Case Studies

Memory in East Germany

This case study examines how a group of East German dissidents re-appropriated the memory of Rosa Luxemburg and turned her writing against the Communist Party during an annual parade in January 1988.

On January 17, 1988, a group of human rights activists were arrested in Berlin during the annual memorial march in honor of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who were murdered by right-wing street fighters in January 1919. The reason for the arrests in 1988 was the use by the group of unauthorized banners and slogans, that the East German secret police, the Stasi, saw as a threat against one of the most holy of state rituals.

Each year, thousands of Berliners marched down the streets from central Berlin to the Socialists’ cemetery in the Friedrichsfelde neighborhood. The state ritual drew on earlier traditions of Berlin’s working class and had been highly regarded by the Communist Party elite as an annual te’s identity and its antifascist raison d`être since the resumption of the march in 1946. According to tradition, the crowds would pass by the assembled politburo members and each factory or place of work would lay a wreath next to the gravesites of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. The Socialist Unity Party (SED) utilized the march for propaganda purposes each year to reinforce the socialist identity of the state.

However, in 1988 this particular day of remembrance turned into an act of open protest through the active re-appropriation of Rosa Luxemburg’s words and legacy in a manner that struck to the core of the SED’s own cultural legitimacy. The resulting wave of arrests led to an outpouring of solidarity with those in prison and marked the beginning of the mass protest movement that eventually led to the massive demonstrations in the fall of 1989 that brought down the Communist government.

The initial idea to use the words of Rosa Luxemburg during the celebration in January 1988 was first thought up by singer and songwriter Stephan Krawczyk and his wife Freya Klier, a well-known theater director, in the fall of 1987. Krawczyk was a popular performer who had taken up the mantle of Wolf Biermann, a fellow songwriter who had been stripped of his citizenship in 1976. Like Biermann, Krawczyk had been targeted for observation by the Stasi for propagating anti-government sentiment in his lyrics.

The participants in the counter-demonstration planned to meet at 9 am, join the march, and unveil their own slogans when the right moment came. The slogans that the group decided to concentrate on were: “Freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently;” “He who doesn’t move doesn’t feel the chains;” and “The only way to rebirth is the widest democracy,” all of which were taken from the writings of Luxemburg.

The slogan that was the most controversial, so potentially disruptive to the state ritual was Luxemburg’s phrase: “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.” Both Luxemburg and her writings had long been a thorn in the side of the Stalinist wing of the German Communist Party (KPD). The SED, and the KPD before it, had repeatedly and openly tried to suppress the democratic values that were also a part of Luxemburg’s legacy and memory.

An excerpt from Luxemburg's original text is the first document in this collection. The excerpt comes from her work “The Russian Revolution,” which she wrote as a critique of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party and the dangers of a dictatorship in 1918. Here one can work with students discussing the various definitions of “freedom” and “justice.” I ask my students to think about why this particular text might have been so powerful for the opposition. Why was it downplayed and even suppressed by the SED? How can a text that was written in 1918 be a threat to the Party in 1988?

The SED needed to sustain a constant image of Luxemburg as a revolutionary and as a martyr in the struggle against fascism. Her disagreements with Lenin, her desire for democratic rule, and all other aspects of her legacy that did not speak to the legitimizing needs of the party were suppressed and even feared.

Despite the intricate planning and preparation by those involved in the counter-demonstration, most of the protesters did not make it much farther than just outside of their own apartments on the morning of January 17. For those who did make it to the meeting place in front of the House of Sport and Recreation, 300 Stasi agents were waiting, with another 80 held in reserve. Before the protesters were ushered away to jail, both of the main West German television channels captured some of the commotion from the first wave of arrests. Others were arrested further along the parade route as they attempted to pull out their banners.

The second document in this collection provides a snapshot of this moment in time and comes from the diary of Freya Klier. With this document, I ask students to think about Klier and Krawczyk’s motivations for choosing this particular commemoration to protest against the state. What was it that allowed this commemoration in 1988 to serve as the venue for a protest against the state? How can the words of a national hero be used to attack the state’s legitimacy? Do certain interest groups “own” the memories of certain individuals? If so, how is this accomplished? Who has the right to “own” different memories? Do “counter-memories” exist? What could this mean? Was the use by Klier and Krawczyk of their “interpretation of Rosa’s legacy” an exercise in the production or organization of a counter-memory?

