Three Decades After Peaceful German Liberation and Unification

Revolution and war typically go together. Entrenched political establishments and elites rarely yield power voluntarily. Those enraged over persistent injustice often turn to violence. Revolution sometimes triggers war and at other times is a consequence of conflict. But rarely is revolution successful without war.

The French Revolution resulted in an orgy of bloodletting at home and sparked years of conflict abroad. World War I carried the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires into the historical abyss. There were two Russian Revolutions: the first, a liberal one, grew out of what then was known as the Great War, while the second, the Bolshevik coup, ignited a bitter battle between Reds and Whites. The Chinese Revolution resulted both from and in war.

So too the American Revolution. It was a very different time. War then was limited, almost genteel in comparison to modern times. Nevertheless, the colonists’ resistance to British authority led to what became a global contest, sucking in traditional combatants France and Spain. Americans gained their independence through what was, in truth, a world war in which North America was but one battleground.

Finally, great conflict led to the imposition of communism on Central and Eastern Europe: brutal totalitarianism accompanied the advance of the Red Army as it defeated Nazi Germany in World War II. At different speeds and in different ways Moscow imposed communist "revolutions" on its unwilling satellites, which had little ability to resist.

However, the collapse of communism was radically different. From mid-1989 through the end of 1992 every part of what Ronald Reagan had called the Evil Empire disappeared, almost entirely peacefully. There had been earlier efforts to loosen communism’s shackles, but Moscow brutally suppressed them, most notably in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

What eventually changed, most importantly, was the Soviet Union’s leadership. Joseph Stalin opportunistically used World War II to create a modern empire. His immediate successors were less ruthless and brutal. They were not inclined to forcibly expand Moscow’s sphere of influence. However, they would not allow any of the European satellites to switch orbits. In the case of Hungary, the U.S.S.R. led the Warsaw Pact in a full-scale invasion against genuine revolutionaries fighting for liberation from foreign oppression.

Although national sclerosis set in after the USSR’s Leonid Brezhnev pushed aside Nikita Khrushchev in 1964, the regime was still willing to threaten military intervention in Poland in 1980 as the Solidarity union gained influence; the Polish army acted to forestall a possible invasion. However, Brezhnev died in 1982 and the next two general secretaries together lasted little more than two years. Mikhail Gorbachev took over the Soviet Communist Party in March 1985.

He soon instituted a dramatically new policy, ending the threat of Soviet intervention. The Red Army would stay in its barracks in the case of revolution in any of its satellites. Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov explained: "We now have the Frank Sinatra doctrine. He has a song, I Did It My Way. So every country decides on its own which road to take." Which set the stage for the dramatic events of 1989.

Once the USSR loosened its grip, decades of previously suppressed desire for change boiled over. Hungary, long economically the most liberal Eastern European state, began removing its border fortifications with Austria in May, creating a huge breach in the Iron Curtain. Other Eastern Europeans, who had been free to travel within the Soviet bloc, began flooding out. Poland abandoned martial law, released Solidarity’s leaders, and held elections in June – in which the communist party was blanked, not winning a single seat.

Demonstrations gradually overwhelmed the misnamed German Democratic Republic. When party leader Erich Honecker advocated a violent crackdown, his colleagues rushed him into long overdue retirement. On November 4 a million people protested, demanding the end of the communist dictatorship.

The end was nigh.

Five days later the Berlin Wall, officially named the "Anti-Fascist Protection Wall," was breached. Ironically, the opening was a mistake. The GDR had decided to allow its citizens to apply to travel to the West. But the Politburo spokesman was confused and announced that East Germans could travel "immediately, without delay." People who heard his announcement proceeded to the normal crossing gates as border guards unsuccessful requested instructions from their superiors. In the face of increasingly angry crowds, they simply lowered the gates, which had been shut for 10,316 terrible, unfree, and often murderous days. On November 9, 1989 German communism effectively died.

There was more to come. Most dramatically, Romania’s Ceausescu dictatorship fell as much to a coup as revolution. On Christmas Day the appalling Nicolae and Elena died before an enthusiastic firing squad. It was the only country in which violence was necessary to exorcise the old regime.

As for Germany, the new GDR leaders desperately sought to save their authoritarian fiefdom. The effort was hopeless. Nor did European objections to reunification – especially from London and Paris – much matter. Reunification was powered by emotion as much as nationalism: a common people wiped out 45 years of division by brutal politics and authoritarian ideology. On October 3, 1990 the two nations became one again, ending a division that had resulted from separate military occupation zones for the Western powers and Soviet Union.

