They were the people! – November 4th Demo in East Berlin

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the largest demonstration in the history of the GDR and another important milestone on the path to the toppling of the GDR’s one party state. The demonstration took place on East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz and attracted more than half a million protestors. The demo’s reach was extended by GDR television which broadcast the more than three hour long event live – including boos drawn by Party representatives – to every corner of the Republic.

"We were the people." - a banner hung on the House of Teachers on East Berlin's Alexanderplatz in 1999 to mark the revolution that had taken place ten years earlier.

“We were the people.” – a banner hung on the House of Teachers on East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz in 1999 to mark the Nov. 4th demo.

The demo was approved in the wake of the resignation of Erich Honecker, the head of the ruling Socialist Unity Party, on October 18th and featured a broad spectrum of GDR public figures calling for changes in “the better Germany”. These included civil rights activist Jens Reich, authors Christa Wolf and Stefan Heym, actor Ulrich Mühe (The Lives of Others), Markus Wolf, the recently retired head of the Stasi’s foreign espionage wing, and even Günter Schabowski, the Party boss who would somewhat unwittingly open the Berlin Wall a mere five days later.

We are the people!

As was the case in Leipzig and elsewhere in the East during these weeks, the speakers’ demands on November 4th demanded reforms of the sort that had been introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union with concepts of openness and Glasnost bandied about throughout the day. Watching clips of the demo, it’s remarkable to see just how attentive attendees were with the crowd paying close attention to the speakers’ and their statements. The words being spoken aloud that day were words that typically had been spoken in whispers or in conversation with closed friends or family, that is, if they had been spoken at all. It must’ve been a remarkable feeling for the assembled to hear these demands, ideas, thoughts spoken openly and I think that is out of a kind of reverence that the demonstrators listened so intently.

The most popularly chanted slogan at this event was “Wir sind das Volk” or “We are the people”, a chant made popular at the Leipzig Monday demonstrations and a clear assertion of the East populace’s right to determine their own future. Calls for reforms to the East German constitution including guarantees of freedom of speech, travel and free and open elections were the agenda of this day. Demands for unification with the Federal Republic were nowhere to be heard, but this was to be the last time that what might be characterized as a reformist agenda held sway. After the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9th the mood in the populace shifted dramatically with German unity suddenly seeming like a viable option.

Here a (German language!) report from West German television on the demonstration. But it’s worth checking out even for non-German speakers if only to take in the enormity of the event and the improvised nature of the protest infrastructure (nice flat bed truck / stage!):

Five years ago Dr. Jens Reich was in North America for a number of events to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall and visited Toronto as part of his itinerary. Along with my friend and colleague at the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at York University, I had the pleasure of having dinner with Dr. Reich and his wife while they were in town.

Jens Reich speaks at the Nov. 4th rally (photo: Bundesarchiv - 183-1989-1104-036).

Jens Reich speaks at the Nov. 4th rally (photo: Bundesarchiv – 183-1989-1104-036).

Dr. Reich had been a prominent member of Neues Forum/New Forum in Berlin and one of the most recognizable faces of the citizens’ movement in the East. An accomplished molecular biologist, he resisted the lure of politics to return to his scientific endeavours in post-unification Germany. Perhaps it was this career path that made him such an agreeable sort as I found that, though clearly a highly intelligent and learned man, he did not suffer from an inflated sense of self-importance and was extremely gracious in describing the collective effort that had gone into toppling the SED regime. To have had the privilege of sitting in his company for an evening was a remarkable experience and I recall thinking that one could not imagine a more appropriate ambassador for a revolution of “the people”.

Jens Reich's card, so I can contact him next time I'm in Berlin!?

Jens Reich’s card, so I can contact him next time I’m in Berlin!?

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