Its rise and fall represents an important chapter
in the political history of the world.
At the end of World War 2 in 1945, Germany was divided into four administrative sectors, one for each of the three victorious combatants, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union, and one for France. Berlin, as capital city, was itself divided similarly into four sectors. Being situated entirely within the Soviet Sector, Berlin provided an ongoing flashpoint in the developing enmity between the Soviet Union and the West.
The idea, in theory at least, was that the four administrative powers would, following reconstruction, leave a unified Germany to itself. But this ideal was not current thinking in the Soviet Union. Amid the ruins of Germany's once-proud capital, on the morning of May 2nd, 1945, a convoy of trucks rolled in from the east. They brought several soviet political officers and some German communists who had been living in exile in Moscow. One such was Walter Ulbricht, destined to hold absolute power in what was to become an independent German Democratic Republic. It would later be Ulbricht's proud boast, that as he entered Berlin he had under his arm a complete set of plans for the physical, industrial, and political reconstruction of an independent East Germany along socialist lines, worked out by his own team in Moscow.
Little by little, socialist-style planning took root, while in the political field, a single-party system was imposed. On October 7th, 1949, the Soviet Zone formally declared itself an independent State: the DDR, German Democratic Republic. This followed a manipulated vote in the Volkskammer (People's Chamber), and a Constitution was formulated for the new socialist nation. A vote was promised, but in reality East Germans would have to wait forty years for it. Elections in East Germany became a farce; citizens were required to vote under threat of denunciation and repression, and alternative choices were there none. Thus East Germany produced time and again from 1950 to 1986 miracle voting results showing 98-99% participation and 99% "Yes" votes in favour of the single party offering.
Stalin's death on March 5th 1953 threw the East German command into confusion, forcing the country's leaders to start thinking for themselves. And as they reviewed their own country, they were confronted with increasing dissatisfaction, unpopularity of the regime, and "a vote with the feet" which was gradually draining the country of its youth and best brains. In 1950, 198,000 fled to the West, then 165,000 more in 1951, and over 182,000 in 1952.
Something had to be done.
The answer was a "New Course" which was supposed to provide the population with more consumer goods. Recent price increases were withdrawn, but not the increase in working hours. The latter was a bad mistake. Building workers in East Berlin's Stalinallee confronted by a 10% production quota increase saw no reason to strain themselves for a meagre paypacket, and on June 16, 1953 they stopped work. Next day their action was repeated in over 350 towns and cities across the DDR.
Strikes became demonstrations, not just for new economic policies, but for free, Germany-wide elections and an end to the all-pervading Socialist Party rule. The East German government was at a loss. Soviet tanks rolled in, the uprising was put down and several hundred lost their lives. In that year, another 332,000 would leave for the West. Committed communist poet Bertolt Brecht suggested it might be easier for the government to dismiss the population and vote in a new one.
That was it. The gloves were off. Ulbricht tightened his control, branded any and all vocal opposition as the criminal actions of those favouring a return to fascism, militarism and atomic war. Citizens' private lives were opened to public scrutiny and direction. Religion was 'out', weddings were to be conducted in Registry Offices only, and young people taking Confirmation could lose their right to education. Under the direction of First Secretary Erich Honecker, all western-facing television aerials were to be destroyed. The single Trade Union was to focus on the new slogan: "World Competition" in other words, more work!
By 1961 Ulbricht's State had lost over 2.6 million of its citizens young, fit, educated, many with valuable specialist skills. Once again, something had to be done. During a press conference on July 15, 1961, Ulbricht claimed "no one has any intention of building a wall". But Moscow apparently thought otherwise and orders followed two weeks later. On August 13, under the command of Erich Honecker, work on the wall was begun.
During the 1960s both in East Germany and in the Soviet Union, economic policy fluctuated uncertainly between central control and a limited free market economy. Ulbricht brought new people into his administration with new ideas on market competition and productivity. For a time East Germany became world competitive but only in a very few sectors and the living standards of East German citizens, having risen slightly and briefly, remained stagnant then began to fall as consumer shortages again became apparent. State deficits grew rapidly, world competitiveness became a far-off dream, and discontent continued to mount.
Only after Unification, did the full extent of Stasi activities become known, as some 180 kilometers of files and 35 million other documents came to public view. In addition there were numerous photos, sound documents, and tapes of telephone conversations. The psychological impact on the population was almost worse than their physical shortages.
