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Historical Overview

 

Germany was the birth country of Marxism, where by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels communist movement had theoretically to start. Before the First World War the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was the largest party in Germany and the world's most successful socialist party. At the same time, it as abandoned such of basic Marxist ideas as violent class struggle for power. Although still officially claiming to be a Marxist party, by it had become in practice a reformist party, building base for the social-democracy as we know it now.  In 1914 the SPD members of the Reichstag voted in favor of the war. Left-wing members of the party, opposed it and the SPD split, with the leftists forming the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) and the more radical Spartacist League. In November 1918, revolution broke out across Germany and real communist party (KPD) on was formed on 1 January 1919.

Under the leadership of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, the KPD followed the ideas of bolshevik revolution in Russia, concentrating on active class struggle and violence as a weapon. KPD become committed to a violent revolution in Germany, making during 1919-1920 several attempts to seize control of the government. The uprisings in Berlin, Halle and other places in Germany nevertheless failed, only bringing more chaos to the devastated country. Germany's Social Democratic government, which had come to power after the fall of the Monarchy, opposed such kind of understanding of socialism. With the people terrified of a Bolshevik Revolution in Germany Anti-Communist paramilitary groups out of demobilized World War I veterans were created to fight the communist threat. During the failed uprising in Berlin of January 1919, Liebknecht and Luxemburg were captured and executed without trial.

This led to new splits in the party, which one wing tried to led the party away from the policy of immediate revolution, in an effort to win over former social-democratic and union officials. These efforts were successful and KPD become for the first time a real mass party. Such of developments were nevertheless not welcomed in Moscow, where the violent overthrow of existing government was demanded.  Germany was seen as being of central importance to the struggle for socialism, and the failure of the German revolution was a major setback. By the demands of Comintern moderates were expelled from the party and preparations for the military uprising were stared with substantive financial support from the Soviet Russia. At the same time it became more and more clear that even when the economical and political situation of Germany was very bad, there was not much support to violent revolution. Even as it was understood by most German communists, by the orders from some fractions in Moscow, in 23 October 1923 the armed uprising was started in Hamburg. The uprising was militarily well-prepared but as it was not supported by workers, it failed badly with the cost of 100 human lives. After the failure of Hamburg uprising, a new KPD leadership, headed by Ernst Thälmann, abandoned the goal of immediate revolution, and from 1924 onwards contested Reichstag elections, with some success. During following years the KPD was the largest Communist party in Europe, and was seen as the "leading party" of the Communist movement outside the Soviet Union. It maintained a solid electoral performance, usually polling more than 10% of the vote, and gaining 100 deputies in the November 1932 elections. In the presidential election of the same year, Thälmann took 13.2% of the vote, compared to Hitler's 30.1%. At the same time KPD did nothing to stop Hitler’s rise to power. The activities of KPD with its own paramilitary organizations and violent fighting methods actually split German society even more. What even more worse: by the orders of Stalin, German communist refused from any cooperation with German social-democrats against Hitler. Communists denunciated social democrats as ‘social fascists” that scuttled any possibility of a united front with the SPD against the rising power of the Nazis.

The rise of Nazis to power led to repressions against all other political parties, included communists. Soon after the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor, the Reichstag was set on fire and Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe was found near the building. The Nazis publicly blamed the fire on communist agitators in general, although in a German court in 1933, it was decided that van der Lubbe had acted alone. After the fire, habeas corpus was suspended. The Enabling Act, which legally gave Hitler dictatorial control of Germany, was passed by a Reichstag session held after all communist deputies had been arrested and jailed. The KPD was efficiently suppressed. Thousands of Communists were imprisoned in concentration camps, including Thälmann. The KPD maintained an underground organization in Germany throughout the Nazi period, but the loss of many core members severely weakened the Party's infrastructure.

At the same time many KPD leading members gathered in Soviet Union, hiping to get there support against Hitler. Core part of them was nevertheless badly hit during Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937-38, arrested and executed or sent to the GULAG. Others, like Erich Mielke betrayed their fellow exiles to the NKVD. Willi Münzenberg, the KPD's propaganda chief, was murdered in mysterious circumstances in France in 1940, probably by the NKVD.

