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 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. Read More
We all have days that persist in our memory, ones that remain vivid despite the passage of time. This can result from any number of factors such as meeting particularly interesting people, experiencing things different from those part of one’s regular routine or perhaps visiting a place where the physical space imprints itself on onto your senses in a deep, affecting way. If we’re lucky, all three of those factors come together at once and for me they did in May 2006 when I visited the Saxon town of Hoyerswerda for the first time.
A ceramic sun shines through the grey from the wall of a block of flats in Hoyerswerda, East Germany’s second “socialist city” (photo: author).
When I first announced to my German friends that I was intended to visit Hoy, as it is known by locals, the general response was :”What do you want to go there for?” To be honest, the reaction didn’t surprise me as Hoy has become a sort of shorthand for the wave of xenophobic violence that shook parts of Germany in the early post-unification years. When economic and social upheaval gripped eastern German during the early 1990s, neo-Nazis and their allies skillfully exploited the situation to cultivate antipathy towards foreigners. Attacks on those visually identifiable as “non-German” became alarmingly commonplace in the former-East, but in 1991 in Hoyerswerda the violence took on, for the first time, the character of mob violence perpetrated over several days to the open approval of a significant portion of the local population.
The victims of these attacks were asylum seekers and so-called “guest” or “contract” workers who had been brought to work in local industry during the GDR era and had decided to try and stay on. These “outsiders” were concentrated in a handful of apartment blocks in the town, essentially segregated from the locals and essentially sitting ducks for the mob violence. Most shamefully, after several days of rioting and attacks on the foreigners’ homes, federal and state authorities capitulated to the violence and removed them from the town thereby handing a victory to neo-Nazis who subsequently celebrated their role in making Hoyerswerda “ausländerfrei” (“free of foreigners”). I certainly recalled the terrible images from the television reports: the buses of the asylum seekers and guest workers inching their way out of town to the jeers and cheers of the mob with a police escort that was unable or unwilling to even try to defend the terrified passengers huddling under blankets to protect themselves from the shards of splintering glass caused by rock attacks.
My motivation to visit Hoyerswerda, however, was not driven by any perverse kind of “catastrophe tourism”. Read More
During the first decades of the Cold War, space was one of the primary battle fields of the Cold War. When the Soviets managed to launch Sputnik 1, an artificial Earth satellite, on October 4, 1957, it caught the world by surprise (see CBS news report below). My mother-in-law, then in teacher’s training school in Quebec, Canada, tells me that the news was deeply unsettling and that it had an almost immediate impact on her studies: “We went from very little emphasis on science and math to much, much more almost immediately. If you couldn’t teach English or Social Studies, that wasn’t a huge problem, but from that point on, the instructors made sure that we were all up to snuff in Science and Math!” (Conversation with author, July 2018)
In the years that followed, the two super powers worked feverishly to eclipse one another in what become known as the “Space Race”. However when the Soviets were able to successfully to send the first man into space three and a half years later (Juri Gagarin on April 12, 1961), one would have been excused for thinking that the race had been run with the Reds taking the gold.
During these years, the race to space captivated the attention of people around the world and the GDR was no exception. As was the case elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet space program was used to underscore the validity of Communism’s science-based ideology and paeans to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Soviet cosmonauts and space engineers were ubiquitous in the GDR press and arts.