Media networks, oppression and globalization all met on one day in October 1989

Hanson wrote about China and its attempts to block out its citizens from having access to the internet and other modern and global means of communication. Chinese find a way to circumvent the constraints as best as they can so they too, can be a part of the globalized society. This made me think about the government enforced regulations on TV consumption that I grew up with.

I was born and raised in East Germany. In order to make a phone call one had to go to the post office and apply to make that phone call. You had to tell them whom you wanted to call and where and usually a casual “And why if I may ask?” was thrown in there as well. Then when it was your time to make the call you went to a booth (still in the post office) and placed your call, knowing full well that it was being recorded and/or live listened to by some government official, always ready to pulling the plug if you said something you shouldn’t have.

There was one state TV station. You could receive West German television in most parts of the East but your TV had to be tweaked a certain way. The more tricky part was keeping your kids from going into school or pre-school telling all about that West German TV show or cartoon characters they saw the night before. Teachers and educators had to report families that watched West German TV and that information was then used by the Stasi to implicate the families.

Before the wall in Berlin feel there were months of demonstrations all over East Germany – that mostly no East German knew about since the government tried its best to hide these events from its citizens. On October 9, 1989 over 70,000 people marched peacefully, but in fear of being imprisoned or shot, through the city of Leipzig. The fact that this demonstration would take place spread through informal channels of communication (word of mouth, leaflets) and people who came to Leipzig just for that event were not certain what would await them.

At the same time globalization was visiting the city of Leipzig in the form of an international trade fair. Journalists from across Europe and the globe were in the city to report on the trade fair – officially. A West German TV crew was hiding thoughout the city and taped demonstration footage with the intent to air it on the West German prime time news show (Tagesschau). Despite tight security and a struggle to smuggle the tapes outside of the country it worked. On October 10, West Germany, the world but most importantly East Germans (secretly watching West German news) saw what was going on in their country.

[Original footage is shown around minute 1:15]

I am wondering how East Germany would have restricted access to other means of communication such as internet or cell phones. Private telephone lines were very much restricted, in order to own a car you waited about 20 years, compared to other goods a TV was outrageously priced. Communication (via letters) was restricted to the point that every mail was opened if it was deemed suspicious or unusual (by whoever), often times not passed on or packets were sent on empty. Whatever was the content of your mail (sending or receiving) was part of the Stasi file that was kept on most citizens. How would the internet have been handled? I feel like we would have lived like North Koreans – no phone line = no internet. Or maybe communication from the bordering countries would have had a spill over effect and smart phones and other media would also have (secretly) found its way into our daily life until people felt they could take on the government and demand freedom.

Seeing how even Russia struggles with freedom of speech and access I am glad the unification of Germany came when it did. It is one thing to live oppressed but another to know what you are missing out on.


4 thoughts on “Media networks, oppression and globalization all met on one day in October 1989

  1. This is a really interesting post! Growing up at the same time in the US, I can’t remember ever thinking about censorship or anything along those lines until middle or high school history lessons. Naturally, there is a certain degree of censorship that goes on, and has always gone on, here in the US, yet it is always very carefully hidden…so as a child anything more complex than Saturday morning cartoons or the mailman’s schedule was beyond my sphere of thought regarding the exchange of media and communciation.
    You mentioned that you suspect that had the reunification of Germany not occurred, that you believe East Germany would be living in a situation similar to that of North Korea. What differences do you think would have developed due to (East) Germany’s location in the center of Europe? North Korea has the relative luxury of geographically being fairly isolated from the western world, which has to make blocking outside media easier. China also has very strict media rules, but they have a significant advantage in that they have so many people that it isn’t completely impractical to create their own internet portals and search engines. One of my main interests is Russian Studies, and I can see how East Germany could have developed a very similar atmosphere — where the government has very tight control over television and other traditional communication methods, but where western influences and free expression still seep in through the internet. I also think that you made a good point when you said that it’s even worse to be oppressed and be absolutely aware that it’s happening.

    • The location of East Germany would have certainly made a “lock-down mode” difficult to do but I do think that certain policies would have been implemented to shield the population from accessing the “evil Western goods”. The more tight the net would have been spun the more people would have been willing to leave. Yet at the same time I believe border crossings would have been imposed a much tighter security level than they already were (with mines, fences, orders to fire etc.). In some areas security was very tight which is why there are a number of very courageous yet adventurous defecting attempts by air (small aircraft; hot air balloon) and land (swimming through the Baltic Sea; crawling through tunnels).

