Berlin Shake-Up: Purge of Hard-Liners In East Germany Stirs Unification Hope, Fear

U.S. Wants Europe's '92 Plan In Place First, but Events Move at Unexpected Pace

Street Debates on the Future

By Terence Roth and Walter S. Mossberg, Staff Reporters
The Wall Street Journal

November 9, 1989

East German Communists embarked on a desperate attempt to retain control of the country yesterday even as the movement to reunify Germany gained remarkable momentum -- perhaps too much momentum, say worried U.S. officials.

In the latest convulsion in the political crisis sweeping East Germany, the country's Communist Central Committee dismissed half the nation's ruling Politburo and added some new members more sympathetic to the country's reform movement.

The purge of hardliners, unprecedented in East Germany, is meant to appease growing popular demands for democratic change and stem the flood of East Germans pouring across the border into West Germany. A top Communist official even held out the possibility of free elections. But the moves, which follow the dramatic resignation of the country's 44-member cabinet Tuesday, appear to be mostly window dressing: Egon Krenz, the party leader, is still in power and the political complexion of the Politburo was not appreciably altered. Most East Germans, as well as many western analysts, therefore believe the country's reform movement and attendant mass demonstrations, may actually be spurred, not quelled, by the developments. As of yesterday, the mass flight across the border continued unabated.

The Bush Administration fears that upheaval in East Germany is progressing so rapidly that it might lead to a premature and dangerous form of reunification between East and West Germany before 1992, when Western Europe plans to integrate its economies. A senior administration official said early reunification raises the prospect of a new Germany that might have neutralist tendencies, a development that would harm Western interests. U.S. officials now regard some degree of German unification as nearly inevitable but they strongly prefer that it occur later, after the first steps toward West European unity occur, so the new German state would be anchored in the West. The alternative, they fear, is a Greater Germany that could cast itself as a buffer between East and West.

"The ideal is to accomplish German reunification within the framework of Western European unity," said the official. But, he added, "I think something might happen before 1992. . . . I don't think the Russians necessarily want it. I'm just not sure that there's a governor on this machine."

West Germany, in the meantime, stepped up its call for reunification as Chancellor Helmut Kohl declared that "a vote by all Germans for the unity of the Fatherland can't be ignored by anyone in East or West." For the first time in years, reunification -- normally given lip-service by West German officialdom -- dominated a chancellor's state-of-the-union address.

In that speech, a nationally televised address to parliament, Mr. Kohl said yesterday that the Communist Party "must abandon its power monopoly, allow independent parties and provide for free elections." Only then would West Germany be prepared to provide financial aid for democratic and economic reforms. But these reforms, Mr. Kohl warned, must include an end to central planning and the creation of a market-oriented economy. Behind the scenes, bureaucrats in Bonn have already begun mulling the legal and geopolitical issues that might be involved in reunification, particularly how to resolve a disputed East German border with Poland.

For his part, though, Mr. Krenz apparently has no intention of embracing the type of radical reforms Mr. Kohl is proposing. Yesterday, Mr. Krenz continued to assert that the party intended to retain its iron grip on power. Striding out of the Central Committee building in East Berlin, Mr. Krenz promised action on reform within the next few days. But he also sounded the well-used party warning against "anti-socialist" elements attempting to undermine 40 years of party achievements.

In answer to Mr. Krenz's pronouncements, East Germans continued to vote with their feet. Since Saturday, more than 50,000 have fled the country, raising to about 200,000 the number of people that have reached the West this year. That's more than 1% of the country's population of 16.6 million.

Last night, in a scene that would have been unimaginable a few weeks ago, hundreds of people debated the future of their country among themselves outside the Communist Party's gloomy headquarters in the heart of East Berlin. Until recently, jack-booted security forces formed a human chain around the building; this time, though, the only officials to be seen were a handful of policemen. The lawn in front of the building was still strewn with banners from a recent rally.

