Monday, June 7, 2010

An Idea Whose Time has come …

It's been almost 50 years to the day that my family left East Germany on June 5, 1961.  I grew up in the Eastern part of Germany. In my early childhood, my family’s favorite pastime was to talk about the possibility of reuniting Germany. We would spend afternoons, talking softly about this subject, mainly because it was a crime to leave the East or to even develop a plot of escape.

The original quote came from Victor Hugo, in History of a Crime written and published in the 19th century. I am referring to the downfall of the Berlin wall and the fall of communism during the 20th century.

I like to share with you today some of the events that lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the following fall of communism.

After WWII, the allies divided Germany into four parts. The three western allies, United Stated, Great Britain and France agreed to form the Federal Republic of Germany, a democracy. The fourth ally, the Soviet Union, formed the German Democratic Republic, a communist state. The division between these two countries became known as the “Iron Curtain.”

People on the communist side tried several times to rise up against the communist rulers. The first time was in 1953, when only 50 construction workers in Berlin stated a strike. Other citizens who were also dissatisfied with the slow economy and the living circumstances marched into the streets of Berlin to revolt against their government. On June 17, 1953, Soviet tanks and soldiers crushed this revolt and several hundred people lost their lives. June 17th was from then on celebrated every year until 1990 as the day of German unity.

In the fall of 1956, in Hungary, students took to the streets of Budapest, and demonstrated against their government which became known as the Hungarian Revolution. The students demanded removal of Soviet troops, free elections, and free trade among 13 other points of national policy demands. Even though, the demonstrations continued for several days spreading throughout the country, in which the government fell. But by November 10, the Soviet regime had crushed all resistance, and more than 2,000 people lost their lives. 

Third attempt during the Cold War for democratization happened in 1968 in Prague which became known as “Prague Spring.” Reformist Alexander Dubcek, wanted to grant greater rights to the citizens of Czechoslovakia. He demanded more freedom in media, speech and travel. Again, the Soviets responded by sending troops and the only result of the demonstrations were, that the country became divided into Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Then came the fateful year of 1989. It seemed that the time had come for all the ideas and hopes for the end of the Cold war to become fruitful. The facts are that the Berlin Wall toppled; Romanian dictator Ceausecu was executed; solidarity became the trade union of choice in Poland; and throughout Eastern Europe, communism staggered and fell, while the world looked on in awe.

Looking at these external events, we have to ask ourselves, what was the cause behind these historic changes? What motivated ordinary citizens to challenge the awesome powers of dictatorship, and win?

Deteriorating economic and political situations throughout Eastern Europe put up more and more pressure on their political leaders. The people became restless, first only in whispering tones, but as more and more voices joined in, the mutterings became stronger and stronger. The cries of priests and parishioners, students and workers, intellectuals and peasants, began to be heard. Carrying only candles of peace, like the children of Israel marching around Jericho with their trumpets, the people of Eastern Europe sounded the trumpet of truth and shouting out their demands. Unarmed and disarming, bathed in the pure light of thousands of candles, the voices of many united together. Finally, the walls came tumbling down. The walls of deceit and lies that had fenced these people in for decades, the walls of rules and repression that had cut off their basic human rights and freedoms, the walls of atheistic philosophy that had imprisoned their very natures as spiritual beings. The result was that the symbol of the Communist system, the Wall itself, crumbled.

What happened? Mass demonstration happened frequently, until the head of the East German state, Erich Honecker, resigned. The new government prepared a new law to lift travel restrictions for East German citizens. In the morning of November 9, 1989, one official was asked when the new rules will come into force. He wasn’t sure, so he replied, immediately. Right away a few people pushed themselves through the border crossings, and by 10:30 PM, the borders were officially opened.

As you remember, Gorbachev initiated Perestroika and Glasnot in the Soviet Union in 1984. These reforms in the Soviet Union also had its effects on the other communist countries, especially Poland and Hungary.

Earlier in 1989 Hungary had already opened its borders to Austria, and some 13,000 East Germans fled to West Germany.

Since the days following June 17, 1956 as many as 10,000 protesters and members of the strike committees were arrested. More than 1,500 of these were given lengthy prison sentences. Despite the crackdown, the revolt quietly simmered in Eastern Europe for decades to come until the peaceful protests of 1989. Behind the scene of politics, the people’s hope didn’t die down and with prayer and perseverance heaven honored their commitment. The candle light vigils and quiet demonstrations were more powerful because an idea’s time had come. That time around the Soviet tanks stayed off the streets and within a year the Berlin Wall fell and East and West Germany were reunited.