A short autumn of utopia: The East German revolution of 1989

Issue: 124

Gareth Dale

Readers of this journal are unlikely to be participating in the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the “transition to capitalism” in Central and Eastern Europe and it’s easy to see why.1 The expansion of Nato shows that its supposedly defensive purpose—to contain the Soviet Union—was a lie all along. The civic freedoms for which Eastern Europeans took to the streets are in a sickly condition in West and East alike. One review of The Lives of Others, a film centred on the surveillance of dissidents by East Germany’s secret service (the Stasi), remarked upon its “relevance to a world where fundamental civil liberties are increasingly at risk of being undermined”. Anti-globalisation protesters in the East German seaside resort of Heiligendamm two years ago could be forgiven for thinking that little had changed since 1989 as they gazed up at the steel wall around the G7 summit and heard the spurious reasons given by police for making arrests.

Political scientist Jennifer Yoder has described the further march of democratisation after the great demonstrations in Czechoslovakia, Romania and especially East Germany in 1989-90 as an “elite-dominated period of institutionalisation” in which the citizenry was demobilised. Many Easterners, according to her research, “perceive that, in place of the old regime, there is a new, post-Communist political class” that appears “as far removed from the people and their interests as the old Communist elites”, and “some Eastern Germans believe not much had changed: it is still ‘them up there and us down here’”.2

Disappointment at democracy has been magnified by socio_economic malaise. As the former dissident Friedrich Schorlemmer put it, “Many people no longer value the wonderful gift of freedom because they say, what use is freedom if they are shut out from their jobs?”3 In Eastern Germany the unemployment rate has for two decades been roughly double that in the West of the country—and this has been the major factor behind an extraordinarily high emigration rate and a slump in the region’s population of 25 percent since 1989.

But 1989 cannot be dismissed as a mere turning of the page, history’s analogy to a changing of the guard. At least in East Germany the events were revolutionary in nature. This was so with respect to the character of the mass movements, the crisis from which they emerged, and the toppling of regimes that they effected. In this one can do worse than take Lenin as a guide. He drew attention to three basic preconditions of a revolutionary upheaval: (i) that a country’s ruling class be passing through a political crisis that substantially weakens the government and “draws even the most backward masses into politics”; (ii) that an “unusual degree of oppression” felt by the mass of the population contributes to widespread demands for change; (iii) that social movement activity experiences a pronounced upturn. In 1989 the old order became subject to internal scrutiny and serious fracture. Through the resulting “fissures”, to quote Lenin, “the indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth”.4

State capitalism meets the world market

The economies of pre-1989 Russia and Eastern Europe had their own peculiarities but were in certain respects typical of capitalism in its mid-20th century statist phase. The Soviet Union’s backwardness in its arms race with the US meant that military priorities were felt with uncommon force, shaping all other subsidiary decisions down to how much investment should be devoted to agriculture.5 The Soviet-type society has been aptly described as a “war economy”,6 in its relative autarky, emphasis on heavy industry, high savings ratio, allocation by administrative decision, extensive use of political incentives and ideological appeals to increase productivity, and mobilisation of resources towards an overriding goal. For a time these techniques provided a recipe for successful steep-ascent industrialisation. But global tides began to tilt against the Soviet model, and the worldwide enthusiasm for national economic planning began to ebb. “The era in which the state could protect national capitalism is drawing to an end,” noted Chris Harman in 1976.7

The 1970s were a pivotal decade for Eastern Europe. In its first phase booming world markets and low interest rates encouraged an explosion in syndicated bank lending to both Eastern Europe and the Third World. States and firms found it easy to borrow. “In today’s world only fools don’t take up loans,” said East German leader Eric Honecker. But his bravado was not to last.8

Closer integration with the Western economy was not an irrational gamble but given the poor economic cards held by Eastern Europe’s rulers the odds of success were long. Integration exacerbated the Soviet-type economies’ vulnerability to fluctuations in global demand and interest rates. Higher levels of trade and debt pulled them into the circuits of world capital over which they exercised little control. Each was gradually “sucked into a chaotic, disorganised, world system”, as Harman put it, a process that involved an intermeshing between the economic crises of East and West.9 East Germany’s net indebtedness to the OECD increased during the latter half of the 1970s by more than 20 percent annually.

In the 1980s East Germany and most other East European societies engaged ever more closely with the West. Typically for masters of relatively backward economies, a more or less resentful admiration for aspects of Western capitalism prevailed among functionaries and industrialists. They positively fawned upon the Western business and political leaders with whom they dealt, above all the former Nazi and head of the Krupp steel conglomerate Berthold Beitz, and the arch-conservative politician Franz-Josef Strauss. It was Strauss who, by organising a brace of colossal loans, played the pivotal role in securing East Germany against insolvency. Earning hard currency to service these and other loans became the outstanding economic imperative in the 1980s. By the middle of the decade Western market economies supplied two fifths of East Germany’s imports and received almost half of its exports.

The westward reorientation created a predicament for East Germany’s rulers. Fraught debates arose. Were they to accelerate integration with the global economy or to retreat to centrally-planned autarky? And were they to increase borrowing (and dependence upon Western creditors) or to introduce austerity measures (and risk the wrath of the working class)? Austerity and autarky were the Romanian way, while Poland and Hungary favoured debt and integration. But neither path offered a solution to the gathering crisis, and in most cases, certainly including East Germany, the intra-elite divisions that resulted from this dilemma contributed to a creeping paralysis in the corridors of power.


One country, Poland, had experienced its “1989” almost before the actual year had arrived. The reason for this precocity lies with the militancy of its working class. Whereas Hungary and East Germany were both shaken by a major uprising in the 1950s but experienced relative quiescence thereafter, Poland’s minor uprising (1956-7) was followed by a student movement in the late 1960s, then strike waves, protest marches and riots centred in the coastal belt around Gdansk and Szczecin (1970-1), and a wave of industrial action that affected some three quarters of the country’s largest factories (1976). During the next four years something in the order of a thousand strikes took place, and these culminated in the strike wave of summer 1980 from which the Solidarnosc movement for independent trade unions emerged, and which broke the Communist Party’s monopoly of power.10

Why was the Polish experience unique? One common explanation refers to the peculiarities of its “national culture”. But that is facile. After all, the 1950s uprisings in East Germany and Hungary showed that workers there were every bit as eager and capable, when it came to organising independently of state institutions and innovating tactically, as were their counterparts in Poland. A more serious explanation refers to the greater severity of repression in Hungary and East Germany as compared with Poland where containment of protest was effected mainly through reform. Yet an equally important—and generally neglected—difference was the degree to which in Poland networks of militants succeeded in keeping alive collective memories of protest movements. Thanks to the work of Lawrence Goodwyn, Roman Laba and others, we know that the series of uprisings (1956, 1970-1, 1976 and 1980-1) were no mere litany of disconnected events. Although to outside observers they seemed to erupt as if from nowhere, in fact each followed months and years of organisation.11 Even during periods in which levels of industrial activity were low, groups of militants in certain factories and regions succeeded in maintaining contact with one another. Memories of past struggles were kept alive and discussed, and lessons learned. An accumulated memory of strategic knowledge, tactical repertoires and organisational skills came to be embodied in such networks. It was particularly among these groups of militants, who had gained their self-education through self-activity, that class identities were kept alive and those tactics developed and tested, notably the sit-down strike, that were to prove so successful in challenging the regime in 1970-1 and again in 1980-1.12

