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National Exhibit
National Exhibit
Communism and the German Democratic Republic

Collapse of the GDR

The seeming stability of the East German regime was irrevocably altered by the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in Moscow in March 1985. Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (greater openness) brought far-reaching changes in Soviet politics and society and increasingly moved toward demokratizatsiya (democratization). During the first four-and-a-half years of the Gorbachev period, Honecker and other SED leaders staunchly resisted the “winds of change” emanating from Moscow. They did their best to retain stringent political control and to quash all signs of dissent.

Although Honecker benefited from the new climate in Moscow when he finally got to travel to West Germany in October 1987 (thus making up for a visit he cancelled in 1984 under Soviet pressure), he used the trip mainly to promote his view that peace and stability in Europe depended on the existence of a separate, “socialist” German state:

Unification of the two German states is just as impossible to achieve as the uniting of fire and water. This comes about simply from the fact of the differing social systems. Socialism and capitalism cannot be united. This may occur in fireside dreams, but in real life such dreams have no substance.

Soon after Honecker returned from the FRG, he ordered a crackdown by the East German security forces to prevent any domestic spill-over from the improved East-West climate. A wave of repression, including arrests, show trials, and expulsions, ensued in late 1987 and early 1988, even as reforms in the USSR were gaining pace.

Yet despite Honecker’s efforts to seal off his country from Soviet (and Hungarian and Polish) reformist influences, the repercussions from “perestroika” and “glasnost” directly contributed to the growth of popular unrest in East Germany, starting as early as 1987. By the late summer of 1989, two developments greatly magnified the political turmoil in the GDR. The first was the hospitalization of Honecker in mid-July for what was officially described as an acute gallstone attack. Although Honecker was soon released, his physical ailments over the next few months created a political vacuum in East Germany that was conducive to the rapid growth of popular unrest. The other factor was a huge efflux of East German citizens to the West via Hungary, a Warsaw Pact country that (unlike East Germany) had adopted sweeping reforms and liberalization (even bolder than in the USSR) and had become a magnet for East Germans seeking to escape repression. By August 1989, more than 5,000 East Germans were fleeing to West Germany via Hungary every week, and the rate was increasing daily.

The mass exodus was not reported in the East German media, but almost everyone in the GDR knew about it from nightly broadcasts on West German television. Although the East German authorities belatedly restricted travel to Hungary, the problem merely grew worse as throngs of East Germans began seeking asylum in the West German embassies in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Until Honecker reappeared in late September, however, no one in the East German government seemed willing or able to take drastic measures to halt the departures.

Even at this late date, Honecker was still convinced that the Soviet Union would never permit the East German Communist regime to collapse. He and other SED officials also were confident that the East German State Security (Stasi) apparatus would be able to quell any unrest, just as Chinese troops had crushed the resistance around Tiananmen Square in June 1989. East German leaders warmly praised the crackdown in Beijing, prompting the Chinese authorities to thank “the comrades in the GDR for their support and understanding of the steps China took to crush the counterrevolutionary disorders.”

Within a few days of the massacre, high-ranking officials in the GDR began secretly planning for what they described as their own “Chinese solution” (chinesische Lösung). Three months later, when widespread political unrest erupted in East Germany, the authorities there prepared to move ahead with a “Chinese solution.” On 5 October 1989 the head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke, sent an “extremely urgent” directive to all Stasi branches ordering them to take “decisive action to smash inimical enemy activities.” At Honecker’s behest, Mielke followed up on this directive three days later by ordering Stasi units to use “all appropriate means” and “offensive measures,” including deadly force, to “rout and eradicate conspiratorial gatherings.”

Click for sources of the victims of communism

[East] Germany
Location:  Central Europe
Capital:  [East] Berlin
Communist Rule:  1949-1990
Status:  03.10.90 - German reunification
Victims of Communism:
70 000