I met Thomas Tschirner in 1990 when he was still in high school. He and his brother were enthusiastically involved in putting out an alternative newsletter in their hometown of Wittemberg, a city about 70 miles south of Berlin in what was then East Germany.
“We felt the need for an alternative medium,” he told me in an interview this last February in Berlin. “We saw that the Party press just continued, with no break after the changes. That was the motivation. It seemed necessary to have some different media. Then this advertiser came. It was a free newsletter. But they were just selling advertisements. They had no real content. There were so many topics in the town that had to be dealt with, and nobody dealt with them.”
We were meeting for lunch in Berlin’s Tiergarten area, in the most elegant Burger King I’d ever seen. It had been an exhibition hall for East Berlin’s “City of Tomorrow,” a 1957 effort by world-renowned architects to construct a hypermodern quarter in the Hansaviertel, a once stylish section of the city that had been completely destroyed in World War II.
The newsletter lasted for seven issues. “Why did we stop? Times changed,” Tschirner said. “Everything got organized, institutional. Then the time was over for this leaflet. One had to invest more time and energy to make it work in a business context. This we didn’t want — to be publishers.”
He now works on environmental issues in a government office devoted to reducing the carbon footprint of government buildings. We talked about what if felt like to be young at the time of die Wende, the changes of 1989-90.
“In the beginning, there was a general feeling of starting things new and also the ability to change and influence things,” he remembered. “This feeling was probably just imaginary. I can’t say how much I was personally disappointed. But the people who were active in the civil rights movement and in the environmental groups, they had changed some things. And then they learned that it was already decided — on a different basis and by different people.”
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I’m not quite sure, but I think I was at home. I might have heard about it that evening. But I definitely heard about it the next day at school. Some of my schoolmates were missing. They hadn’t come to school, and it was said that they were in Berlin. My memories are not very clear about this day. I think it was a mixture of not really believing and the joy and also the fear that it could somehow be turned back. The Gate of Heavenly Peace in China – what happened in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June 1989 — was still very present in people’s minds at that time. A peaceful transition did not seem as clear as it is now.
Did you want to go up to Berlin to see what was going on?
No, actually not. I think at that time maybe I was a bit too afraid that it was not yet secure.
You were 17?
Yes, it was the last year of high school.
Before the Wall fell and after the Wall fell, was there a big change in your thinking about what your personal future would be?
Yes, of course. Before the change, I could imagine working only in certain areas of society. Afterwards it was all open.
What did you think you were going to do before the changes?
The plan was to go to Leipzig and study physics. There had to be some sort of military service in between. But I couldn’t imagine what would come after.
It was a family tradition. My father studied it. Students were needed. They couldn’t put many ideological barriers on this study because there were too few people who wanted to study it. And they need physicists. So there was less ideological pressure.
After the Wall fell, did you immediately say, “No, I will not do physics.”
No, I was convinced that it was a useful study, so I started and then changed after one year.
Why did you change?
It was really quite hard. It’s a lot of mathematics, and I didn’t have the drive to get me through.
Before the changes, you were involved in the Young Friends group. How did that experience shape your understanding of the world?
It certainly did. To have this group of people and this kind of safe harbor provided a special view and context for the world.
Was there a particular activity that made a big impact on you from those years?
I can’t remember anything special. It was a continuous process. I was more a passive member of the group, as the younger brother of more active brothers.
I’m interested in the Morgenstern newsletter that you published with your brother. When did that start and why?
Maybe I’m not the right expert to talk to. That was more my brother Christian. I did the more technical stuff: text processing and printing. We felt the need for an alternative medium. We saw that the Party press just continued, with no break after the changes. That was the motivation. It seemed necessary to have some different media. Then this advertiser came. It was a free newsletter. But they were just selling advertisements. They had no real content. There were so many topics in the town that had to be dealt with, and nobody dealt with them.
So, why did you stop?
Why did we stop? Times changed. Everything got organized, institutional. Then the time was over for this leaflet. One had to invest more time and energy to make it work in a business context. This we didn’t want — to be publishers.
Did that energy go into something else? You said there was obviously a need to have these discussions in the town. But it was hard to put out a professional newsletter. Did that impulse behind Morgenstern go somewhere else?
Our time in Wittenberg came to an end. I went to study, and my brother went to Berlin. Our lives went somewhere else.
When you got to university, did you become involved in anything other than studies?
No. I was one year in Leipzig and I was focused on studying, doing mathematics all day. It was later when I went to Berlin that I took part in student actions, but not actively.
How did you feel about what was taking place in Germany, between March 1990 and October 1990, when the GDR had its own democratic government?
