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GDR decline German unity

German Democratic Republic decline to German unity
The German Democratic Republic, which had been founded on 7 October 1949, was a product of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, many Germans, their experience with the nazi dictatorship still fresh in their memories, were at first willing to help develop this anti-fascist model. But the command economy, secret police, the all-powerful SED (the East German communist party), as well as strict censorship, increasingly alienated the people and the regime. In spite of this, very cheap housing, health care and social services gave this self-contained system a certain amount of flexibility which enabled the people to eke out an existence in many different ways. East Germany's great success in international sport was a sort of compensation, just as the 'workers' gained satisfaction from the fact that they soon had the highest rate of industrial production and the highest standard of living in the Eastern bloc, despite having to make huge reparations to the Soviet Union. The people's reaction to state control and tutelage was to withdraw into their private sphere.

In spite of all the propaganda about annual production targets having been more than achieved, and behind the facade of anti-imperialist hatred spread in the schools, factories and the armed forces, it became increasingly clear that East Germany's original intention of overtaking the Federal Republic economically would remain a dream. Depleted resources, industry's vicious destruction of the environment, coupled with dwindling productivity as a result of central planning, forced the East German regime to go easy on its promises. It had to raise increasingly large loans in the West. Improvisation became the order of the day with regard to consumer goods. The quality of life and infrastructure (housing, transport, environmental protection) thus deteriorated. All the assurances of socialism's ultimate victory turned out to be nothing more than a caricature. The image of the capitalist class enemy in the West which had been propagated by the regime was completely shattered by the early 80s at the latest. There was a Big-Brother spy network which kept watch on everybody, and the system's indoctrination and strained appeals for solidarity made the claim about the leadership role of 'the working class and their Marxist-Leninist party' (article 1 of East Germany's constitution) sound like hollow rhetoric, especially to the young generation. The people began to demand a bigger say in running their own lives, more individual freedom and more and better consumer goods. These wishes were often coupled with the hope that the socialist system, ossified by bureaucratic constraints and anti-Western ideology, would prove capable of reforming itself.

As the atmosphere of diplomatic relations deteriorated as a result of the quarrel over the deployment of medium-range missiles, the proposed Strategic Defence Initiative, a space-based defensive umbrella proposed by the Americans, and East Germany's continued aggravation of the West (for instance, by building a second wall at the Brandenburg Gate and impeding traffic in the air corridor to Berlin), the East Germans themselves put pressure on their own leadership. Some had entered the Federal Republic's 'representation' in East Berlin and refused to leave until they had been given a definite assurance that they could move to the West.

In order to make life easier for the Germans in the east, the Federal Government arranged various large bank credits for the GDR. Moscow's fear that this would soften the socialist system was allayed by Erich Honecker, who wrote in 'Neues Deutschland', the regime's mouthpiece, in 1984: 'Merging socialism and capitalism is just as impossible as merging fire and water'. But this self-assurance on the surface could hardly conceal the fact that the reform movements in Eastern Europe had thrown the whole socialist bloc onto the defensive. Honecker's rejection of the accusation made at the CSCE conference in Ottawa (1985) that the people in Eastern bloc countries were denied free speech and freedom of movement was a propagandistic lie.

From the beginning of 1985 more and more people sought admission to the Federal Republic's permanent representation in East Berlin and the German Embassy in Prague. Soon the new General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, who had succeeded Konstantin Chernenko (who had died in March), became the main standard bearer for the East German people, who were longing to gain their freedom, but also for international cooperation on security matters.

Meetings and conferences. In 1986, Gorbachev declared that his main political objective was to eliminate nuclear weapons by the end of the century. His meetings with US President Ronald Reagan in Geneva and Reykjavik, the Conference on Confidence and Security-Building Measures and Disarmament in Europe held in Stockholm, as well as the preparations for negotiations on the reduction of conventional forces in Europe, showed that the East was ready for dialogue. This new approach was conducive to agreements between the two German states on cultural, educational and scientific cooperation. A skeleton agreement providing for cooperation in the field of environmental protection was also signed. That same year Saarlouis and Eisenhuttenstadt made a twinning arrangement, the first of its kind between cities in East and West Germany.

But the East German regime did not want to be infected by Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost. They didn't want the process of democratic reform in the Soviet Union to spread to the GDR. Kurt Hager, a member of the politburo and the SED's principal ideologue, stubbornly argued that there was 'no need to redecorate one's home just because the neighbour is doing so'.

The extent to which the East German leaders ignored the expectations of their own people was shown by the protest demonstrations in East Berlin on 13 August, the anniversary of the wall. Chancellor Helmut Kohl spoke against the continuation of Germany's division when, during Honecker's working visit to Bonn (1987), he said: 'We respect the present borders but we want to overcome the country's division by peaceful means through a process of mutual understanding. We have a joint responsibility for preserving the vital foundations of our nation'.

A step towards safeguarding those vital foundations was the INF Treaty signed by Reagan and Gorbachev. Under that accord, all US and Soviet missiles with a range of 500 to 5,000 km deployed in Europe had to be withdrawn and destroyed. The Federal Republic for its part pledged to destroy its 72 Pershing IA missiles.

