Did Gorbachev push Honecker to embark on comprehensive reform?

It is one of the persistent myths about German reunification that Mikhail Gorbachev consistently put pressure on East German party leader Erich Honecker to change course and put together a radical reform program. Proof positive of that assumption are statements made by him in East Berlin in October 1989 that 'those being late will be punished by history'. However, in the years prior to that, when using that phrase, he did not have the GDR in mind at all but the Soviet Union. Furthermore, in private conversations until a meeting with Honecker and the full East German Politburo on 7 October 1989, he was apologetic and even deferential to Honecker, proves Hannes Adomeit


berlin 40 jaar ddr foto bundesarchivGorbachev and Honecker at 40th anniversary of the GDR in East-Berlin (picture Bundesarchiv)

by Hannes Adomeit

It’s a familiar story about historical myths. Historians may adduce incontrovertible evidence to dispel misconceptions and false interpretations of events but the myths continue their separate lives unharmed. An example of this phenomenon concerns the role Soviet communist party chief and president Mikhail Gorbachev allegedly played in helping to create the inalienable preconditions for the fall of the Berlin wall 30 years ago and ultimately German reunification.

The myth consists in the claim that Gorbachev had consistently applied pressure on the East German leader to toe the line and replicate the Soviet Union’s reformist course, that is, to follow the Soviet example of New Political Thinking (novoe politicheskoe myshlenie) in foreign policy and comprehensive reform of the political system (demokratizatsiya), the economy (perestroyka) and society (glasnost’); and that he held up reform in the Soviet Union  as well as in Poland and Hungary as examples for East Germany to follow.

‘Those being late will be punished by history'

Proof positive of the myth is considered to be Gorbachev’s aphorism of ‘Those being late will be punished by history.’ He did use that phrase in one form or another and on more than one occasion, both publicly and in private conversation with Honecker. The fact of the matter, however, is that until 7 October 1989 the Soviet leader did not have East Germany in mind with the often repeated warning but had consistently applied it to the Soviet Union. Gorbachev appeared to confirm this when Egon Krenz, in his capacity as new East German party leader, visited Moscow on 1 November 1989 to coordinate policies with the Soviet Union.

Krenz, according to the East German transcript of the conversation, conveyed ‘cordial greetings from all of the comrades of the Politburo of the CC of the SED’ and expressed gratitude for the talks he (Gorbachev) had held with the full Politburo, in which ‘many things had been mentioned,’ and that this applied ‘above all to the remark that those being late would be punished by history.’ Gorbachev interrupted him and said that in making this remark he ‘had really talked about himself’. (Transcript, Central Party Archives, IV, 2/1/704; this quote and as others below can be found in this author’s revised and updated 2nd edition of  Imperial Overstretch: Germany in Soviet Policy from Stalin to Gorbachev, Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2016. Central Party Archives refers to the collection of documents of the SED Politburo, covering the period from the foundation of the GDR in 1949 until its collapse in 1989.)

Gorbachev’s perception of the GDR

One of the reasons why German public opinion and reputable historians continue to believe that Gorbachev applied pressure on the GDR to embark on comprehensive reform is connected with the preconception that the Soviet leader could not possibly have been unaware of the very same chasm between promises and reality, ossification of bureaucratic structures and economic stagnation in the GDR under Honecker that had been characteristic of the Soviet system under communist party leaders Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko. It only seemed logical, therefore, that he would attempt to impress upon the East German party leader the necessity of fundamental change.

berlin wall university of minnesotaGDR soldiers mocked by East-German students (picture University of Minnesota) 

Gorbachev, however, had quite a different view of the GDR. Throughout the period from his accession to power in March 1985 until the visit to East Berlin in October 1989, he had an exaggerated perception of the GDR’s political stability, economic and scientific-technological achievements and social tranquility. Based on such perceptions, he heaped praise on the SED and put its policies in sharp contrast to those of the Polish and Hungarian communist parties whose reform path had, in his view, eroded the foundations of socialism in these countries.

