I am among those who believe that the fate of the GDR was sealed on, not on November 9, 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but rather on October 9, 1989 when 70,000 East Germans overcame their fears to march peacefully through the streets of Leipzig to call for change in their country. Coming just two days after the brutal suppression of protests in Berlin during celebrations marking the state’s 40th birthday, Leipzigers ignored the ominous signs that a violent crackdown was imminent and asserted their agency with the chants “We Are the People!” and “We Are Staying Here!”, cries that must have sent shudders down the spines of Socialist Unity Party leaders as they sat in East Berlin receiving reports on the situation.
Below is a brief German-language report telling the story of October 9 in Leipzig. Even if you don’t speak the language, it is worth watching for the images of that night, a genuine turning point in world history:
At the centre of the Leipzig protests, were a small group of civil rights activists, the core of whom had been working to change the GDR for years. With resolve, persistence and creativity, these few individuals managed to change the world, theirs and ours and without their efforts, the East German regime would have undoubtedly remained in place. Given this, October 9th is an appropriate day to write, if only briefly, on one of the grassroots activists who has gone on to play a central role in the united Germany, Joachim Gauck.
In 1989, Gauck was a well-spoken Lutheran pastor in Rostock, a city on the Baltic coast, who became involved in the protests there. Out of this, Gauck was a founder of the local chapter of “Neues Forum” (New Forum) a citizens-initiative that sought dialogue with the ruling party in order to facilitate changes to East Germany. Through this role, Gauck ended up sitting in the first, freely elected East German parliament where he quickly became the spokesperson for those in favour of providing citizens with open access to the files collected on them by the Stasi, the GDR’s secret police. This position brought him into open conflict with those who wished to keep access to the files restricted, in particular many members of West Germany’s governing party, the Christian Democrats, as well as Peter-Michael Diestel, a member of the Eastern CDU and the GDR’s new Minister of the Interior. Gauck was able to carry the day, however, and the East German Parliament voted to maintain the files and put him in charge of this task, a role that was confirmed in the united Germany in October 1990 when he was named “Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records”.
Gauck held this position for ten years including the year when I lived and worked in Leipzig in 1999 and I recall him often being in the news as the work of his office came under close scrutiny as the files were opened and their often sensational contents revealed. Laws were passed requiring civil servants (in the “new federal states”) to be assessed for their employability based on the contents of their Stasi files, a process that came to be known as “being Gaucked” (gegauckt warden). As German society navigated its way through this situation and criticism of the Federal Authority for the files came from the right and left, Gauck remained steadfast in his position that by opening the records would give German society a fuller understanding of itself and provide the basis for a healthier for democracy in the united Germany.
In October 1999, several days after the 10th anniversary of the Monday Demonstration that had led to the GDR’s demise, I had the chance to hear Joachim Gauck speak in Leipzig as part of the “Leipzig Conversations”, moderated interviews presented before a live audience. Here Gauck spoke eloquently, mounting a spirited defence of his authority’s work (“It is an attempt to help our society come to better understand itself.” J. Gauck, Oct. 11, 1999, “Leipziger Gespräche”), the law requiring the vetting of civil servants (“Its aim is to determine whether individuals are trustworthy enough to assume responsibility for the work of democratic institutions in this time of transition” (Ibid) and warned of the dangers in equating personal and political memory in light of the first wave of “Ostalgie”, or nostalgia for the GDR, that was washing over German popular culture at the time.
While popular in some circles, Gauck came under particular fire in the former-East as his term advanced. Led by the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successors to the GDR’s ruling Socialist Unity Party, the criticism of Gauck often centred on his view of East Germany as an Unrechtsstaat (“state of unlawfulness”), one pole in a debate that has gone on within German society virtually since the disappearance of the East. However, what I found remarkable about Gauck was the way he seemed to sit between West German and East German societies, serving as a sort of messenger from one side to the other during a period when the two groups were still finding their way together. Whereas in the former-East Gauck came to be seen by many as a representative of the new, Western political order, in the West, he was the rare example of a former-East German who commanded, and received, respect when he spoke. Often he was called upon to explain to frequently perplexed Westerners the developments within eastern German society and when doing so he showed considerable understanding for and empathy with the challenges the transition to a new political, social and economic order raised for his fellow “Ossis”.
In the speech I saw, I was surprised to hear him make an impassioned defence of Easterners who expressed a desire to turn back the clock to the GDR days. Time, he argued, was needed for people’s mentalities to catch up to their thinking. He pointed to studies done in West Germany in the early years after World War II when only 16% of the population condemned Nazism and 57% agreed with the statement that it “was a good thing done badly”. Here too time had been necessary, Gauck argued, and it would be no different in this case.
Those of you who follow the Canadian news closely, (really, really closely) may know that Joachim Gauck was in Canada recently in his current role as the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, a role he assumed in early 2012. This position is not dissimilar to that of the Governor General (for Canadians), the titular head of state and moral authority as opposed to one wielding political power on a daily basis. It is a role for which Gauck seems born and he has used the “pulpit” it provides to pronounce on a myriad of matters he deems relevant to today’s Germany, with the similar effect to his days as Files Commissioner: he seems to manage to tick off a significant portion of Germans all the time and he doesn’t seem to care. I’m a fan.
In fact, I’m proud to say that I actually predicted that Gauck would end up Federal President. Re-reading a diary entry I wrote in the wake of seeing him in Leipzig in 1999, I was thrilled to discover my tip that he’d land this job and below you can find the photographic proof!