During the 60s, Ulbricht became more self-confident, particularly with respect to the Soviet Union. He launched his nation, still unrecognized internationally, into an aggressive foreign policy. His support for Arab causes in the Middle East brought recognition by Iraq, followed by thirteen other non-aligned states. However, Ulbricht's difficult relationship with Leonid Brezhnev proved to be his eventual undoing.
On May 3rd, 1971 Ulbricht was forced probably by the Soviet Union to resign from virtually all of his public functions "on grounds of old age" (auf Altersgrund), to be replaced by Erich Honecker. Nonetheless, Ulbricht's persistence in pushing for full international recognition of the DDR paid off in the early 70s when the Ostpolitik led by Willy Brandt led to a form of mutual recognition between East and West Germany. Finally in December 1972 relations between East and West Germany were normalized and both German states joined the United Nations. The DDR attained at long last full international recognition.
Above: Dialogue across the "chasm" West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Party Head Erich Honecker, at the Summit Conference for Security and Collaboration in Europe, Helsinki 1975. Forget the fancy conference title Honecker's just happy to be recognized! Yet in a sense this was for the DDR a bitter victory. There was much opposition in the west for the international recognition of a nation so oppressive, so anti religion, permitting so little freedom of thought, expression and opinion. The "free" European press kept up the pressure which only heightened popular opposition within the DDR.
No ordinary West German would ever dare go over to the East for fear of never returning. Most of those in the West who had relatives in the East would not visit them, for they had fled without permission and were therefore considered in the East as wanted criminals. And when the few West German dignitaries went over on State visits, of course they only saw the best the Socialist State could provide. As for foreign tourists, they were few indeed hardly surprising given the clear lack of enthusiasm shown by the East German State Tourist Offices in the West.
Travelling through any of the Eastern Socialist countries during the 1970s and 80s could be a nail-bighting adventure. Hungary was the most liberal and prosperous of the satellite States though Bulgaria was quietly and fairly comfortably surviving on its agricultural base. Czechoslovakia was clearly falling behind economically even in the western, Czech area, while Slovakia had largely become a holiday destination for favoured Socialist workers from East Germany and the USSR. The Hotel Partizan at Tale in the Slovak Carpathian mountains was popular with East German workers on vacation, mostly walkers and hikers, dressed in knee length hiking breeches with long red stockings. At breakfast the waiters would bring out trays of brown paper packages from the kitchen containing packed lunches.
Travellers in the Eastern countries could go in organized groups or in their own western vehicles the experienced always careful to be fully conversant with, and to follow the local rules to the letter, to enjoy the sights of cities, villages and countryside yet maintaining a low profile, avoiding authority where possible, and showing due respect whenever a confrontation was inevitable. Western "Capitalists", with their hard currency and apparent wealth and air of self-confidence, were universally, though privately, regarded as Superior Beings, and it was vitally important never to lord that superiority over one's less fortunate Socialist brethren.
But even before leaving one's Western homeland, it was clear that East Germany would be the most oppressive, the least welcoming of the European Socialist countries. To visit Hungary and Czechoslovakia you could get a visa, if you were willing to wait several hours, at the border. And in both cases, once you were there, you could more or less travel where you wanted. East Germany, however, required not only a visa in advance, but all hotels had to be pre-booked by the State Travel Agency for each and every night of your stay so that in effect the Great State Machine could keep tabs on you. There was no choice of hotel you stayed where you were put. Indeed a preferred itinerary might be altered because "there are no hotels available", effectively putting cities, or whole regions, "off the map". No, East Germany did not put out the welcome mat!
The writer's personal diary from 1985 paints a clear picture.
We drove across West Germany, enjoying as always its orderliness and comfortable bordering on conspicuous prosperity, its beautifully restored and maintained historic buildings, cathedrals and churches, its paved pedestrianized town centres served by clean modern tramcars, its low-key town bypass roads carefully integrated into the landscape, and its scenic orderly countryside of woods, hills and immaculate farms. Our last port of call in the West was Kassel, a fine city with a neatly pedestrianized town centre.
When we presented ourselves at the western side of one of the few permitted border crossings, the West German border guard was quite amazed that anyone from the West would willingly go over to the East and for tourism?? He wished us "safe journey" in a tone which seemed to say "watch your step and come back alive!" We left the informal West German border post and drove through a no-man's land, through the Iron-Curtain of barbed wire and forbidding watch-towers to the Eastern side where we and our vehicle were thoroughly and suspiciously scrutinized by grim border guards.
