09 November 2014

1989, 25 years on: (East) Germany

Standing on the wall, 10 November 1989 (photo: Sue Ream)

Today, 9 November 2014, marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It also marks the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht and the 91st anniversary of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch (yep, that one)... which is one reason why they didn't use that date for the actual reunification of Germany. Indeed Kristallnacht and the whole Nazi regime play a massive part in the history of what was East Germany...

I'm going to avoid a long discussion of post war German history; many people will know about the Soviet operations in eastern Germany already - indeed I covered it in 2011 with my series on the Great Patriotic War. I will of course have to mention the Berlin Wall.

The Wall and the Curtain

Erected on 13 August 1961, the Berlin Wall became one of the defining symbols of the Cold War; the 12-foot high concrete structure that surrounded two-thirds of West Berlin (the rest was simpler barbed wire fence). Of course, this heavily graffiti-covered structure was only the final barrier for an East German seeking to reach the West; before that they had to cross another wall, alarmed fences, dog runs and a sand-covered death strip; all while being shot at. Indeed, a major upgrade of the system was in the pipeline just as the regime fell. The East German border guards were under shoot-to-kill orders; if they did let someone escape, they would be in very serious trouble. The estimates of how many people died trying to cross the wall vary (the German Democratic Republic were good at covering them up, especially in more isolated locations) but is believed to be at least 136.

In addition, most of the S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations on Western lines that transited East Berlin between two parts of West Berlin were closed and patrolled by border guards (except Frederichstrasse); these darkened "ghost stations" fell into a fair amount of disrepair over the 28 year history of the wall. As indeed did the permanent way; it took a fair amount of ingenuity and considerable tact to keep the U-Bahn running through enemy territory, especially when things started breaking down.

The S-Bahn in West Berlin was operated by Deutsche Reichsbahn i.e. the East German state rail company, but was subject to heavy boycott by the locals (who did not want to subsidise the GDR), the loss of half the service after a 1980 strike and eventually turned over to the Western transit authorities in 1984.

While everyone focusses on the Berlin Wall, there was also the heavily fortified and much harder to cross "Inner-German Border" between East and West Germany i.e. the main Iron Curtain. Unlike Berlin (where having someone step on one would be spectacularly bad publicity for the GDR), this contained minefields and also spring-loaded machine guns.

If people wanted to escape to the West, they would have a better chance by applying for permission to leave, but this was rarely granted, could take years and tended to draw the attention of the Stasi in an unwelcome manner. Athletes and entertainers going abroad had to leave their families in East Germany in case they started getting ideas. If you were a serious dissident, however, they might well be happy to get rid of you... especially if Bonn was willing to pay hard currency for your 'release'... about 3.5 billion Marks traded hands this way.

If you did manage to get the West, you didn't need to worry about getting work permits though - West Germany basically gave any East German citizenship automatically as the Basic Law allowed anyone born in the Germany of 1937 (i.e. including the parts taken by Poland and the USSR) to claim it.

Westerners could of course visit East Berlin, but had to exchange money at a very poor exchange rate (so the GDR could get their hands on more hard currency) and pay 5 Deutschmark for a Visa - of course a lot more back then. As the Germanies were still 'occupied countries', Allied military personnel could travel freely between the zones and indeed were able to engage in legitimate espionage on each other via the Military Liaison Missions, getting a look at each other's technology.

The 1980s

As the 1980s began, the German Democratic Republic, led by Eric Honecker and his Socialist Unity Party (SED) since 1971, was still a pretty unpleasant place to be a dissident; many prominent writers who criticised the regime either fled or got thrown out.

The GDR like most of the Soviet bloc countries, was starting to run into major economic problems. German coffee drinkers had a pretty unpleasant experience in the late 1970s when a global rise in raw bean prices led to the Politburo yanking most of the cheaper stuff from sale and replacing it with unpleasant 'ersatz' alternatives with a lot of filler. In addition, there were a good number of environmental issues; most lakes and rivers were pretty polluted.

Well at least the athletes were doing well... oh, wait, they were on the performance enhancing drugs!

The Western half was booming - and the East Germans knew this; it was easy for them to watch ARD etc. programming in most of the country as the regime couldn't jam the broadcasts without causing problems for West Berliners and those along the border - this was not only against treaties but could have led to counter-jamming by Bonn. East Germany's state broadcaster, DFF tried to undermine this by a weekly programmed called Der schwarze Kanal ("The black channel", a reference to a German plumbing term meaning "sewer") that 'corrected' the West German broadcasts... and wasn't popular at all.