The Solidarnosc-led revolt of 1980-1 shattered the self-confidence of the Polish ruling class and sent shock waves through Moscow and the capitals of Eastern Europe. Although its leaders based their strategy of “self-limitation” upon an assumption that a more radical challenge to the system would have provoked Moscow to deploy its tanks, Soviet documents reveal that this had in fact been ruled out, with KGB chairman Yuri Andropov flatly stating that “it would be impossible now for us to send troops to Poland”.13 The weakness of the self-limitation strategy did enable the Polish security forces to crush the movement but without landing a knockout blow. Less than seven years were to pass before further rolling waves of strikes and street demonstrations arose in spring and summer of 1988. In a shifting context formed by Mikhail Gorbachev’s political opening (glasnost) and economic restructuring (perestroika) in the Soviet Union, this renewed upsurge of militancy brought home to a divided ruling class the potential for a social explosion and led to the recognition of Solidarnosc, followed by “round table” talks between regime and opposition.14

In two distinct ways Poland in 1988 prefigured the rest of Eastern Europe in 1989. One was that mass collective action forced a divided regime to reform. The other was that the old regime came to learn of the potential advantages of co-opting opposition movements and containing revolt by means of democratisation. In Poland the imposition of painful economic restructuring would proceed so much more smoothly if Solidarnosc leaders were to propose it. Poland’s Communist leader, General Jaruzelski, admitted as much in discussions with his East German counterpart Egon Krenz in 1989. He advised Krenz in no uncertain terms that the ruling class’s economic aims could be advanced by political reform. Democracy could prove to be an indispensable means of selling the pain of market reform to a sceptical population. “As a result of major economic problems,” the general said:

We have had to face difficult experiences. I’m thinking of December 1970 and August 1980. We undertook a series of attempts to reform, but these ended in failure. The obstacle was in each case our population. The Party, the government, was not in a position to win the majority to accept unpopular decisions. However, these decisions, now being carried out by the current coalition government, are being accepted fairly quietly, even though living standards are worsening. Strikes are rare. This shows that the population places greater trust in this form of government.15

And with a democratic polity, he added, “we are more likely to receive Western assistance,” even if—one can almost hear the sigh—”at present the West has only made promises.”

Widening fissures

At the end of 1988 the Soviet Bloc was entering a major crisis, the course of which was not predictable any more than its eventual outcome was inevitable. Gorbachev’s project was spinning out of control, beset as it was by economic dislocation and national uprisings—to be followed in summer 1989 by mass industrial action. The alert level for a bloc-wide crisis was raised to “high”, as attested by this warning which an adviser passed to Gorbachev in October 1988:

Now we must reflect on how we will act if one or even several countries become bankrupt simultaneously. This is [a] realistic prospect, for some of them are on the brink of monetary insolvency (Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Vietnam, Cuba, GDR)… What shall we do if social instability that is now taking an increasingly threatening character in Hungary will coincide with another round of trouble-making in Poland, demonstrations of “Charter 77” in Czechoslovakia, etc? In other words, do we have a plan in case of a crisis that might encompass the entire socialist world or a large part of it?16

To the surprise of all, it was to be trouble-making East Germans who were to spark with Hungarian instability to ignite that “world-encompassing” crisis.

The first weeks of 1989 witnessed a series of remarkable policy shifts, including the recognition of non-Communist parties in Hungary and round table talks in Poland. In May, Hungary began to dismantle the fortifications on its border with Austria. In June the Polish Communist Party relinquished its hold on power. The Kremlin tolerated all of these transformations. The precedent had been set by the Soviet leaders’ refusal to invade Poland in 1980; intervention by Soviet forces, they feared, could light the touch paper under Eastern Europe as a whole.

The event that turned the potential for a bloc-wide crisis into actuality was Hungary’s loosening of border restrictions. Encouraged by West German promises of aid, Hungary began to dismantle the fortifications on its western border. The act of “unlocking the door” came from above but it was ordinary people who pushed it open. In the course of June and July growing numbers of East German holidaymakers sojourning in Hungary seized the opportunity to cross the Austrian border to the West. It was by no means a risk free enterprise: they had to physically break through the border fence and many received injuries at the hands of Hungarian security forces.17 But the inability of the East German regime to stop them emigrating was a sign of its deepening crisis and erosion of the aura of toughness that had long surrounded its political leaders.

By September the country was abuzz with political discussion. Conversations in office and factory, school and college, kitchen or bar, revolved around a series of questions that were thrown up by the crisis. Would our friends or colleagues return from their holiday in Hungary? Would the exodus continue to swell? Would all borders be closed? Should we emigrate too? Would political change occur, and if so, what would it involve? “A large body of workers, especially in the factories,” the Stasi (secret police) informants reported, were “showing a growing tendency to attribute blame for the situation to the Party and state leadership, which is deemed to be incapable of addressing the welter of problems”.18

Anger at the political leaders was mixed with hope (for change), sadness (at the loss of emigrants) and a sense of foreboding (at the prospect of a military crackdown). For some, the regime’s paralysis diminished the fear of repression and sharpened irritation at its intransigence. “The summer brought me hope, above all,” one of my interviewees recalled; “hope that change would come.” For the exodus had exposed the regime in its frailty: “When the state’s rigid structures began to crumble we knew something was bound to happen. We didn’t think about it so clearly, so consciously, but it was clear that the state would have to react, and from a weak position.” The populace, she added, “was very aware that the regime was in trouble, and were discussing the politics of the situation more and more”.19

The changes in the Soviet Union and Poland had already excited a widespread questioning of the existing order, and this process accelerated with the exodus. Discovering and thinking through new questions and debating old ones afresh stimulated a formidable thirst for knowledge. A Leipzig health worker, Marianne Pienitz, wrote to friends in Britain, “Can you believe that I read four East German newspapers every day???!!… It strikes me that we have learned more in the past four weeks than in the last 40 years”.20 People began to alter their perceptions of how their interests might best be pursued, considered what they themselves might be able to do to affect the direction of change and, in some cases, weighed up the possibilities and risks of public protest.

Toppling of a despot

In early October the Honecker regime raised the stakes, closing the border to Czechoslovakia to visa-free travel and ordering the security forces to smash the nascent protest movement. I remember this as a very tense time. On 4 October I attended the first public gathering in Potsdam of the civic rights group “New Forum”. The meeting had of necessity been publicised by “whisper propaganda”, with only limited support from (illegal) leafleting and flyposting, yet the church was filled to the rafters and so many thousands still remained outside that two or three “sittings” had to be held before the last of the crowds eventually trickled out of the churchyard. Within the atmosphere was thick with feelings of hope but also fear and trepidation. Was the person sitting beside you a Stasi employee or informant? Had your face been recognised and would your details be passed to the authorities or to your employer?

