East Berlin Diary

Peter Pulzer

The man in the S-Bahn was disappointed by the way the election campaign was going. He had hoped that for the first time in his life he would be offered a rational debate on the issues of the day; that the different parties and politicians would declare their principles and their policies, as in a well-ordered marketplace. Instead they merely slanged and denounced each other. And yet I thought he had acquired the first prerequisite for a functioning democracy: scepticism.

The taxi driver had plenty of that. Promises, promises, he said, a menu without prices. He was sceptical on minor matters, too. ‘It won’t be called that much longer,’ he said, referring to the street-signs on the broad avenue leading into Leipzig. It was called the Street of German-Soviet Friendship. Our destination was the Karl Marx Platz, that windy open space, walled in by Sixties systems buildings, made famous by the Monday-night vigils that toppled the regime, where Chancellor Kohl was to address his last great rally of the GDR’s election campaign. The posters coyly announced the location as ‘der Platz vor der Oper’ – the square in front of the opera – the limbo of nomenclature symbolising the suspended animation of the whole country. Five months earlier, that very square teetered on the brink of becoming Europe’s Tiananmen. A month later, the Berlin Wall was breached. And yet a year ago every expert in West or East Germany would have told you that the country was shrouded in the peace of the graveyard.

‘Why did it happen? And why did it happen so quickly?’ asks Timothy Garton Ash in his splendid new We the people.[*] I merely jib at the ‘and’, for it is evident now that the rulers of the GDR were right when they asserted that orthodox Marxism-Leninism was the sole raison d’être of ‘the first workers’ and peasants’ state on German soil’. Once ‘it’ happened, it was going to happen very quickly, all the way. I say this is evident now, for at the time there was an alternative programme, with three sets of actors: a small, courageous dissident movement, numbering some two to three thousand, a rapidly swelling mass of the discontented and a panic-stricken Party leadership. All three were necessary for the course events took, but one of them was decisive on two occasions, both during the demonstrations of October and November and on polling day, 18 March – namely, the mass of the discontented.

What did they want? They wanted what all revolutionaries want. ‘Under the concerted assault of the modern debunking sciences, psychology and sociology, nothing indeed has seemed to be more safely buried than the concept of freedom,’ Hannah Arendt has written. ‘Crucial to the understanding of revolutions in the modern age is that the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide.’ In that sense it was a true revolution. Revolutions, Arendt argues, produce spontaneous forms of action; they are demands for participation, not representation. They are, in one form or another, soviets. But their ‘fatal mistake has always been that they themselves did not distinguish clearly between participation in public affairs and administration or management of things in the public interest.’

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[*] We the People: The Revolutions of ’89 witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague by Timothy Garton Ash (Granta, 156 pp., £4.99, March, 0 14 01423 9).