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 Gorbachev is attempting to have his own history written by his spin-doctors.
Let’s begin our third interview with a discussion of Erich Honecker. October 18th marked the 20th anniversary of his downfall. This was the downfall of the communist fuhrer of East Germany from 1971 to 1989, one of the most brutal European dictators of his time. He was deposed in a Politburo plot.
What is your view of Honecker’s role in history?
Stroilov: Honecker is inseparable from the Berlin Wall. He was the Comrade Berlin Wall, so to speak. He built it, he guarded it, he killed the people who would flee across; it was only logical that he fell together with it. As a historical figure, he simply could not exist apart from the Wall, neither before it was erected nor after it was demolished.
It is a commonplace to describe the Wall as the most visible symbol of the great divide of Germany and Europe during the Cold War; but I think this misses the point. The purpose of the Wall was not so much to divide as to block the escape route, to keep the East German citizens in the socialist paradise by force. Its very existence was proof that there was no such state as the German Democratic Republic, only a huge concentration camp. Furthermore, there was no “socialist world” competing with the “capitalist world”; it was just that half of the planet was locked in a giant concentration camp. Fortifying its borders with walls and guarding them with machine-guns was the only way to preserve its existence, to prevent its prisoners from escaping into the only real world – the free world.
That is what the Berlin Wall was all about; and in this sense, Honecker was simply the chief guard in a giant concentration camp. An archetypical prison-guard: power-hungry, obedient, ruthless and dull. There was a time when the Kremlin needed Gauleiters of this kind in Central Europe. By 1989, however, their time had gone.
FP: In our previous interview, you said that the series of 1989 revolutions in East Europe were covertly organised by Moscow. What do the Soviet secret archives tell us? Was Honecker, too, deposed on Gorbachev’s orders?
Stroilov: Yes, certainly. Gorbachev visited Berlin just days before, on October 7, for the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of East Germany. The Politburo plot against Honecker was in its final stages, and every existing eyewitness account of that visit describes Gorby as encouraging it. According to the Soviet documents, its leader Egon Krenz discussed the plan to “depose Erich” with at least one member of the Soviet delegation. It is also documented that Krenz “promised” to Gorbachev, through the Soviet ambassador, to “raise the question of reforms” at the next Politburo meeting, even though Honecker warned him: “this will make you my enemy”.
Krenz’s leading co-conspirator, Guenter Schabowski, has published his memoirs this year, where he tells the full story (alas, only in German). According to Schabowski, the anti-Honecker plot had been in operation since early 1987. There was a secret meeting in Dresden between the Soviet KGB Chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, the famous East German spymaster (who had retired shortly before) Markus Wolf, and Dresden’s regional Party boss Hans Modrow. Modrow, known as sort of a ‘liberal’ communist, was selected to succeed Honecker and become the German version of Gorbachev. Wolf’s part was to mobilize support in the East German secret services; and the KGB supervised the whole thing from Moscow.
As the Politburo member with general responsibility for all East German secret services, Krenz was a convenient leader for the narrower Politburo plot. After deposing Honecker, he did not last for six weeks as the new East German leader. His job was to remove Honecker and the Berlin Wall, and then he gave way to Modrow.
FP: Krenz and Schabowski were also responsible for the Berlin Wall massacres and other crimes of the regime, weren’t they?
Stroilov: Yes, they were actually convicted for manslaughter and other crimes – much later, in 1997.
FP: So, Gorbachev wanted his reforms to be copied in East Germany, but Honecker would not do that?
Stroilov: Honecker was simply unsuitable for the reformer role. I don’t think there was any way for him to stay in power even if he organised his own perestroika. Not with his record. Gorby was determined to replace all his Gauleiters in East Europe, with the only exception of Jaruzelski, not just because they were the wrong kind of people, but because their past record was a huge liability.
The popular myth is that Gorby pressed Honecker to introduce reforms, but Erich would not listen; he would only say that the whole perestroika comes down to modernization of the economy, and the East German economy had already been modernized. But in fact, that was Gorby’s own point rather than Honecker’s.
