Modern history



FIRST TENS, THEN HUNDREDS of thousands of East Germans were on the move through July, August, and then September of 1989, in their Trabants and Wartburgs. They headed, by some tribal instinct, for Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia, like the GDR, was still run by hardliners, but the trip to Prague was a short one for most East Germans. Hungary was further, but its reform-Communist government had declared itself ready to share power. And Budapest too had a West German embassy.

For East Germans reluctant to risk even the Hungarian-Austrian border, there was another solution. They packed their bags and took themselves to the capitals of neighbouring, still technically ‘socialist’ countries and headed for the West German embassy. There they sought asylum. Many were so eager that they simply abandoned their cars in nearby streets, often with keys still in the ignition. By mid-August, West German diplomats were in a desperate situation. On 13 August 1989, the twenty-eighth anniversary of the Wall, the West German embassy in Budapest was forced to close. Six days later, 600 East Germans forced their way through the border between Hungary and Austria. The Hungarian border guards simply watched.

Erich Honecker repeated in automatic fashion that the Wall would ‘last one hundred years.’ For the next six weeks, however, he was removed from the centre of power by an operation for a serious gall-bladder complaint, fully returning to his post only on 25 September. The 77-year-old leader had to be operated on twice, since at the first attempt he suffered from a circulatory collapse. During the second operation, they found not just an inflamed gall-bladder but a malignant tumour on the colon, which they removed. What the surgeons at East Berlin’s famous Charité Hospital did not know was that they had missed a second tumour in his right kidney, which would eventually kill him four years later. But meanwhile, it seemed, Honecker had been saved and made fit to take the helm for the fortieth anniversary.

The fact that the Politburo was more or less rudderless for that period may have contributed to the deterioration in the situation. Honecker had passed over Egon Krenz and appointed the compliant 63-year-old planning boss Günter Mittag as his caretaker. This he had done in a deliberately humiliating way. Told that Krenz had cancelled his vacation so as to be in East Berlin during the leader’s health crisis, Honecker coldly instructed him to ‘take a break’ and said, ‘Don’t take yourself so seriously. You’re not indispensable around here.’1

After obediently joining his family on the Baltic coast, Krenz received a visit from Eberhard Aurich, a friend and ally who now held the post of First Secretary of the party youth organisation, the FDJ. Aurich told Krenz the Politburo was floundering in the face of the refugee problem, and the old men were looking for scapegoats—especially anyone involved in the youth movement, who were blamed for failing to raise a new generation loyal to the regime. Aurich pleaded with Krenz to move against Honecker, but he refused. To undermine a sick man, and just before his big day at the fortieth anniversary…Aurich returned to East Berlin empty-handed.2

The problem of youth’s growing disaffection was, it is true, especially serious. According to government polls, in 1985, 51 per cent of apprentices had identified ‘strongly’ with the GDR and 43 per cent ‘with reservations’, while 6 per cent ‘hardly or not at all’; at the end of 1988 the figures had changed, catastrophically from the regime’s point of view, to only 18 per cent ‘strongly identifying’, 54 per cent having reservations, and 28 per cent supporting the regime hardly or not at all. The figures for young workers were similar. Since ‘unreliable’ young people were not permitted to go into higher education, college students were in many ways the darlings of the regime, but even there support had deteriorated. Compared with impressive 1985 figures—70 per cent of students strongly identifying, 28 per cent with reservations, and a mere 2 per cent withholding support-in less than four years the numbers had tumbled to 34 per cent, 51 per cent and 15 per cent respectively. Support had halved, reservations doubled, and outright opposition increased by a factor of seven.

The refugees in Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, and on the Hungarian/Austrian border were overwhelmingly young, children of the Wall par excellence. They were those statistics expressed in mobile, resentful human form. And time was on their side.

On 10 September, Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn was asked on television what his border officials would do if, say, 60,000 East Germans arrived at the border between Hungary and Austria.

‘They will,’ said Horn matter-of-factly, ‘allow them though without any further ado and I assume the Austrians will let them in.’

Twenty-two thousand East Germans promptly fled across that same border over just three days.3

At the same time, the West German embassy in Prague was full to overflowing. Many hundreds of East Germans, often entire families, had sought asylum there. A tent city mushroomed in the gardens of the historic Lobkovic Palace. Attempts to keep out newcomers failed. They simply clambered over the railings into the embassy grounds. By the end of September, the gardens housed 4,000 people. There was a real danger of disease in the overcrowded, unsanitary refuge, but the embassy’s house guests refused to leave. They would not return to East Germany.

Throughout the month, the East German Politburo (average age sixty-seven) had tried to ignore the problem. Now, spurred by Honecker’s recovery from his operation, it finally began to react. With America acting as broker, a deal was done between the Czechs, the Hungarians, and the GDR. On 30 September, the West German Foreign Minister flew to Prague. He announced to the masses waiting stubbornly in the grounds of the embassy that they would be allowed to leave.

Honecker had announced this decision to his Politburo colleagues after they had attended a gala performance at the State Opera in East Berlin in honour of the fortieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. In fact, the Politburo meeting took place immediately afterwards, in the Apollo Room, the magnificent chamber-music and reception room of the Opera House. The very important comrades sat down at hastily supplied tables, by the light of glittering chandeliers, and Honecker regaled them with ‘information regarding a matter of the highest urgency’.4

Honecker told them that he had agreed the refugees could go to West Germany via the GDR. They were to be placed in sealed trains for the journey through their homeland, and during the trip would have their East German identity documents confiscated and their citizenship withdrawn. This was intended to humiliate them and brand them as traitors. In an article in the SED organ Neues Deutschland, a bilious attack on the refugees declared that ‘by their behaviour they have trampled on all moral values and excluded themselves from our society. Therefore no one should shed any tears for them’. The piece is said to have been dictated by Honecker personally.

