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Germany

The Last Days of East Germany

In January 1988, Honecker paid a state visit to France. By all indications, the long stretch of international isolation appeared to have been successfully overcome. The GDR finally seemed to be taking its long-sought place among the international community of nations. In the minds of the GDR's old-guard communists, the long-awaited international political recognition was seen as a favorable omen that seemed to coincide symbolically with the fortieth anniversary of the East German state.

In spite of Honecker's declaration as late as January 1989 that "The Wall will still stand in fifty and also in a hundred years," the effects of glasnost and perestroika had begun to be evident in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe. Although the GDR leadership tried to deny the reality of these developments, for most East Germans the reforms of Soviet leader Gorbachev were symbols of a new era that would inevitably also reach the GDR. The GDR leadership's frantic attempts to block the news coming out of the Soviet Union by preventing the distribution of Russian newsmagazines only strengthened growing protest within the population.

In Berlin, on October 7, the GDR leadership celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the foundation of the East German state. In his address, Honecker sharply condemned the FRG for interfering in the GDR's internal affairs and for encouraging protesters. Still convinced of his mission to secure the survival of the GDR as a state, he proclaimed: "Socialism will be halted in its course neither by ox, nor ass." The prophetic retort by Gorbachev, honored guest at the celebrations, as quoted to the international press, more accurately reflected imminent realities: "He who comes too late will suffer the consequences of history."

The consequences of not having held in check the earlier large demonstrations against the regime's inflexibility came two days later when 70,000 protesters shouting "We are the people" demonstrated in Leipzig. When the police took no action during these historic hours of October 9, 1989, it became clear to everyone that the days of the GDR were numbered. After the crowds in Leipzig reached over 100,000 protesters on October 16, the Central Committee of the SED--previously kept in the background by Honecker and his comrades in the party leadership--took control. Honecker resigned from his offices as head of state and party leader on October 18.

Egon Krenz, longtime member of the Politburo and FDJ chairman, became Honecker's successor as general secretary of the SED. On October 24, Krenz also assumed the chairmanship of the Council of State. On his orders, all police actions against demonstrators were discontinued. On November 4, the largest demonstration in GDR history took place, with over 1 million people in East Berlin demanding democracy and free elections. Confronted with this wave of popular opposition, the GDR government, under Prime Minister Willi Stoph, resigned on November 7. The Politburo followed suit on November 8. Finally, on the evening of November 9, Politburo member GŁnter Schabowski announced the opening of the border crossings into the FRG.

Opening of the Berlin Wall and Unification

November 9, 1989, will be remembered as one of the great moments of German history. On that day, the dreadful Berlin Wall, which for twenty-eight years had been the symbol of German division, cutting through the heart of the old capital city, was unexpectedly opened by GDR border police. In joyful disbelief, Germans from both sides climbed up on the Wall, which had been called "the ugliest edifice in the world." They embraced each other and sang and danced in the streets. Some began chiseling away chips of the Wall as if to have a personal hand in tearing it down, or at least to carry away a piece of German history. East Germans immediately began pouring into West Germany. Within a few days, over 1 million persons per day had seized the chance to see their western neighbor firsthand.

On November 13, Hans Modrow was elected minister president of the GDR. After Chancellor Kohl had presented his Ten-Point Plan for the step-by-step unification of Germany to the Bundestag on November 28, the Volkskammer struck the leadership role of the SED from the constitution of the GDR on December 1 (see Unification, ch. 8). The SED Politburo resigned on December 3, and Krenz stepped down as chairman of the Council of State on December 6. One day later, the Round Table talks started among the SED, the GDR's other political parties, and the opposition. On December 22, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin was opened for pedestrian traffic.

During January 1990, negotiations at the Round Table continued. Free elections to the Volkskammer were scheduled for March 18. The conservative opposition, under CDU leadership, waged a joint campaign under the banner of the Alliance for Germany, consisting of the CDU, the German Social Union (Deutsche Soziale Union--DSU), a sister party of the CSU, and the Democratic Awakening (Demokratischer Aufbruch--DA). The elections on March 18 produced a clear majority for the Alliance for Germany. On April 12, a CDU politician, Lothar de MaiziŤre, was elected the new minister president.

The unusually poor showing of the SPD in these final East German elections may be explained by the party's reluctance to support German unification and also by the fact that the public was aware of the close contacts that the SPD leadership had maintained with the SED over the years. The success of the conservative parties was repeated in the communal elections on May 6, which were seen as a correction to the manipulated vote of the previous year.

