The Competition for Control in East Berlin

Chapter Four

The Revolution Advances, the Regime Plays for Time

IF PARTY LEADERS COULD HIDE from their subordinates on the night of October 9, they could not hide from the consequences afterward. Thanks to the inaction of the massed security forces in Leipzig, and the footage of that inaction broadcast on television channels that East Germans could receive, the feeling of fear on the part of potential protestors throughout the country diminished rapidly. Both the number and size of demonstrations throughout the GDR grew dramatically as a result.1 A new spirit of cooperation among opposition leaders in various locations in the GDR also became evident. In the past there had often been friction between dissident groups in East Berlin and elsewhere in the country, such as in Dresden and Leipzig. There were, for example, disagreements over how much help to accept from the West and how much to involve Western media. The young American courier Belinda Cooper also remembered much acrimony between the East German opposition group that she was serving and people in West Berlin who were trying to support it.2 For his part, Uwe Schwabe later recalled that East Berliners had, at times, accused him and his Leipzig colleagues of creating “action without content.” In return, the Leipzig dissidents felt that Berliners were too ponderous and took themselves too seriously.3 But, overall, the events of October 1989 fostered mutual sympathy, solidarity, and trust among dissidents throughout the country.

The Gethsemane Church in East Berlin, in particular, became a major venue for public events in solidarity with Leipzig opposition leaders. Marianne Birthler, a youth liaison officer at the church, helped to organize such events. Born in 1948, Birthler had grown up in divided Berlin with a mother who had made her and her siblings pause and listen every Sunday at noon, when the ringing of the “Freedom Bell”—a gift from Great Britain and the United States for the tower of the Schöneberg Town Hall in West Berlin—was broadcast by radio. Even as a child, Birthler had been aware of the importance of Western broadcasters.4

Just as Leipzigers had used the Nikolai Church as an unofficial news agency, so too had the Gethsemane Church become an alternative clearinghouse for information by autumn 1989. Working together with leading activists from the Environmental Library, such as Tom Sello, dissidents in both the church and the library tried to draw attention to the crimes of the ruling regime. The goal was, as Sello put it, “not to let up,” to keep up the pressure, to motivate others to get involved, and to shame the regime.5 Both places had become a kind of refuge as a result. When East Germans had shouted “Gorbi, Gorbi” and other unapproved slogans at the Soviet leader during the fortieth-anniversary celebrations on October 7—Mikhail Gorbachev, reluctantly, had come to East Berlin for the event—and police had dispersed the crowds by force, those who had suffered personally or had witnessed the violence, such as seeing a police truck running over a protestor, felt the need to bear witness.6 A number of such people ended up in Birthler’s office in the church, where they would describe their experiences to her.7

Listening to so many tragic stories, she soon became overwhelmed and, to give herself a respite, started asking visitors to put their experiences on paper instead. Once she began reading the written versions, Birthler realized that she had unintentionally hit upon a very powerful idea. “As I read the first two or three,” she recalled later, “I thought: ‘My God! They all have to write.’”8 By having all such visitors to her office produce written testimonies, and then compiling them into a catalog of cruelty, she realized that she could contradict misleading official announcements that the violent incidents had been rare or isolated. In total, Birthler and her coworkers assembled 160 detailed testimonies of police brutality, drawing the attention of the Stasi as they did so.9 She distributed multiple copies of the catalog and even held a press conference about it with foreign journalists in attendance.10

Birthler spent the evening of October 9 at the Gethsemane Church. As the Monday march progressed in Leipzig, her church opened its doors to anyone who wanted to pray for the demonstration’s success and to hear uncensored news from the Gethsemane’s so-called contact telephone firsthand.11 After Schwabe broke off from the Leipzig march, the Gethsemane Church was one of the first places that he called with an update. Birthler was on duty at the church’s contact telephone and fully expected that Schwabe would be calling with a report of massive bloodshed. Decades later, she still remembered the joy she felt when the call came and she heard instead the words “The ring is free.”12

She and her coworkers immediately told the assembled mass in the Gethsemane Church the amazing news, and “an unbelievable storm of applause” erupted. After they celebrated for a while, someone even got up the courage necessary to crack open the Gethsemane’s front doors “to see what it looked like outside.” Earlier, there had been barricades and lines of uniformed troops out front, but they had all disappeared. Now area residents were coming out of their apartments and putting candles on the streets where the police had been. A sea of tiny lights greeted Birthler and others as they pushed the doors of the Gethsemane Church fully open. Standing in the doorway and looking at the candlelight stretching off into the distance, she suddenly felt compelled to say, “This is how freedom feels.”13

