The Struggle Within the Soviet Bloc and Saxony

Chapter One

A Brutal Status Quo

THE SOUND OF GUNFIRE carried a long way, especially at night, after the noise of the day had receded, and in the winter, when the trees had no leaves to muffle the shots. At such times, the residents of the divided city of Berlin could hear the shootings a mile or more away from their origin at the Wall. The gunshots did not happen every week, or even every month, but by 1989 they were a regular and recognizable occurrence. Everyone knew what the noise meant. In the West, it caused concern and revulsion. In the East, it caused fear.

Karin Gueffroy, a divorced mother of two sons, lived in Johannisthal, a part of East Berlin near the Wall and opposite the West Berlin district of Neukölln. Whenever she awoke to the sound of gunfire, she invariably had the same thought. Someone, usually young and usually male, was trying to escape the GDR by fleeing across the Wall, and someone else, usually parents, would soon receive horrible news. Maybe their son would be imprisoned for trying to escape, maybe he would be injured, or maybe worse. Gueffroy generally found it impossible to go back to sleep after hearing the noise. She listened instead to West Berlin broadcasters, since they always tried to report as much as they could about any shooting. Sometimes, she also spent the remaining night hours imagining how it would feel to receive such news about one of her sons.1

Gueffroy’s experience revealed a central truth about the state in which she lived, a truth that had not changed in 1989 despite all of Gorbachev’s reforms: the East German ruling regime’s authority still rested on its ability to control the movement of its people. That control, in turn, rested on the use of force. Of course, the control often took more complex and subtle forms as well, resulting in adaptation, complicity, and participation on the part of those living in East Germany. Out of necessity, East Germans found ways to come to terms with dictatorial control and, despite it, to make their lives as satisfying as possible.2 When Karin’s younger son, Chris, demanded of his mother that they try to move to the West, she responded that she was too scared to start again in a new place and too comfortable with what she had. She had an apartment and a job, and could put up with the rest. Chris became incensed: “That cannot be enough for a life. You can always start again!” Then he complained, not for the first or last time, about how much he wanted to see the world, especially the United States.3

His mother’s response was an understandable one, since the political forces that had created the division of Germany were ultimately beyond the control of the people of the GDR or even the leaders of the country. That division was a consequence of the way that the Second World War had ended and of the emergence of a standoff between a military alliance headed by the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO, and the Soviet alliance, the Warsaw Pact.4 The division of Germany was also, in a conceptual sense, an expression of a long-term historical competition between Communist and democratic visions for organizing modern societies. The confrontation between these two visions had a profoundly distorting effect throughout the twentieth century. Around the globe, it led both Western and Communist leaders to engage in imperialistic behavior even as they denounced such behavior. Residing in what was essentially the frontline state of the broader Soviet empire, East Germans such as the Gueffroys felt the consequences keenly. The ruling regime of their country believed that it had not only to defend itself against enemies of the Soviet bloc but also to keep its own people in. The armed barriers and the sound of gunshots at night were the results.5

The division of defeated Germany after the end of the Second World War, and a similar subdivision of the city of Berlin, had not originally been intended to last for decades. Rather, both sets of divisions were initially short-term responses to the chaos across postwar Germany. Buildings were in ruins and hunger was rampant.6 These divisions were meant to split the tasks associated with occupying the devastated country and city among the four major victorious powers—Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union—until a peace conference could put permanent rules in place at some later date. However, tensions between the superpowers rendered a peace conference impossible. There were endless disagreements over multiple aspects of the occupation. To cite just one example, Soviet occupation forces raped women on a massive scale, and there was little the Western allies could do to stop them short of using force.7

