Record of Main Content of Conversation Between Mikhail Gorbachev and Members of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Socialist United Party of Germany
During Mikhail Gorbachev's historic visit to East Germany on the occasion of the GDR's 40th anniversary, he met with the SED politburo. In his remarks, Gorbachev urged reform and uttered what would become one of the most famous phrases of the period: "Life itself will punish us if we are late."
Using a variety of analogies, Gorbachev lectured the East German politburo that the only course moving forward was a course of reform. He spoke of his own attempt to initiate reforms in an attempt to ease the tension with the nationalities in the USSR. He also pointed out that opportunities for reform were missed in both Poland and Hungary - where the democratic forces had made even more headway than in the GDR. All of this was meant to serve as a warning to the East German leadership - the only path forward was reform.
Mikhail Gorbachev, conversation with Members of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Socialist United Party of Germany, 7 October 1989, trans. Svetlana Savranskaya, Notes of A.S. Chernyaev, Archive of the Gorbachev Foundation, Cold War International History Project, Documents and Papers, CWIHP (accessed May 14, 2008).
You all know how inter-ethnic conflicts and passions have flared up in our country recently. Inter-ethnic problems are very complex. There are many issues interwoven there: the economics, the demographics, the problems of sovereignty, history, traditions of separate peoples. We had to present the society with thoroughly developed approaches to these problems. But while we were intensively working on those problems, which, of course, took some time, other forces were planting poisonous seeds in the soil of inter-ethnic relations. And only when we passed the platform of inter-ethnic policy at the September [19-20] Plenum of the CC CPSU the society calmed down in a certain way. The people got clear signposts that allowed them to consolidate the social forces.
You know, it was important for me to hear about it here. Because our perestroika is also a response to the challenge of the time. In the end we, Communists, think about what we leave behind, what we prepare for the generations to come.
I did say to Erich, however, that it seems that it would be much easier for you than for us. You do not experience such tensions in the socio-economic sphere. But to make a decision to undertake political reforms is also not an easy thing to do. In the future you will have to make courageous decisions. I am speaking about it from our own experience. Remember, Lenin used to say that in turbulent revolutionary years people get more experience in weeks and months than sometimes in decades of normality.
Our perestroika led us to the conclusion that the revolutionary course would not receive the support of the working class if [its] living standards were not improving. But it turned out that the problem of sausage and bread is not the only one. The people demand a new social atmosphere, more oxygen in the society, especially because we are talking about the socialist regime. I am saying this to remind you of the problems that we are facing at home. Figuratively speaking, people want not only bread but the entertainment also. If you take it in a general sense, we are talking about the necessity to build not only the material but also the socio-spiritual atmosphere for the development of the society. I think it is a lesson for us. It is important not to miss our chance here. The party should have its own position on these issues, its own clear policy in this respect also. Life itself will punish us if we are late.
From our own experience, from the experience of Poland and Hungary, we saw that if the party pretends that nothing special is going on, if it does not react to the demands of the reality, it is doomed. We are concerned about the fate of the healthy forces in Hungary and Poland, but it is not easy to help them. There they gave up their positions. The positions had been given up because they could not give a timely response to the demands of reality, and the processes took a painful turn. The Polish comrades did not use the opportunities that opened up for them in the beginning of the 1980s. And in Hungary, already in the end of his life, Kadar deeply regretted that he did not do what he could and should have done in time. So, we have only one choice - to move decisively ahead, otherwise we will be defeated.