< Karina Alvarez on Dirk Philipsen (1993)

Dirk Philipsen, We Were the People:
Voices from East Germany's RevolutionaryAutumn of 1989

(Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 392 pages.

book essay by Karina Alvarez
March 12, 2006

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany since 1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2006

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About Karina Alvarez (back to top)

I am a senior at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I am a Global Studies major with an emphasis on socioeconomics, and my specialized area is Europe. While I was abroad in Rome, Italy, I spent a week in Berlin and was immediately fascinated by a place with such rich history. Although I have studied the Holocaust and World War II I had never learned about the Germany that emerged from such events. I chose this topic because I was curious about the lives of the brave people that contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Abstractpeople at the Berlin wall

We Were the People is a collection of interviews conducted by American scholar, Dirk Philipsen. During the summer of 1990, Philipsen met with activists and party members to find out their involvement in the events leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The interviews convey the danger that people subjected themselves in the pursuit of freedom. While most were investigated by the Stasi they continued to find new ways of uniting, outreaching, and revolutionizing. This book resembles the self-determination of a people to fight for a change. Philipsen finds that many people view the events very differently, and thus is the reason so much ambivalence emerged.

Essay (back to top)

The fall of the Berlin Wall is remembered as an event of joy. It represents a day of victory; a day that some thought would never come, while others were sure of it. Most of all it represents a day of freedom. While all of these associations are quick to be recalled when speaking of the night of November, 9, 1989, the sentiments that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall are rarely explored. Using the power of oral history, Dirk Philipsen vibrantly tells the stories of 106 East Germans who endured the rigid political regime of the GDR and ultimately fought back. While emphasizing the crucial and valuable role of revolution, Philipsen examines the deep ambivalence that proliferated among East Germans during this time. He delves into both of these topics in an interesting and thorough manner and manages to obtain the retrospective thoughts of those directly involved with the revolution. Out of the 106 interviews, Philipsen chose 19 stories that exuded the most influence and fervor: ten leading dissidents, three reform Communists (including Hans Modrow and André Brie), and six grassroots working-class leaders (four of them sometime party members).

People began revolutionizing from grassroots organization. This is one of the main points Philipsen hopes to demonstrate in his interviews. The methods used served as a simple yet effective ways that people "resorted" to. This "resort" so to speak started out small yet had an immense impact on the political climate. One young woman for example, Ingrid Koppe, made flyers and passed them out. They contained different political messages, such as reminding fellow Germans of the history behind World War II and advising that no side, not west or east should take part in the ever growing cycle of the arms race. Koppe worked with what little she had, and was able to reach out to people in her community, demonstrating that a simple act as flyers can in fact be effective. She, along with many other activists interviewed, explain the need for information and the even bigger need to distribute it. People realized that the only way to challenge the existing structure of governance was to spread their message to others, particularly larger sectors of society rather than remaining confined to small circles of dissidents. Fueled by feelings of confinement and humiliation regular citizens became activists. Despite the fact that they were intensely scrutinized by the Stasi, East Germans continued to risk their lives for the sake of a revolution. Although not directly delved into, the interviews conducted by Philipsen exemplified just how invasive and tireless the Stasi Police was. Many people explained that they were surprised that the Stasi would dedicate so much time to one individual person. The degree to which they were being observed, followed, and monitored was often underestimated but quickly realized when particular incidents would occur.

