German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (right) during an interview with Ralph T. Niemeyer (1987)
An Essay by Ralph T. Niemeyer
German unification has actively been pursued since 1987, two years ahead of the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9th November 1989 and only four years after the billion-Deutsche Mark loans issued by legendary right-wing Bavarian Ministerpresident Franz – Josef Strauß.
Any other conclusion although being hammered into the heads of German citizens by West-German media does not stand any closer scrutiny. The official version of mainstream media which since 1990 is being controlled by West-German public TV and radio stations as well as exclusively 5 West-German publishing houses, i.e. Gruner & Jahr, Bertelsmann CLT, WAZ Gruppe, Springer and Bauer Verlag that dominate the 10,000 newspapers by some 120 central editing offices and all private TV and radio channels, does not add up.
There has, of course, been a tremendous amount of dissatisfaction by the East German citizens because of the inefficiencies of the stagnating economy, and undoubtedly there have been numerous oppositional groups popping up in the vicinity of Lutheran protestant churches, but to speak of a revolution one would need a bit more than dissent.
Revolutions are not only about overthrowing a government and replacing a malfunctioning economic system with capitalism but require a certain philosophy, a founding thought and idea that ignites social unrest. Last but not least, a revolution consists of culture, not the lack of any culture. That’s what makes me hesitant to speak about the East German’s uprising of a revolution.
To introduce brutal capitalistic structures, laying off half of the country’s workforce while closing down theatres and concert halls, art galleries and libraries, is the opposite of a revolution, it is rather a counter-revolution.
Since Germany never had a revolution it would be an interesting thought, however, that nevertheless it was able to have a counter-revolution making it unique among all nations that have had revolutions.
German unification really happened like a hostile takeover. the old management was sacked, many civil servants fired, old structures replaced unequivocally and radically. Instead of appeasement the West-Germans executed a harsh regime of victory-justice. Every little soldier who stood at the Berlin Wall and followed the military orders of his superiors or every little “STASI” State Security Secret Agent who was spying on his neighbors or co-workers suddenly was confronted with social exclusion and judicial proceedings. And, every little West-German criminal could suddenly feel as something better because no secret file existed about him, because he had not been with STASI or Nationale Volksarmee (NVA) shooting at the Berlin Wall at refugees.
Every West-German couch potato overnight advanced to an entrepreneur when speaking about the German Democratic Republic. Not long after the Fall of the Berlin Wall there was talk about the psychological wall in the heads of people.
It is true, one can feel this wall when switching sides in Germany. West Germans have this underlying sympathizing tone in their voice when they want to sound generous saying phrases such as “40 years of lost life” (maybe better than 40 years of sold life?!) or “terrible to ne locked up by your own state” (maybe the majority of GDR-citizens nevertheless enjoyed a more relaxed and protected life?!) and West Germans referred to by East Germans as “Besserwessis” as besser=better wessi=westerner sounding similar to Besserwisser (better knowing person) are seemingly more upset about the barbaric border between East and West Germany that looks similar to the border between Mexico and the United States of America, Israel and Gaza or the EU southern and Eastern borders, than GDR-citizens are.
Of course, one can find many people who said they were tired of spending their holidays at the Baltic Sea coast or at the Black Sea of Bulgaria or the Lake Balaton in Hungary, but most people admit that although they are nowadays allowed to travel to all continents they are lacking the funds to do that and for this reason stay within Germany or maybe have an all-inclusive un-cultural holiday in Spanish or Turkish resorts.
When West-Germans belittle the East-German cars that are said to be partly made from wood like their kid’s toys, East-Germans don’t get it and shrug their shoulders saying “better from wood than a life made from plastic”.
24 years after unification I, a West-Berliner, find myself often in the awkward position of defending the German Democratic Republic (GDR) although I am sure I had been among the first ones to criticize it if I had lived in it. Nevertheless, I defend it against all those West – Germans who would have been the last ones to get their mouths open if they had lived under a failed Socialism.
Maybe we West-Germans have our biggest disagreements with the East Germans in those issues we are alike in. Like parents are having their strongest fights with their children in those issues they are similar in.
