N.B. – I wrote this essay in October 1987, two years before the fall of Berlin Wall and the collapse of East Germany. This essay needs to be read in historical context, written by a U.S. peace activist who had extensive contacts in East Germany beginning in 1978. The essay is somewhat prescient. In 1987 I was the Disarmament Program Coordinator for the Friends Peace Committee, a Philadelphia-based Quaker organization. In 1983 I had also worked in West Berlin with Aktion Sühenzeichen Friedensdienste, a Protestant peace and service organization. In the fall of 1987, I spent four weeks participating in the events surrounding the Olof-Palme March for a Nuclear Weapon-Free Corridor in Central Europe. The essay was written for an educated U.S. audience.
President Reagan stood before the Berlin Wall this past summer and challenged the Soviet Union to tear down this tragic barricade between East and West. On that matter he really must address himself as well to East Germany (officially known as the German Democratic Republic or GDR for short.) Reagan missed a real opportunity back in June, when a five-minute ride into East Berlin would have sufficed for him to personally deliver his message to GDR Party Leader Erich Honecker. Reagan could even have invoked his privilege as Commander-in-Chief of one of the four occupation armies in Berlin in order to avoid the usual visa and minimum currency exchange requirements on his visit to the “Soviet Zone.”
Like our President, most of us in the United States don’t look beyond the Iron Curtain at life in the GDR for what it really is. Rather the Wall – 898 miles of concrete, barbwire, and guard towers running along the border between the two Germanys and encircling West Berlin – has become a powerfully charged symbol for the bitter history of the Cold War and the human tragedy within the family, a persistent reminder of the legacy of the Second World War. Getting through, over, under and around the Wall is a very practical question from many Germans in East and West. The two German states have proven themselves very resourceful in overcoming not just this physical barrier, but also the ideological barrier. The seeming permanence that the Wall has in the landscape of the divided Germanys belies many profound changes in the decades since its construction in 1961. While the reunification of Germany remains a distant, and for many, an undesirable goal, recent events are pointing the way to the gradual normalization of relations between the two Germanys. This process of normalization holds a real promise for the further deregulation of travel and the eventual demilitarization of the German-German border. This article examines a number of recent developments which suggest that dismantling the Wall may no longer be such a far fetched proposition anymore. The scenario presented for dismantling the Wall, however, is probably not what Reagan had in mind back in June.
It is no minor matter to talk about open borders and the demilitiarization of Central Europe. The German Democratic Republic is the size of Ohio with half as many more people (16,700,000) and the Federal Republic of Germany is the size of Pennsylvania and New York combined with over twice the population (61,140,000). The Warsaw Pack has 498,000 soldiers stationed in the GDR; and NATO has 703,000 soldiers stationed in the Federal Republic of Germany. These armies are the most heavily equipped military forces in the world. In addition to huge stockpiles of tanks, armored vehicles, aircraft, artillery, conventional explosives, and chemical weapons, there are over 2700 NATO and 3500 Warsaw Pact nuclear delivery vehicles deployed on the European battlefield.
There is nothing normal about this state of affairs. It is particularly profound tragedy for the Germans in light of the history of the Second World War. After the death of some 50 million people in a war unleashed by Nazi aggression, one might have hoped for a demilitarized Germany, much as was the case in post-war Austria and Japan. One might have hoped as well that such a demilitarized Germany would have come to be by force of moral choice and not by imposition by the Allies in defeat. Tragically, Germany became the center stage for the Cold War and was swept away in the frenzy of the superpower arms race. “Never again war from German soil” is the official slogan in East Berlin and Bonn, but the gap between the official rhetoric and the reality is extreme in this the most heavily armed region of the world, where everyday World War Three is prepared and practiced.
During the visit of the GDR leader Erich Honecker to the Federal Republic of Germany last September, there was much allusion to the historic mandate of Germany after Fascism. The visit was a landmark in the process of reconciliation between the two German states. Twenty years ago, when Willy Brandt first pioneered the new “Ostpolitik,” such a visit could hardly have been imagined. Honecker, himself born in what is now the Federal Republic of Germany, spoke very movingly during the visit about the need to change the status of the common border.
The dramatic media coverage of the Honecker visit to West Germany, however, overshadowed other developments which also have great implications for the future of the Germanys and the border which divides Europe.
