Egon Krenz at E-Werk
Photo: Berliner Zeitung/Paulus Ponizak

BerlinEgon Krenz was the last Chairman of the State Council of the GDR. He spoke to us about the 9th of November, his life’s work, and German unity

Herr Krenz, how did you experience the night between the 9th and 10th of November?

For most people in both East and West it was a like a festival. For me, it was the most difficult night of my life. I bore total responsibility. Of those who were at my side that night, only politburo members Siegfried Lorenz and Wolfgang Herger and Secretary of the Defense Council Fritz Streletz are still alive.

How did you hear about what was happening?

Erich Mielke told me that crowds of people were moving toward the border, and wanted to know how we should react. We hadn’t followed Schabowski’s press conference, because we were all together in a Central Committee meeting, where over the course of the day we had passed the resolution loosening travel regulations. I had given Schabowski the paper that he referred to in the press conference. It wasn’t a note from the CIA or the KGB or any other secret service—it was a press release that wasn’t supposed to be made public until the next morning. Schabowski was simply supposed to explain our intentions.

Which he did…

…no, in fact he didn’t. The premature announcement of the plan that night, when important preparations for the opening of the border were still to be made, led to an extremely dangerous situation. Thanks to the level-headedness of our border guards, who strictly followed my earlier order against the use of firearms, there was no escalation, which would have had grievous consequences. Those hours stayed with me for the rest of my life.

What do you mean by that?

Can you imagine what it’s like when your entire life’s work is in jeopardy? You can’t recite all the things you did that day like a machine. At lunchtime, then SPD Vice Chairman Johannes Rau asked me in a confidential conversation what we were planning to do about travel. I thought to myself: “If you say to him: we’re about to discuss it in the Central Committee, he’ll call Willy Brandt, and the citizens of the GDR will hear the news from the West. I didn’t want that. I wanted the citizens of the GDR to hear it from us.

It went differently.

Yes, but not very differently.

How did you understand the situation at the border on the night of November 9th?

The border guards were in charge. I tried to coordinate with Heinz Kessler, the Defense Minister. But I couldn’t get a hold of him—there were no cell phones yet—because he was en route from Berlin to Strausberg. I’d hardly hung up when State Security Minister Mielke called again and asked what to do next. I said: “We wanted to open the border crossings tomorrow anyway, we don’t want to set off a clash with the people now.

Were there alternatives?

In history there are always alternatives. That’s usually forgotten today. We were always in close contact with our Soviet comrades at the high command in Wünsdorf. All fall they had been reminding us of the pact of friendship and mutual assistance between the GDR and the USSR. The GDR was a member of the Warsaw Pact. The reality was: the Soviet Union was responsible for helping the GDR, should we request it.

What would that have looked like?

The western group of the Soviet armed forces in Germany had every right to defend the Four Power Agreement.

Militarily, you mean.

The reaction in Moscow was different: On the morning of November 10, Ambassador Kochemasov called and said that Moscow was extremely worried about the developments at the border. He said: “We were for opening the border crossings between the GDR and the FRG—but not the borders in Berlin. That concerns the Allies. You weren’t authorized to open that border.” I told him any other reaction could have led to a bloodbath. He asked me to send a message to Gorbachev, which we then did. Two hours later Kochemasov called again and said: “Mikhail Gorbachev congratulates you and your comrades on also opening the border crossings in Berlin.” Can you imagine what was going through my head? In the space of two hours we were getting two completely contradictory signals from the capital of our allies. I had to ask myself who was really in charge in Moscow. Gorbachev? His apparat? The secret police, the army?

When you decided against taking military action, were there people who pressured you to take a different tack?

No. But I thought: What will happen if some trivial jostling in a crowd that big ends in chaos and people even die? Just one death, one injury, one drop of blood that night—it could have been a catastrophe. And what if someone tries to incite something? All kinds of provocateurs were imaginable—on our side, but also in West Berlin, the headquarters of international intelligence.

Did you consider going to Bornholmer Strasse yourself that night?

No. That was a mistake. If I had made an appearance there, it would have been a sign of our firm intention of opening the borders permanently, and it would have provided moral support to the border guards—but I couldn’t leave my office. There were so many questions to deal with. For example, Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski, my representative for negotiations with the Federal government, suggested I fly to Warsaw, where Kohl was, give a joint press conference, and pass the border opening off as a mutual decision. I wasn’t ready for that at the time. I couldn’t present Polish President Jaruzelski and Gorbachev with a fait accompli.

Egon Krenz
Photo: Paulus Ponizak

But such an appearance would have changed matters.

When I was on trial later, Egon Bahr was a prominent witness, and he said: If Egon Krenz and Helmut Kohl had explained the opening of the border as a joint action, instead of sitting in the dock, Krenz would be receiving the Great Cross of Merit.

Did you get any thanks for helping to prevent bloodshed?

What do you mean by thanks? I never thought in such categories. As an acting politician there’s always a lot to consider. But that night there wasn’t much room to maneuver: the decision was between shutting it all down with the help of our Soviet friends, or letting things take their course.

Did Kohl thank you?

