Academic journal article Capital & Class

Who Were "The People'? Classes and Movements in East Germany, 1989

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Who Were "The People'? Classes and Movements in East Germany, 1989

Article excerpt


'For me,' one protestor on the Leipzig street demonstrations of 1989 recalls,

the best moment was when I walked into the crowd--completely alone--and cried, at first quietly and then ever louder, 'We are the people! We are the people!' ... I saw police but felt no fear. I felt strong, raised my arms in the air, and shouted at the top of my voice. (Bath, 1990: 1901; Lindner and Gruneberger, 1992:51)

'We are the people!' was the slogan that encapsulated the early phase of East Germany's 1989 revolution. It was a rallying cry, expressing a new-forged alliance of the powerless and signalling the desire for democratic change. It spoke of ordinary people seizing the political agenda and insisting upon their right to be heard and represented in the public sphere. It asserted the protestors' belief that their basic aims were shared by the bulk of the population, and that this majority should determine the political process. It expressed a sense of unity that is commonly found during the first stages of revolutions in which the working and middling layers of society unite against the old regime. It bore the imprint of the republican flaming of political conflict whereby a patriotic 'people' unites against a dynasty or elite that is defined as illegitimate and, implicitly, alien. The invocation of 'the people' thereby challenged the Party's claims to a power monopoly; as one demonstration banner put it, 'The GDR belongs to the People, not to the SED.' Another proclaimed, in a play on the SED's claim to the 'leading role' in society, 'The people should take the leading role!'

But who were 'the people' who rose up to topple Eric Honecker's regime? Which social groups were represented? Was the uprising of 1989 of the people as a whole, or primarily of particular groups--the working class, or the 'intelligentsia'? Using secondary and unpublished and published primary materials, including archival documents and interviews, this article attempts to answer these questions. Along the way, it investigates the class nature of the East German intelligentsia, the role of intellectuals within the 'civic groups' (such as New Forum), and the degree to which the movement entered the workplaces. It draws on primary materials, but also reviews the relevant literature, including, especially, the distinctive position of Linda Fuller's Where Was the Working Class?

"Scientist, artist, doctor, priest"

Probably the most influential reading of the Eastern European transformations of 1989-90 is that they were 'revolutions of the intellectuals'. According to one popular account, Surge to Freedom, 'It was the intellectuals, in company with the young, who finally pushed through to liberty' (Brown, 1991: 1). In the East German case, proponents of this interpretation emphasise that theatres and universities were central arenas of protest, and highlight the role played by students. The public face of the uprising was provided by the civic groups, whose cadre was drawn chiefly from the middle classes and within those, from a layer that has been labelled 'postmaterialist intellectuals', or the 'humanistic intelligentsia'. For Jens Reich, a leader of New Forum who himself belonged to this stratum, intellectuals were the 'catalyst and the subject of the revolution', and the uprising was 'a protest movement of the intelligentsia. Its representatives provided the leadership personnel and formulated the proclamations' (Reich, 1992:9-11).

The case for the centrality of intellectuals in Eastern European oppositional movements had been advanced long before 1989. For much of the post-war epoch, writers, artists, scientists and priests were among the most prominent dissidents in the region. Drawing on traditions of thought that posit an inherent antagonism between Geist and Macht (intellect and power), Western scholars invoked the special interest and responsibility of creative intellectuals in speaking truth in the face of oppression. …

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