Situation became even harder for the German communists in 1939 after this when Stalin signed its pact with Nazis and cooperation between NKVD and Gestapo started. Many German communists were arrested by the NKVD and delivered to Germany to the hands of Gestapo, who let them to be executed. This situation changed only in 1941 after the attack of Hitler against the Soviet Union. Remained German communists were gathered and used in propaganda work against the Hitler. With Red Army’s success and drive to West the preparations were started to move German communists to the administration of “free” Germany. German communists had to look by the exodus and death of millions Germans from the areas conquered by the Red Army, murder, violence and mass rape of German women. They preferred not notice all this violence, fulfilling with German accuracy all orders of their new masters from Moscow.

1945-1949

For Stalin, post-war Europe was split into four zones. The territories annexed as a result of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact—the Baltic states, Eastern Poland and Bessarabia—were to be integrated immediately and completely into the empire. In the zone lying to the west of this, which included Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, he wished to install vassal Communist regimes with a minimum transition period, whilst in the zone lying to the west of this, which included Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, he reckoned on achieving the same goal after an interval of some years. The Soviet zone in Germany had to stay under direct Soviet control until the fate of the country had been decided. Stalin actually met with the leaders of the German Communist Party as early as 4 June 1945 to lay out plans for incorporating a reunified Germany into Moscow’s sphere of influence. To achieve this, the Red Army would continue to control the Soviet occupation zone, while the German Communists would seek popular support beyond the reach of Soviet military authority. Using Soviet support, the Communists in the East would have to merge with the Social Democrats and from this base, develop contacts with West German Social Democrats, then bring them over to their camp with the promise of a unified Germany.

The main means of control was direct and open terror against the population as a whole, which sought from the beginning to wipe out even the most minor attempts to resist Soviet power. Within its occupation zone, the Soviet police and state security services detained approximately 154,000 Germans and 35,000 foreigners in ten so-called ‘special internment camps’ , including Buchenwald camp, between 1945–1951. A third of these internees—a total of 63,000 people—died in captivity, most of hunger or disease. The Soviets declared that the people interned in these camps were mainly NSDAP (Nazi Party) functionaries but in actual fact, in the infamous Buchenwald camp, for example, only 40–50% of the detainees were former Nazis. In addition to this, Soviet military tribunals condemned around 35,000 German civilians to long camp sentences in most cases. The majority of verdicts were meted out for ‘crimes’ against the Soviet occupying power according to paragraph 58 of the criminal code of the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic (RSFSR). Soviet military courts also pronounced at least 1,963 death sentences and no less than 1,201 of these were carried out. 

In Germany, the Communists experienced nevertheless only partial success. With the help of the Soviet authorities, the Red Army and the Soviet secret police worked together to destroy any attempts to resist Sovietisation, the Communists were quick to assert their control over the Soviet zone of occupation. The leaders of the non-Communist political parties disappeared into the NKVD torture chambers, with some of them even being kidnapped from West Berlin. So the social-democrats in East Germany were wiped out and had to merge with communists to Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). The fate of the CDU was of course sealed from the beginning: it did not have any chance in the Soviet occupation zone.  One card that Stalin intended to play in Germany was that of German nationalism. To convince the Germans in the East and West, he was even ready to rehabilitate the Nazis in Germany. As Molotov recalled, ‘he saw how Hitler managed to organise [the] German people. Hitler led his people, and we felt it in the way the Germans fought during the war.’ In January 1947, Stalin asked the German Communists, ‘are there many Nazi elements in Germany?’ And advised them to supplant the policy of elimination of Nazi collaborators ‘[with] a different one—aimed [at attracting] them’. The former Nazi activists should, he considered, be allowed to organise their own party, one which would operate in the same block as the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) and which would even have its own newspaper. ‘There were ten million members in the Nazi Party overall and they all had families, friends and acquaintances. This is a big number. How long should we ignore their concerns?’ Stalin asked. However, Stalin’s attempts to create an anti-Western balance in German politics failed. Memories of Soviet atrocities and the destruction of the country were too fresh, leading Germans outside of the Soviet occupation zone decisively to reject all attempts of Communist takeover. In elections to the Berlin City Council, pro-Communist forces were soundly defeated. It became increasingly clear that Communist authority relied solely on the bayonets of the Red Army. 