As we drove the short distance towards Eisenach in East Germany our hearts began to sink as the dismal socialist scene gradually unfolded before us. The main road leading into the town was of prewar cobbles, full of potholes, the road edges overgrown and untidy, with rusted and leaning street lights many with their light fittings missing. Eisenach itself presented a scene straight from the aftermath of World War II. The buildings were crumbling, the dusty, dirty and long-unpainted facades almost obscured by a thick pall of sulphurous coal-smoke, and the blue fumes from the 2-stoke cars which, incidentally were only for model workers after a wait of up to 21 years. The yellow coal smoke, we later learned, was produced by the ubiquitous yellow-dust coal briquettes which seemed to be the only form of domestic heating fuel. It came from enormous open-cast mines which in their relentless expansion had consumed whole villages.
All the buildings were dirty and grimy, the streets and pavements in disrepair, the few shops dowdy, and small crowds of people seemed to be standing around on street corners as if with nothing to do. In the back streets whole blocks of houses were simply falling down, some boarded up, some lying as piles of rubble which nature was already camouflaging with grass and small bushes. To call our reaction "a culture shock" after West Germany would be a totally inadequate description, despite our familiarity with other East European countries.
As a result of massive unrest during the mid- and late-1970s, the regime had embarked in the early 80s on a program of social spending "whatever the cost". But there was no productivity-gain to support it. On the contrary, East German productivity lost ground rapidly, exports declined to a trickle, and there was no capital or foreign exchange with which to purchase much-needed new equipment.
It was also during this decade that East Germany's relative economic decline became physically apparent to those who could see it. But the country's economic statistics were so cleverly manufactured and manipulated, that the West believed the fiction of East Germany as a highly industrialized and productive economy, placed between seventh and eighth in the world prosperity league.
In Naumburg we particularly wanted to visit the Cathedral which contained a large historic organ, completed in 1747 by Zacharias Hildebrandt, and on its completion it had been officially tested and certificated by none other than J.S. Bach himself. The Cathedral was at least sound in structure, though somewhat bare inside. An elderly lady was sitting at a table inside selling postcards and a potted history leaflet. We told her of our interest in the organ and commented briefly on the bare interior. She said (and this was in 1985) that a complete refurbishment was in the State Plan for 1991. We said politely "that would be nice". She replied with some feeling that she hoped she wouldn't be still alive by then. There could hardly have been a more poignant comment on how ordinary people saw their future under Moscow's and Honecker's Socialist regime.
In this drab, postwar atmosphere only the Party bosses could obtain any of the luxuries which in the West were routine supermarket purchases. Special little shops throughout East Germany, coyly named "Delikat", or "Exquisite", displayed in their windows Palmolive soaps, Nescafé instant coffee, western toothpaste and washing powders, and Swiss chocolate, all of which and much more in similar vein was to be had only by the favoured few and strictly in exchange for West German Marks of course. For the ordinary people, there was little to brighten up their drab lives; music was one of their few joys, and for every musical event, long lineups would form several hours beforehand. From time to time a rumour would rapidly "do the rounds" and those "in the know" would form a long line for no apparent reason on some street corer. A truck would roll up, shoot a pile of cucumbers onto the pavement, the ladies would bring out their string shopping bags, and within minutes the cucumbers and the people were gone.
Ultimately it was simple economic reality which proved to be the Socialist State's undoing. By the end of the 1980s East Germany was in a state of physical collapse and financial bankruptcy.
Mikhail Gorbachev was the first Russian leader to distinguish fact from fiction, and to accept reality over ideology. Soviet-style central planning was not working, the USSR was way behind the West, and what was needed was a total rethink and reorganization, a concept given the Russian title of Perestroika. With hindsight it can be seen that even Gorbachev's vision was severely blinkered. What he advocated was a change in the system, a loosening of the rules, more private enterprise within the existing Socialist framework. Never once did he consider the possibility of the USSR breaking up.
Nor did he even appear to consider that the European satellite countries would want to break away. "More independence, but still within our Socialist family" was his vision, opening up to the West indeed, but not joining it and abandoning Socialism and the Soviet Union, the mother country. As the decade of the 80s drew to a close, Gorbachev toured the European Socialist countries, often witnessing the new wave of uprisings in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, preaching perestroika, inviting them to become more independent, more liberal, assuring them that this time, Russian tanks would not be rolling in.