The entire operation actually said far more about the true nature of the East German regime—Why sealed trains? Why treat your own people like some kind of dangerous bacillus?—than about the thousands of exhausted but exhilarated expellees who piled into the eight trains that left Prague on 2 October. There were by this time 12,000 of them.

Everything backfired for Honecker. His decision turned out to be a terrible misjudgement. On the route through East Germany, far from being shunned and humiliated, the refugees were greeted by thousands of ordinary East Germans, who lined roads and embankments beside the tracks and waved and cheered. At Dresden, the first major city across the border, the refugees were defiant. They did not reluctantly surrender their identity documents, as the authorities expected, but tore them up and tossed them out of the train windows, along with the worthless Eastern marks they would not be able to spend once they arrived in the West.

Meanwhile, 1,500 local people, mostly young, defied the authorities and assembled at Dresden’s main station to greet the refugee trains. Demonstrators tried to climb aboard. The Vopos struggled to stop them. Fighting broke out. Substantial areas of the concourse were wrecked. One man slipped under the train and was so badly injured that he had to have his legs amputated. After the trains left, demonstrations continued. Many Dresdeners, including older citizens, gathered in a dignified demonstration outside the station. The crowd was ordered to disperse. It refused. There followed a stand-off with the armed police.

So much for Honecker’s conviction that he could neutralise the bacillus by confining it to a sealed train. Matters got even worse when the trains bearing the refugees from Prague finally reached Hof, in northern Bavaria, and were received on to West German soil. The welcome celebrations were huge. Cheering West Germans. Smiling East Germans. Brothers and sisters welcoming brothers and sisters. The entire emotionally stirring scene was televised in West Germany, and almost all East Germans could pick up Western broadcasts. Those, that is, who were not already heading for the border in their trusty Trabants. Soon the embassy grounds in the Czech capital were filling up again with a new wave of would-be refugees.

In Dresden, the demonstrations outside the station were not forcibly dispersed. The Volkspolizei colonel commanding the forces of order had to decide whether to start shooting, and he decided not to. He became, and remains to this day, a hero in Dresden. Within hours the news spread, first to Leipzig and then to Berlin. People had defied the regime in Dresden, but the regime’s policemen had not dared open fire.

On Monday 2 October, 10,000 citizens of Leipzig appeared on the streets. They chanted slogans about freedom, but above all they declared: ‘We will stay HERE’. This message was, in its way, even more worrying for Honecker than that conveyed by the West Germany-bound hordes of refugees. The regime had got used to arresting its dissidents and dumping them in the West. Now they were determined to stay in the East, and there were too many to deport them all.

Despite everything, Erich Honecker pressed on with preparations to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the regime he had fought and—it must be admitted—suffered to create. He was absolutely determined that this would be the greatest, most spectacular proof of the GDR’s viability that anyone could possibly want.

The ageing, ailing General Secretary had obvious problems. First of all, the flood of refugees. The worst of this was stopped when on 3 October the right to visa-free travel to Czechoslovakia was ‘temporarily’ withdrawn. Then there were the demonstrations. These could be minimised by an increased police presence and more brutal intervention. But Honecker also had hidden problems, ones he never wanted to think about but which were now impossible to ignore. Such as the fact that the state he planned to celebrate with such pomp was actually on the verge of bankruptcy.

In the past few years the GDR had become reliant on West German largess. In the 1960s and 1970s East Germany had been relatively successful as an exporter. In the 1980s, when according to the economic plan the country was supposed to be turning into a high-tech, R&D-based modern powerhouse, the story had in fact been one of steady decline and increasing foreign indebtedness. The GDR could only imitate, not innovate. Between 1980 and 1988, the outlay required for a state enterprise to earn one West mark almost doubled, from 2.40 East marks to 4.40. Low productivity and high raw-materials prices meant that the actual trade deficit (without credits or other payments from West Germany) just kept ballooning. And worse was expected. The Soviet Union, with grave financial and economic problems of its own, had indicated that it would be scaling down deliveries of cheap oil to East Germany and raising foreign trade prices within the Eastern Bloc to world market levels.5

All the same, Honecker, who had grown used to ignoring uncomfortable economic realities, and who trusted the Marxist God of History to save him every bit as fervently as any fundamentalist trusts his deity, was determined to throw the biggest party imaginable for the GDR’s big birthday.

Though Gorbachev had paid a triumphant visit to West Germany, for the past two years he had avoided the GDR. However, he could not ignore East Germany’s fortieth. Nor, after his arrival in East Berlin, could he ignore the vast torch-lit parade of youth groups staged for his benefit, or the tanks and artillery pieces that rolled past the saluting dais where he stood with the GDR’s leadership. As the long columns of FDJ members marched past in their blue shirts and red scarves, many called out over and over in honour of the Soviet reformer, ‘Gorbi! Gorbi!’ Some were heard to shout: ‘Gorbi, help us!’ The Polish Communist leader, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, asked Gorbachev if he understood what the young people were saying. The Russian nodded, but Rakowski translated for him anyway. ‘They are demanding: “Gorbachev, save us!”’ he explained incredulously. ‘But these are the party activists! This is the end!’6

Later, there were talks between Gorbachev and Honecker, at which the East German leader refused to discuss Soviet-style reforms. Honecker asked instead, ‘Has your population enough food, bread, and butter?’ And he compared the standard of life in the USSR unfavourably with that in the GDR.

