The Collapse of European Communism 25 Years Ago: The East German Exodus through Prague, September-October 1989
Posted by romanianrevolutionofdecember1989 on September 30, 2014
(purely personal views as always)
Iconic photo by Associated Press “Prague Policeman pulls on coat of East German to prevent him from climbing fence to West German Embassy”
For earlier related see:
For some good links on the East German exodus via Prague, see for example:
The Crisis of Leninism and the Revolution of 1989 Steven Pfaff … hundreds of embassy occupiers agreed to re- turn to East Germany, but thousands more … On September 30, the West German foreign minister, Hans- Dietrich Genscher, and … principal route to Hungary as well as the conduit to the FRG embassy in Prague.
It is worth noting the extraordinary growth in the number of East German emigrants/refugees in 1989, from approximately 5,000 a month from January 1989 to April 1989 to approximately:
This is abundant demonstration of the fact that any model that gives primacy to the extent of structural factors at the expense of contingency does a disservice to the effort to understand the phenomenon of 1989 in communist Eastern Europe.
September 4: Following the regular Monday prayer for peace in the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, there is a demonstration by around 1,200 people. Demonstrators express their desire to be able to leave the country freely by chanting “We want out!” and demand to be allowed to travel to the West – In Böhlen, representatives of a socialist opposition group meet and formulate an appeal “for a united left wing in the GDR,” which argues in favour of radical socialist reform and sees the best economic and political conditions for such a reform in East Germany and the CSSR.
September 8: Persuaded by assurances from the GDR lawyer Vogel, all East German citizens leave the West German Permanent Mission in East Berlin. It is then shut to visitors. – In Budapest, Stasi members do not succeed in convincing would-be emigrants to return to the GDR.
September 9: The West German news programme “Tagesschau” reports that East German refugees are about to leave Hungary for the West.
September 10: In the night of 10-11 September, the Hungarian government opens the border to Austria for East German citizens. In the following days and weeks, tens of thousands of GDR citizens travel to West Germany via Austria. The General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, later confirms that Hungary did not ask permission in Moscow before carrying out this step.
September 12: At the Tuesday Politburo meeting, Günter Mittag, standing in for an ill Honecker, brings up the question of how “to close the hole in Hungary” as the most important issue, as the number of applications for travel to Hungary has risen steeply all over the GDR. To prevent “heavy losses” of citizens, Mittag proposes “not to allow departures on such a universal basis anymore. Why do the doubtful contenders have to travel? But this internal regulation must not affect our party and the majority of the population. We would make them angry. The Ministry of Security and the Interior Ministry should be the ones to carry out these measures.”
On the very same day, Stasi minister Mielke orders a “programme of measures for the timely recognition and prevention of the abuse of trips to or through the People’s Republic of Hungary.” It stipulates that all applications for travel to Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania are to be checked by the Stasi. “The unit responsible has to decide whether objections should be raised against allowing the trip for security reasons” on the basis of the material collected about the applicant, and these objections are to override the Volkspolizei, the authority actually responsible for such applications.
September 12: At the invitation of the German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB), the chairman of the Free German Trade Union Federation (FDGB), Harry Tisch, arrives in West Germany. When asked by journalists about the flood of refugees from the GDR, he angrily demands, among other things, that the “mud fight” stop.
September 14: In Bonn, the Erfurt pastor Edelbert Richter announces the founding of the GDR opposition group “Demokratischer Aufbruch” (Democratic Awakening), which champions a “socialist social order on a democratic basis” and speaks out in favour of human rights, freedom to travel, freedom of expression, of the press and of assembly, and free elections in the GDR. – The West Berlin Senate discusses the growing number of East German refugees and how to put them up. It decides that everything possible should be done to organise emergency accommodation.
September 18: Hundreds of demonstrators take to the streets in Leipzig after the prayer for peace in the Nikolaikirche: they chant “We’re staying here!” and not “We want out!” as in previous weeks. Numerous demonstrators are arrested. – In view of the number of people leaving the country, rock musicians, songwriters and entertainers issue a public resolution demanding forms of democratisation and reform that are compatible with socialism, saying that cowardly delay provided “arguments and preconditions for all-German ideas.”
September 19: The group “Neues Forum,” which has made a public founding statement on September 10, applies to be officially registered as a citizens’ association. Two days later, the Interior Ministry rejects the application, saying that the Neues Forum was a “subversive platform”. Three thousand people have so far signed the statement by the Neues Forum. – The synod of the Federation of Protestant Churches (Evangelischer Kirchenbund) passes a resolution in Eisenach in which it calls for a pluralist media policy, a democratic diversity of parties, freedom to travel for all citizens, economic reforms and freedom to demonstrate, describing all these things as “long overdue reforms”.
September 20: The West German embassy in Warsaw has to be closed because of overcrowding. – The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union issues a statement on nationalities policy, in which republics are promised economic independence.
September 22: Erich Honecker, firmly resolved to put a swift end to all demonstrations and “provocations,” sends a telex to the First Secretaries of the SED district administrations, telling them “that these hostile actions must be nipped in the bud, that no mass basis for them is allowed.” They are also to make sure “that the organisers of the counterrevolutionary activity are isolated.”