The meeting had been called by a church group and began with a prayer, the message of which made a good deal of sense even to the many atheists present: “God enjoins the weak to find solidarity, for only thus will they be able to assert themselves in these times.” There followed a brief period of singing, a musical prologue that transformed the atmosphere in the hall. The audience relaxed. Fear subsided. It was not the lyrics or the religious temper of the songs, but the sense that the thousands within were no longer individuals anxious at the prospect of sanctions but participants in a common cause who found symbolic expression in our collective voice—and the Stasi members present were welcome to sing from our hymnsheet or risk attracting attention by refusing to do so.

In addition to New Forum meetings, three techniques of protest proved decisive. One was rioting. Although the least common form of protest, one riot, which engulfed Dresden railway station for the best part of a day, was the most serious the country had seen since 1953 and served notice to the regime that its repressive policies could backfire. Another protest technique was industrial action. In September and October numerous reports gathered by the Stasi attested to the urgency with which economic and political changes were being demanded in the workplaces.21 Their sources, Stasi officers reported, were warning that discussion of industrial action was bubbling in numerous workplaces and that “spontaneous strikes could occur”—and indeed they did, in towns across the south.22 Bus drivers and health workers were among the strikers in the first week of October, and 600 miners in Altenberg near the Czech border began a go-slow, demanding the reopening of the border. The state leaders must have realised, Bernd Gehrke has written, “that a military crackdown on mass demonstrations in Plauen, Dresden or Leipzig would have sparked strike action that could then only have been halted—if at all—by enacting a state of emergency”.23

But the most important form of protest was the street demonstration. Three of these were critical. On 7 October, in the Saxon town of Plauen, some 10,000 to 20,000 citizens demonstrated, standing firm in the face of police assaults and forcing the mayor to begin negotiations on political change. In Dresden a similar process unfolded on 8 October. Again the security forces assaulted protesters with little mercy and made numerous arrests. But their attempt to kettle protesters misfired as the police ring itself became encaged.24 In a reprise of the previous day’s drama in Plauen, a senior officer gave an unauthorised order for riot shields to be laid down in order for negotiations to take place.25 These events were unprecedented in East German history. Demonstrators had forcibly gained an acknowledged place on the streets; local leaders had buckled, losing the will to suppress protests and acceding to requests for dialogue. But the real watershed came on 9 October in Leipzig. On that day a military crackdown was expected. The army was put on alert and extra units from outside Leipzig were brought in to replace a local unit that had mutinied during a demonstration the previous week. In all, tens of thousands of security force members, including mobile police, army, “factory battalions” and Stasi, were deployed around the city centre. Many were issued with live ammunition. The interior minister ordered his forces to crush demonstrations using “any means necessary”. Lest anyone doubt his seriousness, he was later to brag to his underlings:

I would prefer to go in there and beat up these hooligans so their own mothers wouldn’t recognise them. I was in charge here in Berlin in 1953 [when Soviet tanks crushed a workers’ uprising]. Nobody needs to tell me what those counter-revolutionary scum get up to. I went to Spain as a Young Communist and fought against the scoundrels, the fascist rabble.26

Although Leipzigers were aware of the signs portending a bloodbath, attendance was four times that of the previous week. As evening approached all four city centre churches filled to overflowing. The 10,000 to 20,000 in and around the churches were joined by 50,000 to 90,000 more to form the biggest demonstration in the country’s history. It was a tremendous physical presence. And it acted calmly and peacefully: those present were keenly aware of the dangers of provoking the security forces.

After a tense standoff the security forces were pulled back; the firing of live ammunition was prevented and a bloodbath avoided. The decision to hold fire may have resulted in part from an awareness of signs of vacillation and dissent in the security forces, and was certainly influenced by the uncertainty and paralysis that had spread through the apparatuses of power over preceding months. Critical here was the lack of support given to Honecker, or to the application of hardline tactics, by the Kremlin. According to one East German leader, the indications that the Soviet army would not intervene filled them with “a growing insecurity as to whether to give the order to shoot… Our self-confidence crumbled”.27

But credit for the non-violent and successful outcome of 9 October belongs above all with the participants themselves, both those who gathered on the day and those who had shown the efficacy of public protest in previous weeks. Two aspects of these events were decisive. Most important was their sheer size; as the head of the Stasi, Eric Mielke, reportedly lamented to Honecker, “Eric, we can’t beat up hundreds of thousands of people”.28 In addition, the attitude of participants deserves mention, combining as it did determination with a clearly signalled non-violent stance. A clear signal was given: the movement would not retreat nor would it provoke trigger-happy officers into opening fire.

These eight days in Dresden, Plauen and Leipzig revealed the exhaustion of a strategy based upon police methods and weakened its authors, notably Honecker himself. The East German leadership was in a state of siege. A steady drip of reports arrived on their desks warning of vacillation in the security forces, strike threats, and a torrent of criticisms of the leadership’s obdurate position and haughty tone. With Gorbachev’s tacit approval, members of the Politburo plotted Honecker’s removal, which they secured on 17 October.

A short autumn of utopia

The ousting of Honecker did not mark a comprehensive break with the past. The new leader, Egon Krenz, had long been seen as Honecker’s crown prince; he had, said one worker, “been fed the same shit; he was, in fact, the same old shit. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was possible with him”.29 Nevertheless, this was a major turning point, coming as it did after 18 years of continuity at the top. And it was utterly unexpected. I was in a cafe on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz when the news broke. Looking up, I noticed somebody hurry in and speak to guests near the entrance. The word then passed from table to table. Animated exchanges followed: “Could it really be true?” people asked. “After this miracle, what on earth will happen now?”

The hope of the East German leadership was that the replacement of Honecker, a slight softening of rhetoric and a few reforms would suffice to convince the public that change was under way and to appease the protest movement. In fact, the reforms announced by the new administration only boosted the numbers on the streets. Political questions that had once seemed impossibly abstract now appeared concrete and urgent. Individuals began to test the newly won room for manoeuvre; the public sphere filled with a tumult of demands. “Wall newspapers” were transformed into hives of information exchange and comment—in one factory they extended to several hundred meters. At my own college I attended one student gathering at which discussion raged and meandered for hours. I noted some 32 demands that were raised, a flavour of which may be given by this selection: for independent student councils, student co-determination in university decisions, the establishment of partner universities and student exchanges, an end to Saturday classes and to obligatory courses in Marxism-Leninism, the abolition of military training in schools and of military service, more pianos, improved heating, and a public investigation into the “blank spots” in official East German historiography.

The autumn drama was played out not only on the streets but in living rooms, bars and workplaces. Curiosity about public affairs blossomed in workplaces and neighbourhoods. I recall looking out of my window to see knots of people on the street in conversation. Among friends and colleagues question piled upon question: should we go to the demonstration? What slogans should we write on placards? Practical deliberations of this sort necessitated and nourished wider ranging discussion. Was the analysis in this newspaper article correct? What is the nature of this or that aspect of society? Should it be so? Can it be changed? If so, how do we get there? Is German unification a possible and desirable goal?

Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the autumn of 1989 was the extraordinary eruption of civic activity. Opportunities were opening up for all manner of projects that had been illegal or indeed still were. Every day two to three applications to register new associations reached the interior ministry. By January some 250 had been granted a licence, including “initiatives, associations, organisations and movements of both local and regional nature. There were civic rights groups, democratic, liberal, liberal-conservative and conservative ones; left-democratic, Marxist, Trotskyist, anarchist and many more”.30 A civic initiative to change the name of Karl-Marx-Stadt back to Chemnitz was established. Committees were formed to launch investigations into brutality by the security forces. Houses were squatted, and art galleries and bars were opened in some. Students and workers established independent unions; women’s rights activists set up centres, cafes and libraries.31

One by one sealed areas of state control were prised open. As censorship evaporated, outlawed films began to be shown at cinemas, banned books were lined up for publication and former dissidents spoke and sang to crowded galleries. In ever-expanding areas of life orders were opened up to challenge and traditional habits scrutinised. As individuals perceived that they could “make a difference”, both within their immediate environment and on the national political stage, the new-found democratic space was exploited, and with relish. Attitudes of resignation and deference, rooted in the seeming omnipotence of the ruling class, were cast aside. Injustices hitherto accepted as inevitable were reinterpreted as subject to human intervention. What Paul Foot once called the “balance of class confidence” was shifting: as the strength of power holders melted away the powerless gained heart and old forms of deference and self-censorship evaporated.

Fall of the Berlin Wall

Having failed to stop the movement in its tracks the regime opted to introduce reforms and, in the process, events hitherto considered inconceivable suddenly materialised. “That Honecker could be deposed was unthinkable,” one interviewee recalls. “Previously we had harboured vague hopes that he’d go, but that was all.” Yet if the East German leader could be overthrown, she now thought, why not his loyal lieutenant Krenz? And if the border to Czechoslovakia could be reopened (as occurred on 27 October), what about that other “iron” one with its dogs and landmines? Why acquiesce to new limits? Like a hill climber reaching successive ridges, each concession wrung from the regime spurred further momentum towards new horizons, new goals.

Hardly had Honecker been ousted than Krenz became the target of anger and derision on the streets. The movement, as a leader of the New Forum, Jens Reich, perceived with apprehension, was developing “aggressive traits”. Demands were now for “everything” and “at once”.32 Stasi documents record that the content of banners and chants:

Are now directed with greater strength and aggression against the Party and its leading role, and also increasingly against the activities of the MfS [Stasi]. From the comments of participants, demonstrative applause, and the general tolerance shown towards these chants specifically, it is evident that people are increasingly identifying with them.33

A growing body of protesters raised slogans that challenged the core institutions of the regime. They called for the entire government to resign, for the Communist Party to relinquish its power monopoly, for Honecker and his henchmen to be brought to justice, and for the abolition of the Stasi and the redeployment of its officers “into the economy” or “into their own prisons!” But of all these demands that were attacking the pillars of state power the one which rang out the loudest was the call for the freedom to travel.

If the new, reforming regime was to retain any credibility, major concessions on the issue of travel rights were unavoidable. In early November a draft travel law was duly published, promising the right to travel for every citizen. It was phrased in a tortuous style, lacked any reference to when it would come into effect and placed bureaucratic burdens and restrictions on those who wanted to take advantage of it.34 A sceptical public scented duplicity. Such had been the pace of change that a concession inconceivable only a month earlier was met not with gratitude, but with a clamour of indignation which focused in particular on the government’s failure to promise adequate provision of the hard currency that visiting the West would require. The reaction of demonstrators was graphic. Banners were painted with slogans such as “Put the Stasi’s Hard Currency into the Travel Account!” and “We don’t Need Laws—Just get Rid of the Wall!”35 According to one East German leader:

We were particularly alarmed that strike threats were…coming from the workplaces. The workers felt discriminated against by the law, because in effect it denied them the material prerequisites for travel in the West. In this situation, strikes were the last thing we needed.36

In disarray the government announced the decision that at once symbolised the irrevocability of change and the movement’s greatest triumph: the border to the West was to be opened.

Luxury lifestyles, dirty deals

Socio-economic issues came to the fore on protests following the fall of the Wall. One common grievance concerned access to the West German currency—deutschmarks. In the 1980s those who lacked them had become increasingly irritated by the growing income and status gap separating them from deutschmark recipients—the elite and citizens with an “aunt in the West”. The avarice and corruption of senior functionaries were another target. In its reports on the “mood” of the population the Stasi noted the ubiquity of workers’ complaints that they bore the brunt of economic problems, of the wish that elite groups should sacrifice their privileges and of criticisms of the abuse of power by officials. A common grumble was that export receipts flowed directly into the pockets of functionaries. Rumours and mutterings of this sort circulated widely. A typical story that I recall was of a neighbour’s cousin who worked in a carpet factory: a visit by an East German leader, although intended to boost morale, had precisely the opposite effect when he departed—taking with him one of the factory’s finest products.

Tales of functionaries’ greed were legion and discussion of distributive injustice was endemic, but in autumn 1989 these grew ever more heated. Stasi reports from early October warned that regime loyalists:

In the workplaces are being confronted, on a large scale, with arguments concerning the existence of a so-called privileged class in East Germany (including functionaries of Party, state and economy) and of a massive increase in profiteering and speculation. The thrust of the argument, which is conducted very aggressively, is that these groups have been the true beneficiaries of socialism.37

In November and December questions of social justice and corruption began to take centre stage. The findings of a government committee investigating ruling class corruption began to be publicised by the (now uncensored) media. The luxury lifestyles of the state’s leaders, who had tirelessly preached equality and austerity to their subjects, were exposed to public view. Honecker, astonished citizens learned, owned a fleet of 14 cars, including a Mercedes, while presiding over a system in which his subjects were obliged to wait 14 years to buy a Trabant. Each year, it was revealed, millions of deutschmarks were diverted from the hard-pressed economy to buy Western commodities for bureaucrats who, in public, would unashamedly champion the superiority of “their” economy.

A series of scandals inflamed public opinion, and banners on demonstrations reflected the new mood: “Manual Labour for Bureaucrats!” and “Minimum Wage for the Politburo!” The popular outrage was similar in nature to the spring 2009 anger in Britain at the activities of parliamentarians—and even some of the more bizarre of the items that East German and British leaders charged the taxpayer, such as mole-killing equipment, were identical. In the East German autumn, however, revelations of the taxpayer-funded lifestyles of the political class were overlayed by a series of other scandals. The country, incredulous citizens learned, had engaged in a secretive trade with apartheid South Africa despite the official government commitment to boycott. It had even, allegedly, arranged the supply of Soviet Bloc weapons and military technology to the US military and to the CIA.38 Deals had been arranged with Western and Japanese pharmaceutical companies to test drugs on East German citizens (without their consent) and blood, donated by citizens on grounds of humanitarianism and “international solidarity”, had been diverted for sale to Western businesses.39

In the wake of these revelations protests broke out in new arenas. Prisons erupted in revolt, with inmates demanding an amnesty, reform of the criminal code, improved conditions and participation in prison decision making. The movement began to enter the workplaces too. There had been activity here in previous months but largely of a low-key sort. Now a wave of industrial action occurred, affecting a hundred workplaces and tens of thousands of workers. Demands included the sacking of managers and the dissolution of “factory battalions” and similar organisations. National political issues were also addressed, most commonly in the call for the unconditional dissolution of the Stasi. One worker in a Karl-Marx-Stadt vehicles plant reported to the New Forum leadership that, as things stood, his colleagues saw no future with either their firm or the state. “Them at the top drive big Western company cars that are paid for with urgently needed hard currency,” was one grievance outlined in his letter, which added, “We passed a resolution stating that this state of affairs should be abolished, with supervision by ourselves”.40

“Privileged of the world: abdicate!”