In 1987, Ronald Reagan, the former B-movie actor turned President, visited Berlin and made a famous speech directed at the Soviet leader. The key quote is here:

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

The "tear down this wall" bit was kept by Reagan over the concerns of his advisers, who thought it might upset the Soviet Union - there had been some significant recent moves towards a new arms control agreement. The speech (which also contained a call for an end to the arms race) wasn't actually that widely reported at the time; East Berliners couldn't hear it as they were kept away from the wall.

Arguably of more impact was Bruce Springsteen's concert in the GDR the following year; he called for the wall to come down in front of 300,000 concert-goers and a TV audience ("I'm not here for or against any government. I've come to play rock 'n' roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down"). The Hoff probably had little to do with it.


When 1989 started, it didn't seem like things were going to change massively in East Germany - Honecker had predicted it would stay for another 50 or 100 year if conditions didn't change (i.e. East  Germany was still communist and West Germany wasn't).

In May, the GDR held local government elections... and the results were completely faked. Soviet bloc 'elections' were basically referendums on electing approved candidates... you could theoretically reject them, but you were likely to get into trouble if you did.

It was announced that the confirmed candidates from the National Front coalition (the SED and its allied parties) had got 98.85% support from the electorate. As the electoral observers had clearly seen far more than that refuse to vote and a turnout of between 60-80%, it was clearly something was very whiffy.

This led to protests and petitions, with a resulting large number of arrests. When Tienanmen Square happened in China, it was publicly welcomed by the official SED newspaper, Neues Deutschland, which naturally led to concerns that the same sort of thing would happen in East Germany.

Then came the Hungarian revolution (see this article) and thus the Iron Curtain now had a great big hole in it. A large number of East Germans decided to go to Hungary on holiday, slip across to Austria and thus to West Germany. Budapest stopped East Germans coming after pressure from Pankow... but many already there merely camped in the West German embasssy until allowed to leave. Pankow would then bar East Germans from going to Hungary, so they went to Czechoslovakia and Poland instead, camping in those embassies in what would become quite unpleasant conditions.
In September, weekly Monday protests began in Leipzig, backed by the Lutheran Church, which had been tolerated by the regime instead of being completely suppressed. These peaceful demos called for free travel and free elections; they soon spread to other East German cities such as Dresden.

An agreement was reached allowing those in the embassy in Prague to travel to West Germany in early October (in sealed trains going through the GDR... and stripped them of their citizenship to boot); the regime wanted the 40th anniversary celebrations of the GDR on 7 October to pass off without incident...

They didn't; many events were cancelled and counter-demonstrations in Berlin led to 1,200 arrests, including of those who weren't involved at all. Most were released within twenty-four hours, after being spat at, denied the use of a toilet or beaten. This was directly reported in the Western media, who of course had a much better view of events in East Berlin.

Honecker sent a paratrooper unit to Leipzig... where a bloodbath was averted by the local party officials ordering the troops to pull back. Further plans to suppress the demonstrations by force were also stopped.

The paratrooper incident was what the Politburo needed to remove Honecker who wasn't dying quickly enough; they got approval from Gorbachev to do this and in a session on the 17th, he was unanimously removed from his posts and replaced with his number two, Egon Krenz. In addition, it became clear from their own internal assessments that the country was close to economic collapse.

On 4 November, the biggest demonstration of the lot took place in Alexanderplatz, with between half a million and a million people attending this. Not only did the regime allow this to take place, it was actually broadcast live on television.

The Wall comes down

The Politburo decided to allow people to leave for the West after getting a passport (which only four of seventeen million East Germans then had) and applying for a visa in the meeting on 9 November. This was meant to be a controlled opening of the borders for those who wished to leave permanently... it turned out to be nothing of the sort. 

Günter Schabowski, the regime's unofficial spokesman, got handed the new regulations, but wasn't told it wouldn't come into effect until 4am the following day (so the border guards could be told). In a press conference, he was asked (it's unclear by who) when the regulations would come into effect... and answered it would be immediate. Also that it would cover West Berlin

The West German news programmes led with the press conference... which of course meant most of East Germany knew as well.

Large crowds soon appeared at the checkpoints, demanding to be allowed through. The border guards initially planned to let the noisiest through and stamp their passports "no return allowed", but that was going out the window rapidly. When a crowd broke through into the waiting area of the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint at about 10.30pm, the commander of the Border Guard present decided that he was not going to put himself and his soldiers at risk by trying to stop them; the crowd could just do what it wanted. Other checkpoints made the same decision over the next couple of hours.

And the crowd certainly did what it wanted. Long queues of Trabants would be seen crossing through the border as millions of Germans, some still in their pyjamas, joined what became a massive party. It was a great night for those selling champagne... and a great morning for those selling aspirin.