This probably makes it clear why West-German media, politicians and elite are eager to show their superiority because deep in their hearts they envy the East-Germans to have had a high morale, good education, highly developed cultural life that brought also working class citizens into theatres, classical concerts and operas whereas in West-Germany this was reserved for a Bourgeoisie that owned and controlled the media and used these tools to keep the general public rather uninformed and uninterested in cultural aspects.
And, talking about democracy, many citizens in both parts of Germany are nowadays totally disenfranchised with the parliamentary process as like in the GDR there seems to be only one major political direction that is being represented by a number of parties who in all earnest do not compete with each other on intellectual or philosophical level. In other words: in Socialism there was no free choice, but the system itself posed as an alternative, while Capitalism appears to be without alternative but allows for free elections.
As East and West Germany were competing with each other in every aspect one can say that the West-German decline was predestined once the East-German system had collapsed.
Whereas West-Germany always tried to appear more social and less capitalistic as it was, East Germany tried to appear more free-market-like and less socialistic than it was. About Socialism nobody dared to laugh while Capitalism is a joke itself.
Because this competition between the two systems had a self enhancing effect the lack of such after unification was immediately felt. West-Germany no longer had to stretch to the ceiling in terms of being a social free market democracy but could just let it go and become as brutally capitalistic as it’s owners had always wanted it to be.
Neoliberalism ruined the rest of West-Germany’s cushioned capitalism within a decade. Most holy cows got slaughtered by the “Red-Green” coalition government under social-democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. In order to make sure that nobody had second thoughts media got it into people’s heads that East-Germany was bad, evil, vicious by all means and on all levels. Nobody should ever wish to live in a more social and more protected society ever again.
That’s why since German unification the West-German TV programs became Anti-GDR-Propaganda-shows of the style of East-German TV reports about the evil, capitalistic, West.
In practical terms life for the 17 million East-Germans changed fundamentally. Social protection became a privilege, work a status symbol.
Women in the former GDR who had been engineers, teachers, bus drivers and physicians were told by emancipists from the Federal Republic of Germany that it was important to be addressed properly as teacheress, or engineeress while the male world made sure that the formerly emancipated women of the East understood where there new place was: at the stove cooking and raising.
I often had the feeling that the woman of their dreams, freedom, had better not become reality for the East-Germans as in order to get her meant to accept the mother in law, capitalism, to come with her in kind of a double pack for which the Easterners had to trade in their beloved mother, the GDR. After wedding with the FRG most East-Germans understood that the lover does not very well replace the mother.
As much as I felt in 1987 when visiting the GDR the necessity that the system changed radically and quickly, it did not look as if anything like a wind of change would blow. I spoke with oppositional civil rights activists and they told me how desperate they were. They were longing for reform. Democratic reform, not capitalism and also unification of Germany was not an issue at that time.
During one of my visits I also met with a priest who allowed the opposition activists to meet in his church, kind of a safe haven as the church partly conspired with the state authorities but because of that also won a certain freedom. Joachim Gauck, the priest, played a dubious role at those meetings. On one hand he let the opposition activists meet in his church but on the other hand he calmed them down and tried to get the steam out of their initiatives as prominent civil rights activists such as Eberhard Richter and Werner Schulz confirmed.
Mr. Gauck suspiciously was allowed to travel together with his family to West-Germany, a privilege that only was granted to very loyal supporters of the regime. In the fall of 1989 this priest suddenly advanced to a leading figure of the opposition movement and until today claims to have been a civil rights activist all his life, fighting for freedom and liberty. Well, the real activists of 1989 have a quite differentiated recollection of Mr. Gauck who after 1990 advanced to become the chief administrator of all STASI files, making him extremely powerful.
It has also been noted that he had been given the opportunity to read his own file alone in a room without being supervised. Also other files got out of control for some 48 hours enabling also the US Americans to launch operation “Rosenholz” creating micro fiche of the most crucial files of which those of Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Gauck may have drawn special attention. For nine years Mrs. Merkel who is being said to have been a very loyal SED youth brigade ‘pioneer’ having a dubious personal relationship through the son of Robert Havemann to this most prominent GDR dissident about which she does not want to speak, is our chancellor. Since two and a half years Mr. Gauck is the Federal President of Germany.
