The most iconic moment in the collapse of Stalinism was when the Berlin wall was pulled down. What the capitalist media largely ignore, however, are the events taking place behind that wall in the weeks before its dramatic fall. Ingmar Meineke, of Sozialistische Alternative (SAV – CWI in Germany) provides a graphic blow-by-blow account of the East German revolution and counter revolution.
Germany - Power was lying on the street
“Dear friends, fellow citizens. It is like someone opened a window after all these years of spiritual, economic and political stagnation, dullness and bad smell, phrase-mongering and bureaucratic arbitrariness. What a change! Less than four weeks ago: a nice wooden tribune right here around the corner, the ordered and illustrious parade! And today! You have gathered here, today, out of your own free will, for freedom and democracy and for a socialism worth the name”. With these words the author, Stefan Heym, began his speech on Berlin Alexanderplatz in front of more than half a million people on 4 November 1989.
A revolutionary wave had engulfed the German Democratic Republic (GDR – East Germany’s Stalinist state). On 9 October, 70,000 people took to the streets of Leipzig, 300,000 on the 23rd. Between those dates, state leader, Erich Honecker, and other politburo members of the ruling SED party, resigned. Egon Krenz took over on 18 October and was the first to use the word ‘Wende’ (change). But he too faced distrust and rejection. On 4 November, placards read: ‘Socialism yes - Ego(n)ism – no’. On 8 November, the whole politburo resigned, while 50,000 SED members demonstrated outside for the renewal of their party.
One day later the Berlin wall falls – the wall that Honecker said in January would “still be standing in 50 or 100 years”. In 1987, Kurt Hager said of perestroika and glasnost: “You know, if your neighbour redecorates his home would you feel compelled to redecorate yours, too?” By 1989 it was not just about redecorating, the whole flat was unfit for human habitation. But, as we know, in the end, the flat got privatised, and the names of the new landlords were the West German Kohl & Co.
The conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its allies won the Volkskammer (parliament) elections on 18 March 1990. On 1 July, the Deutschmark (DM) became the official currency. On 3 October, the GDR was attached to West Germany. Just a year after the beginning of the protests, the GDR had vanished from the map. How was it possible to divert the revolutionary train onto the tracks of capitalist reunification?
Developments in other Eastern Bloc countries had fanned the flames of unrest in the GDR. Elections in the Soviet Union in March 1989 included multi-candidates for the first time. Mass strikes in Poland in the summer of 1988 had led to round table talks involving the government, the Solidarnosc movement and Catholic church. Solidarnosc won the partial elections for the Polish parliament in June 1989, forming the government in September. This was in marked contrast to the GDR. The state reacted with over 200 arrests when opposition groups appeared on the Luxemburg-Liebknecht memorial demonstration in 1988 with a banner citing Rosa Luxemburg: ‘Freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently’.
Three events in 1989 inflamed the situation further. SED endorsement of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing on 4 June, a thinly disguised threat against opposition, only undermined the regime. The same with the rigged local elections on 7 May. Officially, the National Front List (the ‘unity list’ of SED and other organisations) gained 98.77%. Election observers said there were at least 10-20% non-voters or ‘No’ votes. This time, public protests began to involve hundreds of people, 1,500 in Leipzig on election night, and continued for months.
The final impetus was the wave of people leaving the GDR. Hungary opened its borders to Austria and GDR citizens begin to use this route to the west – 25,000 by the end of September. West German diplomatic missions in Prague, Budapest and east Berlin are flooded by people wanting to leave. This triggered a debate: why are so many leaving? What kind of a country is it where people feel the urge to run away, leaving property, friends and family behind? Official reactions that we ‘should not shed a single tear over these people’ sickened many.
On Monday 4 September, 1,200 people demonstrated after the peace prayer in the Leipzig Nikolai church. They chant: ‘We want out’. Security forces intervene. This is repeated every Monday. On 25 September, 8,000 people come out to protest. The chant changes to: ‘We stay here’, a clear statement of intent against the regime, indicating a will to finally change things in the country itself.
The first opposition groups are founded, New Forum on 9 September. Its statement is signed by 4,500 people in 14 days. By November, 200,000 have signed. It starts with the words: “Within our country, the communication between state and society is obviously disrupted. This is proven by mass resignations and retreat into the private sphere, as well as mass emigration”. It mentions numerous problems, including environmental destruction and shortages of goods, and concludes: “In order to recognise all of these contradictions and to listen to and analyse opinions and arguments… there is a need for a democratic dialogue… Therefore we unite to build a political platform for the whole of the GDR, bringing together people from all occupations, backgrounds, parties and groups… to discuss and work on these vital problems of society in our country”.