As the transcript of their meeting on September 28, 1988 shows, Gorbachev spoke at great length to dispel Honecker’s worries that the Soviet perestroika might undermine socialism. He reminded Honecker how they first met in 1966, and the modernization of socialist economy was already on the agenda at that point. However, while that modernisation went forward in East Germany, it failed in the USSR under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. So, he continues, the point of perestroika is not to abolish socialism, but to make it work; and the East German experience would be studied and used in the Soviet Union.
Judging by the documents, far from encouraging Honecker to start reforms, Gorby actually said everything to discourage him. He told Honecker that the great ‘achievements’ of East Germany were ‘a strong demonstration of the advantages of socialism’. He flattered Honecker as a ‘distinguished’ communist statesman, whose ‘experience’ and ‘advice’ were particularly valuable at this critical stage of socialist development. It was only in October 1989, when Honecker was already doomed, that Gorby began to hint that East Germany needed reform – not to Honecker, but while speaking to the East German Politburo as a whole.
Indeed, he did not need a rival communist reformer in Berlin. What he needed was an awful tyrant, and the name ‘Gorby’ becoming a battle-cry of the popular revolt, and his own men as revolutionary leaders overthrowing Honecker and taking his place.
FP: Did it work?
Stroilov: Up to a point. When Gorbachev visited Berlin for the GDR’s 40th anniversary celebrations, the crowds of communist youth activists (who were, of course, specially selected for the event) chanted “Gorby, Gorby!” and demonstratively ignored Honecker. That was the culmination of the Soviet performance, and it went very well – Gorby was pleased.
Krenz deposed Honecker all right. But at the next stage – the removal of the Wall – it went out of control. The control was taken over by the crowds, and any “liberal communist” like Modrow was no longer relevant. Then they had to allow free elections, only to be defeated by a landslide. There was simply no GDR anymore – unification on Western conditions became only a matter of time.
FP: And what happened to Honecker? Why was he never put on trial?
Stroilov: At first, Gorbachev was putting a lot of pressure on Germans not to prosecute anyone for the crimes of the GDR regime – Honecker, Party bosses, Stazi bosses, etc. However, it was not really within the power of the German government to influence their courts. So, in early 1991 the Soviets smuggled Honecker out of Germany and brought him to Moscow. That was Gorbachev’s decision on the proposal from the KGB and the Army. The Germans protested, but very weakly – I have the transcript of that conversation between Gorbachev and German Foreign Minister Hans Ditrich Genscher:
H.-D. Genscher: […] May I, Mr.. President, attract your attention to a certain circumstance. Undoubtedly, you do realize that the Federal government cannot be unconcerned with the fact that former Chairman of the GDR State Council has been removed to the USSR. Under the rule of law system, the Federal government cannot ignore the legally effectual demands of court authorities. This does not mean, of course, that we cannot see the motives of the Soviet side. However, we would like our point of view to be taken into account, too.
M. S. Gorbachev: Let’s approach this whole matter from humane positions. In my view, this is quite justified.
H.-D. Genscher: Mr. President, you have spared a long time to talk to me. I would like to express my appreciation and gratitude.
So, Honecker stayed in Moscow until the collapse of the USSR. Under Yeltsin, he was extradited to Germany; but Germans found a way to release him on the grounds of poor health. Then Honecker took the classical route of German fuhrers into the jungles of Latin America.
FP: Still, the question remains: why did they let him go?
Stroilov: Because he threatened, in so many words, to tell a lot of fascinating stories at the trial.
FP: Reportedly, Gorbachev now praises Honecker as a “serious politician,” who made mistakes but “wanted to serve his country”.
Stroilov: I wonder which country that could be. East Germany? But everybody knew it was not a country. Gorbachev himself says it had no future in the long term.
The German nation as a whole? Honecker ordered to shoot every German who attempted to escape from his socialist camp into the only real Germany; what kind of service is that? In which sense can the building of the Berlin Wall be seen as a service to Germany?
FP: Thank you for joining us today Pavel Stroilov.