After the rising of the 17 June
The secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed on the Stalinallee
In which one could read that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could only recover it through redoubled work. Would it not then
Be simpler, if the government
Dissolved the people and
Thus Bertolt Brecht—but only privately—after the workers’ rising in the summer of 1953.
In the summer of 1989, on August 31 to be precise, Erich Mielke, the eighty-one-year-old minister for State Security of the German Democratic Republic, held a conference with his regional commanders to discuss growing discontent in the state. Extracts from the transcript of that meeting are among the first documents from the now dissolved Ministry for State Security to have been published, in a remarkable book commissioned by the East German “Round Table” of government and opposition groups.2 At one point in this meeting, Mielke interrupts the report of the Genosse Oberst (Comrade Colonel) from Gera to ask: “Is [the situation] such, that tomorrow the 17 June will break out?”
All along one had guessed that the old men at the top were haunted by that memory. But it is still extraordinary to find the fear so plainly expressed, black on white. “That is [sic] not tomorrow,” replies Genosse Oberst Dangriess, “that will not happen, it’s for that we exist” (dafür sind wir ja auch da). A little later it is the turn of the Genosse General-leutenant from Leipzig. “The atmosphere is wretched,” he says. But “so far as the question of power is concerned, Genosse Minister, we have things firmly in hand….”
How wrong they were, how the protests grew, how Leipzig in particular became the center of enormous but peaceful popular protests—these events I have described elsewhere.3 The documents reinforce the impression that the GDR came close to bloodshed. Here, for example, is the text of Erich Honecker’s telex message to regional Party secretaries on October 8, the day after the GDR’s fortieth anniversary, ordering that further disturbances (Krawalle) are “to be prevented from the outset.” And here is the matching order from the minister for State Security, including the following: “Members [of the State Security Service] who are regular weapon-carriers should carry their service weapon with them, appropriately to the given challenges.” In a long conversation, Egon Krenz, Erich Honecker’s successor as Party leader (for just forty-four days), told me that in his view the country did come to the verge of bloodshed, for in such a tense situation one spark—one shot fired in panic, for example—could have set the country alight.
I have suggested in these pages4 that the turning point was probably October 9, when a large peaceful demonstration in Leipzig was not dispersed by force. While local initiatives, rather…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.