It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that the German revolution began in Tiananmen Square. When troops moved against Chinese pro-democracy demonstrators on June 4, 1989, the events filled television screens around the world, but perhaps nowhere with so much effect as in East Germany. There, millions of people watched anxiously as Chinese students and citizens waged a war of nerves against the government -- and then lost in a brutal military crackdown.
Pastor Tureck remembers the impact of those images from Beijing on his parishioners in Leipzig. ''We saw Tiananmen Square here in Leipzig on West German television . . . and it influenced our world," he recalls. "Although people were afraid, they were also filled with hope.'' Many East Germans gathered in the wooden pews of Pastor Tureck's quaint little church after seeing reports from China to discuss what the events in China might mean for their own burgeoning protest movement.
Erich Honecker also watched the reports from Tiananmen. They had, according to Princeton University Prof. James McAdams, one of the leading American experts on the GDR, ''a paradoxical effect. The East German government knew people were watching things play out in China, and they felt pressured into taking a stand. Honecker had to take a hard-line position to make it clear to the people that such behavior would not be tolerated.''
Honecker had tried to keep East German television from covering the Beijing uprising, but the strategy backfired: West German TV was broadcasting the images and enabling citizens and the leadership of East Germany to see what was happening. The East German government's response of open support for what the Chinese leadership did in Tiananmen created anger and frustration among the East German citizenry.
Of course, Tiananmen Square was only one of the powerful video images of revolution that reached East Germany in the banner year of 1989, albeit perhaps the most galvanizing. There were also images from Poland -- Gen. Jaruzelski standing with Lech Walesa, whose hand was clenched in a Solidarity victory salute. There were images from Hungary -- soldiers cutting the barbed wire fence along the Austro-Hungarian border. There were images from Czechoslovakia -- freedom trains carrying jubilant East Germans to the West.
Television was, for the people of East Germany, a window through which they could witness the revolutionary changes taking place around them. It allowed them to take part in the broad movement to unseat communism around the world. It filled them with the courage to confront a police state known for its brutal repression of dissent. It gave them information and knowledge -- with which they could challenge the old ways of looking at the world.
When Mikhail Gorbachev burst upon this television scene in 1985 with his new ideas of perestroika and glasnost, the old guard of the East German leadership resisted as best it could. Honecker was a traditionalist, a product of the old school, and so he used traditional means to fight back. He censored Gorbachev's speeches in East Germany. He banned Soviet articles. Bern Beyer, an East German economist, recalls being angered by the strategy. ''We could see Gorbachev on television, but only the privileged were allowed to read the complete text of what he had to say.''
Again, the strategy backfired. Honecker failed to realize, until it was too late, the power of television as a motivator of public opinion. Honecker could keep Gorbachev out of the libraries, but he could not keep him out of the living room. On West German television came pictures of the new Soviet leader in action -- kissing babies in Britain, shaking hands with Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, drawing crowds on the streets of Washington, escorting Ronald Reagan around Moscow.
Daniela Dahn, an East German writer and former television producer, recalls how the contrast frustrated people. ''There was a lot of pent-up anger in the country, and the East German TV media did nothing to even hint that the system was prepared to change. Meanwhile people could get television from the West, from West Germany. And we watched as glasnost developed in the Soviet Union. We could see it.''
Not everything people saw from the Soviet Union was positive. In 1987 television carried the first pictures of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Prof. McAdams was living in East Germany at the time. ''It was the first convincing sign of the universal crisis of socialism. Here was a cloud over everyone's head. East German television tried to say it was no big deal. West German television showed pictures of Bavarian supermarkets dumping their vegetables. The public trust was further eroded.''
This erosion of public trust reached its pinnacle with the tearing down of the barbed wire fence along the border between Austria and Hungary. While West German television was showing pictures of ecstatic East Germans driving across the border, East German television carried an official statement on its state-run ADN network criticizing Hungary for the "organized smuggling of human beings." Within days of that report, thousands of East Germans who feared climbing the Berlin Wall flooded Hungary in hopes of taking the long road to West Germany. "Television gave us information, sometimes information on how to leave the country," says Daniela Dahn.
Such mass departures were a traditional fear of the East German leadership, and it used traditional means to try to prevent them. Beginning with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the state had tried to limit travel to the West and contacts between citizens of East and West. At first the policy included curtailing the spread of information by television and other means. In the early 1960s youth brigades harassed those who tried to watch Western TV. Television antennas were torn down or turned around in an effort to scramble the incoming signal from West Germany. When the West Germans changed to a new PAL system of broadcasting, East German television refused to convert the signal for viewing.
