On this day in 1989 there was the largest peaceful demonstration in the history of the German Democratic Republic: what made it so remarkable?

Alexanderplatz Demonstration – image from the Bundesarchiv, more information here

The 4th November demonstration was the first ever organised by private individuals (including actors, writers and artists) which was also approved by the government. Roughly 500,000 people attended.

What Did They Want?

The protestors wanted the constitution of the GDR to be upheld. In theory, it guaranteed citizens freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, but this was never true. They spoke in support of socialism and in support of the country but against the actions of the SED (the ruling party).

Who Was There?

Incredibly, a state spymaster was there. Markus Wolf was head of the foreign intelligence division, and actually spoke at the demonstration – he was booed by protestors. If allowing peacaeful demonstrations was an attempt to show it was a strong state, these reactions showed a state with a weakening grasp on the public.

A member of the Politburo, Günter Schabowski, was also there. Why does history remember him? Because 5 days later, on the night of 9th November, Schabowski led the press conference where he accidentally declared that all East Germans were free to travel with immediate effect.

Other interesting figures were there. Among the actors and activists who spoke on behalf of the protestors was actor Ulrich Mühe, who in 2007 became famous for playing a Stasi agent in Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Cruelly, when Stasi files were declassified in 1990, he discovered his wife had been an informant for years.

A recent article for SZ Magazin describes the 4th November 1989 as “der schönste Tag der DDR” (the finest day in the GDR). Everyone the journalist Patrick Bauer spoke to had fond and positive memories. The demonstration is not well known internationally, and despite taking place so close to the igniting spark of reunification, it is not a call for a reunified Germany. They wanted their nation to be better, and to be free – instead, 11 months later, it had been replaced entirely.