EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second installment in a five-part series excerpted from William F. Buckley Jr.’s The Fall of the Berlin Wall.
Through the spring of 1989, the Polish and Hungarian regimes seemed to be in a suicidal race to be the first to topple. On February 11, the Central Committee of Hungary’s Socialist Workers’ Party approved in principle the legalization of independent political parties. What would this actually mean? Would the new parties be independent as in France, Britain, Italy, and West Germany? Or independent as in Czechoslovakia? There they were separate from the ruling party, but not free to oppose it. General Secretary Grosz was ambiguous, and the draft of a new Hungarian constitution, submitted to parliament on March 8, echoed his ambiguity. It provided for a multi-party system but stated that Hungary would continue as a “socialist” country and as a “people’s republic.” But there were symbolic concessions of resonant meaning. The Party decided to remove the red star from Hungary’s flag and replace it with the Crown of Saint Stephen. Blue-collar workers were permitted to form Hungary’s first independent trade union, which, with a nod to their Polish counterparts, they dubbed the Solidarity Workers’ Trade Union Federation. At the beginning of April, the opposition, led by a group called the Democratic Forum, agreed to enter power-sharing discussions with the government.
In Poland, the Solidarity Party was legalized on April 17. On June 4, Poland held its first free elections since 1935. Solidarity won a smashing 99 of the 100 seats in the new Senate, and all the open seats in the lower house, the Sejm. (Under the rules set by the Jaruzelski regime, 299 seats in the Sejm were reserved for the United Workers’ [i.e., Communist] Party and its allies, while 161 were open to other parties.)
Jaruzelski pleaded with Solidarity to join the Communists in a new ruling coalition. At first Walesa refused. Then he proposed a coalition, but hardly what Jaruzelski had in mind: Solidarity would be the senior partner and the Communists the junior partner. On August 17, Jaruzelski became the first leader in the satellite world to preside over the transfer of power to a non-Communist government.
On August 20, at a Mass at Saint Brygida’s in Gdansk, the church nearest the shipyard where Solidarity had begun, the choir and congregation joined in singing the Polish national hymn, which begins “Poland is not dead while still we live.” That hymn had been sung for many bloody years, but sung quietly, Poles singing to themselves through the long partition of their country among Russia, Prussia, and Austria, and then the Nazi occupation, and then the years of Soviet control. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Solidarity activist newly elected Poland’s first post-Communist premier, echoed the hymn’s opening line in his first speech in the new circumstances: “Poland is alive,” he stated. Most of his countrymen cheered, though some grumbled at the suggestion that the Communist domination had been equivalent to those past occupations.
There remained the heart-stopping question: Would Gorbachev assert the Brezhnev Doctrine? Under its provisions, no territory, having once come within the Soviet orbit, could ever leave it. Warsaw braced itself for the Kremlin’s reaction. It came from one of Gorbachev’s aides, Yevgeny Primakov, addressing a group of American congressmen. The man who would later become prime minister of Russia told the visitors that it was “entirely a matter to be decided by Poland” what kind of government Poland had. The Brezhnev Doctrine had been de facto nullified.
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As Eastern Europe started demanding freedom, in West Berlin there was movement toward the Left. For much of the postwar period, both pre- and post-wall, the two major parties of West Germany, the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party, worked together in West Berlin in an almost non-partisan fashion. Coalition governments were the norm. That arrangement had gone by the boards in the early Eighties, but the city government still had not radically changed–until 1989. In the municipal elections that January, the two major parties finished in virtually a dead heat–37.8% for the CDU, down from its record high of 46.4% in 1985; for the SPD, 37.3%, up from 32.4%.