Conflicts with the Soviets in divided Germany and elsewhere culminated in the decision of the Western allies, working with local leaders, to turn their occupation zones into a state, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) or West Germany, in May 1949. In order to make clear that unifying all of Germany remained a desired goal, however, the newly minted West Germans took a number of steps to show that their state was a provisional one. They chose the small town of Bonn as their capital rather than a major city such as Frankfurt. They declared that Germans, broadly defined, had rights of citizenship in the new state, which meant as a practical matter that any German who could reach FRG soil had the right to a passport and social services almost immediately, rather than having to go through lengthy asylum or emigration application procedures. Finally, legal experts drafted the so-called Basic Law, rather than a constitution, as the foundation of the new state. The Basic Law’s Article 146 stated that a constitution would take its place at some unspecified future date, when “the German people” could freely decide upon it. Until then, the Basic Law would serve as the legal backbone of the FRG.8

The irony was that under this Basic Law, West Germany developed the most durable political institutions in German history. For much of the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, Germany had been cursed with political institutions that had failed to provide real stability or safeguards against dictators. Now the supposedly provisional institutions of the FRG were doing the trick, at least in the western part of the divided country.9 The stability provided by the Basic Law contributed to, among other things, a resounding economic recovery in West Germany. The FRG developed a successful “social-market” economy and overcame the physical destruction and chaos left behind by two world wars more quickly than anyone had expected. West Germany also benefited, as did other Western European states, from extensive Marshall Plan aid from the United States.10

To the east, the Soviet Union supervised the process of turning its zone into another new state, the GDR, also in 1949. Despite having a democratic state structure and even a multiparty system on paper, the GDR became an entity ruled de facto by the Politburo of its Socialist Unity Party (usually known by its German initials, SED). To control the GDR’s state institutions, East German party leaders claimed nearly all significant state posts for themselves in parallel to their party leadership posts. When either party or state decisions of any significance needed to be made, the Politburo would seek direction from Moscow.11 This guidance was often transmitted to East Berlin by the Soviet ambassador, who thus became the political éminence grise in the capital city.

The two new German states soon became part of the Western and Eastern military alliances. In 1955, in close consultation with the Western allies, the democratically elected government of West Germany brought the FRG into NATO.12 The GDR became part of the Warsaw Pact, although the ruling regime had no electoral mandate for that membership decision, unlike in the West. Elections did take place regularly in the GDR, but the tallies were clearly fraudulent—the SED regularly won around 99 percent of the vote—and in any event did not matter, since East Germany would not have been able to get rid of Soviet troops even had its leaders wished to do so.

As a result, the sheer number of foreign troops and nuclear weapons present in divided Germany was enormous. In 1989, the chancellor of West Germany, Helmut Kohl, pointed out to the visiting US president, George H. W. Bush, that even though in places West Germany was only as wide as the length of Long Island, New York, there were 900,000 soldiers stationed there. Staring at them from across the border were an estimated 380,000 Soviet troops.13

THE GUNS AND fortifications at the border that ran between the two Germanys were thus physical manifestations of a division that had emerged unexpectedly and for multiple reasons. These fortifications made crossings of the border between the two Germanys difficult, but as late as 1961 movement within all four occupation sectors of divided Berlin remained possible. On August 13 of that year, however, the SED, under the leadership of Walter Ulbricht, halted such movement by starting construction of the Wall, thereby sealing off the western sectors of the city from both East Berlin and the rest of the GDR.14 East Germany had simply been losing too many people to the West, especially those of working age. This reason was not the public justification given for the Wall’s construction, however. Not only Ulbricht but also his successor, Erich Honecker, and indeed all significant SED leaders proclaimed that the Wall was an antifascist barrier, made necessary by the actions of the Western allies. Honecker even famously predicted in January 1989 that the Wall would “still be standing in fifty and even in one hundred years.”15

Born in 1912, Honecker had joined the German Communist Party in 1929 and spent a decade in prison for resisting the Nazis. After his release and the end of the Second World War, he became a leading figure in East Berlin, running the party’s youth organization. He ousted his boss, Ulbricht, in what was essentially a palace coup, and managed thereby to become general secretary of the Politburo himself in 1971.16 By the time of his “hundred years” remarks in 1989, he had spent his eighteen years in power running not only the country but also the SED, of which about one in five adults in the GDR were members, in a dictatorial manner.