"We've already broken down many of the structures from the Stalinist time," contended Horst Weinheimer, a popular East German actor and Communist Party member who found himself in the center of the debate.

"But the young people want more," interrupted an elderly woman. "They'll only stay if they have hope."

And hope now seems tied to a change in government. Communist rule "has to end," insisted a pink-cheeked college student in another part of East Berlin. "It can't go backwards now. The government has lost control."

It is exactly that loss of control, and cascade of events, that has Western officials so worried. The news of the Politburo's revamping broke at about 11 a.m. local time in West Germany, where one diplomat receiving the news by telephone briefly lost his composure, dropped his jaw and admitted, "We consider ourselves pretty well plugged in, but events are occurring at a pace that even we can't track."

Because East Germany is a nation distinguished from its West German neighbor only by its socialist political and economic system, rapid reform could quickly eliminate the state's very reason for existing. Thus, the senior Bush administration official says, it's harder to envision "a peaceful, benign outcome" of upheaval in East Germany than it is in other Warsaw Pact states, such as Poland and Hungary. "The chances of something getting out of hand, some incident that could start a chain of events, is unfortunately very high," he added.

The administration fears, above all, that a crisis event in one of the Soviet satellites could trigger a backlash both in Eastern Europe and in Moscow that shuts down the process of reform. In recent days, top foreign policy officials have even begun discussing what the U.S. could do if one of the huge demonstrations in East Germany involving hundreds of thousands of people suddenly turned into a mass dash to the West across the Berlin Wall or the inter-German border. Currently, East Germans are getting to the West through Czechoslovakia and Poland.

The future of Germany will be a major topic at the Dec. 2 Mediterranean summit of President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The White House, which has publicly said it doesn't oppose reunification, is wary that Mr. Gorbachev might show up at the meeting with a proposal for some type of joint American-Soviet policy on Germany or Eastern Europe in general. But the senior official said Mr. Bush would resist any such effort.

For months, in numerous face-to-face talks and phone calls, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his top deputies have urged Mr. Bush to back a gradual change in the East. Their ideal solution was to slowly prod East Berlin to move toward democracy and market economics -- at a pace that would avoid a Soviet backlash and that would give East Germans incentive to remain in their country.

During this transition, under Bonn's scenario, West Germany would pour economic aid into East Germany and cement commercial ties. Then, sometime in the late 1990s, with East Germany completing its metamorphosis, it would be possible to form a formal union, possibly a confederation.

That united Germany would be Western, not neutral, and would be a leading member of the European Community, which by then, Bonn expects, will wield significant political power.

Indeed, West German officials have argued that the EC was a key factor in assuring that a new Greater Germany wouldn't attempt to conquer neighboring territories, as its predecessors did. Thus, any prospect of a reunification occurring before the EC is ready to integrate a new Germany sets off alarm bells in Washington. The concern is even higher in Britain, France and Poland -- victims of past German nationalism -- than in the U.S.

So worried were the European Community's founders of a dominant Germany that they dreamed up means through which Europe's industrial power would be tied together in ways that would inhibit the ability of any one European state to make war on the others.

But Germany's ties to countries such as East Germany, Hungary and Poland, which look to West Germany for financing and investment, are undeniably strong. Continental leaders now worry that if quick progress isn't made on greater integration in the EC, the Germans could easily be distracted by events in the East.

Apparently trying to soothe neighboring nations, West German Chancellor Kohl has reaffirmed his country's commitment to the EC. "We aren't wanderers between East and West," he said last week.

Even now, Bonn officials acknowledge that reunification would most likely be a distant event because of the many major stumbling blocks that remain, including the need for a formal peace treaty between the World War II allies and the German state. Currently, only an armistice agreement exists. It's also unclear whether a majority of East Germany's population wants reunification as much as Mr. Kohl does.