PARTY LEADERS HAD no such feelings of exhilaration as they assessed how they had reached this point and what needed to change. Erich Honecker’s methods in Leipzig had been those of an older generation of Communists who had survived persecution under the Nazis through, in part, an uncompromising and rigid adherence to set policies.14 The fact, obvious to all by October 9, was that this approach was no longer working. Even Erich Mielke, the leader of the Stasi, realized that Honecker had to go. On October 16, Mielke gave Egon Krenz a private warning about how dangerous matters were getting. The Stasi minister forwarded a report indicating that Honecker’s hard-line handling of dissidents had not quashed their movement but instead generated sympathy among workers and even party members, a frightening development. Often such reports were circulated to all Politburo members, but Mielke sent this one only to Krenz.15 This report also warned that “extremely critical attitudes were increasing both in number and intensity” and that the blame fell on “the party leadership.” Mielke’s cover note to Krenz emphasized that “the seriousness of the situation becomes . . . even more clear” when taking into account the fact that it “is now already a question of the workers” and their attitudes as well, not just a few dissidents.16

The subtext to Mielke’s message was that there was always the potential for mass action to escalate to mass violence.17 Although the large protests in Leipzig had been peaceful, in the eyes of the regime that could still change. An additional worry was emerging as well: members of the Stasi were being contacted by their colleagues in Moscow because of scattered but increasing incidences of confrontations in October 1989 between East German citizens and Soviet troops. Exact causes were difficult to determine—in one case, an East German said that Soviet troops were trying to pilfer his property—but to the SED leaders, the incidents raised a troubling new specter as well.18

Krenz decided that the time had come to proceed with the ouster. At the Politburo meeting of Tuesday, October 17, he and his co-conspirator Mielke arranged to have “reliable colleagues” near the meeting room in case Honecker tried to have his personal bodyguard restrain or arrest coup plotters.19 When the meeting started, Honecker was startled by a motion to vote on his dismissal and that of two of his closest allies. At first he tried to act as if he had not heard the motion, proceeding to the top item on the scheduled agenda instead, but his comrades shouted him down. He found himself forced to listen as one member of the Politburo after another spoke in favor of his ouster.20 Mielke stated that “we simply cannot start shooting with tanks.” Speaking plainly, he said, “Erich,” it is “the end.” The vote to remove Honecker passed.21 The next day, the party’s central committee accepted Honecker’s “resignation” and installed Krenz in his stead.22

Once the coup was publicized, however, it did not have the hoped-for effect. According to a Stasi report, Krenz’s “election” was greeted “above all with skepticism, but also in many cases with rejection.” Citizens of East Germany did “not trust Krenz to carry out the necessary new politics” that they regarded as essential.23 Party members themselves were worried about the widespread popular resentment of Krenz’s involvement in two notorious events: the egregious falsification of GDR election results from May 7, 1989, and the extensive praise of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. The people of the GDR viewed these as “heavy moral failings that Egon Krenz would not be able to make good.” A British diplomat in East Berlin described popular attitudes toward Krenz as characterized by “intense antipathy.”24 Even after Krenz took over, a sense of “uncertainty, of being without direction, and of resignation” remained apparent within the party.25 The regime received multiple reports on the worsening public opinion toward the regime despite Honecker’s ouster.26

All the while, Leipzig activists kept up the pressure. Although Wonneberger’s stroke would soon sideline him, the party’s district office reported that the assertiveness of the Protestant ministers Führer and Sievers only continued to grow.27 By Monday, October 30, seven churches in Leipzig were holding prayer sessions, and the march that night topped two hundred thousand participants. Some demonstrators reportedly carried West German flags with them.28 Marchers had even lingered dramatically in front of the Stasi office in Leipzig that night. Officials inside wondered if the protestors were preparing to enter the building. They would eventually do so, although not until the end of the year. When they did, they would discover inside a mix of banality, bureaucracy, and even pornography. The walls and desks of the Stasi offices bore, among the expected paperwork, numerous explicit photographs of female body parts. There were also less than successful attempts at humor. One Stasi desk bore a paperweight reading, “Every third person who complains will be shot. Two people have been here already!”29

The reports of protestors lingering in front of the Leipzig Stasi headquarters on October 30 seem to have compelled Mielke to instruct his ministry to prepare to defend not only the Leipzig office but also other sites throughout the GDR. He called for the distribution of “fire extinguishers, blankets, water buckets,” and chemical means of defense, although exactly what those were remains unclear.30 Instructions were also issued to begin moving documents to secure locations or, in some cases, to start destroying them outright.31 At the beginning of November, the Stasi agents of the so-called Department M, which censored mail in post offices, were told to dismantle their workstations and to remove all evidence of them.32 Around this time, Mielke, a man of sharp political instincts, apparently realized it was time to abandon his own sinking ship. He sent an unusual letter to every single member of the Stasi at the start of November. Although not stating explicitly that he was resigning, it suggested that he had done so, or was about to do so, thus creating even more uncertainty and anxiety in the ranks about what was to come.33