Honecker did not seek to force more East Germans into party membership because the SED had numerous other means of extending and exerting its control. It ran not only all state institutions but also all so-called mass organizations, such as youth and labor organizations, as well as all of the country’s universities. Among other things, such control meant that politically suspect schoolchildren, or the offspring of politically suspect parents, could and routinely would be barred from going to college.

The only partial exceptions to SED control were the Catholic churches and the much more numerous Protestant churches. The regime frowned upon religious activity, but churches in the GDR persisted nonetheless. They even enjoyed a limited amount of autonomy under close party and Stasi surveillance, in part due to their own efforts to maintain that freedom and in part because churches became havens for dissidents. Party leaders recognized that it was helpful to have opposition members collected at well-known, easily observable locations such as churches, and so tolerated such havens as long as dissident activity within them did not become too energetic.17 As a result, the churches were valued by some dissidents for the shelter that they could offer, but avoided by others because of the high risk of observation.18 One of the reasons that the East German activists Bärbel Bohley and Jens Reich, among others, helped to found a civil rights organization called New Forum in 1989—that is, a new forum independent of church-based opposition movements—was that they wanted to minimize contact with church staff in the employ of the Stasi, although of course neither they nor their organization could escape surveillance altogether.19

If the churches or any other institution strayed too far from party expectations for their behavior, the SED could deploy its ultimate instrument of intimidation, the formidable Ministry for State Security or Stasi. As a percentage of the population of the GDR, the Stasi was the largest surveillance organization in recorded history. In 1989, it had more than ninety thousand full-time employees and at least one hundred thousand “unofficial colleagues,” or undercover agents and informants, nearly all of them men.20 Over the lifetime of East Germany, a country of only seventeen million people, something on the order of a quarter million people had served as full-time Stasi staff. It is possible that another six hundred thousand served as informants at some point. By one estimate, there was one full-time secret police officer for every 180 citizens. By contrast, in the Soviet Union that number was roughly one to 600; in Czechoslovakia, one to about 900; and in Poland, one to 1,500.21

The East German regime had to pay for all of these people and their surveillance activities, of course. The regime spent so much on the Ministry for State Security that it came to rely on the ministry as a kind of “catchall” institution for any issue of importance. At times the Stasi functioned as a defense, interior, and foreign ministry all at once. Some of its branches worked as both domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, while others provided a kind of law enforcement. There were also special “branch offices” at post offices, for on-site censorship, and at border crossing points, where the Stasi oversaw passport controls and supervised the flow of traffic. The only major political institution that the Stasi did not dominate was the SED itself. Otherwise, the secret police could reach into nearly any area of East German politics, society, and life.22

One of the ministry’s most important tasks was to control the movement of the people of East Germany. The Stasi worked together with the People’s Police, under the Interior Ministry, and border soldiers, largely under the command of the Defense Ministry, in its attempts to control such movement. There was another important entity involved as well. The East German command headquarters for border troops was in Karlshorst, a region on the outer fringes of East Berlin and not coincidentally the location of the largest Soviet secret police, or KGB, station in a foreign country. The vast KGB complex in Karlshorst had more than a thousand staff members.23 There were also KGB agents in other locations throughout the GDR, and they worked together with the East German secret police. Stasi files still contain, for example, the correspondence to and from a young Vladimir Putin, who worked at a KGB outpost in Dresden in the late 1980s.24

THE SINGLE MOST important physical barrier to the movement of East Germans was the Berlin Wall. By 1989, “the Wall” had become more than just a single structure; it was a barrier complex, or a death strip, consisting at some locations of multiple walls, along with ditches, dog runs, fences, lighting arrays, and tank traps and other vehicle barriers. This deadly strip stretched for roughly ninety-seven miles.25 The security lights running the length of the Wall made West Berlin the only city on earth with a border that was, at night, fully traced in lights and visible from outer space.26 There were about seventy miles of alarmed fence running along much of the wall complex, and almost two hundred guard towers and five hundred dogs keeping watch over it.27

