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LOOKING BACK AT OUR “WE ARE THE PEOPLE” EVENT SERIES
October/November 2019 - New York, NY

(c) Sue Ream (CC BY 3.0/modified)

In October and November 2019, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung–New York Office hosted a three-part series entitled “We are the people,” which explored democratic socialism 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In conversation with various speakers and through a film screening, the series revisited the political changes as well as challenges that occurred in Germany 30 years ago. It included discussions about what democratic socialism looked like in the past, as well as what it can be going forward.

Our first event—“Imagine there was socialism and no one ran away”—was a panel discussion hosted at the RLS–NYC office. Panelist Stefan Liebich (MdB, Die Linke) revisited the time of peaceful protest in the GDR on November 4, 1989, just before the fall of Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. John W. Borneman (Princeton University) added a comparative perspective and Megan Svoboda (DSA National Political Committee) offered a contemporary take on these events. Together with Andreas Günther (RLS–NYC), who moderated the event, the three panelists discussed the political significance of this historical moment and the implications for democratic socialism today. During the discussion a key theme emerged: The panelists highlighted that the end of socialism was not the main demand of the protesters, who were more concerned with democratizing their current system rather than ending it. In other words, the protesters wanted a reform of the political system of the GDR rather than a (re-)unification with West Germany. After the panel discussion, the audience had the chance to direct questions at the panelists, which focused both on historical details as well as on issues related to current democratic socialist movements in the US and Europe.

Our second event of the series was a public screening of the movie “Coming Out” (1989) at the Anthology Film Archives. The film tells the story of a young teacher, Philipp, who becomes aware of his homosexuality while living a heteronormative relationship. The film, which premiered on the same day as the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, offers a nuanced view of the personal and social struggles surrounding the protagonist’s coming-out story while commenting on the political history of homosexuality under socialism. The screening of the film was followed by a Q&A with RLS–NYC Executive Director Andreas Günther and Project Manager Kazembe Balagun, who offered a critical reading of the film and its broader reception at the time and answered questions from the audience regarding the making of the film, its protagonists, and cultural significance.

For the last event of the series, we had the pleasure to host a talk with Irene Runge, co-founder of the Jewish Cultural Association, about political changes and Jewish Identities in East Berlin of 1989. In a public talk titled “When the wall came down: Jewish identities in the GDR,” Irene Runge invited the audience on a journey into her past in the GDR. She presented some of the main ideas from her book “WIR: Der Jüdische Kulturverein Berlin e.V. 1989-2009” and talked about the unstable political conditions for Jewish communities at the time. She also recalled how the protest of November 4, 1989, was expected to lead to new beginnings within the GDR, not to the end of an entire political system. Another issue Irene Runge highlighted in her talk was the new self-understanding of a re-unified Germany, and the role of Jewish life in this new political formation, including concerns and fears among some Jewish groups over a reinvigorated German nationalism. This was a particularly pressing issue for survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, who perceived of the GDR as an answer to the history of exclusion and persecution of Jews in Europe and a stronghold against fascism.

In sum, the event series broadcast a range of progressive and left perspectives regarding the end of the GDR in late 1989, offering space for productive conversations about democratic socialism—in the past, present, and future.

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