On 24 June 1948, Soviet troops completely sealed off West Berlin, thereby beginning the Berlin Blockade. Eastern power stations ceased to supply electricity to the Western sectors of Berlin, which left them without food, energy, raw materials and machinery for industry and new power stations. America responded by airlifting the necessary supplies to West Berlin, even though nobody believed that it could be done. Astonishingly, the Anglo-Americans pulled it off; with the help of 17,000 volunteers, a new airport was built at Tegel in the American sector and by Easter 1949, a planes fully laden with supplies were landing in West Berlin every 62 seconds. West Berlin would have been unable to resist the blockade without the decisiveness of the West Berliners who volunteered for all manner of tasks and tolerated the shortages and privations of the blockade with amazingly good grace. On 9 September 1948, 250,000 Berliners gathered in front of the Reichstag to support their leaders’ resistance to the blockade. When the demonstrations spilled over into the Soviet sector, the Communist police intervened, shooting several demonstrators. For the West Berliners, this was a clear illustration of the true nature of Communism. The Berlin blockade started as a potential catastrophe and ended as a political and moral triumph for the West. In May 1949, Stalin had to lift the blockade, boosting Western moral to new level.

Ultimately then, Stalin had to give up his hopes of a united Germany allied against the West and accept instead the establishment of a socialist state in the Eastern part of Germany in 1949 The formation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) coincided with the complete rehabilitation of the former Nazis as well as the officers of the Wehrmacht in the Soviet occupation zone.

First years of German Democratic Republic 1949-1953

In 1949, against initial plans, German Democratic Republic was created, which from its first steps on, was totally depended from the Soviet occupation forces. German communists were nevertheless satisfied with this development as it opened new possibilities for their own movement to the higher positions in the society. The leaders of East Germany were most loyal pupils of Stalin, building socialism with even more energy and determination as it was done in other parts of the empire. First it was of-course necessary to build up effective repressive apparatus to keep the population under strict control. So a new wave of repression was namely connected with the establishment of the German Democratic Republic. As a result of the dissolution of Soviet internment camps, around 5,000 people condemned by Soviet military tribunals were released and 10,000 ended up in East German prisons. A bigger wave of political arrests took place between 1952 and 1953 as a result of the ‘intensification of the class struggle.’ 

Socialism nevertheless failed badly in Eastern Germany. When the “Economic miracle” started in West Germany, the economic problems only deepened in the East. Most destructive among “socialist reforms” was a collectivisation campaign, launched it East Germany in 1952, leading to the collapse of agriculture and a massive exodus of farmers to West Germany. From January 1951 to April 1953, almost half a million people left East Germany. The farmers who remained were disinclined to do more than produce for their own needs because fixed procurement prices meant little profit. Thus, by the summer of 1953, East German agriculture had entered a real crisis, necessitating extraordinary help from the Soviet Union.

Uprising 1953

On 5 March 1953, Stalin died, which led to the fight for power in Kreml and then in other parts of the empire, including East Germany. East Germany was unique in the Soviet bloc in several ways. First, its destiny had not been fully decided even by the beginning of 1950s. Stalin was still toying with the idea of creating a unified and neutral Germany and Beria was a clear supporter of this, hoping in this way to create a buffer zone between Eastern and Western Europe. For Beria, East Germany was not ‘a real state. It [was] only kept in being by Soviet troops’. Beria was right and this was demonstrated by the Germans themselves on an almost daily basis. Secondly, East Germany’s population was the only one in the Communist bloc that still had an effective vote, albeit one that had to be exercised with their feet rather than their pens. After the start of the ‘socialist’ reforms, an increasing number of people decided on this option. From an average of 60,000 people per annum in 1949-1951, the number of people leaving East Germany rose to 129,000 in 1952 and 297,000 in 1953. The political situation too became more intense. The socialist reforms failed, making the government unpopular and political arrests did not make the situation any better. Repression against the Junge Gemeinde (Young Congregation), wrongly perceived as the central youth organisation of the evangelical church, played a role here. Numerous trainee pastors were imprisoned; ecclesiastic recreation centres were closed and taken over by the Communists. High-school students who belonged to the church were often expelled by the school authorities, sometimes shortly before school graduation. 

