OPINION | German Ambassador Andreas Peschke: What Gorbachev meant to me growing up in East Germany

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Former leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev at a 'meet and greet' before talking with Fritz Pleitgen about his autobiography 'Alles zu seiner Zeit' (All in good time) during the lit.Cologne litereary festival at 'Guerzenich' on March 13, 2013 in Cologne, Germany. (Photo by Ralf Juergens/Getty Images)
Former leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev at a 'meet and greet' before talking with Fritz Pleitgen about his autobiography 'Alles zu seiner Zeit' (All in good time) during the lit.Cologne litereary festival at 'Guerzenich' on March 13, 2013 in Cologne, Germany. (Photo by Ralf Juergens/Getty Images)

The German ambassador to South Africa, Andreas Peschke was 16 and living in what was then called East Germany when Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power. He details how a wave of democracy followed in central and Eastern Europe.

I grew up in East Germany. My first foreign language was Russian. I was not allowed to travel to Western countries. Not even to visit our relatives in West Germany. I was surrounded by communist propaganda. It wanted to tell us what to read, what to think, and sometimes even whom to love.

Come 1985. Moscow, capital of Soviet Union. After three older chairpersons of the ruling communist party who had died in less than three years, a new one was elected. And a younger one. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Most of us had never heard this name before. I was 16. None of my classmates paid much attention. We just felt bored by a system that wanted to stifle free thinking.

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Then this new man started to speak. And we began to listen. He spoke about the need for reforms. For transparency. For more democracy. He spoke cautiously at first. Then ever more boldly. The Russian words of "Glasnost "for transparency and "Perestroika "for reforms became part of our everyday vocabulary. They unmuted our thoughts. We started to speak freely. First among ourselves and at home. Then at school and in the streets. People began calling for reforms.

The communist party of former East Germany became wary. And restless. The new man in Moscow had become a threat to their system. To the frozen structures of suppressing free thought. The party ruling us changed their tune. For years, we had been told that to learn from the Soviet Union was to learn how to "win ". Now they said if a neighbour is redoing their house, we don't have to do it. – No, we thought. We have to do it.

School trip

In 1988, we went on a school trip to then Leningrad in the former Soviet Union. Against the advice of our teachers, we met young Russians. They spoke to us about their new leader. Gorbi, as we used to call him by then. We were electrified. They gave us a poster of him. When we got home, we went to our classroom. We took down the obligatory picture of the East German party leader from the wall. And put Mikhail Gorbachev's picture in its place. You are not allowed to change the school's furniture, said our headmaster.

But the winds of change had become unstoppable. Following the lead of our Polish neighbours, East Germans took to the streets a year later. Communist rule was toppled, and the Berlin wall was brought down. Before that, Mr Gorbachev visited Berlin, urging the die-hard communist leaders there to embark on reforms. He famously told them: "Who comes late, will be punished by history. "

READ | OBITUARY:  ‘Consequential but ultimately tragic figure’: Last leader of USSR Mikhail Gorbachev dies

History took its course. In 1990, Germany was reunified. A wave of democracy swept across Central and Eastern Europe. The Iron Curtain that had divided Europe and the world for decades came down. Back home, the people of the Soviet Union regained their independence. Some, like our friends in Lithuania and elsewhere, had to overcome violence and Soviet tanks. At the end of it, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The communist empire had fallen, swept away by liberty. 

Simultaneously, democracy and freedom were victorious in other parts of the world. In South Africa, the struggle for freedom finally set an end to apartheid rule. The whole world watched the momentous first democratic elections in 1994.

Back then, in 1991, the Ukrainian people also became an independent and free nation again. Today, they have to defend themselves against a war of aggression waged on them by their neighbour Russia. We have to stand with them.

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Mikhail Gorbachev probably did not want to dismantle the Soviet Union. His aim may have been a reformed and democratised version of communism. But he was instrumental in bringing about the changes that set large parts of Europe free. This is his lasting contribution to history. He helped to open the door for my country to regain its unity. He helped to open the door for us and others to rise for our freedom and democracy successfully. For this, I am grateful to him. Thank you, Mr Gorbachev! May you rest in peace.

- Andreas Peschke is the German Ambassador to South Africa

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