Twenty years after the opening of the borders between East and West Germany, Charles S. Maier recalls how a bloodless revolution came about.
All states have frontiers. East Germany, aka the German Democratic Republic, became a frontier that had a state. When the frontier dissolved, the state followed less than a year later.
The Berlin Wall, which was breached 20 years ago on Monday, was only the most notorious segment of that frontier.
On August 13, 1961, after consultation with their Soviet patrons, the GDR authorities laid down 97 miles of barbed wire around West Berlin – an island of western Allied sovereignty and West German constitutional liberty 110 miles within East Germany – to sever it from the Communist-controlled territory that surrounded it.
Twenty-seven miles of the new barrier zig-zagged north to south, along the urban boundary that separated West and East Berlin.
Soon, the rolls of barbed wire were augmented with a high concrete barrier with watchtowers, floodlights, and a no man’s land.
Dramatic derring-do enabled a few to scale over, tunnel underneath and even crash through, but 136 East Germans would die trying to cross.
Just as daunting as the Berlin Wall proper was the German-German border to the West. It had been incised in the Fifties as an 860-mile scar of barbed wire, concrete obstacles, watchtowers, and self-triggering weapons. But this frontier had not stopped East Germans from travelling to their capital city and then crossing to the Western sectors, from where they could continue to West Germany by rail or air.
About three and a half million people, many with much-needed skills, had departed the GDR by 1961, hence the decision to seal Berlin.
As a young historian, I went to Potsdam to work at the East German state archives: only a few hundred yards from the GDR end of the Glienicke Bridge, known as the “Peace Bridge”, where Cold War spies were exchanged, but a world away from West Berlin.
These were the years when the courtyard of the archives, along with other public offices, was piled high with briquettes of brown coal, which gave the East one of its characteristic odours, along with the disinfectant used for swabbing corridors.
On other occasions, I crossed to East Berlin from West Berlin using the elevated S-Bahn to Friedrichstrasse station, where the citizen of an allied power (or a German from outside Berlin) surrendered his passport to a guard behind a thick window, endured a wait designed to demonstrate GDR sovereignty, and finally continued into “Berlin: Capital of the German Democratic Republic” through a neighbouring bleak hall – dubbed the Palace of Tears for the family farewells that took place just outside, as West Germans left their East German relatives.
The GDR’s existence depended on those barriers. The dominant impression beyond, in urban areas at least, was not of poverty so much as shabbiness: facades still pocked by bullets or bomb fragments; empty squares cleared of wartime destruction, but not rebuilt; bleak restaurants.
The melancholy state-run “HO” stores were punctuated by Intershops where, with Western currency, one could buy GDR friends a bottle of imported whisky or some perfume. And there were gracious remnants that had survived the war: large houses in the Dresden suburbs, the Christmas fair in Potsdam with gingerbread and Glühwein and, not far from Friedrichstrasse, the innovative Komische Oper.
Ultimately, the walls of the republic were vulnerable. Control of the frontiers required a commitment from neighbouring Hungary and Czechoslovakia to prevent East Germans from transiting to the Western lands they bordered.
By the summer of 1989, socialist fraternity was fraying badly, and Hungary was no longer willing to act as a gatekeeper. Once Budapest party leaders allowed East Germans to exit to Austria in September 1989, the final act of the GDR began.
Most East Germans, of course, did not want to leave, even if many longed to travel unhindered.
Throughout the late Eighties, encouraged by the reformist course that Mikhail Gorbachev was signalling in the Soviet Union, small numbers had joined earnest circles of environmental activists and disarmament advocates (originally encouraged by the regime as critics of the West).
As late as the summer of 1989, the protesting groups seemed small and fragmented, but then, encouraged by the sense of change that their own activity helped to generate, many more joined the prayer meetings in the large urban churches of Leipzig and Berlin, marched with their candles for a relaxation of press restrictions and, emboldened by those who were heading West, shouted, “We are staying here,” and by September, “We are the people!”
Repeated Monday-night demonstrations in Leipzig swelled to 70,000 by mid-October, a week after the GDR celebrated its 40th anniversary.
The regime could no longer control its frontiers, and chose not to contest the streets. A divided politburo ousted its old-guard members, including party chief Erich Honecker, and after massive demonstrations in Berlin, it decided to relax travel restrictions, leading to the joyous confusion of November 9.
