Berlin Wall Ten Years After: Today, Egon Krenz celebrates his order to tear down the Wall. Tomorrow, he heads for prison
Tuesday 09 November 1999
With extraordinary timing, on the eve of the anniversary of East Berlin's freedom, the former East German leader Egon Krenz lost his long battle for his own freedom yesterday when an appeals court in Leipzig upheld a prison sentence of six-and-a-half years.
It was 10 years ago that the Wall began to totter, as the Communist regime opened the floodgates in an act of utter desperation. That event had Good Guys and Bad Guys. With the former on their way to prison, the latter will be showered with accolades. Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Evil Empire, has just been given the Federal Republic's highest decoration. George Bush, long-forgotten everywhere else but honoured by Germans for getting Margaret Thatcher to swallow her objections to a united Germany, will receive the freedom of Berlin.
The veteran Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich will play, with a hundred other cellists at the Brandenburg Gate, in harmony, it is to be hoped, with the rock group The Scorpions. And for light relief, the past and present chancellors, Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schroder, will be making speeches.
Krenz and his two co-defendants will be able to attend the celebrations, if they so wish. Under German legal practice, those convicted usually get at least a week to put their affairs in order before going to prison. The ever defiant Krenz indicated last night he was not yet ready to pack his toothbrush.
The court in Leipzig also confirmed three-year prison sentences for two other former Politburo members. Krenz, Gunter Schabowski and Gunther Kleiber were held indirectly responsible for the deaths of East German refugees shot by border guards along the Berlin Wall.
In a side-swipe at what he has called "victors' justice", Krenz, now aged 62, said: "I will wear my prisoner's uniform with more honour than certain judges wear their robes."
Hundreds of border guards have been put on trial in the past 10 years with mixed success. They all argued they had carried out the shoot-to- kill orders of the Politburo, blamed for the deaths of some 1,000 East Germans. None of the Communist leaders responsible for issuing those orders has served a full prison term.
Krenz and his colleagues also cited a higher authority. They argued they had been acting on the instructions of Moscow, and Krenz himself went so far as to claim credit for preventing war. Keeping the Wall intact prevented the Cold War turning hot.
For years Krenz was the second most powerful man in East Germany after Erich Honecker. But Krenz was also the politician who, after Honecker's sacking in October 1989, took the decision to open East Germany's borders. It was Schabowski, his co-defendant, who triggered the avalanche on 9 November by prematurely announcing free travel for the country's frustrated citizens.
It will doubtless be a great party today, but Krenz and his cronies will not be alone in their absence. Few of the leading players of autumn 1989 will be there. It will be a great party, but one that few of the leading players of autumn 1989 will be attending. The dissidents who rallied millions of East Germans against the hated Wall were not invited to the official commemorations. Apart from Joachim Gauck, who now runs the government's Stasi-busting agency, none of the leading actors of Autumn 1989 will be attending the festivities.
They are not in a celebratory mood anyway. Christiane Ziller, 36, a founder 10 years ago of the opposition group "Democratic Breakthrough" certainly does not sound triumphant today. "We didn't see reunification as a goal," she says. "We wanted no Anschluss. In that sense we lost." Ms Ziller fought for a "Third Way" - an East Germany that was democratic, socialist and sovereign.
Like her enemies in the ruling party, she could not foresee that without the Wall and the minefields the country would not survive. She now accepts that she was wrong, but to this day feels the way East Germany was gobbled up by the West was also a mistake. "The citizens of the GDR experienced the reunification as a form of colonisation," Ms Ziller argues. In the process, "many East Germans were dispossessed for the second time".
Ms Ziller cites statistics culled from left-leaning think tanks, which show that only a quarter of the money invested by the West in the reconstruction actually stayed in the East, and 10 years on only eight per cent of the productive capacity of former East Germany is controlled by East Germans.
"I was treated rather badly by the old GDR regimes," she explains. "So I had to be inventive. I'm used to taking my life into my own hands."
As Heidrun Kobernick recalls her first walk into West Berlin she remembers beingstruck by the spectacle of cheering people welcoming her with open arms. "As we passed, we saw all these West Berliners clapping and crying.
"I couldn't understand why they were crying. I think the West Berliners were probably more excited than we were. We didn't understand the consequences then."
But millions of East Germans were not prepared for the new "elbow-society". They watched in horror as their factories and shops were taken over by Western companies and closed. Almost the country's entire product range vanished overnight, with the not-much-lamented Trabants leading the procession into oblivion.
Only now are some of these making a comeback. The Sachsenring plant which used to manufacture East Germany's joke cars is now a successful private enterprise, producing components for Volkswagen. The fizzy wine of the East has been revived, along with many brands, all of them catering for the nostalgia market.
The politics, too, has taken a backward glance. After the fall of the Wall, few people would have laid bets on the Communists winning anything in free elections. Yet 10 years later the Party of Democratic Socialism, their successors, get 20 per cent of the votes cast in the New Lander, and 40 per cent in East Berlin. In recent elections in two of the eastern states they replaced the Social Democrats as the leading party of the left.
With nearly one in four without a real job, East Germans are demonstrating their dissafection at the ballot box. This has spawned an entirely new political behaviour: anti-capitalist sentiments expressed in votes for the extreme right. "Many people in the East don't have a high opinion of democracy, Ms Ziller explains. The result is that, in some cities, up to one in five have voted for neo-Nazi parties in the past year.
Ms Ziller did have a political career in united Germany, though not in "Democratic Breakthrough". After a few months' existence, her creation merged with the Green party, and she became a member of the national executive. After six year as a party aparatchik, she left to pursue a writing career.
Jochem Lassig is another former dissident devoured by the revolution. He had helped found "New Forum", the leading opposition grouping, in the city of Leipzig, and organised the weekly mass demonstrations in defiance of the Communist authorities. "New Forum wanted a more just society, with less capitalism. That was naive," he concedes now.
"We couldn't compete with them," Mr Lassig says. The Christian Democrats had Kohl, the Free Democrats Genscher." These parties in any case were offering what by now almost all East Germans were yearning for: a piece of the West. No one wanted to hear of a "Third Way" any more.
Mr Lassig, also joined the Greens eventually, and served as a Green councillor in Leipzig after re-unification. He has since withdrawn from active politics, and concentrates on his successful law practice. He has no doubt he is one of the revolution's winners.
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