Cautiously these countries began to move. Hungary's government declared that the barbed wire Iron Curtain between themselves and Austria had decayed to the point of becoming a danger to the public, and must either be removed, or replaced at enormous expense, which neither Hungary nor Russia could afford. Quietly, Hungarian border guards simply rolled up the barbed wire and disposed of it.
Meanwhile Lech Welensa was leading Poland towards democracy, while Czechoslovakia would have its "Velvet Revolution" inspired and led by the unassuming poet-writer Vaclav Havel. But East Germany, or rather, Erich Honecker, would have none of it.
Gorbachev was a guest in East Berlin at the Eleventh Party Conference in 1986, where he preached Glasnost and Perestroika to an apparently enthusiastic reception. Party Secretary Erich Honecker appears jubilant as he shook hands warmly with Gorbachev, but appearances can be deceptive. In reality Honecker would continue adhering strictly to the old Party Lines. Indeed in an unprecedented move of East-facing censorship, Honecker actually banned the Soviet magazine Sputnik from East German bookstalls in November 1988, and almost a year later his attitude had not changed. Note however, on the extreme left in the picture, an enthusiastic Egon Krenz, destined to take over from Honecker in Autumn 1989.
Moving into 1989, Erich Honecker, quite oblivious to the rapid liberalization which was going on in the socialist world around him, pressed blindly ahead with the great 40th Anniversary celebrations of the founding of the DDR on October 7th 1989 with full military and ceremonial parades.
Gorbachev had visited East Germany for three days prior to this occasion. As he left on October 6th from Schönefeld Airport, eye witnesses described Honecker's expression as "ghastly pale", when Gorbachev told him, in a phrase which was to re-echo throughout East Germany: "Wer zu spät kommt, den bestraft das Leben" – "Life punishes those who come too late".
Honecker however, held firmly to the Socialist course, yielding not an inch towards reform, liberalization, democracy, or the relaxation of the State's control. But events were to overtake, indeed overwhelm him, and 12 days later, on October 18th the Party "released" him from his duties, replacing him with his heir-apparent, but more pragmatic Egon Krenz.
The regime's aggressive 40th Anniversary celebrations, contrasted with Gorbachev's visit and his message of reform, provided a focal point for massive demonstrations in major cities including East Berlin. In Leipzig more than 70,000 demonstrators thronged the streets; Leipzig particularly was to play a major role in pressurizing for reform and liberalization.
"The 9th of October 1989 was the decisive day. Crowds overflowed from the church for the evening prayer meeting, filling the 2,000 seats and standing in the aisles and galleries. Moreover, some 1,000 SED Party members had been ordered to go to the Nikolaikirche to reinforce the Stasi (State Security). The stage seemed set for confrontation, quite possibly a violent one.
"In the event the Prayers for Peace took place in unbelievable calm and concentration. Shortly before the end, appeals by Professor Kurt Masur, chief conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and others who supported our call for non-violence, were read out. Then the bishop gave his blessing, repeating his call for non-violence. And as we more than 2,000 persons came out of the church I'll never forget the sight tens of thousands were waiting outside in the Square. They all had candles in their hands. If you carry a candle, you need two hands. You have to prevent the candle from going out. You cannot hold a stone or a club in your hand.
Meanwhile, events had been moving in other areas which would soon engulf Honecker's, or Krenz's DDR. As a result of relaxation of borders in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, East Germans began crossing the borders, seeking asylum in the West German Embassies in Budapest and Prague. On August 13th 1989, the West Germans were forced to close their embassy in Budapest as the grounds were filled with 180 East German refugees (photo below).
The West German "Standing Representation" in East Berlin likewise had to close its doors after 130 asylum-seekers filled its grounds. On August 18th, Rudolf Seiters representing the West German Chancellor was in East Berlin for talks, which resulted in a grudging permission for the refugees to travel freely to the West.
In Warsaw and Prague the situation was similar. On September 30th West German Foreign Minister Genscher and Chancellor's Emissary Seiters announced the news to refugees in Prague (photo above): "you can travel to the West". Special sealed trains carried the refugees from Prague and Warsaw to Helmstedt and Hof in the West. Two days later thousands more were to follow. By the end of September more than 25,000 had left East Germany in a mass flight which clearly seemed unstoppable.