But, also many other leading figures of the 1989 uprising like Manfred Schnur, Ibrahim Böhme and even Lothar de Maizière, the first and last freely elected Ministerpresident of the GDR in 1990, were discovered to having been STASI informants. The question why in the fall of 1989 so many leaders emerged turning from Devil to Saint deserves a closer scrutiny.
Since 1983, being accredited as correspondent to Bonn, West-Germany, I had interviewed many political leaders, among them Chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Kohl, US Presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush senior, USSR President Gorbachev and others. In 1987 I was one of the many journalists to be allowed on board of Airforce One flying back from the G7 summit in Venice. President Reagan stopped in Berlin and delivered a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate of which his most important phrase entered the books of history: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate, tear down this wall!” Chancellor Kohl had tears in his eyes. We filmed it and then flew with Air Force One to Cologne – Bonn airport where another, short ceremony was being held as otherwise it could be said that West Germany was neglected as West-Berlin technically was not part of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Also, because of the Four Power Status of Berlin, no West-German federal armed forces, Bundeswehr soldiers, were allowed to be deployed there and salute a foreign head of state.
On the short flight to Cologne-Bonn the president came down to us into the main cabin after take-off granting us a briefing allowing for short interactions. All presidents like those reconfirming encounters with embedded media, so Mr. Reagan said something like “I was spot on, right?” prompting my close friend and New York Times colleague James Markham who was kind of a father figure to me in a professional sense to shout into the direction of the president “Lysacus certainly liked it, Mr. President!”. President Reagan only smiled and returned to the upper deck.
During the remaining time of the flight James consecrated me on what ‘Lysacus’ was about as I was very curious. According to James there was a so called National Security Decision Directive (NSDD 54 dated 02nd September 1982) which ordered all US agencies, such as the CIA to actively support oppositional groups in Eastern Europe and by this to undermine the stalinistic regimes of the Warsaw Pact.
Especially in Poland the US was very active and had a stronghold in the Solidarnosc movement that under the umbrella of a shipyard worker’s union pushed through a radical agenda that resulted in martial law and later the overthrowing of the Jaruzelski-regime. When the Solidarnosc protagonist Lech Walesa became president one of his first moves was to follow the directive of the IMF and Friedman’s Chicago School on Economics that demanded the privatization of all profitable core industries.
But, also in the GDR there existed already such troops of collaborators which the American secret services who are known for their tacky code names referred to as “Lysacus” and which consisted of some 2,400 medium ranking bureaucrats of the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Lysacus got established as an unofficial oppositional group within the SED since 1983 when Soviet leader Andropov had launched Glasnost and Perestroika. James told me that he had direct contact. I was fascinated.
One of the key members of Lysacus, according to James Markham, has been Günter Schabowski. Lysacus met sometimes in the basement of the East-Berlin main station or in the Academy of Science building where certain reform programs were discussed.
What I only learnt after 1990 from a former high ranking STASI officer when I researched together with Steffen Uhlmann, a SPIEGEL-colleague, the most powerful man of the GDR, the Minister für Staatssicherheit, Erich Mielke, who also held evidence on a criminal conviction of head of state Erich Honecker who he blackmailed by this, had no clue until Lysacus made the manipulation of the May 1989 elections public.
This triggered the opposition groups to increase their pressure on the GDR government. But, in order to not be discovered immediately by STASI, Lysacus used Soviet military frequencies for orchestrating the ‘discovering’ of the election fraud that had a catalyzing effect. Mielke, I was told by my informant, was very upset and fumed when he learnt that Lysacus was from his own party and not from the opposition.
Funny enough, he and Honecker still did not believe it until the summer of 1989 when also Lysacus members were among the first ones to flee with caravans to Hungary and from there to Austria and West-Germany.
It is kind of tragic that the STASI collected all these millions of files but the leaders of the GDR and the party did not trust these files in exactly that moment when for the first time STASI delivered some useful information.
I personally had some very direct encounters with GDR officials around the state visit, the first and last of it’s kind, of GDR head of state Erich Honecker in Bonn, the FRG-capital. I met many naive appearing diplomats from the East and also journalists from the GDR’s state controlled media. The only diplomat who confirmed to me in a one-on-one meeting that he knew of Lysacus was Gunter Rettner, the top official of SED to deal with all contacts to Western Germany and who I met in the Restaurant Zwitscherstuben in Bonn Bad Godesberg on Rheinallee. He was a 100% Honecker-supporter and also loyal to Egon Krenz, the “crownprince” of Honecker.
