events began spiraling out of control in the GDR in September 1989, the Politbüro chose to stoke fears of a “China solution” by sending Egon Krenz, the GDR’s second-in-command, to Beijing to deliver high profile greetings from the SED to the Chinese leadership on the 40th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.

Tiananmen and Me: Were Chinese students protesting at Tiananmen for this?

Somewhat remarkably given my physical remove from the events, I do have one rather vivid memory involving June 4, 1989 on Tiananmen Square. On said evening, I attended a concert of the heavy metal group Metallica in my hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Opening the show was English rock group The Cult and much to the annoyance of the group’s singer – who at that time was going by the moniker “Sun King”, really – the Metallica audience was not that enthused by his group’s “art”. So midway through the band’s set, he unleashed a tirade which can be paraphrased as follows: “Hey, Saskatoon, halfway around the world a bunch of Chinese kids are getting crushed with tanks to enjoy the sort of freedom you have here. So get off your asses and rock!” I don’t recall people getting any more jazzed to exercise their “right to party” after this lecture, but I do remember thinking how asinine these remarks were, even from someone going by the name of “Sun King”.

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