The most important and most public arena of protest in 1989 was the street and town square, and it is sometimes said that the revolution passed the workplace by. But look inside the offices and factories and a different story emerges. Already in September and October many workplaces were seething with political discussion. A manual worker told me that in early and mid-October his workplace witnessed:

An incredible and rapid politicisation, an astonishing ferment that was taking place everywhere—on the shop floor, over lunch, in the toilets, or at meetings of the FDGB [the state-run trade union]. At first you’d find one or two others who you could talk to and then, gradually, more and more.41

This meant that when the protests began:

Solidarity did not need to be manufactured from scratch. It already existed within small pockets of workers across East Germany, and it provided the building block from which many worker activists launched their efforts for change.42

These efforts included building street protests but also the internal politics of the workplace, notably the probing, pushing back and redrawing of the frontiers of managerial control. The successes of the public protests lowered morale among managers and encouraged workers to gather, discuss, formulate demands and take action. Employees demanded the firing of certain managers, or the abolition of the state’s workplace organisations. At one Berlin factory a group of skilled workers organised a meeting of the workforce that pushed successfully for the resignation of the general director.43 In a Karl-Marx-Stadt factory workers resolved to eject state functionaries from their positions. One of those present recounts the story:

The apparatchik would just sit in his office, hiding behind Neues Deutschland [a newspaper]. So we said: By the Xth of the month he must be gone! When that day arrived, colleagues pulled the lever, switching off the current. All the machines were now silent and we, the works council, together with the rest of the workforce, walked three laps of the main hall until we could see that he had packed his case and left the factory grounds.44

Elsewhere demands were for free speech within the workplace and for the freedom to pin critical statements or oppositional literature on “wall newspapers”. In some workplaces a “paper war” took place in which “each would pin a message on the noticeboard, and someone else would take it off again”.45 An engineer from a power station in Saxony recalls:

Colleagues in one plant would write little notes that expressed their discontent and pin them to a wooden pillar in the canteen. Every day the plant director would make sure the messages were removed—I won’t say trashed, as I’m sure that he and others were keen to discover how the workforce was feeling in these tense times.46

Widespread too was the call for firms’ accounts (or, less frequently, ecological data) to be opened to scrutiny by the workforce or the public. In Berlin workers in the Narva lightbulb factory demanded that the company accounts be published in order that the workforce could participate in drawing up future business plans.47 Also in Berlin an engineer at a lift manufacturing company told me:

Opposition activists in my workplace organised a “workers committee” that held weekly meetings and raised demands for workers’ supervision of management, for the publication of data relating to the environment—those sorts of things. It was attended in the main by white-collar employees, but sometimes by significant numbers of blue-collar workers too.

In some workplaces, from out of political discussions small groups of oppositional spirits would crystallise, arranging to meet in order to discuss further activities. One elderly engineer from Görlitz recalls that in September he, together with a group of younger workers (20 to 25 all told), met in a nearby tavern in order to “exchange views as to the general situation and what could be done”.48 The discussion was free-wheeling, but the experience inspired some of those present to organise more substantial activities in subsequent weeks and months, including the establishment of a New Forum factory branch. Or take the case of “Margrid Sch”, a socialist (but Communist Party) shop steward in a steelworks north of Berlin. Hearing of the police brutality against demonstrators she decided that “something has to be done”. She drafted a protest letter and presented it to her FDGB branch, where it received 90 percent support.49

According to Francesca Weil, a Leipzig University sociologist, this sort of experience was quite common: workplaces were the “relay stations” of the protest movement. In some Leipzig workplaces, she reports, those who attended the “peace prayers” in the early autumn would return to work the next day and describe the experience to colleagues, sparking political discussions.50 Conversely, some workplace networks of militants originated not in factory discussions but at peace prayers or civic group meetings. One group, for example, that was later to play a prominent role in the ousting of a senior functionary at the SKET plant in Magdeburg, first crystallised when they met at a peace prayer earlier in the autumn.51

Evidence of synergies between workplace militancy, the civic groups and street protests is to be found in FDGB and Stasi documents, too. In mid-October an FDGB report warned that “forces linked to New Forum” and other oppositional groups are active in a series of workplaces”.52 A Stasi document noted that the New Forum’s growth was “especially in the working class”, and that “sometimes entire work collectives go to their meetings. There have been cases of worker resistance to the ban on New Forum activity in firms, even a strike of 50 workers to get them permitted”.53 In late October one Stasi chief warned that “New Forum is becoming active throughout our republic, and is seizing above all upon problems—and this is where the real danger lies—that are the concerns of workers in particular.” A very real threat was facing the regime, it continued: “the enemy”, ie the civic groups and other “anti-socialist” forces, could:

Succeed in gaining a foothold in the working class. It is imperative that we ensure that order reigns in the enterprises and workplaces and that production is not disrupted by go-slows, labour indiscipline or strikes. Provocateurs, ring leaders and those who whip up a negative atmosphere must be recognised in time and rendered harmless.54

Protest on the streets and in the workplaces were not separate worlds; the demands in the latter tended to echo those on the streets: “No more bureaucratic impositions!”, “Abolish all privileges!”, “Communist Party out of the factory”. As the movement radicalised, its working class element grew and this influenced the agenda. “Workers were especially attuned to economic and material issues,” one worker explained to me. “They would ask, ‘What can the country afford?’; ‘Should so much money be spent on arms or on aid for the Third World?’; and ‘Am I on a fair wage?’” On the streets questions of economic organisation, exploitation and social justice came to the fore. Some banners called for market reform. Some addressed terms and conditions of work, calling for a 40-hour working week or declaiming “It’s outrageous—your prices, our wages!” Other chants and banners broached questions of economic priorities and class relations, such as “Bosses out!” and “Evict the Stasi from their quarters—make nice homes for our sons and daughters!” Within this strand a sub-genre parodied party propaganda, with slogans including “Privileged of the world, abdicate!” and “Expropriate the privileged!”

General strike or Round Table?

As the movement radicalised and entered the workplaces the regime reviewed its relationship with the civic groups. No longer were they to be seen as the “enemy”. Rather, enlisting their aid seemed the only way of restoring stability and helping it to regain a modicum of credibility. The method chosen was the “Round Table”, negotiations on which began with the civic groups in late November. For the civic groups, the Round Table seemed to offer the prospect of influence over the process of democratisation while evading the uncertainties inherent in the alternative course of mobilising for the overthrow of the regime. On the other hand, they feared, it could be a mere talking shop, with negligible influence on policy.