An essential component of the revolution was the immense need for an outlet through which people could freely connect with each other. With the Stasi's constant watch and the rigid system of the GDR, it was incredibly difficult for people to come together and exchange ideas. The church fulfilled this great need and became a place where discussions could be conducted. Many of the ideas and plans of action that were developed in hopes of achieving freedom were discussed in the church. The church played an important role in people's lives, and during this particular time it also played a role in politics. It served as a safe and reliable place to speak one's mind and discuss solutions that eventually led to revolutionary change. Rainer Eppelmann, a prominent oppositionist and Protestant pastor is also the founder of Democratic Awakening, who later became the minister for disarmament and defense. He explains in his interview that early on he had decided to join the dissident sectors in the GDR. His use of the church for both contacts and physical space provided him opportunities he may not have had otherwise. Eppelmann is a striking example of someone who from early on knew exactly that he wanted to participate in changing this imprisoned society. His dedication to breaching the wall lasted for nearly thirty years. Beginning with the day the wall was erected to the day it finally came down. Eppelmann explains that his choice to become a pastor was a political choice. His personal drive to that particular career was not as potent as his desire to bring about awareness and change. In his church blues were played and members were able to freely discuss the feelings they were going through as well as potential solutions to the problem. Philipsen asks very important questions in attempts to try and understand how this decision affected him and also other church officials. Eppelmann describes his choice as one he may not have made without the present circumstances driving him, yet a choice he was conscious of given the possibilities that existed. The church hierarchy, although hesitant at first, assisted him greatly and surprisingly supported him in his ideas.

In the hopes of understanding the ambivalence that emerged during this time, Philipsen conducts interviews with activists, as well as party members. These serve as invaluable tools in the comprehension of the other side of the East German debate, providing perspective on those that played an internal role in the politics affecting so many people. Werner Bramke, a long time party member, was also the chairman of the history department at Karl Marx University. This interview is as particularly interesting because unlike other party members, Bramke did not believe in the party. He explains that the current state of German politics and the outcome of recent history have left him extremely disillusioned. This was not the "Germany" he knew, and therefore felt that socialism perhaps could give answers to the question of "social fairness." Bramke acknowledges that while he did believe in socialism, the kind of socialism practiced in the GDR, both in practice and in theory, was very far from Marx's idea of socialism. He describes the difficulty that Soviet occupation posed for functional socialism. Bramke also expresses his belief that other people in the party shared his views (and a desire for a different kind of socialism). Even more interestingly, he describes feeling hopeful that reform could actually come from within the party itself.

Philipsen skillfully asks poignant and informative questions and Bramke quickly unravels the difficult dichotomy between the two sides, party member vs. oppositionist. Bramke thought about leaving the party multiple times, yet he realized that upon leaving it, he would instantly become an oppositionist. These two extremes reveal many reasons for conflict. If you were not within the party you were automatically opposed to it, and this had the potential to pose not only problems, but danger to ex-party members. In fact, Bramke admits feeling disconnected and isolated from the "rest" of the people, meaning non-party members. As he listened to the radio, he heard of many political groups forming and taking action against their current situation. Although he felt sympathetic, he mostly felt separated. Still, he did not join them. Bramke felt that if he resigned, he would automatically become a dissident, and as a dissident inevitably be pushed into a fundamentally antisocialist position. Afraid of being expatriated, he saw the situation as hopeless. Extreme labels such as "socialist" or "antisocialist" contributed to the ambivalence of the times. Since one could only be one or the other, many of those like Bramke who fell in the middle (still considered themselves "socialist" but wanted a reformation) were simply not able to be heard. At some point, it became clear that many oppositionists were also committed socialists.

The fall of the Berlin Wall represented a major accomplishment for many activists. It was the result of years of tireless outreach and constant effort. Yet for some, it also represented an unforeseen hurdle and outcome. While the day the wall came down in 1989 stands in history as a great day of revolution, people like Sebastian Pflugbeil saw it as "a little revolution." Pflugbeil played an important role in this so called "little revolution." He was a physicist, leading environmentalist, and nationally prominent opposition spokesman. In his interview with Philipsen he explained that despite the destruction of the wall, for East Germans, the opposition had not ended,

We are in the opposition again, just as we had been before. In fact, we are in about the same situation as we were just one year ago. But we can live with that, just as we can live with the fact that we did not get to nominate the new federal president, because we never intended to play that game in the first place. Perhaps it represented one of the weaknesses of this civic movement that we never seriously attempted to take over the government. (Philipsen, 351)