In September of this year, groups in the GDR and the Federal Republic, along with Czechoslovakia, held a series of marches and demonstrations known as the Olof-Palme March for a Nuclear Weapons-Free Corridor in Central Europe. At the time, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of the Federal Republic of Germany (West) and the Socialist Unity Party (SED- Communist) of the German Democratic Republic (East) released a joint statement entitled “Conflicting Ideologies and Common Security.” These two developments, in words and in deed, were also significant milestones towards a new international order in Central Europe, where the Wall would indeed vanish, a dysfunctional artifact from another era.
The name of the late Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, and the independent international commission chaired by him, figured prominently in both the SPD-SED Joint Statement and in the Olof-Palme Peace March. The 1982 Palme Commission Report, entitled Common Security: Blueprint for Survival, detailed new attitudes and policies towards international security and economic well-being, including the specific recommendation for a nuclear weapons-free corridor between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Because of their prestigious and diverse backgrounds (included in the seventeen-member Palme Commission were the former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and the Soviet International Affairs Advisor Georgij Arbatov) , the report received careful reading in many corners of the world.
Major elements of Common Security called for:
- Global delegitimization of the use of military force for anything other than territorial self-defense;
- Restructuring and reducing offensive military capabilities to emphasize narrowly-defined defensive postures;
- Improvement of NATO and Warsaw Pact social and economic relations leading to the withdrawal of foreign military forces and the eventual dissolution of the military blocks;
- Transfer of resources from the military to economic and environmental development in the Third World and at home;
- Strengthening of regional and international institutions for peacekeeping and cooperation;
- Adoption of clear international standards on human rights, civil liberties, basic economic rights and national self-determination with effective mechanism for non-military enforcement; and
- Staged elimination of nuclear weapons and their production facilities worldwide to end the threat of nuclear war.
During simultaneous press conferences in East Berlin and Bonn on August 27, 1987, leaders of the SED and the SPD presented the results of three years of intensive negotiations in their report. Based heavily on the 1982 Palme Commission Report, the follow-up effort addressed the specific concerns of redefining the rules and boundaries of ideological struggle between Communism and Capitalism. “Our hopes cannot be centered on one system abolishing the other,” said the joint statement. “They are centered on both systems being capable of reform, and competition between the systems strengthening the will to reform on either side.”
The ideological conflict between Marxism and Capitalism can only be waged in a peaceful competition by positive example:
“Either system can show the advantages it claims to have only by example, and one which convinces people inside and outside its boundaries… The objective of the competition between the social and political systems should be to prove which of the two systems makes the most effective contribution towards solving the overarching questions facing humanity, which provides the more favorable social conditions for the full development of human values, and which offers better opportunities for the people to turn their interests and rights to account and to attain their values and ideals.”
This is a major shift in the official doctrine of the Communist Party and a bold challenge in East and West to prove the merit of their economic and political systems through concrete policies. The text of Conflicting Ideologies and Common Security was widely publicized in the GDR. Leaders of the two political parties from Bonn and East Berlin spoke in a live broadcast over East German television. This type of broadcast programming was itself new for the state-controlled television network.
Words and slogans, however, can be cheap currency in the affairs of states. For that reason, the experiences of independent peace activists affiliated with the Protestant Church this past September adds weight to the SPD-SED Joint Declaration. In a small, but significant way, the open society called for by the Joint Statement was put into practice.
Almost half of the population of the GDR are members of the Protestant Church. Along with one million Catholics and several smaller sects, the Church represents the only institution in the society independent of the Party. In a radical break with Church tradition, Protestants today are no longer uncritically subservient to the powers of the State. In a uniquely East German brand of liberation theology, the Protestant Church has made peace and reconciliation basic tenants of their Christian faith. The Church is unabashedly supportive of the growing movement of young men resisting military service. In 1983 the Church boldly rejected the “Spirit, Logic and Practice of Deterrence” and committed itself to work for the demilitarization of their society. Independent peace activists affiliated with the Protestant Church in the GDR took up the cause of the Palme Commission in 1983. This statement helped legitimize their efforts vis-à-vis the Party, as they sought to involve themselves in questions of military ethics and policies.
While the ruling Socialist Unity Party of the GDR has not accepted this formulation as its own ideology, it has endorsed Common Security, including the specific recommendation for a 300 km-wide nuclear weapons-free corridor in Central Europe. This basis of agreement led to the cautious and curious cooperation between Christians and Marxists, between pacifists and soldiers, between East and West. This was the origin of the three-week-long Olof Palme March for a Nuclear Weapons Free Corridor in Central Europe, which took place this past September (1987).
