KGOU

"Wir Sind Ein Volk": The Fall Of The Berlin Wall And What It Means 25 Years Later

Nov 7, 2014

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, surprising not only Germans but people across the world. There were certain signs that change was occurring, but few, if any, predicted the speed at which change, in the form of re-unification, would come to Germany.

University of Oklahoma Professor of Political Science and International and Area Studies, Mitchell Smith was a graduate student doing field research in Germany during the spring of 1989. During a visit to Berlin that April, he saw small signs of change, but nothing that suggested the monumental shift that would occur.

“People were crossing borders, for example, leaving East Germany to cross into Hungary where they were attending a music festival. They then crossed the Hungarian border and entered Austria and then West Germany, claiming West German citizenship,” Smith says. “While that was going on, no observers saw precisely where that was heading and that it would culminate eventually with the fall of the wall.”

Demonstrations began mounting in East German cities like Leipzig during September and October of 1989, gaining momentum as people's fears of a violent government retaliation failed to materialize.

“This turned into a mass movement as each week, as mass violence didn't happen, hundreds of thousands of people were taking to the streets," University of Oklahoma Professor Rebecca Cruise says. "We find out later that in Leipzig, the hospitals were actually taking blood, trying to get stores of blood because they were anticipating that they were going to need it.”

Cruise also spent time in Germany, but she did so after the fall of the wall, while Germany was attempting to become one country again. She and Smith both reference the importance of a particular phrase in the process of reunification.

One of the slogans for the uprising was this idea of "Wir sind das volk," "We are the people," "We have a say," and that quickly changed to "Wir sind ein volk" "We are a people" "We are unified”,” Cruise says.

Smith agrees that this was a turning point.

“What had happened in that time is the citizens themselves learned how truly rotten the East German regime was,” Smith says. “That ushered in the march toward unification very rapidly, after which then Germany entered a very difficult period during which the cost of unification far exceeded anything that anybody had predicted.”

Rebecca Cruise got to see this arduous process first hand when in 1994, at sixteen-years-old, she was one of two students from the state of Alaska selected to participate in the Congress-Bundestag Youth exchange program. The program was set up by the US Congress and the German Bundestag to promote intercultural understanding. She stayed in Hameln, Germany with a host family that included five children, two parents and a grandmother who had helped to rebuild the country after World War II. It was with this family that Cruise visited what had up until recently been East Germany, where she met East Germans who had a very different experience from what she had been experiencing in the west.

“We talked about differences and it was still very apparent to me that what I was experiencing in the Western half of Germany, with the beautiful house and the lovely BMW that we were driving, that was not happening yet on the Eastern side,” Cruise says. “I had the opportunity to go to Leipzig, Dresden, Chemnitz (Karl Marx Stadt at the time) and it was just still very beaten down, very dirty, progress had not yet made it.”

Today, it would seem, that progress has made it in Eastern Germany. Germany leads the European Union in politics and economics and cities like Berlin and Leipzig are cultural hubs of the region. The fall of the wall has also had an effect on the Central European states that took similar action after Germany rejected communist rule. Countries like Romania, and Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia), were inspired to make their own democratic transitions and are now EU member states.

“I think the European Union can claim perhaps as one of its greatest successes, the transformation of those Central European and Baltic countries,” Smith says. “That group of states really were transformed by their interaction with the European Union in very fundamental ways.”

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Mitchell Smith on the unexpected nature of the fall of the wall:

What happened on that day was a surprise to many people despite all of the events leading up to that day. People were crossing borders, for example, leaving East Germany to cross into Hungary where they were attending a music festival and then crossing the Hungarian border and entering Austria and then West Germany and claiming West German citizenship. While that was going on, no observers saw precisely where that was heading and that it would culminate eventually with the fall of the wall.

