These Tremendous Weeks in History: 6-19 October 1989
For most of the period of the Trabant Trek, which continued until the East Germans closed their border with Czechoslovakia on 3 October, the German Democratic Republic’s leader, Erich Honecker, was seriously ill, following his collapse at the Warsaw Pact summit in Bucharest. He was seventy-four, and had led East Germany’s government for eighteen years. He played little part in decision-making as his government swung from ferocity to weakness and back again. Everyone knew that the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the state, on 7 October, would be a critical moment.
In the run-up to the event, Leipzig saw big demonstrations. These were not spontaneous or anti-communist, but had been taking place for a number of years. Every Monday there were peace services in the Protestant churches there every Monday, the city being one of the foremost centres of the Lutheran Reformation in Germany. After these services the congregation would go in procession to the pedestrian precinct in the old town carrying candles. What was different now was that human rights organisations and radical groups joined in. Again, however, many of these groups and radicals still saw themselves as democratic socialists within the German Marxist Social Democratic tradition, but increasingly in opposition to the hard-line government in Berlin.
The GDR had been one of the few countries to congratulate the leadership of Deng Xiaoping after it had mowed down and crushed the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in May. There seemed to be a real possibility that the growing demonstrations in Leipzig might be dealt with in a similar way. The nerve of the government was under great strain. There were signs of growing discontent everywhere. People were no longer as scared of the authorities as they had been. As the tension mounted, the Interior Ministry’s record of threats received in different parts of the country showed a remarkable increase over normal times:
Anonymous telephone call to the regional office of the SED in Marienberg, 09.35, 4.10.89: “Your place is going to be blown sky high, you miserable rabble.”
Anonymous telephone call to Lichtenberg railway station, 23.50, 4.10.89: “Here’s a birthday present for Erich Honeker: bombs have been planted at Lichtenberg and Schönefeld stations. It’s going to be a lot of fun. They’re set to go off at two o’ clock.”
Anonymous telephone call to the Volkpolizei satation at Coswig, 10.00, 5.10.89: “You arse-lickers, you ought to know that your place is going to be blown up today.”
Anonymous telephone call to the central warehouse in Dresden, 10.30, 5.10.89: Three ejector-seats available, deadline 11.15.”
Anonymous letter received by the Ostseezeitung newspaper in Rostock, 6.10.89: “40th anniversary of the GDR… On 6 October, 16.00, attacks on the Ostseezeitung and the Dierkow market. We want freedom. Death to Honecker. We mean it!”
Anonymous telephone call to the regional office of the Staatssicherheit in Freiburg, 11.57, 6.10.89: “Write this down: We’re going to blast the presidential platform in Berlin tomorrow. Message ends.”
Nothing happened, of course. But the guest of honour at the celebrations on 7 October exploded a device of his own. The day before, Mikhail Gorbachev had arrived for his two-day visit to celebrate the anniversary and let it be known that he had warned Honecker that Soviet troops would not be available for use against demonstrators in the GDR. Speculation was already growing that he was encouraging the younger and more liberal members of the Politbutro to overthrow Honecker, and it grew still further when he said,Life punishes those who hold back. In East Berlin, Gorbachev suggested to Honecker that the way to stop public protest engulfing his government was to introduce a German form of perestroika. Honecker wouldn’t listen: during his last visit to Moscow he had been disgusted by the bare shelves in the shops. How dare Gorbachev tell him how to organise the most prosperous economy in the socialist world! Gorbachev was undaunted, and told a large rally that East Germany should introduce Soviet-style reforms, adding that East German policy must be decided not in Moscow, but in Berlin. Honecker, standing next to him, glared.