We met a few times during the visit of Erich Honecker in Bonn and afterwards more regularily every three months or so in a private house in Zehlendorf, the American sector of Berlin, near Argentinische Allee not far from the US Army HQ. These meetings were always organized by a West-Berliner business man, Jürgen Fels, who claimed to have helped the GDR-leadership in unbureaucratic ways to get valuta credit cards or organized that the GDR’s first bowling center could open in the Palast der Republik.
In this Villa in Berlin Zehlendorf that belonged to a family with the name Pracht as the door sign read, but which must have been all the time on holidays, I met Mr. Rettner, Mr. Fels and Wolfgang Arlt, a business man from the East who knew his way around in the World’s capitals quite well and who I suspected to be working for the STASI’s foreign trade division “Kommerzielle Koordinierung” directed by STASI – General Alexander Schalk-Golodkowski.
It would have been, of course, naive by me to assume that these friendly gentlemen were just interested in giving me information about the planned collapse of their political system. There was something else I should learn rather quickly. Mr. Fels and Mr. Arlt made it clear that they expected the selling off of the GDR’s silver cutlery by Lysacus which they were seeking to avert. They told me that they suspected KGB-structures to support Lysacus from Moscow and also by the Soviet military in Karlshorst (the military HQ of the Red Army in East-Berlin).
Retrospectively, I can say now that I am 100% sure that these KGB-structures were the same that let oligarchs sell-off the USSR in the early nineties when Yeltsin was brought to power by IMF, Western banks and corrupt former KGB officers turned oligarchs who robbed the state’s assets like Chodorkovsky, Beresovsky, Abramovich and others.
Mr. Gorbachev, in an interview with me only 12 days before the collapse of the USSR admitted that he had lost control as early as in 1987 as even he could not stop Lysacus anymore. And, Mr. Gorbachev told me in an interview in June 1991, the West had demanded the unconditional, immediate and complete opening of the Soviet market. My question what would happen if he did not fulfil the West’s demands Mr. Gorbachev answered by saying “then they will put everything behind Yelzin.”
I am convinced today that Mr. Gorbachev really believed in freedom and democracy and was ready to give these to all peoples in the Eastern hemisphere but that some ruthless corrupt secret service agents understood that they could turn themselves into businessmen. This is what Lysacus was about. These structures stole the raisins from the pie and defrauded the taxpayers in all countries but their structures are still well and alive in all countries of the former Eastern Bloc.
Mr. Rettner, Mr. Krenz and a few others from the Honecker-line in 1987 understood that the USSR was potentially withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact states and would also give up the GDR. For this case Rettner and a few others, like the GDR’s Foreign Trade Minister Gerhard Beil drew up “Plan Saigon” in order to prevent the selling off of industries and in order to keep control over the ailing economy trying to avert hostile takeovers after the Soviet Union had withdrawn from the GDR like the US Americans had to give up southern Vietnam.
The only miscalculation this group had was that the GDR itself would be put at stake and be incorporated into West-Germany. That thought, indeed, had been unthinkable in 1987 and even in 1989 we all did not think of German unification yet by which Plan Saigon had become obsolete.
But, in 1987 I was asked to assist as a partner from the West to protect the ownership of the socialistic economy which I agreed to do because I believed in the reform of the system and also thought that our Western German cushioned capitalism was only a bit social because the GDR existed.
After 9th October 1989 in Leipzig where the last doubters had seen that the entire System was at stake and would collapse, it was clear to us that the pressure at the borders needed to ease off. The Czechoslovakian Ministerpresident rang Egon Krenz and demanded that either the GDR found a solution for the refugees that were occupying Prague or the Czechoslovakia had to close it’s borders towards the GDR. That would have been an unimaginable affront.
