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East Germany: The Solution



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

Elected another?1

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 than Krenz, were responsible for averting violence at that critical moment, these documents give some credence to Krenz’s claim to have maintained the line of nonviolence. Thus his otherwise combative message to regional and local Party secretaries on October 24 contains the crucial phrase, “We assume that all problems will be solved by political means.”

By November 4, the day of a huge opposition demonstration in Berlin, Mielke is sending a pathos-laden telex to his deputies and regional leaders. He offers thanks to all his “Dear Comradesses and Comrades” for their “staunch behavior and responsible fulfilment of their duty” (verantwortungsbewusste Pflichterfüllung). “I know,” he writes, “how difficult it is [not to be provoked or unsettled] especially in this tension-loaded atmosphere, how much self-restraint, staunchness, and courage that requires.” The crimes of the Stasi are truly not comparable with those of the SS, yet the language of this message recalls nothing so much as Himmler’s infamous Posen speech of 1943.

The last document in the collection is a report from Erich Mielke to Krenz and other Party leaders, dated November 7. It records how Church and opposition groups such as the New Forum have begun to defend State Security buildings against angry demonstrators. (They would subsequently help to organize the peaceful occupation of those buildings, and the disbanding of the Stasi). A few days later this terrible, pathetic old man stood before the People’s Chamber and said, in words that provide the title for this first documentation, and will surely become immortal: “Aber ich liebe Euch doch alle….” (“But I love you all….”)

That was the revolution, phase one: a peaceful popular uprising that grew slowly through the summer and early autumn, and flowered from October 9. A new “17 June.” Phase two of the revolution began a month later, on November 9, with the opening of the Berlin Wall. Within a very few weeks, the tidal wave of popular demands turned decisively in the direction of unification. Instead of “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people”) the crowds chanted “Wir sind EIN Volk” (“We are one nation”). Meanwhile, thousands voted for unification with their feet: moving to West Germany and taking up their automatic rights to citizenship. First the power of the Party and the Stasi, then the authority of the government collapsed. Even after taking opposition leaders into his cabinet, in a so-called Government of National Responsibility, Prime Minister Hans Modrow could not slow the internal collapse or the external hemorrhage. So the promised free election was hastily brought forward, from May 6 to March 18.

By this time, West German politicians from all the major parties were already stumping the country, and it was clear that the main contestants in the election would be the East German partners or protégés of the main West German parties. The East German Social Democrats, who had originally called themselves the SDP (Sozialdemokratische Partei) precisely to distinguish themselves from the West German SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), changed their name to SPD. Although their leading candidate was called Ibrahim Böhme, their chief crowd-puller was Willy Brandt. The West German Free Democrats helped put together a Federation of Free Democrats, whose chief crowd-puller was…Hans-Dietrich Genscher. The West German Christian Democrats were instrumental in forging a so-called Alliance for Germany out of the formerly puppet CDU (East), under its new leader, Lothar de Maizière, the newly founded German Social Union (DSU), under the Leipzig pastor Hans-Wilhelm Eberling, and the smaller opposition group, Democratic Awakening (DA), which chose as it leading candidate a lawyer, Wolfgang Schnur, who had been active for several years in Church-based opposition circles. But here, too, there was no doubt that Helmut Kohl was the key man. During the campaign he spoke at six mass meetings across the land.

In the case of these three parties, or party groupings, the West German influence was overwhelming. It was not just that prominent West German politicians of the appropriate party came over to support them. It was not just the financial support, important though that was.5 Their very posters looked the same: those of the SPD (East) in the distinctive colors and orthography of the SPD (West). So too for the CDU and Free Democrats, while the DSU, based in Saxony and Thuringia, took its symbolic cue from its Bavarian neighbor, the CSU. Their language was increasingly the same: so many little Genschers, Kohls, and Brandts springing fully armed out of the television screen. (Indeed most of them had learned the language watching West German television.) Moreover, the actual content of their campaigns was inseparable from the impression and promises made by their West German patrons.