Although this is vague, it hits the spot. Many people think that a call for dialogue is a good thing. Surely no one, including Honecker, can oppose that? But Honecker and the SED leadership don’t want dialogue, especially not with a platform that is working on a national level. On 21 September, the motion to get New Forum registered is ruled out. This only increases its popularity.
The founding statements of most opposition groups are pro-socialist. Democracy Now writes (12 September): “Socialism has to now find its proper democratic form, if it is not to be lost for history”. Democratic Departure writes: “We want to learn anew what socialism can mean for us”. The United Left, founded on 4 September, proposes a conference bringing together left-wing opposition groups: “This conference should be about working out minimal demands for the realisation of a fundamental reform of society towards free socialism”.
The only organisation not supporting this is the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Its founding statement (12 September) does not mention socialism but formulates the aim of a “social market economy, with a strict ban on the monopolies for the prevention of undemocratic concentrations of economic power”. It is the first organisation to pave the way for the re-establishment of capitalism, euphemised as a social market economy.
The masses on the street
October began with the 40th anniversary of the GDR’s existence. Shortly before 7 October, sealed trains drive through the GDR with refugees travelling from West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw to the west. In Dresden people try to jump on board. Volkspolizei (‘people’s police’) react brutally, with water cannons, previously unknown to the GDR population, put in position.
On 6 October, Mikhail Gorbachev arrives in Berlin. His presence encourages the demonstrators. On the morning of the 7th there is the official military parade on Berlin Alexanderplatz. At 5pm, a few hundred youthful protestors protest against the earlier rigged elections. By 5:20, 2-3,000 march on the Palace of the Republic, shouting ‘Gorby, Gorby’ and ‘We are the people!’ At 6pm a demonstration heads towards Prenzlauer Berg. Special units of the police and Stasi surround the Schönhauser Allee train station at 9pm. Five hundred are arrested, but 10,000 are on the street.
More march in Leipzig (20,000) and Dresden (40,000). The local Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper rants (9 October): “Rowdies disrupt normal life”. All eyes are on Leipzig. Will the GDR have its own Tiananmen? It becomes known that hospitals have been cleared and extra blood made available. Three days earlier, under the headline, Workers in the Area Demand: Don’t Tolerate Opposition to the State Any Longer, the Leipziger Volkszeitung threatened: “We are ready and prepared to stop these counter-revolutionary actions once and for all. If necessary, gun in hand”.
But the first splits show in the state apparatus: hit hard or try to mollify the protests through reforms? A call for de-escalation from three local SED leaders, Kurt Meier, Jochen Pommert and Roland Wötzel, conductor Kurt Masur and others, is broadcast locally. After that, Leipzig experiences the largest demonstration so far with 70,000 people. The powerful slogan, ‘We are the people’, rings all over the Georgiring. The Internationale is sung. In Berlin, 7,000 demonstrate, another 60,000 around the country. The pace quickens. The seemingly monolithic state and party bloc shows ever larger splits. The politburo sits in permanent session.
Parts of the ruling elite try to engage with opposition representatives locally. On 10 October, Wolfgang Berghofer, mayor of Dresden, orders the release of 500 people arrested the previous weekend. The demonstrations keep growing. The following weekend there are 20,000 in Halle and Plauen, 10,000 in Magdeburg, 4,000 in Berlin. Next Monday, the 16th, brings a new record number: 120,000 protesters in Leipzig, 10,000 in Dresden and Magdeburg, 5,000 in Halle, 3,000 in Berlin.
For the first time, on 17 October, newspapers print brief, factual reports about the Leipzig demonstrators, who had only a week before been described as rioters and counter-revolutionaries. On the same day, workers at the machine factory in Teltow leave the FDGB, the official trade union federation, and form the independent factory group, Reform, calling for new independent trade unions, “the right to strike, demonstrate, a free press, an end to travel restrictions and of official privileges”.
Sensational news on the 18th: Honecker resigns. His successor is Krenz. Other leading politburo members also have to go. But this does not calm the masses. On the contrary, more and more people feel encouraged to take to the streets. Krenz’s appointment is met with distrust. He was seen as Honecker’s crown prince for a long time. The slogans on the Leipzig Monday demonstration on 23 October, 250,000-strong, are: ‘Egon, who has asked us?’; ‘Free elections’; ‘Without visa to Hawaii’; ‘The people should play the leading role’. By the end of the month, protests have reached the entire country.
There are not only demonstrations. In Magdeburg, conscripted police officers elect a council and collect signatures for everyday demands: the right to go out in civilian clothes and to have access to the company club. Demands to shorten conscription and for a civilian alternative are added later. The revolutionary wave reaches school students. Their first victory is the ending of marks for discipline, and of Saturday lessons.