IN RESPONSE TO the mounting pressure, Krenz, the new leader, employed rhetoric that sounded conciliatory. The Politburo’s actions in late October and November 1989 under his leadership would reveal, however, that he ultimately suffered from the same intransigence as his predecessor. In contrast to later claims, no evidence has surfaced to show that once Krenz and his supporters took over, they suddenly decided to open the Wall on November 9, 1989. Rather, they made reformist statements in public while maintaining as much control as possible behind the scenes. Even as Krenz discussed easing some travel restrictions publicly, his security and interior ministers advised him and the Politburo on October 30 that if they could not fight against “anti-socialist” organizations “with political means, then a possible declaration of martial law cannot be ruled out.”34

Politburo members decided in late October to investigate ways to loosen travel restrictions slightly as a concession to popular pressure.35 They aimed to produce an allegedly new travel law, but that law’s bureaucratic fine print would still allow the party, through the state apparatus, to control the movement of its people. Passports and visas, both issued only with the approval of the relevant state offices, would remain required. In public, however, the measure was to be presented as a major change. Krenz signaled this new approach in a speech to the Volkskammer, the party-controlled GDR legislature. He told the parliament that it was necessary to think about “why so many people have turned their backs” on the GDR.36

Krenz hoped that such travel concessions might come with an additional benefit besides a cooling of the opposition’s anger and momentum: crucial economic support from Bonn. Honecker’s ouster had loosened the tongues of those in the know about the economic health of East Germany, which was poor. By 1989, the GDR was indebted beyond all hope to the West.37 In the wake of Krenz’s takeover, party leaders received an “unretouched” assessment of the economic health of the GDR. East Germany was approaching insolvency and was to the greatest possible extent dependent on Western credit.38

Even before Krenz took over, he corresponded about this dependency with Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski, one of the Politburo’s savviest servants, a kind of in-the-shadows hustler who dealt with such issues. From his so-called Office of Commercial Coordination, Schalck had for years coordinated the subsidizing of East Germany by Bonn through various means.39 He had also managed an enormous hard-currency slush fund under the personal control of Honecker, estimated to be worth 100 million DM, which had now passed to Krenz.40 In October 1989, Schalck advised Krenz that it might be possible to solve the Politburo’s travel and indebtedness problems at one stroke: loosen existing restrictions, and extract a reward from Bonn in return. The West German government was always pressing for more travel freedom, Schalck pointed out. But how could East Germans travel when their state had no hard currency to give them for the trip? Clearly, if the East was going to let its people go west, then West Germany would have to help. Schalck was reminding Krenz that East Germany could do what it had been doing for years—receive support from Bonn in exchange for easing restrictions on its people—but now on a massive scale. The Politburo could also renew its demands that the West Germans stop issuing passports to East Germans who made it to an FRG embassy in a third country, a practice that made emigration even easier for those who could escape the GDR.41

Put bluntly, the party would be selling its most precious asset, namely, the Berlin Wall, although no one discussed the concept in such terms at the time. Instead, in his description of it in Bonn, Schalck tried to phrase the idea as a general easing of travel restrictions. Implicitly, though, the Wall was on the trading block. The question now was whether, and what, the West would pay. Krenz agreed that the plan was worth investigating. Schalck began talks on October 24 with Rudolf Seiters, the head of the chancellery office, and Wolfgang Schäuble, the interior minister and confidant of the chancellor, to see what Bonn would give the SED in exchange for increased political liberties in the GDR and for “de facto unlimited travel between the two German states.”42

Krenz personally followed up on the matter during a phone call with Helmut Kohl two days later. The East German leader pointedly referred to “the proposals that my emissary has made. The GDR is very interested in an answer,” he added expectantly. Kohl would not be drawn into a detailed discussion, however. He countered by pointing out the need for a range of other reforms as well, including amnesty for political prisoners. Krenz replied that Kohl had clearly misunderstood what was on offer: the general secretary did not want to introduce reform in the GDR, turn to a new course, or bring about major change. There would be no big break with the past because “a socialist GDR remains in the interest of stability in Europe.” Rather, Krenz’s goals were more specific: a temporary loosening of travel restrictions before Christmas, as a gift to his people. The call between the leaders of the two German states ended inconclusively.43

In the hope that this strategy would eventually work, Krenz pressed on, despite the lackluster response from Bonn. An additional motivation for Krenz appears to have been memory of the opening of the Hungarian border and the chaotic scenes of tens of thousands fleeing; he did not want to risk a repetition of those events.44 A working group began brainstorming in late October on what would eventually become a draft of a new travel law. The group operated under the premise that whatever regulation they produced should not result in “the depopulation of the GDR,” should require applicants to get both “passport and visa”—that is, to ask for permission and receive approval—and should allow only 15 DM for travel purposes.45 An internal note to the Politburo on October 26, 1989, suggested that if the idea was to be implemented, there would be a need to consider measures “for orderly processing at the border, especially to West Berlin.”46 At the same time, Krenz and his fellow Politburo members also started dropping hints to visiting politicians that travel restrictions might be loosened for Christmas.47

