Challenging the East German regime came at a tremendous human cost for the brave activists in their struggle for human rights, democracy and freedom of expression. Very few had the courage, inspired by the dramatic events in neighboring Poland, where the protest movement Solidarity enjoyed massive support from the population in the early 1980’s.
The small groups of East German environmental and human rights activists risked if not their lives, at least their livelihoods, when they protested against falsified election results, censorship, repression and travel bans.
The young activists in Berlin’s Environmental Library were spied upon, persecuted, imprisoned and harassed by the Ministry for State Security because they met in a cellar and hand printed illegal pamphlets about environmental disasters of grotesque dimensions. In 1986, they broke the wall of official silence about massive deforestation and chemical contamination in Europe’s most contaminated city, Bitterfeld, and the astounding air pollution at the coal-fired power plant in Espenhain. The air was so full of coal dust that cars had to turn on their lights in the middle of the day. Dissidents and their family members were fired from jobs or thrown out of school. Viewed as enemies of the state, they gathered in their homes, talked politics and sangs songs of protest, as the Stasi eavesdropped through hidden microphones. Some were expelled from East Germany. After the fall of the Wall and East Germany’s collapse, it turned out that surveillance had taken place around the clock.
For several years, the various opposition groups were only a small, very exposed segment of the 17 million East Germans. Not until the end of the 1980’s did the number of protesters grow, and both protest groups and demonstrators against the outrages of the regime found shelter in the East German Protestant church. Churches all over the country opened their doors for services in support of peace, freedom and citizen’s rights.
In 1989, courage spread like wildfire and new groups appeared among the protesters. New Forum “Neues Forum”, Democracy Now “Demokratie Jetzt”, Democratic Awakening “Demokratischer Aufbruch”, Initiative for Peace and Human Rights “Initiative Frieden und Menschenrechte”, “die Arche – grün-ökologisches Netzwerk in der Evangelischen Kirche” The Ark – Green-Ecological Movement in the Protestant Church; all demanded reforms and co-determination in East Germany.
The protests grew exponentially. Those participating in the protests held intense debates with the ”People’s Police”, die Volkspolizei. As the weeks progressed, the ingrained respect for the authority of the regime’s servants began to disappear, and more and more people dared express their dissatisfaction with a system that kept them on a very tight leash.