Rebecca Cruise on the fears that the situation would turn violent:

I think that the response from the state was expected to be somewhat violent. You started seeing the demonstrations particularly in Leipzig in October, the Monday Demonstrations where citizens would gather at the church and then go out and protest. This turned into a mass movement as each week as nothing happened or mass violence didn't happen, more and more people, hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets and we find out later that in Leipzig the hospitals were actually taking blood, trying to get stores of blood because they were anticipating that they were going to need it. 

Mitchell Smith on the re-unification of Germany:  I think the re-unification itself was less of a surprise because by that point, by October of 1990, it was already apparent that the East German regime was not really viable economically or politically. A lot of the political and social realities in East Germany were not widely known. People knew, for example that it was a fiction that the East German living standard was catching up to that in the West, but even people in the West who studied East Germany did not realize quite how far behind the West the East German society lagged and how deeply in debt the East German Government was. So when Krenz came along and promised reforms, I think there were a lot of questions and people doubted that he was a reformer. This was somebody who had actually publicly supported the crackdown at Tiananmen Square so no one believes his reformist credentials. When the politburo decided, on November 8 to alter the rules to allow people to cross over to the West with permission. The politburo spokesperson, Gunter Schebowski went on television and was asked, "When does this go into effect?" He had not been informed, the regime was crumbling, and he just said, "As far as I know, immediately." And that's when people rushed to the wall. The fall of the wall itself was this sort of spontaneous event but then things rapidly spiraled downward for the East German regime.

Dr. Cruise and Dr. Smith on the significance of “Wir sind ein volk”:

CRUISE: One of the slogans for the uprising was this idea of "Wir sind das volk," "We are the people," "We have a say," and that quickly changed to "Wir sind ein volk," "We are a people," "We are unified," and that moved them towards unification 10 months later essentially.

SMITH: I think Rebecca's point is really an important one, that that moment when the crowd in the East went from chanting "wir sind das volk," to "wir sind ein volk," is really a crucial moment. What had happened in that time is the citizens themselves learned how truly rotten the East German regime was. That the security service reporting bordered on paranoia or actually was paranoid dimension, how corrupt the regime was, and that I think is when it became clear in a fairly short space of time that the East German regime was unviable. That ushered in the march toward unification very rapidly, after which then Germany entered a very difficult period during which the cost of unification far exceeded anything that anybody had predicted.

Rebecca Cruise on her experience in 1990s re-unified Germany:  I went to a part of Western Germany, the town of Hamelin in 1994, so I was sixteen years old. My observations were perhaps not as academic as they later would become but it was really remarkable to be there during that time and I'm not sure that I fully understood everything that I was seeing. Classmates would talk about reunification, these were students from the West, we would have seminars about it, we even had a famous musician, Wolf Beirmann, that came and sang to our class and I had no idea who this was but apparently he had been one of the leaders of the movement. It was really an honor to get to hear from him. I did have the opportunity, with my host family, to go over to Eastern Germany or what had been Eastern Germany, they had left East Berlin after the war and so there was a connection there and there were still a number of families over there and it was very powerful to go with them. We crossed over a couple of times and that was still a time where you could see the difference. You would go across the road and you could still see where the no mans land was. It was blank area, they still talked about land mines potentially being there, very bleak area that you crossed over and my host mother and my host grandmother in particular, they cried every time. Even to this day when I talk to them about re-unification they cry. We went and we met with family, we talked about differences and it was still very apparent to me that what I was experiencing in the Western half of Germany with the beautiful house the lovely BMW that we were driving in that was pretty typical, that was not happening yet on the Eastern side. I had the opportunity to go to Leipzig, Dresden, Chemnitz (Karl Marx Stadt at the time) and just still very beaten down, very dirty, progress had not yet made it. Berlin you could start to see that some changes were coming and I had the opportunity to return in 1999 as well for a longer period of time and you could see Berlin taking leaps and bounds. They used to call it the largest construction zone in the world because it was moving so quickly as it tore down old buildings and built up new ones.