Gorbachev’s visit galvanised protests against the deeply unpopular regime. For a torchlight procession down the Unter den Linden in East Berlin (pictured left), a crowd of thousands of hand-picked party activists was assembled to cheer Gorbachev. To everyone’s surprise, they broke into chants of Gorby, Gorby, save us. In an extraordinary turnabout, the leader of the Soviet Union was now being hailed by Eastern Europeans as their saviour from their own government’s tyranny. There were also more spontaneous demonstrations that evening in Dresden, Magdeburg, Leipzig, Plauen, Karl Marx-Stadt, Potsdam and Amstadt. TheStasi (Secret Police) broke these up with great brutality. Gorbachev told his aides he was disgusted by Honecker’s inept handling of the crisis and that the leadership can’t stay in control. Back in Moscow, the Soviet leader ordered his general staff to ensure that their soldiers in East Germany stayed in their barracks and did not get embroiled in the chaos that was soon certain to overwhelm the country.
It was on the day after Gorbachev left, 8 October, in Leipzig, that the great test came. Early that morning, the Stasi went from factory to factory and office to office, warning people that they shouldn’t take part in the big demonstration which was planned for that afternoon. Schools closed early, as did many of the shops. The centre of the city was abnormally quiet all day. No trains came into the main railway station, which had been put to another use: it became the headquarters of a large military force. The opposition leaders later discovered that Honecker had ordered the Stasi to open fire on the demonstrators if there was no alternative way of stopping them. The Tiananmen option, which he had praised in June, was to be available in Leipzig. Several thousand troops were deployed, with units taking up positions on every street corner, and tanks and armoured personnel carriers were drawn up at all the main intersections. Marksmen were positioned on all the rooftops near the station, some equipped with machine guns. The army had arranged trailers and trucks to carry the wounded to selected barns and sheds on farms outside the city. Everything was ready for a bloodbath. However, wary of repeating that of Tiananmen Square, the local party leaders would not support Honecker’s orders. If they had agreed, and the troops had opened fire on the seventy thousand protesters marching through the streets, the show of overwhelming strength could have stopped the demonstrations and saved the political life of Erich Honecker just as in China it saved that of Deng Xiaoping. More probably, it would have resulted in Honecker’s downfall even more rapidly, just as it did later that year in Romania.
The gamble was too great to take. Honecker and Egon Krenz, as the Politburo member responsible for security, had created this formidable military build-up.
Egon Krenz later claimed the credit for having deterred Honecker from giving the order to open fire, but he was himself fighting for political acceptance in the aftermath of Honecker’s fall, and his evidence is not to be taken at face value. After his expulsion from the PDS, the Party for Democratic Socialism which replaced the communist SED, Krenz became a wealthy man by selling his story to the right-wing tabloid Bild in West Germany for more than a million Deutschmark. The reliable evidence shows that it was the army leadership and perhaps even the Stasi in Leipzig who lacked the will to carry out Honecker’s orders. It was therefore easier to convince the political hierarchy who were part of the chain of command that it would be disastrous to shoot down the demonstrators. Almost certainly, the real credit should be given to the SED Party elite in Leipzig itself. There is also some evidence that the Soviet leadership got wind of the possibility that a massacre was being planned and warned against it.
More than seventy thousand people, perhaps as many as a hundred thousand, gathered outside the churches the centre of Leipzig, and as they marched from St Nicholas Church to the main square, the soldiers watched them go. The marksmen peered down from the rooftops, the trucks and makeshift ambulances remained where they had been parked and the barns outside the city remained empty. The opposition had faced down the threat. It became clear that whatever the Stasi might do with clubs and tear gas, demonstrators no longer ran the risk of being shot dead. The decision split the SED leadership, sparking off a battle within the Politburo. Nine days later, on 18 October, Erich Honecker resigned as Party leader and was replaced by Egon Krenz, who, as the youngest member of the Politburo, began purging five out of its eighteen members. Krenz tried to rally the Party and the people around a new slogan, Change and Renewal, Krenz presented himself as the East German Gorbachev. Hundreds of demonstrators were released from prison.