That was bad news for the CDU government in Bonn under longtime chancellor Helmut Kohl. But the biggest news involved the smaller parties. The mainstream-left Free Democratic Party dropped to below the proportional-representation threshold of 5% and so could not contribute to any coalition. Meanwhile, the two extremes of the political spectrum had increased their strength. At one end, the Alternative List, a radical Green party, took 11.8% of the vote (up from 10.6%). At the other end, the Republican Party–extreme right-wing, maybe even neo-Nazi–more than doubled its vote, from 3% to 7.5%. Its increase in strength was attributed to an animus against the Third World asylum seekers who had begun to show up in West Berlin in some numbers, deliberately ushered there by the East German government, with an interest in destabilizing West Berlin.
There was an impasse for a period. The CDU promised not to form a coalition with the Republicans, and the SPD promised not to form one with the Greens. But as the situation sputtered on, the Social Democrats went back on their promise and brought in the Greens. The SPD’s conditions were strict, and revealing: the Greens were required to accept the Western Allies as the sovereign power, accept West Berlin’s ties to West Germany, and renounce the use of force to settle internal political disagreements.
The Greens accepted these terms, but that did not stop them from doing what they could to block President Bush’s scheduled visit to West Germany in the spring, following NATO’s 40th-anniversary summit in Brussels. The Kohl government’s invitation prevailed, and Bush spent two days in Germany. He did not visit Berlin, but he spoke of the city in his main address on East-West relations. “The Cold War,” he said, “began with the division of Europe. It can only end when Europe is whole.” Specifically, Europe could not be “whole and free” until the Berlin Wall came down.
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The West Berlin elections had taken place against a background of high-level maneuvering. Chancellor Kohl unexpectedly found himself an ally of Gorbachev on the matter of the Lance missiles based in West Germany. These were battlefield nuclear weapons. Hence, if there was ever occasion to use them, the country on whose soil they were based would suffer not only from the enemy’s retaliatory action, but also from the fallout from the Lances’ own warheads. As Kohl phrased it, “Because of the range of the short-range missiles, West Germany is more strongly affected than other members of the alliance.” One of Kohl’s foreign-policy advisers, Volker Ruhe, put it graphically: “The shorter the range, the deader the Germans.” The SPD wanted a total ban on these weapons. With federal elections coming up in 1990, this became a popular issue.
Gorbachev was eager to link the question of missile deployment to the on-going discussion of conventional forces. He was desperately trying to reduce his overextended empire’s expenses without reducing its relative strength. Even before the Conventional Forces in Europe conference reconvened in May 1989, he had ordered a reduction in the number of Soviet troops and tanks in Hungary and East Germany. Western leaders permitted themselves to wonder–Dick Cheney especially, as U.S. secretary of defense–whether Gorbachev could continue on his current path without losing control of his government.
The first session of the Soviet Union’s new Congress of People’s Deputies opened on May 25, and by Soviet standards it was uproarious. Gorbachev ran unopposed, and prevailed in the vote for the presidency, 95.6% to 4.4%. But before the vote was taken, he was subjected to two hours of sharp criticism. One deputy wanted to know where Gorbachev got off building a new dacha for himself in the Crimea while urging austerity for others. Another asked what in fact were the results of perestroika and had the changes done more harm than good. Another deplored the fact that Soviet troops had fired on protesters in the Georgian Republic.
The Congress was roiled by the failure of the former Communist Party chief of Moscow, one Boris Yeltsin, to achieve election to the Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin’s supporters included the heroic dissident Andrei Sakharov, who had been permitted to return from internal exile in Gorky to take a seat in the Congress. Sakharov accused the regime of rigging the election to keep Yeltsin out. He told a crowd of ten thousand gathered in Moscow’s Luzhinsky Park that “the people do not trust the authorities, and the authorities do not trust the people.”
Gorbachev had no love for Yeltsin, but he needed to avoid any impression that his new democracy was a farce. When a member of the Supreme Soviet offered to resign in order to provide a seat for Yeltsin, Gorbachev accepted the offer.
