In Conversation with Belinda Cooper: Commemorating the 30th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

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Belinda Cooper is an Adjunct Assistant Professor who teaches human rights and women’s rights at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and co-teaches the global field intensive on war crimes prosecutions in The Hague and former Yugoslavia. She is also an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

Professor Cooper’s experience has included working with East German dissidents in Berlin, Germany before the fall of communism. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this month, the Global Affairs Review sat down with Professor Cooper to hear about her experiences during that historically pivotal time.

Global Affairs Review: Can you tell us more about the work you did with East German dissidents before the fall of communism?

Professor Cooper: When I arrived in West Berlin at the end of 1987 on a Fulbright grant, I wanted to go to East Berlin as soon as I could. Like many Americans, I was curious about life under Communist rule. Venturing across from West Berlin with a journalist friend, I met a group of dissidents engaged in clandestinely exposing environmental damage in East Germany, which the East German government treated as a state secret. Soon after I met them, a few of them founded an environmental network called Arche. I began to work more closely with Arche and to transfer information between East and West Berliners (even though East and West Germany were right next to each other, the Wall really separated them. East Germans could not usually travel to the West, and East German immigrants to the West generally were not allowed to return to the East once they left. But foreigners like me, as well as most West Germans, could cross the border fairly easily). During the time I was working with them, Arche collaborated with West German journalists to produce an underground documentary on Bitterfeld, a small East German town that had an immense chemical industry complex and therefore was extremely polluted. It was very risky to do this kind of clandestine work since people known to be dissidents were constantly monitored by the secret police. West German television networks released the documentary, and because East Germans had access to West German television, both East and West Germans were able to see it. Arche also put out a samizdat-style magazine called Arche Nova that published articles and data on the environment. Information was a huge deal because the Stasi, the secret police, really tried to prevent people from getting information. People did not have telephones, so networking was very important. To improve communication and help the East German group, I collaborated with a handful of East German immigrants in West Berlin to establish a sister-organization of Arche in West Berlin to help disseminate and publicize environmental information about East Germany, obtain better technology and more financing for the group in the East, and protect Arche members. The better known they became in the West, the more protected Arche became from the Stasi.

You co-produced a monthly local radio program on developments in Eastern Europe and Germany. What do you remember most vividly about the changes that were occurring in the region in the lead up to the fall of the Berlin Wall?

The period between October and November 1989 was particularly important in bringing about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism. Leading up to this, East Germans were becoming increasingly frustrated at being unable to leave East Germany. The only places East Germans could travel to and from freely were Czechoslovakia and Hungary. During the summer of 1989, many East Germans went on vacation to these countries and did not come back. While this led to a “brain drain” in East Germany, East Germany’s ruler, Erich Honecker, refused to engage with the country’s disgruntled public. Mikhail Gorbachev, who was permitting greater freedom in the Soviet Union, became a symbol of hope for East Germans. On October 7, 1989, the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), I was in East Berlin when East Germans all over the country took to the streets to demonstrate for greater freedom. That was a really exciting moment, even though many of the protesters were arrested. Two days later, I was also present in Leipzig when a major demonstration took place there. East Germans were afraid that the GDR might violently crack down on the protests, especially since they knew about the brutal end to the Tiananmen Square protests in China earlier that year. Instead, that day in Leipzig became a peaceful turning point.

The October 9th demonstration in Leipzig was particularly exciting because, for the first time, the police did not repress the crowds. Instead, after the demonstration, I saw police huddled in groups openly talking with protesters about political and social issues – an amazing sight and something that simply would not have happened in the past. After that, between October and November, more and more opposition groups formed across East Germany. On November 4th, East Berlin had its first legal demonstration dedicated to freedom of speech; at least a half-million people took part. Their newfound freedom was apparent in the really creative signs many carried – it was like years of pent-up speech exploding into the public arena. A few days later, on November 9th, I was showing a journalist around East Berlin, introducing him to members of the opposition. When we got to the crossing point from East to West Berlin that evening, a line of people had formed to go across to West Berlin. “The Wall is open!” they told us. It was incredible.

West_and_East_Germans_at_the_Brandenburg_Gate_in_1989.jpgImage from Wikimedia Commons.

What do you think is something that most students may not be aware of regarding the fall of the Berlin Wall? 

The government permitted elderly East Germans to travel to West Germany, but it prohibited other East Germans from crossing over unless it was for very special occasions such as a wedding or a milestone birthday. One of the ways East Germans received information was by watching West German television – many of them loved Alf, an American TV sitcom about an alien! Something that particularly resonated with me was the East Germans’ perseverance and strength. The hardships they faced required a degree of courage that was not always appreciated by West Germans. To get to the point where an East German could say “no” to becoming a secret police informant or joining the ruling party, or could decide “I’m going to do something on my own” without state approval, took so much guts, because they did not know what the consequences might be.

How did your time in Berlin impact your career in human rights and international law? 

Transitional justice has had such an effect on everything I have done. As the daughter of a Jewish Holocaust survivor, I was always interested in Germany’s transition from Nazism. I studied German and spent some time in Germany during and after college. Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, transitional justice had not yet existed as a field of study. When I lived in Berlin after the fall, I taught American law at Humboldt University of Berlin to East and West German students. It was fascinating to have both East and West Germans in my class because they came from very different starting points and offered different insights. I also worked as a journalist during my time in Germany. The period after the fall of the Wall was an amazing moment where you could do anything and gain access to almost anyone. For example, I wanted to learn more about the East German police, so I just went into some police stations and asked if I could talk to police officers. They offered to let me ride around with them, so for a few days, I rode in the back of an East German police car and watched them work.

What most struck you when you returned to Berlin for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall? 

It was wonderful to see all of the people that I met and connected with throughout my years in Germany when I returned for the anniversary of the fall of the Wall. Berlin is still my city. It is a really special place. The anniversary celebrations took place against the background of the rise of the AfD, a far-right party that has been getting significant support especially in eastern Germany, and there was a lot of thoughtful commentary about possible mistakes made in the process of German reunification. On another level, the situation in the United States right now has actually helped me understand a bit better how my East German friends must have felt before the fall of the Wall. Of course, it is not the same thing, but living under the current U.S. administration has given me some sense of what it is like living day to day with a cruel, unpredictable, irrational leadership. Fortunately, we are, despite everything, a democracy with rule of law and functioning institutions, so the parallels only go so far. But these days, in both Germany and the US, it is hard not to hear echoes of the past in present-day events.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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