East Germany: The Solution

Helmut Kohl
Helmut Kohl; drawing by David Levine



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…

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