The relationship between the two leaders deteriorated further during Saturday evening. At a meeting with the East German Politburo, Gorbachev made some more pointed remarks. ‘When we fall behind, life punishes us immediately,’ he observed with obvious reference to Honecker and his supporters. Honecker appeared oblivious, continuing to brag about the success of the GDR and its alleged status ‘among the top ten economies in the world’. His words met with silence. Except from Gorbachev, who turned to his neighbour and let out a soft but clearly audible hiss of derision.7

Günter Schabowski, since 1985 First Secretary of the SED’s key Berlin District, later remarked: ‘We were assholes, we should have done the coup d’état right there, in front of his eyes!’8

That night over dinner, Krenz finally decided to wield the stiletto. By the end of the meal, he had pledges of support from Politburo members Schabowski, Siegfried Lorenz (SED boss in Karl-Marx-Stadt) and, most important of all, Stasi Minister Erich Mielke, eighty-one years old but still Moscow’s man. The Soviets were discreetly informed, and the conspirators set to plotting Honecker’s downfall. After eighteen years in power, the miner’s son from Wiebelskirchen was a marked man.

In 1953, the SED regime had survived only because of Soviet troops. Rumours were already spreading that Gorbachev would not let the Red Army intervene if the same thing happened now. None the less, the government had no compunction in keeping ‘order’ in the streets during this crucial period by judicious use of force. This applied mainly to Leipzig and Dresden, where demonstrations were continuing and growing. East Berlin was relatively quiet, in part due to sometimes brutal interventions by the Stasi and police to nip demonstrations in the bud.

Despite veiled threats and savage action against individual protesters during the fortieth-anniversary weekend, 70,000 of Leipzig’s citizens flocked to the next Monday ‘prayer meeting’ at the Nikolaikirche, which had become the most important single focus for the opposition.

Informed of growing unrest in Saxony, on Sunday 8 October Mielke issued a ‘code red’ alert which, in effect, gave his forces a ‘licence to kill’ in the streets. ‘There has,’ the directive declared, ‘been an aggravation of the nature and associated dangers of the illegal mass gatherings of hostile, oppositional, as well as further hostile-negative and rowdy-type forces aiming to disturb the security of the state…’

The order continued chillingly:

I hereby order:

1. A state of ‘full alert’ according to Directive No. 1/89, Para. II, for all units until further notice. Members of permanently armed forces are to carry their weapons with them constantly, according to the needs of the situation…

Sufficient reserve forces are to be held ready, capable of intervention at short notice even for offensive measures for the repression and breaking up of illegal demonstrations.9

The army had also been placed on alert. Orders were given for a regiment of paratroopers to be moved close to Leipzig in case of trouble. On the evening of 9 October, the security forces, armed with live ammunition, were stationed in the side-streets near the Nikolaikirche. Hospitals prepared for an influx of wounded.

In the end, the demonstration, though huge and clearly threatening to the regime, did not deteriorate into violence. The crowd responded to the admonishments of several prominent speakers, including the internationally known director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur, with remarkable restraint. It has been said that Honecker ordered the security forces not to shoot, because he did not want to be blamed for possible civil war. Whatever the case, Gerhard Strassenberg, the police commander in the city, told his force to use weapons only in self-defence.

The ninth of October in Leipzig signalled a turning-point. The Russian occupation army failed to show itself, confirming that Gorbachev had confined it to barracks. The seventeenth of June 1953 had not been repeated in Leipzig—and neither had Tiananmen Square.

The fall of Honecker came just over a week later, by a simple vote in the Politburo. A defiant slogan had been taken up by the masses on 9 October: ‘We are the People’. Even some of the police had joined in the chant. In the next few days, demonstrations spread through the GDR, to Magdeburg, Potsdam, Halle, Karl-Marx-Stadt and elsewhere.

Krenz and his fellow conspirators started to build the pressure on Honecker straight after Gorbachev’s departure. They put together a document admitting the regime’s problems and suggested corrective measures. Honecker attempted to block its discussion in the Politburo, but failed. He found himself supported only by Mittag, the guardian of economic orthodoxy, and by his old intimate and foreign-policy adviser, Hermann Axen. When challenged, however, Honecker insisted he would not resign. No one quite had the nerve to force the issue.

The conspirators paused to regroup. The phone lines ran hot. On 16 October 1989, most of the Politburo watched uneasily as a secret Stasi TV feed from Leipzig, filmed with cameras hidden on squares and street corners, showed a vast crowd—this time 120,000-strong—gathering peacefully for the Monday meeting. They were chanting not just ‘Gorbi! Gorbi!’ but ‘The Wall must go!’. Honecker, appalled, exclaimed repeatedly, ‘Now, surely, we have to do something!’ but no one else in the room suggested using force. The army chief of staff, Colonel-General Fritz Streletz, specifically declined to unleash his men against the demonstrators. ‘We can’t do anything,’ he said. ‘We intend to let the whole thing take its course peacefully.’

The next day, 17 October, the Politburo was due to meet. Mielke, who despite his age still took a morning dip in his swimming-pool at Wandlitz, was up even earlier than usual. He phoned the security chief in the Central Committee building, who was, of course, a Stasi officer and Mielke’s subordinate. The minister instructed him to ensure the meeting room was surrounded with reliable officers. Honecker must be prevented from summoning his own bodyguards when the moment of crisis arrived.

At ten the meeting began. Honecker seemed relaxed. He opened the meeting as if everything was quite normal and tranquil in the GDR, the best of all Germanys. Then he asked if anyone had any suggestions for the agenda.

