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The German Revolution


Once upon a time, and a very bad time it was, there was a famous platform in West Berlin where distinguished visitors would be taken to stare at the Wall. American presidents from Kennedy to Reagan stood on that platform looking out over the no man’s land between two concrete walls. They were told that this, the Potsdamer Platz, had once been Berlin’s busiest square, its Piccadilly Circus. Their hosts pointed out a grassy mound in the middle of no man’s land: the remains of Hitler’s bunker. Armed guards watched impassively from the other side, or rode up and down the death strip on their army motorbikes. It was the image of the cold war.

On the morning of Sunday, November 12, I walked through the wall and across that no man’s land with a crowd of East Berliners, a watchtower to our left, Hitler’s bunker to our right. Bewildered border guards waved us through. (As recently as February their colleagues shot dead a man trying to escape.) On the far side, vertical segments of the wall stood at ease wherever the crane had dumped them, their multicolored graffiti facing east for the first time. A crowd of West Berliners applauded as we came through, and a man handed out free city plans. Then I turned around and walked back again, past more bewildered border guards and customs officers. Ahead of me I noticed a tall man in an unfamiliar green uniform. It was General Haddock, the US commandant in Berlin.

By nightfall, West Berlin workers had dismantled the famous platform, like an unneeded stage prop. Europe’s Mousetrap had ended its twenty-eight-year run. Clear the stage for another show.

Everyone has seen the pictures of joyful celebration in West Berlin, the vast crowds stopping the traffic on the Kurfürstendamm, Sekt corks popping, perfect strangers tearfully embracing—the greatest street party in the history of the world. Yes, it was like that. But it was not only like that, nor was that, for me, the most moving part. Most of the estimated two million East Germans who flooded into West Berlin over the weekend just walked the streets in quiet family groups, often with small children in strollers. They queued up at a bank to collect the DM100 “greeting money” (about $55) which has long been offered to visiting East Germans by the West German government, and then they went, very cautiously, shopping. Generally they bought one or two small items, perhaps some fresh fruit, a Western newspaper, and toys for the children. Then, clasping their shopping bags, they walked quietly back through the Wall, through the gray, deserted streets of East Berlin, home.

It is very difficult to describe the quality of this experience because what they actually did was so stunningly ordinary. In effect, they just took a bus from Hackney or Dagenham to Piccadilly Circus, and went shopping in the West End. Berliners walked the streets of Berlin. What could be more normal? And yet, what could be more fantastic! “Twenty-eight years and ninety-one days,” said one man in his late thirties, walking back up Friedrichstrasse. Twenty-eight years and ninety-one days since the building of the Wall. On that day, in August 1961, his parents had wanted to go to a late-night Western in a West Berlin cinema. But their eleven-year-old son had been too tired. In the early hours they woke to the sound of tanks. He had never been to West Berlin from that day to this. A taxi driver asked me, with a sly smile, “How much is the ferry to England?” The day before yesterday the question would have been unthinkable.

Everyone, but everyone, on the streets of East Berlin has just been, or is just going, to West Berlin. A breathless, denim-jacketed couple stop me to ask, “Is this the way out?” They have come hotfoot from Leipzig. “Our hearts are going pitter-pat,” they say, in broad Saxon dialect. People look the same as they make their way home—except for the tell-tale Western shopping bag. But everyone is inwardly changed, changed utterly. “Now people are standing up straight,” says a hotel porter. “They are speaking their minds. Even work is more fun. I think the sick will get up from their hospital beds.” And it was in East rather than West Berlin that this weekend had the magic, Pentecostal quality which I last experienced in Poland in autumn 1980. Ordinary men and women find their voice and their courage—Lebensmut, as the porter puts it. These are moments when you feel that somewhere an angel has opened his wings.


Ordinary people doing very ordinary things (shopping!), the Berliners nonetheless immediately grasped the historical dimensions of the event. “Of course the real villain was Hitler,” said one. A note stuck to a remnant of the Wall read “Stalin is dead, Europe lives.” And the man who counted twenty-eight years and ninety-one days told me he had been most moved by an improvised poster saying “ONLY TODAY IS THE WAR REALLY OVER.”

West Germany’s mass-circulation Bild newspaper carried, under a black, red, and gold banner headline declaring “Good Morning, Germany,” an effusive thank-you letter from the editors to Mikhail Gorbachev. The East Germans also feel grateful to Gorbachev. But more important, they feel they have won this opening for themselves. For it was only the pressure of their huge, peaceful demonstrations that compelled the Party leadership to take this step. “You see, it shows Lenin was wrong,” observed one worker. “Lenin said a revolution could only succeed with violence. But this was a peaceful revolution.” And even the Communist party’s Central Committee acknowledged at the beginning of its hastily drafted Action Program that “a revolutionary people’s movement has set in motion a process of profound upheavals.”

