Egon Krenz still wears a kipper tie and big-shouldered jacket, trademarks of the Cold War Communist, but these days he combines them with jeans, a garment his regime once derided as a symbol of capitalist oppression. If it weren't for his disturbing stare, he could be any ex-Communist east German in his 70s.
For Krenz, the world has been a distinctly inhospitable place in the 20 years that have elapsed since he was ousted as Communist East Germany's last leader in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today Germany is celebrating the 19th anniversary of its reunification, but Krenz won't be at the party. He sees his dream of creating an alternative, and morally superior, socialist German state destroyed. "My ideal has gone," he admitted in an interview with The Independent this week. "Capitalism? The society that we have now cannot be the final word in history, I am convinced of that."
Krenz, who is now 72, was sentenced to six and a half years' imprisonment by a German court in 1997. He was held to account for his regime's role in the slaughter of more than a thousand East Germans. Most were shot by border guards while trying to flee to the West over the Berlin Wall or across the heavily fortified Iron Curtain that divided Germany for over 30 years.
He never accepted any guilt. He described the proceedings as "cold war in court" and his conviction as "victor's justice". He served four years of his sentence in Berlin's Spandau prison. He was let out in 2003, and has been living quietly at the home he shares with his devoted wife in the town of Dierhagen on east Germany's Baltic coast ever since.
Krenz has just written a book about his role in the collapse of Communism. He portrays himself as the hapless victim of Germany's past: if there had been no Kaiser Wilhelm II, there would have been no Great War. If there had been no Great War, there would have been no Adolf Hitler. No Hitler, no Second World War. No Second World War, no Berlin Wall. He complains: "These factors are hardly mentioned" in the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall.
He is fond of citing John F Kennedy, who, he insists, once said that the Berlin Wall was not a good solution, but better than a war. "Every dead person at the border was one too many," Krenz said. But, he added: "I would be dishonest if I said that we could have stopped it. It was not only a border between the two Germanys but a border between two world systems. The East Germans weren't the only people responsible for it."
Yet Krenz did not always see himself as a victim. In Communist party terms he was a roaring success. He joined the East German Socialist Unity party in 1955 when he was 18 and moved steadily up the ranks, joining the politburo in 1983. For nearly a decade he was East Germany's "crown prince", the man most likely to succeed the state's veteran leader Erich Honecker.
He visited West Germany in the summer of 1989 when nobody suspected that the Wall would fall, still confident that his regime would survive him. Brigitte Schulte, a West German Social Democrat who accompanied him, described him as "utterly unsympathetic", and recalled how he spoke knowledgeably about choice foods, fine wines and all the privileges that were denied to ordinary East Germans. "He struck me as the consummate apparatchik, a true child of the system, surrounded by the oiliest advisers, the sort of people who would do anything," she said at the time.
Krenz did succeed Honecker, but under circumstances radically different from those that had been expected. Country-wide protests against the East German regime and a growing exodus of citizens to the West via Hungary and Czechoslovakia forced Honecker's resignation. Krenz stepped into his shoes. Aware that Mikhail Gorbachev was committed to ending the Cold War, Krenz was left with little option but to open East Germany's borders.
The Berlin Wall fell on the night of 9 November, at least 12 hours earlier than the border opening had been planned. Krenz is fulsome in his praise for East Germany's border guards for not having opened fire on the crowds surging through crossing points. "One drop of blood would have been a catastrophe," he insisted. "I am still thankful that the security forces of East Germany prevented this from happening."
He argues that it is disgraceful that border guards are "excluded from society" in reunited Germany, where many of them have been sentenced for shooting would-be escapers. Even after the Wall fell, Krenz firmly believed that East Germany would survive as a viable socialist state. "The defeat of East Germany was my personal defeat," he said. He resigned as East German leader less than a month after the Wall fell.
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