EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third installment in a five-part series excerpted from William F. Buckley Jr.’s The Fall of the Berlin Wall. The second installment is here; the first is here.
As the streets filled with agitation, Warsaw Pact officials were looking fretfully at their countries’ recent pasts. The Party line was that the Hungarian insurgency of 1956 had been provoked and promoted by Western-minded counterrevolutionaries. Now, in January 1989, Hungarian Politburo member Imre Pozsgay, chairman of a committee charged with studying the country’s postwar history, reported to the Hungarian public in a radio interview that “According to [our] research the committee judges what happened in 1956 to have been a popular uprising against an oligarchy that was humiliating the nation.” He went on to say: “With this evaluation, the official standpoint approaches those of historians and public opinion. It is wrong,” he emphasized, “to qualify the events as counterrevolution.” Such a finding, however, was not yet “the official standpoint.” Two weeks later, at a Central Committee meeting, Pozsgay was roasted by his colleagues. In the end, the Central Committee came up with a compromise: It endorsed the history committee’s findings but resolved not to make the details public.
The Central Committee did make public its decision to exhume from an unmarked grave the remains of Imre Nagy, premier of the free Hungary briefly established by the 1956 revolution. Nagy would be reburied with due honors. On May 6, Radio Budapest rebroadcast the speech he had made at the beginning of the Soviet invasion. He had accused the Soviets of attempting “to overthrow the legal Hungarian democratic government.” He was seized soon after he gave that speech and hidden away from family, friends, and colleagues; only two years later was he tried and executed. There is no obvious accounting for such quirks in Soviet justice. There had to have been a voice counseling that Nagy be kept alive. Why? Merely because he was a distinguished Hungarian official? But that was the principal reason, his accusers would have insisted, for executing him. Somewhere an archive on the subject exists. Somewhere, the scholar lives who will find it and write down what happened.
On June 16, six flag-draped coffins were brought into Budapest’s Heroes’ Square. Five of them bore the bodies of Nagy and his chief lieutenants. The sixth coffin was empty. It represented the hundreds of Hungarians who were killed in the two weeks of fighting, or who were executed after the uprising was put down. The pallbearers included Imre Pozsgay and Hungary’s new premier, Miklos Nemeth. The quarter of a million people in attendance included many émigrés who had returned for the occasion. At the interment that afternoon, the names were read out of 250 freedom fighters who had been subjected to show trials and then executed. The East German news service denounced the event, characterizing it as an “anti-Communist exercise engineered by the opposition.”
August 21 was the 21st anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia that turned the Prague Spring into a fresh winter. Three thousand demonstrators gathered in Wenceslaus Square. There would have been many more, but the regime had placed leading dissidents under house arrest and blocked roads leading to the square. The police endured twenty minutes of demonstrators singing the national anthem, shouting anti-Soviet slogans, and chanting the names of Dubcek and Havel. Then the police moved, swinging truncheons and arresting hundreds.
From surrounding countries, a variety of sentiments were recorded. The Polish Senate, by unanimous resolution, expressed “sorrow” over Poland’s part in the 1968 invasion. The Hungarian government went on record as saying that it “did not concur with the 1968 intervention,” but that any final judgment had to be made by the Czechoslovakians themselves. In East Germany, the old reliable Neues Deutschland, the official Party daily, explained that the invasion had been necessary in order to save Czechoslovakia from “imperialist forces.” A spokesman for the Soviet Foreign Ministry said, “The events of 1968 in Czechoslovakia and around it must be seen in the political and international context of the time . . . The perception of the events and the reaction to them by the outside world was at the time in many respects derivative of the then level of confrontation between the two military-political blocs.” Ambivalence had tied the tongue of the Soviet spokesman.
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There had been rumors all that summer that Erich Honecker was dying. In July, he had fallen ill during a Warsaw Pact meeting in Bucharest and returned home early. But the trouble proved to be a gallstone–not cancer, as the rumors had it. And Honecker was in high good shape to preside over the German Democratic Republic’s 40th anniversary celebration on October 6-7 in East Berlin. His guests of honor were Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev. Milos Jakes, general secretary of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, had come from Prague, and, from Warsaw, Wojciech Jaruzelski, still president of the reorganized Poland. Yao Yilin was there–vice premier of the Red Chinese regime that had just conducted the Tiananmen Square massacre. And Yasir Arafat, who was still running the PLO from Tunis while indigenous forces in Palestine were beginning the Intifada.
Honecker maneuvered to keep Gorbachev away from explicitly pro-democracy demonstrators. It would not do to have the supreme Communist in apparent spiritual union with the noisy dissidents in one of the satellite states. But Gorbachev was cheered wherever he went. He and Honecker visited East Germany’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the Soviet War Memorial, celebrating the Soviet soldiers killed in the Battle of Berlin, April-May 1945.
The two leaders went then to the Palace of the Republic to deliver major addresses. Gorbachev suggested, not for the first time, and using appropriate ellipses, that his host might want to try some of the liberalizations that had succeeded in the Soviet Union. But however intransigent he deemed the GDR, he took the same hands-off policy he had taken in dealing with reformist Budapest and Warsaw. “Policies that affect the German Democratic Republic,” he said, “are decided not in Moscow but in Berlin.” In his own speech, Honecker stated that he would never give in to the “revanchist,” “neo-Nazi” West Germans and their allies, who had launched “an unbridled campaign of insults against the Communist German state.”
