The city has a long tradition of resistance to unwelcome authorities. As early as 1256 it rose up against the Emperor's representative, tore down the royal castle and established independent self-rule which lasted until 1802. In 1525 the city became the centre of the Peasants' War. Local people led by the radical preacher Thomas Müntzer made a brief attempt to set up a new and reformed city government. Their plans were swept aside by the happenings throughout Germany as the warring peasants met final defeat at the Battle of Frankenhausen. Müntzer was captured, tortured, beheaded, and his corpse displayed outside Mühlhausen's city walls.
The black and white press photos which appear in the following account of the peaceful revolution in Mühlhausen are by courtesy of the City Archive and Public Record Office, where I owe particular thanks to the former Head Archivist, Frau Beate Kaiser and her colleague Frau Henning for their generous help. The Stadtarchiv, as it is called in German, is a splendid place to do research, not at all hushed and formal like some large public record offices. It has a small and rather cosy reading room in one of the old City Hall wings with very thick walls and windows looking out onto the narrow streets below. The section The oldest city archive and public records office in Germany gives a description of both the Stadtarchiv and the Reichsstädtisches Archiv (The Imperial City Archive).
In the late summer of 1989 we were still living in England and I was still teaching German at the local comprehensive. We had taken several school groups to West Germany on family exchanges to Vienenburg, a small town on the edge of the Harz Mountains and right next to the border between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic. On each visit we took the children to look at the border fortifications. It was an instructive history lesson, and in the light of later developments, a very important one. There was a so-called Border Observation Point just outside Vienenburg where one could climb up onto a wooden platform and stare across at the other Germany and just make out the border guards who were staring back at us. It resembled nothing so much as the lions enclosure at the zoo. Poor lions – not allowed to live in a natural environment. I used to find it distinctly embarrassing, actually shameful, to be gawping at people in that way. And I still hesitate to ask people in Mühlhausen about their time in the GDR. It seems so judgmental. I think it is better to wait and let them tell me. They all saw different aspects of that very secretive regime and are often surprised and horrified to learn about such things as incidents along the border, which at the time were very hushed up.
The long years of the Iron Curtain had seemed destined to go on for ever. I was still at school when the East German workers' uprising of 1953 was so brutally crushed, but at university I remember hearing the desperate calls for help from Hungary in 1956 and sharing the frustration that the West did nothing. Several Hungarian refugee students joined us at Oxford where they were given help to continue their studies. One of those refugees had spent three days amidst the chaos in Budapest carefully copying the security police records, thus saving them for posterity, before he fled to Austria.
Then we raised our hopes as the Prague Spring dominated the headlines in 1968. Again the West did nothing. Earlier in that year the GDR had introduced new penal laws which included imprisonment for subversive activities of any kind against the state. East German troops were sent to the Czech frontier, to the disgust of many in their own population who had welcomed the Czech reforms. 1300 of the many East Germans who protested in support of the Czech reforms were subjected to surveillance, arrest and in many cases imprisonment.
The workers' uprising in Berlin found its echo in Mühlhausen and the surrounding villages and smaller towns. Unlike the action among industrial workers in other areas, in Mühlhausen activities were dominated by agricultural workers. The city was, and still is, surrounded by rich farming country. Many, but not all, farms had been taken over by the Landesproduktionsgesnossenschaften, the collective farms modelled on the Soviet kolkhoz. Those farmers who resisted having their land taken over were subjected to all kinds of terrorisation which mostly led to bankruptcy and expropriation, in the same way as private businesses in towns were treated. Those owners who could, escaped to the West, but many were imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Meanwhile the state-owned farms and factories pressurised their workers to ever-increasing workloads despite the catastrophic shortages of foods and basic items for living. Resentment therefore was on the point of exploding.
On the afternoon of June 17, 1953, about 300 agricultural workers from Langula, Oberdorla, Altengottern, Bollstedt, Bothenheiligen and Langensalza marched into Mühlhausen with a list of demands, including the release of several of their people who were locked up in the local gaol behind the District Court on the Untermarkt, the Lower Market. Some were actually released to much jubilation. The villagers were joined by local inhabitants and the crowd swelled to around 2000, taking the police and the SED functionaries by surprise. It came to fisticuffs in which the farmers definitely had the advantage. Only when the local Russian commandant was alerted did the crowd disperse. A state of emergency was declared which lasted for several days. During the following days 19 local people were arrested and 8 received prison sentences. In Bollstedt Kurt Eisenhardt, who owned one of the larger farms, and one of his sons were only able to escape arrest by hiding out three weeks long until they were helped to cross the border into West Germany on July 8. Eisenhardt's wife and second son escaped via West Berlin. They left behind a prosperous livestock and grain farm founded by Kurt's father, all their local friends and relatives and a third son who continued to farm and in 1959 joined the Bollstedt collective.
Feelings ran high in support of the Prague Spring. In Mühlhausen and the surrounding villages slogans appeared against the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and the military support sent by the GDR. Numerous groups who protested openly were promptly dispersed by the local police. The new laws made it illegal for more than four people to assemble in the open. On the Steinweg, the main street, several hundred people demonstrated against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Many were arrested, dragged away and thrown onto army lorries, to be interrogated and imprisoned. One young apprentice typed and, with a friend, distributed leaflets protesting against the “red stranglehold” and calling Ulbricht, head of the government, the “red Hitler”. A number of people handed in their copies to the Staatssicherheit (security police) who then checked all the typewriters in the city and identified the young man. He was subjected to harsh interrogation and imprisoned in Erfurt. Recently he recounted his story to schoolchildren in Mühlhausen, where he still lives. His friend was later also imprisoned. Also an elderly man who spoke out in support of the Czechs was sentenced to 30 months in prison.