Thursday, October 30, 2014

It Started At The Austrian-Hungarian Border - The Weeks Before Mauerfall, Part 1

[Want less text? Scroll down for tweet-sized bits] 

I recently discussed Mauerfall 1989 with a friend, remarking on the staggering volumes of paper evidence that East Germany's secret police apparatus left behind, when its power dissipated like magic, after East Germans collectively decided no longer to ignore the man behind the curtain. My friend remarked: "It seems that's always been the downfall of you Germans. You throw a dictatorship and keep meticulous records of it." Indeed. Actual Stasi members became harder and harder to find after Mauerfall, but the records of 40 years of surveillance of millions of East German citizens were soon discovered, hidden away, neatly filed and centralized, in mountain caves near Jena.

In the weeks after Mauerfall, one of the first of many contentious issues between Easterners and Westerners arose over the question of what to do with these documents. East Germans wanted them destroyed. Many feared being exposed as Stasi agents, others feared personal and family secrets that might come to light. Still others argued that those documents represented the very core of what was wrong with East Germany, a record of terrible invasions of privacy. With freedom, they argued, should also come freedom from a Stasi paper trail. I can't help but agree with that, even as the historian in me wants to smack me upside the head.

As with practically any other issue that arose after Mauerfall, Westerners got what they wanted: the records were preserved for posterity. It was never said out loud during the back-and-forth over this or any other issues, but after West Germany bought East Germany's worthless currency 1-to-1 in July 1990, I started to sense a distinct subtext along the lines of: "Look, guys. We just exchanged your worthless monopoly money for Deutschmarks that are actually worth something. The least you can do in return is trust us not to screw you over."

Today, the Stasi records are stored at and curated by organizations such as the Center for Contemporary History / Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung in the Eastern city of Potsdam and the BStU. Take a look at the site if you really want to know the German phrase behind that acronym. It loosely translates as "we keep Stasi records here" and its motto is "The better we can understand dictatorships, the better we can shape democracy", which gets creepier the more I think about it.

While some of these archives are public, others are open only to those individuals who are the subjects of the files. The BStU has created an entire process through which former East Germans can gain access to their own Stasi files. But, I'm pretty sure, in the end, they have to give the originals back.

@Mauerfall89 on twitter is a German-language account that has been tweeting Stasi records, along with other documents and media. This blog is a good place to make these tweets more accessible to English speakers. They resoundingly illustrate how Mauerfall was not a one-day event with a distinctive beginning and end. I can easily argue that the end hasn't been written yet. As to the beginning? It was a confluence of factors, but above all, it was a generational revolt. That part of my prediction turned out to be prophetic, even though The Wall crumbled much sooner than even I expected.

It was a movement spearheaded by those who desperately wanted to leave, along with more moderate voices who called for reforms in East Germany. As East Germans began to flee via Hungary, demonstrations started to take place in East Germany's large cities, Dresden, Leipzig, Jena, Gera, Potsdam and others. Churches played a pivotal role. Pastors became the leaders through which congregations grew into demonstrations. Soon, the term "Montagsdemonstrationen" became a household word, as Monday evening newscasts in West Germany showed large numbers of East Germans demonstrating peacefully in the cities, Monday after Monday.

The reform movement got a name: "Neues Forum" (New Forum). It continued to demand true democratic reforms, even as party hardliners in East Germany instructed the Stasi and, later, the NVA (Nationale Volksarmee, East Germany's army) to crack down on these events, as well as root out and punish the leaders. Regardless, by late October 1989 Neues Forum protests were held in 170 locations across East Germany, with more than 1.1 million participants.

In early September 1989, it was East Germans massing at border points with Austria in Hungary that attracted the attention of the world. Even at the height of tyranny, East Germans could still travel under some circumstances, just not to the West. It was impossible for the average East German to cross a border into West Germany, but East Germans could cross into Hungary, another Warsaw Pact country. Desperate East Germans who had nothing but what they could carry begged and pleaded with Hungarian border guards to let them pass through Austria into West Germany. Throughout the Cold War, West Germany granted de facto citizenship and assistance to any East Germans who could make it to West German soil. In September 1989, that is what East Germans camped out at the Hungarian/Austrian border wanted.

Think about this situation: Thousands of East Germans, with more arriving daily, waited at the border with Austria in Hungary while the world decided their fate. They would rather die than go back to their homes in East Germany. All they wanted was to leave behind everything in East Germany and travel through Austria to West Germany to being again. The East German government, was, of course, livid over this, but the Stasi and NVA had no real authority in Hungary. The Austrian and Hungarian governments just wanted to get this resolved. They sure didn't want to shoot, arrest, detain or interrogate anyone.

If you were to believe the cold warrior textbooks, all hell should have broken loose right around then. And many, like my mom, believed that to be very likely under the circumstances. You'd have Russia threatening to invade Hungary and East Germany, West Germany going GSG-9 and rescuing the refugees on their own, a larger US-USSR conflict and the spectre of nukes at the global level - simply for shaking up the status quo.

What actually happened was very different. On September 10, 1989, the Hungarian government quietly decided to open its borders and let the East German refugees pass, later stating that it did not obtain prior authorization from the Soviet Union. Nor did the U.S. play a crucial role in this decision. Buses were provided and the first of what would become millions of East Germans were allowed to enter West Germany. At the time, very few people anticipated that this event would open the flood gates. It was widely seen as a one-time deal made for humanitarian reasons. Even I did not see Mauerfall coming in September 1989.


Two days later, in an open letter, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl thanked the Hungarian government for "this act demonstrating its humanity." He doesn't refer to the people from East Germany as "refugees", as media around the world began to do. He calls them "our compatriots", a term stressing the fact that West Germans welcomed East Germans with open arms. In the article he also talks about the will of the German people to become one country again as akin to a moral obligation.

As soon as Hungary opens its border with Austria at midnight on September 10, 1989, East German refugees storm the border in a rush to cross:

Thousands of East Germans arrive in West Germany for the first time, after traveling through Austria from Hungary. The expressions on these faces taking it all in says it all.

Just get me out of here! East Germans in Hungarian taxis hoping to cross to the West.

Meanwhile, inside East Germany, Prayer Services For Peace begin in Leipzig's Nikolai Church. About a 1,000 East Germans attend; Stasi arrive and arrest 89.

The ruling SED party's politburo members meet to discuss events in Hungary. In the excerpt from the minutes below, Comrade Mittag holds forth on how Hungary has broken its loyalty to East Germany under the guise of humanitarian actions, on how the West German propaganda machine continues to churn, lying about everything. Comrade Mittag identifies the problem as "that hole in Hungary" and strongly suggests that it be handled internally, without involvement of other countries or governments. He wants this matter handled by the Stasi and the Ministry of the Interior. This type of response from the East German government has been described as "inaction due to having no clue what to do about this or how to stop it from happening again" (yes, the Germans have a word for that). So the proper East German response was to put other branches of the government in charge.

No comments:

Post a Comment