Practically until the autumn of 1989, the Soviet leader appeared to have accepted Honecker’s depiction of the GDR as a showcase of socialism as evident, for instance, in the East German party chief’s speech at the country’s 40th anniversary celebrations. The GDR had risen to be among the top ten industrial nations in the world and was strengthening its economic potential by the introduction of modern technologies, he claimed. It had enhanced its international prestige and influence: one hundred and thirty-five states had established diplomatic relations with the country and it had become a member of the United Nations. It was a reliable guarantee against neo-Nazism and chauvinism and would remain firmly anchored in the Warsaw Pact. No one should doubt that East Germany would step over the threshold of the year 2000 to continue on its successful path to a bright future.

The fact that Gorbachev fell victim to Honecker’s portrayal of East Germany as a success story, particularly in the scientific-technological sphere, can be demonstrated starting from the very beginning of his position as party chief. Thus, in a letter sent to Honecker on 12 September 1985, he contended that the West with the United States in the forefront was conducting ‘technological warfare’ and ‘a policy of a pre-programmed technological lag of the socialist countries’.

Evidence of this he saw in US president Ronald Reagan’s 'Star Wars' or Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI). In order to counter this threat, the socialist countries had to embark immediately upon large-scale joint projects of scientific-technological cooperation and the creation of a common fund for the financing of such projects. In particular, he called upon the GDR and, to a lesser extent, Czechoslovakia together with the Soviet Union to play the most important part in meeting the military-technological challenges. Gorbachev evidently had the GDR’s Robotron mainframe and PC computer technology in mind, ignoring the fact that the company had become proficient only in the imitation and reverse engineering of Western computer technology and was lacking entirely in innovative capacity.

berlin wall open us dept of defense(picture American Ministry of Defense)

 Absurd as it may seem, Gorbachev continued to cling to the notion of East Germany as pioneer of science and technology. Three years later, in private conversation with Honecker, he reminisced about his first visit to the country in June 1966. The visit had been for him ‘a very important journey’ and one that had ‘aroused deep emotions’. The reasons for this, he explained, lay in a comparison of the economic reform processes that had ‘begun at the same time in the Soviet Union and the GDR’. (His reference was apparently to the reforms introduced by prime minister Aleksey Kosygin).

The ‘main question’ which at that time had occupied both countries had been the problem as to ‘how one could avoid remaining behind the pace of scientific-technological progress in the world’. The GDR, contrary to the Soviet Union, had looked at the highest world levels of production, drawn the appropriate conclusions for its own research and development, and succeeded ‘in rapidly increasing labor productivity’ and ‘catching up in the quality [of production] with the advanced [industrialized] countries’ (Transcript, Central Party Archives, J IV 2/1/685; italics mine).

Such perceptions among others serve to explain why Gorbachev, despite the fact that he found Honecker utterly humourless, stiff and schoolmasterly, failed to criticize him personally. In the private conversations with Honecker prior to 7 October 1989, let alone publicly, he refrained from undercutting Honecker’s position so as to strengthen any reformist faction as may have existed in the SED.

No ‘change of wallpaper’ necessary in the GDR

Conversely, given Gorbachev’s praise for the purported achievements of the GDR, it is not surprising that Honecker saw no need to change course and follow the Soviet example. His position coincided with that of Kurt Hager, the SED’s ideological watchdog, who told the West German weekly Stern in April 1987, 'If your neighbour changes his wallpaper in his flat, would you feel obliged to do the same?'

For the East German leader, it obviated the need to embark on any Gorbachev-style reforms. He had already done his homework, he could and did argue, but the Soviet leaders hadn’t. He also was, or at least pretended to be, grateful for the praise. Thus, in his conversations with Gorbachev in Moscow on 28 June 1989, he thanked the Kremlin leader for ‘the complimentary words [he had] uttered [during his visit] in Bonn [earlier in the same month] about the GDR and its policies’ and that he considered these ‘to be an endorsement of the line pursued thus far [by the GDR] and an encouragement unwaveringly to adhere to it’ (Transcript, Central Party Archives, J IV 2/2A/3228.) (There is no evidence that, in his talks with chancellor Kohl, Gorbachev had said anything complimentary about East Germany.)