As a precondition for German unity, the Two-Plus-Four Talks among the two German governments and the four victorious powers of World War II began on May 5. Held in four sessions, the last of which was on September 12, the talks culminated in the signing of the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany (the Two-Plus-Four Treaty). These talks settled questions relating to the eastern border of Germany, the strength of Germany's military forces, and the schedule of Allied troop withdrawal from German soil.

During a visit to Moscow in early February, Chancellor Kohl had received assurances from Gorbachev that the Soviet Union would respect the wishes of both Germanys to unite. Kohl realized that in order to seize this historic opportunity for Germany, swift action and final determination were crucial. In a cordial meeting between Gorbachev and Chancellor Kohl on July 16, unified Germany's membership in NATO and its full sovereignty were conceded by the Soviet president.

The first concrete step toward unification was the monetary, economic, and social union of West Germany and East Germany on July 1, as had been agreed in May in a treaty between the two German states. The monetary union introduced the deutsche mark into East Germany. Although there had been concern about the GDR's precarious financial situation, the full extent of the disastrous consequences of forty years of communist rule only came to light in the summer of 1990. It was soon clear that the first massive aid package for the East German economy, comprising DM115 billion, was just the beginning of a long and expensive rebuilding of a country reduced to shambles by the SED.

Divided by futile discussions about the speed of unification, the new government coalition in East Berlin had begun to fall apart during July 1990, when its SPD members resigned. Persuaded by the mounting economic and social problems that unification was necessary, the Volkskammer finally agreed on October 3, 1990, as the date of German unification.

On the occasion of the first free elections in the GDR, Chancellor Kohl took the opportunity to publicly express his gratitude to the United States, which had been Germany's most reliable ally during the process of unification. Once the first prerequisite for future unification had been established, namely, the willingness of Gorbachev to consider negotiations on unification in light of the dramatic events of the fall of 1989, the consent of the other victorious powers had to be secured.

Statements voicing concerns and even fears of a reemergence of an aggressive unified Germany suddenly appeared in the international press and media, as well as in unofficial remarks made by political figures throughout Europe. Even the FRG's major NATO partners in Europe--Britain and France--had become rather comfortable with the prevailing situation, that is, being allied with an economically potent, but politically weak, semisovereign West Germany.

Although lip service in support of future unification of Germany was common in the postwar era, no one dreamed of its eventual realization. When the historic constellation allowing unification appeared, swift and decisive action on the part of Chancellor Kohl and the unwavering, strong support given by the United States government for the early completion of the unification process were key elements in surmounting the last hurdles during the final phase of the Two-Plus-Four Talks.

The unification treaty, consisting of more than 1,000 pages, was approved by a large majority in the Bundestag and the Volkskammer on September 20, 1990. After this last procedural step, nothing stood in the way of formal unification. At midnight on October 3, the German Democratic Republic joined the Federal Republic of Germany. Unification celebrations were held all over Germany, especially in Berlin, where leading political figures from West and East joined the joyful crowds who filled the streets between the Reichstag building and Alexanderplatz to watch a fireworks display. Germans celebrated unity without a hint of nationalistic pathos, but with dignity and in an atmosphere reminiscent of a country fair. Yet the world realized that an historic epoch had come to a peaceful end.

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A good starting point for readers seeking to learn more about the founding, consolidation, and final reunification of the two German states is Germany from Partition to Reunification by Henry Ashby Turner, Jr. Another concise and expert account is Peter Pulzer's German Politics, 1945-1995 . Longer accounts by noted historians are Volker Rolf Berghahn's Modern Germany , which starts with events at the turn of the century and ends in the mid-1980s, and Mary Fulbrook's The Divided Nation , which begins with the aftermath of World War I and ends with unification. Fulbrook's The Two Germanies, 1945-1990 is a concise survey of the many ways historians have interpreted recent German history.

Dennis L. Bark and David R. Gress's detailed two-volume A History of West Germany is widely available. David Childs's The GDR: Moscow's German Ally is a highly readable history of the German Democratic Republic. Mary Fulbrook's Anatomy of a Dictatorship examines the nature of the East German state and how it failed.

A useful documentation of the postwar years and the question of reunification can be found in The German Question , edited by Walther Hubatsch, with Wolfgang Heidelmeyer et al. Timothy Garton Ash's In Europe's Name is a searching analysis of Ostpolitik, from Adenauer to Kohl. Konrad H. Jarausch provides a concise account of the events of 1989 and 1990 in his scholarly The Rush to German Unity . Stephen F. Szabo's The Diplomacy of German Unification is a good brief account of the international aspects of unification. A more detailed treatment of this subject is Germany Unified and Europe Transformed by Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of August 1995


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