One such visitor was the Social Democratic mayor of West Berlin, Walter Momper, who in East Berlin on October 29 had his first official meeting with leaders of the opposition in the GDR. The organization New Forum had emerged as the single most important countrywide activist group, and in recognition of the group’s growing popularity, Momper visited East Berlin to speak to Bärbel Bohley, one of its founders and leaders. As part of the trip, the mayor also spoke with Günter Schabowski, a Politburo member responsible for media affairs who, it was rumored, was now the number-two man in the party behind Krenz.48 At the end of their long conversation, Schabowski mentioned casually to the mayor of West Berlin that there might be some easing of travel restrictions for Christmas. Momper later remembered that he felt “as if struck by an electric shock.” He inquired about practical considerations, such as transport arrangements and the opening of additional border crossings between the two halves of Berlin—the very point that the internal Politburo note had raised. From Schabowski’s surprised reaction to such seemingly self-evident questions, however, it became obvious to Momper that Schabowski had “not yet thought of any of the practical consequences.” When the mayor pressed the matter, pointing out the need to plan for practicalities, Schabowski refused to consider such issues. He blithely assured Momper that since passports and visas would still be required, his regime would be able to limit the flow of travel to manageable levels very easily. The mayor finally gave up, deciding that Schabowski was making empty promises; in any case, Momper “was not there to give Schabowski lessons” in urban transport and event planning. The mayor did decide, just in case, to let the Western allies know of Schabowski’s remarks, and Momper also formed a working group to speculate on the potential implications of those remarks. West Berlin, at least, would consider the practical consequences of a loosening of East German travel restrictions on some theoretical “Day X,” as Momper called it, even if East Berlin would not.49

MEANWHILE, SINCE THE travel reform that Krenz had envisaged was taking shape in the form of a draft law, both Friedrich Dickel and Mielke, the interior and Stasi ministers, respectively, were becoming involved, since their agencies handled implementation of such laws.50 Their ministries were, of course, notionally state offices but actually subordinate to the party organizations and to the Politburo (and Mielke was a Politburo member). Hence, when the Politburo wanted the security and interior ministers to do something, they did it.51

Dickel assigned his subordinate Gerhard Lauter the task of supervising the drafting of the law and other matters related to the potential practicalities of implementation.52 Lauter, born in Dresden and educated in Leipzig, was a party loyalist in the extreme. He had risen rapidly through the ranks, first of the police and then of the Ministry of the Interior. Lauter had experience with both weapons and counterterrorism operations and had even taken part in a successful hunt for a deserter from the Soviet armed forces.53 On top of all of this, he was also an “unofficial employee” of the Stasi, meaning that he served the Stasi in addition to the police and Interior Ministry.54 His loyalty and ambition earned him a swift ascent in the ministry hierarchy. In 1989, at the age of thirty-nine, he was already head of a department. His success was also due in part to his family name. His father, Hans Lauter, born in 1914, had joined a Communist youth organization as a teenager and at age nineteen was arrested by the Gestapo. After 1945, he resumed his party work and became an SED party secretary.55 The elder Lauter was purged, rehabilitated, and then dismissed again over the course of a long career. The younger Lauter admired his father greatly and was proud to come from “the family of a party soldier,” if a controversial one. Gerhard Lauter was, in essence, a party princeling.56

The younger Lauter and his colleagues produced the requested draft quickly and as instructed. Then, however, the process slowed down. To make sure that the members of the council of ministers could be held responsible for the draft, Lauter was told to secure signatures from each of them personally. The process took days. Often a minister would make Lauter wait for hours before providing a signature, which Lauter found extremely frustrating.57 His draft was not ready until November 2.58 Lauter was then instructed to defend the draft law on television. After he appeared on-screen in a police uniform, he realized that he had become “the villain” who would be blamed for the draft law, even though much of it had been ordered from on high.59

While Lauter sat in ministerial waiting rooms seeking signatures, new crises began to threaten the party’s leaders. There were threats of massive strikes unless travel to Czechoslovakia under the old rules—with minimal paperwork, rather than with a passport and visa—resumed. The Politburo decided that it had to give in.60 As a result, after travel to Czechoslovakia resumed under the old rules on Wednesday, November 1, the flood of refugees resumed as well. The West German embassy in Prague filled again. By Friday, November 3, more than four thousand East Germans had gathered at the Prague embassy, once more enduring miserable conditions. Even worse, Czech officials were livid at being forced to deal with such a situation yet again.61 And, as if that were not enough, the West German equivalent of an ambassador to East Germany, Franz Bertele, informed Krenz on November 3 that his office, the permanent representation in East Berlin, which had allegedly been closed for renovations, would soon reopen. The real reason for its closure was that there had been 130 East German refugees sheltering in it as of August 7; Bonn had suddenly announced the closure as a way of preventing more people from entering.62 Now Bertele was threatening Krenz with the information that the office would “reopen in the coming weeks,” presumably to a new wave of refugees. Krenz asked Bertele if his office “might not perhaps need more time for the [renovation] work.” Bertele did not respond.63