On June 12, Gorbachev, with his new title of president, made his first state visit to West Germany. His reception was remarkable. He was hailed by crowds chanting “Gorby! Gorby!” In fact, he was greeted much more warmly than President Bush had been two weeks earlier. A poll recorded 90% of West Germans as believing they could trust Gorbachev, as against 58% for President Bush and 50% for Chancellor Kohl. This was evidence of the strategic restlessness. It was as simple as that the overwhelming majority of West Germans, sensing the true change in Moscow, looked at Gorbachev and saw the possibility of their country’s being made whole again.
The shift in passions and the itch of genuine confusion hit the East German rulers hard. The hierarchy in East Berlin had been dismissive of events in Hungary and Poland, and indeed in the Soviet Union itself. Kurt Hager, chief ideologist for the East German Politburo, remarked: “Would you feel bound to repaper the walls of your apartment because your neighbor was repapering his?”
But the effects of Gorbachev’s policies could not be brushed aside. Sergei Kondrashev, the former head of the KGB’s German operations, was now a special consultant to the new head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, a protégé of the late Yuri Andropov. Kondrashev customarily spent a part of his vacation in East Berlin, visiting his old friend Erich Mielke, the chief of the dreaded Stasi, East Germany’s Gestapo. This time, as Kondrashev later recorded, Mielke asked him, “Sergei, what does Gorbachev think he is doing? If [his] policy with regard to Poland and Hungary continues, the GDR will not be able to contain the social forces” that will be released. Gorbachev must understand this, Mielke warned solemnly. If the Soviet policy is not changed, “the German Democratic Republic will be crushed!” Kondrashev passed this warning on to his boss, Kryuchkov, who passed it on to Gorbachev. When asked what Gorbachev’s reaction had been, Kryuchkov reported, “There was none.”
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On May 2, 1989, the Grosz regime decided to open Hungary’s border with (neutral) Austria. The governments of East Germany, Romania, and Czechoslovakia were furious as news came in of Hungarian soldiers methodically cutting and rolling up the barbed wire and the electric fencing that had been strung two decades earlier, replacing the minefields that had originally separated East from West. Budapest was undeterred–and Moscow didn’t step in to halt the opening of this artery.
Andras Kovari, a spokesman for the Hungarian Interior Ministry, gave his reason for the opening: “Not only do we need the world, but the world needs us. An era will be closed with the removal of this fence, and we hope that such systems will never be needed again.” He added that he had no reason to believe many Hungarians would attempt to flee. Why should they? They were, after all, able to travel abroad with few restrictions. But he sought to reassure the Honecker regime by saying that Budapest would not permit a flood of refugees from neighboring countries to use Hungary as a mere passageway, in the manner of East Germans, pre-wall, making their way first to East Berlin and then on through to West Berlin.
But of course there was movement, even if not in the volume feared by the GDR. Between early May and the end of July, several hundred East Germans went to Hungary, ostensibly simply as vacationers, and then crossed over into Austria. Another five hundred were caught trying to cross over and sent home with a stamp on their passports indicating that they had attempted to flee.
The most enterprising escape was via the border town of Sopron. A Hungarian-Austrian “friendship picnic” was scheduled for August 19. As soon as the border guards opened a gate to let the Austrian picnickers into Hungary, East Germans waiting nearby rushed through the gate, into Austria. Some nine hundred Germans crossed over, believed to be the largest number to escape on any single day.
The westbound passion, once revived, seemed irrepressible. Aspirant East German refugees got the idea of taking physical refuge on West German diplomatic property. This happened first at the embassy in Budapest, then at the embassies in Prague and Warsaw, then at the diplomatic mission in East Berlin itself, established when the two Germanies recognized each other in 1972. Bonn, panicked at the thought of provocations that would threaten the desired movement going on within the Soviet Bloc, ordered locked the gates to all its embassies and missions. So what did the East Germans do? Many of them, showing entrepreneurial determination, climbed over the iron fences surrounding the embassy grounds–one more wall.
