Daily Archives: 5 September 2007

East Germany’s Biggest Fan: West Germany

From Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt (Penguin, 2005), pp. 611-612:

To outside observers, the German Democratic Republic appeared among the least vulnerable of Communist regimes, and not only because it was universally assumed that no Soviet leader would ever allow it to fall. The physical environment of the GDR, notably its cities, might appear tawdry and dilapidated; its security police, the Stasi, were notoriously omnipresent; and the Wall in Berlin remained a moral and aesthetic outrage. But the East German economy was widely believed to be in better shape than that of its socialist neighbors. When First Secretary Erich Honecker boasted at the country’s fortieth anniversary celebrations in October 1989 that the GDR was one of the world’s top ten economic performers, his guest Mikhail Gorbachev was heard to emit an audible snort; but if nothing else, the regime was efficient in the manufacture and export of bogus data: many Western observers took Honecker at his word.

The GDR’s most enthusiastic admirers were to be found in the Federal Republic. The apparent success of Ostpolitik in defusing tensions and facilitating human and economic communications between the two halves of Germany had led virtually the entire political class to invest their hopes in its indefinite prolongation. West German public figures not only encouraged illusions among the nomenklatura of the GDR, they deluded themselves. Simply by repeating that Ostpolitik was having the effect of easing tensions to the east, they came to believe it.

Preoccupied with ‘peace’, ‘stability’, and ‘order’, many West Germans thus ended up sharing the point of view of the Eastern politicians with whom they were doing business. Egon Bahr, a prominent Social Democrat, explained in January 1982 (immediately following the declaration of martial law in Poland) that Germans had renounced their claim to national unity for the sake of peace and the Poles would just have to renounce their claim to freedom in the name of the same ‘highest priority’. Five years later the influential writer Peter Bender, speaking at a Social Democratic Party symposium on ‘Mitteleuropa’, proudly insisted that ‘in the desire for detente we have more in common with Belgrade and Stockholm, also with Warsaw and East Berlin [emphasis added (by Judt)], than we do with Paris and London.’

In later years it would emerge that on more than one occasion national leaders of the SPD made confidential and decidedly compromising statements to high-ranking East Germans visiting the West. In 1987 Bjorn Engholm praised the domestic policies of the GDR as ‘historic’, while the following year his colleague Oskar Lafontaine promised to do everything in his power to make sure that West German support for East German dissidents remained muted. ‘The Social Democrats’, he assured his interlocutors, ‘must avoid everything that would mean a strengthening of those forces’. As a Soviet report to the GDR Politburo noted in October 1984, ‘Many arguments that had previously been presented by us to the representatives of the SPD have now been taken over by them’.

The illusions of West German Social Democrats are perhaps understandable. But they were shared with almost equal fervour by many Christian Democrats too. Helmut Kohl, the West German Chancellor since 1982, was just as keen as his opponents to cultivate good relations with the GDR. At the Moscow funeral of Yuri Andropov in February 1984 he met and spoke with Erich Honecker—and did so again at the burial of Chernenko the following year. Agreements were reached between the two sides over cultural exchange and the removal of mines on the inter-German border. In September 1987 Honecker became the first East German leader to visit the Federal Republic. Meanwhile West German subsidies for the GDR continued apace (but no support was ever forthcoming for East Germany’s internal opposition).

Flush with West German sponsorship, confident of Moscow’s backing and at liberty to export to the West its more troublesome dissidents, the East German regime might have survived indefinitely. It certainly appeared immune to change: in June 1987 demonstrators in East Berlin opposed to the Wall and chanting praise for the distant Gorbachev were summarily dispersed. In January 1988 the government did not hesitate to imprison and expel well over a hundred demonstrators who were commemorating the 1919 murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht with signs quoting Luxemburg herself: ‘Freedom is also the freedom of those who think differently’. In September 1988 Honecker, on a visit to Moscow, publicly praised Gorbachev’s perestroika–only to make a point of studiously avoiding its implementation upon his return home.

Leave a comment

Filed under Germany, USSR