Similar fortifications, and more, existed on the border between West and East Germany. For example, in 1972, Honecker ordered the installation of self-triggering devices called SM-70s, which used the explosive TNT to shoot more than a hundred steel projectiles once tripped. The projectiles would tear into the flesh of wild animals and escapees alike, leading to horrific and bloody scenes. The effect of these devices was so gruesome that the SED did not install them along the Wall, where it would have been too easy for West Berliners to bear witness to their carnage.28

The death strip between East and West Berlin, undated photo. The westernmost wall at this location (far left) was taller and thinner than the section in front of the Brandenburg Gate, and also had a rounded top, which made it difficult for would-be climbers to surmount the barrier. East Germans were still losing their lives in attempts to cross the Wall as late as March 1989. (SBM, Bild Nr. 0015-12614; photo by Hans-Joachim Grimm)

In addition to such automated devices, guards and dogs patrolled the West German–East German border. According to one former dog handler, Dietmar Schultke, East German border guards would try to prove to each other how tough they were by abusing their service animals. Their dogs had hacked-off tails, ears lost to frostbite, and stinking coats laden with parasites as a result. Schultke also later admitted that if snow made feeding any of the far-flung dogs chained to the outer reaches of the border difficult, they would be left to freeze and to starve to death, howling in misery.29

If the walls, self-triggering devices, and dogs all failed, border soldiers could also shoot would-be escapees. Over the course of the nearly three-decade history of the Berlin Wall, there were at least seventeen hundred known cases of shots fired at those attempting to flee.30 Yet despite these incidents—not to mention the fact that residents near the Wall, such as the Gueffroys, could hear them—SED leaders continually denied the existence of an order to shoot.

On paper there was not, strictly speaking, an “order,” since the documents in question were intentionally ambiguous, in order to provide East German leaders with plausible deniability if they were challenged by foreign supporters of human rights. The written instructions suggested that border soldiers had some discretion in deciding what to do when faced with an escape attempt. The reality was different, however. Regardless of what existed in writing, border soldiers were repeatedly told to stop escapees by all means necessary. Fleeing East Germans were to be either caught or “destroyed,” nothing else. Unpleasant details, if needed, could always be manipulated for later reports. Since, for example, shooting to defend one’s own life was always considered acceptable, troops could justify any gunfire by stating that they had believed their lives to be in danger. Border guards even received rewards—monetary bonuses, vacations, and promotions—for shooting would-be escapees; particularly accurate marksmen earned a “shooter’s cord” to decorate their uniforms. Western human rights groups seeking to undermine the practice tried to reach out to border guards directly with the motto “Aim to miss, don’t become a murderer.”31

The gap between the ambiguous written orders and the all-too-brutal practice had a cost for the regime, however. Meant to allow regime leaders to save face, this gap created ambiguity that contributed to uncertainty on the part of border officials and a willingness to make their own decisions at key moments, such as the night the Wall would open. The ruling regime maintained the ambiguity, however, because the members of the SED elite were obsessed with how foreign government leaders, heads of state, and directors of international institutions regarded them and the GDR.32 In dealing with these leaders, the party wanted to be able to deny that there was an order to shoot—such as when the GDR was seeking membership in international organizations, or financial support from Bonn. Honecker, especially, seems to have been deeply and personally concerned with the GDR’s reputation abroad. He pursued all forms of foreign recognition, whether in the form of international conferences or sporting events such as the Olympics, always hoping to present himself and his country as equals to leaders and states in the West.