There was a brief silence. Then 75-year-old Willi Stoph, chair of the Council of Ministers, indicated his desire to speak. Stoph had long been critical of Honecker in private letters to Gorbachev and had joined Krenz’s clique. Like everything else that happened that morning, his remarks were pre-arranged with the other conspirators.

‘Erich, allow me,’ Stoph began in his bureaucratic monotone. ‘I suggest: first item on the agenda, “The release of Comrade Erich Honecker from his duties as General Secretary and the election of Egon Krenz as General Secretary”.’

Honecker froze and stared vacantly round the room. Then, after a few moments, he collected himself and said calmly, ‘Good, then I open the discussion’.

They all betrayed him, one by one, in the three-hour session that followed. Even his long-time henchman, economic mastermind Günter Mittag, finally saw the way the wind was blowing and declared that Honecker had ‘lost the trust of the party’. This was the man who had lied to everyone about the state of the East German economy, who more than any other was responsible for the country’s plight. The other Politburo members could not suppress their mocking laughter.

At the end, they voted to get rid of Mittag too, as well as the chief press censor, Joachim Herrmann.

Honecker warned them, stiffly but calmly, that his resignation would not solve the GDR’s problems. But if that was his colleagues’ decision, then he must obey. The Politburo’s vote to sack Honecker was unanimous. In accordance with ‘democratic centralist’ tradition, the General Secretary dutifully voted for his own dismissal.

Without another word, Honecker withdrew to his office. He dictated a letter, summoning the Central Committee for a meeting the next day at which his dismissal would be confirmed. Then he picked up the telephone and called his wife, Margot.

‘It has happened,’ is all Erich Honecker said to her.

Then he put down the receiver and started slowly and methodically to gather together his personal effects.10

The conspirators had succeded in the first stage of the coup, but they still had concerns. First, they had to ensure that Honecker didn’t manage some kind of counter-attack at the Central Committee meeting the next day, as Khrushchev had famously done in 1957. Khrushchev had found himself outvoted by the so-called ‘anti-party group’ in the Politburo, but had turned the tables on them at the subsequent plenum meeting, allowing him to reign in Moscow for seven more years. Second, they had to justify Honecker’s dismissal—on grounds of, say, economic incompetence—without implicating themselves as co-decision-makers and therefore co-responsible individuals.

In the event, Honecker went without a fight. Vague health reasons were given. At the next day’s Central Committee meeting, out of 216 delegates, only 16 voted against, including Honecker’s own wife, who would immediately lose her job as Minister of Education, and Hanna Wolf, the octogenarian retired head of the SED Party School, a former wartime exile in Russia and stubborn opponent of all reform.

A tearful Honecker was given a standing ovation by the assembled comrades. Whether the tears were of sadness or impotent fury—Krenz in his memoirs plumps for the latter—we shall never know. Then the deposed First Secretary left the building, never to cross its threshold again. While Krenz was being acclaimed as new party leader, Honecker ordered his chauffeur to take him for one last woodland drive.

Krenz would rule for forty-six days. He immediately announced his intention to reform East Germany, and was astonished when the public jeered rather than cheered. Playing on his long features and prominent teeth, they called him ‘horse face’. Posters carried at the ever-burgeoning demonstrations showed him wrapped up in a bonnet like the wolf in ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, with the caption: ‘Why grandmother, what big teeth you have!’ The public simply did not believe his sudden conversion to reform. A joke went: ‘What is the difference between Egon Krenz and Erich Honecker? Answer: Krenz still has a gall-bladder.’

On 23 October 1989, 300,000 marched in Leipzig to call for Krenz’s resignation. The following week there were demonstrations all over the GDR. On 30 October 20,000 gathered at the ‘Red Town Hall’ in East Berlin, where the chief spokesman of the new government, the articulate, in many ways likeable Berliner Günter Schabowski, attempted to explain its policies. The crowd heard him out, but still called for more than he was prepared to give.11

In any case, the movement towards reform came too late.

On that same day, 30 October, a highly secret ‘Report on the Economic Situation of the GDR with Consequences’ was submitted to the new Politburo. It made clear what had been hidden all those years, even from many members of the party leadership. The country was a wreck, and approaching bankruptcy like a horse galloping towards a cliff. More than half of all industrial facilities were effectively classifiable as scrap. 53.8 per cent of all machines were write-offs, only reparable at a cost that could simply not be justified. Half the transport infrastructure was in a state of decay. Productivity was around 40 per cent behind the West’s. State indebtedness had risen from 12 billion marks in 1970 to 123 billion in 1988. Direct debts to capitalist states and banks had increased during that period from 2 billion to 49 billion West marks.

The five-person team of planners who put together the report was led by Gerhard Schürer, Chairman of the State Planning Commission. Schürer had suggested relatively modest reforms to Honecker the previous year but had been knocked back. Now elected to the Politburo, he finally got someone to listen to him, but it was too late. As he admitted, a severe and thoroughgoing reform problem adopted in, say, 1985, might have relieved the situation, but now it had gone too far. The document declared grimly: ‘Just to avoid further indebtedness would mean a lowering in 1990 of the standard of living by around 25%-30% and make the GDR ungovernable.’12

The GDR at the end of the Honecker era was, in effect, bankrupt.

Nor did all twenty-six members of the Politburo get to learn the full, awful truth. An even more searing three-page analysis (Geheime Kommandosache b5-1156/89) had also been prepared by Schürer, for the eyes only of General Secretary Krenz and veteran Premier Willi Stoph. It spelled out the bad news even more starkly, admitting that the GDR was already largely dependent on capitalist credit institutions, and that annual borrowing was running at 8-10 billion West marks. This was ‘extraordinarily high for a country like the GDR’.

