Washington, D.C., October 9, 2009 - Twenty years ago today, crowds of East German demonstrators took to the streets in Leipzig starting their own October revolution that would bring down the Berlin Wall a month later. Ironically, these massive peaceful crowds of about 70,000 people gathered in the streets and squares of Leipzig just two days after the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic and the visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to Berlin. GDR leader Erich Honecker's security forces were faced with a choice—to apply the Chinese Tiananmen model or to go along with their Soviet patron's advice not to use force. They chose the latter, and several days later Honecker was sent to retirement and replaced with reform Communist Egon Krenz on October 17, 1989. (Note 1)
Soldiers removing barbed wire from the Austria-Hungray border.
To mark this anniversary, today the National Security Archive publishes the first in a series of document postings on the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe. The documents come from the forthcoming book Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989, ed. by Svetlana Savranskaya, Thomas Blanton and Vladislav Zubok (Central European University Press, 2010), which grew out of the Archive's groundbreaking conference on the end of the Cold War in Europe at Musgrove Conference Center in May 1998. The documents in the book include formerly top secret deliberations of Soviet, U.S. and East European decision makers, memoranda of conversations and intelligence estimates. Most of the documents are published here in English for the first time.
The documents show that the Berlin Wall actually started falling on March 3, 1989, when Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth informed Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev of the decision of the Hungarian Central Committee to "completely remove the electronic and technological defenses from the Western and Southern borders of Hungary." The Soviet leader did not react negatively to the news, but rather just said that "we are also becoming more open." This decision by the Hungarian reform communists and Gorbachev's acceptance of it made the first crack in the Berlin Wall. In May, the first dismantling of technological defenses started on the southern border of Hungary. Over the summer, the Hungarians negotiated most actively with West German representatives and kept their Soviet ally informed, but tried to circumvent the East Germans. On August 19, Hungary organized its famous Pan-European picnic, where people were encouraged to come picnic along the Austria-Hungary border near Sopron. A section of border was opened and some East German citizens were able to escape to Austria. The fate of the Wall may well have been sealed on September 11, 1989, when the Hungarian reform Communist government of Miklos Nemeth took down its own iron curtain—the barbed wire on the border with Austria—thus allowing East Germans who were vacationing in Hungary or taking refuge in the West German Embassy to escape to the West.
These events provoked an outraged reaction from the East German government. By early September, they saw the possibility that the trickle of East Germans would turn into a real flood if Hungary opened its border completely. The German communists (SED) discussed the situation on September 5, looking for options to prevent the opening of the border. One of the options—following the traditional approach of the Brezhnev Doctrine—was to try to convene a meeting of foreign ministers of the socialist bloc to put pressure on the Hungarians. However, that option was opposed by the Soviet representatives. East German attempts to reach out to their Hungarian and Soviet counterparts were met with stalling tactics until the borders were finally open on September 11.
As the flood of East Germans through Hungary undermined what was left of the prestige and legitimacy of the Honecker regime, the German Democratic Republic was preparing to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Gorbachev reluctantly agreed to come and to meet with the SED Politburo. During the celebrations, East Germans overwhelmingly expressed their support for Gorbachev in sharp contrast to their opposition to Honecker, which was immediately noted in the mass media. In his conversations with Honecker and the Politburo members, Gorbachev tried to stick to his compromise line of not interfering in internal affairs of fraternal countries, but eventually he did just that by warning them that "life punishes those who come too late," and telling them a story about old leaders who cannot push the cart any more. Those statements were correctly heard by the East German communists as a push from the Soviet general secretary to change their own leader, which they did on October 17.
Read the Documents
At this stage, the East German communist leadership is just catching up to the fact that the Hungarian communists have already decided--with some support from Moscow--to open their borders to the West. The scenes of East Germans hiking en masse to the Austrian border and flocking to embassies in Prague and Budapest while awaiting train tickets to the West, would dramatically degrade what little GDR prestige remained from its higher-than-average living standards in the bloc. In this record, we see the unvarnished discussions of the GDR leadership, featuring repeated attacks on the Hungarians for doing the bidding of the FRG, and "betraying socialism." This discussion takes place two months after Gorbachev's candid conversations with Kohl whom he treated as a peer and partner to an extent that would have appalled the members of the SED, although some may have feared as much in light of evidence such as that cited below--that the Soviet Foreign Ministry is trying to prevent the GDR from calling a foreign ministers' meeting to rein in the Hungarians.