In Leipzig, protests rise from 20,000 on 2 October, 70,000 on the 9th, 120,000 on the 16th, 250,000 on the 23rd, 300,000 on the 30th, to 400,000 on 6 November! Meanwhile, there are 500,000 (some say a million) in east Berlin on 4 November. On the 8th, the whole politburo resigns. On the evening of the 9th, politburo member, Günter Schabowski, reports to the press from the SED central committee that the borders have been opened and anyone can collect a visa from 8am the following day. People do not wait and besiege the border crossings to west Berlin, taking the border guards by surprise. At midnight, some commanders, forced by the mass pressure, open the borders. The wall falls.
During the following weeks a whole country goes travelling. Trains are crammed full. People are euphoric but not blind. West German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, is booed during a rally outside Schöneberg town hall. At the same time, the new travel opportunities enable GDR citizens to compare the goods on offer east and west. They note that the GDR Mark is not worth much in the golden west.
After the initial euphoria, an impatient mood develops. A banner on the 4 November demo reads: ‘We need new deeds, not new phrases!’ The masses feel the bureaucracy’s resistance, that it is playing for time. The Neubrandenburg SED chief, Chemnitzer, threatened 20,000 booing demonstrators on 25 October: ‘If you don’t shut up we can do it differently!’ The SED bureaucracy is confused and hangs in the air. But it has not gone. On 17 November, Hans Modrow, who is seen as a reformer, takes over. He attempts to involve the opposition to stabilise the situation. On 22 November, he agrees to round table discussions.
But the former ruling elite is less and less able to govern. The state apparatus starts to dissolve. The fire is fanned by ever new discoveries of the old ruling clique’s privileges, especially the fat cat housing developments in Wandlitz and other ‘paradises’. ADN reports (28 November) on the hunting area of former premier, Willi Stoph: “After some pressure we are let into the house with its five baths, the many living- and bedrooms, the video room and cellar bar. There are more than five fridges, not only full of apples and meat but also expensive sweets and delicacies – all of western production”.
The question, not really posed by anyone but which hovers above everything, is: who has got power? The state and party apparatus has increasingly lost it, but the opposition has not got it either. The power was lying on the streets where the masses demonstrated. No one could get past them. But who would pick it up? Who would gain the trust of the people? In the beginning, the masses looked towards the opposition leaders who had come into this position overnight, often by accident. They also looked towards some SED reformers. And towards the artists and intellectuals, many of whom had appeared at the 4 November demonstration.
The internal renewal of the SED is too slow for most. As the extent of corruption becomes apparent, workers are more determined than ever to get rid of the whole leadership. The New Forum in Karl-Marx Stadt demands a general strike for 6 December. This is condemned by the FDGB, bloc parties and Bärbel Bohley, a co-founder of New Forum. Everyone fears the situation could spiral out of control. The demand is withdrawn. Nevertheless, there is a two-hour political warning strike at workplaces in Plauen on that date. There are strikes elsewhere, too.
The mood is now so heated that the bureaucracy has to withdraw even further. The Volkskammer deletes Article One and, thereby, the leading role of the SED. On 3 December, the whole politburo and central committee resign, after Honecker, Stoph (ex-prime minister), Tisch (ex-trade union leader), Sindermann (ex-Volkskammer president) and Mielke (ex-Stasi minister) are expelled from the party.
Krenz goes on 6 December and the SED’s special congress starts on the 8th. It renames itself SED-PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism). The lawyer, Gregor Gysi, becomes party leader. But too much credit has been spent, too big the entanglement with the state, the disappointment and anger over privileges. This step alone could not calm the situation.
The round table starts meeting on the 7th. The weaknesses of the new opposition groups increasingly come out. Surprised by the speed of events they want to carry on talking with the SED rather than taking power. Rolf Henrich, co-founder of the New Forum, had stated in Der Morgen newspaper (28 October) that they want to carry on without a worked out programme for now: “We have to learn to accept how pathetic this beginning is”. The United Left gets bogged down in working groups, a discussion forum, coordination and documentation ‘centres’.
This indecisiveness has real foundations. How is it possible to really get rid of the old leaders and bureaucracy? What could the new society look like, especially the economic system? What role should capitalist West Germany play? These questions are permanently on the agenda, and are interwoven. The economy becomes central, with pressure building on the GDR’s currency since the wall came down. The government introduces tougher customs controls as an emergency measure and limits the availability of subsidised goods.