This sensitivity to outside opinion put the Politburo in a tricky position. As the GDR’s economy declined and it became increasingly dependent on various forms of support from West Germans, it had to pay more attention to Bonn’s revulsion at killings on the border. Sometimes that revulsion could lead to major changes. In the mid-1980s, Honecker ordered the removal of the gruesome SM-70s from the border between the two parts of Germany, largely due to international condemnation of them.33 And the publication of an Amnesty International report in January 1989, accusing the GDR of grievous human rights violations, brought the SED more unwelcome attention.34 At other times, however, Honecker and his comrades would simply stonewall on the issue of violence at the border, since it represented an essential component of their power and control. For example, the East German defense minister, Heinz Kessler, assured journalists at a major West German newspaper, Die Zeit, in an extended interview in 1988 that “there has never—never!—been an order to shoot.”35

SINCE TELEVISION AND radio broadcasts from West Berlin and West Germany could be received in the GDR, comments such as Kessler’s seeped back into East Germany. They gave rise to popular rumors that the shootings had, in fact, stopped. One such rumor reached the ears of Karin Gueffroy’s younger son, Chris, at the start of 1989. The twenty-year-old man felt that he could no longer accept the constraints of life in the GDR. He was young, ambitious, and athletic; he had shown an unusual skill at sports as a child and had been sent to a specialized training school, where he had become a talented gymnast. Chris had wanted to go on to study at a university and to take up a career as a pilot, but his politically suspect attitude meant that the state blocked his access to higher education. Instead, he held a job as a waiter at a restaurant catering to Western visitors. As a friend and fellow waiter in a similar situation, Dirk Regel, later remembered, the constant interaction with foreign guests, particularly with Americans, was an unwelcome reminder of how trapped he and Chris were.36

When Chris heard a false rumor that the shootings on the border had stopped, he and a friend decided to try to escape to the West. Chris felt confident that his strength and gymnastic skills would enable him to make it across the Wall. Even if he did not succeed, he figured that at worst he would be arrested, spend some time in jail, and get out before too long.37

Late on the night of February 5, 1989, without his mother’s knowledge, Chris Gueffroy and a friend scaled an outer barrier wall roughly a mile from where she lived, and entered the border complex proper. They then crossed a signal fence by pulling apart some barbed wire, not realizing that this action set off alarms. The young men were heading for another barrier when suddenly two guards opened fire, shortly followed by two more. One of the guards, wearing a shooter’s cord on his uniform to signal his accomplishments as a marksman, braced his weapon on an electrical housing box in order to improve his already excellent aim. From a distance of approximately one hundred feet, he shot Chris Gueffroy in the heart. Gueffroy died within a few minutes. His friend was injured but survived and was taken into custody.38 After the corpse and the injured man were hauled away, the guards shared a celebratory drink with their commanding officer. In the days that followed, they received special decorations, extra leave, and a dinner in their honor. The marksman received a promotion as well.39

As it always did, the noise from the shooting startled Karin Gueffroy out of her slumber. She worried, as usual, about how some other parents would deal with the bad news that would surely follow. The next day, when Chris failed to stop by for breakfast as he had promised, it struck her as strange, but she pushed her anxiety aside. Her concern grew when a neighbor came to her door with a confession: Chris had asked the neighbor to join in an escape attempt, but the neighbor had refused out of fear. Now panicked, Karin went to Chris’s apartment, where she found his papers and cash in a small neat stack on top of his desk. She was certain at that point that something was seriously wrong. Instinctively she opened the top drawer of Chris’s desk and slid the cash and papers into it, trying to make the scene look less strange in the event that she would not be the only one viewing it.

She was too late. Chris’s apartment and Karin herself were already under Stasi observation, and there was worse to come. On February 7, there was a knock on Karin’s door. A Stasi officer took her to a building where, she guessed, her son was being held after his escape attempt. At first Karin had a feeling of relief, despite her Stasi escort. She assumed that, whatever she had to endure at the hands of the secret police, she could at least expect to see her son in detention or, at a minimum, find out where he was. A bizarre two-hour session of small talk with Stasi officers over coffee followed. Karin was surprised by how many details the agents knew about her and Chris.

Suddenly a uniformed officer appeared and abruptly spoke two sentences: “Ms. Gueffroy, I would like to tell you here and now that your son attacked a military unit and died. Do you need a doctor?” In response, she started repeatedly screaming, “You murdered him!” The men hustled her out of the building.