In the morning of the 9th November 1989 I spoke with Egon Krenz and he said that he ordered civil servants of the interior ministry to work on the verbiage for the draft legislation granting visas for leaving the GDR, not a general travel regulation for people to travel back and forth. The Socialist Unity Party’s (SED) central committee was on emergency session these days and still thought that citizens who wanted to leave the GDR should be forced to make that decision forever and not be able to revise it and come back.
In the afternoon the draft legislation was ready and got circulated to all ministries but by this did not have any legal power yet. This would require a formal decision taken by the council of ministers. Egon Krenz planned to release a statement to the media for 10 November 1989 and the draft statement carried the “embargo time 4 AM 10th November 1989”.
Mr. Krenz told me that he was aware of the historic relevance the 9th of November had for Germans and that he would not want to taint the commemoration of the Reichskristallnacht when NAZIs launched their pogroms against Jewish citizens on 9th of November 1938. But, there was also the 9th of November 1923 when Hitler tried to seize power in a failed coup attempt and the 9th of November 1918 when the German revolution failed to form a real democracy leading to such instability that the German bourgeoisie installed the NAZI regime.
Retrospectively one can say that the German upper class can be relieved that a side effect of the Fall of the Berlin Wall was that the night of the pogroms against Jewish has vanished from public commemoration almost completely whereas German mainstream media nowadays behaves as if they all collectively suffer from premature ejaculation when speaking about the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall on 9th November.
I arrived a few minutes before 18h (6pm) in the international press center in Mohrenstraße 38 in East Berlin that cold evening on 9th November 1989. The room was overcrowded as press conferences of the SED were not that common, actually, it was only the second one this year. Günter Schabowski, former editor in chief of SED central publication Neues Deutschland was certainly the most eloquent and most qualified top-propagandist one could think of for this position.
But, his nomination as press-spokesperson also drew a lot of criticism from the suddenly awakening journalists in the GDR. One of them criticized Mr. Schabowski outright of initiating yet another personification cult this time not about Erich Honecker whose portrait he at some stage had published 43 times in only one edition of Neues Deutschland, but among himself.
It was true, Günter Schabowski was more visible in the media during those days than his boss, Egon Krenz, who was the general secretary of the party and at the same time the chairman of politbureau as well as the state council, meaning that he had held the ultimate power even more than a US president.
One could see during the press conference how much Mr. Schabowski enjoyed the limelight although he, of course, denied that while at the same time trying to sound statesmen-like and eloquent by giving philosophical reasoning not being bothered by the fact that he was overstepping himself and had no authority to speculate how free elections would be organized and when these could be held. Nevertheless Mr. Schabowski engaged in debates with the journalists over those issues although the Central Committee of the party had not discussed those matters yet.
Next to Mr. Schabowski on the podium were other functionaries of the party who can be seen as garnishing decoration as Mrs Helga Labs, the union’s representative and Manfred Banaschak, editor of another party circulation, had nothing to contribute, just the Foreign Trade Minister Gerhard Beil who knew about Lysacus and Plan Saigon, later played a role.
All in all, the press conference had no clear structure. Mr. Schabowski offered monologues and couldn’t decide whether to answer questions one by one or all at once which gave the entire press conference a chaotic atmosphere. He also jumped from one topic to the next as if he wanted to kill time. Funny was maybe the exchange between him and the West-German BILD Zeitung correspondent Peter Brinkmann about the freedom of press in the GDR which Mr. Schabowski maintained did exist which led Mr. Brinkmann to ask whether this was now being introduced by Mr. Schabowski causing great amusement in the room.
Then, just minutes before the live broadcast was to end at 19h (7pm) Mr. Schabowski ignored a request to ask a question by BBC-correspondent Daniel Johnson and let the Italian ANSA correspondent Riccardo Ehrmann speak: “Mr. Schabowski, when speaking of mistakes having been made, has it not also been a mistake to introduce the new travel regulations?”. Mr. Schabowski looks a bit confused but then grabs a piece of paper from his folder and reads to us the draft legislation that was to pass the council of ministers and that should allow for private travel without reasons such as relations. Authorizations were to be given unbureaucratically by the Volkspolizei.
