October 23 1989



October 23 1989




Little by little, the hard-liners appeared to relent as protests swept East Germany last week, raising a nationwide crescendo of demands for Polishor Hungarian-style reforms. At first, East German leader Erich Honecker openly opposed change, ignoring the recent flight of nearly 50,000 East Germans to the West and hinting—by citing the example set by China’s Old Guard leadership last June—that he was ready to crush dissent by force. But, by week’s end, his Communist party’s Politburo had modified its position. Following an unprecedented two-day meeting, its members offered to discuss changes in the rigid system under which East Germans have lived for the past 40 years. Whether they were actually willing to implement substantial changes was another question. Honecker had clearly given ground only grudgingly. And some East Germans pointed out that the Chinese leadership had also opened a dialogue—just before sending in tanks to massacre pro-democracy students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

The Politburo heralded the apparent turnaround in official policy in an Oct. 11 statement declaring its readiness “to discuss all basic questions of our society.” There may have been many reasons for the recent mass exodus, said the Politburo, but “we must—and will—look for them in our own house as well.” The statement was short on specifics, failing to make clear whether the discussions would be restricted to party circles or would include dissenting groups such as the New Forum movement. But on Friday, Honecker appeared to rule out talks with the opposition, saying, “We don’t need suggestions for the improvement of socialism that are really intended to cause its demise.”

The Politburo indicated

that it was prepared to review such subjects as greater freedom for the tightly controlled media, an improvement in supplies of consumer goods and relaxation of travel restrictions. But the party leaders made it clear that they would not consider the kind of changes that have occurred in Poland, which now has a nonCommunist prime minister, or Hungary, where the ruling Communist party has transformed itself into a Western-style social democratic party. “We will not allow the power of the workers and peasants, the values, ideas and achievements of socialism, to be violated,’’ warned the Politburo.

It was unclear whether that warning was a mere face-saver for the party—or a threat to dissenters. Also uncertain was the status of Honecker, the party’s 77year-old general secretary, who is known to be in poor health. Some party workers, who declined to be identified, spoke of fierce opposition within the Politburo itself to Honecker’s hard line. Meanwhile, across the border in West Germany, the media speculated that Honecker would soon be forced to step down under pressure from reform-minded colleagues.

Analysts in the Soviet Union expressed similar opinions. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, during his visit to East Germany two weeks ago to mark the country’s 40th anniversary, reportedly urged Honecker in vain to follow his reformist lead. Last week, the Kremlin offered no official comment on the East German upheaval. But Vyacheslav Dashichev, a senior member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, provided one insight into official thinking during an interview on West German television. “I think in the foreseeable future there will be big changes [in East Germany],” he said, but “not under this leadership.”

In East Germany, there were other signs of growing dissent. Party officials said that some police officers had opposed the use of force against nonviolent protesters and that journalists at the official news agency, ADN, were refusing to continue describing demonstrators as “criminals” and “hooligans.” In fact, there was visible evidence that the East German press, widely regarded as among the Communist world’s most slavish, was beginning to loosen up. Declared the trade union daily, Tribüne'. “We consider it our duty in future to portray things more clearly.” The normally tame Christian Democrat daily, Die Union, complained that official information on huge protest demonstrations in Dresden had been “one-sided and gave a wrong impression.” And although the Communist party daily, Neues Deutschland, still hewed to the official hard line, the Communist youth daily, Junge Welt, went out of its way to report on a

demonstration at East Berlin’s Humboldt University.

Elsewhere, party sources in the industrial town of Karl-Marx-Stadt warned that workers were threatening to strike in favor of reforms. Those sources added that paramilitary factory police had indicated that they would not intervene, declaring that “workers will not march against workers.” Western analysts said that mass work stoppages could be extremely damaging for East Germany, whose economy has already been affected by the exodus of young, skilled workers. One East German trade union official told an Austrian newspaper last week that his government was trying to recruit

80.000 skilled personnel from China.

