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1989: A generation in jeans finds freedom

Sarah Judith Hofmann / cmkJune 21, 2014

In the late 1980s, thousands of young Germans took to the streets – in the West for the environment, in the East for freedom. And then it happened: the fall of the Berlin Wall. But with euphoria came new fears.

Deutschland Mauerfall Grenzöffnung Berlin Mauer
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It was 7 p.m. when Günter Schabowski briefly lost his nerve. He was leading one of the first international press conferences ever given by the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the former communist East Germany. As he announced a new law allowing East Germans the freedom to travel, a reporter pressed Schabowski for more details on when the border checkpoints would be open. Frantic and without an official answer, Schabowski pulled out a note and said: "As far as I know ... as of now. Immediately."

Deutschland Mauerfall Grenzöffnung Berlin Günter Schabowski Pressekonferenz
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

(To watch Schabowski's statement in German, please click here.)

It became one of the most momentous sentences in German history. Shortly after the press conference, broadcast live on East German television, thousands of GDR citizens stormed the border crossings. Four hours later, East German border guards surrendered and lifted the barriers. The Berlin Wall effectively came down that night, on November 9, 1989.

Schabowski's response was a mistake: the law was planned to come into force the next day, and border guards were consequently unprepared. And yet, this night had a back story. Since the summer, around 200,000 East Germans, mainly young people, had fled the country across the Austrian-Hungarian border and via West German embassies in Budapest, Prague and Warsaw.

New spirit of optimism

And thousands of protesters - most of them young - had been taking part in so-called "Monday demonstrations" for weeks and months ahead of the fall of the Wall, calling for democratic change in the GDR. Often, they were arrested for taking part in the protests.

"How does this affect the youth, when they are treated like this?" asked the then bishop in Leipzig. "What kind of citizens will they be in the future?" And on the other side: "Even these reserve soldiers, apparently very young and as far as I know, conscripts, are going up against people of almost the same age? What will happen to them?"

Deutschland Mauerfall Grenzöffnung Berlin Mauer
Image: picture-alliance/AP

These young people were able bring about a peaceful revolution: On November 9, not a single shot was fired.

Suddenly, an entire generation had completely new prospects. They could travel or study in West Germany, or abroad. But they were also thrown into the deep end. Unemployment in the GDR had been low, careers followed fixed paths and the regime decided who was allowed to study and who wasn't. After reunification in 1990, suddenly everyone was able to decide how to shape his or her own future.

While this might have seemed an insurmountable obstacle for many older East German citizens, many of the young "Ossis" ("East Germans") were able to weather the transition. Most felt a sense of positive optimism; a Shell Youth Study in the early 1990s reported a 71 percent level of confidence among German youth.

Nuclear power and an infamous 'paragraph'

As young people in the East demonstrated for peaceful democratic reform, youth in the West were also marching in peace rallies. From the early 1980s onwards, they used peace camps, sit-ins and human chains to voice their anger over the arms race between the superpowers and the construction of new nuclear power plants.

Dressed in jeans and scuffed leather jackets, many also sported a bright yellow sticker featuring a smiling sun and the slogan: "Nuclear power? No thanks." In the early '80s, around one in five voters under the age of 24 voted in state elections for a new party, The Greens, or for other alternative parties.

Gorleben Atommüllendlager Atomkraft Gegner
Image: DW/K.Jäger

During the political upheaval that ensued in 1989, parts of the East German peace movement joined with the West German Greens to form the Alliance '90/Greens political group, which still exists today.

Societal attitudes to homosexuality also changed in the late 1980s. In West Germany, sex between adult men had no longer been penalized since the 1970s. In the GDR, that only became the case in 1989.

In 1994, the government finally removed the infamous "gay paragraph" from the German Criminal Code. However, homosexuality had already been out in the open to a certain extent in both East and West Germany since the 1980s.

Punks, synthesizers and AIDS

In the midst of political upheaval in parts of Berlin, particularly in the East, those in charge essentially abandoned the people living there. In neighborhoods such as Prenzlauer Berg, already the haunt of rebellious youth during GDR times, there was plenty of room for creativity.

Plakate - Deutsche Aidshilfe
This was the first poster in Germany's AIDS awareness campaign of 1985Image: DAH

Punks with mohawks could be seen alongside environmentalists in wool sweaters. They occupied the dilapidated old buildings and organized parties in old factory buildings, blasting the synthesizers. A few years later, the techno-spectacle of Love Parade brought more young Germans to the streets of Berlin than no other music event before or after.

But in the midst of these new freedoms, a dangerous specter loomed: AIDS. The disease was first diagnosed in 1981; three years later, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was identified as the cause. Both East and West Germany launched the first information campaigns on TV and in schools.

But in the East, many believed that the Wall was able to protect its citizens - even from AIDS. And they weren't completely wrong. Until 1990, only 133 East German citizens were infected with the deadly virus; 27 people had died from AIDS by the time of reunification. In West Germany, by contrast, nearly 42,000 people were infected with HIV by 1990 and more than 5,000 had contracted AIDS.

Generation 1989

When the World AIDS Conference took place in the reunited Berlin in the summer of 1993, researchers were still pessimistic. But 21 years later, people with HIV are able to live a relatively good life thanks to new drugs, even though a cure remains out of reach. And while the annual number of infections is steadily declining in Germany, HIV is still pervasive for many young people in other parts of the world.

The peace movement, the Monday demonstrations, the fall of the Wall: The youth of this generation played a crucial role in social change by standing up and saying: "We are the people." November 9, 1989 remains one of the few dates in German history predominantly associated with positive emotions. Those who were born in 1989 have grown up with freedoms that were unknown to the youth that came before them. But despite these freedoms - or perhaps because of them - they had new challenges to face.