9 November 1989: My parents were in a rush to get me and my brothers to our grandparents. It was a spontaneous rather than planned trip and I was too young to understand why my parents were suddenly in a hurry, yet I was old enough to understand that ‘something big’ was unfolding on that particular day.
Just a few hours later, my parents were crossing the border into East Germany, heading to Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Wall. Although I was unable to grasp the historical importance of that day in the autumn of 1989, this day is one of my earliest childhood memories.
The breakdown of the physical barrier dividing Germany and indeed Europe led also to the breakdown of a barrier that severely limited the power, indeed the freedom, to create. Whilst the fall of the Wall was an interplay of several several factors and individuals, (The Hoff claims he was one of them) the desire of East Germans to be free and to take their lives into their own hands - to gain the power to create their own lives - was probably the most decisive factor.
A ribbon of cobblestones marks the path of the Berlin wall through the inner city
Here at the RSA, we are emphasising the ‘Power to Create’ which we consider as essential to a meaningful and fulfilled life that enables us to express ourselves freely and gives us access to power and resources that enable us to shape our own future. We are convinced that creativity is in all of us and if unleashed gives us the confidence and opportunity to develop products, start businesses or lead social movements.
Not surprisingly, a regime that locked in its own people did not leave much space for creativity to flourish, let alone for social movements to demand change. Not only the education system, but also scientists and artists - occupations which are by definition considered to be of a creative nature - were subject to rigid state control.
The SED (Socialist Unity Party) regime aimed to ensure that individuals served the society as a whole, rather than to pursue individual interests and inclinations. The socialist state had priority, individual desires were secondary. Thus the objective of the education system was conformity and adaption. Schools were tasked to raise children as abiding citizens, supporting the socialist system. Moreover, schools had to harmonise the career aspirations of their pupils with the skill requirements of employers and authorities had to approve apprenticeship contracts. The ‘Law on the unitary socialist education system’ described this process as ‘steering’. Too much creativity or empowered citizens did not fit into a system being steered from the top.
The limitation of creativity was also widely applied in the higher education system. Herman Peiter outlines how science was ‘strangled’ by the SED, but he also points out that the regime did not attempt to limit the creativity of scientists, instead creativity was to be ‘channelled’. Science, however, requires openness to flourish – an open ocean rather than a channel. A channel is narrow, individuals are confined with no room to manoeuvre. But manoeuvrability can lead to spontaneity, individualism and empowerment which was considered as a threat the uniform system of the GDR. Moreover, access to the higher education system was limited to students who followed the state doctrine. Students were handpicked and had to prove their conformity to the socialist system. These beliefs were to be reinforced with mandatory subjects such as Marxism-Leninism. Opposition to the system was punished with disenrollment or a lack of promotion.
One of the most iconic moments of 1989 - You don’t need to understand German to realise what it meant for the East Germans when former West German Foreign Minister Hans-Friedrich Genscher announced (at 00:20) that they were allowed to travel to West Germany.
Artists were similarly limited in the expression of their creativity. Musicians, actors and painters who were critical of the system received less or no funding and were not allowed to present their work in the public. In 1976 the expatriation of the singer Wolf Biermann gained attention when he was accused of not fulfilling his ‘citizen’s duties’ after criticizing the GDR on several occasions. In the following years, many artists either chose or were forced to leave the country and began a new life in West Germany. On Friday, Biermann will be singing in the German Parliament to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall.
Despite the deep penetration of the socialist system into the lives of the people, conformity was not always achieved and resistance was not uncommon, at least when people felt that they could speak freely without being monitored by the Stasi. ‘The Lives of Others’, however, showed us that even private homes were often not secure from the secret service. At a later stage the number of people who resisted the SED regime openly increased and led to the events of the late 1980s. The power to create a social movement could not be contained.
However, gaining the freedom to create does not always lead to gaining the power to create. But the very fact that we are able to work towards the latter, is testament to the stability of the former. The freedom of speech, democracy and the ability to travel are the very basics of the power to create. Sometimes I wonder if we take these freedoms for granted and forget that they they are still limited to many people around the world. The struggle East Germans experienced in the past and many people all over the world still experience today emphasises the fact that the freedom to create is extraordinary and not a given.
All too often, the elite is still considered as the class of changemakers, but if we want to address the challenges we face as a society, we require the combined creativity of the masses. Self-determination as the people of East Germany have achieved, is just a start of a longer journey to develop and strengthen the Power to Create for everyone. It’s a long way to go, but here at the RSA we are taking the first steps.