One leg in the Palme Peace March was a three day “Pilgrimage” between the former Nazi concentration camps Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen, northeast of Berlin. The march was organized jointly by the East German church-based group Action Reconciliation and the Communist party-controlled Peace Council. About 600 people participated in the entire three-day march, with two thirds of those coming from independent peace groups under the care of the Protestant Church. The church activists came not only to demonstrate in favor of the nuclear weapons-free corridor, but also against a number of government policies. And for the first time, these independent peace activists were able to demonstrate openly without arrests and reprisals. They carried posters calling for a civilian alternative service option to the military draft, free travel and contacts between East and West, an end to enemy stereotypes of the West, and an end to military training in the schools.
There was an incident at the outset of the peace march, when Party authorities objected to the wording of one poster– “Disarmament in Schools and Kindergardens.” The authors of the poster met with the Church and Party leaders en route to discuss the disagreement. They met as equals and reached a compromise formulation– “No Enemy-Stereotypes in Families, Schools and Kindergardens”– which was arguably an improvement over the original poster. By marching together over three days and two nights, there were a few cracks in the walls within the GDR which divide the citizens from each other.
While the creation of a nuclear weapons-free corridor would be a major contribution to strategic stability and the prevention of nuclear war, the most important aspect of the Palme Peace March may be the development of cooperation and tolerance within the political culture of East Germany. “Detente from within” read another poster. In the emotional response of the activists, one sensed the deep frustration and an intoxicating hope unleashed by the Olof-Palme Peace March.
The ruling Socialist Unity Party is still not sure what to make of the “new thinking” in Moscow. In many ways the GDR had always been one of the most open of the East bloc nations due to the exposure to Western media and Western visitors. Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost has unleashed great turmoil within the East German party, the conservative elements of which fear the loss of control and privilege. The successor to the 77 year-old party head Honecker, long thought to be Egon Krenz, is now uncertain. On the streets, Soviet magazines and newspapers are immediately sold out, as the people have taken a sudden interest in the “latest news” from the Soviet Union and the wished for glasnost and perestroyka at home.
The leaders of the GDR have a respectable track record on the economic front, that is if they didn’t have to compare themselves with their rich cousins next door in the Federal Republic of Germany. The Gross National Product and standard of living in the GDR are comparable to that of Great Britain. East Germany is in many respects the economic “Wunderkind” of the East Bloc, a fact which causes some resentment among the Soviet soldiers from much poorer circumstances who are stationed in the GDR.
But while there are many achievements of which the image-conscious leadership of the GDR can boast, the future is anything but rosy. Growth in heavy industry and large-scale mechanized agriculture have left a terrible debt to pay with the environment. The GDR is an energy poor country, with little option but to burn the soft coal, which it can mine from its own territory. Air pollution in the winter months is worse than any U.S. steel town in the 1950s. Dramatic steps are required to protect the ecology and health of the citizenry from water, air and land pollution.
Discontent among the populace is also growing as it confronts the often petty restrictions of its society and looks to the freedom and opulence of the West. Alienation and cynicism are growing responses to the restrictive paternalism of the Party. Opportunism has corrupted almost every institution in the society, as people seek privilege and advantage through uncritical conformity to the party line.
One of the major complaints among the East German population is the restriction on travel and visits to the West. The Wall has created a deepening wound in the psyche of the East Germans, in spite of the opening up of travel with the West. In 1986, 6.8 million West Germans (including West Berliners) visited in the GDR. In the same year, 1.76 million East German retirees visited in the West, along with 240,000 GDR citizens under retirement age. The later category is the most significant, representing a 270 percent increase over 1985.
Many have given up on the GDR and applied to emigrate or are patiently awaiting an opportunity to defect. The Wall is the mechanism which controls emigration. From the founding of the GDR in 1949 to the construction of the Wall in 1961, 2.7 million people fled to the West –14 percent of the GDR population in 1949. Today, the exodus continues in a carefully regulated emigration program sponsored jointly by the Federal Republic and the GDR in which millions of West German Marks are traded for tens of thousands of so-called “hardship cases and family reunions.” In the last decade, ____ left the GDR through this officially sponsored program.
