Freedom Cannot Be Taken for Granted

In the fall of 1989, I studied at the Karl-Marx-University in Leipzig. As a student of theology, I was able to participate in the demonstrations on the street as well as in other activities, like prayers with my fellow students. Students of other faculties would have been ex-matriculated had they been seen demonstrating, but theologians were regarded as “lost causes” for the communist society anyway.

I did not study theology because I aspired to become a minister at a church. Actually, growing up, I aspired to become a medical doctor. At the age of 18, I decided to serve the GDR army not in the regular forces, but in the “Bausoldaten,” a unit that did not carry weapons. As a devout Christian, I did not want to shoot anyone in the name of an ideology I did not share. But this decision was regarded as a sign of disloyalty to the Communist state and led to pressure on me and my parents, from the teachers in school and from superiors in their companies, respectively, to revise my decision. But I did not.

Consequently, I was rejected when I applied to study medicine, despite fulfilling all the requirements. This rejection had a deep impact on what I thought I would be able to accomplish in life, given the circumstances.

When I talked to my fellow students and people on the streets in those days in October 1989, I recall all kinds of different motivations for taking to the streets and demanding change. People on the streets were often workers from Leipzig’s factories, not the intellectuals. Many simply demanded freedom to travel:  they wanted to have the possibility to spend their summer vacations in Italy or Spain. Since many goods were in short supply, others demanded a better standard of living. Still others despised the ubiquitous Stasi that spied on their family and friends. In October of 1989 there was not yet a demand for a complete change of the political system, but rather something like “socialism plus (some more freedom).” Few would think about constitutional changes or German unity in these days (even though West Germany was of course the reference point or benchmark for demands). In general, there was the sense that many things have to change and more freedom needed to be granted. But there was also a lot of confusion about where all this actually would and should lead to.

My motivation to be engaged at that time was related to the discrimination I faced as a Christian. I rejected in particular the attempt by the Communist state to exert complete control over the people’s lives. In school, I had witnessed brainwashing and aggressive secularist education.

In this situation of uncertainties, I hoped for a new kind of awakening and religious revival. With my fellow students, we invited people and demonstrators on the streets to come to meet and discuss the role of religion in society and in their lives. Our hope was that people would be open to asking new questions, looking for a new orientation, and be more open for religion and church.

The general confusion about where things would go lasted at least until November 9, when the Wall came down. But finally, it was Helmut Kohl who gave people a new vision for the future with his ten-point plan in early December. People then realized that the fastest route to more freedom was via German unification—the road to a summer vacation in Spain runs through West Germany. Soon after, Kohl’s leadership on unification meant that no other political force that did not support one Germany had any real chance. In March 1990, the CDU won the elections, promising “keine Experimente” (no experiments) and the fastest road toward unification.

As we know, the hope that people would start to come back to the churches and religion in the eastern part of Germany was not realized. The churches played a crucial role in the GDR to provide space for people who did not accept the official ideology. The churches also played an important role for the end of the GDR. But forty years of radical atheist education and ideology had a deep impact on people. After 1989, people had a free choice, but did not turn to religion.

But looking back, the freedom I enjoy personally now—working in the United States of all places and representing with KAS an organization that promotes freedom all over the world—and the freedom of all Germans to live a self-determined life is indeed nothing short of a miracle. From my experience I know that freedom cannot be taken for granted and we always have to stand up for it. Or in Konrad Adenauer’s words: Wir stehen auf der Seite der Freiheit (We stand on the side of freedom).

Dr. Lars Hänsel is the Resident Representative of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Washington, DC.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.