The year 1989 in Germany

2. First mass ‘Monday demonstration’ against the SED-regime in Leipzig.
3. GDR closes border with Czechoslovakia to prevent emigration to the West.
7. Riot-police clashes with demonstrators during official festivities commemorating the 40th anniversary of the GDR.
18. Erich Honecker, leader of SED, steps down and is succeeded by Egon Krenz.
23. Demonstration of 300.000 people of Leipzig.
4. First authorized anti-government demonstration in Berlin with 200.000 people
9. Opening of the border after statement of SED-spokesman Günter Schabowski about new and ‘immediate’ rules for traveling to West Germany.
11. More than 800.000 GDR-citizens travel to West-Germany for the weekend.
18. New GDR-government, led by SED-member Hans Modrow. Start of ‘velvet revolution’ in Czechoslovakia.
27. FRG-chancellor Helmut Kohl presents a ‘10-point plan’ for reunification of Germany.
1. Parliament GDR abolishes SED’s constitutional monopoly of power.
22. Brandenburger Tor in Berlin reopens after 28 years.

Honecker even added insult to injury. During his 28-30 June 1989 visit to Magnitogorsk, on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the city's foundation, its administration had invited the East German leader to take part in an excursion in order to show him something about living conditions there. He himself had not accepted the invitation, he told Gorbachev and the Soviet delegation in East Berlin on 7 October, but the comrades accompanying him had done so. When they had returned, they had reported to him what they had seen which he (Honecker) had found ‘incomprehensible’ because ‘despite voluminous production [data], salt, soap, flour and other things have disappeared from the shops’ (Transcript, Central Party Archives, J IV, 2/2.035/60). In the light of such disastrous state of affairs, why on earth should he embark on Soviet-style reforms?, he could have added.

This entirely gratuitous remark is not the only example for Honecker’s condescending attitude towards Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. Astounding, almost stunning, however, are Gorbachev’s reactions as evident in an extraordinary exchange that took place between Gorbachev and Honecker on 3 October 1986 in Moscow.

Gorbachev’s deferential attitude to Honecker

The private conversation, among other topics, concerned glasnost’ and the role of intellectuals in promoting change (Transcript, Central Party Archives, J IV 2/2A/2937). Honecker had taken the initiative and commented about a recently held congress of Soviet film producers. The Soviet comrades obviously had their problems, he said condescendingly. However they wanted to deal with them, he continued, the problems of the Soviet Union should not be exported to the GDR. He then exemplified what he meant by referring to two events.

berlin wall gorbi and honecker foto bundesarchiv

Gorbachev and Honecker in 1986 (picture Bundesarchiv)

First, he said, ‘West Berlin television and radio stations [recently] broadcast a question-and- answer game [sic] with [Soviet non-conformist writer Yevgeni] Yevtushenko. Yevtushenko spoke of [the existence] of a single body of German literature. This is also what the official circles of the FRG are saying. However, the fact is that since the Weimar Republic a single body of German literature has never existed, only a bourgeois and a proletarian body. [I would like to] mention only [Bertold] Brecht, [Willi] Bredel, [Thomas] Mann, [Lion] Feuchtwanger and [Erich] Weinert. Yevtushenko said he is for German unity. This is a provocation. West Berlin television is broadcasting such things foremost with the GDR in mind. Such statements are directed against the GDR. He [Yevtushenko] also talked other nonsense.’

Honecker buttressed his argument against glasnost’ by a second example of Soviet ‘provocation’. West Berlin television, he said, ‘broadcast a conversation with three other Soviet writers. In that broadcast, [Andrei] Voznesensky stated that the writers are the conscience of the nation. One cannot in the least agree with that. The radio and television stations in West Berlin, furthermore, are financed by the US Congress. The appearance by Voznesensky and others is directed against the general line of the [East German communist] party and state.’ 