While Pflugbeil's opinion may not be shared by everyone, it does represent a group of activists who saw their efforts as "incomplete." The status of East Germany and the sentiments people felt about the events that followed the fall of the wall are a highly controversial topic. While many people felt that they had accomplished a remarkable victory and were perfectly content with the unification of the two German states, others were not. People like Pflugbeil, although obviously happy that the wall was down, still felt they were in opposition. While the fight with the Stasi was over, there was still the Verfassaungschutz, the West German secret police. East Germans worked extremely hard to make their voices heard in their opposition to being watched and scrutinized, yet the [Agency for Protection of the Constitution] still posed a problem with unification for many East Germans. This, coupled with the inevitable NATO membership and the intense capitalism that East Germans did not support in the first place, made the so- called "revolution" bittersweet. This is an extraordinarily interesting topic because it is one that many people do not think of when they think of the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the fight of East Germans. The thinking generally stops when the wall came down which is perceived as a happy ending. While it was certainly a positive occurrence, for many East German activists it was not an overall satisfying conclusion to their fight. Many were not satisfied with the complete eradication of East Germany, and complete merge with West Germany. Since most were committed socialists, many oppositionists hoped for a reformed type of socialism.

Frank Eigenfield calls the unification with West Germany, "an abnormal state of affairs." Like, Pflugbeil he eagerly hoped for the participation of East Germans in the new direction of affairs. Eigenfeld acknowledges that more influence was wanted and needed and chances were given to overcome the division among East Germans in regards to the future of East Germany after the wall came down, but mistakes clouded those chances. Eigenfeld states that his desire for change of the GDR did not necessarily mean the completely eradication of the party system, "I would always have accepted the existing state if only they had lived up to its promise of granting basic human rights" (Philipsen, 40). Frank Eigenfeld, like many others hoped for a reformed type of socialism, yet that idea was rapidly abandoned due to lack of communication and accord between the two groups: those that wanted socialism still but with modifications, and those that wanted to join the West in their free market ideals and American inspired lifestyle.

Over the time span of the wall's existence, the opposition movement came to mean many different things and encompass a multitude of goals. It is a debatable topic that reveals more than one's opinion about what "should have happened" next. It also reveals how each person saw the party. Oppositionists shared the same agenda, yet they possessed very different ideas about the potential for realization of these goals. This ultimately led to an insecurity and ambivalence that resulted in weaknesses that perhaps gave way to a unification that not everyone supported. Without an organized and cohesive idea on the future of the GDR, many lost their representation and therefore their influence in the changes to come.

We Were the People diligently explores the lives and efforts of the East German people through their own words. This book offers perspective that is indispensable as well as rare. Philipsen offers the story of a courageous people who were determined to bring about change. This revolution serves as a paradigm for those who struggle, those who continue to fight for their rights and rights of the underrepresented, and above all for those people who have hope of a better life.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)

Reviews of Philipsen’s book:

  • Tiusanen, Tauno, "The Baltic States: Years of Dependence 1940-1990" Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 46, No. 2. (1994), pp. 367-368. jstor.org
  • Willis, F. Roy We Were the People: Voices from East Germany's Revolutionary Autumn of 1989. by Dirk Philipsen
    The American Historical Review Vol. 99, No. 2 (Apr., 1994), pp. 599-600. jstor.org

Related Sources:

  • Smith, Patricia After the Wall: East Germany Since1989 (Boulder, Westview Press 1998)
    Smith’s book concentrates on how unification has affected eastern Germany and East Germans, as well as addresses impacts on East German society, including elites, workers, and women.
  • Plaff, Steven "Collective Identity and Informal Groups in Revolutionary Mobilization: East Germany in 1989" Social Forces Vol. 75, No. 1 (Sep., 1996), pp. 91-117. jstor.org
    This article focuses on the shared grievances of East Germans and how they led to a revolution. Plaff offers his own theory on how the revolution came about. This acts as great supplemental reading to Philipsen’s book.

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/28/06; last updated: 4/5/07
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