In May 1953, the East German leaders decided to increase production norms, which, in the workers’ opinion, was equivalent to a deterioration in living standards. Understanding that resistance to ‘socialist reforms’ was increasing, East Germany turned to the Soviet leadership with pleas for help. The response from the new men in the Kremlin was a shock for the GDR leader Walter Ulbricht; the problems of the GDR should be solved not by shutting the people in but by making their life better. Moscow demanded liberal reforms and a change in leadership, proposing, among others, the head of state security, Beria’s trustee, Wilhelm Zaisser, to replace Ulbricht. Ulbricht resisted. After long and intense discussion, the Central Committee of the SED agreed on a package of changes that included some reforms, but did not retract the decision to raise the work quotas by 10%. These were to come into force by 30 June. This decision made people furious and as they felt the weakening of Ulbricht’s authority, they decided to act. 

On 16 June 1953, construction workers building Block 30 of a housing project on Stalin Allee, East Berlin, walked off the job in protest against an increase in production quotas and marched to the House of Ministers. As the march grew in size, people called for the resignation of Party officials and free elections. Their numbers quickly swelled and a general strike and further protests were called for the next day. The West Berlin-based ‘Radio in the American Sector’ reported the events in Berlin which probably helped to incite the uprising in other parts of East Germany too. By dawn on 17 June 400,000 protesters had gathered in East Berlin, with more arriving throughout the morning. Many more protests were held throughout East Germany, with at least some work stoppages and protests in virtually all industrial centres and large cities in the country. On 17 June alone, at least 225,000 people went on strike and 340,000 participated in demonstrations. The protesters’ original demands of the protesters, such as the reinstatement of the previous lower work quotas, turned into political demands. Eventually, the workers demanded the resignation of the East German government, free elections and, in some cases, the withdrawal of the Soviet forces and a unified Germany. In several cities, the protests turned violent. State-owned shops, SED offices and banners were set on fire, in some places police stations were attacked and prisoners—1,297 in total—released, while in rural areas, Party officials and collective farms were attacked. A group of youths clambered up the Brandenburg Gate and tore down the Soviet flag chanting ‘we want freedom!’ 

The GDR government had by this time lost control of the situation and escaped to the headquarters of the Soviet forces in East Germany. If they were to save the GDR from collapse, the Soviet army would have to intervene. The official order for this had been given by the Soviet city commandant General-Major Dibrova with the acceptance of the Soviet political leadership; Soviet tanks moved into Berlin. In total, around 20,000 Soviet soldiers, as well as 8,000 members of the  Kasernierte Volkspolizei (Garrisoned People’s Police), were committed to the operation. Although there was little that the unarmed protesters could do in the face of the tanks, they nevertheless tried to resist. The first shots were fired on Marx-Engels-Platz, where people had tried to clamber on top of a tank. The demonstrators fought back with bricks and paving stones, but these made no impact on the tanks. The tanks fired into the crowd and took control of the border areas with West Berlin before starting to clear the city of demonstrators. The Volkspolizei killed several people in the area of Potsdamer Platz. It is still unclear how many people died during the uprising and as a result of the death sentences that followed. According to the latest research, more than 50 protesters were killed during the uprising and at least 20 more were summarily executed thereafter. Between 13,000 and 15,000 people were arrested and at least 2,300 convicted by German and Soviet courts. It was also alleged that 18 Soviet soldiers were executed for refusing to shoot at demonstrating workers, but these reports remain unconfirmed by the latest research. 