Communism began as the scribblings of an unpleasant intellectual named Karl Marx. Ruthless revolutionaries, most notably Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Trotsky, turned Marxism into a practical governing philosophy. Stalin, the most powerful communist of all, pushed the Evil Empire’s boundaries outward.

The number of victims of this violent ideology was extraordinary. Although Nazism always will be unique in its manifestation of evil, having attempted to destroy an entire people, communism was the greater killer. For instance, The Black Book of Communism estimated the collective death toll at more than 100 million. The late political scientist R.J. Rummel figured similarly prodigious numbers in Death by Government. Victims continue to accumulate today, in China, North Korea, and elsewhere.

The Soviet Union was uniquely malign. Under Stalin, observed Rummel: "murder and arrest quotas did not work well. Where to find the ‘enemies of the people’ they were to shoot was a particularly acute problem for the local NKVD, which had been diligent in uncovering ‘plots.’ They had to resort to shooting those arrested for the most minor civil crimes, those previously arrested and released, and even mothers and wives who appeared at NKVD headquarters for information about their arrested loved ones."

The "Wall" was the GDR’s uniquely malign symbol. Although Berlin was located within East Germany, the Western allies had occupation zones within the capital city. Movement was initially free, allowing easy defection. Complained the Soviet ambassador to East Germany, Mikhail Pervukhin, "the presence in Berlin of an open and essentially uncontrolled border between the socialist and capitalist worlds unwittingly prompts the population to make a comparison between both parts of the city, which unfortunately does not always turn out in favor of Democratic [East] Berlin." That was a very polite way of admitting that most easterners, if not accompanied by a gun-toting apparatchik, naturally preferred to live in Germany’s west.

However, the ever-materialistic communist leaders viewed people as a valuable resource who obviously could not be allowed to leave freely. The Ulbricht regime made republikflucht, or "republic flight," a crime. The only legal way for most people to depart the workers’ paradise was to pay a ransom to the state. The people’s guardians turned out to be not just practical but mercenary.

As Jacobin Magazine contributing editor Loren Balhorn explained: "the GDR authorities had no problem with ex-Nazis, conservatives, and other political opponents leaving the country. Throughout the Cold War, East Germany often opted to deport dissidents, usually in return for considerable sums from the West German government, rather than waste precious resources on surveillance and imprisonment."

However, this two-track system did not stem defections, which ran 1000 daily in 1961. Some 3.5 million people, or about a fifth of country’s population, by then had fled; those who stayed were disproportionately aged. Some observers doubted the country’s survival. On the night of August 12, 1961, construction of what became known as the Berlin Wall began. Over time the authorities made the barrier higher, more sophisticated, and much deadlier. Border guards were instructed to shoot anyone attempting to escape, the infamous "Schiessbefehl" order. Apparently only the threat of death could stop people from fleeing paradise.

Over the following 28 years an estimated 100,000 people attempted to exit. About 5000 succeeded. Another 1000 were killed, roughly 200 along the Berlin portion of the border. Tens of thousands were imprisoned for attempting to flee their prison state.

On August 22, 1961 58-year-old Ida Siekmann became the first to die, while jumping from her building onto a West Berlin road. Two days later the 24-year-old tailor Guenter Litfin became the first person murdered by the authorities, shot as he swam across the River Spree. In an even more gruesome case a year later 18-year-old bricklayer Peter Fechter was shot as he tried to climb over the barrier. He was left to bleed to death in full view of the world, the 27th Berliner killed for the crime of desiring to be free.

Even as the Evil Empire headed for history’s trash bin the killing continued. On February 6, 1989, 20-year-old Chris Gueffroy, a restaurant worker, became the last GDR subject executed while attempting to escape. His friend, Christian Gaudian, was wounded, arrested, and imprisoned. The four border guards involved received awards. A month later a 32-year-old electrical engineer, Winfried Freudenberg, became the last casualty of the Wall when his homemade balloon crashed.

Eight months later the infamous barrier fell. And the regime was on its way to extinction. This was an extraordinary peaceful revolution. By the time the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time on Christmas Day 1991, hundreds of millions of people had been freed.

