Saturday, November 1, 2014

The West German Embassy In Prague ~ The Weeks Before Mauerfall, Part 2

After hundreds of East Germans were able to depart East Germany for West Germany once Hungary temporarily opened one border crossing in September 1989, what everybody wanted - nobody more so than the East German communist power structure - was for things to "go back to normal". That is to say, everybody hoped East German citizens would quiet down now and go back to suffering and living in fear without complaints. It was a nice fantasy that would be shattered within a few short weeks. East Germans had gotten a taste of freedom. The most determined of them continued to risk their lives in a desperate bid to make sure the door that briefly opened to the West would not slam shut again for good. Hungary wasn't the only escape route to the West. East Germany also shared borders with Poland and Czechoslovakia - Warsaw Pact countries - where it was easier for East Germans to travel. 

The West German government always made it clear that its standing policy was to welcome and support any East German citizen who could make it to West German soil. By definition, this included West German embassies. Not long after the first few hundred East Germans arrived in West Germany via Hungary, East Germans began an Occupy movement way before it was a thing and crossed into other East European countries, making their way to West German embassies there, seeking asylum and refusing to leave. This soon caused a worsening refugee crisis at the West German embassy in Prague, Czechoslovakia, which was unprepared to deal with the influx of people. The situation grew increasingly desperate as basic services such as sanitation or tents were in short supply. The fall weather grew inclement. Hunger and disease were pressing concerns. Yet more and more East Germans continued to arrive at the embassy in Prague, hoping for a path to freedom.

West Germany did not have an embassy in East Germany. The closest thing to an embassy that existed in East Germany during the Cold War was a position entitled "Permanent representative of the West German government in East Germany". This accommodation was in title only, and did not confer diplomatic status or treat the space were the representative worked as sovereign West German soil. In order to reach a West German embassy, East Germans had to leave their country. And so people fleeing East Germany headed for Prague.

Meanwhile, inside East Germany, the council of Protestant Churches urges internal reform: Demands for more than ONE party, newspaper and TV channel, as well as unrestricted travel and economic reforms. For 40 years in East Germany, churches were neglected. The brand of communism practiced in East Germany had no use for religious or spiritual pursuits. Many churches in larger cities were never rebuilt after they were bombed out during WWII. Religion and religious services did not figure prominently into East German daily life. On the surface. In reality, religious practices continued, partly in "approved" churches, partly underground. The social networks people formed through church involvement eventually became stepping stones of peaceful dissent. Pastors like Christoph Wonneberger at Nikolai Church in Leipzig became the face and organizers of church-centered demonstrations that grew from a few hundred initially to attract more than 1 million protesters in the final weeks before Mauerfall.

From the Stasi archives: A telegram from supreme dictator Erich Honecker to the East German communist party, SED (Socialist Unity Party) sent on September 22, 1989. Yes, it really does start off with "Dear Comrades". It admonishes party members to squash enemy activities at the root as well as to target and isolate the leaders of these "counter-revolutionary activities". East German communism was based on Marxism and the concept of The Revolution that would transform society so that all the wealth is spread around, private ownership doesn't exist and everybody is equal. That was, in theory, East Germany's goal, so any activities threatening the status quo were branded as "counter-revolutionary".

September 22, 1989: Refugees at the West Germany embassy in Prague. The West German Red Cross uses a portable kitchen to serve a meal: pork chops, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut. It seems like a small detail, yet that meal is as German as German gets. The fact that both East and West Germans knew this foreshadows how much East Germans weren't really refugees, but simply Germans looking for a new home.

September 23, 1989: More and more East Germans arrive at the West German embassy in Prague. The portable kitchen is being moved to another location where it is needed. 

September 23, 1989: Governments watching events unfold don't really grasp what is coming down the pike. This document transcribes a conversation between Gorbachev and U.K. prime minister Thatcher, where she insists that Great Britain totally opposes German re-unification. Umh... okay, noted.

September 20, 1989: Internally, the Soviet ambassador to East Germany reveals his government's position - "We will support East Germany, but not at the cost of our interests in West Germany and Europe. Translation: "No. We will not send troops, guns and tanks to East Germany to keep their people from fleeing to the West." This Soviet hands-off approach to events in East Germany was crucial in allowing the events to unfold that led to Mauerfall. Soviet invasion was also the One Thing many West Germans feared, including my mother. The U.S. also showed restraint, despite military advisers to Bush Sr. pushing him to "take Eastern Europe". Whenever I hear an American claim that "we won the Cold War!" I point out that, no, we didn't. First, events leading up to Mauerfall were about peaceful change, not war. Second, if anyone won anything, it was Mikhail Gorbachev for choosing to de-escalate. 

