Skip to content

For me it all began with a bet

October 3, 2019

by Lars Pohlmeier, MD

Thirty years ago the Berlin Wall fell. That was the source of my political optimism to abolish nuclear weapons.

In September 1989, I was standing right in the center of Berlin in front of “Checkpoint Charlie,” which was one of the checkpoints between the so-called Soviet Sector and the American Sector in the divided city of Berlin. Several dozens of kilometers of wall divided East and West Berlin and also surrounded the Western part of Berlin.

My friend Hennig and I, both 19 years old at the time, were looking at the heavily armed soldiers ready to kill anyone without notice who would try to cross the border from the East to the West. We were thinking about whether this wall would ever be gone in our lifetime.

I remember my very first day in the Eastern Bloc, on a trip to Hungary in 1984. At the age of 15, I was arrested and accused of trying to help two East German citizens illegally cross the border to Yugoslavia. We were all freed after long hours of uncertainty, leaving a deep emotional impression of the events based on absolutely arbitrary and unjustified claims.

This is why I believed the General Secretary of the East German communist party, Erich Honecker, who had said in 1989 that the Berlin Wall would stand for another hundred years. Only a couple of weeks earlier, protests in Beijing in Tiananmen Square had been brutally stopped by the Chinese military.

I had spent two weeks in August 1989 in Hungary again with Christian friends from a church parish from Thüringen, in East Germany. The pastor from my local West German protestant church, Martin Schäfer, had tried hard during his lifetime to make contacts with the East across the deadly border between the two Germanys. He had managed to arrange for several meetings in the relatively “liberal” state of Hungary. Although absolutely everything we did was closely monitored by the East German STASI, as we learned later, we were at least able to meet in person.

Under the positive influence of president Gorbatchov from the USSR, Hungary removed the fences along its borders with Austria in June 1989, setting in motion a stream of East German refugees trying to leave for West Germany through Hungary and Austria. But East Germany began to close its borders to its neighboring socialist countries, the only countries to which East Germans were allowed to travel with special visa arrangements.

August 21, 1989 was the last day of our Hungarian summer camp. We had to say good-bye to our East German friends with a feeling that we might well never see them again. Everybody was in tears. It was heart-breaking. Stefan Wiener, an East German, decided to flee to Hungary. He had not told anyone in order to protect family and friends and spare them from reprisals after return to East Germany. It was the same night the last East German was killed trying to illegally leave the Eastern Bloc just a couple of kilometers away from Stefan. Stefan made his way to freedom safely.

That was the situation in the dramatic summer of 1989, when Henning and I decided in front of The Wall that it would probably not be destroyed during our lifetime. I still get goose bumps remembering the deep sadness of this moment of desperation.

And then everything changed. People started meeting every Monday after work for peace prayers in the Nikolai Church in Leipzig and other East German cities. Thousands of East Germans fled to Prague in the Czech Republic, climbing across the fence of the West German embassy and living in the garden of the “Palais Lobkowicz.” The situation was extremely tense and dangerous. The East German Polit Bureau refused to allow the refugees to leave for the West. On September 30, 1989, at 6:59 pm, our West German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, stood on the balcony of the embassy and said the most important sentence of his life. To be precise it became only half a sentence since the second part was swept away by the joy screaming of the people waiting below his balcony. He said: “Wir sind heute zu Ihnen gekommen, um Ihnen mitzuteilen, dass heute Ihre Ausreise …“ (“We have come today to inform you, that today you’re leaving….”) For the first time the communist government in East Berlin had to give in and let the people leave. For me this was one of the decisive moments in our history.

The trains of the refugees went through East Germany to their final destination in the free Western part of the country. The communist government had closed the train stations so that the ordinary people would not see the happy refugees. In East Germany, people would not any longer just pray in churches. On October 9, 1989, for the first time, they took to the streets for the famous Monday demonstrations, most prominent in Leipzig, East Germany’s second biggest city. The famous “New Forum“ (Neues Forum) had been founded as a meeting place for progressive society to discuss fundamental changes to an oppressive society. The first Monday demonstration, which they had no permission to hold, was maybe the most dangerous moment. The STASI had gathered its agents and the military to hit hard on the demonstrators. There would have been killings of demonstrators. Probably the sheer masses of thousands and thousands of people discouraged the authorities from using force and maybe getting into a civil war. The demonstrations stayed peaceful and the numbers grew every week.

The spirit of change came eventually to East Berlin, too. On November 4, 1989 the first big officially permitted demonstration was held. Five hundred thousand people came to the East German capitol. The event was broadcast all over West Germany, which meant that most of the East Germans were technically able to hear and see it, too, although this was officially forbidden. I was following the events on the radio while in a fashion shop in Bonn that day. The communist leader, Erich Honecker, resigned on October 18, 1989, making way for others to try to save a criminal regime that could not be saved anymore. Egon Krenz took over.

But still the struggle for freedom was far from being over. The collapse of the regime only happened due to pure luck of history caused by a misunderstanding on the eve of November 9, 1989. The Polit Bureau of the communist party was challenged by the demands to grant free travel to the people. On November 9, in order to buy more time, they came up with the idea of a “travel law“ allowing East Germany citizens to travel freely. The real intent was to split up the demonstrators.