In spite of the intervention of Soviet troops, the wave of strikes and protests was not easily brought under control. Even after 17 June, there were demonstrations in more than 500 towns and villages, but these were quickly suppressed. The strikers and demonstrators were bitterly disappointed; they felt that they had been abandoned by the West. During the 1952 presidential campaign, the Republicans had largely used the doctrine of ‘liberation’ in the hope of gaining political advantage, especially among voters of Central and Eastern European background. This turned out to be an effective strategy and helped Dwight Eisenhower win the presidency. In fact, the new US administration had never taken its own rhetoric seriously. They were in no way ready to risk war for the liberation of some small countries that were so far away. Had those people listening to the speeches of the US leaders really ‘risen up against oppression,’ Washington would have found itself without any contingency plans for this eventuality. In fact, they had not even foreseen the events of June 1953. At a meeting of the National Security Council on 18 June, CIA director Allen W. Dulles pointed out that ‘the United States had nothing whatsoever to do with inciting these riots’. The West made no significant response because its leaders did not perceive the vulnerability of the Soviet empire; they did not believe that they really could crush Communism. The East Germans became so the first Central and Eastern Europeans to arrive at the unhappy realisation that the West would challenge the Soviets only with words, not deeds.

 

East Germany 1953-1989

Shocked by the events in 1953 the Soviet Union and German communist leaders nevertheless decided to change the course. East Germany got generous aid from the Soviet Union and got permission to launch some liberal reforms in economy. At the same time the repressive apparatus in East Germany was strengthened to maximum, creating the largest security service in Central and Eastern Europe. The ‘Stasi’ (Staatssicherheitdienst) had 91,015 full-time employees by 1989: one employee for every 180 East German citizens, a proportion that far outnumbered the ratio achieved by the state security service of any other Communist country. At the same time, the Stasi had 174,000 ‘unofficial informers’ on its payroll. Eventually, increasingly advanced technical means were introduced. The attempt to exert absolute control over every aspect of human life is excellently portrayed by the Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck film, The Lives of Others. The East German state security services conducted 88,718 preliminary proceedings between 1950 and 1989, with most of these resulting in convictions and subsequent imprisonment. The East German courts were responsible for at least 52 death sentences for political offences between 1945 and 1989. 

Having the society fully under control, Eastern German communist leaders concentrated now on economy, trying to compete here with the achievements of West Germany. Thanks to the large subsidies and cheap energy Eastern Germany build up a small miracle in the socialist system, achieving highest living standards in the socialist systems. This deceived also the Western analysts, who valuated the East German economy to be among 10 best in the World. All this made communist leaders of Eastern Germany very optimistic.In 1961, the head of the East German Communists, Walter Ulbricht, forecast the arrival of paradise in the following way: Our table will be covered with the best nature can offer: prime meat and milk products, the best of the orchard, strawberries and tomatoes at a time when they are not yet ripening on our fields, grapes in winter and not only when in abundance in autumn […]. To imagine that future abundance in the retail outlets, mighty and ever-growing waves of food and specialities from the four corners of the earth, of clothes and shoes of marvellous new materials, of kitchen appliances and working machines, cars big and small, handicrafts and jewellery, cameras and sports equipment.” In reality  with each decade, the East Germany moved farther away from this dream, that actually reflected conditions in the West Germany of the 1990s and not at all those of the East. 

Eastern German success was namely only big illusion, more correctly a big lie. In reality East Germany lagged with every year more behind from the West, loosing the competition both in the field of economy as also in human development. In view of East Germany’s modernist pretensions, it is striking how backward it was in the fields of computer technology and telecommunications, the leading sectors in the advancing global revolution. While in West Germany, the number of unskilled workers with a phone rose from 20% to 58% in the early 1970s, in East Germany, only one home in seven had a phone in 1990. Facsimile had only a small role to play in Central and Eastern Europe because of the poor quality of transmission. East German attempts to go in for microchip specialisation resulted only in annual subsidy of three-billion marks. The computer age, heralded in 1974 by the appearance of the personal computer, did not arrive at all in the Communist world. By the end of the 1980s, the ratio of personal computers per capita was, at best, no more than 10% of the average Western level on average. At the same time, socialist countries tried to present themselves as vanguards of progress by falsifying data and concealing problems.