AS THESE DISCUSSIONS were taking place, the peaceful revolution in East Germany kept going from strength to strength. A kind of competition between the regime and the revolution for control over the streets of East Berlin was unfolding. Instead of using force, however, rock musicians used their voices and instruments to call for democracy, openness, and reform at a major concert, to the intense dismay of the Stasi.64 Meanwhile, Bohley’s organization, the New Forum, kept winning more and more adherents as it called for political reform. Bohley and her fellow organizers decided to take the symbolic step of applying to become an approved organization, although the group was growing rapidly even without official approval. On Krenz’s personal instruction, she and her colleagues were denied that approval. The New Forum’s popularity kept rising despite, or perhaps because of, the denial.65 And a young pastor, Markus Meckel, together with friends and colleagues, similarly thumbed his nose at the ruling regime by founding a new and independent Social Democratic Party of East Germany, its predecessor having long since been subsumed by the SED.66

For Saturday, November 4, a theater group proposed a large public demonstration in East Berlin, meaning an event on the scale of the Leipzig Monday marches for the capital of the GDR. This move represented a new level of escalation in the struggle for the streets of East Berlin. Despite misgivings, the ruling regime decided to allow the event. It was not clear how the demonstration’s organizers would react to a ban, and Krenz was trying to appear conciliatory in public. The party also scheduled Schabowski to represent the SED by speaking at the event.67 And in an effort to assert his leadership, Krenz spoke, after just two hours’ notice, on GDR television and radio stations the day before the demonstration. He told East Germans trying to leave the GDR to stay home: “Your place is here.” Krenz then promised an announcement on travel and emigration policy in the near future, referring to the “soon-to-be published draft of a new travel law.”68

Internally, the language used by Krenz and his comrades would have been less heartening had the public been aware of it. The Stasi worried that there might be attempts to storm the Wall by force during the November 4 demonstration. Also on that eventful Friday, Krenz issued an order that was forwarded by the Stasi to all of its district and other subordinate offices. The order instructed the secret police to prevent unauthorized attempts to cross the GDR’s borders by “the use of bodily violence,” if necessary. However, members of the Stasi were not supposed to use guns if there were “possible demonstrations.”69 Exactly what that meant for border officers was hard to discern. The Krenz regime seemed unable to deliver a straightforward message in any context. Krenz was, on one hand, promising reforms on television without really delivering them and, on the other, trying to maintain a repressive regime without giving the security forces the full license to use the weapons that they would need to do so.

As November 4 dawned, it became clear that the demonstration in East Berlin would be a truly huge event. An estimated half million participants flooded Alexanderplatz, in the heart of the city. Aerial photographs showed a city center completely darkened by the swarm of people. The event continued for much of the day with a long list of speakers, including Schabowski. Birthler was asked to be one of the speakers as well. Despite her anxiety about being in front of such a large crowd, she agreed to do so. She wore her boyfriend’s coat to help her nerves, thinking that it would be as if he were hugging her while she stood onstage. Looking out at the sea of people, she found herself silently asking for forgiveness, realizing that she had been too pessimistic about her fellow East Germans. “I had not trusted the people to have so much self-confidence and courage,” she recalled; she was amazed to see so much of both on display on November 4.70 Aram Radomski, who also took part in that day’s demonstration, found something else amazing in hindsight, namely, that neither he nor anyone else at the demonstration did what the regime feared most: charge the Wall. On November 4, that barrier, the regime’s final circle of control, still held its power over the people of East Germany.

THE FOLLOWING MONDAY, November 6, all major GDR newspapers printed the text of Lauter’s draft travel law.71 Despite accompanying press articles praising it as a comprehensive change, the text that Lauter and his colleagues had produced was clearly no such thing.72 For one, since it was a draft, not a law, it produced no actual change.73 And even if it soon became law, under its rules would-be travelers still had to apply for permission, and through the exact same offices as before.74 Although these offices were now supposed to make decisions “quickly,” the actual processing time was thirty days to respond to applications for visits abroad (three days if urgent, but “urgent” remained undefined) and three to six months for those applying for emigration. Significantly, the draft still allowed the state to refuse applications for the familiar, nebulous reasons: in order to protect “national security, public order, the health or the morals or rights and freedom of others as necessary.”75 In addition, a paragraph noted that “approval of an application for travel does not mean that the citizen is entitled to any means of paying for the trip”—that is, any foreign currency.76 Ernst Höfer, the East German minister of finance, aggravated the insult two days later when he was asked if there was any possibility that foreign currency might be made available. “We don’t want to make promises we can’t keep,” he replied.77 Finally, before the draft could become law, a thirty-day discussion period was supposed to take place, and a newly formed commission invited all East Germans to write letters with their opinions. Forty thousand letters resulted.78 In short, the draft fulfilled the party’s instructions. It would not depopulate the GDR, it still required travelers to seek approval and paperwork from the state, and it would not drain the country’s coffers.