The country had embarked on an increasingly frantic game of financial manipulation, moving cash around the international money markets at speed, inflating the extent of its claimed assets and understating its true indebtedness in order to raise more credit, because if the international finance community knew the facts it would pull the plug. The GDR, like any over-indebted individual who knows there’s a problem but can’t stop the spending habit that’s causing it, was covertly taking out short-term loans to make interest payments on long-term credit, and using this apparently creditworthy status to assume yet more debt. This was criminal deception, fraud on a vast scale.

What to do? Even the ‘transit’ payments due from the West to assure access to and from Berlin, guaranteed until 1995, had already been mortgaged and spent. To ensure solvency in 1991, it would be ‘imperative’ to start negotiations with the West German government for further credits amounting to 23 billion West marks, on top of existing credit sources. But what could the GDR offer in return?

Schürer’s group had a quite simple but hair-raising proposal. They would put up the ‘State Border West’ as a bargaining counter. Or, as the report put it:

In order to make the Federal Republic conscious of the GDR’s serious intention, it must be declared that…such conditions could be created, as early as this century, that will make the border that exists between the two German states superfluous.

Bluntly: you come up with the money and we’ll bring down the Wall.

This was a logical if desperate conclusion to a thirty-year policy of making the West Germans pay for every tiny travel concession, every released political prisoner, every iota of access to and from the East by road, rail or air.

The trouble was, in order to perform this last trick, in order to save itself, the regime would have to saw away the branch on which it sat. And for that it was not yet ready.

On 1 November, Krenz flew to Moscow. There he held out the begging bowl one last time. Krenz, exaggerating his reformist credentials, engaged with Gorbachev in a wide-ranging discussion of the situation. Krenz knew that another big day of demonstrations was planned for Saturday 4 November. Venues would include Berlin, where until now there had been few problems compared with Leipzig and Dresden.

He shared his concern with the Soviet leader:

Measures must be taken to prevent any attempt at a mass breakthrough across the Wall. That would be awful, because then the police would have to intervene and certain elements of a state of emergency would have to be introduced.13

Gorbachev had his own preference for a new East German leader-the genuinely reformist Dresden Party Secretary, Hans Modrow-but was nevertheless prepared to hear Krenz out and offer him a little useful advice. He promised to ask his friends in the West not to destabilise the GDR. However, that was about all Krenz got. Gorbachev was no Khrushchev, who would always ultimately pay up to save the GDR. The Soviets refused to bail out the SED regime, either financially or militarily. The message was clear. Sauve qui peut. Every Communist for himself.

Egon Krenz returned to East Berlin empty-handed. The countdown to the end had begun.

The opposition had grown that autumn with bewildering speed. It had started out from relatively small collections of religious and pacifist-ecological groups, overtly non-political though clearly critical of the regime. By October, the SPD had unofficially re-formed in the East, and the various other citizens’ action groups had developed into embryonic political movements.

Most prominent among the groups was ‘New Forum’. New Forum had been founded in September after a call to action signed by a group of thirty oppositional intellectuals, scientists and religious figures. This declaration rapidly gathered hundreds and then thousands of further supporters. The aim of New Forum was to ‘open up a democratic dialogue’ between rulers and ruled in East Germany.

Despite being officially declared hostile to the state and ‘unnecessary’, New Forum grew quickly. Its aims were reformist within the existing framework of the GDR. It did not propose the reintroduction of capitalism or the reunification of Germany. All the more dangerous, so far as the state was concerned.

On 4 October, various organisations, including New Forum and the re-formed Social Democrats, combined to demand the release of political prisoners, abandonment of all political investigations, and free elections by secret ballot. They made reference to the United Nations Charter and the Helsinki Agreement, to both of which the GDR was officially a signatory. There was a new, confident tone to the dissidents’ demands, though their support was still relatively small.

By the end of the month, it was obvious that something much bigger was happening. Tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of ordinary East Germans were turning out all over the country to demand democratic change.

The big demonstration in East Berlin on Saturday 4 November was the most threatening yet, because it would take place perilously close to the regime’s seats of power. None the less, the leadership decided to allow it-in fact, it went even further.

Members of the SED leadership, most prominently the extrovert Schabowski, appeared on the podium alongside the dissidents. The Berlin Party Secretary defended the system and promised reform. He was greeted with boos and whistles. Others included the New Forum leaders and the writers Christa Wolf and Stefan Heym, the former a critical supporter of the regime, the latter an idealistic maverick who had spent the Nazi era in America and returned to Germany in a US army uniform, only to settle in the GDR of his own free will. Heym’s works were banned in the East because of his support for Wolf Biermann, but the veteran writer refused to leave.

Another former exile who spoke at the rally was even odder case: Markus Wolf, raised in exile in Stalin’s Russia, who had retired in 1986 as head of the Stasi’s foreign-intelligence department, the HVA, and Deputy Minister of State Security. The ever-plausible chameleon of the secret world had now transformed himself into a democrat. There were and are many who suspect the Stasi’s involvement in the entire transition process. Secret policemen are notoriously skilful survivors.

Wolf came from an artistic family-his father had been a well-known writer, his brother a film director. He always claimed to have favoured a more liberal line, but his own spectacularly disingenuous account of his participation on 4 November speaks for itself:

I tried to persuade the half million at the rally and the millions more watching on television not to resort to violence, but as I spoke, protesting the atmosphere of incrimination that made every member of the state security organisations scapegoats of the policies of the former leadership, I was dimly aware that parts of the crowd were hissing at me. They were in no mood to be lectured on reasonable behaviour by a former general of the Ministry of State Security.