I don’t really remember at what point it became clear that it was going to be a takeover not a reunification, with the GDR becoming a part of West Germany. At school at this time, we tried some things such as participation by pupils. Then came the whole thing with the transfer of the money. A lot of things happened very quickly.
But how did you feel about that? Angry? Happy? Enthusiastic? Dissatisfied?
I remember a feeling of beginning, of opportunities, but I’m not sure how long that lasted. I don’t know if it was over in June, with the monetary union. There was disappointment that the majority in East Germany just wanted to be part of West Germany and didn’t trust in their strength. They just wanted to leave everything behind and not talk about it any more. I can’t remember a feeling. It was an intellectual thing.
You mentioned more participation in the school by pupils. Can you describe that?
Before, pupils had representation, but it was through the official youth organization, the FDJ. It was politically organized. In the beginning of 1990, we tried to have a free elected representation of pupils. There was quite a lot of space for this. We got a room where we could meet as pupils. We had elections. The teachers were also unsure of how it should be, so we were able to work together.
What did the representatives do?
We discussed topics in school. We had the old materials and the old topics. Then there was the headmaster. At one point, they said she was coming back (she was absent for some time because of health reasons). And the pupils said, “No, this is not going to happen.” She didn’t come back.
So you were successful!
I don’t know if it was all our doing.
Were you able to get new textbooks?
No. It was more about dropping certain topics.
There were special lessons in civic life, but it was propaganda. And the history lessons were all the history of the Communist Party over the last 50 years. But it wasn’t the real history, just the constructed history.
Were you one of the elected representatives?
Yes, I was.
Did you have a campaign to run for this position? With campaign posters?
No. It was all improvised. People were automatically selected. I don’t remember any other candidates. So, 99 percent for me!
So, some things didn’t change!
Do you remember the name of the student organization you created? Was it connected to other schools?
It was called the students assembly. It was as we imagined it to be in West German schools. They had these class speakers. So we just improvised it as we thought it should be.
And the teachers accepted that.
Yes. They didn’t know anything different.
You got together as representatives and teachers.
It was interested people, not just representatives — the pupils that were interested.
What were your special responsibilities as representative?
To negotiate with the teachers. To write letters to the local authorities about our activities. To give the speech at the end of the school.
Do you remember what you talked about at the end of school?
I don’t remember, but the manuscript is somewhere.
I should have asked your father! You don’t remember any of it?
I think it was about the change, how we saw teachers, and the time, and so on.
Did any of the teachers lose their jobs?
I don’t think so.
Your experience growing up in GDR, do you feel that it has made you different in any way from people who grew up in West Germany?
Certainly. But I can’t really describe it. Maybe it’s just knowing that I know more.
Know more about what happened in the GDR?
Yes, and knowing more about life. Knowing another state of society.
When you meet someone who is more or less your age, do you try to find out where they grew up?
It’s not the first thing. At some point, it’s interesting. It’s not the first or the second thing. Sometimes you think you know. Or sometimes it’s “therefore this” or “therefore that.” Some kinds of habits make you think: maybe.
If you find out that someone grew up in East Germany, do you immediately have a different relationship with them?
I wouldn’t say so. I think it’s the other way around. You have a special feeling then you find out that something connects you in their history. But it doesn’t always happen.
Do you feel as if you are perceived a different way when they find out?
Can you give me an example of that?
Maybe it’s just feelings. I can’t really give you an example.
Is there anything that you miss from those days?
No. Not if I reflect about it. You can’t take things out of their context. It was very black and white, very simple, you knew who was good and who was not. This simplicity is appealing. But it’s not something that I wish for now.
When you were describing what was happening in 1990, you said that things happened very quickly. Most people wanted what was in West Germany. You sounded a little disappointed that there wasn’t more time.
Yes. But I’m not sure whether it’s the way I felt at the time. In the beginning, there was a general feeling of starting things new and also the ability to change and influence things. This feeling was probably just imaginary. I can’t say how much I was personally disappointed. But the people who were active in the civil rights movement and in the environmental groups, they had changed some things. And then they learned that it was already decided — on a different basis and by different people. Also, we had this feeling that we were supported by the majority, that they also wanted change and they also wanted influence. But we were mistaken. They just wanted to be in another place, another system very quickly. They didn’t want to change things for the better here.
When you think back to how you were thinking in those days, have you changed your worldview, your Weltanschaaung in any way?
Probably. I can’t really see a major change. Maybe in some details.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed since then here, how would you evaluate it all on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Then, in your own personal life over the same period of time and along the same scale.
Looking into the near future, when you evaluate the prospects over the next two or three years, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic.