In reality, the local Communist leaders were familiar with all of these problems. But to find solutions for them without liquidating some basic Communist principles was impossible. Nevertheless, in the 1970s, a serious attempt was made to win people over to a society whose material well-being compensated for its politics. Socialism was now to take on a more consumerist style. Communist societies were to be ‘normalised’ not only by the security police but also by growing prosperity, washing machines and televisions. It was hoped that people who could set off in their family cars for weekends at their summer homes in the countryside would worry less about the absence of political liberties. Other aspects of life, such as sporting pride or national sentiment, were also exploited. This was all well and good, but in order to achieve these goals, the East Germany was not modernised through economic reform, but rather through foreign loans and technology to be paid for by growing exports. In the beginning, this strategy appeared to be successful, bringing more development to the country, but actually it led East Germany to real loan trap. The leaders of the GDR had to have secret negotiations with West Germany in order to acquire new loans with which to repay the old ones. Economic difficulties in the Central and Eastern European satellite countries also created increasing problems for the Soviet Union. In their reports, the Soviet representatives explained that ‘the GDR consumed much more than it was able to produce. The result of this development was a rapid increase in the state’s foreign debt.’ West Germany was ready to provide the necessary loans, but only on political conditions, which made the Soviets especially nervous. This led to heated debates between Moscow and Berlin, with the Soviet leaders warning the East Germans of the great danger of indebtedness to the West. The East Germans, however, had no choice other than to continue their cooperation with the West. In 1983, Erik Honecker sent a secret letter to Franz Josef Strauss saying that he could not ask Moscow for further help and wanted the West to help him out of the current situation. Moscow was furious at the closer cooperation between the two Germanies, declaring that the measures passed by East Germany to get loans from the West, ‘from the point of view of internal GDR security, are dubious and constitute unilateral concessions to Bonn’. Such pressure, however, had little effect; the East Germany has become dependent on the West and there was little the Soviet Union could do to halt the trend. 

It was specially hard for the communist leaders as every German in East actually had the homeland in the West. This led to massive exodus from East to West, endangering the existence of the Socialist Germany. In the period between the end of the Second World War and 1961, a total of 3.8 million people emigrated from East to West Germany. In late 1960 and early 1961, the number of refugees rose dramatically; a critical point had been reached. Every day, thousands of East Germans slipped into West Berlin and from there were flown on to West Germany itself. If the exodus could not be stopped, East Germany would soon cease to exist. The seriousness of the situation was understood in both Berlin and Moscow. The only solution seemed to be to cut East Germany off from the West once and for all. So, on the morning of 13 August 1961, under the protection of hundreds of tanks and thousands of soldiers, the building of wire obstacles dividing East and West Berlin began. Overnight, and with savage finality, families, lovers, friends and neighbourhoods were divided; subway lines, rail links, apartment buildings and phone lines were severed and sealed off. Sunday, 13 August, became known as ‘Stacheldrahtsonntag’ (Barbed Wire Sunday); for the Communists it marked the successful accomplishment of ‘Operation Rose’. Within a few weeks, improvised wire obstacles started to morph into a formidable, heavily fortified, closely guarded and booby-trapped cement barrier dividing the city and enclosing West Berlin. This was ‘the Wall’. Officially, there was little that the West could do, but several organisations were founded in West Berlin to help people from the other side of the Wall to find their way to freedom. With false documents or via secret tunnels, thousands of people reached West Berlin. The escapees proved that the Wall was not impregnable, thereby offering hope to the millions of citizens still trapped in the GDR. Many people were killed and even more arrested. During the second half of 1961 alone, 3,041 people were arrested as a result of failed escape attempts and altogether 18,000 individuals were sentenced for ‘political crimes’ in the GDR during that year. Throughout the duration of the Wall’s existence, at least 765 people met their death on the way to freedom, 202 of them in their attempt to get over the Berlin Wall (Handbook, p. 208). But this did not stop others. There were many innovative escape attempts; by hot-air balloon, hidden in cars, under water or by simply driving a scheduled passenger train into a barrier at full speed, as driver Harry Deterling did on 5 December 1961. Deterling had carefully recruited his 24 passengers for what he called the ‘last train to freedom’. All cowered on the floor of the wagon as the train powered through the final border defences and a hail of bullets swept over them. The Berlin Wall became symbol if division of Europe, remembering at the same time every day how much communism is lagging behind from the free World.  

