The Foreign Service Journal, November 2019

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | NOVEMBER 2019 31 Today the 1989-1990 revolutions in Europe seem like such a historical given that it is hard to imagine the truth: In 1989 few envisioned that developments in the socialist world would soon accelerate so dramatically. Early that year East German head of state Erich Honecker had predicted the Berlin Wall would last for 100 years. Western politicians may have given speeches about the yearning for freedom in Central and Eastern Europe. But they, too, had no real idea of how strong that yearning among people long conditioned to suppress their hope for freedom would prove to be. There were three critical moments in the momentous trans- formation that took place during that year. First was the “Miracle of Leipzig,” on Oct. 9, when Germans in the German Democratic Republic found the courage to demonstrate their demand for freedom to travel. Second was the fall of the Berlin Wall one month later, on Nov. 9, when that courage was joined with self-determination as East Berliners took to the streets and challenged the border guards at the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint. And, finally, just a year later, East Germany’s freely elected parliament voted, on Oct. 3, 1990, to join the two Germanys together. At the time, I was serving as the deputy chief of mission of the U.S. embassy in the GDR, in East Berlin. Here is my eyewitness report of those earthshaking events. Prelude: The Miracle of Freedom It all began slowly in the summer of 1989, after the May 7 municipal election results were contested by East Berliners such as civil rights activist Thomas Krueger. Change was in the air. On June 4 the Chinese government massacred democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Shortly after- ward, the Honecker government received Chinese Premier Li Peng, known as the “Butcher of Beijing” for his role in that massacre, in an act of solidarity with the Chinese crackdown against “counter-revolutionaries.” In August, Honecker, general secretary of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), was ill; so his second-in-command, Egon Krenz, traveled to China. Krenz’s subsequent comment on the Chinese action—“Etwas getan worden, um die Ordnung wiederherzustellen” (Something had to be done to uphold order)—became known as the China Solution. East Germans understood. The fear generated by the Honecker government fed a flood of East Germans from the GDR that had picked up during the year, young people frommy Pankower Catholic Church among them. West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Interior Minister Rudolf Seiters intervened with the Honecker government to allow East Germans in Prague to immigrate to West Germany by way of the West German embassy. By the end of September, trains carrying fleeing East Germans crossed from Prague through Dresden and on to West Germany. Though still standing, the Berlin Wall was being circumvented. The Honecker government then imposed a visa require- ment for travel to Hungary and Czechoslovakia. As a result, on Oct. 4, 1989, some 18 East Germans sought asylum in the U.S. embassy in East Berlin. Only with the assistance of Wolfgang Vogel—a famous East German spy-swapping lawyer and Erich Honecker’s personal attorney—could we at the embassy obtain passes for them to West Berlin before the GDR’s 40th anniversary celebrations began three days later. USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to East Berlin as guest of honor at the Oct. 7 celebrations was fraught. The choice between Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost and Honecker’s expected repression of demonstrators was stark. In a public encounter during the visit, Gorbachev was quoted as saying: “Life punishes those who come too late.” It was widely under- stood as a warning to Honecker. After Gorbachev departed East Berlin, the crackdown began. I was at the Gethsemane Church that evening, a church where protesters met to demand freedom for friends arrested for demonstrating. Demonstrations for “freedom and the right to travel” had become a regular and growing feature of life in East Berlin and other cities. As the evening wore on, the police moved in, hauling off thousands of demonstrators to holding areas for subsequent arrest. In Leipzig, on Oct. 9, the regular Monday night vigil at the Nikolaikirche was the focus of attention. Pastor Christian Fuehrer saw his church half-filled with Stasi agents as the ten- sion grew over the continued crackdown. Three SED members had met that afternoon with Gewandhaus Orchestra Maestro Kurt Masur, who was highly regarded by the people and the government, to deal with the increased police presence and the expected violence. The fear was palpable. Masur saw the events It all began slowly in the summer of 1989, after the May 7 municipal election results were contested by East Berliners.