September 19, 1989: 510 East Germans refugees are now camped out on the grounds of the West German embassy in Prague. The flag in the picture is that of West Germany.

September 19, 1989: Correspondence between West Germany's secretary of state and embassy in Prague. A decision is made to close the embassy temporarily. This does not discourage the arrival of more refugees.

From the Stasi archives: September 20, 1989 - Secret police report regarding flyers in the city of Arnstadt, inviting East Germans to come to a peaceful protest on September 30 and to openly criticize the arbitrary policies of East Germany's communist ruling party, SED. The Stasi documented the flyer, reproducing it in full, including the poem that appeared on the flyer. Here's a translated sample:

What kind of life? - When freedom was stillborn and everything seems lost.

What kind of life? - When fear rules every day, where the end never seems to end.
What kind of life? - When a very few have everything and there's no way out for people like us.

September 24, 1989: The number of East German refugees at the embassy in Prague climbs to 865. In the previous 24 hours alone, 135 East Germans scaled the fence of the shuttered embassy to reach West German soil - or at least the glimmer of a chance to reach West Germany itself.

September 24, 1989: Possibly due to pressure from East Germany, the Czechoslovakian government begins tight controls on its borders with Hungary in a bid to prevent East Germans from leaving the country and to persuade them to return to East Germany. Instead, refugees continue to mass at the embassy in Prague, as the weather turns frigid.

September 25, 1989: A demonstration in Leipzig, East Germany, attracts a record 5,000 participants demanding internal reform. A few days earlier, protesters had filed for permission to make Neues Forum (New Forum) on officially permitted group working to have a voice in government. East German functionaries turned down the request. Protesters chant "Legitimize Neues Forum!"

From the Stasi archives - September 26, 1989: East German secret police is out of its league, unable to stem the flood of protests and acceptance of Neues Forum. The report states that some East Germans were overheard saying that "These sort of things simply cannot continue to happen on Monday evenings!" The document also contains a lot of waffling about how the Neues Forum movement itself isn't an actual threat to anything and that it can be made to go away if they just zero in on the "instigators". 
Translation: "Gaahh!! What are we gonna do?!"

From the Stasi archives - September 27, 1989: East Germany's defense minister calls for increased army mobilization in East Berlin as well as for more effective "border protections". Like many alarmist Stasi documents from the time, specific details on how to accomplish all that are conspicuously absent. 

September 26, 1989: West Germany's intelligence service (BND) concludes that "there is nothing about these current events that suggest they are an explosive mix that could lead to a repeat of June 17th, 1953", the date of an uprising in East Berlin of the type that hastened the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

From the Stasi archives - September 25, 1989: Stasi telegram about a demonstration at the Nikolai Church in Leipzig. Protest organizers used the term "Monday Prayer Services" and "Prayer Services For Peace" to refer to gatherings that doubled as demonstrations for the Neues Forum platform. Whoever wrote this report appears to be particular incensed by this use of language and constantly puts the words "Montagsgebet" (Monday Prayer Services) and "Friedensgebet" (Prayer Services For Peace) in quotes. The author is also alarmed at the pastor's calls for expanding Monday Prayer Services to other days and locations since the Nikolai Church in Leipzig can no longer accommodate the number of protesters.

September 25, 1989: Czechoslovakian military police guard the entrance of the closed West German embassy in Prague. East Germans refuse to move.

September 25, 1989: Owning a Trabant (aka Trabi) was a sign of being a good East German citizen loyal to the party line. The East German state did produce cars (a single make and model, of course) and doled them out via waiting lists and background checks to people the government considered somehow deserving. The fact that East Germans were photographed fleeing East Germany in their Trabants was particularly embarrassing to the East German propaganda machine. Photo shows refugees arriving at West German embassy in Prague.

From the Stasi archives - September 24, 1989: A telegram from the Stasi leadership to its rank and file exhorting Stasi agents to step up detention of East German citizens attempting to cross East Germany's border with Poland. This may have been a rare instance of actual foresight by the Stasi leadership, but... too little, too late.

September 26, 1989: East Germans continue to arrive on the grounds of the West German embassy in Prague. Children peak through a fence, facing an altogether uncertain future.

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