In early December the civic groups were put to the test. A wave of workers’ militancy was cresting, with strikes in Gera, Suhl, Klingenthal and Markneukirchen, and a local general strike in Plauen. One impetus behind this turn came from the scandals mentioned above. Another was from a two-hour general strike in neighbouring Czechoslovakia—which “was followed by East Germans, and especially by participants in protests, with great attention and sympathy, and sparked discussions in the workplaces as to the potential for a general strike here too”.55 It was at this moment that the Karl-Marx-Stadt New Forum issued an appeal, for a political general strike. The appeal, one New Forum leader recalls:

Spread like wildfire throughout the land; everyone was talking about it. There was a widespread readiness to strike, and strikes already began to break out in many places. And we were initially surprised—for who on earth was doing it? These were people that we [New Forum leaders] scarcely knew.56

For the New Forum the moment of truth had arrived. On the one hand, its leadership was aware that the opportunity existed for the Communist Party to be swept aside. “Power to New Forum!” was a popular slogan on demonstrations. On the other, inter-elite negotiations at the Round Table depended upon a spirit of compromise with the regime that would be negated by support for confrontational mass action.

On 3 December New Forum leaders, then in emergency session, heard word of a further strike call. “Representatives from all parts of the country were at the meeting,” one of those present recalls, and then Jochen Tschiche, a New Forum leader:

Arrived from Magdeburg and said the town square was overflowing. 100,000 people wanted him to tell them what should now happen in East Germany, and the workers from SKET—a heavy engineering factory of 12,000 workers, a gigantic thing—had told him that they were resolved to take strike action and would he suggest some demands? So, Tschiche arrived at the meeting and asked: “What should I tell them, what demands should be proposed?”

This was, one would imagine, a happy scenario for the New Forum. A mobilised public had taken the streets but the institutions remained intact. Now they were beginning to face pressure with the occupations of Stasi premises and, it appeared, the regime could be toppled. That was the significance of the strike issue: it would galvanise, mobilising wider layers and testing the movement’s capacity to dictate terms to government. A widespread readiness for industrial action was reported by activists—in Saxony it was “overwhelming”.57 The call for a political general strike, New Forum leader Klaus Wolfram has argued:

Would have been the opportunity to force the government to resign, by saying: we oppositionists want to form a government and if not, we’ll call upon the country to strike. And that could have begun in Magdeburg—that particular offer [from SKET] could have played a decisive role. And the political situation was such that—I don’t think this can possibly be denied—the government would have been forced to yield, and would have been prepared to do so. Shots wouldn’t have been fired. The readiness to strike of the largest factories—in Berlin similar enquiries had been coming in since October—would have left the government no choice.

It was a moment of “alternativity”, a potential turning point. By this stage in proceedings, a leader of another civic group, the SDP, told me, “We knew that the [Communist Party] had effectively lost power.” In the opposition leadership “many of my colleagues”, Wolfram continues:

Were aware of the opportunities at an early stage, yet these did not appeal. “Yes yes, power lies on the streets,” they would say. “And so? Well, let’s carry on talking. We’ll sound out the membership—for everything is decided at the grassroots.” When Karl-Marx-Stadt New Forum then issued its general strike call, they took fright, and the New Forum leadership met and we hurriedly repudiated the call and said “it won’t happen!” and “we’re all opposed” and “impossible!” and “what on earth are they up to?” and “why general strike?” That was the stance of most of those in leadership positions.

The Karl-Marx-Stadt New Forum was leaned on to overturn its earlier decision. In justifying their negative response, New Forum spokespeople argued that strike action is a “last resort” in political conflicts and should be exercised “with great caution”. Moreover, a successful strike, in the current economic climate, threatened to “bring about economic and political collapse, as well as the danger of an uncontrolled and accelerating strike dynamic”.58 In the current situation “political” (by which they meant “institutional”) means must be fully utilised, by which they meant the Round Table talks; and their success required rescinding the strike call.59 It was a decision that the state-controlled media summarised, not inaccurately, as “New Forum demands Round Table instead of general strike”.60

An extraordinary reversal had taken place. Before the 1989 uprising dissidents had bravely engaged in protest and tended to be dismissive of “the masses”, who were perceived as having accommodated to “the system”. Now, precisely with ever larger swathes of the population turning against the regime, many of those same dissidents, now leaders of the civic groups, were pleading for rapprochement. The culmination of this process occurred in January 1990 when they accepted an invitation to join a Communist-led national government.

German unification and market reform

The gap between the opposition groups and the crowds on the streets reflected divergent attitudes to the regime, to the Communist Party, but also to East Germany’s independence. The oppositionists, for the most part, focused their hopes on reforming the existing state. Those whose views had evolved within the opposition of the 1980s in particular showed a stubborn respect for East Germany’s borders. It was a view that reflected the “system immanent” character of much of the opposition, its acceptance of the East German state’s legitimacy, and its desire to achieve change by legal routes, notably through negotiation with the regime. It also expressed a critical stance towards Western capitalism and, for some, the perception that the pressure exerted by West German business circles and political elites to extend their power eastwards was in essence imperialistic.

As regards the rest of the population, a large section had little or no commitment to East Germany. By late November calls for unification were beginning to take centre stage on the street protests, and before long the demonstrations were awash with the black-red-gold of the Federal Republic. The movement’s turn towards unification did not directly contradict the radicalisation process referred to above. In fact, the issue vaulted to prominence in late November and early December, precisely when public opinion was inflamed by the revelations of privileges and corruption. In a sense, unification was a pragmatic, nationalist formulation of a revolutionary demand, to overthrow the Communist-Stasi state. Regarding “pull factors”, unification bore the promise of economic prosperity, of hard currency to reward hard work, of institutionalised political freedoms and of strong, independent trade unions. The “push factors” were East Germany’s continuing economic crisis, exodus and political collapse. The feeling grew that the situation was becoming so catastrophic that only assistance from the West would provide a remedy. “The growing helplessness of the Modrow government is fuelling people’s flight into the national question,” wrote an adviser to West German chancellor Helmut Kohl in early 1990.61

If the major forces that pushed for German unification were the East German streets and the West German ruling class, the way had already been prepared by the embrace of market reform by the East German ruling class and the civic groups. Ever since the late 1970s when the Soviet Bloc entered crisis, ideas of market reform had gained ground throughout the region. As a result, as Harman argued in this journal, it did not require a great deal of:

Pressure for the edifice of East European “communism” to collapse. The old people at the top…raved about betrayal and even on occasions fantasised about telling their police to open fire. But key structures below them were already run by people who, at least privately, accepted the new multinational capitalist common sense.62