The criticism betrayed an unreconstructed Stalinist mind-set about the legitimacy of censorship and it provided the Soviet host with a golden opportunity to educate his guest about the function of glasnost’ in the impending program of democratization in the Soviet Union. Instead, Gorbachev embarked upon what can only be called an undignified, even degrading, apologia. He stated that ‘Comrade Kochemasov [the Soviet ambassador in East Berlin] reported to the [CPSU] Central Committee Yevtushenko’s statements and a discussion with him. In the discussion, Yevtushenko had said [to Kochemasov] that no one really could tell the German people anything different than that it is for unity. Naturally, he had had unity on a socialist basis in mind. Comrade Kochemasov had then pointed out to him that perhaps he had said one thing but meant another. As for the above-mentioned writers, they are, in principle, not bad people.’ 

In principle they are not, but in practice they are?

'The appearance of such writers on television and radio financed by the USA is counterrevolutionary’ 

Honecker then brought up the biggest gun in the arsenal of communist invective and fired it directly at Gorbachev: ‘[I] ask for forgiveness, if [I] have to say this. But the appearance of such writers on television and radio financed by the USA is counterrevolutionary.’ To this among comrades outrageous and offensive charge the Soviet leader reacted merely evasively, saying that ‘we have done everything in the past and will continue to do so in the future so that the GDR as a state of German workers and peasants and as an independent socialist state will strengthen and develop.’

Honecker, however, was not to be placated by such bland generalizations and carried on: ‘We cannot contradict people who come here from the Soviet Union. Polemic [arguments] against citizens from the S[oviet] U[nion] can always be interpreted as anti-Soviet. One should let those people appear in Siberia but not in West Berlin’ (italics mine).

The extraordinary exchange continued.

Gorbachev: ‘When a Soviet citizen commits a lapse and does so in the GDR, then the comrades in the GDR can also tell him their opinion directly. That is their duty and their right. We will naturally tell this to our people, too.’

Honecker: ‘What was said in West Berlin can’t be helped now. If it is being said now that the writers in the Soviet Union are the conscience of the nation, deviationists in the GDR will very quickly use that [for their own purposes]. That would be consistent with FRG [West German] propaganda. [However, we] do not want to fight on two fronts.’

What Honecker evidently had in mind with the two fronts was Western ‘anti-socialist propaganda’ and Gorbachevian glasnost’.

Gorbachev again failed to rise to a vigorous defence of the reformist course he had embarked upon in the Soviet Union and even went as far as promising the East German party chief that he would ‘give the highest priority’ to these questions and ‘instruct [CC secretary and Politburo member Aleksandr] Yakovlev [the chief conceptual force behind glasnost’ and perestroyka] to talk to Yevtushenko’.

Gorbachev’s meek and deferential attitude, however, suddenly changed on 7 October 1989 during his visit to East Berlin. Most likely in response to entreaties by his advisers prior to his East Berlin visit to make a strong case for reform and having witnessed crowds in the streets of the city, enthusiastically shouting “Gorby! Gorby!”, he changed his attitude.

Gorbachev’s change of attitude 

On 6 October 1989, at the Memorial for the Victims of Fascism and Militarism at the Neue Wache in Berlin, Gorbachev said: ‘I believe that dangers are lurking only for those, who do not react to history’ (Ya dumayu, chto opasnost’ tol’ko podstregaet tekh, kto ne reagiruet na zhizn’; invariably the Russian zhizn’ (life) is rendered as ‘history’). On the following day, Gorbachev’s press spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov appeared after Gorbachev had met Honecker and the full membership of the SED Politburo and, according to correspondents of the German press agency (DPA) and the Associated Press (AP), Jürgen Metkemeyer and Heinz Joachim Schöttes, used the dictum in some ‘complex construction’. They then provided what they considered to be the most appropriate translation: ‘Those who are late will be punished by history’. The simplified version saw the light of day on 7 October at 6:30 p.m. in reports by DPA and AP. From then on, the dictum took on a life of its own and spread internationally in that very form. Even Gerasimov endorsed it and used the wording in an interview on Radio GDR II, on 19 October 1989.

