“Life punishes those who come too late!”: East Germany’s 40th and Last Anniversary Celebration (7 October 1989)
Posted by romanianrevolutionofdecember1989 on October 7, 2014
Mark Kramer of Harvard University’s Cold War Studies Center highlighted the centrality of East Germany to the region-wide collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 as follows in “The Demise of the Soviet Bloc” (see pages 235-241 here, http://www.ustrcr.cz/data/pdf/seminare/2013/kramer/demise-of-the-soviet-bloc.pdf :
The crucial test case in all this, at least for Soviet policy, was the GDR, which for historical, geographic and strategic reasons was the keystone of the Warsaw Pact. [p. 236]
The following timetable/chronicle of daily events is from this highly useful site:
October 6: In the newspaper “Leipziger Volkszeitung,” under the headline “No more tolerance for subversion,” an article published under the name of the commander of the combat group contingent “Hans Geiffert,” Günter Lutz, says that, with regard to the forthcoming “Monday demonstration,” the combat groups are ready and willing “to protect what we have created with the work of our own hands and to put an end to these counter-revolutionary actions. If necessary, with weapon in hand.”
October 6/7: State ceremonies for the 40th anniversary of the GDR, attended by Mikhail Gorbachev, who is greeted with calls of “Gorbi, help us”. The West German TV programmes “Tageschau” and “Tagesthemen” report on the events of the day.
In a tête-à-tête between the two general secretaries, Honecker boasts about the GDR’s successes, especially praising the SED’S housing programme and East Germany allegedly leading worldwide position in the field of micro-electronics. Gorbachev, who is well aware that the GDR is really nearly insolvent, feels that he is being made a fool of.
“I was horrified. I talked with him for three hours. … And he kept on wanting to convince me about the wonderful achievements of the GDR.”
In a spontaneous interview at the Neue Wache in East Berlin, Mikhail Gorbachev says the sentence “Danger only lies in wait for those who do not react to life!” Speaking to the SED Politburo, he modifies this sentence: “If we lag behind, life will punish us straight away.”
It is not Gorbachev, but his press secretary Gennadi Gerassimov, who in the evening turns this into the saying, “Life punishes those who come too late!”
On the evening of 7 October, young people demonstrate in front of the Palace of the Republic. On this evening and the next, the Volkspolizei carry out attacks and make mass arrests in East Berlin and other cities.
October 8: Erich Honecker tells the First Secretaries of the SED district leaderships that demonstrations of the day before “were directed against the constitutional basis of our socialist state.” He says that further “riots” are to be expected. He gives the command that, if such protests occur, “they are to be put down immediately.” Honecker instructs the district operation commands to meet without delay and discuss “measures”; the First Secretaries are told to report back to the Department of Party Organs of the Central Committee about the way the situation was developing.
Stasi chief Mielke also describes the domestic situation “as considerably more critical”. He orders all members of the Ministry of Security to be on “full standby duty” in order to effectively repress or stop all “mobs” and for enough reserve forces to be at the ready, “whose quick deployment to undertake , if needs be, offensive measures to stop and disperse mobs is to be ensured.” Stasi members are to keep their service weapons with them at all time until further notice. Reports by Western journalists on demonstrations are to be rigorously prevented. – Notwithstanding this, the dialogue between the opposition (“Gruppe der 202) and the district SED leadership begins in Dresden.
October 9: “Tag der Entscheidung” (Decision Day) in Leipzig: 70,000 people demonstrate peacefully for reforms. Although the East German security authorities plan to prevent the demonstration and its staff have practised dispersing it and arresting the “ringleaders,” the state does not intervene. The unexpectedly large number of demonstrators breaks the security organs’ will to act. – In Halle and in Magdeburg, several thousand people also take part in demonstrations.
October 10: Talks between the mayor of Dresden, Wolfgang Berghofer, and the opposition awaken hopes that a dialogue may begin.
October 10/11: At the end of an unusually heated two-day crisis meeting, the SED Politburo announces that the party is ready to enter into a dialogue with the people. For the first time, the Politburo admits that the reasons why people are trying to flee are to be found in the GDR itself as well. It also puts forward its concept for the dialogue that is being demanded by so many people: “Together, we want to discuss all the fundamental questions of our society that are to be solved today and in the future. (…) These concern the continuation of the unity of economic and social policies. They concern economic efficiency and its benefit to all, a democratic coexistence and committed involvement, a good supply of commodities and adequate pay, realistic media, possibilities for travel and a healthy environment.” – Egon Krenz has pushed through this declaration against the bitter resistance of Honecker in the Politburo.