Mitchell Smith on the subsequent Romanian revolution:  I was actually living in the UK at the time when the Romanian revolution was taking place and I still to this day occasionally show students in my classes the video of Ceausescu's final public speech in which, suddenly the crowd, which begins to chant in support of demonstrations that were taking place in the city of Timisoara *AUDIO OF CEAUSESCU SPEECH* Ceausescu has a look of befuddlement on his face because he's never before seen anything but orchestrated adulation from the crowd. He loses control of the situation and you see this, you can see a video of this unfolding. Of course in Romania, events took and ugly turn and became violent and there was some bloodshed in that case. Ultimately Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed.

Mitchell Smith on the long term effects of re-unification: I think there are two critical implications. One is precisely that the rise in prominence of Germany in Europe. Clearly unification marked a shift from an era in which France and Germany were sort of co-equals in the European community, the European Union, and that was no longer the case after Germany made it through the worst costs and tribulations of unification. Clearly Germany is the leader in the EU today, economically and politically. The other aspect that I would emphasize is that I think the European Union can claim perhaps as one of its greatest successes, the transformation of those Central European and Baltic countries. That group of states really were transformed by their interaction with the European Union in very fundamental ways and now we see a situation in which the Eastern border of the European Union is the Poland-Ukraine border. Poland very solidly incorporated into the European Union and in fact its prime minister was just selected by the heads of the governments of the other European Union countries as the President of the Council of Ministers, a very important position.

Mitchell Smith on a possible re-ignition of the Cold War: There is a new tension. I don't know if we could yet describe it as a new Cold War, I think we're still at a point where the tensions could possibly recede but I would add that in addition to the turmoil that's taking place in Ukraine, and it persists. There were elections that just took place in the separatist regions of Ukraine in which clearly the Russian interest is to solidify the conflict, the tension between parts of Eastern Ukraine, the breakaway districts of certain regions of Eastern Ukraine form the rest of the country, and to keep that conflict in the air. There's also been reports of cross border incursions of secret service agents in Estonia and recently NATO has intercepted a much larger than normal number of Russian fighter flights that fly close to the airspace of NATO countries.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Rebecca Cruise, Mitchell Smith, thank you for being here with me today to talk about a very important event we are about to mark on Sunday, the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, November 9th, 1989. Many of us remember that like it was yesterday. Let's go back and refresh our memories and just think back about the historical moment when these East European countries began to claim their independence and move away from the Soviet Bloc. SO Mitchell, take us back to that day, what did we see happen on November 9th, 1989.

SMITH: What happened on that day was a surprise to many people despite all of the events leading up to that day. This is the thing that I would emphasize, that I think is one of the most fascinating dimensions of the entire event is how few experts and even people on the ground, people in West Berlin who watched East Germany, how surprised they were with the rapidity with which events unfolded, culminating in that date. There's a long series of events leading up to that point which perhaps we can talk about. Even as those events were unfolding, people were crossing borders for example, leaving East Germany to cross into Hungary where they were attending a music festival and then crossing the Hungarian border and entering Austria and then West Germany and claiming West German citizenship. While that was going on, no observers saw precisely where that was heading and that it would culminate eventually with the fall of the wall.

GRILLOT: If you think back to when things like this started to happen even in the fifties and sixties when there were uprisings in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia back when it was one country. This was very quickly shut down by Soviet troops, but here in 1989, no troops. Not only were we not expecting to see it, we perhaps didn't expect to see the lack of heavy-handed response. You were in Germany; you were in Bonn in Western Germany when this happened. What was it like on the ground there as you were experiencing it in real time?