Although there was no mention of the demonstration the next day in the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) official newspapers, it had been the lead story in West Germany during both the evening news and throughout the day on Monday. Official East German coverage of the event spoke only of 200,000 Berliners who marched in honor of the memory of “Karl and Rosa” and in “demonstration of the unity of party and people.” Unreported went the arrests of some 160 demonstrators, most all of them connected in one way or another to the organized counter-demonstration.

The following day, demonstrations of solidarity with those arrested during the counter-demonstration began to occur all across the GDR. The demonstrations during the week that followed were the greatest wave of protest since the 1953 workers' uprising. All around Berlin and throughout the GDR opposition groups gathered to plot out a response and collectively called for the general release of those arrested. Such vigils took place in over forty cities in the GDR, most resulting in the founding of solidarity committees and the drafting of protest resolutions.

In a clear attempt to tarnish the reputation of the leaders of the counter-demonstration, the SED party newspaper Neues Deutschland published an article on January 26 alerting the public that the leaders of the counter-demonstration were under arrest and charged with high treason. Publicly, the regime depicted those involved in the demonstrations as acting on behalf of western security agencies, such as the West German foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). But within senior party and government circles, leaders were alarmed that the protesters had turned the regime’s own instruments of cultural legitimacy on the regime itself—in their mind, a dangerous and even treasonous act.

Adding coal to the flames, the president of the East German PEN writer’s union, Dr. Heinz Kamnitzer, wrote an inflammatory article in Neues Deutschland on January 28, which is included here as the third document. Kamnitzer's article shows just how dangerous the party saw the actions of the protesters. He refers to the counter-demonstration “as reprehensible as blasphemy.” The protesters are compared to hooligans who would disrupt a procession for a Catholic cardinal or Protestant bishop. Kamnitzer also makes the case that the protesters had taken the quotation out of context and that Luxemburg herself had distanced herself from this stance by November 1918. Thus, Kamnitzer’s response to the January counter-demonstrations was based on an attempt to play at people’s ethical and moral feelings regarding the proper manner to honor the dead, but also on an argument that the historical truth had been misused as well.

Students see in this document a public effort by the party to control or limit the damage done by the protesters. I use this piece to discuss with students how a state dictatorship, such as the GDR, used the public sphere to influence how its citizens viewed the past. We also discussed the specifics of how Kamnitzer was able to attack the protesters and attempted to distance the party’s interpretation of Luxemburg from those who used her to mount a protest movement against the state. One can also extend this theme to discuss more general issues regarding the role of memory in shaping perceptions of present politics and make comparisons between the differences in East Germany (with its Nazi past) and other East European countries that (one could argue) did not have the same burden of the past that complicated an appropriation of the past for the purpose of stabilizing the Communist regime.

A cloud of misinformation and rumors surrounded the fates of those still under arrest and many were surprised to hear that both Klier and Krawczyk had agreed to “voluntarily” leave the GDR (although Klier later stated that they were forced to leave). This misinformation was spread by the Stasi in a final effort to lay the January demonstration to rest and discredit the leaders of the movement as traitors to the GDR. The departure of these leading opposition figures virtually silenced the open opposition in the GDR for almost a year and the level of public protest did not reach the same level again until May 1989. However, the re-appropriation of Rosa Luxemburg as a symbol for democracy by the emerging dissident movement in East Germany signaled that the SED was no longer able to control and direct popular perceptions of the past.


Overall I have had a great deal of success using this collection of documents. Students quickly catch on to how memories of particular events or persons can take on political importance. Throughout the discussions, students bring up contemporary parallels where they felt that memories of the past were used to advance or attack certain political agendas. Through this exercise my students also saw how memories can be both constraining and liberating depending on how they are used in the public sphere.

Using these sources within the context of leading up to the more well-known events of 1989 allows students to understand that the desire to protest was building up over a long period of time and were was not only a spontaneous phenomenon of 1989. This particular counter-demonstration highlighted the discrepancy between the SED’s progressive rhetoric and its repressive actions. The GDR state found it increasingly difficult to rationalize the distinctions it drew between the suppression of its own dissidents and the repression of Communist dissidents by reactionary elements during the 1920s and 1930s. Its own Party legacy had now come full circle. The Party itself was now providing the moral ammunition that would slowly prompt hundreds of thousands to take to the streets in 1989 and ultimately bring about the collapse of SED rule.


Document 1: The Russian Revolution: The Problem of Dictatorship
Document 2: Excerpt from Freye Klier's Diary
Document 3: Remembering the Dead

Jon Berndt Olsen
George Mason University
Fairfax, Virginia