The fall of communism in Eastern Germany

Unlike Poland, where a Solidarity movement was started in 1980, there was not such movement in East Germany. Most of people who were in opposition to communism, just left the country, specially until the Wall was build in 1941. Thanks to the West Germany policy of paying to East Germany for release of arrested dissidents, it was profitable to 'sell' troublesome dissidents for a profit to West. Over 3,000 people were sold this way betweem 1963 and 1989 and was a major factor in a large dissident movement failing to develop in East Germany. In the late 1970s Honecker began a crackdown singers, actors and intellectuals who were thought to be critical of the state .Many were encouraged to emigrate or had their citizenship revoked when they toured abroad. The most famous case of this was with the singer Wolf Biermann, who lost East German citizenship while he was touring in West Germany. This sparked a wave of protest from other artists such as Christina Wolf. Some of the dissidents were committed Marxist such as Robert Havermann and Rudolf Bahro. who criticized the difference between the theory and practice of socialism. 1980s the Church began play more active role in the dissident movement, helping to develop East German peace and ecologial movement. Compared to Poland, all such protests were neverteheless quite limited. 

As a result of this the Eastern German communist leaders felt themselves quite secure. When the perestroika was started in the Soviet Union and Gorbachev urged East German leaders to pass reforms, they stayed sceptical. Distribution of several Soviet magazines was banned in East Germany, no to let „virus“ of changes into country. Year by year, the changes in the other parts of communist bloc began to influence East Germany. The Hungarian decision to open the border with Austria was catastrophic news for the East German Communist government. Protesting against the Hungarian decision, they proclaimed in rage that the move was tantamount to treason; ‘don’t you realise that you are thereby abandoning the GDR and joining the other side. This will have grave consequences for you!’ In fact, this had grave consequences not for Hungary but for East Germany. With the economic situation deteriorating as a result of fall of Soviet subsidies and the Communist regime’s legitimacy being increasingly undermined, citizens of the GDR tried to find ways to escape the country. Some of them occupied the West German embassies in Prague or Budapest, from where they were ultimately sent in sealed means of transport to West Germany. During the summer of 1989, 45,000 people left the GDR in a matter of months. At the same time, the dissidents and opposition parties were gaining confidence and strength, hoping that something like ‘perestroika’ would also be launched in East Germany. But Honecker was ready to fight nonetheless, demonstrating firmly that he was still ready to suppress any attempt at ‘counter-revolution’ by congratulating China on their violent suppression of the pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The East German parliament passed a resolution applauding the ‘suppression of a counter-revolution’ in China. These were not hollow words; plans were also put in place by Erich Mielke’s Ministry of State Security for the opening of secret concentration camps capable of holding up to 200,000 dissidents should the regime decide that it was necessary to bring the people to heel by force. If, by sending trains full of refugees to West Germany, Honecker hoped to humiliate them, this was a grave miscalculation. During their journey through East Germany, the refugees were greeted by thousands of people. In Dresden, on 2 October, the situation escalated into a larger demonstration in the railway station; when the police ordered people to leave, they simply refused. The Volkspolizei colonel commanding the forces had to decide whether or not to open fire on the demonstrators; he decided not to do so. Within hours, the news had spread right across East Germany; people had defied the regime, but its policemen had not dared open fire. Ten thousand citizens of Leipzig took to the streets declaring, ‘we will stay HERE.’ In many ways, this was an even more worrying message for Honecker; they had decided to stay and fight. Honecker hoped to consolidate his power during the large celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of the GDR. Initially, everything went well, torch-lit parades, the tanks and artillery were as impressive as always. But when the columns of the Communist youth organisation marched by the tribune with Honecker and Gorbachev, they started suddenly to call out ‘Gorbi, Gorbi’ or ‘Gorbi help us!’ Watching these events at Gorbachev’s side, the Polish Communist leader Rakowski recalls that this was the moment when he understood that Communism in East Germany would not last much longer.

Honecker’s situation became even more difficult when in West Germany, Helmut Kohl started to raise the stakes. For a long time, one of the main principles of the Federal Republic’s ‘Ostpolitik’ had been to avoid any destabilisation of East Germany. Helmut Kohl changed this during 1989, becoming one of the Western camp’s main advocates of the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe. He personally played a major role in opening Hungary up to the West and pressing the country to change. He was also the first Western leader to come out strongly in support of the Solidarity government in Poland and advocate their integration into Western Europe. Now, his main goal was the unification of Germany. In the traditional State of the Nation Address on 8 November, he declared that ‘[the Germans had] less reason than ever to be resigned to the long-term division of Germany into two states.’ This was a clear message not so much to the East German government, as to its people.