In East Germany these processes were complicated by the claims upon its territory by West Germany. Increasingly it was kept afloat economically by West German loans—a fact that, paradoxically, enabled a false sense of security to reign among the majority of leaders and officials, and which was a contributing factor to the absence of an organised reformist current in the Communist Party. When the conditions underpinning the stability of its rule began to crumble in 1989—with the ending of the iron curtain, the exodus and the growth of protests—many functionaries “discovered”, more or less rapidly, their long-harboured belief in market reform, trade and currency liberalisation and parliamentary democracy. A consensus developed to the effect that the bulk of economic decision making should be handed to the market, labour relations be made more “flexible” and social spending be slashed. There was also wide agreement that opportunities for attracting foreign capital and know-how, and for marketing abroad had to be widened: in several industries a skilled low-wage workforce already functioned as an “extended workbench” for West German firms, and East German political and business leaders were well aware that major Western firms such as Siemens and Volkswagen were actively considering expanding their operations there.63

Initially, unification with the West did not come into the question. Communist leaders, as Harman put it, were determined to “preserve their own position as the political mediators” between East German capital and the world economy.64 However, the new economic strategy depended upon two conditions. One was that the border would remain reasonably tightly controlled, in order that a large wage gap with West Germany and a protected domestic market could be maintained. This condition fell along with the Berlin Wall. The other was that workers accept the imposition of “flexibility” (insecurity), low wages, unemployment and reduced welfare. Given the expanding movement on the streets and the growing indications that revolution was entering the workplaces—most dramatically in a renewed strike wave in January 1990—the difficulties that implementing the reform package would face were unmistakable. Krenz summarised them concisely in his warning that “a repeat of the situation that developed in Poland with Solidarnosc must be prevented”.65

From this position some sort of economic unification between the two Germanies was seen as a necessity if transition was to proceed under the control of at least core sections of the existing elite and with even a semblance of “order”. Then, in January 1990, the Kremlin gave the green light for political unification—in exchange for promises (soon to be broken) by West Germany, the USA, Britain and France that Nato would not take the opportunity to expand eastwards.66

Elections and protest demobilisation

By February 1990 the street demonstrations were winding down and giving way to party political rallies as East Germany’s first unrigged general election approached. The results of the election, held in March, defied all predictions. Helmut Kohl’s conservative Christian Democrat-led “Alliance for Germany” won a landslide, with the social democrats trailing far behind, followed by the reformed Communist Party (now renamed the Party of Democratic Socialism). The civic groups, including the Green Party, brought up the rear with a disappointing 5 percent. The Christian Democrat vote was atypical for a conservative party: it was strongest among manual workers, and expressed a desire for rapid change, as against the gradual, less ideological and more pragmatic approach of the social democrats. But if the desire for fundamental change drew upon the radical mood that had developed in November and December, it also reflected a lack of confidence in collective action. Fierce opposition to the Communists melded with a consciousness of workers’ own abject positions to produce an attitude that, at the extreme, found expression as supplication. One placard at a Christian Democrat election rally in Leipzig provided a graphic illustration: “Helmut, take us by the hand, show us the way to economic miracle land!”67

Aside from the success of the right, the other surprise in the March 1990 election was the poor performance of the civic groups. Why they fared so dismally has been the subject of some debate. Was it their lack of experience, shortage of time or the divisions in their ranks? Were they marginalised by the “steamroller of West German parties”?68 There is doubtless some truth in these suggestions. But another factor was the disconnect between the civic groups and the bulk of the street movement. It was not only that they lacked popular roots, and that they cultivated a “lifestyle politics” and other traits that confirmed their distance from the mass of the population. It was also that they chose to cooperate as a junior partner with the regime, rather than mobilise against it. They neglected the goals and values of ordinary working people, declined to rally the movement to topple the regime and so allowed a vacuum of leadership to develop which the Western parties were quick to exploit. In their disavowal of power, the journalist Klaus Hartung has suggested, they were partly responsible for the rapid incursion and easy triumph of political parties from the Federal Republic. “The politics of the opposition”, he writes, “meant that, as the scissors between mass movement and government widened, a power vacuum resulted which drew in the West German parties”.69

Nomenklatura privatisation

The story of Eastern Europe’s transition is one of a learning process, in which members of the nomenklatura—the ruling class—came to see that although democratisation would spell the collapse of the system of one-party rule it need not spell the demise of their class’s power. “Communism” itself was dispensable since functionaries had paid obeisance to Marxism not as a guide to, but as sanctification of, their practice. For company managers, state officials and a range of other elite groups, their allegiance to the Party was a particular form of organising their loyalty to, and identification with, the national ruling class. Industrialists, for example:

Did not care too much about ideology, providing they could run their enterprises successfully, accumulating capital to protect their very substantial privileges. They would hold party cards because party membership helped them to succeed—and because the party helped stamp out dissent among the workforce. But they did not take the party’s avowed beliefs seriously.70

This style of “pragmatic” Communism was also pervasive in the state apparatuses, and even among party cadre. Soviet-type institutions were given support in so far as they provided a viable framework for the achievement of economic growth and social control, but could be discarded without undue fuss when these conditions no longer obtained.

As Chris Harman pointed out, in the course of a comparison between the transitions in Eastern Europe and regime changes of earlier times, a ruling party and a ruling class are never quite the same thing. The former represents the latter:

Binding its members together in a common discipline which helps them achieve their common goals against the rest of society. But the class can preserve the real source of its power and privileges, its control over the means of production, even when the party falls apart. This was shown in Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain after the fall of their fascisms.71

In the post-fascist cases the single party that bound industrialists, landowners, police chiefs, army officers and government ministers into a tight network disintegrated but, a measure of elite replacement and reforms to corporate ownership notwithstanding, was replaced in each instance by a pluralist political system that preserved the class divisions upon which capitalist order rests. In Eastern Europe, Harman elaborates, changes to ownership structures were greater but here too “the enterprise heads, the ministry officials, the generals, even most of the police chiefs, remain[ed] in place”. They did not abdicate but sought positions in new or reformed institutions, establishing new political parties and creating new structures of accumulation.

Harman’s study, published in 1990, was prescient. As the years have passed, evidence has accumulated that shows high rates of elite continuity in Eastern Europe. One summary, from 1996, concluded that:

During and after the transitions of 1989-91, Communist leaders scrambled to protect their power bases or to create new ones. Their manoeuvres were varied. Some negotiated places for themselves in post-Communist regimes through the famous “Roundtable talks”. Many cashed in the credits they had accumulated through patron-client networks and appropriated large parts of state-industrial enterprises (“nomenklatura privatisation”); still others colluded in “mafia” activities to profit from weakened state oversight and regulation.72

Democracy, the same study observed, did not constitute a major threat to established elites in the region:

Instead of having to fight tooth and nail to defend their power and status, most elites associated with the old order have adapted to democratisation without major loss…nothing approaching a “revolutionary” circulation of elites occurred; in this key respect there were no Central and East European revolutions in 1989-91.73

In a similar study the German political scientist Klaus von Beyme concluded that “there was no fundamental turnover of elites”. Although Communist parties sometimes excluded the most dogmatic members from the party, the goal was to “open better chances for the younger generation within the party”, the overall effect of which was to produce an “accelerated turnover of generations”.74

In East Germany the alchemy that saw “old” bureaucratic power transmuted into investments in the embryonic new Germany was an important aspect of the transition period. The process began towards the end of 1989 and continued apace in 1990 under Communist and Christian Democrat governments alike. Under the reforming Communist administration of early 1990 the liberalisation of land and property markets enabled thousands of functionaries to exploit the resultant opportunities, buying up land and scooping luxury properties at bargain basement prices. Those in positions of economic authority, and with appropriate connections and knowledge, were able to siphon “people’s own” funds into their own newly established firms or bank accounts, transferring vast sums with a few strokes of the pen. Loopholes in the State Treaty (which unified the currencies of the two Germanies) enabled functionaries to convert colossal sums of East German marks and “transfer roubles” into deutschmarks at parity, by illicit methods—for example, through the “export” to the Soviet Union of goods that existed only in accounting books.

