COVER

THE GREAT ESCAPE

THOUSANDS FLEE EAST GERMANY ON THE EVE OF ITS 40TH ANNIVERSARY

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 16 1989
COVER

THE GREAT ESCAPE

THOUSANDS FLEE EAST GERMANY ON THE EVE OF ITS 40TH ANNIVERSARY

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 16 1989

THE GREAT ESCAPE

COVER

THOUSANDS FLEE EAST GERMANY ON THE EVE OF ITS 40TH ANNIVERSARY

Red banners, bustling outdoor cafés and stages with multicolored backdrops lent a festive air to Alexanderplatz, the usually bleak modern square in the centre of East Berlin. Along the wide Karl-

Marx-Allee, rows of black, red and yellow East German flags fluttered from the balconies of drab, identical housing blocks. On walls throughout the city, posters trumpeted the accomplishments of the Communist state. And on Friday night, Oct. 6, more than 100,000 young East Germans marched down the Unter den Linden boulevard, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic with a torchlight parade. Watching proudly

from the reviewing stands was 77-year-old East German leader Erich Honecker, flanked by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and a host of other Eastern European dignitaries. But the public pageantry could not mask the Soviet leader’s growing concern over the stability of his East German ally (page 34). And the festivities were overshadowed by the fact that, across the border in West Germany, nearly 50,000 former East Germans were celebrating a different occasion—their dramatic escape to the West (page 36).

Indeed, the recent mass exodus of refugees from East Germany was merely the most visible sign that, after four decades of Communist rule, the German Democratic Republic

was at a crossroads. Honecker’s frail appearance and quavering voice, coupled with his increasingly reclusive habits, led to fresh rumors that he will soon step down (page 39). Planning for the anniversary celebrations throughout the week was often plagued by growing antigovernment protests. In Magdeburb, 130 km southwest of Berlin, nearly 2,000 people staged a march on Wednesday night to demand the right to emigrate. And two days earlier, in the city of Leipzig, at least 10,000 people marched in support of New Forum, a month-old prodemocracy group that authorities have branded “an enemy of the state” (page 42). Declared Jens Reich, a founder of the group: “Communications between the state and society in our country have broken down.”

Shredded: In the largest exodus since the Berlin Wall cut off easy access to the West in 1961, during the past five months almost 35,000 disgruntled East Germans fled their country through Hungary, which began dismantling its Iron Curtain fence along the Austrian border in May. And

0 last week, nearly 15,000 others joined

1 them. Fuelled by concerns that their 1 avenues of escape would be shut down, thousands of East Germans jammed

into the West German embassies in " Prague and Warsaw in hopes that, like some 7,000 others on Oct. 1, they also would be allowed to emigrate to the West. As Western media focused on the plight of the refugees, a clearly embarrassed Honecker, preparing to host his country’s anniversary celebrations, reluctantly agreed to send trains to ferry the refugees to West Germany. As the first so-called freedom train pulled out of Prague on Wednesday night, passengers showered East German currency onto the platform. “We don’t need that any more,” shouted one elated refugee. Others tore apart their identity passes and tossed the shredded pages like confetti.

In an attempt to stem the flood of refugees, on Oct. 3 the East German government suspended all visa-free travel to Czechoslovakia, which was the last country that East Germans had been allowed to visit without permission. Western diplomats said that that unprecedented step could lead to further protests and demands for reform by those left behind. It also illustrated East Germany’s increasing isolation from traditional Eastern Bloc allies.

Indeed, as East German leaders tightened their grip on power, neighboring Hungary’s ruling Communists turned their backs on more than 40 years of Marxism-Leninism. On Oct. 7, delegates at an extraordinary Communist party congress in Budapest voted overwhelmingly

to transform themselves into a socialist party committed to Western-style parliamentary democracy. The decision paves the way for free, multiparty elections early next year in which the new party will compete with an array of opposition groups.

But there remained no hint of such radical change in East Germany, and as a result, even that country’s Oct. 3 decision to close the escape route through Czechoslovakia did not halt further, sometimes desperate attempts by others to leave. On the same day, 18 East Germans burst into the U.S. Embassy in East Berlin to demand asylum. They were finally persuaded to leave the embassy by officials who told them that they could not grant them passage to the West. Hundreds of other East Germans tried a different approach: as the refugee-filled freedom trains rolled from Prague through East Germany on their way to the West, many East Germans tried to leap onto the moving cars to join them. They were stopped by heavily armed soldiers brought in to guard the tracks.