Krenz’s new slogan seemed empty to those who were now demanding sweeping reforms. The more conciliatory Krenz appeared to be, the greater was the call for radical change. In a matter of a few months in the late summer and early autumn of 1989, before the closing of the borders, nearly two hundred thousand people had crossed into the West via Hungary, half of them illegally. It was these Trabant Trekkers, combined with the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the historic towns and cities of East Germany, who brought to an end the forty years of the Communist state there. With it, the Brezhnev Doctrine also came to an end. Gennadi Gerasimov, the foreign ministry spokesman, shrugged his soldiers, commenting on the events in the GDR by saying simply, it’s their business. He added, famously:
You know the Frank Sinatra song, “My Way”? Hungary and Poland are doing it their way. We now have the Sinatra Doctrine.
The phrase stuck, and became popular in the West.
To be continued…
Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers)
John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.
A Postcard from Miklós Radnóti’s Death March – At nine kilometers: the pall of burning…
At nine kilometers: the pall of burning
hayrick, homestead, farm.
At the field’s edge: the peasants, silent, smoking
pipes against the fear of harm.
Here: a lake ruffled only by the step
of a tiny shepherdess,
where a white cloud is what the ruffled sheep
drink in their lowliness.
Cservenka, October 6, 1944
means “picture postcard” in Serbian; in the original Hungarian, it is in plural, Razglenicák. I posted the first verse of the poem, written in the mountains, on 30 August, the date on which it was written, before the march began. There are two more verses, written in the last week of October, shortly before Radnóti was shot and buried by the roadside, and is the last of the ten poems which were found in his address book in the pocket of his raincoat twenty months later, when his body was exhumed.
Cservenka was the place where the Nazis slaughtered about a thousand Jewish servicemen.
To be continued…
Zsuzsanna Ozsváth & Frederick Turner (2014), Foamy Sky: The Major Poems of Miklós Radnoti: A Bilingual Edition. Budapest: Corvina Books. (corvinakiado.hu)
This Week in Hungarian History: Signing the Armistice in Moscow and the Nazi Coup in Budapest: 11-17 October 1944.
Just before 8 p.m. on 11 October 1944, the Hungarian Peace Delegation in Moscow signed an armistice with the Soviet Foreign Minister in the Kremlin. Earlier that day, in fact much earlier, at 3 a.m., they had had their sixth conference with the Soviets. On that day, Russian forces were still just over a hundred km from Budapest. Molotov told Szent-Iványi that he was well aware of the of the fact that the Germans were willing to carry out a massacre and that they had to prevent this. He understood that the preliminary conditions of an armistice with Hungary had been accepted and asked if it would be possible to discuss the final armistice, and to sign it. Szent-Iványi agreed that his delegation had full powers to do so, which had been put into a radiogram that they had received from Budapest. Major Nemes was on his way to Moscow, via Körösmező, with the letter confirming this. Although he felt that they already had the Regent’s authorisation to sign, Molotov disagreed, saying that the letter they had brought with them only empowered them to negotiate. He wanted a radiogram from the Regent clearly giving them authority to sign.
Up to that point, the negotiations had been held in French, but Molotov suddenly asked Szent-Iványi if he wished to continue in English. The latter agreed, and Molotov declared the conference suspended for about ten minutes, going into an adjoining room. While he was passing through the door, the delegates caught a glimpse of the people in the other room. One of them, Faragho, later insisted that he had seen Churchill and Eden there. Géza Teleki reported overhearing a conversation between Dekanozov and Eden from the same room. Molotov returned to them when the ten minutes were up, declaring that they would continue the negotiations later that morning, and that Hungary would then be out of the war. They returned to their dacha at 4.50 a.m., but had no sleep on that memorable day. They worked all morning and afternoon, composing and sending notes to the Allied Powers, as well as more radiograms to Budapest. After a short meal at about 5 p.m., they left the dacha in General Kuznietov’s car, just before 7 p.m.
