Archive for the 'history lessons' Category

Reformation Day

Like almost every other blogger, today I’m writing about a holiday. But it’s not Halloween. Today is Reformation Day in five German states, including mine. According to his friend Philipp Melanchthon, October 31st 1517 was the day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg, not far from where I live. Reformation Day was first brought to my attention when I noticed these strange and beautiful new cakes in the window of every bakery. Apparently the four little diamonds represent the bishop’s hat. Are they a cousin of the Hot Cross Bun?

Luther didn’t intend his handyman job to directly challenge the Pope’s authority. At that early stage he was mainly interested in debate and the church door was something of a 16th century blog space. His actions would change the course of history. But waiting in a queue that lead out the bakery door today, I wondered how many of my fellow queuers had considered the message contained in his ninety-five blog posts. As one reads through them it’s hard to miss the wrenching desire for truth to triumph over power. Luther had been reading his bible, he knew where God’s forgiveness could alone be found. Not in the Pope’s pardon, bought for money which went to Rome, but only in the cross of Jesus Christ. Five hundred years later it’s no less true for us.

Lichtfest Leipzig

In September 1989 I was five years old. I was probably learning to write my name or count. A long way away, a group of people were gathering on Monday evenings at the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig. They prayed for an end to the control and intimidation that governed their daily lives and expressed their wishes for a democratically elected government. By September several thousand people were attending these gatherings. Many were arrested and violence was used. Leipzig newspapers raised the possibility of a “Chinese solution” to the Monday demonstrations. Threats were made.

On Monday October 9th, 1989 Leipzig was hosting one of its historic trade fairs, western media had been allowed to enter for the occasion. Beds had been prepared in hospitals. Thousands of armed agents took up their places on Leipzig’s streets, waiting for the command to suppress the protest by force. Violence and fear are powerful weapons, but this time they failed to stop 70 000 people from gathering together, vigilant in their determination to remain peaceful and have their voices heard. As the demonstrators moved along the ring road with candles in their hands, the police refrained from using their heavy armoury. The message was out, the damage was done, the days of the GDR were numbered.

On Saturday night our little party joined 40 000 Leipzigers in this same place for the “Festival of Lights”, a time for Leipzig to stop and remember the events of October 9th 1989. Though the speeches were beyond our limited German, the music and lights were lovely to behold. As the laser beams danced around the buildings and candles burned in people’s hands, I had time to reflect on what an enormous risk the citizens of Leipzig took in leaving their homes that evening, trusting that their cause was just and their peaceful actions could be powerful. I can’t help but wonder, would I have gone to pray that night? Would I have taken my child as many of them did to show their peaceful intentions? Would I have been as brave as they?

There’s nothing to celebrate

In line with this week’s theme we are privileged to have Chris Luttenberger (the same Chris of the Ikea heroics) as a guest blogger. Chris kindly agreed to share with us a history lesson as someone whose family experienced firsthand life in the former Republic of East Germany. Dankeschön Chris!

I was asked to write a guest post about the whole GDR thing. Me! I don’t know anything about history. No guaranteed historical accuracy. What a challenge. I will just assume, dear Reader, that you don’t know anything about it as well.

Assuming this, GDR means German Democratic Republic. Self-Refutation! Nothing democratic about it, as I hope I will show. The GDR (in German: Deutsche Demokratische Republik, DDR) was founded as loot for the Russian part of the Allies, after Hitler was defeated in 1945. The word loot is chosen intentionally. I’ll get to that. There was some heavy thinking about what to do with the intellectual, financial and emotional ruin that once was the “3rd Reich”, and four years after the end of the war in 1945, the four allies France, Britain, Russia and USA decided to dissolve and divide the country of Germany into four parts.

