As the fall of 1989 progressed and the Socialist Unity Party’s (SED) grip on power began to loosen, many of the Party’s more than 2 million members watched in disbelief as the socialist project crumbled before them. One window onto the myriad of reactions that these developments gave rise to is found in the newspapers under SED direct control. Junge Welt (Young World) was the organ of the GDR’s youth organization, the Free German Youth (FDJ), and with 1.4 million copies printed, it was the country’s largest circulation daily. My collection includes this paper’s November 7, 1989 edition, and it provides an amazing reflection of the disintegration of state socialism in the GDR just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
First some context: November 7, 1989 came a mere three days after half a million East Germans gathered in East Berlin for what would be the largest demonstration in GDR history and two days before the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th. In the preceding weeks, the SED had jettisoned long-serving Party boss Erich Honecker in favour of Egon Krenz and was attempting to win back public trust with a variety of measures, including promises of a new travel law. Decision makers were being replaced and promises of change, a Wende or turn, were the order of the day. In this chaotic situation, Party discipline inside the SED quickly evaporated and rank and file members began publicly airing their despair, frustration and anger in ways that would have been unthinkable mere days before. Reading the GDR’s daily newspapers from that time gives some sense of both the rapid political and social unravelling that was occurring and the helplessness of the Party faithful in the face of it.
“Read All About It! – GDR Going Down the Drain!”
At first glace at the front page of the November 7, 1989 edition of Junge Welt, one could be mistaken for thinking it was business as usual. There at the centre of the front page, above the fold, sits a tribute marking the 72nd anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution in the Soviet Union, an important event in the socialist calendar. The article takes the form of an excerpt from Bertolt Brecht’s poem Great October, but this is truncated and its first line (“O the great October of the working class”) echoes the events of the previous month in the GDR, though it’s hard to tell whether this was intentional or not.
But then to the left of this poem, a sign that things are most definitely not as they were: a piece from the new chair of the Free German Trade Union Federation outlining plans for reforming the umbrella organization representing East German workers. To the right of the poem, an editorial by the staff writer Roland Wetzel, an SED member of 17 years. Here Wentzel, in a fine example of the great unmuzzling that was taking place, calls for the complete resignation of all Party and government leaders. Only a new, untainted government, he argues, will be free to follow a path that realizes the demands of the majority for “more democracy and a better socialism!” Below this, another editorial, it entitled “A Statement for All – ‘We are the people!'” (“Ein Satz fuer alle – ‘Wir sind das Volk!'”). In it the author chastises the Party leadership for its arrogance and wonders aloud whether the promises of change coming from it are “only cosmetic”. Real change for all is what is needed, he contends. Noting that the SED’s Central Committee is considering a draft of a new travel law, he offers, “Yes, we [meaning Party members, ed.] are the people. But only us or everyone?” Even the only photo on the front page reflects the spirit of the times. It shows a cement sculpture of the sort ubiquitous to the GDR, a reclining female nude with a large leaf covering her genital area. The caption below reads “No more fig leaves”.
The impressions of society in flux continue unabated inside. Page 2 is filled with letters to the editor from FDJ members from across the country responding to Junge Welt‘s call for their ideas on how to reform the organization. On page 3, under the headline “Economic Reform Yes – But How?”, is a full page interview with a Prof. Dr. Caspar Schirmeister of the GDR Institute for International Politics and Economy in which the failures of the command economy are laid bare and options for reform discussed. On page 4 a contribution entitled “October Days” written by two students from the journalism program at the Karl-Marx University in Leipzig. This article is an attempt to give a less partisan view of the protests and protesters in the Saxon city (the standard description of the protesters had been of a “riotous assembly which had disturbed public order and security” – ed.) than had appeared in the Party press up to that point. Remarkably it includes excerpts from Five Days in June, East German author Stefan Heym’s long-banned novel on the June 1953. Published in the GDR only earlier that year, The editors include a brief coda to the article in which they explain the contents of Heym’s book and that it “was published in the GDR for the first time this year.”. Even the Culture and Arts section is shaped by the social chaos; a TV review considers a program entitled “Warum wollt ihr weg?” (“Why do you want to leave?”) in which a former JW-contributor interviews East Germans who have applied for exit visas. It had made for, the reviewer remarks, rather depressing viewing, but he closes somewhat optimistically by pointing out that all those would-be emigres interviewed “feel comfortable here and that strikes me as a good starting point for our society’s new beginning.”
As events would go on to show, this notion that East German society would enjoy a chance to renew itself was wildly optimistic. Indeed, a major study on the SED argues that by the late 1980s the idea that the GDR could be reformed was minority view, even among Party members (Andreas Malycha/Peter Jochen Winters, Geschichte der SED (Bonn: Bundeszentrale fuer politische Building), pg. 10).