SMITH: Right, I was a graduate student, early in my field research in Germany at the time. I was living in Bonn, which then was the capital from January of 1989 until November. Unfortunately I was scheduled to leave just days before the wall fell but the crumbling of the East German regime had already begun. I visited East Berlin in April of 1989 and again there were no clear indications of what was happening. This is true of experts who studied the countries. Nobody was predicting the collapse of the East German regime at that time. I had the typical experience, the typical encounter with the East German Volkspolizeithe Vopos as they were known, which means "The People's Police." It sounds very benign and in fact of course, they meddled constantly in people's lives and were not citizen friendly. Because of all these control mechanisms in place and because of the history that you've described in which resistance was very rapidly crushed, nobody expected that when there was the first surge of popular resistance that it would culminate in the fall of the wall. When it did happen, I was there and what I remember very vividly on the German news is the fall of Erich Honecker, the longstanding leader of the East German regime and the General Secretary of the East German Socialist Unity Party. That happened on October 18, Egon Krenz was the person who took over and I think again, people observing the situation found this startling, but they did not see where it was leading. Krenz was actually a deputy of Honecker and was not a credible political reform figure, so the idea of the regime fundamentally changing was something that people have little faith in, but they also didn't see collapse coming.

REBECCA CRUISE: I think that the response from the state, it was expected to be somewhat violent. You started seeing the demonstrations particularly in Leipzig in October, the Monday Demonstrations where citizens would gather at the church and then go out and protest. This turned into a mass movement as each week as nothing happened or mass violence didn't happen, more and more people, hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets and we find out later that in Leipzig the hospitals were actually taking blood, trying to get stores of blood because they were anticipating that they were going to need it. 

GRILLOT: So not only the actual occurrence itself being surprising, the lack of a heavy handed response being surprising, what happened next with the whole slew of claims on independence. Then the re-unification of Germany, was this also unexpected? From what I recall, not terribly easy to do, but also something that seemed to be logical, that East and West Germany would once again become a single country.

SMITH: That's right. I think the re-unification itself was less of a surprise because by that point, by October of 1990, it was already apparent that the East German regime was not really viable economically, politically, but if we can go back a minute to the moment of November 9, itself, I think a lot of the political and social realities in East Germany were not widely known. People knew, for example that it was a fiction that the East German living standard was catching up to that in the West. People knew it, but even people in the West who studied East Germany did not realize quite how far behind the West the East German society lagged and how deeply in debt the East German Government was. So when Krenz came along and promised reforms, I think there were a lot of questions and people doubted that he was a reformer. This was somebody who had actually publicly supported the crackdown at Tiananmen Square so no one believes his reformist credentials. When the politburo decided, on November 8 to alter the rules to allow people to cross over to the West with permission. The politburo spokesperson, Gunter Schebowski went on television and was asked, "When does this go into effect?" He had not been informed, the regime was crumbling, and he just said, "As far as I know, immediately." And that's when people rushed to the wall. The fall of the wall itself was this sort of spontaneous event but then things rapidly spiraled downward for the East German regime.

CRUISE: One of the slogans for the uprising was this idea of "Wir sind das volk," "We are the people," "We have a say," and that quickly changed to "Wir sind ein volk," "We are a people," "We are unified," and that moved them towards unification 10 months later essentially.

GRILLOT: It happened so quickly. The whole thing happened so quickly. To think back myself, I wasn't in the country, and Rebecca I'm going to get to you in a second and talk about your experience a few years later, but I remember so vividly watching these images and just all of the excitement, yes, but also tension. There was just a real uncertainty and I think your point Mitchell about how there was a real lack of knowledge. I mean we were learning so much for the first time and seeing those East German and particularly East Berliner residence coming through the wall. When we talk about the fall of the wall, literally people were just pushing it over and chopping it down and so watching on our television screens these walls coming down and people coming through and the looks on their faces, it was so remarkable, it was so moving and it was just that sense of what's going to happen next? And a real significant sense of uncertainty, the ten months later, that they went from that moment to bringing to disparate countries, very different experiences that they've had, back together. I think it was just shocking in many ways and it just kept going and going.

