It’s not often that the immediate past becomes history as quickly as did that of the erstwhile East Germany. The hated communist regime of the DDR (or GDR or East Germany) vanished almost overnight in 1989. But now, 25 years after the end of the Cold War, life in the former soviet satellite state is being looked at and explored as never before. That the regime of the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) was a brutal and cruel one is obvious to all, but the majority of East Germany’s citizens were decent human beings living their lives as ‘normally’ as possible despite such difficult circumstances.
The DDR Museum in Berlin does a wonderful job of showing how ordinary people lived. Through familiar, everyday things, it shows how East Germans made the best of a bad job and tried to make life as bearable as possible for themselves and their families. It also offers remarkable insights into the insidious ways the state attempted to manipulate, bully and threaten its citizens into silent conformity to a regime that was patently unfair, corrupt and inhuman. The propaganda machine rumbled on for 40 years spewing out distortions and half-truths – but most people saw through the lies. And it was the people of East Germany themselves who finally had the courage to stand up and be counted and who brought down that hated regime.
When we visited last week, I was pleased to see that the positive role of the church has been acknowledged too: the protection it offered to dissenters, the space to be quiet, to think, to articulate peaceful protest against the regime. The church was not a political party, but neither was it a pawn of the state. As one of the exhibition boards says: “The SED forced the church onto the margins of society, challenging its existence, symbols and articles of faith. The discrimination against church members in the educational system and the professions was designed to weaken its membership. Nevertheless, the persecution strengthened the church, which then developed into a politicized public space. Initially a rallying point for small groups, the Protestant Church attracted thousands in the 1980s and provided the starting point for the peaceful revolution.”
But one thing in particular really came home to me during our visit. So much of what we saw there could apply just as easily to Britain today: from the ‘propaganda’ used daily in our newspapers, to the lies and half-truths told by our politicians as they abuse our system to line their own pockets, blatantly ignoring the wishes of the people they were elected to represent. Democracy is a very, very fragile thing and needs to be carefully guarded and nourished. Like the people of East Germany back then, we need to be committed to playing our part in the life of our country. Some things can’t be left to politicians or to those who use money and privilege to abuse power.
“Wir sind das Volk!” – “We are the people!” was the cry that was heard in the streets of East Germany 25 years ago. It’s a cry that has begun to be heard again in this country and one that needs to continue to be heard loud and clear if Britain is to become a better place for all its people – not just for the few. We need to re-engage with politics. We need to have the courage to stand up and be counted. Without doubt, we could learn a thing or two from the people of the former DDR!
Link to the museum: The DDR Museum in Berlin