The Politburo’s concessions followed a dramatic policy shift by local party leaders in East Germany’s secondand third-largest cities, Leipzig and Dresden. Following the most serious riots those cities had seen since a 1953 uprising, which collapsed after Soviet military intervention, local party chiefs last week moved to calm the situation. First, they ordered the police not to interfere with peaceful demonstrations. Then, the mayor of Dresden began a formal dialogue with 20 pro-reformist leaders, and the mayor of Leipzig quickly followed suit. In addition, 500 of an estimated

1.000 people who were arrested during five nights of demonstrations in Dresden were released from custody. Those actions apparently occurred without reference to the Com-

munist hierarchy in East Berlin. “Maybe the locals decided to move on their own,” said one Western diplomat. “You could argue that they had no choice—after all, Dresden had thousands on the streets every night.”

In the forefront of the protests is the monthold New Forum movement, whose leaders are agitating for the kind of reforms that Gorbachev has introduced in the Soviet Union. Many demonstrators chanted “New Forum, New Forum,” and sang the American civil-rights anthem We Shall Overcome, as they marched through the streets of Leipzig and Dresden. Although Honecker’s interior ministry has branded New Forum as an enemy of the state, leaders of the group insist that they are loyal citizens who want to improve conditions.

Meanwhile, with apparent reluctance, East Germany’s Lutheran Church has also been drawn into the movement for reform. An estimated 47 per cent of East Germans are nominally Lutherans, and the church has coexisted uneasily with the officially atheist state since the founding of the German Democratic Republic in 1949. Church leaders have frequently spoken out on human-rights issues but, unlike the Roman Catholic clergy in Poland, they have steered clear of open confrontation. Now, church leaders have begun speaking more boldly, and pastors have been allowing dissidents to use their churches—which the police are barred from entering—as sanctuaries. Said one Western diplomat who specializes in East

World Notes


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Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland submitted the resignation of her minority Labor government, paving the way for a three-party coalition, led by Conservative leader Jan Syse, to take power this week.

German religious affairs: “The church has not deliberately chosen this role; it was forced on it.” Johannes Hempel, Lutheran Bishop of Dresden, appeared to agree. The church’s role, he said, was to help “avoid escalation and violence” and to build bridges between dissidents and the authorities.

During the demonstrations and riots that followed the anniversary celebrations in East Berlin, the city’s redbrick, neoGothic Gethsemane Church became the main rallying point for protesters. It held nightly candlelight services for New Forum supporters,

featuring readings of the names of arrested and injured demonstrators, and collections to support the families of detainees. Some students staged hunger strikes inside the church. And in an interview on West German radio on Oct. 11, East Berlin church leader Giinter Krusche cited indications that party leaders in a number of

cities were preparing to legalize New Forum.

In Washington, D.C., the Bush administration greeted the East German leadership’s apparent willingness to discuss reform as “a welcome new perspective.” But, added state department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler,

the Politburo’s statement should be backed by action. “A dialogue should be meaningful,” she said, “and not just a tactical move to relieve domestic and international pressure.” For his part, deputy assistant Secretary of State Curtis Kamman warned a congressional subcommittee: “There is the possibility that [the reform movement] will be repressed.” With East Berlin sending out mixed signals last week, one Western diplomat commented, “The leopard does not change his spots overnight.” In an Oct. 11 editorial, Neues Deutschland angrily rejected an offer of substantial economic, scientific and technical help from West Germany in return for implementing a Polishor Hungarian-style reform program. Accusing West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl of “flagrant interference” in East German affairs, Neues Deutschland declared: “We will solve our problems alone—not with g Kohl’s recipes, but with sociali ist methods, in a socialist fasht; ion.” It was standard, hard-line I East German rhetoric. But, as some observers were quick to " note, at least the party newspaper was now admitting, along with the Politburo, that there

were problems to be solved.