The most dramatic incident took place on Oct. 4 in Dresden, where would-be emigrants and others protesting against the state’s refusal to adopt reforms clashed with police and workers’ militias. Church sources said that 90 people were injured as demonstrators threw stones and police responded with water cannon and truncheon charges.

Force: At the same time, even the preparations for the anniversary celebration carried an occasionally ominous air. On the evening of Oct. 3, two nights before the start of festivities, soldiers closed the streets around the huge

downtown Alexanderplatz, a popular gathering place for East Berlin’s young people. Armored personnel carriers blocked traffic, while several hundred troops rehearsed for a planned military march. Western diplomats interpreted the display as a show of force aimed at discouraging protest demonstrations.

Those scenes were even more striking because they occurred in a country often cited as one of the Eastern Bloc’s most stable and economically successful. Although East Germany was almost completely devastated at the end of the Second World War, it has successfully recovered to a point where it now ranks

among the world’s top 20 industrialized nations. Since the country’s leadership became concerned eight years ago with the size of its debt to Western countries, it has reduced that deficit to about $7 billion from as much as $16.5 billion. As a result, East Germany has the highest credit rating of any Eastern European country. Those achievements have also translated into a standard of living easily the highest in the Eastern Bloc.

Contrast: In some measures of daily living standards, East Germany is statistically on a par with many Western countries. Government figures show that the country has 418 apartments for every 1,000 residents. By contrast, Hungary has 370 for every 1,000 people and neighboring West Germany has 447. And in comparison with the depleted appearance in most other Eastern Bloc cities, East Berlin’s comparatively well-stocked restaurants and stores are impressive. At the downtown Centrum department store, there are few lineups, and consumers often have a choice of different varieties of household and grocery items. That is a sharp contrast with such countries as the Soviet Union and Poland, where basic food items, including meat and vegetables, are in chronically short supply.

But even senior East German government officials concede that few people are content to look east when they measure their conditions of life. Instead, a frequent topic of discussion is about life dadrueben—an expression meaning “over there” that inevitably refers to West Germany. Said Otto Reinhardt, a senior adviser to Honecker on ideological affairs: “Our people know what a department store looks like in the other Germany.” One of the most dramatic areas for comparison is on the East German highway linking West Berlin and West Germany. It is one of the few places where East and West Germans can travel side by side. East Germans who drive tiny, lightly powered Wartburg and Trabant cars seldom dare leave the slower outside lane because of their Western counterparts passing swiftly by in powerful Mercedess Benz and BMW sedans.

To justify such obvious differences, East German leaders have traditionally cited other aspects of everyday life where, they say, their Communist social system has clear advantages. Westerners acknowledge that East Germany’s crime rate is far lower than in the West. As well, the country claims near full employment, and the costs of food and monthly rent have not been changed in more than 30 years. Although the infant mortality rate in other Eastern European countries has been climbing because of a shortage of medical equipment and facilities, East Germany’s rate has dropped in the past decade to 8.1 deaths for every 1,000 births from 12.9 per 1,000.

The state also offers a comprehensive plan

of social measures that includes fully paid maternity leaves of up to 28 weeks and interest-free loans for young married couples of as much as about $3,000. To emphasize those points, the state-run media offer East Germans a steady diet of stories about problems in West Germany, including higher living costs, unemployment and the growing crime rate. Said

Reinhardt: “We have no apologies to make for how we care for our people.”

Shortages: But in recent years, it has become clear that the government is having increasing problems meeting its peoples’ needs and desires. In an unusually forthright editorial last year, the country’s most popular newspaper, Junge Welt, complained that consumer-

goods shortages were causing “unpleasant moral and economic consequences.” The newspaper cited shortages and delivery delays of such goods as clothing, furniture and cosmetics. As well, the average waiting time to buy a puny Wartburg or Trabant car is between 10 and 13 years. Even then, the price for a new Wartburg is more than $19,000. For a person earning the average of $580 a month, that is equal to almost three years’ full salary.

But many East Germans say that the country’s most serious problems have little to do with material goods. Some young people complain that the country’s rigid system robs them of social opportunities and professional incentives. One apparent result of that despair is a sharp increase in divorces and single-parent families. Divorce has doubled in the last three decades, and 40 per cent of new marriages do not last more than five years. One-third of babies are bom to unmarried women.

