Twenty years ago, the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe began to fall one by one — so quickly that the coming months will be very dense with 20th anniversaries of great historic events. That was the final battle of the Cold War, where the Iron Curtain was finally broken, and the monstrous Soviet Empire ruined. Freedom triumphed in Europe at last. Or so it seemed. For the next twenty years have shown that that victory was not as final as many hoped during that momentous autumn of 1989. Once more, we are threatened by the surviving heirs of the Soviet monster — from the KGB regime in Russia to Middle Eastern terrorists, to the leftist collaborators in the West.
How did the communists wriggle out of what appeared to be their historic defeat? The answer to that question may very well be found in Soviet secret archives, which show the 1989 events in a profoundly new light.
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Pavel Stroilov, a Russian exile in London, who has smuggled thousands of secret documents of that period out of Russia. In a series of anniversary interviews, we are going to re-examine the events of 1989. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FP: Pavel Stroilov, welcome back to Frontpage Interview. In our last interview, we discussed how Erich Honecker, the communist fuehrer of East Germany, was deposed in a pro-Kremlin plot 20 years and three weeks ago. Yesterday, November 9, marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Connect the dots for us on these two events.
Stroilov: Both of them were parts of Gorbachev’s plan for the unification of Germany and Europe in a socialist “common European home,” so the removal of Honecker was a necessary preparation for the removal of the Wall. But it was with the Wall that the events went out of control.
The Kremlin underestimated East Germans’ hatred of the regime in general and the wall in particular. Something the Russians did not realize at the time was that there was no such country as the German Democratic Republic – it was simply a giant concentration camp, and as soon as the fence was removed, it ceased to exist.
In the people’s minds, it was all West Germany now – the only real Germany which was there throughout the Cold War. The formalities they had to go through for another year could only be just formalities. As far as the people were concerned, united Germany became a faint accompli on November 9, 1989. And that was something the communist leaders in Moscow and East Berlin neither expected nor welcomed.
FP: So, what exactly happened after Honecker was overthrown – what do the documents tell us?
Stroilov: The new dictator, Egon Krenz, rushed to Moscow for further instructions. There is a transcript of his talks with Gorbachev on November 1, 1989. The Soviet leader assured Krenz that the unification of Germany was not part of the immediate agenda: there had to be reforms, but very gradual, so as to make a socialist unification possible at some point in 21st century. Gorby said:
‘You need to know this: all the serious political leaders – Thatcher, Mitterrand, Andreotti, Jaruzelski, and even Americans (although there’ve been certain nuances in their position lately) — do not want unification of Germany.’
If Washington or Paris seem to favour the idea in public statements, he continued, they only do that ‘to please Bonn and, to an extent, because they fear that USSR and West Germany would get too close to each other.’
He then points out that West German social-democrats were strongly against unification, saw the East German regime as “a great achievement of socialism” and believed that its collapse would “wreck the social democrats” as well. So, Gorby concluded:
‘The right thing to do now is to continue the same line in German affairs which we have been following before. […] All of us should work on this basis: history has put two German states into existence. […] Perhaps, after several decades, if the integration processes in Europe develop well, the German question will look differently, too. […] In a word, the question of German unification is not relevant today. Please convey our firm belief in that to the East German Politburo and Central Committee.’
At the same time, Moscow and East Berlin would work closely with each other to develop their relations with West Germany in the right direction.
‘We have to be very calculating’, Gorby says. ‘You would probably feel more confident if we take part in the trilateral links.’
FP: And what about the Berlin Wall?
Stroilov: Yes; Krenz then raises the question of the Wall and points out it would be a difficulty. Gorbachev replies that Moscow and East Berlin should work on that issue together and
…’find the right formulae to meet people’s human requirements. Otherwise, they will present us with all sorts of ultimatums. […] Obviously, your constructive steps should be combined with demands of certain obligations from the other side. Both you and I are in touch with Chancellor Kohl. We should influence him.’
Krenz then says the new East German government is working on the legislation to allow some foreign travel for citizens, who would be soon able to buy passports and exit visas from the state. There would be limitations “on security grounds,” or if the state could not afford to sell enough West German marks to the prospective travellers. Gorbachev approves of that plan, and here they go. The rest is history: on November 9, as soon as the East Germans announced on television that they were opening up the border, the crowds did not bother to queue for exit visas – they simply rushed to the Berlin Wall and destroyed it with bare hands.
FP: So, the initial plan did not include the demolition of the Wall?
Stroilov: This is not quite clear. Krenz and Gorbachev did not mention anything like that on November 1. But then on November 3, there was a meeting of the Soviet Politburo, of which we only have rather sketchy notes, taken by Anatoly Chernyaev. They are published in full here, along with a number of other very interesting documents about the unification of Germany. It seems that Foreign Minister Shevardnadze suggested removing the Wall at that meeting, and the other Politburo members argued against that. It is not quite clear who won, although it seems slightly more likely from the text that Gorbachev decided against the removal.
FP: Did they consider a bloody suppression of the popular protests in case the events went out of control?