September 24: The West German embassy in Prague becomes a meeting place for GDR refugees, because the CSSR has tightened checks on its border to Hungary.
September 25: At the “Monday demonstration” in Leipzig, 5,000 to 8,000 demonstrators call for democratic reforms and official recognition of the Neues Forum movement. Those wanting to leave the GDR have now become a minority among the demonstrators.
September 26: The deputy Stasi minister, Rudolf Mittig, calls together the deputy leaders of the district administrations of the Ministry of Security and gives them the watchword to “operatively work on” the “hostile, oppositional alliances” with the aim of destroying them. The Ministry of Security, he says, is to provoke infighting, sow mistrust, split up the members and try to stop the politicisation of the groups by raising issues regarding organisation and structure – a major role here is to be played by the “inoffizielle Mitarbeiter” (“unofficial collaborators”) in their ranks.
It is also on this day that Honecker orders the “Bezirkseinsatzleitung Berlin” (“Berlin District Operational Command”) and the various “Kreiseinsatzleitungen” (“Operational Commands”) of the Berlin districts to be ready to take command to “ensure security and order” and “to prevent provocations of various sorts” for the 40th anniversary of the GDR. On the basis of this order, Defence Minister Kessler orders the National People’s Army (Nationale Volksarmee/NVA) to take up position for action in Berlin from 6 to 9 October as a precautionary measure.
September 27: The CSSR government says that there will be no Hungarian solution for the now more than 900 people occupying the Prague embassy.
September 29: Union members from VEB Bergmann-Borsig, a large Berlin company, express their outrage to the FDGB chairman and Politburo member Harry Tisch “for depicting the desertion by so many of our people as being the result of machinations on the part of the class enemy, where these GDR citizens are supposedly mere victims or pawns.” Along with rock musicians, artists, authors, academics and representatives of the “block parties,” they call on the SED to enter into dialogue with all social powers.
September 30: The GDR yields to Soviet pressure in the Prague embassy conflict: West German Foreign Minister Genscher and Chancellery Minister Seiter travel to Prague and announce that the people occupying the embassy can leave the country. Several thousand East German refugees are taken to West Germany via GDR territory in special sealed trains.
In September, 33255 GDR citizens manage to flee to the West; 11903 are given permission to leave the GDR.
A commentary attributed to the Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst (ADN) calls after the East German citizens emigrating via Prague: “We won’t shed any tears over them.”
October 3: The GDR virtually closes its borders by stopping visa-free travel to the CSSR; the next day, this measure is extended to transit travel to Bulgaria and Romania as well. This results in protests and even threats of strike action in the areas bordering on the CSSR.
October 4: Once more, around 7,000 East German citizens who have again occupied the Prague embassy are allowed to travel to West Germany in special closed trains. In the night of October 5 here is a street fight at Dresden’s main train station between security personnel and around 10,000 demonstrators who want to jump onto the refugee trains.
Beginning of August: According to the draft of a paper presented by the Central Committee Security Issues Department (“Information and Conclusions on Some Current Issues Regarding Hostile Influences on Citizens of the GDR”), GDR security organs have counted 160 “hostile, oppositional groups,” including 150 so-called grass-roots church groups, with altogether 2,500 members. The paper says that “around 25 non-permitted printed and duplicated publications with anti-socialist content were produced and distributed, almost always using church-owned or private equipment.” One of the main strategies used by oppositional elements, it says, is to allege that the GDR “permanently lags behind, particularly with regard to implementing human rights. This includes continually calling into question the validity of local elections.” The existence of 51 skinhead groups (to which around 1,000 young people belong), ten punk groups, 32 heavy metal groups and nine gothic groups is seen as a “non-socialist tendency”.
August 5: The GDR government makes its first official statement on the embassy refugees on GDR television, confirming that the exodus constitutes a problem.
August 7: The SED leadership rescinds the so-called “lawyer’s promise”. The lawyer Wolfgang Vogel tells the West German Ministry for Inner-German Relations that he can offer those seeking refuge in West German missions impunity when leaving and returning to the GDR, but cannot, as previously, promise them a quick, affirmative decision on their applications to leave the country. – In an official statement by the GDR Foreign Ministry, the West German government is harshly accused of a “gross intervention in sovereign affairs of the GDR” for taking GDR citizens into its care; the statement calls this “typical pan-German arrogance” and says that it could “lead to far-reaching consequences”.
August 8: The West German Permanent Mission in East Berlin, which is being occupied by around 130 GDR citizens, is shut. This is followed on August 14 and 22 by the closures of the embassies in Budapest and Prague, in which, respectively, 171 and 140 would-be emigrants are staying. At nearly every meeting with SED leaders, West German politicians have emphasised that they do not desire a flood of refugees from the GDR. West German politicians from government and opposition now publicly warn GDR citizens not to flee their country. In West Germany, a public debate begins on whether the country can or wants to take in refugees and how many it can absorb. – Chancellery Minister Rudolf Seiters announces that 46,343 people have legally moved from the GDR to West Germany up to the end of July. He appeals to GDR citizens wanting to leave East Germany not to do so via West German diplomatic missions.
