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.
Subsequent accounts by those actually involved in Leipzig, however, give a rather different picture. By these accounts, the crucial action was taken by the famous Leipzig conductor, Kurt Masur, together with a well-known cabaret artist, Bernd Lutz Lange, and a priest, Peter Zimmermann. They managed to persuade three local Party leaders to join them in a dramatic, last minute appeal for nonviolence, which was read in the churches and broadcast over loudspeakers. This, and the sheer number of demonstrators, made the difference between triumph and disaster.
It was, it seems, only later in the evening, when the demonstration was already peacefully on its way, that Krenz telephoned from Berlin to give his belated approval to this courageous local initiative. (The possible role of the National People’s Army; whether—as reported—Erich Honecker actually signed an order for it to shoot; and whether—as also reported—Soviet commanders intervened to restrain the East German army: all this remains, as I write, speculation.) The moment was, nonetheless, decisive for Krenz’s own bid for power. Nine days later he replaced Honecker as Party leader. But in those nine days, the revolution had begun.
To say the growth of popular protest was “exponential” would be an understatement. It was a nonviolent explosion. Those extraordinary, peaceful, determined Monday evening demonstrations in Leipzig—starting with “peace prayers” in the churches—grew week by week, from a guesstimated seventy thousand, to double that, to three hundred thousand, to perhaps half a million (who knows?). Virtually the whole of East Germany suddenly went into labor, an old world—to recall Karl Marx’s image—pregnant with the new. From that time forward the people acted and the Party reacted. Power came from the streets, where the same slogans and demands were heard again and again. “Freedom!” demanded the Leipzig demonstrators, and Krenz announced a new travel law. “Without a visa from Berlin to Pisa,” said the crowds, and Krenz reopened the frontier to Czechoslovakia. “A suggestion for May Day: let the leadership parade past the people,” said a banner, quoted by the writer Christa Wolf in the huge demonstration in East Berlin on November 4. And the leaders began to fall. “Free elections!” demanded the people, and the Council of Ministers resigned en masse. “We are the people!” they chanted—and the Wall was open.
The cup of bitterness was already full to the brim. The years of Wall Sickness, the lies, the stagnation, the Soviet and Hungarian examples, the rigged elections, the police violence—all added their dose. The moment that the lid of repression was lifted, the cup simply overflowed. And then, with amazing speed, the East Germans discovered what the Poles had discovered ten years before, during the Pope’s visit in 1979. They discovered that they all felt and thought the same, and that together they could be strong. They discovered their solidarity.
There is, perhaps, one other special reason why things went so fast. Nowhere in Eastern Europe are people better informed—watching West German television every night, receiving thousands of West German visitors, and, in recent years, being allowed to travel a little more freely themselves. Nowhere has the private disillusionment been more extensive or articulate—even among Party members. So when people at last took to the streets, they instantly discovered that they wanted the same things. The learning had been done already—in private.
And one last element. In a classic prerevolutionary situation, we are told, the ruled lose their fear while the rulers lose their will to rule. Was that to some extent true of the Socialist Unity party? In the long gerontocratic twilight of the Honecker regime, and under the slow, steady influence of contacts with West Germany, did not the next generation of leaders begin to lose its conviction that it had the right to rule? And above all, the right to rule by force, here, in the center of Europe, at the end of the twentieth century? Listening to Honecker’s successors one feels that they have no inner conviction of their right to be there. Tocqueville would have recognized the signs.
“Long live the October Revolution of 1989,” said another banner on the Alexanderplatz. And so it was, and at the time of writing still is: the first peaceful revolution in German history.
“Good story,” remarked the American television reporter standing in the queue at West Berlin airport. “Kinda trailed away yesterday and today,” said his colleague. “Yeah, audience interest way down.” But the story has only just begun. It is, in fact, three concentric stories: those of Berlin, of Germany, and of Europe.
The surest part is the smallest: the reunification of Berlin. It will probably be some time before the Potsdamer Platz becomes a Piccadilly Circus again, although there is already a fantastic plan to build a huge department store—a Kaufhaus des Ostens—with entrances from both sides. But the mental geography of both half-cities has changed overnight. What was the edge has become the center. And practical convergence proceeds apace. When the wall was breached at Potsdamer Platz the West Berlin mayor was there to meet his East Berlin counterpart with a handshake. Bus services will now criss-cross the Wall. Where previously a West Berlin underground line ran through ghostly, sealed stations in East Berlin, the doors now open and East Berliners leap aboard. There is a hot line between the two police chiefs. East and West Berlin police cooperated—at one point actually arm-in-arm—to restrain the crowds at the new border crossings.
There will be problems enough here. The warmth and generosity of the West Berliners’ welcome were spectacular. Complete strangers were invited home. “I was really received like a brother,” one youth told me—and whether he was tipsy with Sekt or with sheer excitement I could not tell. Probably both. The old, pathos-laden phrase about “our brothers and sisters in the East” acquired a new reality. But for how long? Already by the end of the weekend there were complaints about the East Berliners causing traffic jams and the stink from the two-stroke engines of their little Trabant cars. What if they keep coming? At the moment, some of those who had previously run away are thinking of going back. But what if that trend is reversed? And what if you get thousands of East Berliners coming over to do (legal or illegal) part-time jobs, taking work away from West Berliners? And then look at it from the other side. What on earth will an open border do to the East German economy? Won’t there soon be a growing world of black-market dealing, as there was before the Wall was built? As I write, I’m told the jewelers’ shops in one East Berlin suburb have been cleaned out. Won’t the strong currency drive out the weak?