On August 3, a Hungarian official told a radio interviewer that the government was considering giving asylum to East Germans on a case-by-case basis. Over the Labor Day weekend, we in America saw on our television screens footage of East Germans milling about in rain-soaked refugee camps, hoping to win favorable attention. The following week, in an interview in the West German magazine Stern, the Hungarian interior minister, Istvan Horvath, threw cold water on the whole idea. He announced that Hungary would not permit the passage of refugees until East and West Germany came to an agreement on the question. Even if negotiations went smoothly, it was expected that such an agreement could not be arrived at in less than six weeks, an interminable delay for refugees crowded up against walls and embassy gates and barbed wire, pleading for relief.
The Czechoslovakian government in turn announced that it would not permit the 150-odd East Germans encamped at the West German embassy in Prague to proceed west. “We wouldn’t do anything,” a spokesman said, to open “a channel of communication that would enable East Germans to leave for West Germany.”
Then on September 10, Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn announced that the situation had become “unbearable.” Budapest would now suspend a twenty-year-old agreement with East Berlin and would permit those East Germans who had made their way onto Hungarian territory to proceed to “a country of their choice.” Around thirteen thousand did so over the next four days, some in their own cars, which they had driven into Hungary on their vacations, others on standing-room-only trains.
There were fifty thousand more East German vacationers still loose in Hungary, and it was assumed that at least some of them would press on to the West unless prevented. The Honecker regime protested forcefully, describing Hungary’s action as “a clear violation of legal treaties . . . a violation of the basic interests of East Germany.” Soviet hard-liner Yegor Ligachev echoed that description. But the incident gave the West a window into the growing strains within the Kremlin as Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov expressed a very different view. Budapest, Gerasimov said, had taken “an unusual step and a very unexpected one . . . naturally this is of some concern to us, but it does not directly affect us.” The threat of Soviet intervention seemed now to be remote.
Meanwhile, the negotiations between East and West Germany were indeed proceeding, as Horvath had said. On September 30, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher went to Prague to divulge the results of those negotiations. It was 11 weeks since the first East Germans had taken refuge on the embassy grounds, and by now a total of 5,500 had crowded in. They had been sleeping on the lawns and in a handful of tents; there were long lines for the few toilets and showers.
Genscher elected to deliver his message from the embassy balcony, addressing the thousands waiting anxiously on the lawn below. He was not able to complete the critical sentence. As soon as the refugees understood where he was heading, understood that he was telling them they would be permitted to go to the West, a sustained cheer drowned him out. The next day, the first “freedom train,” with passengers hanging out of every window and waving to the TV cameras, left Prague for West Germany. It was an irony that some of these trains were provided by the East German government, and made their way through a corner of East German territory. The Honecker regime covered itself by describing the exodus not as a flight of Germans seeking a freer life, but as an expulsion by East Germany of “irresponsible anti-social traitors and criminals.” But the regime also nailed shut the two-hundred-mile-long border between East Germany and Czechoslovakia, which had for years been almost as open as the border between the U.S. and Canada. One up in the war against traitors and criminals!
Some East Germans, enlivened by events in other satellite nations, formed a group they called the New Forum. They met initially in Lutheran churches (which had been allowed to stay open notwithstanding East Germany’s restrictions on religious practice), notably the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig and the Gethsemane Church in East Berlin. At first, the New Forum meetings, which included candlelight prayer services, were quiet and moving affairs. Then on September 18, the Monday evening prayer service in Leipzig spilled out into a full-scale march. The same thing happened the next Monday evening, with three times as many people.
The marches spread to other cities, including East Berlin. Participants began carrying homemade banners. A popular slogan called for freedom to travel: Reisenfreiheit. The marchers were frequently attacked by bands of Stasi, dressed in casual trousers and short jackets, looking like young street fighters rather than secret-police officers. They would drag a few of the marchers away and wrench the banners from them, but the proliferation defied the restrictions. Thousands were arrested in that frantic autumn, but soon the marchers began to fight back, and as they marched, they shouted, “Stasi raus! Stasi raus!” Stasi, get out!