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Operation "Troublemaker": SED Leadership Shown up by Protestors

Twenty-five years ago, on 17 January 1988, a group of demonstrators unfurl banners at the annual "fighting demonstration" held in honour of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in East Berlin. Their plan is to use quotes from Luxemburg such as "Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters" and "Those who do not move do not notice their chains" to provoke high-level SED members. Security forces arrest more than 100 people.

Individuals hoping to emigrate and people in the opposition movement have organised themselves within the group of protestors. With posters and banners, they plan to use the official demonstration to make their concerns public and demand human rights. The Stasi is informed of the protest act well in advance. Information is collected about the protestors’ activities under the heading "Operation Troublemaker" which leads to arrests, allegations and expatriations.

From the Files of the State Security Service

MfS investigations reveal that the planned protest act is discussed on 9 January 1988 during a meeting of the working group "GDR Citizens’ Rights" and the "Initiative for Freedom and Human Rights" that was held in the rooms of the Zion Church parish. Its aim is to 2put pressure on the GDR state organs regarding the approval of emigration" to the West.

A report from HA XX from 14 January 1988 describes how Wolfgang Templin tries to get people attending a Peace Workshop event in the municipal youth parish office to join the protest act three days before the official demonstration. The Stasi notes: "The participants responded with reserve and there were no applause… the operative Templin couple, sufficiently known to us..., increasingly emerges as the central ... figure...and is trying to recruit additional participants at every opportunity."

A confiscated poster saying: “Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters”.A confiscated poster saying: “Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters”. Source: BStU, MfS, HA IX, Fo Bild 1

By 13 January the Stasi has already begun taking extensive precautionary measures. 118 people are "handed over" to the German People’s Police and taught a "lesson." In the case of 19 people, the decision to "approve emigration" is made on short-notice. On 17 January 1988, 105 people are arrested "to effectively suppress and hinder" their participation in the protest act. They include members and supporters of the "GDR Citizens’ Rights Working Group" and "Initiative for Peace and Human Rights" as well as other "hostile negative forces" including 84 people who have applied to emigrate.

Preliminary investigations are opened on 66 people on the basis of Article 217 StGB of the GDR (in short: "riotous assembly") and arrest warrants are issued. The Stasi characterises six people as "exponents of political underground activity." The Stasi outlines its measures against the protest in the following document:

Information on preventing the fighting demonstration of Berlin workers on 17 January 1988 from being misused for planned provocative-demonstrative anti-socialist activities

Despite all the measures taken by the Stasi, the protestors are able to get close to the official demonstration procession on 17 January and unfurl their banners.

Consequence of Arrests

Following the wave of arrests connected to 17 January, many demonstrations of sympathy are expressed throughout the country for the people arrested. Petitions and appeals are composed, mostly within rooms of the church. Representatives of western media are always present. Reports on these events presented on western television become the East German population’s main source of information.

In response to the wave of protests, HA XX, the Stasi department responsible for monitoring the state apparatus, church and underground activities, begins compiling a special information file. From 19 January to 3 February 1988, 220 pages of daily reports on the status of the situation are compiled, documenting the vast activities and discussions of church groups, the concerns of church representatives, and expressions of solidarity.

One report in the collection documents a prayer service that was held on 20 January in the parish house of the Protestant Elias parish. A high-level church representative there stated: "... that the Church will continue to stand up for everyone who is arrested." But he sees the new situation as much more difficult, drawing a comparison to the situation after the Environment Library was raided in October 1987. He fears "that things will get tougher." The high-level church representative is quoted as saying that "The Party leadership is apparently under the impression that half the counter-revolution is marching in Berlin." Examples from the HA XX’s collection of reports:

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