In this discussion, East German Foreign Minister Oskar Fischer seeks reassurance from the Soviet ambassador to East Berlin in the midst of the refugee crisis precipitated by Hungary's decision to open its border with Austria. Ambassador Kochemassov tells Fischer that his colleagues are in fact actively rebuking both the West Germans and the Hungarians. In particular, Moscow's envoy to Bonn, Yuli Kvitsinsky, is a hard-line holdover who has been blasting the FRG for encouraging the East German émigrés, and "condemn[ing]" repeated statements by politicians to the effect that the GDR's days are numbered. The latter remark comes in the wake of highly-publicized comments by the U.S. ambassador to the FRG, Vernon Walters, in the International Herald Tribune predicting the speedy reunification of Germany.
This personal letter from the GDR's man in Budapest to the foreign minister reports on his recent talks with Rezső Nyers. Responding to East Berlin's condemnation of Hungary's émigré policy, Nyers claims that the border openings are "only a temporary measure." But Ambassador Gerd Vehres dismisses this and other comments from the Hungarians as "an attempt at stalling and deliberately misleading the GDR." Rather than understand the flight of so many East Germans as a popular judgment on the regime, the SED is only able to conceive it as "a coordinated and successful attempt by the imperialist states ..."
This diary entry, written on the eve of Gorbachev's visit to an East Germany in crisis, describes the Soviet leader as anxious and ambivalent about the radical changes underway in Eastern Europe, yet determined not to say anything that will prop up the hard-line Honecker. Chernyaev knows what the drafters of American national security policy at this time do not, that "the total dismantling of socialism as a world phenomenon has been taking place"--and it is a spectacle Chernyaev applauds. Here is striking proof of the profound radicalization of political thinking that is unfolding inside the reform-minded echelons of the Soviet political elite. Chernyaev has by now resolved his personal doubts in favor of supporting the anti-communist "revolutions" in Eastern Europe. However, while he clearly sees the future of the Soviet Union on the path of total rejection of the Leninist-Stalinist legacy, Gorbachev's own thinking in this period is more complex and, unlike Chernyaev, is not completely free from the "syndrome of Leninism." In particular, Gorbachev still seems to nurture an ideological belief in "democratic socialism" as a road for Eastern Europe, and the GDR in particular.
In his conversation with Erich Honecker, Gorbachev is careful and ambivalent trying not to openly push or provoke the East German leader, according to his proclaimed policy of non-interference in the allies' internal affairs. While the Soviet leader praises the GDR achievements and gently admonishes Honecker that the party should seize the initiative lest it becomes too late, Honecker is more assertive in his criticism of the Soviet glasnost and "unacceptable" publications in the Soviet press. He presents the situation in his country as stable, his party in control and poised to achieve a breakthrough in the scientific and technological revolution.
When Gorbachev visits Berlin in early October, thousands of East Germans are already pressing to leave the GDR and demonstrations against the regime are taking place in Leipzig and elsewhere. Chernyaev's notes of the discussions with the SED Politburo show the Soviet leader actually pushing for leadership changes--contrary to his own repeated insistence about staying out of bloc "personnel" matters. While not even mentioning the refugees, Gorbachev reminds the East Germans about the crises of the 1970s when the leadership felt the need to accelerate reforms. "Life itself will punish us if we are late," he says. He goes on to tell a story about the miners of Donetsk, where "some leaders cannot pull the cart any more, but we don't dare replace them, we are afraid to offend them." There could hardly be a clearer reference to Honecker and, sure enough, within 10 days the SED Politburo replaces him with another of those present at this meeting, Egon Krenz.
Events are moving quickly in the GDR, marked by the beginning of maneuverings in the SED Politburo against Honecker. Here Chernyaev records a conversation with Gorbachev and Shakhnazarov in which the Soviet leader refers to Honecker with an obscenity for not stepping down gracefully and thus preserving "his place in history." Chernyaev and Shakhnazarov doubt a graceful exit is possible for the East German party boss, who "has already been cursed by his people."
1. For most recent publications and reviews about the peaceful revolution in Germany see Charles S. Maier, "Civil Resistance and Civil Society: Lessons from the Collapse of the German Democratic Republic in 1989," in Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash ed., Civil Resistance and Power Politics (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), Christof Wielepp, "Montag abens in Leipzig," in Thomas Blanke and Rainer Erd (eds.), DDR-Ein Staat Vergeht (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch verlag, 1990), Wolf-Jurgen Grabner, Christian Heinze, and Detlev Pollack (eds.), Leipzig in Oktober: Kirchen und alternative Gruppen im Umbruch der DDR—Analysen zur Wende (Berlin: Wichern-Verlag, 1990).