Suddenly, the journalists were all fully awake, questions are shouted into the direction of Mr. Schabowski, one from Mr. Brinkmann, one by me and others from the right side of the room causing Mr. Schabowski to turn his head to that side: “From when on is that valid?”, I among others asked as I could not believe what I heard there since I knew for sure that Egon Krenz wanted to deliver a proper statement if not a speech the next morning. But, Mr. Schabowski looked onto his document and then said with firm voice “that, according to my knowledge….immediately, without delay….”. Foreign trade minister Gerhard Beil, in contrast to Mr. Schabowski a high ranking government official and not only a spokesperson of the ruling party SED, leaned over to Mr. Schabowski.
25 years ago we were not able to hear what he said to Mr. Schabowski but the tapes that I watched recently reveal a power struggle. Minister Beil said: “That needs to be confirmed by the Council of Ministers!”, but Mr. Schabowski ignored this intervention and went on to proclaim the new travel freedom by allowing Daniel Johnson to ask a question: “What will happen with the Berlin wall now, Mr Schabowski?”. Mr. Schabowski reiterated that the existence of the wall was not an issue when making it penetrable and by this once more made clear that it has now become obsolete.
25 years later I am more than ever sure that Mr. Schabowski only played the dumb and that what we had witnessed there has been a coup d’état. He had no authority to speak about this and had he not been asked by Riccardo Ehrman about the new travel regulations he could not have placed this bomb in the press conference without facing serious consequences. It is obvious that in the power struggle we witnessed Minister Beil tried to hold Mr. Schabowski back, but could not do so effectively.
It is clear that Riccardo Ehrman’s question was crucial in this set-up so one should pay attention to him when he admitted in 2009 on German TV (MDR) that he did not have the idea for his question come to his mind just like that. In this TV interview Mr. Ehrman told us that he had received minutes before the press conference a call from the “submarine”, a reference to the meeting room at the East-German central news agency Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst (ADN) in Mollstraße that laid under a pond to make it soundproof.
The person who he spoke with probably was Günter Pötschke, editor in chief of ADN who had a lot of international experience as he used to work for UNESCO and because of that had many contacts in the West. He also served as president of the union of european news agencies.
In a way, one can clearly credit Riccardo Ehrman with helping to bring down the barbaric border that seperated Germany, especially also because it was him who convinced his editor in chief in Italy that the Wall has fallen. At 19:31 (7:31 PM) ANSA sent that news over ticker and German ARD picked it up at 20h (8 PM). But, it was Hanns Joachim Friedrichs, anchorman at ARD Tagesthemen who summed it up in a way that everybody understood: “The GDR opened it’s borders, all gates are wide open”, which was not true. He actually deserves the biggest credit for making it happen that night. Mr. Friedrichs had already cooperated with the Italian agency when broadcasting material they secretely shot during the “march of the 70,000” in Leipzig on 9th October 1989, so there was a string of cooperation already.
All this makes it more and more look like a conspiracy by Lysacus. Mr Pötschke, like Mr. Schabowski, were key players in the reform agenda of the GDR and both not only eloquently spoke English but also had international contacts. Mr. Schabowski, a real professional in propaganda only needed to make sure that he was not caught betraying his superiors and therefore had to let it look like an accident.
Also his behavior after the end of the GDR showed that he was not dumb at all. He managed to get away with a suspended sentence while Egon Krenz was sent to prison for the alleged collective responsibility of all politbureau members for the shootings at the wall.
For 25 years I had not watched the archived materials but now I see it clearly: retrospectively one can only come to the conclusion that Lysacus in the final act of the drama about the GDR managed to twist even it’s final curtain.
And, not only did Lysacus deprive the lawful head of state of the GDR, Egon Krenz, of his right to play the role in history that he was bound to play, but also did the Schabowski-Coup let 9th of November become a date in the calendar of Germany that was filled with joy rather than shame.
In January 1990 Egon Krenz, Gunter Rettner, former vice minister of culture Hartmut König and I enacted Plan Saigon. The three were officially employed by my company, a publishing house in Bonn, to organize the protection against hostile takeovers in order to protect the socialist economy against opening of the market. However, when it became clear that the GDR would cease to exist, we also had to understand that our efforts will become fruitless once German unification was inevitably under way. In May 1990 SPIEGEL magazine found out that we were working together and wrote about it although the colleagues had no clue what exactly we had been doing and what it meant: Plan Saigon.