89'–09’: We Remember…

Stefan Kolditz: Comrade Schabowski Said So

Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue.

-Oscar Wilde


“You can believe it! Comrade Schabowski said so. Ask Comrade Schabowski!" The couple—in their late 50s, stocky, typical Berliners—stood at the infamous Palace of Tears by the Friedrich-strasse station, the sluice to and from West Berlin. They excitedly waved their ID cards around in front of the officer, who was a head taller and looked down upon them, expressionless.


It was shortly after 7 p.m. I passed the couple on my way from the station to the stop for the number 46 streetcar, which would take me to Pankow, the northern district of East Berlin where I lived. I had no idea what had happened at the press conference a few minutes before, but I knew right away that something unimaginable had occurred.


No-one was home. My partner was at the apartment of a well-known civil rights activist, in a rundown 19th-century building on Kavalierstrasse, where she and others were studying the reports of demonstrators arrested on October 7. Stunned by the accounts of abuse, slander and humiliation that they were reading, they didn’t realize that the wings of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History were beating, a mere 100 meters away at the Bornholmer Bridge crossing to West Berlin. No one in the apartment had noticed. No television or radio was playing, and there was no telephone. She first heard the news from me when she came home around 11. At that point, the Wall wasn’t yet open. But I had seen that couple. Something was going to happen.


The odd thing was that we, who had long dreamed of experiencing another country, of being able to travel, were suddenly dumbfounded. No euphoria, only emptiness. Throughout the 1980s we had felt like strangers in this country, in which we had lived for 30 years. We’d debated with friends whether it would be better to leave. And now, of all times, the GDR arose again in its final hour. Differently than we’d expected. That night, while euphoric images of the opening Wall went around the world, we went to bed depressed.


On Alexanderplatz four weeks earlier—October 7—we had each gone our separate ways. It was a sunny, warm fall evening. My partner drove to the Staatsoper to see Mozart’s Magic Flute with her friend. I walked with our 7-year-old son past the television tower to the Palace of the Republic, where an aged Party leadership applauded itself in its dream world. Shortly before—during the official celebration of the GDR’s 40th anniversary—a demonstration had been violently broken up. Now Alexanderplatz lay there, as good as extinct. We were almost the only people on the street, except policemen and young plainclothes Stasi men. I wanted my son to grasp and memorize the ghostliness of the situation.


We got on the train at the Hackescher Markt—which at that time still tauntingly bore the name Marx Engels Platz—and went back to Pankow. During supper, I heard on the RIAS station that more and more protesters were gathering at the Gethsemane Church in Prenzlauer Berg, near Schönhauserallee. I put my son to bed and headed off.


In and around the church more and more people were arriving. It was already dark, but still warm. A peculiar atmosphere reigned: nervous and happy, angry and euphoric. The police tried to seal off the Gethsemane Church, but I got into the perimeter easily through the courtyards, for which Berlin is famous and which link the streets. A solemn vigil was taking place inside the church. People were giving talks and reading calls to action—exactly what had been happening for weeks in many churches.


At about 11 p.m., I suddenly found myself face-to-face with my partner. On her way home from the opera, she had seen the crowds at the Gethsemane Church from the elevated train that rides the almost 80-year-old steel viaduct above Schönhauserallee—and decided to get off on the spur of the moment. We stared at each other in amazement. Neither of us would have ever expected the other person to be here.


A little later, trucks pulled up and men from the Berlin Workers’ Combat Group got out. Old men, with uniforms taut over their bellies and looking anything but happy. The atmosphere was getting more and more heated. Shouting, emotional conversations and loudspeaker announcements echoed across the avenue, now empty of traffic, and bounced back off the viaduct.


We looked at each other; our son was sleeping alone in his bed. It was almost midnight; we had to go home. Just a few minutes after we left, the protesters were rounded up. Those who couldn’t escape were loaded into trucks and taken to prisons. Luck is often only a question of a moment—we had gotten away with only minutes to spare. Our son would have woken up the next morning alone, and his parents would not have come home all day.


Before the weekend was over, reports about the arrests and humiliations of the protesters made the rounds. On Monday we drove to see Bärbel Bohley, a well-known civil rights activist, in her apartment on Fehrbelliner Strasse to sign the Neues Forum’s petition. There was a car in the shadows in front of the building. A friend stuffed a copy of the petition into her tights, as we assumed we’d get arrested, or at least checked when we left. But nothing happened.


After that, we went back to the Gethsemane Church. Candles burned in the windows of the surrounding apartment buildings. The conductors in the trains passing up on the viaduct switched the lights on and off and sounded their whistles. I transcribed the Neues Forum petition that night and copied and distributed it the next day—like thousands of others.


Less than four weeks later, this lonely couple stood at the Friedrichstrasse station, holding their ID cards out towards the officer. A few hours later, the GDR collapsed. The GDR—that had been the hope of so many after twelve years of Fascism, and was yet only a forced birth of the Cold War. Like a sandcastle at the beach, submerged by a wave that, receding, leaves only a few misshapen lumps behind.




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