Berlin Embassy Cable, GDR Political Crisis: Still Deepening. October 6, 1989
The level of unrest in East Germany had been increasing throughout the summer of 1989 and a major focal point of concern for both the East German security forces and international observers concerned the very prominent visit of Mikhail Gorbachev to attend the GDR's 40th anniversary celebrations. This cable sheds light not only on the events leading up to Gorbachev's visit, but also on the West's ability to comprehend the scale of protest that was already afoot.
While cognizant that there was a real potential for mass demonstrations in the GDR, the U.S. embassy officials continued to operate under the assumption that although Erich Honecker might be on his way out, the ruling SED was not going anywhere. Instead, the communique describes the situation in Berlin as "politically pregnant, not physically explosive" and addresses the potential difficulty finding a reform-minded replacement and speculate that Gorbachev (who was not originally scheduled to attend the anniversary celebrations) might have altered his plans in order to directly influence any attempt to purge the SED of young reformers.
Nonetheless, the embassy also reported that with or without reform, there was definitely signs that further turmoil was on the horizon for the aging SED leadership.
U.S. Embassy Berlin to U.S. Secretary of State, "The GDR Political Crisis: Still Deepening," 6 October 1989, Cold War International History Project, Documents and Papers, CWIHP (accessed May 14, 2008).
In his first public comment since returning from his sick bed, Honecker admitted no crisis and blamed the GDR’s problems on the devil in Bonn. Prime Minister Stoph pledged continuity at next spring’s party congress. The gap between the old leaders who are circling their wagons and political reality continues to grow, however.
There has been no public announcement here of the GDR’s surprise decision October 3 to allow the FRG embassy in Prague to be emptied for the second time in a half-week of East Germans seeking refuge in the West. That and the fact that the GDR Reichsbahn trains which had been anticipated to begin arriving in Prague the same evening had still not reached the Czech capital by midday October 4 stirred speculation that this new concession might be provoking a serious fight within the politburo.
The situation, in short, still seems to us to be better characterized as politically pregnant, not physically explosive, but the gap between power and reality is increasing daily.
Soviet foreign ministry officials refuse to use the term “crisis” to describe what is happening in the GDR. But three Soviet politburo members will have visited East Berlin in just three weeks’ time. We do not believe Gorbachev had originally planned to attend the GDR’s 40th anniversary, which highlights just how concerned the Soviets have become about events there while officials remain publicly optimistic about the GDR’s future. Many Soviet academics are predicting long-term disaster.
Gorbachev is expected to avoid any detailed public commentary on the refugee problem or the GDR’s lack of reforms. He may privately suggest limited political and economic changed, but rumors abound here that two policy analyses were carried out which concluded: 1) that if the GDR does not introduce substantial reforms, it cannot avoid being thrown into turmoil, and 2) that if the GDR implements substantial reforms, it cannot avoid being thrown into turmoil. The message is clearly to brace for trouble even if Gorbachev were to make a good case that reforms are the required medicine, there are doubts that the SED leadership is prepared to consider that cure.
Gorbachev is not expected to find a counterpart reformer when he examines the field of potential Honecker successors. Academic and diplomatic contacts believe that at best he may unearth an “Andropov” or a “Chernenko” on the SED politburo. The physical frailty of the leadership – Egon Krenz and Guenter Mittag, among others – is reminiscent here of the Brezhnev era party leaders like seventy-seven year-old Kurt Hager, born the same year as Honecker, are not expected to produce any bold new ideas. Davydov stressed that the problem of succession in the GDR was becoming particularly acute as there seemed to be a desire among potential Honecker replacements to be “holier than the pope.” ...
Whether the leadership transition begins shortly, or only after next May’s party congress, academics here have argued that some bolder thinkers will have to move up if the SED is to effectively deal with the problems it now faces (as always, our Foreign Ministry contacts are silent on questions of leadership change). ... Some diplomatic contacts have argued that during his visit, Gorbachev may seek to nip in the bud any consideration of a purging of younger reform-minded intellectuals at the forthcoming SED congress.
We have no doubt that Gorbachev does want to call the shots in the GDR. He has enough to handle at home. Instead, he would like to see the SED put its own house in order . . . the Soviets think the long-term path for the GDR lies in [promoting] a common European home- not to maintain, restore or construct new barriers. Dashichev stressed that he sees no one in the [SED} as having the current vision or the will to look ahead.