The events took everyone by surprise; West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had to cut short a state visit to Poland; he was attending a banquet when the news came through and realised he was very much in the wrong place.

West Germany gave all the visitors 100 Marks welcome money... which many of them promptly spent on, believe it or not, bananas. They were very rare in the East.

While people started to hammer at the wall on the night of 9 November, it wasn't until June 1990 that the official demolition began - official border controls were formally abolished on 1 July, the day East Germany adopted the Deutschmark, but things had become meaningless well before that.

The U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations would take two and half years to fully reopen (Jannowitzbrücke
opened on 11 November, but most of the rest had to wait until 1990); the signs and advertisements were unchanged since 1961, but none of this was preserved. A short-lived Maglev Line, the largely novelty M-Bahn, was closed and removed to allow the U2 line to be reinstated. It would take until 2002 to fully reinstate the 'Ringbahn' on the S-Bahn (later run by Deutsche Bahn, created by the 1994 merger of Deutsche Bundesbahn and Deutsche Reichsbahn) that had been broken by the Wall.

That was very much the end for the SED regime. On 1 December, the Volkskammer showed some considerable teeth and removed the right of the SED to rule from the constitution; the entire Politburo resigned two days later.


The slogan began to change - it became Wir sind ein Volk; "we are one people". However, reunifying Germany was not without its opponents; for example Margaret Thatcher (who would last as PM only a month and a half after East Germany disappeared) feared that a united Germany would try to take over Europe again - she wanted it delayed by at least five years. Mitterrand, the French President, was also concerned about this, but realised that reunification was inevitable and hoped that a reunified Germany could be contained within a closer Europe with a single currency.

When East Germany held its first and only democratic elections in March 1990, a CDU-led alliance calling for swift reunification won with Lothar de Maizière becoming Prime Minister in a grand coalition. East Germany's economy was rapidly collapsing and an economic treaty was signed in May. On 1 July, the 'Ostmark' ceased to be anything other than something for collectors as East Germany adopted the Western mark and the day after, the two countries started discussing reunification in full. This was signed at the end of August and ratified on 20 September by large majorities in both legislatures.

There was now the question of getting the occupation ended and the superpowers to agree to reunification. The Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany was signed in September by the four occupying powers (US, UK, France, USSR) and the two Germanies. The key points were as follows:
  • Germany would be fully independent and free to join whatever organisations it wished, so would remain a NATO member.
  • Germany would agree with Poland to make the Oder-Neisse line that had been their border since 1945 permanent and renounce any claims to the formerly German territories east of it.
  • All Soviet (later Russian of course) forces were to leave by the end of 1994.
  • The Bundeswehr would be limited to 370,000 and Germany would renounce all WMD; also no WMD or foreign (i.e. NATO) forces would be deployed in the former East Germany.
    • The US and UK would retain their bases in the western part, with US tactical nukes kept in Germany available for use by the Luftwaffe's Tornado fleet in the event of a war... one of the more notable loopholes in the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
It has been claimed by Gorbachev and others that there was also an agreement that NATO would not expand further east, which of course it later did. It certainly was not in writing, but it may well have been verbal. I doubt after events in Ukraine, Estonia et. al really care whether any agreement was made.

In September, East Germany's parliament building, the Palast der Republik was found to be riddled with asbestos and closed to the public; it took until 2003 for it to be removed (I passed the outside of the empty building on 2001 on a school trip) and was finally demolished in 2008; the site is being used for a rebuilt Stadtschloss due to open in 2019 - the old Prussian palace had been heavily damaged in 1945 by Allied bombing and pulled down in 1950. Ironically enough, much of the steel from the Palast der Republik was used in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai!

On 3 October 1990 (chosen for one reason so East Germany could not have a 41st birthday), East Germany ceased to exist. Its territory became five and a half (East Berlin became part of Berlin, which formally became a Land ) states of the enlarged Federal Republic of Germany, which only had some minor constitutional changes to accommodate the fact that reunification was done. Indeed, the Basic Law, intended as a temporary constitution back in 1949 pending this happening, would remain the key legislative foundation of what was now Germany.

The following month, the first free all-German elections since 1932 saw Kohl's coalition returned with an increased majority.

Honecker was quickly subject to a criminal investigation over deaths at the Wall and other things, but it would take three long years (during which time he fled to Moscow) before his trial began. He admitted political responsibility, but the case ultimately was dropped on the grounds that he was seriously ill i.e. his lawyers successfully got the warrant quashed. He went to Chile and died in 1994.