But technology moved faster than the political leadership. People were able to turn the antennas back around or to buy converters on the black market. Honecker finally reached a decision in the mid-1970s to abandon efforts to cut the East off from Western television. He chose instead to counter it with propaganda from within. As McAdams explains, "the policy changed from one of isolation from the West to one of insulation from the West."
Television might actually show people the excesses of capitalism -- homelessness, drugs, unemployment. East German television would be used to propagate the positive values of socialism. Honecker instituted "Black Channel," a government propaganda program that put its own spin on news from the West and provided pro-East German programs. Bern Beyer recalls how "Black Channel" would use video of Gorbachev with negative commentary running over it. "You would see a positive image but hear an East German negative opinion being expressed. Most viewers understood the difference."
As a television producer for East German television, Dahn learned firsthand what it was like to play by Honecker's rules. "One of the shows I produced was canceled by the government because it was too controversial. It exposed the unfair wages being paid young people in the GDR. Another program about pollution in the GDR was cut because it used real data. We were not supposed to use real data because people were not supposed to know how bad the water was that they were drinking."
Since then, people have been introduced to programs like "Klartext," which provide investigative reports on everything from the old Stasi or state security to new political developments. A program called "1199," named for the postal zip code in East Berlin, is targeted to youth, with up-to-date music videos and cultural stories from the West.
Dahn says that the television revolution has had positive and negative effects. "The percentage of people who watch the GDR nightly news has risen from about 4 percent to 45 percent. . . . There are communities around Hanover that have demanded that their city administrators install satellite dishes so they can watch East German news."
The downside is that literature has at least temporarily lost its attraction. "Theaters are empty, and books just aren't being bought anymore. Fiction, in particular, is not attracting people's attention."
The geographic and cultural closeness of the two Germanys made the impact of West German television on the GDR even more magnified. People in East Berlin who watched the news from West Germany heard reports in their own language and saw pictures of a country just next door. The irony is that television has been both a means and an end.
Ron Asmus, an expert on East Germany for the Rand Corp., has been looking at the root causes of the revolution. "The two things that drove the revolution were the desire for freedom and affluence -- and the sense of a single German nation. On the first, the media appealed to the East German pent-up consumerism. People want a BMW, they want to go to the Bahamas . . . And this revolution was, in part, about the desire for a VCR."
By late September of 1989 the revolution had spread to all corners of the GDR. Massive protests finally persuaded Honecker to cut off Western media coverage. Journalists were blocked from entering East Berlin and other cities. No foreign media were present in Leipzig when a massacre was averted by last-minute compromises between the church and the local Communist Party. Television cameras were not there to record the events.
But Honecker's last-ditch effort to curtail Western coverage of the protest movement failed. By Oct. 16 the crowds in Leipzig had swelled to 100,000. Two days later, Honecker resigned, citing ill health. On Oct. 30, "Black Channel," the government propaganda program aired its last program.
Those who had their television sets tuned in to the evening news on Nov. 9 heard a hastily read, ill-prepared statement by Gunther Shabowski, an East German Politburo member. "Today, the decision was made that makes it possible for all citizens to leave the country through East German crossing points." Seemingly unsure himself of what that meant, Shabowski tried to suggest that it was not the fall of the Berlin Wall. "This does not mean that we mean to tear it down."
But millions of viewers heard those words and raced to Checkpoint Charlie, one of the most famous of the Wall's crossings. In a country where only 30 percent of the population has a telephone but 90 percent has television, the quickest way to verify information is on the streets. Border guards at the Wall crossings had not even been issued new instructions. They learned that something dramatic had happened the same way everyone else did -- through television.
In the days and weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, East German television aggressively covered the news and began in-depth investigations into the corruption of the Honecker regime. In fact, it was East German television that carried the first pictures of the fancy dachas and lavish hunting lodges that had housed the top officials of the Communist Party. Stories of pollution in East Germany were also run -- completely changed, says Bern Beyer of the East Berlin Institute of Politics and Economics. "It is, at times, even more aggressive than West German television."
There is a final irony: in China, where some of the impetus for revolutions in Eastern Europe originated, citizens have not been able to see the results. The Chinese leadership, unlike Erich Honecker, understands fully the impact of television. The dramatic images of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall were barely seen in the homes of ordinary Chinese citizens.
The writer is editorial producer for Koppel Communications, Ted Koppel's independent production company.