The general climate of de<\`>tente led to increasing demands for greater freedom and reform in East Germany. During demonstrations in East Berlin in early 1988, 120 supporters of the peace movement known as 'Church from the Grassroots' were arrested. Prayers were said for them in the Gethsemane Church. Over 2,000 people attended the service, and a fortnight later their number had swollen to 4,000. In Dresden the police broke up a demonstration for human rights, free speech and freedom of the press. In May Honecker used the occasion of a visit by the Soviet Defence Minister Yasov to warn about the danger of imperialism and to call for a stronger Warsaw Pact.

Although Chancellor Kohl, in his state of the nation address to parliament in December 1988, welcomed the lifting of some travel restrictions, he had to denounce the suppression of the reform movement in the GDR. To Erich Honecker, however, the new civil rights movements were merely examples of 'extremist intemperance'. In response to appeals to remove the wall, he replied on 19 January 1989: 'The wall protecting us from fascism will stay there until such time as the conditions which led to its erection are changed. It will still be in existence in 50, 100 years' time'.

The stubborn rigidity of the East German leaders at a time when Gorbachev saw a 'common European home' taking shape and Helmut Kohl was speaking optimistically about 'the disintegration of ossified structures in Europe', aroused even more discontent among the population. At times the Federal Republic's permanent representation in East Berlin had to be closed because of the surge of people wanting to move west. In September 1989 Hungary opened its border, thus permitting thousands of people from the GDR to pass through to Austria and from there into West Germany. This breach of Warsaw Pact discipline encouraged ever more people in the GDR to take to the streets in protest, including growing numbers outside the church. And when the regime, in October 1989, celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of the GDR with great pomp and ceremony, mass demonstrations were held, primarily in Leipzig (We are the people).

Honecker finally realized that his only chance of preserving the essence of the SED regime was for him to resign. He was succeeded as SED secretary general and GDR head of state by Egon Krenz, but the latter's promise of 'change' was drowned by the protests of the people, who did not trust him. Under the pressure of events the council of ministers and the SED politburo resigned en bloc. The peaceful revolution seemed to paralyze the authorities. As a result, a mistaken announcement by Gunter Schabowski, party secretary in the district of Berlin, that travel restrictions were to be eased prompted thousands of people to cross the border on the evening of 9 November 1989. The authorities could only watch numbly. The wall was open. Soon it was to be broken down and tiny pieces were offered as souvenirs.

News of the breach in the wall reached Chancellor Kohl whilst he was on a visit to Warsaw. He suspended his engagements for a day and hurried to Berlin where he addressed a crowd of 20,000 from the balcony of Schoneberg town-hall. He asked them to remain calm in that joyous hour, and thanked Mr Gorbachev and Germany's friends in the West for their support. He said the spirit of freedom had gripped the whole of Europe. Upon his return to Warsaw he signed a declaration in which Germany and Poland promised to intensify their cooperation in the cause of peace, security and stability in Europe. The revolution in East Germany opened up the opportunity for the country's reunification after a wait of decades. But caution was required. Paris and London did not have German unity on the agenda. Mr Gorbachev, during talks with US President Ronald Reagan off the coast of Malta (December 1989), warned against any attempt to force the German issue. And in the GDR itself the new government under Hans Modrow, though demanding rapid reform, also wanted the GDR to keep its statehood. Helmut Kohl therefore proposed a ten-point programme for achieving national unity. It envisaged a 'contractual arrangement' based on a confederal system leading to fundamental political and economic change in the GDR. The Chancellor proposed that the direct negotiations with the GDR should take place within a pan-European setting under the aegis of the European Community and the CSCE. He avoided specifying a time-frame for the negotiations so as not to spark any further comment abroad about Germany seeking superpower status. The road to unity still seemed long to both sides, especially when Mr Gorbachev, addressing the Communist Party Central Committee, said as late as 9 December 1989 that Moscow would not leave East Germany 'in the lurch', that it was Moscow's strategic ally in the Warsaw Pact and that one still had to start from the assumption of two German states, though there was no reason why they should not develop a relationship of peaceful cooperation.

Chancellor Kohl said the people in East Germany themselves should be the ones to decide on the speed and the substance of unification. But the government saw events rapidly slipping from their control. The people in East Germany distrusted their new government. They became increasingly attracted to the West and the process of destabilization increased rapidly. But still Mr Gorbachev held back, particularly as Poland and Hungary were escaping Moscow's grasp, Ceausescu's overthrow in Romania was in the offing, and therefore East Germany's departure from the Warsaw Pact would upset the balance of power. From western quarters, too, came exhortations to the Germans to 'take account of the legitimate concerns of neighbouring countries' (US Secretary of State Baker speaking in Berlin) as they pursued national unity.

And finally, the unification process could only be continued after Bonn had given an assurance that there would be no shifting of the present borders, that, in the event of unification, NATO's 'structures' would not be extended to the territory of the former GDR, and that Germany would reduce its armed forces to offset its strategic advantage. President Bush was in favour of German unification provided the Federal Republic remained a member of NATO.



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