(This article was originally written for and posted on the website of the interdisciplinary academic network Cultures of the Cold War.)
In the counter-factual novel Stealing The Future the rift with reality is pinpointed as beginning on the 4th November 1989, but the subsequent publication of the For Our Country Statement played a significant role in building East Germans’ confidence in their ability to remain independent of West Germany.
In the book, Margrit, a factory worker and neighbour of the book’s protagonist, recognises this significance:
“Just now you mentioned the Statement. I think that wasn’t just the moment when the old government became irrelevant […] it gave us a sense of ownership over our own country, our own destinies.”
Was the Statement so important in real life?
On the 26th November, just over two weeks after the Berlin Wall opened, 31 East Germans signed the Für Unser Land statement (text below). It was an appeal to all East Germans to consider the position of the GDR, and whether the country should slide towards unification with West Germany, or remain independent.
The statement was read out by the author Stefan Heym at a press conference on the 28th November.
At the time it was heavily overshadowed by the Ten Point Plan formulated by the West German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and although over a million GDR citizens signed the For Our Country statement it remains little-known, while Kohl’s Ten Point Plan – out of date practically before it was even released – has found its place in history.
Astute and concise
The idea of a statement such as this was not new, indeed the idea of the For Our Country appeal came from Dick Boer who had been involved in a similar call out in the Netherlands.
But now, when I re-read this appeal – mentally putting it into the context of 1989, considering the effects it had – reading it again I’m impressed by the political astuteness, the way whole political landscapes and opportunities are concisely evoked, a set of values which enjoy popular support are proclaimed, and the effect: over a million signatures within just a few weeks.
Realism or extremism?
To the reader of today’s world the For Our Country statement can seem hopelessly left-wing, pie-in-the-sky waffle. The very phrases “revolutionary renewal”, “socialist alternative”, “anti-fascist ideals” smack of politics that nowadays are frowned upon as extremist, a mere semantic step away from violent terrorism.
But in its own time and context the statement was not only mainstream, but also realistic. It used the language of the time, certainly a language shaped and dominated by the very Stalinist structures that the statement condemns, but it’s a language which the authors have reclaimed.
In the future that they suggest for the GDR they want to guarantee concrete values and rights that only the most cynical would reject: “peace and social justice, freedom of the individual, freedom of movement for all and the protection of the environment” – rights and values that seem all the more valuable for their recent absence in the GDR.
The writers are not too naive to recognise that these values can be achieved only with the support of their European neighbours: they call for economic, social and political co-operation with all neighbouring states, and not just with West Germany – a call that echoes Gorbachev’s Common European House rhetoric of the time.
They also clearly recognise the threat that West Germany poses, predicting how reunification will cause untold economic damage and the erosion of political values – the proof of the latter lies in the modern reader’s near-inevitable impression that the writers are Weltfremd, politically innocent.
The process of revolutionary renewal
But for me a fascinating part of this statement lies in the formulation “Prozeß der revolutionären Erneuerung” (the process of revolutionary renewal).
It tells me two things:
- that the authors (among whom were SED Communist Party members) were deliberately reclaiming the word revolution. From an orthodox perspective their statement could only be described as counter-revolutionary. Yet behind these words lay the grassroots revolution (“by means of mass demonstrations”), and not that of a Marxist avant-garde. It tells me that they were not only using the language of their time, but claiming that the people were far in advance of the Party.
I also take from this statement a recollection of the spirit of that time. Since 1990 we’ve had twenty-five years of historical re-interpretation and the word revolution, in the context of 1989 (“the 1989 revolution”), has become diluted and debased. The word now represents a narrative that there was widespread dissatisfaction with the GDR government, and a demand for a new one – a West German one – to replace it. The period is popularly summed up by the phrase popularised by Egon Krenz when he was the SED (Communist Party) leader: die Wende (meaning something like the change or the turning point – the term is usually attributed to Krenz, but had already been used by the Vereinigten Linken and also by Volker Braun of the Berliner Ensemble).
Yet here we have a contemporary document, one that summed up the feelings of a huge number of East Germans, talking not about a Wende – a bit of a change, but about ‘revolutionary renewal’.
Nor do the authors talk about revolution in the context of a move towards reunification (or Vereinnahmung: an assimilation, an absorption as the Appeal terms it), but in the context of cleaning up, of ridding the society of Stalinism and the usurpations of the Party.
With their very first words they draw a line:
We cannot and will not continue to live as we have done.
For Our Country – a translation
- Read original text in German
For Our Country
A call from 31 GDR citizens making a plea for the continued existence of the GDR.
Our land is in crisis. We cannot and will not continue to live the way we have done. The leadership of a party has usurped the control of a people and its institutions, all areas of our lives have been dominated by Stalinism. Without the use of violence, by means of mass demonstrations the people have started a process of revolutionary renewal which is developing at breath-taking speed. We do not have much time to find a way out of this crisis.
we demand the continued independence of the GDR. In co-operation with those states and stakeholders prepared to help we should muster all our strength to develop a society of solidarity, in which we guarantee peace and social justice, freedom of the individual, freedom of movement for all and the protection of the environment.
we have to accept that the powerful economic forces – along with the unacceptable conditions that influential West German industrial and political figures demand in return for their support – will lead to a sell-out of our material and moral values, and, sooner or later, an assimilation of the GDR by West Germany.
Let us choose the first path. We still have the chance to build a socialist alternative to West Germany, in equitable neighbourliness with the states of Europe. We have not forgotten the anti-fascist and humanist ideals with which we began.
We call on all citizens who share our hopes and our fears to sign this appeal.
Berlin, 26th November 1989
Götz Berger, solicitor;
Wolfgang Berghofer, local politician;
Frank Beyer, director;
Volker Braun, author;
Reinhard Brühl, military historian;
Tamara Danz, rock singer;
Christoph Demke, bishop;
Siegrid England, educationalist;
Bernd Gehrke, economist;
Sighard Gille, painter;
Stefan Heym, author;
Uwe Jahn, construction foreman;
Gerda Jun, doctor/psychotherapist;
Dieter Klein, political economist;
Günter Krusche, Generalsuperintendent of the Ev. Church;
Brigitte Lebentrau, biologist;
Bernd P. Löwe, peace researcher;
Thomas Montag, doctor;
Andreas Pella, civil engineer;
Sebastian Pflugbeil, physicist,
Ulrike Poppe, housewife;
Martin Schmidt, economist;
Friedrich Schorlemmer, pastor;
Andree Türpe, philosopher;
Jutta Wachowiak, actress;
Heinz Warzecha, managing director;
Konrad Weiss, film-maker;
Angela Wintgen, dentist;
Christa Wolf, author;
Ingeborg Graße, nurse.
- Read original text in German