President Obama’s first official trip to Berlin tomorrow coincides with an important anniversary in European history that is largely unknown to Americans: on June 17, 1953, Germans staged the very first uprising in the communist Eastern Bloc.
The 1953 East German uprising began as a strike by 300 construction workers in Berlin and snowballed into demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of citizens all over Germany who demanded labor reform, free elections, and the release of political prisoners. The East German repressive regime and Soviet occupation forces violently extinguished the movement, leaving dozens dead and thousands imprisoned. Today, Germans still celebrate the courage and sacrifices of those first activists who campaigned for freedom and the embodiment of those same ideals 40 years later that finally brought lasting change.
The early precedent for forcefully striking down protests makes the peaceful 1989 East German revolution all the more noteworthy. Who would have thought that a country known for ruthlessness, its soil steeped with the blood of so many people, would be home to a nonviolent mass movement of hundreds of thousands of citizens? Or that this revolution would topple the Berlin Wall and usher in a new world order, all without a single drop of bloodshed?
The East German opposition activists, after decades of persecution, surveillance, incarceration, and expatriation, had the courage to take to the streets again in 1989 despite the tragedy of 1953. Their months-long “people power” protests all over East Germany, and crucially, the weekly Leipzig Monday demonstrations that began in September 1989, upheld a strict commitment to nonviolence, thereby subjecting the East German authorities to pressure and international scrutiny. Further, the sheer number of demonstrators overwhelmed the state’s capacity to control its borders.
In a wave of dissent, the people collectively swept away a communist regime that was resolved to use force and had publicly lauded the “Chinese solution” to bloodily suppress the opposition at Tiananmen Square. In its wake, on November 10, 1989, the day after the borders to the West were opened, The New York Times declared the cause to be “the culmination of an extraordinary month that has seen the virtual transformation of East Germany under the dual pressures of unceasing flight and continuing demonstrations.”
A recent representative survey of German citizens confirmed that those peaceful mass protests are at the forefront of the collective German memory as the primary impetus for the fall of the Berlin Wall. European textbooks also identify the courageous nonviolence of the East German people as the most important factor in driving out the regime.
And yet, an analysis of commonly used American world-history textbooks shows that the movement and the importance of its nonviolence are largely forgotten in the U.S. curriculum. Since the 1980s, historians and educators have increasingly presented a transnational view of world history, prioritizing global trends over the perspectives of individual nations. Using these historical methods, the fall of the Berlin Wall is presented more as an outcome of global shifts, thereby regrettably neglecting the hard-earned success of people power.
By extolling the patient defiance and triumph of the peaceful East German revolution, President Obama will touch the hearts and minds of the next European generation crucial to upholding the values of freedom and civil liberties. Just as important, his words may also inspire and even console courageous youths in other parts of the world who are eager to oppose oppressive regimes but may feel depressed and hopeless because their efforts have been set back and caught in bloodshed.
As Obama follows in the footsteps of President Kennedy precisely 50 years after the iconic “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, it’s an opportunity for him to address similarly disheartened people the world over by pointing to Kennedy’s other famous words, uttered after he experienced the enthusiasm of the Germans during his visit: "When I leave the office of the White House, whenever that may be, I’m going to leave an envelope in the desk for my successor and it will say, 'To be opened only in saddest moments,' so it will have only the words written 'Go visit Germany.'"
Adrian Weickart is a German-American high school student living in Switzerland. He conducted a representative survey through the Institute for New Social Answers of over 2,000 German citizens assessing the perceived causes of the fall of the Berlin Wall and analyzed the respective narratives of 12 of the most commonly used American world-history textbooks. His father’s family was forced to flee East Germany after the 1953 uprising.