      While the country would have been locked down I believe aid attempts from neighbors would have increased tremendously. So in the end you would have had a system that is trying very hard to keep its people in while you’d have neighboring countries that would use a lot of creativity and power to get people out. Media influence, passing communication tools, influencing the public sphere in the East would all have been part of it.


  2. Franzi, what a fascinating post! Thank you for sharing your personal insights. It is almost unimaginable to think about how different East Germany would be had it continued persisting with a policy of technological isolation. It wouldn’t be as funny as the film “Good Bye Lenin!” (2003), that’s for sure. If the Berlin Wall did not fall in 1989, the world would certainly be a different place. The triumph of Western-style democracy over Soviet communism would not be as pronounced as it is in the media today, and perhaps U.S. hard and soft power campaigns would engage with the world from a different perspective. If for some terrible reason, East Germans still lived behind the wall and beyond the reach of modern ICTs, I think a black market for information would certainly develop, as it has in North Korea.

    Even though North Korean citizens are permitted to have radios in their possession, each radio must be inspected by a government police authority. The inspector literally “fixes” the radio dial to the state broadcast station and seals it. Police have the right to search and seize radios at any time for further inspection. If a North Korean is caught listening to a non-government sanctioned radio program, there are often devastating consequences. As punishment, a citizen might be sent to a labor camp (the notorious kwan li so), along with two other generations of their family. In North Korea, the regime punishes three generations for a crime committed by one individual. Oftentimes, grandparents, husbands/wives, and children are all sent to gulags — all for what we in the west would think are small misdemeanors (tampering with or not cleaning the portraits of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, or Kim Jong Un, for example). The experiences of these individuals have finally begun to surface as North Korean defectors make their way out of the darkness, quite literally (North Korea on a map at night, comparison of electricity usage:,_satellite_image-SPL.jpg).

    We can read about their experiences in Barbara Demick’s book “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” or Chol Hwan Kang’s “The Aquariums of Pyongyang,” or Melanie Kirkpatrick’s recent text, “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad.” What these books also emphasize is the value placed on communications technology and information of the outside world, and the risks some citizens are willing take to obtain such information. While North Korea seems relatively isolated on the peninsula, it does share a border with very busy Chinese city, Dandong, which is right across from North Korea. The two on situated across from each other on the Yalu River. While North Koreans can see the bright lights and casinos of Dandong at night, the Chinese can hardly see into their neighboring foreign town, despite the fact that the two are connected by a Chinese-North Korean friendship bridge. Even though on the surface things seem to be tightly controlled, North Korean defectors give accounts of having heard foreign radio broadcasts; having seen opulent and flashy South Korean dramas on DVDs; having purchased Chinese goods from neighbors; and having seen and/or purchased cellphones off the black market. Where there’s a curious people and a deficiency of information, there’s bound to be pathways carved out for access to such information and its related technology — even with the risk of losing one’s life.

    I think those who study North Korea hope that the liberation of its citizens is close in the future. Many North Korean defectors hope to live to see this day, and continue to work on using communication technology to broadcast adio segments and use cellphone networks to help run underground railroads for those seeking a path out of the country to freedom.

    • The movie Good Bye, Lenin is a good depiction of what was going on after the wall fell. Anything West German was THE THING TO BUY where as people got rid of their East German stuff as quickly as possible.

      Before the wall fell, there were actually legal ways to get West German goods. One could use the intershops that were located in major cities and provided access to West German delicacies if one had West German currency to pay with. The other option was to receive mail from relatives from the West but like I said above, the mail was controlled and more often than not treats did not reach the intended recipient.

      While there was no black market there was certainly a gray market in East Germany. It was all about who you know (sales people and those connected to sales people) and your persistence. If you wanted anything that was not subsidized by the government (food and rent was, for example, but TVs were not) you had to be very patient and very persistent in your quest.

      When my mom was pregnant with me it took her six months to get a baby blanket (duvet) and pillow for my crib.

      Sales people usually said “Ham’ wir nich’!” (meaning “We ain’t got that!”) whenever your inquired until one fine day you would be in luck. Because people would never know when that day would come they always had a shopping bag ready with them. If you want to find out if you are talking to an East German or West German, ask them if they have a spare bag with them – it’s a sure way to tell! This behavior is still around, even 20 years later and with stores full of goods to buy.

      The networking culture would have intensified if the wall had not fallen. People were already on the verge and in the months leading up to Fall 1989 it was very difficult to get anything really, shoes or fabric or dishes…that was what fuelled the protests, too, because people thought that in the West everything is different, everything is available, and everything is affordable (that’s just a minor kink that did not come true).


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