When the Central Committee of East Germany’s ruling Communist party chose a new leader last week, the proceedings had an unaccustomed touch of openness. Moments after the 163-member committee named Egon Krenz to replace the dour and discredited Erich Honecker, the new leader strode out of the meeting room in East Berlin and faced waiting television cameras. Smiling broadly, he pledged “work, work, work and more work” to solve East Germany’s mounting problems. Three hours later, Krenz acknowledged during a 55-minute televised speech that East Germany’s leaders had not reacted quickly enough to the widespread popular discontent that has rocked the country. He declared: “It is clear that we have not realistically appraised the social developments in recent months and have not drawn the right conclusions quickly enough. We see the seriousness of the situation.”
Krenz’s style was more open than that of the
austere Honecker, but there was no sign that his appointment signalled a shift away from Honecker’s hard-line approach. In fact, the 52year-old Krenz had faithfully implemented Honecker’s policies and was the older man’s
chosen successor. As a result, leaders of East Germany’s rapidly growing opposition movement characterized the appointment as a disappointment. And in the West, analysts said that the selection was no more than a cosmetic change by a leadership still determined to cling to power. Declared Detlef Kuhn, president of the Institute for East-West German Relations in Bonn: “They may have won a bit of breathing space, but I doubt that Krenz is able or willing to promote real reform.”
For the 77-year-old Honecker, it was a sudden and bitter farewell to power. Best known for building the Berlin Wall in 1961, he became party leader 10 years later. During the 1970s, he won a measure of popularity as East Germany’s economy prospered by Eastern Bloc standards. But in recent years, Honecker’s government was one of Eastern Europe’s most rigid Communist regimes, ignoring the grievances building up among East Germans. His grip weakened last July when he fell ill—he later had
surgery for gallstones—and his government was embarrassed as tens of thousands of East Germans fled to the West. Honecker’s humiliation was completed on Oct. 7, when the 40th anniversary of the founding of East Germany
coincided with the biggest street demonstrations in the country’s history—and with a new flood of refugees to West Germany.
Last week, when the party Central Committee announced that Honecker had resigned for health reasons, it appeared clear that he had been forced out. Two of his closest associates, Günter Mittag, the party’s top economic official, and Joachim Herrmann, the party propaganda chief, also resigned.
Honecker’s successor has been a full-time Communist official for all of his adult life. Krenz, who is married to a Russian native by whom he has two children, is the son of a tailor from Kolobrzeg, a Baltic seaside town that is now part of Poland. He joined the Communist party in 1955 at 18 and he spent three years studying social sciences in Moscow during the mid-1960s. In 1983, he was named to the party Politburo and, like Honecker, became the party secretary responsible for security, putting him in charge of East Germany’s feared secret police.
Until last week, he gave no public sign of dissenting from Honecker’s orthodox views. In fact, during a visit to West Germany in June, he robustly defended the bloody crackdown last spring by China’s Communist leaders against student protesters in Beijing.
Still, Krenz has cultivated a personal style markedly different from that of other East German leaders. Klaus Bölling, who led West Germany’s permanent mission in East Berlin in 1981-1982, met Krenz twice during that period and said that he was unusually outgoing. “He was even able to make some pretty funny remarks,” Bölling told Maclean ’s. “It certainly set him apart from the other members of his party.” But Bölling added that Krenz’s habitual grin masks a determination to maintain party rule. He declared: “He is a typical career party man. There is no sign that he has any special gift for developing new perceptions.”
At 52, Krenz is the youngest member of East Germany’s Politburo. But some Western analysts question his stamina. He is a diabetic, and West German intelligence agencies have for years spread rumors that his condition is aggravated by his heavy drinking. He also faces a difficult task as pressure for reform in East Germany grows. Just three days before his appointment, the illegal reform group New Forum held its first nationwide meeting in East Berlin. The next night, about 100,000 people marched through the streets of the southern city of Leipzig in the biggest protest in the country in decades.
Last week, several East German newspapers that had previously followed the party line issued calls for reform. Said Bölling: “There is a real momentum for change. Krenz cannot escape these demands, and how he responds over the next three or four weeks will be crucial.” But last week, it appeared that the growing calls for change would go far beyond anything that East Germany’s new master would be prepared to offer.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.