Because of the upcoming tensions between the superpowers USA and Russia that eventually became known as the “Cold War”, the three powers allied against Russia, and Germany became the most literal part of the famous “Iron Curtain”. A wall was built.
From that point on, Germany developed into two different countries. 1949 to 1989/90 was the period of time for which the GDR existed. There was the capitalist threefold of powers with a kind, forgiving approach to the former Nazi-Germany. Heaps of money and intellectual resources were poured out to reorganise the West German economy and build a democratic state again. On the other side (of the wall) there was communist Russia, still in agony about what Germany did to them. The consequence was that Russia took all of the economic resources from Germany: it was an occupation.  The Eastern Bloc exploited the GDR region and built up a state of total control, monitoring every motion of the state’s citizens. In fact, terror.
A sophisticated system of “unofficial associates” abbreviated “IM” (inoffizielle Mitarbeiter), let the citizens, brain-polluted through the socialist propaganda, control their own neighbours and friends, even mothers, kids and siblings. There were mass organisations for the youth just like in national socialism (although as a German you have to be careful to compare) ie the FDJ (Freie Deutsche Jugend, Free German Youth) that kept the kids, teenagers and adolescents in a cage they could not even see. Well, there was this wall, everyone could see it of course, but it was said to be “protecting them from the capitalist class-enemies”. “The party” (self-refuting: There was only one) orchestrated the absence of all kinds of goods, resulting in the total isolation from any country other than the “big brother”  to a tragically hilarious degree. Especially the education was restricted to a doctrinal communist approach. Any other opinions were forced into being retracted. The course of peoples lives was interrupted (I was thinking of a particular German word here, couldn’t really find an english synonym) and destroyed, people were questioned, tortured and imprisoned. A police state. The half-life of such states luckily seems to be not that long.
After a while, people started fleeing the GDR, crossed the border, even the wall, tried to get out, leave. Also the political pressure rose. People in Leipzig, the city I live in, went on the streets with candles each Monday to peacefully demonstrate their discontent. Every Monday, the number of people increased. The “peaceful revolution” (self-refuting implications again) started. Before the wall fell, there was this almost electric tension in the city, because everyone knew that something would happen. GDR officials placed a massive presence of police and armed military forces in the city to prevent a number of more than a hundred thousand people from violently starting a revolution. After a church service that was held by the local pastor that started Monday prayers for a peaceful change, all these people flooded the streets, equipped not with guns but with burning candles. No one shot, no one threw stones. They just chanted “Wir sind das Volk”, meaning “we are the (one) people” over and over again. A sign not even the party could ignore. A couple of days and political confusions later, the GDR did not exist anymore, the wall fell.
20 years from then: I am sitting in front of my computer, evaluating the situation. I could go to Greece tomorrow, or London, or Sydney. I can utter  my personal beliefs, be they sceptical, critical, even politically destructive and all the world is free to read them. The microphone lines in the walls of the houses, though still there, don’t have an ending anymore, no IM sitting in some room (maybe the flat on the other side) and meticulously writing down every word I say. No membership in any organisation is compulsory for being allowed to do A Levels or to study.
Germany this week has had big celebrations due to the 20th anniversary of the reunification. From my limited perspective, there is nothing to celebrate, as harsh as it sounds. There might be no visible wall anymore, but even that can be questioned. Fly over Germany from east to west and you will discover a change of landscape, the mark of a scar. As you leave “the new federal states” endless, monocultural fields – leftovers of the “agricultural production companionships”, as it would literally be translated – turn into patchwork bits and pieces of private acres.
My generation (I was born September 1988) ironically still suffers from “40 years of brainwash” as my father likes to put it. This country is by no means one, still torn apart right in the middle. Not speaking of the economic and social inequalities between the two zones, it is a border of mind in the first place, defacing an otherwise beautifully shaped country. Politics tries to artificially equalize loans and taxes, but the different amount of work in east and west just does not allow such a thing. After being educated, young people flee the east in search of jobs and hope in the west, turning cities with a cultural heritage of centuries into ghost towns. Prejudice and half-knowledge, handed down to the kids by their parents results in an East-and-West-Consciousness. If you get to know people, it is a social reflex to ask them “Ossi oder Wessi?” meaning born in east or west part of the country. Knowing the answer, you can be sure to either share a set of values, certain cultural heritage, even the words you use, or to hold up a subtle, unfamiliar distance even though you might like the person. I hate that question. I guess, the first generation to live in a unified country again will be the one that has no living ancestors to tell them “how things were”, just influenced by each others personalities. Utopia. Till then, unification celebrations stay hypocrisy.
Don’t get me wrong: I am thankful for not living in a regime but in a country that has one of the most powerful economies in the world. I am thankful for luxurious freedom of speech, for the possibility to live my Christian faith openly without oppression. I sure can celebrate these things on a national holiday. Still, making a long story short, even if I tend to get cynical: it is impossible for me to celebrate this reunification in the same way, as it is impossible to vote, when there is only one party.