By October 1989 events were coming together. As Gorbachev was making his three-day visit with Honecker, thousands were fleeing in special sealed trains, demonstrations were increasing in major towns and cities throughout East Germany, and . Honecker was insisting in celebrating forty years of Socialist achievement in the DDR with full military parades. Honecker was living in another world. He had to go.
Following Honecker's replacement by the Party on October 18th, his successor, Egon Krenz, echoed Honecker's words on East German television that "the rebuilding of socialism in the Democratic Republic remains our goal, one that we can, and will fulfill by ourselves without any outside help". However, nine days later on October 27th Krenz received a "secret report", the Geheimpapier, prepared by the Senior Department of the Stasi, Department HV III, Sicherung der Volkswirtschaft Security of the People's Economy. It described in full and uncensored detail the true and disastrous condition of the nation's infrastructure, economy and finances.
A hand-grasp welcome for an East German in his DDR-built fibreboard two-stroke Trabant.
On November 14th Egon Krenz sat nervously on the podium of the East German parliament, the Plenarsaal, and ministers shuffled uncomfortably as the Finance Minister, Ernst Hofner, revealed the full economic truth for the first time. He spoke of years of concealment and fabrication, falsification of facts and figures, and accepted blame himself admitting that these economic reports had been handed down "from above" and that he had published them knowing that they were false, but not having the courage to speak out. The facts were brutal. East Germany's debts amounted to 130 Billion East German Marks. The country's industrial capital and infrastructure were in ruins following years of non-investment and neglect. The country needed massive investment loans from the West if it was to continue to function at all, but this was impossible, for the existing external debt of 50 Billion West Marks already required servicing and repayments which could only be financed by new borrowing.
This speech was made in front of rolling cameras of the DDR television. East Germans who saw it were probably more aware of their country's condition than their leaders had been, but that was not the point. The point was that at last the nation's leaders were openly admitting their collective failure, and the ruinous condition to which they had reduced their country.
Meanwhile, jubilant crowds were making a mockery of the once-powerful Wall. Champagne corks were popping as citizens from East and West joined hands, sitting astride the wall, while others began chipping away at it with sledge hammers. Within a week of the "Night without Borders", nine million had fled East Germany for the West.
Over 90% of all industrial effluent went untreated into rivers and streams. Underground sewage and water pipes were broken, allowing the contents to mix with clearly dire results: pure drinking water was an exception. Air pollution levels far exceeded any known norms. Roads and services were breaking up, much of the housing stock was officially uninhabitable.
The industrial base was virtually worthless. In March 1990, in preparation for full unification, the East German cabinet valued its nation's industrial capital at 1,400 Billion East Marks. The Treuhand the Resolution Trust which took over the DDR's State-owned business and industry to privatize it, ended up, not with a 1,400 billion credit, but with a 210 billion Mark deficit.
After Unification, Germany got to work. It seemed as if every road had been dug up, then resurfaced after new water pipes, gas mains, sewer pipes, and fiberoptic phone lines had been laid. Urban streets were newly cobbled, with smartly designed public lighting fixtures. New industrial estates and shopping malls sprang up on the outskirts of every town. The old uniform socialist apartment blocks were modernized and refurbished, their exteriors freshly painted.
During our 1996 visit we could see and compare both Germanys, the old and the new. At every turn we encountered the sign UMLEITUNG - diversion, as roads were being dug up, underground utility services replaced - in fact by the time the upgrading was finished, the old East was looking in better shape than the West.
Grudgingly, the East German government had been replacing dangerous church roofs. But rather than the traditional lightweight, clay tiles, heavy red-tinted cement tiles were being placed on rotten timbers. All these had to be replaced, and almost every church in 1996 was covered in scaffold and protective wrapping. Quite a transformation!
So. 1990 and the two Germanys, East and West, Capitalist and Socialist, were unified. At least officially anyway. But culturally and emotionally? No, not really. Not then, not six years later when we went back, not when Germany celebrated Ten Years of Unification, not when it became 20 years. Why this great divide? Will it never fade into a true integration?
In the forty-five years after the War's end, 1945-1990, West Germany building on its historic strengths and traditional industries, created a shining example of sky's-the-limit free enterprise, the economy boomed, millionaires were created, Mercedes and BMWs competed on Germany's no-speed-limit autobahnen.