Kerry is a first year Master’s student in Journalism. She is spending time this summer in Leipzig, Germany to perform research on identity communication in post-Socialist societies for her thesis.
Leipzig is a forward-looking city. At the same time, its pride in its ability to overcome the challenges of the past is an important element of its cultural consciousness. It was here 23 years ago that the Peaceful Revolution began with protests against government policies. These demonstrations played an important role in the fall of the Berlin Wall, the symbolic and physical barrier between East and West Germany. But Leipzig doesn’t focus all its energies on its triumph. A concerted effort has been made to preserve the memory of the inappropriately named German Democratic Republic, or GDR, and to make sure that younger generations join in the discussion about life in East Germany and the workings of the Stasi, or secret police.
The opportunity to dig deep into recent history readily presents itself in Leipzig. The former Stasi (state security) headquarters is now a museum, dedicated to demonstrating to visitors the pervasiveness of Stasi influence on society during the GDR era. Inside glass cases, special camera lenses, voice recording devices, elements of disguises including wigs and makeup, and even machines for opening and resealing envelopes containing personal correspondence make an impressive display of Stasi surveillance techniques and society-wide psychological manipulation. Today, citizens and visitors to the GDR can fill out an application to read their Stasi file if it exists. Files from the state security’s records contain information about a person’s comings and goings, their work, and even their personal relationships. The thoroughness of the secret police’s mechanism is almost incredible, but the Stasi museum shows that efforts to grow and develop an informant network, then to use that network to control citizens, was not fiction—nor is it ancient history.
The years of government oppression and Stasi torment ended in 1989 with the Peaceful Revolution, a movement that began out of the Peace Prayers and Monday Demonstrations held at St. Nicholas Church, located in the center of Leipzig. In October, hundreds of thousands of Leipzig citizens marched peacefully around the city shouting “No violence!” and “We are the people!” Today, information pillars mark where important events took place that helped to destabilize the GDR regime and bring down the Berlin Wall. The Contemporary History Forum, a free museum, also commemorates events in Germany’s history and traces the evolution of life in the GDR and the backlash that caused the Berlin Wall to crumble.
Though some people remember the GDR with fondness, many prefer to speak about the rapid changes that occurred directly after its fall. Fair elections took place. Families separated by the border were reunited. Media corporations were founded. And Leipzig, a place of revolution and change, was able to come into its own. Today, its university has a student population of 30,000 students, Porsche and BMW have plants here, and the famous Leipzig Messe, or trade fair, continues its annual tradition. Visitors from elsewhere in Germany, the United States, and around the world come to visit it for its nightlife, shopping, culture, and music heritage. Meanwhile, they learn about the former East Germany, Leipzig’s role in the toppling of a regime, and how a city has transformed itself into a thriving center for culture, industry, creativity, and education.