It is a painful decision for the individuals involved, who must say good-by, perhaps forever, to their families, friends and hometowns. That’s if you’re lucky and actually receive the emigration visa. Applicants face discrimination and ostracism for their disloyalty to the society, whether or not their wish to emigrate is granted. With the emigration goes much talent and hope for the future, which must be harnessed by the society in order to develop.
For those who stay behind it can be a terribly discouraging to see your friends and relatives leave. The prospects for the continued expansion of travel opportunities in the West may help demystify the Wall for younger generations, but the wound has long festered in the consciousness of the people.
It would be false, however, to suggest that a large number of GDR citizens would choose to leave if given the opportunity. People in the GDR often express feelings of belonging and commitment, despite the adversities. They take pleasures in their social accomplishments and in some of the foreign policy objectives of their country, and are often very critical of the West. There are many reasons why people find their place in the GDR, and chose to make do, albeit grudgingly.
There are also idealistic ones, Marxists and Christians, critical thinking people, like the marchers on the Pilgrimage from Ravensbrück to Sachsenhausen. They think for themselves and speak their minds, in spite of the risks to themselves and their families. Their commitment to remain in the GDR and to change their society is compelling.
The Party leaders in the GDR today face some difficult choices, which will require economic and political innovations. The GDR has the potential of becoming a real model among nations, if its leaders are willing to risk more than just another cosmetic facelift on socialism. The greatest strength of the GDR is its people. The workforce is highly educated and motivated.
Continued growth in heavy industries does not present itself as a viable option in this energy and resource poor society. On the agricultural front, the damage of the Stalinist collectivization must be undone, through the rebuilding of rural life and through smaller, partially privately owned farms retaining more wealth in rural areas.
If the human resources can be harnessed in the electronics, engineering, computers, and skilled crafts, then the GDR could become the Japan of Europe. With a more liberal political climate and freer travel with the West, international trade could continue to expand. But in order to gain the technological resources, to retain the skilled workers, to attract international commerce, and to free-up more resources from the military sector, the GDR will have to undergo major restructuring. On the symbolic and practical levels, this means dismantling the Wall.
The new GDR border might be something comparable to Yugoslavia, where travel through Europe is unrestricted. The demilitarized GDR would place East Germany in the position to become the “crossroads” of Europe. The GDR would continue to be aligned ideologically with Moscow, but not as military partners in the Warsaw Pact. On the international arena, a demilitarized GDR would give it moral high ground, blending the profound historic responsibility of the Germans with the communist claim of being a superior model for economic and social advancement. This transition is possible, perhaps even likely in the next decade, independent of comparable developments in West Germany. Internally, the change will be possible only if the Party can stem the flow of emigration by presenting its citizenry with a more attractive life. Indeed, a demilitarized GDR with open borders might actually reverse the migration.
For the Soviet Union, not an insignificant factor in these considerations, a demilitarized but ideologically-aligned GDR presents many of the same advantages. Western fears of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe would recede, calling into question the entire justification for the NATO Alliance and its military build-up. It would free up badly needed economic resources for the development of their society. And it would open up the East for more trade and technological transfers. The greatest Soviet concern about this scenario would not be about the loss of a military partner, but the fear of German reunification.
East Germany would not go through such dramatic changes alone, if they are to happen at all. For continued movement by the GDR in this direction will necessarily unleash a response in the West. Dismantling the Wall and demilitarizing the GDR would strike at every root of the post-War order in Europe. After four decades, hundreds of billions of dollars, and millions of careers invested in creating the current security bureaucracy in Europe, it will not change easily or quickly.
The dominant theme in U.S. foreign policy has been opposing change for its own sake. This conservative side of the national security establishment makes us allies with the status quo in all corners of the world, regardless of our own democratic values. To a lesser extent, this world view is shared by other powers in the Western Alliance. In the Warsaw Pact, there are no doubt only too many allies with a similar self-interest in perpetuating the status quo, however self-destructive it may be.
West Berlin is the key to the GDR’s future, for it is here that the experiment can be tested. If the West Germans and their Allies would allow the GDR some border control over GDR citizens at West Berlin airports, then at least Berlin could become an open city again. There are a number of opportunities for creative bargaining on the status of Berlin, if the Western powers want to advance the prospects for dismantling the Wall. These negotiations and its implementation would almost certainly have to be an intermediate step on the road to this new GDR and the advancement of the Common Security agenda in Europe.
