Images - Democratic Awakening
During the fall of 1989, an unexpected, grassroots democratic uprising toppled the government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and forced the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. Only a month earlier, the country’s aging dictator, Erich Honecker, had still seen fit to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of his communist state, hailing the GDR as a splendid success while ignoring the accumulation of long-term problems that had already eroded its very foundations and would soon spell its ultimate end. These included the loss of ideological credibility, the stalling of the planned economy, and the terror of the secret police (also known as the Stasi). During the summer and fall of 1989, East German citizens had fled by the thousands, crossing the newly opened Austro-Hungarian border or making their way to freedom through West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw. This mass exodus revealed the deep-seated disaffection of East German citizens, who sought a better life in the West. Encouraged by the erosion of communism in Poland and Hungary, dissidents appealed to the public for an open dialogue; they formed organizations like the New Forum [Neues Forum] and put forth plans for wide-ranging reform. In response, the Socialist Unity Party (SED) attempted to stop the flood of refugees and to suppress criticism with police brutality. This misguided tactic only revealed the regime’s cruelty and created sympathy for its victims. When Leipzig authorities decided not to use force to halt the city-wide demonstrations of October 9, 1989, it became clearer that East German citizens were succeeding in using collective action to take back the human rights that had been guaranteed to them under the constitution but denied in practice.
The East German Communists’ belated efforts to follow the Soviet example and liberalize their system failed because their concessions were too few and too late. On October 18, 1989, Honecker was forced to resign, and his hand-picked successor, Egon Krenz, assumed the leadership of the GDR. But when Krenz proposed an open dialogue with the emerging opposition movement, the public remained skeptical, not only because he had justified the Chinese bloodbath at Tiananmen Square only a few months earlier. Instead, half a million people gathered on Berlin’s famous Alexanderplatz to plead for a thorough restructuring of the East German regime in the direction of democratic socialism. On November 9, 1989, a bungled announcement of a more flexible travel policy drew thousands of curious citizens to various GDR border crossings. Border guards were overwhelmed and had little choice but to open the Berlin Wall.
Krenz’s tenure as leader of the GDR was brief. On November 17, 1989, his popular replacement, Hans Modrow, pledged a more extensive set of reforms. But as soon as millions of East Germans glimpsed Western prosperity first-hand, Modrow’s reform agenda fell largely on deaf ears. In desperation, the governing communists reinvented themselves as the “Party of Democratic Socialism” (PDS) and appealed for “a new GDR.”
The collapse of the East German state reopened the “German Question” that had lain dormant for four decades. The growing détente between the superpowers called into question the necessity of a divided Germany, a situation that had arisen from Allied occupation policy and had been reinforced by the Cold War. On November 28, 1989, in an uncharacteristically bold move, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl seized the initiative and proposed a “Ten-Point Plan for German Unity” that outlined the gradual merger of the two German states. Kohl’s multi-step planned called for cooperation, a confederation, and finally unification. Fearing the loss of Russian control over Eastern Europe, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev responded by angrily berating German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, invoking the specter of Hitler. In contrast, U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush supported Germany unity, seeing the democratic awakening in Eastern Central Europe as an opportunity to spread democracy, especially if the Soviet Union could be persuaded to relinquish its satellites without resorting to force. Inside the GDR, the chief representatives of the citizens’ movement and communist organizations came together in a forum known as the Central Round Table, where the necessity of reform was the subject of debate. But the overwhelming welcome that Kohl received during his visit to Dresden on December 19, 1989, made it clear that “unification couldn't be stopped anymore."
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