As the “Communist” elites filed across their hastily constructed bridge to capitalist democracy the readiness with which most of them shed the ideological commitments and trappings of their previous calling was striking. Senior army officers, to give an example that stands for many, would cheerfully exchange the title Genosse (comrade) for Herr.75 Managers resigned their party membership in droves and actively sought partnership with the Western “enemy”. In the long run, of course, German unification led to far greater elite replacement in the former East Germany than elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Indeed, the threat of unification had haunted Communist leaders throughout the transition period—for them, it greatly exacerbated the dilemmas of liberalisation. According to his memoirs, Egon Krenz was interested in the developing situation in Poland in which a “shared position with regard to the interests of state” was emerging between Communist Party and Solidarnosc leaders, but the question of “what are the interests of state?” nagged at him. “However much is reformed in Poland, the state remains Poland. But what if the Communist Party loses? Without it East Germany would not exist… There would be no raison d’être for two capitalist German states. East Germany’s existence as a German state depends upon its socialist nature”.76


What, then, have the events of 1989 given us to celebrate? To the extent that they embodied a recalibration of structures of exploitation and political power, nothing whatsoever. One imperialist alliance crumbled but the vacuum left by its collapse was rapidly filled by another. Bureaucratic state capitalism was replaced by neoliberal market capitalism. But there was nonetheless a great deal to cheer. One less tangible but momentous gain was the consigning of Stalinism to its grave. For more than half a century it had dominated the world’s left, perfecting its characteristic technique of signalling left while turning right. The task of reclaiming Marxism as a theory of working class self-emancipation became somewhat more straightforward. More visibly, the institutionalisation of civic freedoms—including the rights to assembly and to trade union organisation—across Eastern Europe represented a historic victory for the millions who had taken to the streets. In East Germany a period of 40 years in which collective action was systematically suppressed was thunderously brought to an end, as the country was rocked by some 2,600 public demonstrations, over 300 rallies, over 200 strikes, a dozen factory occupations and army mutinies. From a total population of 17 million at least several million (and perhaps as many as five million) people took part, giving a glimpse of the potential that arises when established order breaks down in the face of collective protest.


1: Thanks are due to Chris Harman for comments on an earlier version of this article.

2: Yoder, 1999, pp207, 20.

3: “Gloom Prevails In Germany”, Guardian, 10 November 2005.

4: Lenin, 1980, p206.

5: Harris, 1983, p170.

6: Lange, 1969; Callinicos 1991. For earlier treatments of the war-economic character of state capitalist societies see Bukharin, 1982; Cliff, 1964.

7: Harman, 1976, p31.

8: Adomeit, 1998, p127.

9: Harman, 1976, p31.

10: Ost, 1990; Barker, 1986.

11: Goodwyn, 1991, p205 and elsewhere.

12: Goodwyn, 1991, p83; Zirakzadeh, 1997, pp115-116; Fuller, 1999, pp160-161.

13: Adomeit, 1998, p141.

14: Zebrowski, 1988, pp14-15; Cold War International History Project Bulletin 12-13, 2001.

15: Archived in BA SAPMO, SED-Parteiarchiv.

16: Georgy Shakhnazarov’s Preparatory Notes for Mikhail Gorbachev for the Meeting of the Politburo, 6 October 1988, www.wilsoncenter.org/topics/pubs/New_Ev_EndCW.pdf

17: Hertle, 1996a, p101.

18: Wolle, 1998, p316.

19: Antje Neubauer.

20: Marianne Pienitz to Geoff Brown and Judy Paskell, 25 and 29 October 1989.

21: Bastian, 1994, pp33-34.

22: Mitter and Wolle, 1990, p226.

23: Gehrke, 2001b, p253.

24: Bahr, 1990, p129.

25: Friedheim, 1993, p104.

26: Hollitzer, 1999, p286.

27: Kuhn, 1992, p32.

28: Przeworski, 1991, p64; Allen, 1991, p186.

29: Philipsen, 1993, p285.

30: Müller-Mertens, 1997, p52.

31: Schäfer, 1990, p28.

32: Reich, 1991, p171.

33: Mitter and Wolle, 1990, p250.

34: Hertle, 1996b, p91.

35: Maximytschew and Hertle, 1994, p1145.

36: Schabowski, 1990, p135; 1991, p304.

37: Mitter and Wolle, 1990, p205.

38: Die Tageszeitung, 5 December 1990; Koch, 1992, pp228-261; Przybylski, 1992, p309.

39: Wolle, 1998, p208; Der Spiegel, January 1991.

40: Mitter and Wolle, 1990, p205; Klenke, 2006; Krone, 1999, p84.

41: Uwe Rottluf, interview.

42: Fuller, 1999, p140.

43: For this and similar examples, see Gehrke and Hürtgen, 2001.

44: Gerd Sczepansky, in Gehrke and Hürtgen, 2001, p44.

45: Roesler, 2002.

46: Roesler, 2002.

47: Tribüne, 7 December 1989.

48: Gehrke and Hürtgen, 2001, pp271-272.

49: Gehrke, 2001a, pp229-230.

50: Weil, 1999, p536.

51: Gehrke, 2001a, p227.

52: FDGB Archive, document dated 17 October 1989.

53: Peterson, 2002, pp180, 191, 216.

54: General Lieutenant Kleine, in Bastian, 1994, p34.

55: Gehrke, 2001b, p256.

56: Klaus Wolfram, interview.

57: According to Jens Reich, in Joppke, 1995, p163.

58: From New Forum leadership discussion papers, Robert Havemann Archiv. See also Schulz, 1991, p28.

59: Schulz, 1991, p28.

60: Tribüne, 13 December 1989.

61: Teltschik, 1991, p111.

62: Harman, 1990, p66.

63: Nakath and Stephan, 1996, p219.

64: Harman, 1990, p23.

65: Krenz in conversation with Gorbachev, in Hertle, 1996a, p477.

66: Stent, 1998, p225; Zelikow and Rice, 1995, pp180-184; Adomeit, 1998, p501.

67: Pritchard, 1996, p167.

68: Batt, 1991, p386.

69: Hartung, 1990, p60.

70: Harman, 1990.

71: Harman, 1990, p66.

72: Higley, Kullberg and Pakulski, 1996, p137.

73: Higley, Kullberg and Pakulski, 1996, pp138-139.

74: Von Beyme, 1996, pp67-68, 74, 165.

75: Peter Chemnitz, in Golombek and Ratzke, 1991, p125.

76: Krenz, 1999, p207.


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