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Communism and the German Democratic Republic

After preliminary disturbances were forcibly suppressed in Dresden and Berlin on 8 October, the prospect of much larger unrest in Leipzig on the 9th prompted the dispatch of a vast number of combat-ready army troops, security forces, motorized police, and airborne commandos, along with the stockpiling of emergency medical supplies and blood plasma. Shortly before these heavily-armed units were sent to confront the demonstrators, they were given stern instructions:

Comrades, from now on this is class war. The situation corresponds to [the uprising on] 17 June 1953. Today it will all be decided: either them or us. Class vigilance is essential. If truncheons are not enough, use firearms. [If you encounter children], that’s too bad for them. We have guns, and we don’t have them for nothing!

If the East German authorities had resorted to large-scale force and repression in Leipzig with political support from Moscow, and if they had been backed by the nineteen Soviet Army divisions in the GDR, they undoubtedly could have quelled the unrest rather swiftly. Before any repressive measures could be adopted on 9 October, however, Soviet officials urged the East German authorities to avoid the use of large-scale force. They directed Soviet military commanders to have Soviet troops in the GDR remain in their barracks and to refrain from supporting any move against unarmed demonstrators. Without backing from Moscow and the opportunity to rely on Soviet troops, the East German authorities reluctantly abandoned their plans for a violent crackdown and allowed protests to continue all over the GDR.

Shortly thereafter, on 18 October, the SED, with Moscow’s approval, removed Honecker and brought in Egon Krenz to replace him as SED General Secretary. The removal of Honecker emboldened the burgeoning protest movement, but the appointment of Krenz, who had been a protégé of Honecker and had long been responsible for overseeing the security apparatus, merely heightened the demands for much more far-reaching change.

Demonstrations in Leipzig, Dresden, and East Berlin continued to grow, reaching more than 300,000 people by late October. Although Krenz, unlike Honecker, made some attempt to establish a dialogue with the protesters, he was unable to satisfy their increasingly radical demands. By early November, demonstrations in East Berlin were drawing upward of 500,000 people, and nightly protest marches also were being held in Leipzig and Dresden. Moreover, thousands of East Germans were fleeing every day to the West via Czechoslovakia, compounding the sense of crisis in the GDR.

When Krenz traveled to Moscow on 1 November for several hours of meetings with Gorbachev, the Soviet leader stressed that “at this stage of changes it is certainly important for the SED to consider the USSR’s experiences with reforms. . . . It is important to act decisively and with initiative and not to lag behind life.” Krenz, in turn, pledged that the SED would “take advantage of the positive experience of Soviet perestroika to solve the new tasks arising from the turning-point that has begun in the GDR.”

A week later, the East German authorities fulfilled one of the protesters’ key demands by granting permission for free travel; and they immediately followed up on that pledge by allowing nearly unrestricted passage through the Berlin wall. This historic move, on 9 November, prompted a formal diplomatic note from the Soviet Union claiming that East German officials had not informed Moscow in advance of the decision, as they were required to do under the Four-Power arrangements for Berlin left from World War II. But it later emerged that the opening of the Wall had occurred largely by accident (when an East German border guard misunderstood his orders) and far more suddenly than anyone had anticipated.

Despite the remarkable turn of events that helped bring down the Wall, the crisis in the GDR and the potential for escalating violence were far from over. By early December, after revelations had surfaced of the luxuries and extravagant fringe-benefits that Honecker and his associates, including Krenz, had enjoyed, Krenz was forced to resign.

The main phase of the crisis in East Germany thus ended, as the country moved rapidly toward a non-Communist system and the whole question of German reunification came back onto the agenda. The potential for violence still existed after December 1989, and demonstrations around Soviet military bases in East Germany induced the Western Group of Soviet Forces to prepare for an emergency. Moreover, several attacks took place against East German military bases, and a brief period of uncertainty in January 1990 even gave rise to unfounded rumors of coups and civil war.

Nevertheless, by that point the decisive stage of the crisis was over, and the Communist system in the GDR was gone. The East German state itself followed the SED into oblivion in October 1990 when West Germany absorbed the provinces of the GDR. The division of Germany — and of Europe — was over.

 

 

Author Bio:

Mark Kramer is Director of the Cold War Studies Program at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He has taught international relations and comparative politics at Harvard, Yale, and Brown Universities. He was formerly an Academy Scholar in Harvard's Academy of International and Area Studies and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. Many of his publications have dealt with the nature of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and he was, among other things, translator and editor of the English edition of "The Black Book of Communism," published by Harvard University Press in 1999.

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