Germany Table of Contents
Although Honecker pursued a tough policy against internal dissidents and carefully guarded the GDR's unique identity as the state in which the old Marxist dream of socialism had become a reality, he was keenly aware of the necessity for communication and reasonable working relations with the FRG. His dream of being received at the White House as a guest of state by United States president Ronald Reagan was never realized, but Honecker opened more lines of communication to Western politicians than had his predecessors.
As a consequence of the Helsinki Accords, the reception of Western news media broadcasts was tacitly allowed in the GDR. In the early 1980s, it also became possible for citizens of the GDR who were not yet pensioners to visit relatives in the West in cases involving urgent family matters. Under a new regulation, refugees who had gone to the West before 1981 and had therefore automatically lost their GDR citizenship could now enter the GDR with their West German passport. These measures benefited East Germans and, together with access to Western television, helped to create a new relaxed atmosphere in the GDR.
On the economic side, the GDR fully utilized the advantages of the Interzone Trading Agreement, which allowed special consideration for the export of goods from the GDR to the FRG and other EC member states, as well as the import of vital industrial products from the West. Diplomatic relations with the EC were established in 1988, a reversal of the former policy that saw the organization as a threat to the GDR's sovereignty. The annual Leipzig Industrial Fair also provided a convenient forum for meeting Western politicians and industrialists.
The severe shortage of Western currency in the GDR, one of the key concerns of the SED leadership, was alleviated by agreements with the FRG that tripled the bulk contributions to the East German postal administration by the FRG. Similar agreements, financially advantageous to the GDR, improved the highway links to West Berlin. More significant, however, was the granting of bank credits amounting to DM2 billion to the GDR during 1983 and 1984. The CSU leader and minister president of Bavaria, Franz Josef Strauss, was the principal negotiator of these credit agreements.
At first, the credits appeared to yield positive results along the inner-German border, where mines and automatic guns, which had so long posed a deadly threat to East Germans attempting to flee to the FRG, were dismantled. Later, however, it became clear that these devices had been replaced by nearly impenetrable electronic warning systems and with trained dogs at certain sectors along the border. The order to shoot at refugees was not rescinded but remained in effect almost until the end of the GDR regime. Also remaining in effect were strict controls for West German citizens at GDR border crossings and on transit routes to and from West Berlin, although there were no further reports of people being abused at border checkpoints.
However much relations improved between the two states in some areas, the stance of the SED leadership toward the FRG's NATO membership remained hostile. Harsh attacks in the East German press labeling the FRG as an "American missile launcher" became more frequent during the debates on the stationing of Pershing II and cruise missiles. On occasion, high-level official visits were canceled to signal the GDR's opposition to Western military policies. The FRG responded in kind. For example, Federal President Karl Carstens (1979-84) did not attend as planned the East German celebrations on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther in 1983.
In October 1987, when the two superpowers were striving for détente and disarmament and the relations between the two Germanys were cordial, Honecker visited Bonn as the GDR head of state. The visit, postponed several times, was in response to Chancellor Schmidt's visit to East Germany in 1981. Honecker was in the West German capital for an "official working meeting." He signed agreements for cooperation in the areas of science and technology, as well as environmental protection. Honecker's statement that the border dividing the two Germanys would one day be seen as a line "connecting" the two states, similar to the border between the GDR and Poland, attracted thoughtful public attention in the West. Honecker was cordially received by members of the government, in the words of Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker (1984-94), as a "German among Germans." However, at various stages of the visit--which subsequently took him to several federal states, including his native Saarland--large numbers of demonstrators chanted, "The wall must go."
The East German media coverage of the visit provided the opportunity for Chancellor Kohl to speak to "all the people in Germany" and to call for the breaking down of barriers "in accordance with the wishes of the German people." Although the visit yielded no immediate concrete results and Honecker's hopes of increased political recognition for the GDR were not realized, a dialogue had begun that could make the division of Germany more bearable for the people involved. As of late 1987, however, there was still little hope of overcoming the division itself.
The GDR leadership welcomed protests against weapons and war as long as they occurred in the FRG. However, when a small group of East German pacifists advocating the conversion of "swords into plowshares" demonstrated in 1981 against the presence of Soviet missiles on GDR soil, as well as against the destruction of the environment by the dumping of industrial waste and the use of nuclear power generally, they were arrested, prosecuted, and in some cases expelled from the GDR. Church organizations in the GDR--considered subversive by their mere existence--and individual pastors who protected and defended demonstrators at risk to their own safety became targets of increased surveillance by the Stasi, as did individual churchgoers, who by 1988 were frequently arrested and interrogated.
The mounting nervousness of the GDR leadership became evident in June 1987 when large crowds of East Berlin youth gathered on their side of the Wall, along with young people from all over the GDR, to hear two rock concerts being held in West Berlin near the Reichstag building. When the crowd broke into frenzied cries for freedom and unification, police cleared the area, arresting and forcibly removing Western news reporters filming the incident.
In the local elections of May 17, 1989, the "united list" led by the SED received 98.9 percent of the vote, obviously the result of massive manipulation, which enraged large segments of the population who had previously remained silent. In the next months, persistent public complaints against the prevailing living conditions and lack of basic freedoms, voiced by church groups and by opposition groups, inspired the population to take to the streets in large numbers. The largest of the new opposition groups was the New Forum, founded in September 1989 by Bärbel Bohley, Jens Reich, and others.
During the fall of 1989, mass demonstrations of several hundred thousand people were taking place, first in what soon became traditional Monday demonstrations in Leipzig and later in Berlin and other large cities. For the first time, GDR rulers realized that they were losing control: the demonstrations were too massive to be quelled by intimidation or even mass arrests; and shooting at the demonstrators was out of the question because of the sheer size of the crowds and the absence of Soviet support for draconian measures.
Beginning in the summer of 1989, the regime was threatened by another development. Among the thousands of GDR citizens that traveled by car on "vacation" to the socialist "brother country" Hungary, some 600 were successful in crossing illegally into Austria, where they were enthusiastically welcomed before traveling on to the FRG. Others wanting to escape the GDR took refuge in the embassies of the FRG in Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw. On September 11, Hungary legalized travel over the border to Austria for GDR citizens heading for the FRG, enabling 15,000 to take this route within a few days. Eventually, the GDR leadership was forced to allow special trains to carry thousands of GDR refugees who had received permission to emigrate to the West after taking sanctuary in the FRG's embassies in Prague and Warsaw. As the trains traveled through the GDR, many more refugees tried to climb aboard, so the government refused to further allow such transports.
Data as of August 1995
Germany Table of Contents