Unsurprisingly, knitting the two Germanies back together after nearly a half century apart wasn’t easy. Older Ossies, as they were known, had the toughest time adapting. The high-speed vagaries of advanced industrial capitalism appealed to younger East Germans, many of whom moved westward. The elderly were more likely to remain in what became an economic backwater. Some longed for an idealized version of the past.

Modern lefties, whose idea of liberty is being able to decide which government bureaucracy to work for, are still appalled by the end of "socialism" three decades ago. America’s usual commie wannabes, such as the notorious Angela Davis, partied with Soviet and East German officials and celebrated the latter’s willingness to shoot down anyone seeking to escape the wonders of Soviet-enforced communism.

Not everyone on the Left was as bloodthirsty as Davis, who visited a memorial to a border guard killed by an escapee and celebrated the latter’s "sacrifice" while working to turn the country into an open air prison. Nevertheless, Jacobin Magazine, named after the warm, friendly, and cuddly French revolutionaries of the same name, ran several articles on the end of the Soviet empire’s German satrapy on the 30th anniversary of German reunification. The ambivalence of collectivist fanboys and fangirls was evident.

Of course, it was impossible even for lefties to completely ignore the Evil Empire’s failings. For instance, in an interview with Jacobin, Ingar Solty, a journalist who was only ten when the Wall fell, reluctantly admitted that "many people did gain certain individual and certain civic freedoms, and some individual East Germans even did quite well economically, despite the GDR’s unique situation as the only Warsaw Pact state which was absorbed by another state and its ruling class."

Nevertheless, there was evident frustration that the grand collectivist experiment was wiped away. The 1989 revolution was real but went the wrong way, said Solty: "economically and socially 1989 was a bourgeois revolution insofar as it reinstated capitalist private property in the means of production and recreated capitalist class relations." This process "undid historic nationalizations and socializations, which had failed to really become ‘people’s property’ instead of just state property, and it returned Eastern Europe to bourgeois-capitalist property relations and the supreme reign of private interests in the places where people work and spend most of their days."

This just wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. Jacobin’s Balhorn unhappily allowed: "whatever gains workers had made under socialism evidently were not enough to retain their loyalty when the moment of decision came. The shortcoming of state socialism – the sham elections, the travel restrictions, and the lack of consumer goods – ultimately came to define their aspirations." Exactly. However, an important "yet" followed.

"Yet it would be equally irresponsible to simply dismiss the experience as a mere Stalinist aberration. Whether we choose to call it socialism or not, the women and men who lived and worked in the GDR spent four decades building a society they understood as such and registered a number of remarkable achievements. Like their comrades in Cuba or Vietnam, their state began and ended under siege and at a significant material disadvantage, inheriting societies marred by underdevelopment, oppression, and occupation." Ah, that explains persistent poverty and repression, the inevitable twins begat by communist regimes.

Balhorn added: "Rather than bringing the democratization, let alone the rejuvenation of socialism some initially hoped for, the uprisings of 1989-1990 across Eastern Europe saw the consolidation of a neoliberal order as the supposed price to pay for basic civil liberties and nominal freedom of movement. Communist parties that had ruled for decades fell into disarray, hastily rebranding themselves as social democrats or dissolving entirely. The fall of the Soviet bloc also demoralized large sections of the Left on the other side of the Iron Curtain, prompting the collapse of the international communist movement and helping to set the stage for social democracy’s pivot to neoliberalism."

Balhorn was surprisingly forgiving of the regime’s flaws. For instance, he believed, the leaders of the police state were brave fellows, having spent time in Nazi prisons (as, one might add, Bolshevik revolutionaries populated Tsarist prisons and exile). Detailed Balhorn: "Historian Martin Sabrow describes them as a ‘generation of mistrusting patriarchs’ who sought to exercise power on behalf of the workers and peasants, but could not rely on them to exercise that power on their own." If only the dictators had been able to rely on workers instead of having to jail them! It was all the workers’ fault.

Nor should one judge political repression too sharply, in Balhorn’s view. "Undoubtedly, the lack of a functioning political democracy and absence of a free press left the GDR unable to make productive use of diverging opinions and rise to the challenges posed by new socioeconomic developments. Though the external threats cited to justify these restrictions were by no means invented, in this case the cure turned out to be worse than the disease. Censorship and repression, conceived as temporary measures until the workers’ state was fully developed, ended up facilitating those very workers’ alienation from and opposition to their ostensible state." Sure, the intent only was to impose "temporary" restrictions on opponents and end them once the "state was fully developed"? Why, even Adolf Hitler probably only planned to oppress and murder until the Thousand Year Reich was firmly established. Then it would become a libertarian paradise!