So I learned painfully in those moments that I could not escape my past…14

As Schabowski’s (and perhaps Wolf’s) presence at the demonstration showed, the establishment was still hoping somehow to manage the changes, to ride the tiger of reform. It was putting forward its most ‘people-friendly’ faces. Two days later, the SED’s propaganda department reported on the 4 November demonstrations and said that concessions should indeed be made, but only superficial ones:

The demand for free elections can in principle be supported, since it corresponds to the basic principles of our socialist constitution, nevertheless this must not entail opening the door to bourgeois party pluralism…Demands for abolition of the leading role of the SED are totally unacceptable.15

In other words, free elections were perfectly OK if they were not actually free.

Precisely how they were to persuade the population with such bizarre authoritarian sophistries was not apparent. If half the population of East Berlin was prepared to attend a meeting calling for free elections and democracy, who was going to accept the ‘leading role of the party’, knowing this was merely a euphemism for its monopoly on power? The new ruling clique understood something of this. In the first week of November, seeing the need to impress the increasingly mutinous masses, Krenz carried out a purge of the old guard.

On 7 November, the members of the government headed by Willi Stoph handed in their resignations. On 8 November, the Politburo resigned en masse. It was replaced by younger and more reformist appointees, including Hans Modrow, who, although an important district secretary, had been excluded from the previous body.

Meanwhile, there were angry demonstrations outside government buildings, especially local offices of the Stasi. On 7 November, Mielke signed a lengthy and anxious report to the Politburo on the growth of the protest movement. There was little of the purse-lipped arrogance previously characteristic of Stasi documents. The report observed that the crowds outside Stasi buildings were shouting things like ‘Burn the building down!’, ‘Out with the Stasi swine’, ‘Kill them’, and ‘The knives are sharpened, the nooses are prepared’.16 Mielke promptly sent a secret directive to all Stasi districts and departments, ordering the destruction of sensitive documents, especially those that might incriminate the Stasi’s network of unofficial informers.

The air was thick with doubt and intrigue, a familiar, anxious reek in the corridors of power that conveyed one message only: fin de régime: end of the regime.

Proposals had already been published for more liberal travel and visa regulations, allowing up to thirty days of foreign travel per year. The application process would take around a month and ‘normally not lead to a negative outcome’. No dates, however, were set for these suggestions to become law. An examination of the small print also showed that bureaucrats would remain able to grant or withhold permission pretty much at will. Besides, the maximum hard-currency allowance (fifteen West marks) would scarcely buy breakfast outside the GDR.

Meanwhile, Krenz, seemingly victorious in his battle for control of the SED, vowed to stay in office and called the Wall a ‘bulwark’ against Western subversion. The regime was threatening to drown in a torrent of mixed messages.

On the morning of 9 November, the sun shone fitfully in East Berlin. The thermometer crept slowly to ten degrees centigrade. That morning, an article appeared in Neues Deutschland, commenting on the continuing mass exodus from the GDR via other countries. It was not written by some party hack, but by a group of reformers. They pleaded with East Germans not to leave their country in its hour of need:

We are all deeply uneasy. We see the thousands who are daily leaving our country. We know that a failed policy has reinforced your mistrust of any renewal of our community life until the last few days. We are aware of how helpless words are against mass movements, but we have no other means but our words. Those who leave diminish our hope. We beg you, stay in your homeland, stay with us!

On the first day of November, Krenz rescinded the ban on travel to Czechoslovakia, opening the floodgates once more. With Honecker gone and the new rulers clearly unwilling or unable to enforce their will in the traditionally forceful post-Stalinist fashion, more than 20,000 East German citizens had crossed from Czechoslovakia into Austria during the twenty-four hours preceding 9 November. Now it was the Czechs’ own Communist government that was coming under pressure. They were threatening to close the border. The East German ambassador in Prague had been brusquely informed that the Czech government ‘did not intend to build refugee camps for East German citizens’.

On 6 November, half a million citizens of what satirists were now calling the ‘German Demonstrating Republic’ attended the ‘Monday Meeting’ in Leipzig. Speakers pointed out the catches in the new ‘thirty day’ travel regulations and criticised the tiny foreign-currency allowance. They called not for a modification of the travel laws but for their abolition. ‘In dreißig Tagen um die Welt—Ohne Geld!’ (freely translated: ‘Around the world in thirty days-but how to pay?’) chanted the crowd.

At the Interior Ministry on the Mauerstrasse in East Berlin, a working party of four officials, including two Stasi officers, had been given the task of temporarily modifying existing laws to deal with the current crisis. On the morning of 9 November, they were due to draft at the Politburo’s behest a resolution ‘For the alteration of the situation regarding permanent exit of GDR citizens via the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic’. They had decided to entitle it ‘Immediate Granting of Visas for permanent exit’ but, one said later, as they laboured at the draft they felt less and less happy with the concept.

We were charged {he explained} with coming up with a regulation for those citizens who want to leave the country permanently. But were we then supposed to not let out those who just wanted to go and visit their aunty? That would have been schizophrenic.17

The final draft stipulated that, so long as East German citizens were in possession of a passport and visa, no restrictions should be placed on either permanent emigration or private visits. People would be allowed to leave the GDR via any border crossing point between East Germany and either West Berlin or the Federal Republic. It added rather feebly that exits were to take place ‘in an orderly manner’.

