Stefan Wolle, an East German historian and the current scientific director of the German Democratic Republic Museum in Berlin, spoke at Montreal’s Goethe Institute this Monday in commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. His presentation broached the subject of East and West German relations in what was mainly a narrative meditation on the chronology and symbolism of November 4, 1989.
Wolle was actively involved in the dissolution of the East German Ministry of State Security, commonly known as Stasi, in 1990-91. On the afternoon of the fall however, Wolle was on his way to the cinema, only to find that the Australian film Crocodile Dundee had been replaced by an unprecedented Q&A session with Communist Party members in open dialogue with citizens.
By 11 p.m., all inner city checkpoints were opened, allowing Berliners to stream through the gates. Next came what Wolle called the “great liquidation” – the flow of Western products into the Eastern market, capsizing small businesses. Although two worlds were reunified, memories of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) remain multivalent.
“When people speak with each other, the impression arises that they lived in different worlds. Some remember records for five pennies, the good kindergartens, and the nice rugged evenings in the workers’ collectives. Others point out the deaths on the Wall, the political verdicts, and the corruption of the political leaders,” said Wolle.
Wolle eased into his native German as he took questions from the audience. The first question addressed the wish shared by many in East Germany who would rather have seen socialism amended than hurtle into capitalism.
“I myself was one those enthusiasts of the Prague Spring model of 1968 – of the synthesis of socialism and freedom – and bade farewell to these ideas as just an illusion. At that point, socialism was overrun by the sheer need to exceed quickly to freedom,” Wolle said.
He added that the economic and personal aftermath has been difficult for those in the former GDR. In the nineties, many felt that the reunification was not liberation but rather a devaluation of their own biography and a loss of their professional position in life. Although business and employment has increased, some still feel cheated or “torn from the past.”
Katy Geissler, a German teacher who is involved with the Goethe Institute in Montreal, was an 18-year-old living in Leipzig, East Germany when the Wall fell.
“[Wolle] was always looking for both sides – he was truly between two chairs. You cannot say that everything is better or not better. Many things were changed for the better, but many things were also lost,” Geissler said.
Jerzy Adamuszek, a Polish writer who was living in West Berlin, recalled the difficulty of crossing into East Berlin. At times he was told to undress at the checkpoints, or would have flyers removed from his vehicle by guards.
Adamuszek was also one of a small contingent of audience members who questioned why Wolle placed so much emphasis on the role of the Berlin Wall, and were discontent with how the narrative of the Wall has come to eclipse the wider history of Eastern Europe, and other independence movements.
“[Wolle] didn’t mention Jean Paul II, Reagan, or Polish Solidarity. If you want to talk about the fall of the Wall, you have to talk about historical background,” Adamuszek said.
Wolle agreed that the collapse of the Wall should not overshadow other events.“The whole process wouldn’t have been possible without countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland and Hungary. There are always some clever people who say it was all done from the outside, but wouldn’t have been possible without people starting revolution from the inside,” Wolle said, especially in reference to questions about the role of Mikhail Gorbachev in German reunification.
Raymond St-Pierre, a Radio-Canada journalist who was present on the day of the fall moderated the discussion. He commented on how the media has shaped the retelling of the day.
“There were tens of thousands of stories in those streets. You could hand the microphone to anybody – and it was a positive story,” St-Pierre said. “TV likes a good picture – and try to beat that. For us it was a dreamland.”
Wolle also acknowledged the irresistibly strong symbol of the Wall.
“The media finds it difficult to put things back in perspective, but this is the task of the historian,” he said.