It would not satisfy the public, however. The draft provoked outrage both in East Berlin and in the rest of the country. Citizens complained to party offices about the “limiting of visa length to thirty days” and about “the length of time that it might take to process any resulting application,” as well as about the fact that “the question of financial means is not resolved.” Mayor Momper was visiting Prague when he got word that the draft had become public, and he had a version faxed to him in his Czech hotel. The wording confirmed Momper’s worst suspicions about Schabowski’s vague promises; the draft was, as he put it, “complete trash.” The regime was offering travel freedom in name only. The fine print, allowing the state to choke off travel, had hardly changed from existing regulations. From Czechoslovakia, Momper issued a press release dismissing the draft entirely.79

In the meantime, Schalck kept trying to extract support from Bonn. The day the draft was published, Schalck met with the West German chancellery officials Schäuble and Seiters once more, and decided to be very specific about what he wanted. Schalck asked for a credit of about 10 billion DM in the next two years, and then 2 to 3 billion DM more per year, every year, starting in 1991. By way of exchange, Schalck made it clear that the credit would be “bound to a physical structure,” implying the Berlin Wall. He also suggested that the Wall would open only if West Germany agreed to his proposal.80

The two West Germans, Schäuble and Seiters, would not take the bait. Bonn knew that it was in a strong position. Kohl and his advisors were savvy enough to realize that the overwhelmingly negative public response to the draft law had put the East German ruling regime in a much worse negotiating position.81 Fueled in part by dismay at the draft, the Leipzig protest the same day saw a half million people—equal to nearly the entire population of the city—circle the ring road despite a cold, drenching rain. The marchers demanded the abolition of travel and emigration restrictions altogether.82

The impact of Lauter’s draft even earned attention as far away as Washington. A senior staffer at the National Security Agency, Robert Blackwill, assessed the draft for his boss, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. As Blackwill put it, even though the draft had been a catastrophe, it showed that “the future of divided Europe” was now up for grabs. “Nothing save the US-Soviet strategic relationship is more central to our national security,” Blackwill concluded. He felt that the best outcome would be “gradual evolution toward internal liberalization in the GDR.” However, nightmarish outcomes were possible as well: “In the event of severe internal unrest in the GDR, our overriding objective should be to prevent a Soviet military intervention, which could and probably would reverse the positive course of East-West relations for many years to come.” Even worse, “it would raise the risk of direct US-Soviet military confrontation.”83

Back in Bonn, Kohl and his team decided to respond by pressuring East Berlin more than they had ever done before. They knew at this point that the GDR had no hope of securing loans on the open market anymore and that they were the country’s only source of support.84 Schäuble and Seiters let Schalck know that if the Politburo wanted help, it would have to sacrifice its monopoly on power in exchange, and allow opposition parties to contest free elections.85 Kohl then upped the pressure on Krenz by making these terms public. The chancellor announced them as part of a previously scheduled address to the West German parliament on November 8. He called for East Germany to institute “freedom of opinion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom for unions, party pluralism and, finally and self-evidently, free, immediate, and secret elections.”86On top of everything else, East Berlin would have to wait for a reply from Bonn to its urgent requests for support. Further negotiations would be suspended until after the end of Kohl’s upcoming extended visit to Poland.

In short, more than any other single document, Lauter’s draft, produced to the specifications ordered by the Politburo, showed the party leadership’s unwillingness to surrender control over the movement of its people—only three days before it supposedly made the radical decision to open the Wall.87 Rather than win over protestors, the draft instead intensified awareness in the GDR and beyond that the party leadership was unwilling to implement real change. And the draft would soon have yet another consequence: it would exacerbate antagonism between the East German and Czech Politburos, two entities that had until recently been unified in their opposition to reform in the Soviet Union, Hungary, and Poland.