We spoke on the phone on November 11. He thanked me for opening the borders. There was no talk of the “fall of the wall.” Gorbachev had previously warned Kohl in a message that the situation could become chaotic if the Chancellor were to destabilize the GDR. Kohl told Gorbachev that he wanted to meet with me.

When did it become clear to you that your decision meant losing control?

I had proceeded from the knowledge that there had been twelve years without a wall in Berlin previous to 1961. That had been extremely economically disadvantageous to the GDR, but I believed the country was stronger in 1989 than it had been in 1950/60. It wasn’t clear to me that Gorbachev was already negotiating about us with the West behind our backs.

You were sentenced to prison because of shots fired at the Wall. Did this lead to civil peace?

It depends on who you talk to in the East or in the West. In my plea I tried to explain what the GDR was, what its border was like. Some people who haven’t seriously engaged with the subject talk about the GDR like a blind person speaks of color. It’s no secret that GDR society was divided. In Germany today there is a disgusting new form of division—the deplorable rise of the AfD.

Does that frighten you?

A great deal. In addition, there’s the attitude of the CDU toward Bodo Ramelow and the Left in Thuringia—where the CDU is seriously saying there can be no cooperation with someone who refuses to call the GDR an “unjust nation.” I have to wonder what’s more important to these people: dissociating themselves from leftist democrats or the united struggle against nascent fascism? It’s not the legacy of the GDR that poses a threat to Germany, but rather Nazis and Neonazis.

What’s the connection?

The theory of the two dictatorships claims that the red humiliation followed seamlessly from the brown one. That’s a terrible insult to millions of citizens of the GDR. The founders of the GDR were fundamentally antifascist. And now that legacy is being denied.

The CDU Berlin won’t even sign a resolution commemorating the fall of the Wall together with the Left.

The Left might be the legal descendant of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), but in terms of platform, it is in no way the SED’s successor. If it were, I would certainly be a member. In that case I wouldn’t have been excluded.

You spoke of a fundamental antifascism. Today it’s easy to get the feeling that there’s more of a fundamental fascism among voters.

No, no, that’s much too simplistic. First of all, let me be perfectly clear: There’s no slight to East Germans that could possibly be grave enough to justify voting for the AfD. The AfD has only been able to grow as large as it has because the all democratic parties in the Bundestag have failed in their duty. Since the publication of my newest book I’ve had 26 events and talked to very different kinds of people, including AfD voters. They say they know nothing about the AfD’s platform—they just want to teach the established parties a lesson, because things can’t go on as they are. Even I sometimes feel like we’re being led by amateurs. How can it be that in a political matter of international importance the Defense Minister sends a text to the Foreign Minister and wants to put something out in the world that the administration hasn’t yet discussed? A lot of people also notice, for example, when Frau Merkel reaches for her phone right after making a policy statement. To outsiders it seems like she doesn’t care what the opposition has to say. There’s too little listening in general, and that rubs a lot of East Germans the wrong way.

Comparing the situation in 1988-89 to today, do you see parallels? We’re also experiencing great upheavals.

I wouldn’t equate them—the circumstances are very different. But the helplessness we felt in the last stages of the GDR is also palpable in current politics.

Do Angela Merkel’s East German roots influence the way she works, lives, and governs?

I wouldn’t want to be in her shoes. Politics today is difficult in different ways, and those who speak ill of her may later look back fondly on the days when she was Chancellor. I would have made the same decision she did with regard to refugees. It’s a matter of being humane. In the GDR we would have laid different ideological and political groundwork. We wouldn’t have left communities to deal with the problem alone. Other than that, I think the first-rate education she received in the schools and universities of the GDR has certainly helped her as a leader.

Have you thought about returning to politics yourself?

No. My conscience wouldn’t have allowed me to serve first the state of the GDR and then the Federal Republic of Germany.

Others have managed it.

Everyone has to make his own choices.

What did it mean to you to serve the state of the GDR?

When my mother and I were at my half-sister’s in Westerland, Sylt in 1947, my mother said we’d be better off going to Damgarten. In Sylt, she said, the Nazis were still in power. That sentence preoccupied me at the time and ultimately led me to develop an antifascist attitude. It’s the reason that even as a child, I was for GDR. I was twelve when the GDR was founded. It was my state from the beginning. I gave it everything I had. In the politburo I was one of the few who had a purely GDR biography: I had lived through neither the class struggles of the Weimar Republic nor, consciously, the era of fascism. I made my way through every level of leadership in the GDR, from Group Leader in the Pioneers to Chairman of the State Council. Many of my political stances were hard-won out of intense debate. Perhaps that was actually an advantage of being part of the early years of the GDR, which made me immune against careerism.

Were you ever afraid of your own people? Of those who had been adherents of National Socialism just ten or fifteen years earlier?

I wasn’t afraid of them because in my hometown of Damgarten I didn’t meet anyone who questioned everything. What would you think if the last head of state turned on his heels after reunification and said the opposite of everything he stood for during the GDR?

One would have to wonder…

…and say that such an unprincipled person was the strongest proof that the GDR was an unjust nation.

