The celebrations to mark 40 years of communist East Germany couldn’t hide the mounting rumbles of dissent. Many East Germans looked to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to persuade the Honecker regime to implement reforms. It was soon clear that Moscow was not going to help the hardliners crush the growing unrest.
If history had turned out differently, the old East German state might have been celebrating its 60th anniversary on Wednesday, just days after Communist China did the same. But instead, the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, and less than a year later the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) was no more, having been reunited with the old West Germany.
Back on Oct. 7, 1989, as East Germany prepared huge celebrations to mark its 40th anniversary, the seeds of its imminent collapse had already been sown, and it was soon to succumb to the unstoppable wave of protests and demands for change.
For months the hardline regime of ailing East German leader Erich Honecker had been under strain. Thousands of citizens had fled via the gaps in the Iron Curtain in Hungary and the then Czechoslovakia, while those who chose to stay and try to change the system were forming protest groups and mounting peaceful demonstrations.
Yet the politburo in East Berlin refused to be moved by these rumblings of dissent and there was a real fear that the regime could resort to similar measures to those employed by the Chinese Communist Party a few months previously in the brutal crackdown on protestors in Tiananmen Square.
Indeed, the presence of a leading member of the East German politburo, Egon Krenz, at the Chinese celebrations in Beijing on Oct. 2 had served to increase these fears. “In the struggles of our time, the GDR and China stand side by side,” Krenz had said.
However, it was another phrase that was to have a far greater impact, giving succour to the burgeoning protest movement. Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was in Berlin as a guest of honor at the anniversary celebrations, warned that “life punishes those who come too late.” His words seemed to implicitly support demands for changes similar to those being implemented in the USSR.
‘Gorbi Help Us’
It was soon clear that the guest of honor was overshadowing East Germany’s birthday celebrations, much to Honecker’s fury. As Gorbachev made his way down the city’s grandest boulevard, Unter den Linden, toward the Palace of the Republic, the seat of the East German government, crowds lined the street shouting “Gorbi, Gorbi,” with some even daring to demand “Gorbi, help us.”
The tension between the two leaders was palpable. While Gorbachev urged Honecker to accept political liberalization, saying the GDR must be “willing to cooperate with all the powers of society,” Honecker was determined to stick to the old form of state socialism enforced with repression. “We will solve our problems ourselves with socialist means,” he said.
Meanwhile the ongoing tensions in East Germany were coming to a head. Protests by youths outside the Palace of the Republic on the night of the anniversary were crushed, while army units and plainclothes secret police operatives also attacked demonstrators in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district. Many protestors were beaten up and there were 500 arrests.
Yet the movement was gaining momentum. Just two days later on Oct. 9, 70,000 people took part in a candle-light procession in the city of Leipzig. Although police and soldiers with machine guns were present, there was no violence. It seemed that the East German state had no stomach for a “Chinese solution” after all.
Crucially, Honecker was not going to be able to rely on the almost half a million Soviet troops stationed in the country to deal with the unrest. It later emerged that Gorbachev had expressly given orders for the Soviet troops to stay in their barracks during the anniversary celebrations.
Just 11 days after marking 40 years of the GDR, Honecker was forced to step down as Communist party leader and head of state, replaced by Egon Krenz. The East German state was living on borrowed time.
Originally published on SPIEGEL ONLINE International: