It’s Independence Day back in the states, but here in Germany, they don’t seem to celebrate it (not sure why yet, but I’m on the case). I had a worrisome thought tonight. I realized that oppressive communism as it functioned during the Cold War couldn’t possibly be overthrown in the United States as it functions today. I have the sense that this proclamation requires some explanation. It concerns me so much that I feel compelled to explain myself.
So… I was joined at my writing/reading table tonight by two couples native to Germany. One of the men described having been three years old when the bombs began flattening his part of the city and seven years old when, in `45, the Russians moved in, a menace far more threatening to the average citizen (so long as the citizen in question was not Jewish) than was the old regime. He was, of course, terrified. The other man at the table was of the next generation, and he and his wife were both born within a few weeks (before in her case and after in his case) of the erection of die Mauer (the Berlin Wall). He told me about how, at the time when the Wall was being built, a soldier trained his rifle on his pregnant mother and shouted inquisitions because she had wandered too close to the border with West Berlin. The younger couple spent their lives, until 1991, on the east side of a divide that was cultural, political, and military all at once – it was all encompassing. The first thing she told me was that she was so very glad when the Wall came down.
We spoke about modern German culture and how its history is intertwined with that of America (for example, at the start of the Great War, there were still some 700 German-language newspapers printed daily in the U.S.). And we passed into the leftovers of Nazi propaganda from the `30s. (One of the men was a fervent believer in the myth that in 1795 the United States passed a law to make English – rather than German – its official language. This is true only in so far as the House did vote not to translate laws into German, despite the demand from the large Pennsylvania population who spoke that language). After a few hours of them teaching me to speak German a bit better (I’m still not very good at it) while discussing interesting other topics (“We’ve brought enough evil into the world”), we came to discussing the Monday Demonstrations.
Americans don’t learn about the Monday Demonstrations, so bear with me for a twenty-second primer. Near the end of the time the Soviets controlled East Germany through what was called the German Democratic Republic (DDR), there grew a grass roots social movement to end the division between East and West Germany. Their slogan was “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people”). The group based in Leipzig began peaceful marches every Monday, to begin each time after a prayer for peace in one of the city’s churches. One of the protests was so massive (some 80k-100k were present that night) that they were a hindrance to the progress of all other activity, so the police force (the secret police in particular were a massive force in Leipzig, as in many other German towns and cities). The police were ordered to stop the marchers and, it is said, ordered to fire into the crowd if necessary. They refused the order and let the marchers continue. The reasoning for this, as I understand it, was that the police did not want to shoot at or to harm their countrymen – their volk. So the demonstrations continued and, just a few weeks later, die Mauer came down in Berlin. (You can read an excellent description of the events from that night here).
It took a kind of courage I cannot understand to stand up to the authority of the state in Leipzig (and in other demonstrations across East Germany). I don’t understand it because my neighbors are not (knowing) informants for a tyrannical government, and common people do not simply disappear after capture by a secret police force that monitors everything directly and overtly. Were things so overtly controlled in the USA, we might see something similar in response. No one can know whether or not this supposition is true.
But I do know this. When Americans demonstrate and the police are called to break up the event, they use tear gas; batons; water and sonic cannons; shields; and militarized vehicles purchased at surplus from the federal government to break apart the demonstrations. They arrest whomever they can grab. The effect is to terrorize people gathered for peaceful purposes in pursuit of the rabble-rousing few among them. Following this thought, here’s my speculation: were a 21st-century, American police force in charge of Leipzig in October of 1989, the Monday Demonstrations would have been crushed at their onset and people would have been hurt. The Wall may not ever have fallen.
The true believer will snap at me: “This comparison is insane. The East German government and the United States government are not the same.” And I agree completely. This is not a leftist (or anarchic/rightist) polemic. I’m just a guy who, being around people discussing their lives in one part of the world, found a similarity with his own part of the world and got to thinking about it. I do get the strong, discontented, frightened feeling, however – that there’s a lesson in this selected comparison. I’m just not sure what it is.
(A note about how local authorities tend to handle demonstrations in the United States, and correct me if I’m factually mistaken about this: on those few recent occasions on which the National Guard has been called in – federally trained troops – the situation tends to deescalate rather than to escalate; as in Egypt during the Arab Spring, the local people will trust the federal army much more than their neighborhood police force).