Goodbye, Lenin!

If you’re anything like me, the only German film you’ve seen is Run Lola Run, and maybe Mostly Martha. This is more than a little embarrassing for me considering I wrote my Honours thesis on national cinema. Even more shameful, I’d never heard of the hugely popular Goodbye, Lenin! until right before I moved into the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik where the film is set. The first copy we purchased turned out to have no English subtitles. This was only mildly more upsetting than the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice which had only German dubbing. After witnessing Tony’s intense disappointment, I ordered a UK copy which arrived providentially at the same time as our new sofa.

Goodbye, Lenin! is a really lovely film. Alex Kerner lives in 1980’s East Berlin and dreams of travelling into space. After his father escapes to the west, Alex and his mother and sister continue to live as model citizens of the socialist state until a heart attack leaves Alex’s mother comatose for eight months, long enough to miss the fall of the wall and the collapse of the DDR. Warned that any excitement could be fatal for her, Alex and his sister make an elaborate plan to spare their mother from shock by recreating East German life around her. The film builds a teasing yet affectionate portrait of life in the former Republic as the Kerners’ apartment becomes a gallery of carefully salvaged relics. Neighbours, friends and local children are enlisted to perpetuate the fantasy, and Alex’s recreated Republic becomes a sort of gathering point for nostalgic east Germans, many of whom feel cheated by the sordid collapse of the socialist government and dislocated by the new pressures of capitalism.

Apart from feeding my new fascination with all things DDR, this film has helped me appreciate what complex changes eastern Germany has experienced in 21 years. Alex witnesses a steady exodus to the west, the victory of large corporations and the devastation of mass unemployment, all of which are problems still palpable in Leipzig today. If you’re completely in the dark about this part of history (like me) I highly recommend it. For its nostalgia and charm, even Amelie fans will be gratified. Just be sure to check for the words “English subtitles” before handing over your Blockbuster card. Unless, of course, you speak German.

 

 

Reunited

This is a big week for Germany. Sunday October 3rd marked twenty years since two nations, East and West, were officially reunified to form one country. Germany faced many obstacles in its journey to reunification, including the opposition of world leaders and a general prejudice from the international community. But on my first Reunification Day it was hard to miss the sense of anticlimax. Even though October 3rd is Germany’s official national day, you’d be forgiven for missing it altogether. No drinking, no loud music and a conspicuous lack of flags. For an Aussie girl it was almost a relief from the trials of January 26th.

Meanwhile this coming Saturday Leipzig will celebrate the 21st anniversary of its “Peaceful Revolution”, the one which would eventually bring down the giant wall dividing east from west. I’m on a steep learning curve here. When it comes to the history and culture of my new home, I’m a complete beginner. But here’s something I do know: this is an important week for Germany. Sunday wasn’t just Reunification Day, it was also the day my sister Sarah arrived in Germany. Reunification or not, there’s celebration in Leipzig. Herzlich willkommen Sarah!


About Me

A girl with a camera, a toddler and a sewing machine. Making sense of Germany... and life in general.

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