The material was couriered over to the Central Committee building, where the Politburo was in session. After presenting the document, Krenz reminded his colleagues of the pressure they were under from the Czech government, and assured them that the Soviets were in favour of the new measure. The Politburo members-most of them recently elected to replace hardliners and therefore unfamiliar with the details of previous regulations—nodded it through. The same went for the Council of Ministers, which rarely made changes to material approved by the Politburo.

A few minutes before six o’clock that evening, Günter Schabowski, the Central Committee’s media spokesman, arrived at the International Press Centre in the Mohrenstrasse, where the government held its newly instituted live, daily press conferences.

The press centre was packed with print and television journalists, including-since East Germany had now entered the era of ‘openness’—cameras from the GDR’s own television news. Schabowski was tired and a little distracted. It had been a long day. He had not been at the meeting that approved the revised regulations, but half an hour earlier he had dropped by Krenz’s office and asked the General Secretary about the day’s proceedings. Were there any important announcements he needed to make? Krenz had passed him the document detailing the new temporary travel regulations, and Schabowski had hurried off to the press conference.

The conference, at which Schabowski was just one of the spokespeople, though the most senior, started at six exactly. However, there were other questions to be dealt with first. Things dragged on. The announcement of the new travel rules came as the final item on the agenda. Although technically it was a government and not a party matter, Krenz had personally given the document to Schabowski, and so it felt natural that, although he was actually the SED spokesman, he should convey its contents to the assembled journalists.

At 6.53 p.m., sweating slightly under the television lights and visibly exhausted, Schabowski peered down at the document Krenz had given him. It was still headed, a little gnomically, ‘For the alteration of the situation regarding permanent exit of GDR citizens via the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic it is stipulated…’ In a little preamble he told the press, rather wearily, that the document would ‘make it possible for every citizen of the GDR to leave the country using border crossing points of the GDR’. Then he read out its somewhat dense bureaucratic formulations in mechanical fashion:

1.                     The decree from 30 November 1988 about travel abroad of GDR citizens will no longer be applied until the new travel law comes into force.

2.                     Starting immediately, the following temporary transition regulations for travel abroad and permanent exits from the GDR are in effect:

o                 a) Applications by private individuals for travel abroad can now be made without the previously existing requirements (of demonstrating a need to travel or proving familial relationships). The travel authorisations will be issued within a short period of time. Grounds for denial will only be applied in particularly exceptional cases.

o                 b) The responsible departments of passport and registration control in the People’s Police district offices in the GDR are instructed to issue visas for permanent exit without delay and without presentation of the existing requirements for permanent exit. It is still possible to apply for permanent exit in the departments for internal affairs {of the local district or city councils}.

o                 c) Permanent exits are possible via all GDR border crossings to the FRG and (West) Berlin.

o                 d) The temporary practice of issuing (travel) authorisations through GDR consulates and permanent exit with only a GDR personal identity card via third countries ceases.

3.                     3. The attached press release explaining the temporary transition regulation will be issued on 10 November.

Responsible: Government spokesman of the GDR Council of Ministers

{italics the author’s own}

Then Schabowski leaned back in his chair, almost certainly not expecting any questions. The travel issue had been dragging on for some days, and this was yet another attempt to defuse it without giving the GDR’s population more than the regime thought fit. After all, the measure was still tagged as ‘temporary’. This saga would, it could be assumed, run and run, and there would be more episodes.

None the less, the journalists were intrigued. At 6.57, an Italian newspaperman asked Schabowski if this was some kind of mistake. Schabowski repeated that private travel and permanent exit from the GDR were now permitted and went on:

So, private travel to foreign countries can be applied for without presentation of existing requirements, or proving a need to travel or familial relationships. The travel authorisations will be issued within a short period of time.

The responsible departments for passport and registration control of the People’s Police district authorities in the GDR are instructed to issue visas for permanent exit without delay, without the applicant’s having to provide valid evidence of previous requirements regarding permanent exit.

There was murmuring among the press representatives. Someone—said to have been Tom Brokaw of the American NBC network—asked him exactly when this regulation came into effect. Schabowski seemed a little uncertain. He checked the wording of the document in front of him and then replied: ‘So far as I know, that is, uh, immediate, without delay.’ Schabowski had failed to see that the regulation did not come into effect until the next day, 10 November, and that until then there was supposed to be an embargo on the announcement.

There are a number of myths surrounding what proved to be a momentous event. The first is that Schabowski was forced to read from a hard-to-decipher note hastily scribbled by Krenz. He wasn’t. Krenz had given him a copy of the actual announcement. This, however, Schabowski had hastily placed among a sheaf of his own notes, through which he later had to scrabble before finding the document and starting to read it to the assembled press. The second myth is that the news was an immediate sensation. It now seems that, in reality, the press hung around for a while after the press conference and that the atmosphere was one of considerable confusion. Some refuelled at the nearby coffee bar, still trying to work out the exact meaning of the document and to square it with what the SED spokesman had told them.18

The first reports from DPA and Reuters, which came over the wires at a couple of minutes after seven p.m., simply said that any GDR citizen would be entitled, from now on, to leave the country via the appropriate border crossing points. Low-key stuff. Then, at five past seven, Associated Press pulled ahead of the pack and spelled its interpretation out in a simple but sensational sentence: ‘According to information supplied by SED Politburo member Gu¨nter Schabowski, the GDR is opening its borders.’

The storm broke. Within half an hour, all the other agencies had picked up the phrase. As did the news bulletins on the West German television stations. The generally trusted state-financed network, ARD, led its eight o’clock bulletin with those exact words: ‘The GDR is opening its borders’.