Criminal investigation followed for a lot of other people, mostly over the Wall. Krenz got six and a half years for four manslaughter charges (they'd limited to that for procedural reasons) in 1997 - after failing to get the conviction overturned, he entered prison in 1999 and was released in 2003, quietly retiring after that. Various border guards would face trial, tending to get short or suspended sentences, as did a former West Berlin police officer who killed a border guard while providing 'covering fire' for an escapee.

Other chickens soon came home to roost. Stasi employees had tried to destroy the records of their agency, but citizens of the GDR had occupied the buildings and stopped this. The Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic (its first boss, Joachim Gauck, now holds the largely ceremonial role of Federal President) began collating the records and eventually started putting the shredded ones back together; in 1992, these were declassified and people were allowed to look for their own files; depersonalised files could be released in the media. The sheer number of informants became clear - 500,000 regular ones were informing on the activities of their fellow citizens.

The impacts of reunification

East Germany, as the state right next to West Germany (along with Czechoslovakia) was home to a large Soviet presence as well as a well-equipped armed forces of its own, whose uniforms bore an uncomfortable resemblance to those of the Wehrmacht. These armed forces were equipped with equipment very close to that used by the USSR itself, so reunification gave NATO an intelligence boon, if not exactly highly usable assets. Most of the Pact equipment was retired or sold, but the MiG-29 fleet would see over a decade of use in the Luftwaffe before being sold to Poland for one Euro each. As for the members of the National People's Army, most of them were let go, including everyone at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel or above; they could not until 2005 count the time served towards a federal pension and most were only able to get security or manual labour jobs.

It wasn't exactly brilliant for many other people who had worked in the nationalised industries of the deceased state. 8,500 industries were privatised and most were so inefficient that the new owners closed them quickly. The result was high unemployment (double digits in the East) and some general resentment on both sides of the former wall - the Western side unhappy about the higher than expected cost. It would cost a trillion euros in the first twenty years of reunification to reconstruct eastern Germany; and it's still not done.

Germany today
Today, now in her third term, former East German chemist Angela Merkel rules Germany as the first female Federal Chancellor, her centre-right Christian Democratic Union, with its de-facto Bavarian version the Christian Socialists, in a second grand coalition with the Social Democrats after the traditional CDU coalition partners, the Free Democrats, failed to gain even a single seat in the Bundestag (Germany's lower house) 2013 elections.

Germany was hit hard by the 2008-9 recession, but bounced back quickly due to strong exports - although growth has now stalled. There are concerns about integration of immigrants (a million arrived in 2012) and Germany's ageing population.

The other two parties in the Bundestag are the Greens and The Left, a merger of the PDS (the successor to the Socialist Unity Party; they'd been roundly defeated in the 1990 elections) and a Western left-wing party. The latter are not really the kind of people prepared to play the coalition at present. The Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany almost beat the Free Democrats, but both of those failed to clear the 5% threshold for a seat.

The far-right National Democratic Party has never managed to get into the Bundestag, but has got enough support to get into state legislatures on eleven occasions; they have five members in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania at present. Attempts to ban them entirely have fallen on the issue of just how much the party is infiltrated by Germany's domestic intelligence service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

Germany remains a US ally and an active member of NATO; however, relations with the US have been strained in recent months after WikiLeaks revelations about the NSA hacking Merkel's phone. It is highly pro-EU and was a founding member of the Euro currency; although it opposes Turkey's membership. There are likely to be more disagreements with the UK over free movement of people, at least while David Cameron remains in Downing Street... and Merkel's leading role in austerity measures imposed on countries needing bailouts is not making her popular in some countries. In addition, Merkel's second administration ended conscription in Germany.

Berlin itself is a city transformed; you can't even see the line of the wall in the borough boundaries (the boroughs were were reduced in number from 21 to ten in 2001 to save money) and the tramlines largely confined to the old East Berlin are starting to go west.

Very little of the wall remains in situ; the East Side Gallery on Mühlenstraße is the eastern wall and the graffiti there is post-1989 (the GDR generally did allow it on their side). Bits of the wall (or claimed bits of the wall) are still sold on-line and off-line - a look on the UK eBay site on 20 October 2014 found 58 items under a search "piece of the Berlin Wall".

However, some elements of East Germany still live on partly due to 'Ostalgie' (nostalgia for the East); the Ampelmännchen (East Germany's hat-wearing pedestrian traffic indicators) has spread to the West as well and believe it or not, the Trabant still has a cult following.

It even passed the 'Moose Test' in 1998... swerving to avoid a hypothetical moose on the road without tipping... at the same time the Mercedes A-Class failed.

With that humorous finale, I will move on to Czechoslovakia.

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