Polit Bureau member Günther Schabowski, who was in charge of talking to the international press later that day, was told to communicate this in public and wrote down the conclusion of the meeting. This was rather meant as a trick and not at all as a law that would immediately come into force.  Schabowski had not participated in this Polit Bureau session, but had only come in very late to pick up the most important news to be delivered to the international press at a press conference following the meeting.

During the press conference he read out the note about the plan for a new travel law. He was then asked by an Italian journalist when the law would come into force. He looked at the note again, turned it and was looking for a date, could not find it, and then said “As I understand it, this…this” —he was stuttering— “goes into force immediately, without delay.“

This was breaking news on West German radio and TV, and was transmitted to East Berlin without delay. Thousands of East Germans started walking to the border immediately, many of them at Bornholmer Street, to just go for a walk to the West. The border patrol soldiers, of course, had no orders how to deal with this situation. Luckily no blood bath happened. In a dramatic situation, soldiers opened the border to let people out. This let to a chain reaction with thousands and thousands of people marching in the streets, climbing on the Wall and immediately starting to destroy the first parts of this hated border.

“Everything we are longing for—a better, peaceful, more just world in which we preserve our nature and climate…might just wait for us around the corner.”

I was watching the events during the whole night with my father. We were crying. A moment of no return had been reached.

In the following weeks, Egon Krenz also had to resign. The criminal party system in East Germany collapsed. East Germany was reunited with West Germany on October 3, 1990. The reunification was formally an accession. East Germany ceased to exist.

We celebrate the reunification each year on 3 October. Our parliament was wise enough not to choose a proposed November date. Nov 9, 1938 marks one of the darkest days in our history—a major anti-Jewish pogrom when Jewish books were burned, synagogues all over Germany were burned down, and fellow Jews were killed by the Nazi terror.

Looking back after 30 years, there is sometimes an urge to try to identify if there had been something in East Germany worth preserving. I am not convinced that there was much. My friends in church were under constant pressure by the STASI, the secret police. Some were put in jail. My friend Anne, the daughter of a priest, would not be allowed to go to university. After the collapse of the regime it came out that spies were literally everywhere. Everything was documented; almost every group was infiltrated. Joachim Gauck, who was president of Germany from 2012 to 2017, was recently asked whether there was really nothing good in East Germany. He had been a priest in East Germany, having lived in what he described as poverty. He answered: “Well, I would not say nothing good. There was spring, summer, autumn, and winter.”

This is not for me to say, as a West German. But I understand his view. We have not really merged together again, and there are many challenges, including the new right-wing political parties. There are a certain kinds of people in the east, however, whom I admire. One can still meet people with an “Eastern identity” who are just so “feinsinnig,“ so subtle, so warm, so wise in their thinking and their manners. And yes, the East Germans who sometimes feel like second-class citizens, deserve praise. Our country had many very bad and dark moments in its history. But the East Germans made the 9th of November a good day for all of us. Maybe they made it the best day in our history.

As much as I am convinced that the East German regime did not deserve anything other than to be left in the dump place of history, this strong negative feeling also derives from the fact that I am still upset that the East German communist regime betrayed the values it had put up front in their propaganda machine— solidarity and equality—as well as the absolute inability to create a competitive and productive economy.

The failure of the communist bloc helped an increasingly self-righteous West ignore the substantial shortcomings within our own Western societies: the irresponsible exploitation of women, children, and men world-wide by our capitalist societies in the rich North, and the destruction of the nature, to just name a few. “The West won the Cold War“ is how it gets framed sometimes, especially in the US. No! In a way, we all lost the Cold War. As much as I have always been a strong critic of the oppressive Eastern Bloc regimes, over time I have understood that it is not all black and white. NATO countries were and are major contributors to global militarism, which is unacceptable. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is high time for this to change.

That this is possible is the real take home message and the reason why I have written down this story. The fact that a peaceful revolution was able to bring down a terrible and brutal regime is something I could not have imagined before. The events leading to something absolutely impossible for me to imagine are my life-long proof that change to a substantially better world is possible. Yes, everything we are longing for: a better, peaceful, more just world in which we preserve our nature and climate not only remains possible, it might just wait for us around the corner. We merely do not see it from where we stand today.

Hoping for change and working for such a world is worth the effort. And yes, a world without nuclear weapons is possible and maybe just around the corner, as well.

I do not allow anyone to tell me that this is unrealistic, naïve, or technically impossible. For me, all this is like a big domino play. You have to push one domino stone so all stones can fall down, like the Berlin Wall in literally just one night. I do not know which of the many stones is the one to fall first. And I do not know, who will be the one to make the right push for this to happen. But I do know that it can ONLY happen when we all try to push from the different angles of this beautiful planet so that the ONE STONE needed will fall somewhere, sometime. My optimism that this can happen and will happen is and will be unstoppable.

Dr. Lars Pohlmeier was born in Bremen, West Germany, where he works today as an internist and family doctor.

One Comment
  1. October 4, 2019 3:50 am

    Thank you, Lars, for this article. Yesterday evening, on the anniversary of reunification, I was sitting with my neighbours and exchanging stories from the time before, during and after the Wall fell. It occurred to us that we were part of making history at that time. I think it will be the same when we look back at the adoption of the nuclear ban treaty when all nuclear weapons are finally abolished.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: