May 7, 1989 was a sunny day in Berlin, both East and West. By then, the Wall had been standing for almost 28 years, and few -- no matter which side of the barrier they called home -- thought it would disappear any time soon.
And yet, the beautiful spring day was far from ordinary in communist East Germany. Municipal elections were scheduled -- and everyone living in Erich Honecker's dictatorship knew the ground rules. Everyone was expected to make their way to their local voting station and approve the list of candidates put together by the ruling SED party. There was no opposition. For those who forgot to vote, the East German secret police, the feared Stasi, promptly showed up with a reminder.
In the evening, the results were announced. Fully 98.85 percent had voted to approve the SED list -- that, at least was what state officials reported. As it turned out, however, not everything went completely according to plan on that May day two decades ago.
How Much Courage
A new open-air exhibition on Berlin's Alexanderplatz -- part of the year-long celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall -- documents what happened next: A wave of audacious protests that washed over all of East Germany, eventually culminating in the largest demonstrations the communist dictatorship had ever seen.
The point of the exhibit, as Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit emphasized on Thursday, speaking before hundreds of former regime opponents, present-day politicians and journalists, was to show "just how much courage it took to move against the SED."
In the weeks prior to the vote, a handful of opposition activists had called for East Germans to boycott the elections with fliers critical of the Honecker regime appearing on the streets. And on the evening of May 7, after opposition groups smuggled clear evidence of election fraud to the West German media -- news which was then broadcast back across the border into East Germany -- the unthinkable happened. A few dozen East Germans gathered to protest the "election" results.
As SPIEGEL wrote in its first issue after the fraudulent vote: "Making free use of their batons, security forces went after a few hundred demonstrators who had gathered in central Leipzig on the evening of election day and on the Monday following. More than 100 demonstrators were arrested. Journalists from West Germany were not allowed into the city. East German media ignored the protests, reporting instead on the 'celebratory mood across the country.'"
Pressure from Below
It didn't take long, of course, for those initial, tentative protests to bloom into the mass demonstrations that would eventually bring about the fall of the Berlin Wall that November. There would be plenty of help -- from Gorbachev's policy of perestroika to the gradual opening of borders throughout the summer of 1989 in other communist countries across Eastern Europe.
But, as the exhibition makes clear, much of the pressure came from below -- from the thousands who continued gathering weekly in Leipzig and in other cities across East Germany, to the mass demonstration on Alexanderplatz five days before the borders between the two Germanys were opened.
Nowadays, of course, Alexanderplatz looks almost nothing like it did when it served as the central square of East Berlin. Indeed, Thursday's gathering of aging East German opposition activists looked distinctly out of place, sandwiched as it was between the Kaufhof department store, Saturn electronics emporium and C&A mass fashion outlet -- totems of the capitalist wave that swept across the former East after reunification.
The Thursday gathering, however, sought to bring back something of the mood that gripped East Germans 20 years ago. Surrounded by photos and documents that will be on display on the square for the next six months, East German folk hero Wolf Biermann took to the stage. In 1976, Biermann was stripped of his East German citizenship for the political songs he wrote that were viciously critical of the SED leadership. On Thursday, he sang some of those songs and reminded the crowd that political freedom is far from inevitable.
"Even in 1989, my political fantasy was not nearly enough to imagine that the East German regime would ever collapse," he said. He went on to describe watching the Nov. 4, 1989 mass gathering on Alexanderplatz on West German television. "I was envious," he said.