Once a year, Gunnar Lahne, an East German engineer, gets together with a group of friends. This fall they’ll meet again, but with a trace of sadness. Not because they miss East Germany, but because they witnessed its collapse as conscripts holed up in army barracks.
“Of course we complained about the military service,” explains Lahne, who joined the army as a 19-year-old conscript in 1987. “We were basically locked in.”
Young men who wanted to go to university had to demonstrate worthiness by completing three years of military service.
“We had training until 5 p.m., and then we spent the evening playing cards and making music together,” says Lahne. “Looking back, I did my military service for nothing. But because we had to spend every evening together, we soldiers became very close friends.”
Another part of the barracks housed construction soldiers — men who were planning to study theology. The regime made good use of the future pastors, dispatching them to build roads and factories. “There were huge tensions between the officers and us,” says Sebastian Schurig, who served in a pipelayer brigade in the late 1980s. “They always scheduled exercises on Sundays so we couldn’t go to church.”
In 1989, the world anticipated a crackdown of East Germany’s demonstrations. “We knew we might be sent in to quell them,” explains Frank Dunker, whose military service began in 1988. “We had long discussions among ourselves about how we’d react if we were ordered to shoot at people.”
The conscripts in his brigade decided to refuse such an order. But instead, the army faded quietly.
“In 1990, the officers didn’t know what to do with us,” recalls Dunker. “And they were afraid that they were going to be put in front of a people’s tribunal.”
In early 1990, the soldiers in Dunker’s brigade were released. Now, 20 years later, they still share a kinship.