On 9 October 1989, 70,000 people spilled out onto the streets of Leipzig. At that moment, Honecker was ready to use force to suppress the demonstrators. On 8 October, Mielke issued a ‘code red’ alert, giving his forces ‘a license to kill’ on the streets of the city. From this moment on, members of the permanent armed forces were ordered to carry their weapons with them constantly, while ‘sufficient reserve forces are to be held ready, capable of intervention at short notice even for offensive measures for the repression and breaking up of illegal demonstrations.’ The demonstrations, however, turned out to be peaceful and Honecker hesitated to give the order to shoot; the local police commander had in any case given his units an order to use weapons only in self-defence. The events in Leipzig on 9 October marked a turning point; the Soviet occupation army remained in its barracks, making it clear that this time they would not help the German regime out of its problems. A defiant slogan had been taken up by the masses on 10 October: ‘We are the People!’ Even some of the police joined the demonstrations. Over the next few days, demonstrations demanding free elections spread throughout the whole of the GDR. On 18 October 1989, Honecker was overruled by his Politburo, resigned and was replaced as party leader by Egon Krenz. The first news for the new leader was a briefing on the real situation in East Germany. In a state of astonishment and shock, he heard that German economic prosperity was an enourmous lie: more than half of all the GDR’s industrial facilities were effectively classifiable as scrap and productivity was at least 40% behind Western levels. East Germany was actually bankrupt. On 1 November, Krenz flew to Moscow to ask for help, but the Soviets refused to bail out the SED regime either financially or militarily. For his part, Gorbachev seemed to be worried about his own problems and made no objections when Krenz discussed his plans to open the borders to the West. Neither of them, of course, wanted to take down the Wall, rather, they wished simply to ease the pressure on the SED regime. The growing opposition movement, however, did not afford the new East German government a chance to do this. The various citizens’ action groups had, by this time, developed into embryonic political movements, the most prominent among them being the ‘New Forum’. On 4 November, various organisations, including the New Forum, demanded the release of political prisoners and free elections. On the same day, a large demonstration was held in East Berlin, making it clear to the authorities that nobody wanted to see the old SED guard remain in power. On 7-8 November, the government and Politburo resigned and were replaced by a younger generation of Communists. This did not help, as by now people had gathered to protest in the front of the Stasi (secret police) buildings. The SED government had lost the will to fight and the ability to rule. The final countdown had begun.

As a result of the complete mess in the government and several misunderstandings, the Communist authorities announced on 9 November 1989, that people could now freely cross the border into West Germany. As far as the authorities were concerned, this referred to regular border crossing points and not West Berlin, but the wording of the official statement facilitated the misunderstanding of the decree as also including Berlin. Rumours spread and tens of thousands of people stormed the crossing points of the Berlin Wall. The border guards had two options—either they could start shooting or they could let the people through; they opted for the latter. During the next few hours, hundreds of thousands of people stormed through the checkpoints, crossing over without a single shot being fired. Caught by surprise, the Soviet authorities and the army tried desperately to contact Moscow, but nobody answered – Moscow had forgotten East Germany. Ultimately, they decided to follow Gorbachev’s usual line and ‘do nothing’, ordering the troops to stay in the barracks. What followed was simply an outpouring of joy; thousands of people clambered onto the Wall, sitting and even dancing there, others opened up new cracks and passages in it, enabling people to move freely from East to West and back again. Church bells pealed, long-separated friends and family members fell into each other’s arms, people wept for joy and complete strangers pressed money into the newcomers’ hands or offered them rides to wherever they wanted to go. Champagne, kisses, flags—they were all present. This was the day the Wall came down; a day Berlin would always remember. In 1990, the Christian Democrats won the first parliamentary elections in the GDR and on 3 October 1990, Germany was unified. 

The wounds created by nearly 50 years of socialism had been so deep, that even after 20 years after the fall of the Wall these have not been healed. 

 



Literature