As for the very symbol of the East German state, the Wall? It was, Balhorn wrote, "ugly, menacing, and, for many citizens, no doubt heartbreaking. But the economic and geopolitical stability it ensured also gave the GDR the chance to build a society that was broadly characterized by modest prosperity and social equality between classes and genders." Why complain, then, about a little murder and imprisonment among friends?

No claim of social benefits can justify political tyranny. Observed historian Juergen Kocka: "Massive evidence has been collected that proves the repressive, undemocratic, illiberal, nonpluralistic character of the GDR regime and its ruling party."

Consider how those wonderfully brave East German apparatchiks treated returning communists from exile. Reported German political scientist Alexander Amberger in Jacobin: "The omnipotent head of the [Socialist Unity Party] SED, Walter Ulbricht, cast a baleful eye over such figures." In good time he "began harshly prosecuting his critics," including returned intellectuals. With an appropriate Stalinesque show trial "Ulbricht had successfully disciplined those who came back from Western exile. They had either subordinated themselves to his agenda, fallen ill or died, or else been demoted to the status of low-level party functionaries and forcibly transferred to the provinces."

None of the leftie rationalizations for tyranny can obscure the fact that the East German people wanted freedom. The workers’ paradise was not doing well in 1953. Living standards were down yet the people’s heroic representatives were acting like bloodthirsty capitalists, hiking work "norms." Workers began protesting in June. Originally, they demanded elimination of the new norms, and the regime, now under popular siege, reluctantly agreed. However, demonstrations and strikes spread to more than 400 communities across the small country as East Germans made political demands, including respect for civil liberties and free elections.

The people had extraordinarily bad manners and destroyed posters and statues celebrating the selfless patriots who were ruling on behalf of the Soviets. Students tossed textbooks generously provided by the Soviet occupation authorities. Crowds pillaged party shops reserved for the hardworking elite. Worse, demonstrators freed political prisoners, the very people locked up to preserve the revolution. Eventually Soviet tanks restored order in the way that only the Red Army could. Although hardliners under Ulbricht – who harbored no secret sympathy for capitalism and democracy in his soul – retained power, the party hemorrhaged members.

The regime ruled for another 37 years, one of Eastern Europe’s most rigid and brutal dictatorships. Reported Anthony Glees of the University of Buckingham: "Despite the view of history propagated by its own ideologues, it is clear that communism was imposed on the East Germans by violence. Some 200,000 of them died directly or indirectly as a result of communist policies carried out between 1945 and 1989 – 1% of the entire population. 173,000 died from 1945 to 1953 alone; of these, some 90,000 died either from execution or as the result of deliberate starvation and inhuman treatment. At the end of the 1941-45 war, as many as two million East German women were raped by Soviet soldiers, one estimate being that 200,000 died as a direct result. 25,000 people perished in GDR prisons from 1949 (when the state was founded) until 1990. This was a state created from, and sustained by, force and violence."

Other than that, being ruled by East Germany’s communists was a real pleasure!

It should come as no surprise that when the regime found itself without Soviet backing for a violent crackdown, its people quickly swept the unpopular state away. Still, some on the Left continue to pine for a better East Germany. Wrote Amberger: "What can today’s Left learn from the history of the GDR and ‘actually existing socialism’? At least now we know what did not work. An authoritarian form of state socialism is not an attractive model for most people. Discussions about the possibility of a democratic socialist GDR revolve around the same questions: would such a system have been possible in East Germany to begin with? Would the population have gone along with it? If not, how could they have been convinced to do so without repression?"

Not likely.

In a world in which war had become an instrument of revolution, Germany’s experience three decades ago reminds us that great change and reform can occur peacefully. Although Germany today has the many flaws typical of advanced industrial societies, it offers manifold benefits and opportunities for its people that were beyond reach in communist-ruled GDR.

History suggests that additional violent revolutions are likely, perhaps even inevitable, especially in the midst of war, which probably never will completely disappear as a tragic constant for humanity. But such upheavals almost certainly will continue to have horrendous consequences, no matter how good the initial intentions and ultimate results. Peaceful change, as in 1989, will always remain the better strategy whenever possible. The new Germany remains a model for the future, demonstrating how freedom might eventually arrive without war in the communist and other authoritarian states which remain around the world.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.