Tuesday, July 15, 2008

An inspiring story

The following is an excerpt from an interesting book I am reading, Stasi, by John O. Koehler, about how the communist government of East Germany politically-policed and otherwise oppressed the people of that country.

As you read it, please keep in mind that the people of these Eastern Block communist countries knew that their political beliefs were being strictly monitored and controlled by the communist governments that were then in power, that they were constantly spied on by secret police forces and by their own neighbors, friends, and relatives, and that they were often spirited away to be interrogated (and ultimately even to be sent to hard-labor camps and prisons) on the merest suspicion of being critical of the government or desiring to flee the country (also the people of these countries were oppressed in many other ways):

[O]n May 5, [1953,] the SED [the communist organization that then ruled East Germany] celebrated the 135th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx by increasing work quotas for industrial plants. The city of Chemnitz was renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt and the Order of Karl Marx was created as [East Germany’s] highest award. The party seemed to be enjoying a period of unity and political tranquility. It lasted [only two weeks]. Mielke [a high-ranking leader of the Stasi-- East Germany’s Gestapo-like secret political police force] had been reporting secretly that a group of [communist] party officials were plotting against the leadership. This resulted in more expulsions from [high-ranking leadership organizations].

Discontent among the [industrial] workers over increased work norms without corresponding wage hikes reached the breaking point June 16, 1953, at Stalinallee in Berlin. Probably encouraged by Stalin’s death [a few months earlier], nearly a hundred workers gathered for a protest meeting before starting work. Word spread rapidly to other nearby construction sites, and soon several hundred men and women marched to the House of Ministries, the government [building] that once housed Hermann Göring’s Nazi aviation [department]. They chanted in protest for five hours until [an official] decided to speak to them. His cajoling was met with jeers, and he retreated into the heavily guarded building. People’s police riot units were called out of their barracks but made no move to break up the demonstrations. The protesters returned to Stalinallee, and a general strike [that is, a strike of all workers no matter what industry they belonged to] was called. the following day, some 100,000 protesters marched through East Berlin; about 400,000 took to the streets in other towns. Their demands were everywhere the same: free and secret elections.

The American radio station in West Berlin (RIAS) and several West German stations reported the protest marches and the plans for a general strike. These broadcasts were picked up throughout the Soviet zone, and 267,000 workers of major state-owned plants in 304 cities and towns spontaneously went on strike. In 24 towns, [enraged townspeople] stormed prisons and freed between 2,000 and 3,000 inmates [the communist governments imprisoned a lot of people for alleged political disloyalty, so perhaps these townspeople were trying to free friends and relatives they felt were basically kidnapped, rather than just trying to free ordinary criminals].

Mielke was nowhere to be seen in public, but his secret police agents and the Vopo [another communist police force in East Germany] were out en masse, and bloody street battles erupted. Hundreds of policemen defected to the side of the workers, police stations were overrun, and government offices were sacked. The leadership had already retreated to its residences in the heavily guarded compound in the Pankow district of East Berlin. At 1 P.M. the Soviet commandant for Berlin, Major P. K. Dibrova, a sixty-year-old [secret political policeman] who had never seen wartime combat, declared martial law. Stasi agents and people’s policemen opened fire. Drumhead courts handed down death sentences that were carried out on the spot. The rioting continued, and by late afternoon Soviet tanks accompanied by infantry and MVD troops had rolled into East Berlin and other major cities in the Soviet zone. This made the people even angrier. At Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, which bordered the American sector, [angry] protesters ignored machine gun fire and the menacing barrels of tank guns. They ripped cobblestones from the streets and hurled them at the tanks.

The [] use of Soviet power—two armored divisions—against the protesters in 121 major cities and small towns broke the back of the revolt within twenty-four hours. By nightfall June 18, relative calm had been restored in the Soviet zone, and Stasi flying squads swept through the cities. Provisional prison camps were set up to hold the thousands of Stasi victims. Nearly 1,500 persons were sentenced in secret trials to long prison terms.

On June 24, Mielke issued a terse announcement that one Stasi officer, nineteen demonstrators, and two bystanders had been killed during the uprising. He did not say how many were victims of official lynching. The numbers of wounded were given as 191 policemen, 126 demonstrators, and 61 bystanders. [But it is conceivable that the officially-released number of dead and wounded inflated the numbers of killed and wounded bystanders and demonstrators, and under-reported the numbers of killed and wounded Stasi agents and police officers in order to persuade the demonstrators to believe they had not accomplished much damage by their uprising.]”
The edits in brackets were made by me primarily because the author used a little too much scholarly-sounding language for the passage to be easy for most people to read as an excerpt.

This passage is very inspiring to me (as I hope it is to all of you) especially as to what kind of courage people can show and what people can accomplish even when very elaborate and far-reaching methods have been employed to control their opinions and behavior. When people have learned the lessons of people-power, it is very hard for any kind of fascists- even those disguised as populists- to totally oppress the people without more or less having a rough ride of it. And we don’t have to wait for people to set up camps to house political prisoners or to make thinking for yourself a crime in order to start exercising our people-power and to show that we want real freedom, and not just an impostor of it, in this country. It doesn’t take tearing up paving-stones and demonstrating in the street to do it, although I’d say those are definitely the right things to do in certain situations. There is an infinite array of actions that can effectively fight the kind of oppression we don’t want to see in our country and must always be on guard against.