SMITH: I think Rebecca's point is really an important one, that that moment when the crowd in the East went from chanting "wir sind das volk," to "wir sind ein volk," is really a crucial moment. What had happened in that time is the citizens themselves learned how truly rotten the East German regime was. That the security service reporting bordered on paranoia or actually was paranoid dimension, how corrupt the regime was, and that I think is when it became clear in a fairly short space of time that the East German regime was unviable. That ushered in the march toward unification very rapidly, after which then Germany entered a very difficult period during which the cost of unification far exceeded anything that anybody had predicted. Helmut Kohl in fact got himself into a little bit of political trouble. He was the father of unification and the German Chancellor at the time. He of course was visionary in the sense that he seized this opportunity for unification and would not let it pass but he did promise people blooming landscapes and some of the costs of unification far exceeded anything that had been predicted with the exception of the few members of the political opposition who said, "this is going to be far more costly that Helmut Kohl is telling us.

GRILLOT: Well we have to return to that point to when we talk about Germany today, but first Rebecca, fast-forward a few years from 1989 to the mid-90s. So you're now in Germany actually as a high school student spending time in the country. What was that like in that period when they had gotten over all the shock, and yet its still so difficult moving forward. There was all that excitement and energy, but then the real work began in terms of the costs of moving forward as a unified country. 

CRUISE: Well I went to a part of Western Germany, the town of Hamelin in 1994, so I was sixteen years old, my observations were perhaps not as academic as they later would become but it was really remarkable to be there during that time and I'm not sure that I fully understood everything that I was seeing. Classmates would talk about reunification, these were students from the West, we would have seminars about it, we even had a famous musician, Wolf Beirmann, that came and sang to our class and I had no idea who this was but apparently he had been one of the leaders of the movement. It was really an honor to get to hear from him. I did have the opportunity, with my host family, to go over to Eastern Germany or what had been Eastern Germany, they had left East Berlin after the war and so there was a connection there and there were still a number of families over there and it was very powerful to go with them. We crossed over a couple of times and that was still a time where you could see the difference. You would go across the road and you could still see where the no mans land was. It was blank area, they still talked about land mines potentially being there, very bleak area that you crossed over and my host mother and my host grandmother in particular, they cried every time. Even to this day when I talk to them about re-unification they cry. We went and we met with family, we talked about differences and it was still very apparent to me that what I was experiencing in the Western half of Germany with the beautiful house the lovely BMW that we were driving in that was pretty typical, that was not happening yet on the Eastern side. I had the opportunity to go to Leipzig, Dresden, Chemnitz (Karl Marx Stadt at the time) and just still very beaten down, very dirty, progress had not yet made it. Berlin you could start to see that some changes were coming and I had the opportunity to return in 1999 as well for a longer period of time and you could see Berlin taking leaps and bounds. They used to call it the largest construction zone in the world because it was moving so quickly as it tore down old buildings and built up new ones.

GRILLOT: My first trip to Eastern Germany was in 2002 and I still felt like you could see a difference between the two so they've come a long way and it did take some time. We can't talk about this event without talking about other countries in the region. Poland was obviously a major player in this as well. The solidarity movement and the major leaders in Poland. Czechoslovakia, as I mentioned before, was one country in the early nineties it became two and engaged in what we know now as the Velvet Divorce, very quickly and easily separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Hungary of course and it developments and then you go southeast and you run into some different experiences like in former Yugoslavia, clearly that had some struggles, and Romania and Bulgaria. SO let's make a distinction here because we can talk about Romania for example, that had a little different experience, a little more violent, unlike what we saw in Czechoslovakia and other parts of Eastern Europe.

SMITH: Yeah I remember vividly. I was actually living in the UK at the time when the Romanian revolution was taking place and I still to this day occasionally show students in my classes the video of Ceausescu's final public speech in which, suddenly the crowd, which begins to chant in support of demonstrations that were taking place in the city of Timisoara *AUDIO OF CEAUSESCU SPEECH* Ceausescu has a look of befuddlement on his face because he's never before seen anything but orchestrated adulation from the crowd. He loses control of the situation and you see this, you can see a video of this unfolding. Of course in Romania, events took and ugly turn and became violent and there was some bloodshed in that case. Ultimately Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed.