In Germany and beyond, the phrase was interpreted to refer to Honecker. Publicly, however, Gorbachev was still averse to criticize him or the SED. 'We know our German friends very well, and their ability to recognize and to learn from life and to forecast the political road ahead and to introduce corrections where it is necessary. They have our full confidence,' he told bystanders at the Neue Wache.

All that changed in private the following day in the meeting with Honecker and the full SED Politburo. Addressing the assembled party leadership directly and using vy, 3rd person plural for 'you', he warned: ‘It is important that you not miss your chance. Life punishes us when we are late [...] On the basis of our own experience and the experience of Poland and Hungary in particular, we can say with great confidence to you that if your party pretends that nothing special is going on and does not react to the demands of life, it will be doomed’ (italics mine). He even issued a thinly veiled appeal to the SED to get rid of Honecker, saying, ‘We often see that someone among the leaders cannot pull his weight any longer, but we do not decide to replace him, as though we are afraid of offending him. In the meantime, problems fester and become extremely acute. On the whole, there are many “warning bells” for your party’ (italics mine; the quotes are from the Soviet transcript, the East German version contains much weaker language and fails to render the direct attack on Honecker).

That closed the book on Gorbachev’s apologetic and deferential attitude to Honecker. The treatment of the East German leader was now more in line in with how Brezhnev had handled Moscow’s perceived requirement to depose an ineffective satrap.

Brezhnev versus Ulbricht in comparison

Conditions in East Germany in the late 1960s in many ways resembled those that would obtain in the late 1980s. Communist party leader Walter Ulbricht had developed an ambitious programme to catch up with and overtake West Germany in labour productivity. The plan was based on an acceleration of scientific-technological progress. But the huge investments in computer technology and other advanced products and processes by far exceeded East Germany’s resources. They failed to enhance the country’s technological competitiveness or benefit its economy. Significant distortions were the result. Consumer goods production declined. Shortages in supply occurred. The construction of housing was curtailed.

In foreign policy, Ulbricht was unwilling to swing in line with the Zeitgeist of the times, that is, East-West détente and Moscow’s favourable responses to the SPD’s Ostpolitik. Discontent in the SED was brewing. A faction in the Politburo was keen to replace the party leader, who had been in power ever since the foundation of the GDR. Evidently sensing this and who would be his likely successor, Ulbricht removed Honecker from the position of Central Committee secretary on 1 July 1970 but had to reinstate him swiftly in this position as a result of the Kremlin’s intervention.

Pyotr Abrasimov, the Soviet ambassador in East Berlin, had made Brezhnev aware of both the deterioration of economic conditions in the GDR and apparently also the need to replace the East German party chief and also by whom. When Honecker visited Brezhnev in hospital in Moscow on 28 July he and was told of his boss’s discontent with Ulbricht. ‘I tell you quite openly that it will not be possible for him [Ulbricht] to govern, leaving us out and taking ill-conceived steps against you and other comrades in the Politburo.’ Clearly with a view to a possible replacement of Ulbricht with Honecker, he reminded the latter of the GDR’s complete dependency on the USSR for protection: ‘We have troops [stationed] with you [in the GDR]. Erich, I tell you frankly, and never forget this: The GDR cannot exist without us, without the S[oviet] U[nion], its power and strength. Without us there is no GDR’ (italics mine).

As history would show, Honecker ‘forgot’ this very fact of a satellite’s position and tread in Ulbricht’s footsteps. His removal from power, however, was not a result of the imperial center’s decision but of the internal dynamics of a decaying system

This article was originally published on 04 November 2019. The current version was revised on 28 November 2019.









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