Was it unavoidable?

Christoph Bertram

  • Dissolution: The Crisis of Communism and the End of East Germany by Charles Maier
    Princeton, 376 pp, £21.95, June 1997, ISBN 0 691 01158 3

It is a rare experience to witness the collapse of a modern state, not to mention of an empire; but those who were alive and conscious in 1989 can claim to have been present at just such an extraordinary event. Although most Western experts were aware of many of the internal shortcomings of the Soviet Union and its assorted East European satellites – Helmut Schmidt called it ‘Upper Volta with missiles’ – it had not seemed by any means moribund, even appearing to generate fresh energy and a new spirit, as well as international respectability, under Gorbachev’s reforms. The boldest forecasts saw another fifty years of Soviet rule in Central Europe, or if they were especially adventurous, a gradual erosion of the Communist empire: no one predicted the rush of events that led within a very few years from perestroika to collapse.

We did not see the writing on the wall, the brittleness of the prison complex that Lenin, Stalin and the rest had built and which their successors tried in vain to hold together. It was, I think, in the spring of 1989 that I became convinced that German unification, the official aim of all West German – indeed, all Western – governments, was not only unlikely but also undesirable, and urged my editor to start a campaign to this effect, a proposal he wisely chose to ignore. I was persuaded that the Soviet Union, with all its tanks, missiles, warheads, party bosses and raw materials, was there to stay. And whatever steps it might take towards internal reform, it would never permit its German creation, the German Democratic Republic, to go down the drain. Hence the GDR, economically the most successful of Moscow’s satellites, was also there to stay, under a leadership which seemed to enjoy a measure of domestic support despite the fact that it continued to shoot anyone who tried to escape to the West.

That the Soviet Union would remain as the guarantor of Germany’s division, and East Germany’s survival, seemed the fundamental law of Mid-European geostrategy, even when, in the summer of 1989, thousands of East Germans fled to the West via a now liberalising Hungary and when, in late autumn, tens of thousands showed their desire for change on the streets of Leipzig and Berlin. What had hitherto seemed absolute turned out, however, to have become relative without the nomenklatura of East Berlin, let alone anyone else, even noticing. A few days after 9 November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, I was in Moscow to see for myself how the Soviets reacted to the event. To my surprise, nobody in the Kremlin seemed to care very much. People just shrugged their shoulders. In their own minds they had already given up on the pretence of empire. I should have known then that unification would be merely a matter of months.

Could the Soviet leadership have prevented the dissolution of its empire or the handing over to the West of the one piece of real estate which gave them a veto on Germany’s future? They certainly could. If, in those autumn weeks, instead of ordering their troops in East Germany to stay in their barracks, they had conducted a few highly visible manoeuvres, a population long trained to read such signs would quickly have deduced that the old order would be defended, and returned to their homes, frustrated but resigned. Some Western leaders, not least Margaret Thatcher, were hoping in vain for such a demonstration of Soviet firmness.

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