Twenty years ago, the Soviet Empire was beginning to collapse.
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.
It’s only too obvious why Barack Obama, who dashed off to Copenhagen at the drop of a hat to lobby for Chicago’s Olympic bid, is unwilling to attend. But Reuters is asking out loud “Should Obama Be in Berlin?” and is even conducting a poll on the subject. I vote No. I think he ought to be in Havana or Caracas or Pyongyang, crying over a beer with other leaders reduced to despondence by such a defeat for their side.