Berlin, February 5, 2013
Wittemberg is a walled city of medieval vintage. Including the outlying houses, it has a population of roughly 60,000. Wittemberg was the home of Martin Luther and near the city’s walls there is an oak where it is said that Luther first burned a papal decree. Inside the walls is Luther’s church and here one can see one of the many contradictions of German history. One of the church’s cornice stones depicts a pig suckling little Jewish children. At the foot of the same wall, however, there is a plaque commemorating Kristallnacht in both German and Hebrew. Wittemberg University, which educated many famous scholars including Giordano Bruno, is no more, suspended by the Prussians in 1870. But many of the buildings still exist, set amidst the town’s other gothic and renaissance structures. When tourism escalates in the GDR, as it will inevitably, Wittemberg will be a major attraction. Perhaps with that in mind, one of the major citizen action committees is devoted to rehabilitating the old buildings, many of which are cracked, dirty and tilting horribly. But there are other citizens’ groups in Wittemberg and the Tschirners were my guide to these.
Anne Tschirner formerly worked in the dairy industry and now devotes her spare time to ecological and health issues. Ulrich is a physicist working as a medical technician in a Wittemberg hospital. Their three sons are also politically active and the two I met, Christian and Thomas, had been producing a newsletter–Morgenstern–with the hope of uniting the various progressive groups in the city.
I was most interested in the political situation in Wittemberg and the potential emergence of “civil society” (here I mean, widespread civic participation outside of the electoral arena). The reality was somewhat disappointing. With the ceding of political responsibility almost entirely to West Germany or West German-influenced parties, many Wittembergians have lost their initial enthusiasm. The excitement among young people that led, for instance, to the newsletter, has diminished considerably and Christian and Thomas were not entirely sure whether the newsletter would continue. Various small groups still exist, however. There are around five ecological groups, with 20 members apiece, a Green party, a women’s group called “Nettle,” a United Left group with about 30 people, a group of young socialists and a Democracy Now organization of around 50 members.
One issue that concerned the Tschirners, especially the young sons, was the new civil service proposal, pending government revision and approval. A substitute for compulsory military service, the one year of civil service would allow GDR youth to serve in hospitals, in ecological work and so on. Christian and Thomas worry, however, that the FRG model of civil service will simply be imposed upon the GDR. In the FRG, young people must choose between 15 months of military service and 20 months of civil service. Refusal to engage in either results in a prison sentence. So far, in the GDR, refusal is only a misdemeanor and carries only a monetary penalty. A GDR group, “Friends of the Refuseniks,” is working to retain a liberal civil service law, one that is not modelled after the FRG, one that does not provide for “buildingsoldiers” that would engage in military preparations in case of war.
Anne described the ecological movement. Before November, ecological activity was an opportunity to engage in political activity: a benign cover that was nevertheless sincere. These ecological groups targeted the old, inefficient and environmentally unsound factories. In Wittemberg, for instance, a chemical factory dating from 1917 pollutes the air with toxic smoke. But the factory also employs quite a few workers and Anne recognizes the need to come up with economic alternatives: for instance, new, environmentally sound workplaces. On a local level, the green groups have recently initiated a “green telephone” staffed two days a week by someone capable of answering ecological questions from the community.
The interplay between economic development and ecological security raised several interesting points. Anne argued that the introduction of market mechanisms might not be conducive to ecological health. I asked her if many green activists shared her point of view and she said yes. But her son Christian disagreed. “Many East Germans say that the ecological situation in the FRG is better and therefore capitalism and nature conservation go hand in hand. Only a minority sees through this.” But, he notes, “there is not much information available about the mistakes of capitalism. I think that the really green people will soon see these mistakes.”
For Ulrich, the critical question was education: changing the curriculum from one-sided dogmatism to a more open forum. There is a new group in Wittemberg called “Pupils, Parents, Teachers” which is talking about curricular changes. The headmistress of the secondary school at which Thomas attends has been replaced (a Stalinist, she suffered a nervous breakdown in November). But, Ulrich notes, there are still many teachers who refuse to change their teaching methods. The two sons talked about changes taking place at school: the dissolution of the party-controlled student organization, the creation of a new city-wide student organization, the creation of a bulletin board for the dissemination of information.
On the question of growing xenophobia, the Tschirners felt, like Helmut Domke, that the issue was not being sufficiently discussed. Was Wittenberg part of the conservative South? Before the elections, they considered the town quite progressive. But the population supported the CDU with 41 percent of the vote. There are many sections of East Germany that have very checkered histories. Thuringia in the deep South, for instance, was a strong center of national socialism, then after the war, of Marxist socialism and now, after the elections, of Christian democracy (ie: rapid German unification, emergent nationalism). The old Prussian values of order and discipline are still embedded in the educational system and lend themselves to various political orders. Consequently, reformation of the educational system must dig deep.