The only major contestant with substantial resources of its own was the former ruling Communist party (SED) now renamed the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), and fiercely insisting that it was a completely different outfit. “We are the new,” said one of its posters, showing Hans Modrow ogling a baby in a studiedly informal—not to say cute—group of casually dressed, mostly young people on a Berlin street. Beside two former puppet, or “block,” parties, the Democratic Farmers’ Party (DBD) and the National Democratic Party (NDPD), the other parties or party groupings on the ballot paper—twenty-four in all—included such exotica as the Spartacist Workers’ Party, the Carnations, and the German Beer-drinkers Union. Seriously notable was the Alliance ‘90, a coalition of three opposition groups—New Forum, Democracy Now, and the Initiative for Peace and Human Rights—which, as the State Security Service documents amply confirm, had been instrumental in preparing and leading the country’s “October revolution.”

The election campaign, fought at mass meetings, on posters and flysheets, and on both East and West German radio and television, was quite bitter, with two basic themes. The first theme was the past. Charges of collaboration with the former Communist dictatorship flew to and fro like custard pies in a bad comedy. Thus, for example, the CDU (West), desperately conscious that the CDU (East) was compromised by having been a puppet party, whereas the SPD (East) was a wholly new organization, tried to make up for it by reminding voters of the awful way in which the SPD (West) had chummed up with the former Communist party, the SED. One poster showed the SPD West’s candidate for chancellor, Oskar Lafontaine, waving brightly next to his fellow Saarlander Erich Honecker. Underneath it said, “Now what belongs together is growing together”—the already famous words with which Willy Brandt greeted the opening of the Berlin Wall. (Yet the SPD would have had little difficulty finding photographs of leading CDU/CSU politicians grinning broadly with Honecker, starting with Franz Josef Strauss.) When accusations about the lawyer Wolfgang Schnur’s past collaboration with the Stasi began to be made, leading CDU politicians dismissed them as outrageous electoral mudslinging—until, just a few days before the election, they turned out to be true.

Yet the results suggest that the issue of the past was not decisive. If it had been, the group with much the strongest claim to be uncompromised, the Alliance ‘90, would have got more votes than it did. What was decisive was the contrasting proposals for the immediate future, which boiled down to one essential question: How far, how fast, and by what means should East Germany be united with West Germany? The differences between the SPD and Kohl’s Alliance for Germany on this issue were not fundamental. Both said unity should come, and both said they would protect the people of the GDR against the economic and social costs. But there was a significant difference of emphasis. The Alliance for Germany and, above all, Chancellor Kohl himself made a clear, simple case for the fastest possible integration into the existing structures of the Federal Republic. There should be a rapid currency union. “We,” they said in effect, “will give you the DM.” Then, following intergovernmental negotiations, and the reconstitution of the historic states (Länder) in East Germany, they should join the West under Article 23 of the Federal Republic’s Basic Law. This, after listing the Länder of West Germany6 in which the Basic Law applies, says: “In other parts of Germany it [i.e., the Basic Law] is to be set in force after their entry.” Basta!

  1. 1

    The word elected (wählte) in German also means simply “chose.” The poem is one of the so-called Buckow elegies.

  2. 2

    Armin Mitter and Stefan Wolle, Ich liebe Euch doch alle! Befehle und Lageberichte des MfS Januar–November 1989 But I love you all! Orders and Situation Reports of the Ministry for State Security January–November 1989.

  3. 3

    See my forthcoming book The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ‘89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (Random House).

  4. 4

    The German Revolution,” The New York Review (December 21, 1989).

  5. 5

    Remarkably, the Bonn Ministry for Inner German Relations managed to give three times as much in election support grants to the CDU/CSU as to the SPD or the FDP. The grants, initially of DM 1.5 million each, were made to the party foundations rather than the parties directly, and the Ministry gave grants not only to the CDU’s Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and the CSU’s Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung, but also to the CDU workers’ foundation, the Jakob-Kaiser-Stiftung. However, there were no signs that the SPD wanted for money in the campaign.

  6. 6

    The list includes Greater Berlin. So in theory East Berlin could declare itself to be a part of the Federal Republic already!

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