At about 7.15 p.m. Molotov opened the seventh conference, telling the three Hungarian delegates that the Soviets and their Allies were willing to accept their conditions, and that the necessary formalities could be carried out immediately. They also agreed to accept a short delay in the advance of the Red Army to allow for the Hungarian Army to make its withdrawal towards Budapest. Szent-Iványi said that they had already sent a radiogram to Budapest asking for information about the Hungarian and German forces, especially how much time would be needed for the Hungarian forces to reach Budapest. He hoped the reply would reach them in the morning. General Faragho said that there was no need to delay the Red Army’s advance for more than one or two days. On the other hand, he felt it likely that the Germans would attack the retreating troops as soon as they knew of the official armistice. After all, he pointed out, they had already deported over four hundred thousand Jews to Germany and would have deported the Budapest Jewry had it not been for the Army’s intervention, he said. That was why the Gendarmerie was still in the capital. He thought that, with the exception of two ministers, Reményi-Schneller and Jurcsek, the Hungarian Government would support the armistice. Effective power, he claimed, was in the hands of the Regent and the Prime Minister in any case. The delegates believed that the troops would remain loyal to the Regent.
As the conference ended, a table was prepared for signing the documents. At this point, Molotov approached Szent-Iványi and said, My congratulations, Mr Minister. This is the first time since 1526 that Hungary has won a great war. Szent-Iványi felt pleased that their delaying tactics had made possible the indirect intervention of Churchill and Eden in the negotiations, which had ultimately accelerated the whole process by stopping the Allied aerial bombing of Hungary while the Hungarian forces made their retreat to the capital. Just before 8 p.m. on 11 October, the three delegates signed the Armistice Treaty in the Kremlin.
That should have meant the end of the war for Hungary. However, the three had no rest that night as radiograms arrived from Budapest reporting that Regent Horthy was refusing to leave the capital to join his retreating forces, as had been previously agreed. This not only put their mission in great jeopardy, but also the success of The Third Attempt to leave the Axis Alliance. A further blow came when they were informed by Major Nemes the next day that General Bakay, the Commander of Royal Forces in and around the capital, had been kidnapped by the Germans on 8 October. Szilárd Bakay, commander of the First Budapest Army Corps, was a key figure in the armistice preparations, and Horthy’s absolute confidant. He had arrived at the General Headquarters in the Duna Palace at dawn on 8 October, where he was kidnapped together with documents containing the defence plans for the capital following the armistice. So it appears that the German High Command had known about the Armistice negotiations in Moscow long before they were concluded. On 12 October, while still in General Kuznietov’s office, the Peace Delegation also received the following radiogram from the Regent:
Regent’s son captured this morning by Arrow-Cross and Germans. Building in which he had stayed destroyed by gunfire: we have no further news. City surrounded by strong forces of Reichswehr. We have received German utitmatum.
This was the third and final, death-blow to the Third Attempt, according to Szent-Iványi, who doubted that they now had any chance of success:
Budapest was virtually in the hands of the Germans and we could expect that the Regent would fall into the hands of the Germans shortly. I was very upset. “If only the Regent had left Budapest and gone to the Second Army – the situation would now be different” I was thinking.
Horthy and his family left Hungary on 17 October in a special train, escorted by German troops, bound for Germany. Discussing the new situation with the Russians, Szent-Iványi declared that even the Regent’s disappearance should not stop their cooperation since, on 5 October, the Regent had appointed General Lajos Veress Dálkoni, the Commander of the Second Army, as Homo Regius, to rule in his place, as deputy, should he himself be killed or imprisoned. Unfortunately, Veress had also been arrested in Transylvania, since the courier he sent the Regent’s letter back with, after signing his acceptance of the appointment, was a German agent. Before leaving Budapest, the Germans forced Horthy to sign over his authority to Szalási as President Minister of Hungary, to lead pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Government. This conferred legitimacy on the newly appointed fascist regime. The Soviets, especially Kuznietov, were obviously quite happy about the new situation. With the Regent and Veress both out of the picture, the Red Army could now advance on Budapest without pausing for the Hungarian Army to retreat. At this point Stalin intervened, insisting that the Delegation should fly to the front to meet General Miklós, who had already left his army to ask their instructions at the HQ of General Petrov.
To be continued…
Domokos Szent-Iványi (2013), The Hungarian Independence Movement. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books