Karin’s surreal experience on February 7 represented only the beginning of her ordeal at the hands of the Stasi. The secret police were convinced that she had known of her son’s escape attempt and were relentless in their efforts to punish her and to extract more information from her. Her ex-husband, Chris’s estranged father, did not contact Karin at any time after their son’s death; she assumed that he was afraid of being implicated.40 Over Karin’s objections, the body of her son was cremated, and she received an invoice for the cost. She was allowed to hold a memorial service, but the Stasi insisted on making all of the arrangements, including the choice of the flowers—and then sent her another invoice.

Meanwhile, the ministry interrogated her for five or six hours a day, three or four times a week, for months. Gueffroy was allowed to go home at night but knew that she was on a short leash. The ministry commandeered her neighbors’ apartment in order to maintain its surveillance of her and at times simply sent a car with agents to park right in front of her building. She fought back as best she could. The East German ruling regime let the elderly make visits to the West, in the hope that they would stay there and drain Western health care resources rather than Eastern ones. Knowing this, Karin asked the grandmother of a friend for help. On a visit to a relative in West Berlin, the grandmother smuggled a passport photo of Chris, hidden in a box of matches, across the border. The relative took the photo to a Western television station, which broadcast it and identified Chris as the victim of the February shooting. This action earned Karin, back in Berlin, even more fury from the Stasi.41

At the end of a long day of interrogation, Karin would often ask herself, Can this really still be happening in 1989? 42 In an attempt to understand why it could, Karin, drawing on her involuntary but extensive dealings with the security forces, eventually concluded that about three-quarters of the members of the regime and its security forces felt some sense of restraint, but the remaining quarter were thugs who knew no limits and were worthy heirs to the Nazis. On the night of his death at the Wall, she believed, her son had fallen prey to the brutal quarter.43

Chris Gueffroy bore the tragic distinction of being the last person to die by gunfire while trying to climb over the Wall. He was not the last person to die in an escape attempt, however. In March 1989, another East German, Winfried Freudenberg, fell to his death as he tried to flee in a balloon over the Wall. Nor were Chris and his friend the last to become the targets of a shooting. In April 1989, a border official shot at two would-be escapees in broad daylight. One of the targets later said that he considered it a miracle that he was still alive, since a bullet had passed very close to his head; he guessed that it had been meant to hit him between the eyes. The two would-be escapees had instantly halted their attempt to flee, and survived the ordeal as a result.44 There were no more shootings at the Berlin Wall after that, but they did continue elsewhere. As late as August 22, 1989, a Hungarian border officer shot and killed an East German, Werner Schultz, as he tried to flee from Hungary together with his wife and child. And the final fatality in an escape attempt occurred on the night of October 18–19, 1989, when another East German, Dietmar Pommer, drowned as he tried to swim across the Oder River to Poland, by then partly under the control of Solidarity.45 In other words, up to three weeks before the opening of the Wall, East Germans still felt compelled to take the risk of fleeing, despite the odds of a fatal injury.

The international revulsion at both Chris Gueffroy’s February 1989 death—generated in no small part by his mother’s efforts to publicize it abroad—and the April shootings, coming as they did four years after Gorbachev had risen to power in Moscow, was so profound that even Honecker realized that he would have to give some ground on the question of gunfire at the border. Westerners had been able to snap photographs of the April shooting incident, capturing the border guard firing at escapees with a cigarette dangling from his lips. An internal Stasi report concluded that “the enemy”—apparently meaning Western politicians—could use this unfortunate photograph “to discredit the policies of the party.”46