By the time the news bulletin was over, a total of eighty East Berliners had already arrived at the Bornholmer Strasse, Heinrich-Heine-Strasse and Invalidenstrasse checkpoints and were requesting permission to cross into West Berlin. The border officials sought advice. They were instructed to tell would-be border-crossers to come back tomorrow.

The GDR’s leadership had been caught completely off guard. The Central Committee plenum, which had been in progress for two days, did not end until 8.47 p.m. No one seems to have noticed the growing excitement over Schabowski’s press conference. Krenz’s main concern at this stage seems to have been his political position: to the General Secretary’s disappointment, several of his reformist nominations for membership of the Politburo had been rejected by the Central Committee, in which the hardliners still formed a strong block. Immediately after the meeting was over, he retreated to his office and stayed there for some time.

Meanwhile, the news was spreading to the outside world. By 9.30 the Americans, the British, the French and the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had all realised that something remarkable was happening in Berlin. Kohl was on a visit to Warsaw (where there was now a government led by the non-Communist Solidarity movement). He heard the news while at a large formal banquet, and immediately realised he was ‘dancing at the wrong wedding’, as the German saying goes.

Some time after ten, Krenz received a phone call that would change everything. On the line was Stasi Minister Erich Mielke, who described the latest developments. Half an hour earlier, the crowd at the Bornholmer Strasse border checkpoint, between the north-central part of East Berlin and the French sector, had grown to between 500 and 1,000, all pressing to cross. On their own initiative, senior Stasi officers decided to let the most pushy through into West Berlin-though when they did, they stamped their passports ‘no right of return’, as they would an expellee. This so-called ‘pressure-release solution’ had little effect. The crowds continued to push forward, and more kept arriving by the minute.

Krenz quickly realised that attempts to hold back the tide were futile. He faced a stark choice. ‘Either we shut the border so completely that it would impossible to storm it,’ Krenz admitted later. ‘That would have meant bringing up tanks. Or we let things run their course. There was no other decision possible.’19 In the event, no order was issued.

Just before 10.30, the late bulletin of the East German state TV news, Aktuelle Kamera (‘Topical Camera’), had made a final desperate attempt to halt the stampede.

At the request of many citizens {the announcer declared}, we inform you once again about the new travel regulations from the ministerial council. First: Private trips can be applied for without having to first provide evidence of need to travel or familial relationships. So: Trips are subject to an application process!

Passport and registration offices would be open tomorrow at the usual time, the announcer added brightly, and, of course, permanent exit travel would also be possible only after application had been made and then granted by the appropriate authorities.

On that night in particular, most of the population of East Berlin was not, of course, tuned into the regime’s stations to hear what time the passport and registration offices were opening, but was riveted to Western newscasts, eager to see what was actually going on in the real world. At around 10.40 p.m., ARD’s late-night news discussion programme ‘Themes of the Day’ (Tagesthemen) began with the announcement: ‘This ninth of November is a historic day: the GDR has announced that its borders are open to everyone, with immediate effect, and the gates of the Wall stand wide open.’

The strange thing was that when the programme went live to the Invalidenstrasse checkpoint to illustrate its claim, the border was clearly not open at all. The contradiction made no difference. It was at this point, largely in response to the ARD programme’s sensational assertion, that the mass storming of the checkpoints began.

Within half an hour, the border situation was all but out of control. The ‘pressure-release solution’ had backfired spectacularly. At the Bornholmer Strasse, the huge crowds waiting behind a screen fence to go through the exit process were starting to push forward, and to threaten the handful of border guards trying to keep them in order. At around 11.30, a group of East Berliners pushed aside the screen fence in front of the border crossing and everyone swarmed into the checkpoint area en masse. Checkpoint commander Lieutenant-Colonel Harald Jäger decided that he was not prepared to risk the lives of himself and his soldiers. He ordered his men to stop checking passports, open up fully, and just let the crowd do what it wanted.

And the crowd knew what it wanted. Within moments, thousands began to pour through the checkpoint. They simply walked or, in most cases ran, into West Berlin. The sensation of running freely over the bridge, of crossing a border where such an action, just days or even hours before, would have courted near-certain death, brought a surge of exhilaration that, if we are to believe those who were there, all but changed the chemical composition of the air and turned it into champagne.

Large crowds had already gathered on the Western side. They greeted the Easterners with cries of joy and open arms. Many improvised toasts were drunk. By midnight, all the border checkpoints had been forced to open. At the Invalidenstrasse, masses ‘invaded’ from the West and met the approaching Easterners in the middle.

It was now twenty past midnight, and the entire East German army had been placed on a state of heightened alert. However, in the absence of orders from the leadership, the 12,000 men of the Berlin border regiments remained confined to barracks. The night passed, and the orders never arrived.

Between one and two a.m., human swarms from East and West push their way through the Wall at the Brandenburg Gate. Some are still in their sleepwear, ignoring the November cold. Thousands luxuriate in the sensation of walking around the nearby Pariser Platz-embassy row-an elegant city landmark closed for thirty years by barbed wire, concrete blocks and tank traps, turned by state decree into a deadly no man’s land. People are clambering on top of the Wall to caper and dance and yell their hearts out in liberation and release and delight.

A mix of hype and hope has defeated bureaucratic obfuscation. A little over six hours after a fumbled press conference and a Western press campaign that took the fumbled ball of the temporary exit-visa regulation and ran with it, a revolution has occurred. One of the swiftest and least bloody in history. A revolution that has, whatever Gil Scott-Heron may have predicted to the contrary fifteen years before, most certainly been televised.

It will be followed by the biggest, wildest street party the world has ever seen.

And, perhaps inevitably, by one of the biggest hangovers, too. But that is another story.

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