More important is the discovery of how desperate the East German economic situation is. Capitalist commentators paint an even bleaker picture, claiming that the GDR faces immediate state bankruptcy. They do this to cover up the consequences of future currency union, when the DM becomes the official currency in the east. But the situation was serious. The productivity of a GDR worker was estimated to be around half that of a West German worker. Subsidies for basic food and other everyday goods were increasingly financed through the accumulation of debt.
Attempts to decrease debt by reducing imports and increasing exports further cut the amount of goods on offer. In November, finance minister, Höfner, admitted that exports were not exchanged at one GDR Mark to DM1, but at 4.1 to one. On 3 January 1990, the new SED-PDS finance minister, Christa Luft, provides new data: the balance of payments deficit was $2.4 billion in 1989; financial debt is $20.6 billion; GDR currency reserves are $7-9 billion. GDP had fallen by 3.1% annually from 1986 to 1989. The Modrow government cuts subsidies immediately, massively increasing the cost of flour, children’s clothes and shoes.
Up to November, the GDR revolution had been pro-socialist. All the opposition statements (excepting the SDP), banners, demo chants, speeches, and singing of the Internationale are evidence of that. The writer Christa Wolf said, followed by incredible applause: “Imagine there is socialism and no one runs away!” Bohley talked about a “better socialism”. The formation of councils (soviets) was discussed: ‘All power to the councils’ read a banner on 4 November. But there was not much about how this ‘better socialism’ or rule of the councils could be achieved. The suggestions of opposition leaders and intellectuals remained abstract.
In the begining, the workers were reluctant to take strike action because they did not want to drive the economy further over the edge. So most actions took place on the streets. Although strikes increased in December, workplaces were not taken over, showing the lack of a tradition of workers’ independent organisation. Even where workers’ committees were formed, they did not necessarily get rid of the management. Bernd Reissmann, a programmer at Robotron in Dresden, describes what happened there: “We listened to the director for one last time… And this boss put forward his views in such a way that the others were convinced by it… So he stayed”.
Parts of the bureaucracy and intelligentsia begin very early to argue for a market economy. On 30 November, the Dresden based scientist, Manfred von Ardenne, bluntly demands more independence for companies, the eradication of the state monopoly of foreign trade, and a transition towards a market economy. The new opposition also steers in this direction. At the founding congress of Democratic New Beginning on 16 December, a delegate stated to loud applause: “The planned economy is dead. We do not want to resurrect a corpse. No more socialist experiments”.
This wing wins the majority. The wave reaches the New Forum. Joachim Gauck answers a question of the Taz newspaper (13 January 1990), regarding socialist principles: “We will revise all these aspects of our programme… At the moment the question posed is the one of unification and the market economy”. Even more left-wing forces do not have a clear position. One SED split-off, Die Nelken, defining itself as Marxist, stated that it would support a market economy because “Marx had only been against the capitalist chaos of his time”. Others talk about a ‘third way’ (Gysi), or a ‘socialist market economy’ (Luft).
An independent capitalist GDR was pointless. Thus, reunification was not just a national but, mainly, a social question. The speed of reunification can only be understood as an answer to the demands of the GDR revolution – a reactionary answer. The issue of reunification played next to no role in the beginning. Freedom to travel was far more important. On a larger scale, different voices were first heard at the Monday demonstration in Leipzig on 20 November. A New Forum speaker said: “We do not want to be the poor house of greater Germany”. But another speaker said he had endured 40 years of socialism and had no interest in any new versions. Reunification and the market economy were the only options. This got long applause and chants of ‘Germany, unified fatherland’.
It was not the main mood, but the demand gains ground. The mood is split. A survey on 17 December shows 73% for a sovereign GDR, 71% for socialism as an idea, 39% in favour of the West German economic system, 61% for a “thoroughly reformed socialist economic system”. While Kohl is celebrated in Dresden by 20-30,000 people on 19 December, 50,000 demonstrate in Berlin on the same day, “for a sovereign GDR, against reunification and the sell-out of the country”.
Previously, on 16 November, Heym had presented the following alternative: “We can either insist on the independence of our country and attempt… to develop a society based on solidarity, in which peace, social justice, freedom of the individual, freedom to travel for all and the preservation of the environment are guaranteed. Or, because of strong economic necessities and intolerable conditions on which influential big-business and political circles from the federal republic base their offers of help for the GDR, we will have to endure the start of a sell-out of our material and moral values, leading sooner or later to a takeover of the German Democratic Republic by the Federal Republic of Germany. Let us choose the first option”. Up to 23 January 1990, 1,167,048 people had signed this declaration. But among them was Krenz – the declaration had not distanced itself sufficiently from the old SED bureaucracy.