Deep: Still, social issues are only one of the focal points of the country’s small but burgeoning dissident movement. The 21 members of Honecker’s ruling Politburo have an average age of 68, and many of their formative political experiences came in brushes with the Nazis before and during the Second World War. But many observers say that the advanced age of most government leaders means that they are out of touch with the wishes and needs of younger people. Earlier this year, Protestant Bishop Christoph Denke warned that the country’s discontent ran so deep that it was approaching its 40th anniversary “with many of its people no longer ready to talk about ‘our’ republic.”

Western political analysts say that Mikhail Gorbachev’s popularity among both East and West Germans poses particular and unexpected problems for Honecker. Since the end of the

AFTER 40 YEARS OF COMMUNIST RULE, EAST GERMANY IS AT A CROSSROADS

Second World War, the Soviet Union and East Germany have been tied together in a complex and often emotionally wrenching relationship. East Germany’s official history is built on the principle that the Soviet Union rescued the country from nazism in 1945. Despite that, age-old antipathies between Russian and German people have continued. Both East Germans and Soviets often make mocking jokes about each other to Westerners. Even though Russian is widely taught in East German schools, many people refuse to speak it to visiting Soviet tourists. Along with resentments that stem from the war, many East Germans have not forgotten that, in the past, the Soviet Union was often at the root of decisions affecting East Germany that had sometimes brutal consequences.

Tanks: In 1953, Soviet officials used troops and tanks to quell the previous round of prodemocracy demonstrations in East Germany. Eight years later, the Soviet Union was deeply involved in the decision to erect the Berlin Wall. Said a Soviet journalist with long experience working in East Germany:

“They have listened to us, but they have never liked us.”

Now, the East German leadership is confronted by a popular Soviet leader who is urging the rejection of many of former leader Josef Stalin’s principles, on which East Germany’s political system is built. The key platforms of Gorbachev’s reforms include decentralizing economic decision-mak-

ing, increased democratization of the country’s political process and more openness and debate in the Soviet media. In the process, Gorbachev has earned admiring compliments from sometimes unexpected sources. Last month, Manfred Gerlach, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, which traditionally works closely with the ruling Socialist Unity (Communist) Party, said that he and his colleagues were watching Gorbachev’s reforms with “burning fascination” and hoped for his success.

The furor over the recent exodus to the West has obscured the improvement in relations between the two Germanies that had been under way until that point. In recent years, East and West Germany have signed agreements on subjects ranging from the institution of direct flights between the two countries to a link that allows East Germany to avoid power outages by tapping into Western grids. West Germany has provided huge amounts of money for years through a complicated system that amounts to paying East Germany cash each time it agrees to release a political prisoner. In all, the West German government estimates that it invests more than $5.3 billion annually in programs directly benefitting East Germany.

Attack: But despite pressure from both Eastern Bloc allies and Western countries to consider reforms, few of East Germany’s present leaders seem prepared to do so. In a TV appearance last week, a defiant Honecker accused

West Germany of trying to “turn us

upside down with a comprehensive attack.” Later, Reinhardt initially appeared more conciliatory when he said of the departed refugees that “everyone who leaves is one too many.” But when a journalist asked him if he would like the refugees to return, he snapped, “I would not take them back now.”

As anniversary celebrations came to a close on Saturday, some East Germans said that they were looking to the immediate future with personal concern. One member of the New Forum opposition group told reporters about a chilling remark that he claimed had been made to him by a government representative. Said the New Forum member: “He said to me if the [opposition] groups want to touch socialism in our country, please remember China”—an apparent reference to the Beijing government’s massacre of prodemocracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square last June.

Joke: For their part, other East Germans took solace in a widely repeated joke about the mass exodus to West Germany. It depicted an East German student excitedly telling his mother that school authorities had declared citizens would no longer have to carry identity cards after 1990. When the mother asked why, the child replied, “Because by that time, everybody will know everybody else.”

There was a grain of truth in that black humor. West German officials estimate that as many as 1.5 million more of East Germany’s 16.5 million people are prepared to leave if the opportunity arises. The anniversary celebrations in East Berlin last week focused on the accomplishments of four decades of communism. But the flight of tens of thousands of disillusioned East German citizens to the West provided dramatic evidence of its failures.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

SUE MASTERMAN