Historic Hustysk Helen svarar Special
Today is German National Day. Unlike other nations, Germans do not throw a big barbeque party or have fireworks in the national colors. It goes without saying that due to historic reasons, nationalism in Germany is a complicated topic. Being a historian and fully aware of the negative aspects of nationalism, I still take the right to somehow notice this day which actually has a goosebumps story to it.
Or rather, there is several stories to it, the one of September 30th, November 9th and October 3rd. For now, I will tell you the first one.
German history both abroad and in German schools is often reduced to the Nazi era. While this is undoubtebly very important to teach, I find it relevant to talk about what the division of Germany meant for 40 years. East Germany was cut off by a wall, people were bullied and not allowed to travel to the West. Families were torn apart not only because of the wall but also because East German dictators took children from their parents if they did not conform to the Communist regime. People in East Germany were tortured for the smallest offenses – or even for not doing anything. Dictatorships do not usually care about facts.
Naturally, many people tried to flee the GDR. They built tunnels and hot air balloons, they tried to reach freedom by submarines. You do not want to know what happened if you failed. Or if you do, go on of the gripping tour of the former GDR prison Hohenschönhausen in Berlin.
In 1989, the living circumstances in the GDR must have become unbearable. Citizens were allowed to go on holiday in other neighbouring, communist states and in the late summer of 1989, East Germans decided not to return from their trip to the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia). Instead, they sought refuge in the embassy of West Germany in Prague. This was not completely unusual and normally resulted in them being sent home where they were allowed to depart to West Germany. This time though, the refuges did no longer believe the promise that they would be allowed to leave the GDR once they had come back.
They put up their tents in the garden of the embassy and lived in catastrophic conditions. More and more East German refugees came, there were 22 toilets. You could not do laundry, there were almost no showers. For weeks, East Germany and West Germany negotiated. East German authorities refused to let their citizens depart to the West. By late September, the embassy garden was home to 4000 refugees. Witnesses report that you could hardly stretch your legs anymore. Still, everyone stayed. From June to almost October. Rain began to fall as the season changed and made the gardens a large field of mud.
During the UN General Assembly, West German Foreign Affairs Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher reached a break-through in the negotiations. Despite a heart condition, he was released from hospital to meet the Soviet Union’s Foreign Affairs Minister. On the evening of September 30, Genscher appeared on the balcony of the embassy facing 4000 people that were terrified to have to return to their home country. “Dear fellow Germans, we have come to you in order to inform you that today, your departure…” is probably the most famous German half-sentence since then. It was interrupted by the jubilations from the garden.
This year, it has been 25 years since this appearance of the balcony. Sometimes I think I might have been an East German in my former life because I feel so strongly about reunification. I do not have relatives in the East, my family was never really affected but still has instilled in me a strong belief that Dresden and Leipzip and Halle and Gera should be part of a democratic Germany. Reunification is a hot topic in Germany and far from being uncontroversial. There is certainly still things to be done. But still, Genscher’s words give me goosebumps every time I hear them. They make me think of my friends Joraine and Anne and Wiebke who I had never met if the wall was still up. And they make me think of the refugees today whose embassy garden is a dangerous boat.