In April 1989, Honecker told Egon Krenz, his fellow Politburo member and heir apparent to the leadership of the party, to issue instructions that “one should not shoot.” Instead, border officials should do a better job of preventing escapes in the first place with “more and deeper ditches [and] more and better obstacles . . . that are not visible to the opponent” in the West.47 The practical effect of Honecker’s words at the implementation level—namely, what instructions the border officials who had access to weapons actually received—was that they should use those weapons to stop escapes only if their “own life is under threat.”48 Given the practice of the preceding decades, however, this was a standard that would not be hard to reach. And the head of the Stasi, the octogenarian Erich Mielke, revealed the hypocrisy of these instructions when, two weeks after they were issued, he pointedly told Stasi subordinates that the use of firearms by border guards was “completely justified.” For good measure he added, “If you are going to shoot, then you must do it so that the target does not then get away.”49

FROM THE OTHER side of the armed border, Bonn did what it could to provide ways for East Germans to leave their country without having to run the risk of being shot. West Germany’s ability to do so came from the GDR’s need for economic support. This support usually bore a face-saving name for East Germany—such as “transit sum,” meaning a lump sum ostensibly intended to defray the costs of travelers transiting across GDR territory—but it created a condition of dependency nonetheless. Bonn used this dependency to twist the arms of Politburo members on human rights and other issues. For example, Bonn was able to convince the GDR to allow family members separated by the division of Germany to reunite in the West, or to get political prisoners released from Eastern jails and transferred to West German territory. Between 1963 and 1989, Bonn essentially purchased the freedom of an estimated thirty-three thousand such individuals. An internal document from the office of the West German chancellor in February 1989 summarized the decades-old practice and indicated what had become the established “payment” amounts, although payment usually took some form other than direct cash payouts. Still, the “prices” had become largely fixed: approximately 4,500 Western Deutschmarks (DM) per person for members of a family to be reunited and 96,000 DM for the release of a political prisoner. Individuals who had managed to take refuge in an embassy, however, earned only 10,000 DM for the East German regime, thus creating an incentive for East Germany to keep such individuals out of embassies and get them into prisons, where they would realize their full earning potential for the regime.50 On top of this practice, a number of accords struck in the 1970s between the two Germanys also created, among other things, predictable means for West Germans to cross the border between the two Germanys or the Berlin Wall. After the implementation of these accords, the number of Stasi workers doubled; there were many more Western travelers to watch.51

This status quo in divided Germany might have continued much longer but for the effects of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or CSCE, and the dawn of the Gorbachev era in the Soviet Union.52 Before these developments, East Germans who were not elderly, separated from family, or imprisoned had little hope of leaving the GDR. Some business trips or visits for birthdays or funerals were allowed, but only under certain conditions. In one unusually blunt memo, for example, Krenz wrote to Honecker that “underage children should not be allowed to go along on trips,” and Honecker wrote “agreed” on the memo. In other words, travel would be possible only if young children or spouses stayed behind, essentially as collateral.53 Other than these limited options, most East Germans had no ability to travel or to emigrate. Some expressed their dismay by applying for approval to leave the GDR, even though there was no clear procedure for dealing with such “applications.”54

The CSCE helped to create change. Participants in the initial CSCE session came from both sides of the Iron Curtain and included the United States and the Soviet Union. They signed the CSCE’s so-called Final Act in Helsinki in 1975, providing guarantees of certain basic human rights. The Soviet Union and its allies signed this act because it contained something else that Moscow badly wanted: language to the effect that the post–World War II borders in Europe were inviolable. The Soviet Union had hoped to receive such guarantees at a peace conference to mark the end of the Second World War, but since that had never come about, by 1975 Moscow was willing to settle for the CSCE as the next best option. Accepting some unimportant rhetoric (from the Soviet point of view) on human rights seemed to be a small price for it and its allies to pay in exchange for the long-sought guarantees.