In a 1989 interview with Fritz Pleitgen you complained about the patronizing way you’d been treated. Was that a hint of what citizens of the GDR were to go through over the next 30 years?

Yes. Actually, I wanted to end that interview after ten minutes. I thought the questions were shameless. Herr Pleitgen would never have asked the Chancellor those kinds of questions. That sort of arrogance toward the GDR persisted in many media outlets over the next years. Today, 30 years later, there’s hardly a talk show where you don’t hear journalists bemoaning the ideologically-driven nonsense that circulated back then about the GDR. Still, it’s often West Germans who talk about whether the East Germans were treated fairly or not. It’s rarer to see conversations with East Germans. They are too often spoken about and too seldom spoken with. It’s a complaint many people have.

When you think of the developments since reunification, are there things for which you feel gratitude or respect?

I’m not an idiot. Superficially, one could say that for instance about the renovation work in the cities, especially about the preservation of old buildings. But there are drawbacks. Stalinallee, for example, which is now Karl-Marx Allee. The apartments built there were beautiful for the time. Most of the residents were workers who had helped construct the buildings. Their descendants who live there today now wonder whether they can afford the high rent. In that way, my gratitude and respect have catches.

Has nothing happened in these 30 years of which one can say: it’s a good thing it turned out that way?

Of course. For me, the wonderful thing about reunification has been that Germans no longer have to fear war with each other.

That’s a big deal.

Yes, but no one talks about that today. During the Cold War, there was actually a serious danger that the two Germanies would go to war against each other. But in forty years of the GDR not one soldier of the National People’s Army ever set foot on foreign territory on a combat mission. Now that there’s neither a GDR nor a Soviet Union, war in Europe is again imaginable, including a war with German participation.

Are there more minor things that you like about the West, and others that you miss?

As I said, I’m happy about the fact that city centers have been reconstructed, while at the same time I’m frustrated about the rising rents. I’m happy about progress in medicine, about well-stocked pharmacies. But GDR citizens also know that back then they didn’t have to pay anything extra at the pharmacy. I’m not saying the GDR was a paradise, I have a more nuanced view. But I also expect that of the GDR’s critics.

What do you see as the most egregiously incorrect assessments?

Just one example: I tried to bring certain historically-relevant facts to the attention of three Federal Presidents. But they took no notice. Former President Richard von Weizsäcker claimed that Gorbachev ordered Soviet soldiers in the GDR to remain in their barracks even though GDR security forces had asked them to march. The opposite is the case. The Soviet troops had their traditional fall maneuvers planned for that time. They were stationed in Halle, Leipzig, Magdeburg…if they’d driven their tanks around the drill grounds, it might have been misunderstood. And so we asked our Soviet friends to stay in their barracks that fall and not go on any maneuvers. They did as we asked.

Then former President Horst Köhler said that there had been tanks in and around Leipzig on the 9th of October, 1989, that the municipal police had been given the command to shoot at will, that body bags were at the ready and surgeons on call. I wrote to tell him that this was verifiably incorrect. A correction was not issued. Before President Steinmeier was to speak this year on October 9 in Leipzig, I wrote to inform him that the claims about the 9th of October were untrue. In his speech, the current president nonetheless said: “History would have turned out differently if Gorbachev hadn’t urged restraint.” That’s news to me. We never got any such order from the Kremlin. Nor would it have been necessary.

Why?

We had already decided on October 8th that there would be no violence. The last sentence of my statement about the Wende to the politburo said: political problems will be solved politically, not with violence. And on November 3, an unequivocal order was issued fundamentally forbidding the use of firearms against demonstrators.

Do you regret not opened the borders earlier?

In retrospect it would be easy to say yes. But it wasn’t an internal border, but rather an external border of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet army’s first line of defense against the West, an economic border between the European Community and Comecon, and ultimately the border between two systems. It was the best-guarded border in the world—on both sides. It was our border—but not only ours. Nowadays I’m among those who think we should have allowed free travel earlier, at the latest after Erich Honecker’s visit to the Federal Republic in 1987.

What do you want the history books to say about you?

Ideally, the truth. At the complex intersection of good will, accomplishment, and error. But it’s particularly favorable remembrance that’s met with scorn. At my events I meet far too many people who are irritated to be mocked as “ostalgics” simply because they remember their life in the GDR fondly. Is a West German who speaks of his life with respect a “westalgic”? The West has to be more honest in its historical understanding of the GDR. Otherwise it will take more generations before what belongs together will truly grow together.

What do you wish for Germany in 2029?

I wish for a peaceful Germany. This peace is in danger. I wish for a just Germany. I wish for a Germany that is not as divided as it is now. If 76 percent of people are unsatisfied with the way reunification has gone, one has to admit that the present approach to German unity has failed. I wish for that to change. Germany as a state has been joined, but it remains mentally divided. I wish for a Germany that has a good relationship with Russia, for historical and contemporary reasons. It’s no coincidence that East Germans think differently about Russia than West Germans. And I wish for a better relationship with China. Despite everything that merits criticism there, I believe it is where the future will come from.