Nonetheless, Mr. Kohl is keeping to his agenda. The events in East Germany "have shown to the world that the partition of our Fatherland is unnatural, that walls and barbed wire can't prevail over time. They have shown that the German Question isn't solved, because the people can't reconcile themselves to the given circumstances."

While Mr. Kohl may be presenting an aggressive front, the various political parties in West Germany are by no means united on the issue. All the parties have been clamoring for democratic change in East Germany, but only Mr. Kohl's Christian Democratic Union Party and its Bavarian sister, the Christian Social Union Party, have actively embraced reunification.

Mr. Kohl has also suggested that West German companies might cooperate more closely with East German industry. Many economists here believe that a closer economic integration of this sort could serve as a prelude to full reunification. Mr. Kohl's sentiment echoes that of West German business leaders, who are poised to rush investment into East Germany for a variety of production and joint venture projects, effectively creating an extended workbench in East Germany for West German industry.

These are matters the East's Mr. Krenz will be facing in the coming months. For now, though, he will be busy trying to consolidate power within the slimmed-down Politburo. Until recently, the group numbered 21, including Mr. Krenz. By the time the purge came yesterday, three members had already left. Mr. Krenz, pressured by the Central Committee, then ordered all remaining officials to resign. He and six other members were quickly reinstated by the Central Committee, along with four new party officials recruited for their more reform-minded views. The new members include Hans Modrow, the Dresden party chief.

Few in the country's opposition groups were impressed, however. As Wolfgang Templin, a shaggy-haired and bearded opposition leader currently exiled in West Germany put it, "They can change the names, but what counts isn't the individuals, but the hierarchy they are all part of. The party's strategy is to have a dialogue with a lot of new words. But so long as the old structure is there, it is impossible."

Added one Western diplomat: "The resignation of the Politburo is only cosmetic. Krenz is cynical, he is only doing what he has been told he needs to in order to keep the SED {the Communist Party} in power." This diplomat believes the strategy won't work. "The people have made it clear that they will accept nothing less than free elections."

When he hinted at the possibility of free elections in East Germany, Politburo member Guenter Schabowski made one thing clear: "Don't expect us to say that the SED will now disappear from the picture," he told reporters in East Berlin last night. "We still intend to uphold our responsibility to society."

In his address to the Central Committee, Mr. Krenz issued an emotional appeal for support, acknowledging that the party has much to make up for. He pronounced an end to the "arrogance" that marked the party's hard-line leadership under his former mentor, Erich Honecker, whom Mr. Krenz toppled on Oct. 17. He criticized the old guard for weeks of what he described as the speechlessness of East Berlin's power structure over the growing unrest.

But the government's new inclination toward self-criticism may be too little too late. Protests have already spread from the cities to small towns, such as Saalfeldt, where last Sunday 7,000 of the community's 35,000 residents filled the town's medieval square calling for change.

This level of determination -- and political brazenness -- has shocked the old guard, and vitalized many East Germans. In East Berlin, a student scribbled down his name and phone number on a piece of paper for a Western reporter. Standing in front of a massive government building, he looked up, pointed toward a video camera on the roof and said, "They are watching us. But this time, the whole world is watching too."


Jane Mayer and Timothy Aeppel in East Berlin and Gerald F. Seib in Washington contributed to this article.


                      The Two Germanys 
                        (1988 data)
                                     WEST            EAST
 Population (millions)               61.0            16.6
 Area (square miles)                 96,100          41,800
 GNP (billions of dollars)           $870.0          $207.2
 Real growth                         3.4%            1.8%
 Trade balance 
 (billions of dollars)               $72.8           $-0.3* 
   Exports                           $323.4          $30.7* 
   Imports                           $250.6          $31.0*
 Auto registration 
 (units per 1,000 pop.)              446*            209*
 Energy consumption 
 (barrels of oil per capita)         33*             43*
 Life expectancy (years)             76              73
 Source: CIA Handbook of Economic Statistics

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