East Germany (GDR) played a profound symbolic role in Europe. It served both as a foil to West Germany and, for Soviet Bloc states, as a buffer against capitalist incursion. It represented Communist resistance to and triumph over the Nazi regime. And the Berlin Wall’s division of East and West Berlin served as the most powerful visual symbol of the Cold War.
Ruled with the iron, if aged, fist of Eric Honecker, the GDR was one of the most repressive regimes in the Eastern Bloc. Still, East Germany was not immune to the changes taking place around it. In the summer of 1989, the regime was undone largely by two things: popular protests across the country, especially in Leipzig and Dresden, and the decision of the Hungarian government to tear down its border fences with Austria.
When Hungary literally tore a hole in the Iron Curtain by removing the fences and minefields from its border during the summer of 1989, approximately 5,000 of East Germans who were vacationing in Hungary fled to Austria – a number that would rise to around 30,000 by December 1989. Other East Germans began camping on the grounds of West German embassies across Eastern Europe, requesting passports. International law viewed the embassy grounds as sovereign territory of the Federal Republic (West Germany) and according to West German law, East Germans who entered West Germany had an immediate right to West German citizenship. The problem was that the West German government could not secure exit visas for their new citizens from the Communist governments in Prague and Warsaw. Faced with these mass defections, Honecker negotiated a deal with those waiting in the compounds of the West German embassies allowing them to leave for the West in sealed trains. They would pass through East German territory and be officially “expelled.”
In September 1989, an opposition organization called New Forum (Neues Forum) emerged. The resisters in this organization reflected the broad swathe of discontent in the GDR: it brought together young people, church leaders, women, gays, punk rockers, environmentalists, and other “outsiders” under its manifesto. Within weeks, this organization became the focus for opposition to the regime and its members helped to organize and lead street protests that grew increasingly large.
When Gorbachev visited Berlin during the 40th-anniversary celebration of the establishment of the German Democratic Republic, he uttered these famous words: “life punishes those who come too late,” an clear allusion to Honecker’s unwillingness to reform East Germany along the lines that Gorbachev was pursuing in the Soviet Union. Enthusiastic students chanted “Gorbi! Gorbi!” even as they marched and attended parades extolling the GDR. That evening a small group of dissidents gathered in a parsonage in the town of Schwante outside of Berlin and founded the first independent political party in East Germany–the Social Democratic Party in the GDR (SDP).
The city of Leipzig became a locus for resistance as demonstrations grew, drawing some 70,000 people by October 9, 1989, and Leipzig’s candlelight vigils caught the attention of the world. Some party leaders were calling for a “Chinese Solution” to stop the growing demonstrations, a reference to the Chinese government’s use of military force against pro-democracy demonstrators on Tiananmen Square in June. To this end, on the evening of October 9, local authorities prepared for mass arrests and even the use of deadly force – 3,000 riot police, 500 additional militia members, and 3,000 regular army soldiers were issued live ammunition and placed on alert at the outskirts of town. Faced with strong international pressure for moderation, the German authorities instead allowed the demonstration to proceed without incident. The crowds marching through Leipzig chanted “Wir sind das Volk” or “We are the people,” which evolved after November 9 into “Wir sind ein Volk” or “We are one people,” a direct reference (by whom) to Germany’s long division and a desire to re-unite the two German states.
Growing public opposition to the regime culminated on the night of November 9 when Günter Schabowski misspoke at a press conference and the Wall, literally and figuratively, began to fall. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the East German Communist Party began negotiations with representatives from the SDP, Democracy Now, and other citizen action groups (most of which had previously been part of New Forum) under the auspices of a Central Round Table that brought the main opposition groups together with Party representatives. On March 18, 1990, the first free election was held in the GDR and transferred power to a new governing coalition comprised of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) led by Prime Minister Lothar de Maizière, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union. In the ensuing months, the main task of de Maizière’s new government was to negotiate the reunification of Germany, a process that was completed on October 3, 1990.