Why did it happen? And why so quickly? No one had predicted it. I talked to opposition leaders in East Berlin in early July, and they were still pessimistic. With hindsight—and a little help from Alexis de Tocqueville—we may perhaps be a little wiser. At the very least, one can list in order some factors that brought the cup of discontent to overflowing. In the beginning was not, as most commentators suggest, Gorbachev. In the beginning was the Wall itself: the Wall and the system it both represented and preserved. Geographically, the Wall did not run around East Germany, it was at its very center. Psychologically, it ran through every heart. It is difficult even for people from other East European countries to appreciate the full psychological burden it imposed. An East Berlin doctor wrote a book describing the real sicknesses—and of course the suicides—that resulted. He called it The Wall Sickness. There was thus always, even at the beginning of the 1980s, when I lived in East Berlin, a large shot of special bitterness at the bottom of the cup. In a sense, the mystery was always why the people of East Germany did not revolt.

The second causal factor, both in time and importance, was Gorbachev. The “Gorbachev effect” was stronger in East Germany than anywhere else in Eastern Europe because the East German state was more strongly oriented toward—and ultimately dependent on—the Soviet Union than any other. It is not for nothing that a 1974 amendment to the constitution proclaimed “The German Democratic Republic is forever and irrevocably allied with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” East Germany’s young people had for years been told that “to learn from the Soviet Union is to learn how to win” (Von der Sowjetunion lernen heisst siegen lernen). So they did! For several years now we have seen East Germans turning the name of Gorbachev, and the Soviet example, against their rulers.

And then, of course, Gorbachev personally gave the last push—during his visit to mark the fortieth anniversary of the GDR on October 7—with his carefully calculated utterance that “life itself punishes those who delay,” the leaked news that he had told Honecker Soviet troops would not be used for internal repression, and (according to well-informed West German sources) gave his direct encouragement to younger Party leaders like Egon Krenz and Günter Schabowski, to move to depose Honecker.

By comparison with the Soviet example and direct influence, the Polish and Hungarian examples were of secondary importance for the East Germans. To be sure, everyone learned about them, in great detail, from the West German television they watch nightly. To be sure, Hungary and Poland demonstrated that such changes were possible. But the old German contempt for Polnische Wirtschaft is so widespread in the GDR that, except for a few Church and opposition intellectuals, the economic misery in Poland more than cancelled out the political example. Hungary—a favored holiday place for East Germans, with a better economic situation and a history (and, dare one say, national character) less fatefully at odds with Germany’s—Hungary perhaps had a greater impact. Yet the crucial Hungarian contribution was not the example of its internal reforms, but the opening of its frontier to Austria.

As soon as the Hungarians started cutting the barbed wire of the “iron curtain,” in May, East Germans began fleeing across it. As the numbers grew, and East Germans gathered in refugee camps in Budapest, the Hungarian authorities decided, in early September, to let them go officially (suspending their bilateral consular agreement with the GDR). The trickle turned into a flood: some fifteen thousand in the first three days. Others sought an exit route via the West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw. This hemorrhage was the final catalyst for internal change in East Germany.

Church-protected opposition activity had been slowly growing throughout the summer. There had been independent monitoring of the local elections in May, which clearly demonstrated that they had been rigged—under Egon Krenz’s supervision. The East German authorities’ emphatic endorsement of the repression in China brought another wave of protests.

It is important to recall that right up to, and during, the fortieth anniversary celebrations on October 7, the police—under Egon Krenz—used force and, indeed, gratuitous brutality, to disperse these protests and intimidate anyone who might think of joining in. Young men were dragged along the cobbled streets by their hair, women and children thrown into prison, innocent bystanders beaten.

If one can identify a turning point it was perhaps Monday, October 9, the day after Gorbachev left. A large opposition demonstration was planned on Karl Marx Square in Leipzig. But riot police, state security forces, and members of the paramilitary factory “combat groups” stood ready to clear East Germany’s Tiananmen Square with truncheons and, it was subsequently reported, live ammunition. An article by the commander of one of these groups in the local paper on October 6 said they were prepared to defend socialism “if need be, with weapon in hand.” But in the event some seventy thousand people came out to make their peaceful protest, and this time, suddenly, force was not used to disperse them. (The figure of seventy thousand, like all the other crowd figures, can only be taken as a very crude estimate, at best an order of magnitude.) It was subsequently claimed by sources close to Egon Krenz that he, being in overall political control of internal security, had taken the brave, Gorbachevian decision not to use force. It was even claimed that he had personally gone to Leipzig to prevent bloodshed.

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