Czech party leaders were, by the start of November, unwilling to tolerate the renewal of chaos at the West German embassy in the heart of their capital. On Friday, November 3, Miloš Jakeš, the Czech party leader, gave the East German ambassador in Prague an ultimatum for Krenz, insisting that Krenz had to find some solution immediately, or else Czech authorities would consider closing the border to the GDR from their side.88 The Czechs were worried that the refugees streaming across their country were inspiring local opposition movements. To emphasize the point, Jakeš apparently called Krenz personally as well, pressuring him into taking action.89

In response, the East German Politburo announced that, starting Saturday, November 4, East Germans in Czechoslovakia could emigrate to the West without having to return to the GDR in sealed trains. As a practical matter, this meant that any East German who could get to Czechoslovakia could now be more or less certain of proceeding directly to the West. That weekend alone, November 4–5, roughly twenty-three thousand East Germans emigrated through Czechoslovakia to West Germany, many heading for the town of Schirnding, which was close to the common border of the three states.90 The East German Politburo hoped that the announcement of the draft law on November 6 would decrease this enormous exodus, but it did not.

Despite all the problems that it had failed to solve, Krenz and his Politburo colleagues refused to abandon Lauter’s draft during a five-hour Politburo meeting that started on the morning of Tuesday, November 7.91 This bizarre decision—a half million people had protested against the text in Leipzig, yet the party leaders thought they could cling to it—represented a major step down the path that would lead to the opening of the Wall. The Politburo decided to put a portion of the draft’s wording on permanent emigration into effect immediately by fiat. The legal basis whereby this could happen was questionable, but that did not seem to bother the Politburo. The idea also arose to create a new border crossing specifically for the resulting emigration, by opening a new checkpoint at a remote point on the German-German border near Schirnding. What did not arise was any provision for those who merely wanted to travel to the West temporarily; the Politburo’s decision would affect only those willing to depart permanently. It represented a panicky and poorly thought-out response to pressure from Prague.92

The task of carrying out this idea fell once again to Dickel and Mielke, this time working closely with the foreign minister, Oskar Fischer, who was needed to deal with the Soviet ambassador, Vyacheslav Kochemasov.93 Kochemasov had to be involved, because he was, of course, the essential conduit to Moscow. Krenz, as his predecessors had done for decades, was expected to communicate all matters of significance to the ambassador, who would then inform top party leaders in the Soviet Union, and finally pass Moscow’s reply back to the East Germans. Because of this ongoing need for Soviet approval, Krenz had visited the Soviet embassy nearly every day since becoming the leader of his party.94 As a result, Moscow’s ambassador to East Berlin enjoyed, to a degree unthinkable to ambassadors from the West, enormous influence over the country in which he was nominally serving as an emissary from abroad, and that influence was still powerful in November 1989.

Kochemasov had been chosen for his post not because he had any particular linguistic or other skills related to the divided Germany but because he was someone Moscow could trust to execute party orders. Kochemasov had discovered that he would be going to East Berlin in a personal conversation with party leader Yuri Andropov—a former head of the KGB and one of the men most responsible for crushing the Hungarian uprising in 1956—rather than from the Soviet entity nominally in charge of ambassadors, the Foreign Ministry.95 Andropov picked Kochemasov in full knowledge of the fact that Kochemasov was an admirer of the hard-liner Alexander Shelepin. Shelepin, a protégé of the Soviet leaders Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, had been head of the KGB and a member of the Politburo and in 1959 had personally proposed the destruction of documents showing Soviet culpability in the execution of thousands of Poles at the Katyn massacre. The Soviet Politburo ordered the destruction to be carried out.96

Such were the leaders who had shaped Kochemasov’s views. As a result of his background and personality, representatives of the other occupying powers in divided Berlin regarded him as an unreconstructed Stalinist. They dreaded interacting with him. Once a British diplomat made the mistake of asking Kochemasov a contentious question just as British and Soviet delegation members were sitting down to lunch. The Brits had to stare hungrily at their smoked salmon for forty-five minutes as the Soviet ambassador held up lunch to lecture them in response.97

In 1989, Kochemasov was seventy-one. His younger deputy, fifty-seven-year-old Igor Maximychev, represented a stark contrast to his boss. A big man, well liked by representatives of the other occupying powers, Maximychev spoke fluent German after more than a decade of service in German cities on both sides of the Wall. Knowing that party issues fell to the ambassador, Maximychev tried to focus on more traditional diplomatic responsibilities. He had regular contact with his opposite numbers among the other Allied powers, such as his British colleague, Michael Burton, who particularly valued Maximychev’s directness, intelligence, and wit. Jonathan Greenwald, an American diplomat at the US embassy in East Berlin, remembered Maximychev as “the guy who really knew what was going on.”98