GRILLOT: Publicly. They were taken out into the public and executed. A little different experience in that part of the world. Let's talk a little bit more about the implications of this experience for Eastern Europe, Central Europe as we often refer to this part of the world. What are the implications today? Germany is stronger than ever, at least the strongest country in the European Union, but you know Poland, a huge player, but some questionable countries too like Romania and Bulgaria. Some countries have been integrated well into Europe, much more so than I think any of us might have expected, NATO membership, EU membership. What are the implications of all of this in terms of how they are operating today?

CRUISE: We almost forget, perhaps, you talk about unification that this was kind of a foregone conclusion after November 9, but there were a lot of opponents outside of Germany to unification. Margaret Thatcher quite famously was against it because of concerns that a unified Germany would act as it had before and here we are some 25 years later, Germany is unified and some would argue that they are incredibly powerful, though, thankfully, not in the way that they were previously. Not exercising that in the same way.

SMITH: I think there are two critical implications. One is precisely that the rise in prominence of Germany in Europe. Clearly unification marked a shift from an era in which France and Germany were sort of co-equals in the European community, the European Union, and that was no longer the case after Germany made it through the worst costs and tribulations of unification. Clearly Germany is the leader in the EU today, economically and politically. The other aspect that I would emphasize is that I think the European Union can claim perhaps as one of its greatest successes, the transformation of those Central European and Baltic countries. Some people who are advocates of the powers of the European Union talk about its transformational power. I think we don't necessarily see a great deal of evidence of that transformational power outside that group of states, but that group of states really were transformed by there interaction with the European Union in very fundamental ways and now we see today a situation in which the Eastern border of the European Union is the Poland, Ukraine border. Poland very solidly incorporated into the European Union and in fact its prime minister was just selected by the heads of the governments of the other European Union countries as the President of the Council of Ministers, a very important position.

GRILLOT: Both of these institutions, clearly, the EU and NATO and in some respects you might say NATO first that they became NATO members first, and that helped open the door to European Union integration, but these two institutions, very critical in the development of these countries and moving them towards the west and toward Europe. It wasn't just the European Union and NATO going to them, they were running away, clearly wanting to escape their previous experience and very much, almost badgering European Union and NATO officials, "We want in! We want to be part of YOUR neighborhood! We don't want anymore of that past." That then begs the question of what is happening today and Mitchell you referred to the Polish-Ukrainian border, I mean what's going on in Ukraine today and Russia's actions with Crimea and what's going on in Eastern Ukraine, this has got a lot of people Poland included, Germany, others in Central Eastern Europe nervous about a new Cold War, a new standoff between East and West. What are we to expect going forward?

SMITH: I think you're actually right about all of this and there is a new tension. I don't know if we could yet describe it as a new Cold War, I think we're still at a point where the tensions could possibly recede but I would add that in addition to the turmoil that's taking place in Ukraine, and it persists. There were elections that just took place in the separatist regions of Ukraine in which clearly the Russian interest is to solidify the conflict, the tension between parts of Eastern Ukraine, the breakaway districts of certain regions of Eastern Ukraine form the rest of the country, and to keep that conflict in the air. There's also been reports of cross border incursions of secret service agents in Estonia and recently NATO has intercepted a much larger than normal number of Russian fighter flights that fly close to the airspace of NATO countries.

GRILLOT: Well its so interesting to look back at this even historically and remind ourselves of the very important nature of this event in 1989 and how its still relevant today to what's going on in that region. It's still very much on the front pages and we need to learn from history but we also need to be thinking about where this situation is going forward. Thank you both for being here and sharing your personal experiences and your background and your expertise on this subject. Thank you Mitchell and thank you Rebecca.

SMITH: Thank you Suzette.

CRUISE: Thank you.