Stroilov: Krenz hints at such a possibility when he talks to Gorbachev about the ongoing protests, and Gorbachev seems to agree that may be necessary:
E. KRENZ: We work on the basis that not all the protestors are our opponents. At the same time, we take measures to prevent the mass rush towards the Berlin Wall. The police will be there. If there are attempts to break through to West Berlin, we will be in an extremely difficult situation – we will have to introduce martial law. But I don’t think this will go that far.
M. S. GORBACHEV: You should do everything to prevent this. On the other hand, you should take account of the possibility of the worst scenario.
But in the end of the day, they dared not to resort to this, thank God. Presumably, because they did not yet realize how serious the events of November 9 were. Initially, they did not realize that everything was completely out of control now.
FP: What makes you think that? How did they react to the actual fall of the wall?
Stroilov: Gorbachev immediately sent messages to all the Western leaders; I don’t have the texts, but the essence is clear from their replies. Basically he told them he knew what he was doing in East Germany and that all was going more or less as planned; so they should not do anything without talking to him first, because if they intervened, they could jeopardize his whole game.
Helmut Kohl phoned him on November 11 to say he has taken the point. Kohl assured Gorbachev that he won’t do anything to destabilize East Germany, and seemed to have accepted Gorbachev’s point that the two Germanys should only interact in a “triangle” with the USSR. In a few days, the German Ambassador Blech talked to Gorbachev’s advisor Zagladin and confirmed that was his government’s position.
French President Mitterrand called on November 14. He and Gorby agreed with each other they did not want any speedy unification of Germany. The current events had to be considered in the context of Franco-Soviet plans for the socialist unification of Europe. And Germany, too, but only within that framework. On the same day, Gorbachev discussed this in greater detail with the French Foreign Minister in Moscow.
On November 17, Gorbachev received the British Ambassador, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, who said Mrs. Thatcher supported Moscow’s policy towards the events in Germany. He pointed out that those events surprised and worried many in the West, to which Gorbachev replied that Moscow was not particularly worried. Then the Ambassador said:
R. BRAITHWAITE. […] There is a very good understanding on all sides – in my government and among our allies – that there must be no intervention in the affairs of East Germany, no actions which might be interpreted as intervention or impingement of security of the GDR or any Warsaw Pact country, of your security in general. That is the most important thing: no intervention from any side.
M. S. GORBACHEV. We’d better intervene in the West Germans’ affairs. (Laughter)
R. BRAITHWAITE. It would be interesting to know what you think on this subject as well.
Finally, at the Malta summit on December 2-3, 989, President George W. H. Bush also promised to Gorbachev that the United States won’t do anything unilaterally in connection with the events in East Europe and Germany. Basically, he was prepared to go along with the Soviet plan for “common European home,” as long as the US would have a role in it.
FP: So, the West effectively gave the Soviets a card-blanche to reshape Germany and Europe as they pleased?
FP: Why would they do that?
Stroilov: Because they decided to stake on Gorbachev and not on the people in the streets. They believed that Gorbachev was changing socialism for the better, that he was reducing the Soviet threat, and they did not care much about anything else. They would not support his opponents – the crowds of angry protestors on the streets – because they were keen on “stability” above anything else, stability at any price. They needed someone to talk to at summit-meetings, someone to trade horses with – they did not want any of those uncontrollable, unpredictable rebels. So, supporting anyone more radical than Gorbachev was practically out of the question. Instinctively, the Western political elite took the side of another elite – even though that was the blood-stained communist nomenklatura – and not of the people.
This was, of course, a great betrayal of those who risked their lives on the streets of East European cities, demanding freedom and democracy now, not a gradual perestroika of one brand of socialism into another. Yet, such was the choice the West made.
FP: But Gorbachev failed to take full advantage of this, didn’t he?
Stroilov: Yes and no. All he and his allies could do, even with Western support, was to play for time inventing some formal obstacles to German unification, and try to lock them in the new “common European” structures in the meantime. In this, they succeeded only partially.
The unification of Germany could not be delayed for long and, obviously, overtook the unification of Europe for many years. The public pressure in Germany, the demands for unification, were too strong. Chancellor Kohl could not but go along with his own people, rather than the plans laid down by that club of world leaders. Gorbachev and Mitterrand were very offended by that, but could not do much.
Then, the Americans and Brits finally realized it was impossible to delay unification, so they also backed the Germans, if only reluctantly. There was little Moscow or Paris could do in that situation.
Yet, the construction of a united socialist Europe also began in those years, and eventually succeeded. Perhaps it is not as socialist now as Gorbachev once hoped, but still socialist enough. It is certainly not a free and democratic Germany among the free nations of Europe which the people who tore down the wall hoped for – it is now a province of a socialist superpower which we call EUSSR.
So, November 9, 1989 was not really a victory in the Cold War in the long run. It was an important battle and an important victory in the moment in which occurred, but that was not the end. Perhaps, not even the beginning of the end.
FP: Pavel Stroilov, thank you for joining us.
[To get the whole story on why the liberal-Left sided with the Soviet bloc during the Cold War, read Jamie Glazov’s new book, United in Hate: The Left’s Romance with Tyranny and Terror.]