Name: Heba Al Shakarchi
Question: To What Extent Did the U.S.S.R.’s Lack of Military Intervention Hinder the G.D.R. Forces’ Capacity to Prevent the Opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989?
PART A- PLAN OF INVESTIGATION
On 10 November 1989, the destruction of the infamous Berlin Wall1 became the iconic symbol for the falling of the ‘Iron Curtain’2 that had separated East and West Europe for over four decades. Yet there still exists debate over whether the protests that eventually led to its destruction could have been subdued. This investigation will focus on the military capacity of the G.D.R. (German Democratic Republic), asking the fundamental question: was the G.D.R. unable or unwilling to use force as a means of protest repression, regardless of U.S.S.R. actions. The aim of my investigation will be to explain the origins of Gorbachev’s alleged abandonment of the so-called ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’, followed by a thorough comparison of the different aspects of German and Soviet security forces within the G.D.R.. The investigation will revolve mainly around the demonstrative activities within the cities of East Berlin and Leipzig from late September to early November 1989. Evidence is to be compiled from a number of archival research books, as well as relevant sections from the memoirs of Mikhail Gorbachev.
PART B- SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE
Perestroika, Glasnost and the end of the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’
Commencing as early as 1986,3 Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform policies of ‘Perestroika’ (political and economic ‘restructuring) and ‘Glasnost’ (social openness) went on to become the governing principles of Soviet domestic and foreign policy in the late 1980s – early 1990s. A major component of ‘Perestroika’s’ political reform’s constituted Moscow’s ‘re-thinking’ its relationship with the nations of its Eastern European communist bloc.4 Under Gorbachev’s philosophy, the nations of Eastern Europe “would be free to choose their own road to socialism”5. However, one of the main consequences of this newly-gained independence involved Gorbachev’s administration abandoning the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’: i.e. “The right of the Soviet Union to intervene [militarily] unilaterally if it considered socialism to be in danger.”6 In a meeting of the Warsaw Pact the U.S.S.R. made it clear to the G.D.R. ruler Honecker7 through defense minister Heinz Kebler “The time had come to put an end to military intervention in fraternal countries.” Following that, in August 1989, Gorbachev ordered Soviet forces8 to remain confined to their barracks and avoid intervention in G.D.R. affairs.9
Comparison of G.D.R & U.S.S.R. Security Forces Within East Germany
By all accounts, the G.D.R. did have an extensive array of security forces. In the later 1980s, the G.D.R.’s National Army stood at 179000 conscripted men (123000 of those were military troops).10 The G.D.R.’s border troops consisted of another 50000 men, of which 30000 were stationed on the G.D.R./FRG border and 8000 in Berlin.11 The Stasi (State Security Forces), however, remain the most impressive. Under the leadership of Erich Mielke, the Stasi (G.D.R. secret police) grew to around 105000 paid officials in 1989,12 in addition to “a vast network of unofficial collaborators and informers of varying levels of activity”,13 capable of infiltrating most oppositionist groups.14 The Stasi even had its own small military unit (nearly 11000 men)15 and an enormous weapons supply16. In 1989, the official Stasi budget lay at 4 billion marks.17 Debate over the extent of control the S.E.D. (Socialist Unity Party of Germany)18 party had over the Army and Stasi units still exist.
The G.D.R. had, by far, the largest number of Red Army troops outside the U.S.S.R..19 In the mid-1980s , this stood at a staggering 400000 men. Regarded by many as the S.E.D.’s greatest ‘guarantee’ of power, the intervention of Soviet forces had proved invaluable on a number of occasions to the G.D.R., including the suppression of the 1953 threat to Ulbricht’s power. They also helped suppress challenges to communist rule in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968).20
‘Turning Point’: Leipzig & Berlin 1989 Protests
Political upheaval in Eastern Europe (Hungary & Poland),21 the effects of ‘mass exit’22 of G.D.R. citizens instigated a large number of demonstrations within the cities of East Berlin and Leipzig.23 Protestors in Leipzig constantly increased in number, from 5000 demonstrators on 25th September 1989, to an eventual 70000 on October 9th.24 Demonstrations reached their peak just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, with over 500000 demonstrators in each of East Berlin and Leipzig.25 Most historians agree to the afore mentioned protests as being the deciding factor in the S.E.D. leadership’s decision to open the Berlin Wall.
