History, declared Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, “punishes those who come late.” Gorbachev directed that admonishment at East Germany’s hard-line Communist leader, Erich Honecker, last October, only 11 days before massive pro-democracy demonstrations forced him from power. Now, however, Gorbachev himself is struggling to keep pace with the rapid changes sweeping Eastern Europe. And on Jan. 30, as East German protesters continued to demand the reunification of Germany, Gorbachev told East German Prime Minister Hans Modrow that he would not rule out the possibility of reunification. That was an apparent reversal of his earlier insistence that it was premature even to discuss the subject. Western analysts said that Gorbachev’s remarks were a signal that the Soviet Union is willing to consider a dramatic strategic realignment in Central Europe. “There are no longer any differences between our and the Soviet general secretary’s views,” declared Egon Bahr, a senior member of West Germany’s opposition Social Democratic Party. “It is no longer a question of if, but when, how and what form a united Germany might take.”
Two days after Gorbachev’s statement on reunification, Modrow himself embraced the inevitable: he proposed a step-by-step plan for reunification, leading to a neutral Germany with Berlin as its capital. At the same time, he warned that such a plan must be implemented with caution to assure neighboring states that a “united fatherland of all citizens of the German nation” would not pose a military or economic threat to the region. “The postwar era in Europe is coming to an end,” Modrow declared. “The reunification of the two German states is on the agenda.” In Bonn, however, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl rejected Modrow’s notion that a reunited Germany must be neutral. And he added that he would negotiate on reunification only after East Germany’s free elections on March 18—an indication that he considers the Modrow government irrelevant to the process because its days are numbered.
With law and order crumbling and the East German economy in tatters, Modrow tried desperately last week to hold his country together long enough to vote. Early in the week,
he signed an accord with nine opposition parties to move the elections up to March from their original date in May. And he agreed to form a new “giant coalition” government, with each of the opposition parties appointing a minister without portfolio to join Modrow’s 27member cabinet. Modrow told parliament that the old Communist-led coalition government had “proved increasingly fragile as economic and social tensions have worsened, affecting the daily life of our people.” Widespread strikes had caused production breakdowns, he added, and the country’s economic crisis was aggravated by labor shortages as nearly 2,000 citizens continued to leave for the West each day. Modrow also said that anti-Communist demonstrations had forced many regional and town governments to disintegrate.
The breakdown of local party authority has been hastened by the government’s criminal investigations into electoral fraud in the May, 1989, communal elections, which put many of the current local government leaders into office. Meanwhile, authorities formally charged Honecker with high treason. Police arrested the disgraced leader last week when he left a hospital where he had undergone surgery for kidney cancer in January. Later, they released him from custody and Honecker went to live at the home of a Lutheran pastor. His doctors argued that Honecker, 77, was too ill to stand trial. But East Germany’s prosecutor general, Hans-Juergen Joseph, told parliament that Honecker will have to face his accusers in March. Said Joseph: “We have a historical duty to bring to justice the main culprits.” Honecker’s prosecution and the Communist party’s new position on reunification are clearly an effort to win voter support in the weeks before national elections. But many analysts say that the Communists are likely to be swept from power anyway. And although Communist party leader Gregor Gysi told a West German newspaper last week that reunification is inevitable, he added, “What is happening now is too fast and chaotic for me.”
The pace of change may also be too fast for some of East Germany’s smaller opposition parties, including the democratic movement, New Forum, which may have difficulty mounting an effective election campaign before March. Forum leaders have expressed resentment that such larger and better-organized parties as the Social Democratic Party (SPD) are putting all their energies into the election campaign. “The SPD’s orientation is entirely towards the elections,” said Sebastian Pflugbeil, a New Forum leader. “They don’t give a damn what happens to this country.” Still, many analysts in East Germany say that the Social Democrats have the best chance of emerging as the dominant party in next month’s elections. If they do, they are likely to embark on a program of social, political and economic co-operation with West Germany. Clearly, democracy in East Germany will be shaped by those who can best adapt to the country’s rapidly shifting political landscape.
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