Perhaps now four decades after the defeat of Germany in the Second World War, it is time for the world powers to sit down again to negotiate a peace treaty with Germany – the two Germanys. Europe and the world desperately need a new security framework for the 21st Century which is less costly, safer and more humane in a world of growing deprivation. In this regard, the historic mission of post-war Germany will be best served not through reunification, but through their separateness, as a bridge of reconciliation between East and West.
At a September 20, 1987 Synod meeting of the Federation of Protestant Churches in the GDR, there was a debate over a proposed statement advanced by 200 church congregations. Recalling the wording of a 1983 statement from the Federation on nuclear armaments which denounced “the spirit, logic and practice of deterrence,” the new statement rejected “the principles and practice of demarcation.” The statement calls for legally guaranteed rights to travel in the West and the removal of all political prohibitions on visitation from the West, including émigrés from the GDR who seek return visits.
This open challenge to the authority of the Party from the Church is a reflection of a deep hurt in the society. Healing this wound does not require the GDR to stop being socialist, but it does require the dismantling of the Wall and all that it stands for within the GDR.
It is a good thing for the Church leaders that in their discussions with the Party authorities, they can quote the Joint Statement from the SPD and SED:
“The dialogue between all public organizations, institutions, forces and persons on either side gains growing significance for the safeguarding of peace and competition between the systems. This also includes visits and return visits as well as the participation in seminars, scientific, cultural and political events across the system boundaries.”
In short this means open borders. But the Wall will not crumble and disappear of its own accord. Nor will humanity be able to transcend the deadly division of the world into communism or capitalism without concerted effort. For all of their problems and disagreements, the two Germanys are pioneering a promising alternative security model for Europe. This work transcends the political divisions within the respective societies. The work is occurring at many different levels, from the heads of state to the smallest of town pairings. The Germanys are coming together, not out of a sense of nationalism, but because of a sense of history and a hope for a better future.
“[C]ooperation between the systems and states” reads the SPD-SED Joint Statement, “becomes a prerequisite for the development of the national economies and the world economy as a whole, for the gradual resolution of global problems facing humanity, for the elimination of poverty and underdevelopment throughout the world, for exchanges in the fields of culture and information, in short, for the development of human civilization.”
In the world of nation states, as in the personal lives of individuals, moral and social development is largely the result of positive role models. The world today needs the example of the two Germanys, conscious of their historical obligations, struggling together and apart to make credible and prophetic the slogan “Never Again War from German soil.”
 US Statistical Abstracts
 Figures are from the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C. The GDR ground forces are composed of 380,000 Soviet soldiers and 118,000 GDR soldiers. The figures for the Federal Republic include 49,000 French soldiers.
 Arkins, William, Nuclear Battlefields, 1985, pp 102-104
 The Palme Commission also included Egon Bahr from the Federal Republic of Germany, Gro Harlem Brundtland from Norway, Jozef Cyrankiewicz from Poland, Jean-Marie Daillet from France, Robert Ford from Canada, Alfonso Garcia-Robles from Mexico, Haruki Mori from Japan, C. B. Muthamma from India, Olusegun Obasanjo from Nigeria, David Owen from Great Britian, Shridath Ramphal from Guyana, Salim Salim from Tansania, Soedjatmoko from Indoniesia and Joop den Uyl from the Netherlands.)
 There are small numbers of Quakers, Mennonites, Mormons, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses in the GDR. Recently, a Polish-born American Rabbi went to the GDR to rebuild the religious Jewish community as well.
 There are small numbers of Quakers, Mennonites, Mormons, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses in the GDR. Recently, a Polish-born American Rabbi went to the GDR to rebuild the religious Jewish community as well.
 The West German Ministry of Inter-German Relations disputes the figures given by the GDR for travel of East Germans under retirement age to West Germany in 1986. The GDR statistics say that 573,000 such visas were granted in 1986 – a 768 percent increase over 1985 figures. There is no corresponding West German mechanism for the control of travel to West Berlin, the major point of crossing for East Germans. All figures were obtained in material provided by the German Information Center in New York City.
 The German word Abgrenzung is difficult to translate in this context. The concept includes the notion of border limitations as well as a closed society. Information obtained from Frankfurter Allgemeine on 21/9/1987.
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