Red Army troops within the G.D.R. remained within their barracks during this time period. However, there is evidence of attempts by G.D.R. forces at military suppression of the demonstrations. For example, two days prior to the 9 October protests in Leipzig, the G.D.R. defense minister is reported to have issued an order for all NVA troops to be made ready for combat and deployment near Leipzig.26 Mielke sent order to all Stasi weapon holders to carry their weapons at all times.27 However, the head of the Leipzig police had allegedly only issued orders stressing “only self defense measured be implemented”28, which proved relatively ineffective due to the generally ‘peaceful’ nature of the protests.29
PART C- ANALYSIS OF SOURCES
Gorbachev, Mikhail. 1995. Mikhail Gorbachev Memoirs. Translated by Georges Peronansky & Tatjana Varsavsky. Berkshire, Great Britain. Bantam.
The origin of this source comes from one of the key political figures of the era in question throughout this investigation. This proves to be one of the most valuable primary sources available to historians studying any part of Gorbachev’s foreign policy. Its value lies in the unique combination of two elements: while providing exclusive first hand and ‘behind the scenes’ accounts of the crucial events that shaped and lead up to ‘die Wende’30, yet also bringing into it the benefits of ‘hindsight’ and reflection. Also, as it was not written at the time of Gorbachev’s rule, its purpose cannot simply be categorized as political propaganda, but rather one written to explain personal and social decisions. Reknowned Cold War historian Martin McCauley has also contributed significantly to the English version of this source, hence emphasizing its historiographical importance.
Nevertheless, to study Gorbachev’s role in the collapse of the Berlin Wall solely from this source would prove severely inadequate due to its various limitations. Firstly, it is well-known Gorbachev had become the subject of severe criticism31 following the collapse of Eastern European communism, hence Gorbachev has obviously attempted to justify all precautions taken by his administration; this source inevitably lacks objectivity.
2. Fulbrook, Mary. 1995. Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the G.D.R. 1949-1989. New York, U.S.A. Oxford University Press.
The origin of the source is a scholarly work, based on conclusions drawn from recently available and translated archival documents. As the author32 has written two previous books, the purpose seems to be that of pure study and research. The primary reason that this source is valuable is that Fulbrook seemingly provides a viewpoint different to that of most historians through her analysis of the G.D.R.’s political structures; essentially a ‘revisionist’ viewpoint. Unlike many others, Fulbrook stresses that the economic and political structures were not dependent or influenced by its surrounding nations (i.e. West Germany or U.S.S.R.). The source is also valuable due to its meticulous documented through the use of hundreds of archival sources that have emerged since 1990.
The only real limitations of the source is that, despite evidently thorough archival research, the sheer amount of documentation on the G.D.R.33 makes it impossible for the ‘full picture’ to be revealed at such an early stage. Also, the source does not specifically focus on the collapse of the Berlin Wall, nor does it deeply look into other international factors that affected the G.D.R. government.
PART D- ANALYSIS
Firstly, one must understand that throughout the G.D.R.’s history, the Soviet troops had consistently proven to be a decisive factor34 in the crushing of S.E.D. opposition (1953, etc.).35 However, though many may agree the absence of potential for Soviet “unilateral [military] intervention”36 to be a significant ‘pre-condition’ for the initiation of the Leipzig/East Berlin protests37, the question still remains as to whether the G.D.R. security forces possessed the capacity to prevent their escalation.
In terms of raw numbers, it appears that the G.D.R. forces are inferior in comparison to the 400000 Soviet counterparts. In this case, however, ‘inferiority’ becomes a relative term. The Stasi alone were twice the size of the Nazi ‘Gestapo’, which successfully controlled a German population five times the size of the G.D.R.’s in the 1930s-early 40s.38 They were, by all accounts, easily large and powerful enough to bring the protests of September and early October to a standstill.
Both Dennis and Fulbrook argue that that the S.E.D. did attempt to suppress some of the protests by means of force. However, their viewpoints seem to differ as to the extent to which they were prepared to use force. Fulbrook stresses “[in early autumn] deployment of force was a major strategy of the regime in the attempted suppression of visible popular unrest…eighty people arrested in East Berlin on 7 September for protesting…”, etc.39 In contrast, Dennis points to “a failure of security forces…to quell the protests…by the selective use of arrests”.40 This leads one to the question of whether the security forces were unable or simply unwilling to contain the protests. If the latter is proven to be true, it then becomes invalid to assume Gorbachev’s military policies on the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ as the sole hindrance of the S.E.D.’s repression of the demonstrations.