Every day, up to 100 GDR citizens are managing to flee from Hungary to Austria. However, hundreds are still being arrested as well. Several thousand GDR holidaymakers camp out on roadsides and front gardens in Budapest in 35-degree heat and wait for their chance to flee.
August 14: At the handing-over of the first functional models of 32-bit microprocessors by the Erfurt collective combine Mikroelektronik, Erich Honecker says: “Neither ox nor mule can stay socialism’s rule.” (“Den Sozialismus in seinem Lauf halt weder Ochs noch Esel auf.”)
August 19: The Hungarian Democratic Forum and other Hungarian opposition groups, under the patronage of the MEP Otto von Habsburg and the Hungarian reformist politician Imre Pozsgay, member of the HSWP Politburo and state minister, have organised a “Pan-European Picnic” at the Hungarian-Austrian border near Sopron to demonstrate for the abolition of borders and a united Europe by symbolically opening a border gate and allowing a “one-off, occasional border crossing”. Over 600 GDR citizens rush through the half-open gate to Austria. The gate is shut again after a few hours.
As later becomes known, this chance to cross the border without danger has been made possible by a standstill agreement between the state minister Pozsgay, the interior minister and the head of the border troops – and is a test to see how the Soviet Union reacts to such actions.
August 21: Several hundred people are arrested during demonstrations in Prague on the 21st anniversary of the “Prague Spring”.
August 22: A GDR citizen is shot dead by a Hungarian border guard while trying to escape to Austria.
August 23: Hundreds of thousands of people in the Baltic republics of the Soviet Union commemorate their lost independence.
August 24: With the assistance of the International Red Cross, over one hundred would-be East German emigrants from the Budapest embassy are flown to West Germany via Austria. In Poland, the co-founder of the Solidarity movement, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, is elected as the first non-communist prime minister.
August 25: In Bonn, the Hungarian prime minister, Miklos Németh, and Foreign Minister Gyula Horn meet secretly at Gymnich Castle with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher. Németh says that he opened the talks with Kohl and Genscher with the words: “Chancellor, Hungary has decided to allow GDR citizens to leave freely. The decision was taken mostly on humanitarian grounds.”
According to Horst Teltschik, Kohl promises his guests to compensate any disadvantages that Hungary might experience as the result of reprisals on the part of the GDR. The German government later gives Hungary an additional loan of 500 million marks and promises to abolish mandatory visas and to provide political aid to Hungary in its bid to join the European Community.
August 26: An initiative group including Martin Gutzeit, Markus Meckel, Arndt Noack and Ibrahim Böhme calls for the formation of a social democratic party in the GDR.
August 29: At a SED Politburo meeting, perplexity prevails on the question of how to proceed in the refugee crisis. Günter Mittag, who is standing in for a sick Erich Honecker, says: “Sometimes I’d like to smash the television, but that’s no use. (…) The business with Hungary wasn’t prepared by chance. It is an attack on the weakest point aimed at bringing the GDR into disrepute as well.
Comrade Mielke could talk for an hour or more about what means were used. Then there is the front-line reporting of the enemy, as we have very correctly called it. We have to show the main weaknesses of imperialism. We have to show where it aims to undermine socialism. But the basic guideline is: we do this calmly and don’t come to blows. We have to think about how to continue our line of argumentation.”
August 31: The Hungarian foreign minister, Gyula Horn, arrives in East Berlin to talk with GDR Foreign Minister Oskar Fischer and Günter Mittag. Horn announces that Hungary is going to allow the refugees to leave the country as of September 11, if they have not by then been persuaded to return to the GDR by assurances that they will be allowed to depart. Mittag and Fischer reject both options.
In August, 20,995 GDR citizens manage to flee to the West; 12,812 people are given permission to leave the GDR.
June 12: Hungary’s joining of the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees comes into force. The Convention makes it unlawful to send refugees back to the country from which they have escaped. A worried Stasi delegation in Budapest enquires about the consequences for GDR refugees. The Hungarian secret service chief Ferenc Pallagi tells it that GDR citizens will still not be recognised as refugees, and will be deported to the GDR. “Leaving for West Germany/Austria or another country of their choice will not be permitted.”
May 2: Hungarian border forces start taking down the barbed-wire fence to Austria. – In a memo of May 6 to SED General Secretary Erich Honecker about the start of the “planned dismantling of the border security fence on the national border of the Hungarian People’s Republic to Austria,” GDR Defence Minister Heinz Kessler assumes that it is only a cosmetic measure and that the Hungarian government will continue to keep the border secure.
January 3: According to figures from the West German Interior Ministry, reception centres in West Germany registered 39,832 emigrants from the GDR in 1988, double the number in the year before (1987: 18,985). The number of immigrants of German descent, mainly from Poland, the Soviet Union and Romania, but also from other countries, also rose steeply in comparison with the previous year (1988: 202,673; 1987: 78,523). The number of asylum-seekers rose by 80 percent to 103,076 (1987: 57,379).