On November 7, Krenz instructed the GDR’s foreign minister, Fischer, to speak with both Kochemasov and Maximychev as soon as possible. They met at 11:45 a.m. that same day. Fischer explained to the Soviets that the East German Politburo felt a sense of “duty” to ease the burden on its Czech counterpart, and also expressed his worry that if the party leadership in Prague carried out its threat to close the border from its side, the effect would be catastrophic. Fischer made explicitly clear to the Soviets, however, that “the border [between the] GDR/FRG will not be opened, because that would have an uncontrollable effect.”99 Rather, the plan was for the Politburo to open a new exit, or hole, on the border between the two states. East Germans could apply for permission to leave by this checkpoint rather than crossing through Czechoslovakia. Before enacting this plan, however, the East German Politburo members naturally wanted “the opinion” of their Soviet comrades.100

After Fischer left, Kochemasov instructed Maximychev and his staff to analyze the idea, which they nicknamed the “hole variant.” They were to reassemble the next day for a “brain trust” briefing on how to respond. Maximychev and his colleagues concluded that the hole variant was a sign of Krenz’s confusion and cowardice. Even though Fischer had explicitly said the GDR was not opening its border to West Germany, that would be the practical effect of the plan—but only at a remote location, and only for those willing to apply and to become exiles forever. Fischer’s request for an “opinion” was only meant to implicate the Soviets in whatever would follow, which might be a disaster. As Maximychev put it, the East German Politburo was trying to spread blame around in advance.

Notably, at the time neither Maximychev nor anyone else at the embassy thought that a worst-case scenario—the opening of the Berlin Wall—could result, because the discussion was solely about a remote spot on the border, not about divided Berlin. For the Soviets, the legal status of the Berlin Wall was completely different from that of the German-German border. Since the four powers collectively still shared control in divided Berlin, all in the room assumed that the issue of the Wall was not even under discussion, given that the idea of convening those four powers was not part of Fischer’s proposal. Instead, the question was only what to allow the East Germans to do near Schirnding.

Moscow should analyze carefully how to respond, Maximychev advised his boss, even though he knew this would be difficult given the timing of Fischer’s request. Tuesday, November 7, and Wednesday, November 8, were business days in East Berlin but part of a major holiday in the Soviet Union, with parades and numerous receptions in honor of the success of the October Revolution. Many senior figures would remain unavailable through the end of the week. Second-tier officials and ones lower than that would be keeping desk chairs warm while waiting for the decision makers to return.101 Kochemasov, with great effort, did manage to reach the Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze. According to Maximychev, Shevardnadze responded that “if our German friends think that such a solution is possible, then we will probably not register objections.” Shevardnadze did, however, want the Foreign Ministry in Moscow to look closely at the idea before allowing Kochemasov to respond definitively to Krenz. In effect, Shevardnadze told his ambassador to wait out the holiday for a response.102

East German representatives appear to have broached the idea of the hole variant in Bonn as well, presumably still hoping for lucrative support. Just as there was a permanent representative, or pseudo-ambassador, from West Germany in East Berlin, so too was there a permanent representative from East Germany in Bonn, Horst Neubauer. One of Neubauer’s subordinates apparently mentioned the hole variant to chancellery official Claus-Jürgen Duisberg, who asked for notice of when the plan might actually go into effect, but never received a reply.103

Having dealt, they believed, with the complaints from their Czech colleagues and alerted the Soviets, the top party leaders once again charged Dickel with figuring out the details, and Dickel once again called on Lauter. Meanwhile, the SED’s top leaders turned their focus inward, to party personnel issues. In the same way that Krenz was trying to create the appearance, without the reality, of travel freedom, so too did he decide to make it look as if the Politburo was accepting responsibility for the failings of its leadership without actually doing so. At the same marathon meeting on November 7 where Fischer received his instructions, Krenz had the entire Politburo agree to “resign” at the opening of the party’s central committee meeting the next day. Immediately thereafter, however, there would be an “election” to repopulate the Politburo, at which time Krenz would have the central committee reelect most of the Politburo. As a result, most Politburo members would be able to measure their time in “retirement” in minutes. They could say that they had tried to accept responsibility and to step down, but the clamor for their return had simply been too great. The exercise would also serve as a means for Krenz to dismiss potential opponents and to create room for a few new supporters. After the Politburo meeting ended, for example, one of the names on the list of resignations, Werner Krolikowski, mysteriously disappeared from Krenz’s list of names for reelection, thereby making Krolikowski’s resignation real.104

As this plan went into effect, however, there would be some unexpected surprises. The central committee members, in contrast to their previous behavior as rubber stamps, would refuse to reelect three people on November 8, the first day of their three-day session. The vote counting would degenerate into a chaotic affair, since the central committee had little practice with voting not fully fixed in advance. Thus the party leaders became fixated on their own bureaucratic reshuffles, not realizing that they had set an irrevocable series of events in motion by approving the hole variant.105 Given that the peaceful revolution had advanced to the point where it was producing events attracting half a million people, the resistance movement clearly had amassed a great deal of potential energy. Trying to open one little hole while holding back the bulk of that churning energy would turn out to be a deeply unwise decision.

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