October 16: More than 100,000 people demonstrate in Leipzig. They demand that Neues Forum be permitted, free elections and freedom to travel, a free press and freedom of expression. Demonstrations with around 10,000 participants in Dresden and Magdeburg, 5,000 in Halle and 3,000 in Berlin also take place peacefully.
October 17/18: A fierce power struggle in the SED Politburo ends with the downfall of Erich Honecker, who is forced to cite health reasons as being behind his resignation from the SED Central Committee. Egon Krenz becomes the new SED general secretary. Krenz announces the credo for his policy of reform: “We are guided by the firm conviction that all the problems in our society can be solved politically.” In his inaugural address, Egon Krenz also promises “to prepare a draft bill regarding travel abroad for GDR citizens. We believe that this draft should be discussed and resolved upon in the People’s Parliament (Volkskammer) after being publicly announced. In connection with this, the temporary restrictions on travel to fellow socialist countries could also be lifted or modified.”
October 21: At a meeting of the extended leadership of the Ministry of Security, Stasi chief Mielke leaves little room for doubt that the party’s strategy of solving political problems with political means goes against his fundamental chekist convictions. It meant, Mielke says, not reacting to the “anti-socialist gatherings” in the way “these forces really deserve.” The fact that Mielke, even though he was not in agreement, categorically ruled out any independent policy of the ministry over the party’s head, had all the more decisive an effect on the behaviour of the Ministry of Security up to the time the Wall came down and even later. “In everything that we do,” he admonishes his top staff, “we must be absolutely clear that all measures undertaken by the Ministry of State Security, by every department, must be in accordance with the general strategy, the decisions of the Central Committee and its Politburo, and have to be directed at their strict implementation.” Force, he says, could only be used “if there is direct danger to people or objects that cannot be averted in any other way.” In the next few days, Mielke announces, central decisions would be made about how to proceed against opposition movements in future.
October 23: Three hundred thousand people demonstrate in Leipzig, tens of thousands in Magdeburg, Dresden, Schwerin, Zwickau, Halle, Stralsund and Berlin, as well as in Plauen and Rostock during the previous days.
October 24: The SED Politburo passes a resolution on “Trips by GDR citizens abroad”: “1. A draft bill on travel abroad by GDR citizens and proposals for financing this travel are to be presented to the Politburo soon. (…) 2. An argumentation is to be worked out [as a basis for] a broad discussion of the draft bill.”
October 26: On this day alone, the Ministry of Security counts 160,000 citizens who, at demonstrations in the districts Rostock, Erfurt, Gera, Schwerin, Chemnitz, Neubrandenburg, Dresden and Halle, call above all for free elections, the free formation of opposition groups and freedom to travel. Whereas the Ministry for Security registered altogether 140,000 demonstrators at 24 demonstrations in the week from 16 to 22 October, from 23 to 30 October 540,000 people take part in 145 demonstrations. Leading SED functionaries no longer rule out the imposition of a state of emergency. In a twenty-minute conversation with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, SED General Secretary Egon Kreuz states his interest in placing relations with West Germany “on a – if I may put it like this – on a new level”. Chancellery Minister Seiters and state secretary Schalck-Golodkowski are named as confidants.
October 27: The GDR State Council announces an amnesty for all refugees and participants in demonstrations. – The GDR Council of Ministers decides to lift the “temporary ban on travel without passport or visa” to the CSSR that was imposed on October 3. From this moment on, GDR citizens are meant to be able to cross the border to the CSSR again with their identity card.
October 31: The USA and the Soviet Union organise a summit on Malta scheduled for 2/3 December.
October 31: The SED Politburo discusses a white paper by five leading economists on the “Analysis of the Economic Situation of the GDR with Conclusions”. To avoid the necessary lowering of the living standard by 25 to 30 percent and the imminent insolvency of the GDR, they recommend offering the West German government the Wall in return for urgently needed new loans and extended economic cooperation.
In October, 57,024 GDR citizens manage to flee to the West; 30,598 people are allowed to leave the GDR with permission.