That evening Gorbachev and Honecker stood side by side watching a torchlight parade of the FDJ (Free German Youth). The next day they were again side by side, this time to review a formal military parade. At the very time they were watching that parade, a special Party congress in Budapest was formally renouncing Marxism.
Honecker looked frail after his difficult summer, but managed throughout the festivities to appear resolute and triumphant, as if events had vindicated his policies.
After the military parade, Gorbachev talked with a group of journalists and spoke two oracular sentences: “I believe that dangers await only those who do not react to life. Anyone who seizes the impulses and realities of life, and forms his policies accordingly, should fear no difficulties.”
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Although Honecker was determined that demonstrations should not mar the anniversary celebration, they happened anyway–in Dresden, Potsdam, Leipzig, Magdeburg, and East Berlin itself. The marches following the candlelight vigils had been growing larger and larger. The climax, viewed retrospectively, came two days after the anniversary guests returned home, on October 9 in Leipzig. This would be the fourth Monday evening in the series, and it promised the biggest turnout yet. Honecker could stand it no longer. He ordered a massive crackdown. Some clue to what he had in mind is suggested by what he said to Yao Yilin during the celebrations: he publicly praised Red China’s handling of the Tiananmen “counterrevolutionaries.” But his own crackdown never materialized. Fifty thousand people marched safely in Leipzig, and triumphantly.
What exactly happened that evening was disputed. One account holds that Egon Krenz, a Politburo member and Honecker’s longtime protégé, flew to Leipzig and personally countermanded Honecker’s order. Another holds that Krenz did not actually go to Leipzig until several days later, and that the initiative to stay the hand of the security forces had come from Kurt Masur, director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra.
Whoever made the final decision, it is recorded that, on the weekend before the march, Masur invited two civilian public figures and three local officials of the Socialist Unity Party to meet at his home, where they drafted an appeal both to the demonstrators and to the Stasi and the Volksarmee (the East German army) to avoid violence.
But someone had to give the order not to shoot, and it would not have been an orchestra conductor, however eminent. It may have been Krenz, who had the authority to do so as Politburo Member for Security. Or it may–this was Willy Brandt’s speculation–have been the Soviet commander attached to the Volksarmee who intervened to protect the protesters.
On October 11, the East German Politburo held an emergency session. The protesters were formally denounced as “rampaging hooligans.”
On the 13th, the GDR released the hundreds of protesters who had been arrested between October 3 and 9, and Honecker told a gathering in East Berlin that his regime was prepared to discuss matters with “all citizens.”
On the 16th, more than a hundred thousand marched in Leipzig, and on the 18th, Honecker’s retirement was announced. Krenz was named his successor as secretary-general of the Central Committee, chairman of the State Council, and chairman of the National Defense Council.
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The following week was a busy one in the Eastern Bloc. On October 24, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze traveled to Warsaw for a regular meeting of the Warsaw Pact foreign ministers. Feeling his way, he told reporters that he hoped the Warsaw Pact would become more a political and less a military grouping. He suggested that both the Warsaw Pact and NATO be phased out.
October 28 would mark the 71st anniversary of the founding of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918. The groundwork for the Allies’ establishment of the new state at the end of World War I had been laid by Tomas Masaryk, philosopher and Czechoslovakian patriot, who had traveled to Washington, D.C., and to Pittsburgh earlier that year to gain the support of President Wilson and of the principal organizations of Czech- and Slovak-Americans. It was his son, Jan, who died by defenestration thirty years later. Jan Masaryk was pushed out the window of his third-floor apartment at the Foreign Ministry building by Communist agents, intending to discourage Czechoslovakian inclinations to resist Soviet domination.
In the days leading up to the anniversary, the authorities put a handful of human-rights activists under detention, including Vaclav Havel, who was nursing a bronchial infection. Times had indeed changed: Havel was taken to the hospital instead of to a jail cell or to the nearest window.
General Secretary Jakes and Premier Ladislav Adamec both reaffirmed their resistance to, as Jakes put it, “anti-socialist forces.” Adamec, talking to reporters during a state visit to Austria, elaborated the point: “I am a supporter of the broadest democracy, but also of order and discipline and in no case of destabilization.”
On the 28th, ten thousand people gathered in Wenceslaus Square. The anniversary celebration began peacefully, although the mood was not one of mere historical nostalgia: the crowd chanted “Freedom!” and “We want democracy,” and there were banners calling for Jakes’s ouster. The police indulged the demonstrators for an hour or two but then ordered them to evacuate the square. When they did not, policemen waded in, swinging their truncheons. Some 350 people were taken to prison. Many were injured, a dozen of them badly enough to require hospitalization.
That same week, Gorbachev paid a state visit to Helsinki. Among his entourage was Foreign Ministry spokesman Gerasimov, one of the freer spirits in the Soviet hierarchy. In Helsinki, Gerasimov explained to reporters how the Soviet Union’s approach to its neighbors had changed. “The Brezhnev Doctrine is dead,” he said. “You know the Frank Sinatra song ‘My Way’? Hungary and Poland are doing it their way. We now have the Sinatra Doctrine.”