The Soviet Union significantly underestimated the power of that rhetoric, however. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, activists in both the East and the West pressed members of the Warsaw Pact to live up to the Helsinki human rights clauses. Moreover, the CSCE process did not end with Helsinki, despite the fact that the conference had produced a document called the Final Act. Instead, a series of lengthy follow-up CSCE meetings—most notably an extended session held in Vienna between 1986 and 1989—expanded upon the Final Act’s provisions. One of the prime movers at the end of the Vienna conference was George Shultz, the US secretary of state, who pushed hard for a successful outcome before the end of the Reagan administration’s second term (and his time in office) on January 20, 1989. Whereas, for example, initial CSCE documents had emphasized family reunions and thus were of little help to those in the East who did not have relatives in the West, the agreements emerging from the Vienna talks brought a sea change. They explicitly created a right to leave a country, and not just for family reunions. Shultz achieved his goal: CSCE members applied their signatures to the Concluding Document in Vienna on January 15, just five days before Shultz left office.55

In addition to the pressure from the CSCE, the ascent of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union brought yet more headaches for the hard-liners in East Berlin. Gorbachev believed that the Soviet Union needed an era of restructuring and reform in order to compete better with the United States.56He decided not only to reduce what his country spent on armaments but also, using the catchphrase “new thinking,” to begin liberalizing Moscow’s relations with its allies. As the Soviet Union gradually allowed some freedom of speech and assembly, East Germans’ expectations rose—following the pattern discerned by Tocqueville—in the hope that they might enjoy similar freedoms at home.57

In 1988, the East Berlin regime responded to the prevailing winds in Vienna and Moscow by instituting, if not a right to leave the GDR, at least a right to apply to leave, which had not previously existed. Of course, the state still had the authority to decide whether to approve an application.58 This move was not enough; the SED, under threat of international isolation and Soviet disapproval, was still forced into signing the detested Vienna Concluding Document in January 1989. After the signing, Mielke made clear to his Stasi subordinates that they should hinder implementation of this document in the GDR as much as possible.59 And an internal analysis for the East German Politburo concluded that “every state could decide for itself” on the degree to which the Vienna accord would actually be implemented; in East Germany there would be hardly any implementation at all. The SED also chose to ignore calls for the “legalization of political opposition.”60 The hopes of reformers inside the party were likewise discouraged; regional party and Stasi leaders received a warning in February 1989 that “those who think ‘we must change our politics’ no longer belong in our party.”61 East Berlin also worried that Bonn would use the Vienna accord to damage the GDR’s reputation on the international stage. Even worse, Bonn might make its financial support contingent upon the terms of the accord. Internal West German documents did indeed suggest that Bonn saw ways of using the Vienna Concluding Document as a means of pressuring East Germany.62

ONE OF THE people who did manage to take advantage of the new right to apply was Karin Gueffroy. Though emigration would mean leaving her other adult son behind, she believed that she had to escape the Stasi, which, she worried, would have her classified as mentally ill and lock her in a facility for the rest of her life.63 She filed an application to emigrate to the FRG. Despite various delaying tactics and tricks—the relevant office refused to accept the application at first—she pressed on. Perhaps because of the ever present concerns about the GDR’s reputation abroad and the damage the Gueffroy case was doing to it, or perhaps because the Stasi had realized that the months of interrogation were not yielding any useful information, the Ministry for State Security finally gave in and approved her application to emigrate. She could take only two suitcases, however, and was forbidden to take Chris’s ashes. As a silent protest, Karin held a conversation in her head with Chris at the very moment she crossed over to the West, the goal her son had not realized. In her own mind, she apologized to her son for ignoring his insistence that they should try to emigrate to the West: Chris, I was wrong and you were right—you can start again. You just have to prevent yourself from getting to be too cowardly, or too comfortable. Karin eventually found a job with a West Berlin broadcaster and dedicated herself to the daunting task of seeking some kind of justice for her dead son.64

Her chances of success were small as long as the East German ruling regime remained in power. In the summer of 1989, however, those chances improved dramatically when an unexpected breach occurred on the Hungarian border of the Soviet bloc. This development became the first significant incursion into the SED’s control over the movement of its people, although the party was initially slow to recognize it as such. Despite the fact that this breach happened at a distant point on the Austro-Hungarian border, however, its tumultuous consequences would soon sweep across the Soviet bloc, into the Saxon region of the GDR, on to East Berlin, and finally up to the Berlin Wall itself.

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