Here, at the latest, the Berlin story flows into the German story. These developments have thrown all the West German parties into turmoil. The Social Democrats have already announced a fundamental review of their Deutschland-politik, which is likely to dominate their party conference in mid-December. Immediately after the opening of the Wall, it was proposed that the conference should be moved, symbolically, from Bremen to West Berlin. But for the next few weeks, at least, the crucial action will be in East Germany.
Shattered by people’s power, the Communist party has embarked on a Flucht nach vorn, a flight forward. The press and television, the rubber-stamp parliament, the previously subservient puppet parties, all have suddenly come to life, like so many Pinocchios—touched by the blue fairy of revolution. Hans Modrow, the new prime minister, is one of the few Communist leaders to enjoy any popular credibility. Eleven out of twenty-eight ministers in his new government come from the formerly puppet parties. He has announced some measures of economic liberalization, and proposals for reform of the educational and legal systems. The dreaded Ministry for State Security has formally been reduced to the status of an “Office” and is supposedly to be placed under a degree of parliamentary supervision. Modrow has also emphasized that the government will be answerable to Parliament rather than to the Party, although how this works in practice remains to be seen. There is to be a special Party congress in the middle of December, which should produce a new Central Committee, and quite possibly a new leader—such as, for example, Hans Modrow. (“Who was Egon Krenz?” said a banner at one demonstration.) But even the best surfers cannot keep on top of a tidal wave.
If the Party leaders thought that by opening the frontiers they could reduce the pressure from below, they may soon have to think again. For the sentiment of everyone I talked to was: “This is only the beginning.” Having cast aside their gags and crutches they have no intention of taking them up again. And there is an anger that comes from thinking about all those wasted years; an anger, also, at yourself for having put up with it so long.
In Leipzig, on a bitterly cold Monday evening twelve days after the opening of the Wall, between one and two hundred thousand people still turned out to demonstrate on Karl Marx Square. (Remarkably, the higher estimate came from the Party daily Neues Deutschland—but, then, it is used to exaggerating.) And their demands were more radical than ever. Placards showed Erich Honecker in prison uniform and behind bars. Speaker after speaker denounced forty years of lying, corruption, privilege, economic waste, and the abuse of power. A source of palpable fascination was the rulers’ alleged abuse of hard-currency transfers from West Germany. “Where has all the hard currency gone?” people sang, almost to the tune of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” And one speaker recounted, to rapturous applause, fantastic tales of how the leadership had bought itself a whole island in the Caribbean, and how Margot Honecker, the former education minister and estranged wife of Erich Honecker used to fly to Paris every month for a hairdo. “Last weekend,” said one of the speakers from the steps of the opera house, “they chose a new Council of Ministers…” “Boo! Boo!” cried the crowd. Others demanded that the Party youth organization, the so-called Free German Youth, should be dissolved, and that the Party should (as in Hungary) get out of the factories. Everyone agreed on two central immediate demands: free elections and an end to the Party’s Führungsanspruch—its “leadership claim.”
Besides the political crisis there is the economic crisis, which a stormy session of the Parliament revealed to be deeper even than many Western analysts had thought. The opening of the frontiers immediately exposed it to new pressures, with the East German mark, officially 1:1 with the DM, soaring unofficially to as much as 20:1. To implement structural economic reform the country has much further to go than, say, Hungary, because it is still basically a centrally planned system. West German companies stand ready to invest, but only on certain conditions. As we have seen already in Hungary and Poland, in any attempt to convert to a market economy, people are likely to be worse off initially. Worsening economic conditions would increase political discontent, and also the temptation to sell out—individually or collectively—to West Germany.
At the moment there is one thing on which all the opposition leaders agree: they don’t want to sell out. I took part in a discussion about reunification in an East Berlin church. Some twenty people spoke from the floor. Not one was for reunification. At first glance this may seem odd. I offer two, interlinked, reasons to explain it. People who have been through some terrible suffering—say imprisonment under Stalin—often find it impossible to acknowledge that their suffering was simply pointless. So also here. If you go for reunification—that is, incorporation into West Germany—now, then you are in effect saying that the last forty years have just been one big mistake. Your suffering has been pointless. Nothing different or good has come of it.
This leads to the second reason, which is a belief, still quite widespread among the intelligentsia, that the Federal Republic is not the best of all possible Germanies: that there are achievements and values in the GDR, less inequality and exploitation, a greater human solidarity, a more caring attitude, yes, elements of something they still call “socialism,” which should and can only be preserved in a separate but democratic East German state. The new, very hastily organized opposition groups—New Forum, Democracy Now, Democratic Awakening—all want to make a different East Germany, a third way.
