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Understanding how Germany and Europe ended the Cold War

March 23, 2024

A new way to present history in the classroom: A traveling exhibition illustrates important dates in the recent German and European past.

people standing atop the Berlin Wall on December 22, 1989, holding a banner reading "Germany, united Fatherland"
The fall of the Berlin Wall came after a struggle for freedom and was a reason to celebrateImage: dpa/picture alliance

"Peaceful Revolution and German Unity" is the title of a new exhibition created by the Federal Foundation for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in East Germany.

It documents a time when tight borders ran through Germany and separated eastern from western Europe and how millions of people in former East Germany (GDR), Poland, Hungary and other Eastern European countries fought for freedom and democracy in 1989.

The exhibition targets a young audience, which is why it was first presented in Berlin's Heinrich-Hertz secondary school. Students had done additional research on the exhibits documenting the history of the Cold War, which their parents or grandparents experienced firsthand.

Photos, short texts and QR codes linking to additional videos are mounted on large displays marking pivotal dates. One of them is November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. Another is February 19 of the same year, when 20-year-old Chris Gueffroy became the last person to be shot and killed by East German border guards as he attempted to escape from East to West Berlin.

Alexander Buchholtz (left), Anna Kaminski from the Stiftung Aufarbeitung (6th from left) and the politics course at Heinrich-Hertz-Gymnasium holding up the posters that make up the exhibition 'Peaceful Revolution and German Unity'
History teacher Alexander Buchholtz was happy with his students who worked with the material of the exhibition 'Peaceful Revolution and German Unity'Image: Uli Mählert/Bundesstiftung Aufarbeitung

Students learning about recent history

Jön Zenner, a 17-year-old student, says he only really got his head around the division of Germany by studying the material presented in the exhibition. "I'd had few conversations about the topic at home," he said. Zenner's father comes from western Germany, and his mother is from Hong Kong.

Zenner and his classmate, Marla Böhme, 16, presented the final exhibit entitled "Youth in a United Germany."

"The differences between east and west, between male and female youth and between young people with and without foreign roots are becoming smaller rather than larger," a 2019 Shell Youth Study found.

Böhme says these findings ring true. "I already had the feeling that in our generation there were no longer any major differences between East and West German young people. And this exhibition just made it clearer for me."

Both Zenner and Böhme agree that the exhibition is very suitable as a basis for discussion in a politics or history course. "I think this kind of an exhibition makes more sense than showing things on a smartphone, for example," says Böhme. She says students' attention spans are short for anything on their phones. "So I don't think people would really focus on it. When it's on display like this, it grabs attention better."

Jön Zenner (l.) and Marla Böhme
Jön Zenner and Marla Böhme looked into the the section describing the lives of young people in reunited GermanyImage: Marcel Fürstenau/DW

Alexander Buchholtz, who teaches history and politics, was impressed by the work his students put into their presentation. "They had great ideas," he said. The students also proved to be eager to find more information to better understand developments over the course of several years.

Instructors at the Foundation for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in East Germany are pleased with the positive response to their latest educational project. The foundation's director, Anna Kaminsky, says she realizes the topic seems far away for today's generation of students, "but it's exactly what their parents remember from when they were young."

Eastern Europe's 'peaceful revolution'

This also applies to those in other countries who fought their way to freedom in the 1980s. One poster in the exhibition has the title, "Eastern and Central Europe liberates itself." It bears a quote from Lech Walesa, a Polish dissident at the time: "The first wall to fall was torn down in 1980 at the Gdansk shipyards. Later it was the turn of the symbolic walls, and the Germans brought down the real wall in Berlin."

Walesa was the chairman of the Solidarity trade union in communist Poland from 1980 to 1990 and later became the first elected president of democratic Poland, serving from 1990 to 1995. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to freedom and democracy.

The exhibition, "Peaceful Revolution and German Unity" marks 35 years since the upheaval in Germany and Europe, and comes at a time when Russia is trying to violently turn back the clock with its war against Ukraine. It also comes at a time when European democracies are under attack from right-wing extremists. The exhibition is part of ongoing public debate about the future of democracy.

More than 500 schools, libraries and archives have already ordered the exhibit's compact poster set. This includes inquiries from France, the United Kingdom and the United States. The exhibits are available in German, English and French, but other language versions can be produced upon request.

Looking back at German reunification

This article was originally written in German.

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.