Was such a peaceful revolution inevitable? Three months earlier, Chinese authorities had opted to use force and crushed the pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing. Could the East Germans have wagered on a Chinese solution?
Politburo elders, including Honecker and minister of state security Erich Mielke, who were out of touch with the profound dissent growing across their little republic, might have believed that they could.
But we know from transcribed conversations that younger heirs to the state were despairing. Revolutions usually begin when a ruling group fragments, and the GDR leadership was deeply divided by late summer.
For all the loyalty it might muster, the GDR’s existence, moreover, depended on the presence of several hundred thousand Soviet troops garrisoned originally as occupation forces and, since 1955, as Warsaw Pact allies.
Their tanks had suppressed the protests of striking East Berlin workers in June 1953, when local Soviet commanders understood that their fragile satellite might dissolve into the West.
Until 1989, the Red Army’s presence remained a deterrent, deployed against Hungary’s impetuous revolutionaries in 1956 and Czechoslovak reformers in August 1968. If there were violent clashes in the autumn of 1989, might Soviet troops be used again?
In public, Gorbachev helped Honecker, whom he found tiresome and didactic, to celebrate the GDR’s 40th anniversary in early October.
In private, he was reported to have said that history punishes those who come too late. Discreetly, and through his embassy, he signalled that his Berlin wards were on their own. Russian troops would stay in their barracks.
Local East German officials understood that a crackdown could lead to violence beyond their capacity to control it.
The demonstrators enforced their own discipline and called mostly for dialogue. Their radicalism was limited: no one knew how much would change as the Wall was opened on November 9. Few leaders of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (the SED) and few of the demonstrators’ ad hoc “civic movements” expected their republic to be swept away within a few months.
However, Chancellor Kohl soon concluded that he must outbid the East German reformers’ vision of existing side by side with the West German state by manipulating economic and national longings.
Simultaneously, he persuaded Western leaders (Mrs Thatcher excepted) that the Germans would remain good Europeans and Gorbachev that German self-determination was no threat to Moscow.
The Russian leader, himself intoxicated by the momentum of change, did not expect that his own Soviet Communist Party and the Soviet federation would dissolve within two years, either. But he earned his Nobel for not resisting the dissolution by force.
The GDR’s rapid collapse does not mean that the state had no loyal citizens: it did not rest on force and surveillance alone.
Two generations had come of age, enlisted from childhood in the mission of serving “the better Germany” as good anti-fascists and pioneers of socialism, peace and production. But after the Czech repression of 1968, ideals were hard to sustain in the Communist world. Even if East Germans did not know how zealously their leader Walter Ulbricht had urged Brezhnev to suppress Czechoslovak liberalisation, there would be renewed suppression of dissenters.
The continuing economic lag behind the West (glaringly visible on television), the pervasiveness of Stasi – secret police – control, the galling restrictions on travel, and finally, rigged electoral results – manipulated to inflate apparent popularity – overcame the loyalty citizens and intellectuals might have held.
At the end, the state socialist project could not retain its credibility. Its restrictions, its shabbiness, its reliance on snooping – and, in East Germany, its unnatural division of families – flew in the face of the ideals it supposedly stood for.
That the whole imperial structure of late communism could dissolve without vast waves of violence was a great achievement, not fully scripted in advance, but accomplished by those who marched in the autumn of 1989, by those who fled, and by those, such as Chancellor Kohl, who managed to channel the popular currents into a peacefully restored Germany and a reunited continent.
Unfortunately, the rush to liquidate the East’s rust-belt economy, the unemployment that furloughed many workers and professionals over 50 while keeping the young in make-work jobs, and the feelings of victory on one side and of failure on the other constituted the shadow side of unification.
There would be a generation of loyal citizens desolate and orphaned by the loss of their state, and many in unified Germany would cling to the diehard Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor to the Socialist Unity Party which dissolved among bitter reproaches in the winter of 1990.
People don’t like to be told they were pursuing a fool’s errand for most of their lives and that their experiment (as one regime stalwart conceded) was a mere footnote of history.
How to validate their 40-year experience without whitewashing an abusive system has proved an almost insuperable challenge – perhaps to be solved only by the final passage of the GDR generation.
Charles S. Maier is Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History at Harvard University and the author of ‘Downfall: The Crisis of Communism and the End of East Germany’ (Princeton University Press) Return to Berlin