This was a dilemma for those who wanted the GDR to go in a socialist direction. They did not develop an independent position but remained interwoven with the SED reformers. However, the masses did not trust them, despite the popularity of individuals like Modrow. Because there did not seem to be a credible socialist solution many started to look towards reunification. There were huge illusions in the market economy which, according to everyone, would have to be a ‘social’ one which certainly would not lead to hundreds of thousands unemployed.
Initially, West German leaders did not want reunification. Its ruling class was surprised at the pace of developments. But the steady wave of people leaving the GDR and the collapse of the state apparatus force the West German government to move. They have to decide on which organisation in the GDR they want to build on. They finally pick the former CDU bloc party, which at least has a functioning apparatus. This is later joined by the Alliance for Germany, Democratic Beginning and the German Social Union.
By the end of January the situation becomes critical. The Modrow government wants a new security service, the Verfassungsschutz. This meets determined opposition. Also, facts show that the Stasi is only being dissolved very slowly. Strikes increase. The Stasi HQ in Berlin is stormed. There are demands for a national strike on 26 January. The government and opposition try everything to regain control. A new ‘government of national responsibility’ is formed on 5 February in which eight ministers without portfolio are members of opposition groups. The Volkskammer elections are moved forward to 18 March. Faced with radicalising mass protests, the bureaucracy moves towards an ‘ordered unification’ with the west.
Only the United Left does not participate in the government after that. All other groups favour unification and the introduction of a market economy, capitalism. The major differences are about how. Kohl and the CDU/FDP government in Bonn hesitate about how quickly they should act. At first, they argue for a step-by-step process. But the East German CDU, under Lothar de Maiziere, argues that only the immediate introduction of the DM as the official currency will stop further mass migration. The next day, Kohl announces that negotiations with the GDR will start immediately. The West German government decides to take over the GDR. Kohl ruthlessly puts this into action. He refuses to give a financial aid package worth DM10-15 billion to the Modrow government.
The round table had decided that no western politicians should be allowed to participate in the election campaign. This is ignored. The Alliance for Germany (CDU, DA, DSU), above all, is merely a western puppet. But the same goes for the SPD and Liberals. FDP leader, Otto Graf Lambsdorf, guilty of tax evasion, celebrates in Werningerode on 9 March: “The world witnesses the final collapse of socialism”. The clear victory for the Alliance for Germany on 18 March comes as a surprise to many. But, once the political path had been chosen, the majority voted for those who seemed most likely to realise it in the quickest and safest way. The CDU wins 40.6%, SPD 21.8%, PDS 16.3%, with civil rights groups standing as Bündnis 90 on a catastrophic 2.9%.
There is one final round of mass protests on the issue of exchange rates. After the DM becomes the currency on 1 July 1990, the GDR witnesses the fastest and most drastic de-industrialisation ever in an industrial country. In June, industrial production was 86.5%. In August it had fallen to 48.1%. Unemployment went up to 7.2% in July. On 3 October 1990, one year after the beginning of the revolution, the country which it was meant to revolutionise vanishes from the map.
The missed opportunity
Stefan Heym later gave this honest assessment of his 4 November speech: “I remember the storming applause I got. But I also knew that a lot of Stasi people stood around the truck which served as the platform. I ended my speech saying that democracy was a Greek word meaning the rule of the people, and I said ‘let us build this rule of the people’. But I also wondered: should I not act now and call on people to start walking towards the government building which was only two streets away. Let us go in there and occupy the TV tower and, in other words, let us do a revolution. But I also wondered if this would be possible without bloodshed and whether the police had orders to shoot if that was the case. I did not know and so I ended my speech with the theoretical meaning of democracy and not with a practical creation of democracy. There was no organised group which wanted to take power. There was no conspiracy to unseat the government. There was only a forum of individuals but nothing that would be needed in order to carry out a revolution. This is why everything imploded. There was no one who could have taken power apart from the west… Imagine we would have had the time and opportunity to build a new socialism in the GDR, a socialism with a human face. This could have been an example for West Germany and things could have been different”.
From September to November 1989, even afterwards, there existed many features of a political revolution which the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, considered necessary in order to overthrow Stalinism, the bureaucratic deformation of socialism. In the end, the other option which Trotsky saw as a possibility became the reality: capitalist restoration. The most important reason for this was that there was no force which could develop a realisable way towards a true socialist society. This force did not exist in the GDR and did not form in the short period available. It did not exist in West Germany either. There was no impulse for Germany to take a socialist path. Once again, a revolution was betrayed by social democrats. The power was lying on the street. But the opposition of autumn 1989 left it lying there until Kohl & Co eventually picked it up.