There are two problems with this dream. The first is that the hope of a third way, of “socialism with a human face,” has faded throughout the rest of East Central Europe (and even, arguably, in the Soviet Union). It has faded above all, it seems to me, because of the failure to produce any convincing economic alternative to capitalism. Poland and Hungary are off in search of Ludwig Erhard’s “social market economy,” not a socialist market economy. On this fundamental issue, these opposition groups have, so far, nothing new to say. Altogether, their programs are desperately vague—understandably, given the pace of change. But even if there were theoretically a third way, it is by no means clear that the majority in East Germany would actually support it, once they start to think about it in a free election campaign.
The Leipzig demonstration on November 20 strengthened this suspicion. “Socialism has not delivered what it promised,” said a speaker introducing himself as a “plain craftsman.” And, he continued, the promised “new socialism” will not work either. Loud applause. “We are not laboratory rabbits.” They have waited and labored for long enough. They knew that a free-market economy works. “Our compatriots in the Federal Republics are not foreigners.” There should, he said, be a referendum on reunification. At this point a small group started chanting the slogan which was already painted on several banners: “Deutschland, einig Vaterland!” (“Germany, united fatherland”—the words from the East German national anthem, owing to which it has not been sung officially since the early 1970s.) And the massed crowd immediately took up the chant: “Deutschland, einig Vaterland!,” they roared, “DEUTSCHLAND, EINIG VATERLAND!” And I had to pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming, that I really was standing on Karl Marx Square in the middle of East Germany while a hundred thousand voices cried, “Germany, united fatherland!”
Clearly, only a free vote would show for sure if the voice I heard on that frosty square was indeed the voice of “the people.” (“Wir sind das Volk,” they cried, “we are the people.” But then: “Wir sind EIN Volk, that is, “we are one nation.”) In this crowd, it must be said, almost every tendency was represented. Green banners were raised beside nationalist ones, a placard saying “free farmers” beside a blue and gold European Community flag. Yet I would lay a substantial bet that this was the voice of the people. The alternative offered by West Germany is so immediately, so obviously, so overwhelmingly plausible. “Mercedes! Buy the Sachsenring factory,” demanded a banner at the front of the crowd. “German market economy.” The frontiers are open, the people have seen West Germany—and it works.
Of course, the process of new unification could take several years and different forms: with, for example, the old principate-provinces of Saxony, Thuringia, Mecklenburg, etc. regaining some of their ancient autonomy in a new East-West German confederation. But that the majority in East Germany should long resist the temptation of getting closer together with West Germany—this seems, at the moment, as likely as the East German mark long surviving free competition with the West German mark. Indeed, the two things are closely related: the currency question and the national question. On the subsequent march around the Ring boulevard I noticed a banner declaring: “for a convertible currency… Confederation BRDDR” (that is, Federal Republic [of] German[y] Democratic Republic). Big D stands for Deutschland—and Deutschmark. The man holding this banner was a Party member. Which party would he vote for in a free election, I asked him. “Certainly not my own.”
Despite the explicit wishes of the present fledgling opposition in East Germany, and the explicit or implicit desires of many in West Germany, the logic of events—and the wishes of the majority in East Germany—may therefore begin to pull both halves together at remarkable speed.
Here, at the latest, the German story becomes a European story, with fundamental implications for the West. An East German foreign trade minister has already said that an application to join the European Community could not be ruled out. Yet even intermediate steps of association pose major problems—as European leaders discussed at an emergency summit in Paris just nine days after the opening of the Wall. The United States, Britain, and France remain occupying powers in Berlin. Their representatives had direct contacts with the Russians over the weekend of the Wall opening. (They speak on the telephone, in German.) The American ambassador, Vernon Walters, went over to have lunch with his Soviet counterpart in East Germany.
The West German and West Berlin governments recognize—albeit sometimes grudgingly—that this four-power framework is still a useful one for managing the reunification of Berlin, and reassuring the Russians. But it will be increasingly difficult to explain to German voters. Already the arch-strategist of social democratic Ostpolitik, Egon Bahr, is saying: “All this rubbish with these old occupation rights must now be finished.” His colleague, Günter Gaus, calls for a conference on Germany among the four occupying powers, opening the way to a new Central European Confederation. (Guess who would dominate that?)
And then there is the biggest question of all. If you were Mr. Gorbachev, and you saw East Germany falling into the West German embrace, what would you do? Would you cling for dear life to your military presence, with the residual possibilities of control that would offer? Or would you go for a bigger prize—NATO? A crude offer like the one Stalin made in March 1952—neutralization in return for reunification—would almost certainly still be rejected by West Germany. But a more subtle package, under the sign of “cooperative security,” suggesting the removal of all nuclear weapons and Soviet and American troops from a region called “Central Europe”—this, I believe, could rapidly win powerful support in West Germany, and might soon be accepted by the main opposition party, the Social Democrats. And in December 1990 there is going to be a general election.
As the demolition of that famous platform on Potsdamer Platz followed swiftly on the opening of the Wall, so larger Western landmarks may soon follow Eastern ones, into history.
—November 22, 1989
December 21, 1989