When analyzing this point, one must examine responsibility for the escalation of protests from the basis of two different perspectives; that of the governing authorities (i.e. Mielke, Honecker, etc.), and that of the lower-ranking troops ‘on the ground’. Dennis suggests some speculation lies as to whether Honecker himself had ordered the ‘self-defense’ mode be adopted by G.D.R. security prior to October 9th, alleging “[Honecker aimed to] prevent his opponents from blaming him for the outbreak of civil war”,41 hence he became partially responsible for protest escalations. (This leads one to question the moral will of the authorities to permit the use of force.) Fulbrook and Dennis also disagree on the relationship between the coercion apparatus and the governing bodies within the G.D.R..42 Whereas Fulbrook repeatedly asserts a “high degree of coordination between Stasi, party and other coercion sectors”, Dennis points to the difficulties arising from Mielke’s highly “autocratic”43 form of rule, as well as rivalries between Mielke and other S.E.D. officials.44 A lack of coordination between coercion forces and S.E.D. officials would bring confusion to the suppression process, hence hindering the forces’ capacity to subdue the crowds.
Fulbrook consistently attributes the success of the protestors against the ‘self-defense’ principle to their mainly “non-violent” approach.45 Hence, failure to calm the protests lay in the hands of both the authorities and the ‘ground troops’. It is worth mentioning also that the Stasi “turnover rate” was relatively high;46 also the NVA was forced to introduce conscription in 1962 due to low volunteer numbers.47 This may provide historians with evidence that even if the S.E.D. were prepared to employ force as a means of coercion in late 1989, many security troops proved unwilling to conspire against their fellow citizens.
Finally, some even question whether the presence (or lack of) coercion forces even constituted a decisive factor at all in the escalation of the protests. According to Thompon, studies/surveys carried out in the following years revealed the majority of 1989 G.D.R. demonstrators believed that the possibility of arrest during any of the protests to be ‘extremely high’48. Instead, conclusions as to their escalation revolve more around the growing political leadership changes in Eastern Europe and the effects of ‘mass exit’ as the main compelling factors of increasing crowd numbers; the presence of coercion forces was irrelevant.
While it remains true that Gorbachev’s abandonment of the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ still proves to be a key difference in the political situations of 1989 (compared with other historically similar occasions), the dangers stem from viewing history purely from an ‘ad hoc’ perspective. The situations surrounding previous challenges to S.E.D. authority (195349 & 196150) are different in a large number of ways to 1989; in terms of security capacity, in 1953 there were less than 4000 Stasi troops compared to the 105000 in 1989.51
All the evidence put forward within this investigation points more to unwillingness by both security authorities and lower-ranking individuals to hinder the course of the protests, rather than their incapability to do so. Repeated orders to act only in ‘self-defense’ and ‘damage- restriction’ undermine any claims to the ‘pivotal role’ played by the absence of the Soviet troops. Thus, any claims to the USSR’s lack of military intervention as the sole reason behind the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall remain unsubstantiated.
Brown, Archie. 1996. The Gorbachev Factor. New York, U.S.A. Oxford University Press.
Buckley, William F. 2004. The Fall of the Berlin Wall. New Jersey, U.S.A. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Dennis, Mike. 2000. The Rise and Fall of the German Democratic Republic 1945-1990. Essex, Great Britain. Longman Books.
Fulbrook, Mary. 1991. Germany 1918-1990: The Divided Nation. Glasgow, Great Britain. Fontana Press.
Fulbrook, Mary. 1995. Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the G.D.R. 1949-1989. New York, U.S.A. Oxford University Press.
Gorbachev, Mikhail. 1995. Mikhail Gorbachev Memoirs. Translated by Georges Peronansky & Tatjana Varsavsky. Berkshire, Great Britain. Bantam Books.
Pond, Elizabeth. 1993. Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification. Washington, D.C., U.S.A. Brookings Institution.
Thompson, Mark R. 1996. “Why and how East Germans rebelled”. From Theory and Society. The Netherlands. Kluwer Academic Publishers. Pp 263-299.
Williamson, David. 2001. Europe and the Cold War, 1945-91. London, Great Britain. Hodder & Stoughton.