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Today - 23 June 2021, Wednesday
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«Gorby, hilf uns!»

How a revolution was decided 20 years ago today

Sometimes a mere turn of phrase can decide the outcome of a revolution. Twenty years ago today, East Germany hoisted its flags and paraded its youth to welcome its guest from the Kremlin, Mikhail Gorbachev.

It was the communist state's 40th birthday and the regime, in trouble since it cooked local election results the previous May, was determined to impress.

It was an all-star occasion featuring General Jaruzelski, the architect of martial law in Poland and President Ceausescu of Romania; but Mr Gorbachev was the key player.

With his backing, East Germany could perhaps ride out the crisis prompted by the exodus of thousands of citizens through the holes in the Iron Curtain.

It all went wrong. On the podium on Unter den Linden, girls dressed in the blue and white uniform of the Free German Youth started to chant: "Gorby, hilf uns!"

Not demonstrators but the lifeblood of the regime.

Mieczyslaw Rakowski, a former Polish Prime Minister, leant over and whispered: "Do you know what they're shouting, Mikhail Sergeyevich?" Mr Gorbachev nodded, but Mr Rakowski wanted to make sure. "They're saying, 'Gorbachev, save us'. This is the end."

The visit, as far as the East Germans were concerned, went from bad to worse.

The next day Mr Gorbachev, having earlier said that "life punishes those who come too late" -- his way of telling the East Germans to get on with reform -- sat uneasily through a speech by Erich Honecker, the country's leader. It was a long oration. Mr Gorbachev walked out.

Later that evening the leaders gathered in the East Berlin parliament and had a grandstand view of 3,000 protesters in the Marx-Engels Park. They were shouting: "Freedom, freedom!"

As soon as Mr Gorbachev and his delegation set off for the airport, Erich Mielke, the head of the Stasi secret police, told his commanders: "Now it is a time to put an end to this humanism stuff. Get to work." The police rounded up and beat hundreds of protesters.

 

After the Dresden riots of October 3, the security apparatus had been put on alert for a "counter-revolution" or an attempt to storm the Berlin Wall.

Would the regime shoot at protesters? The question hung in the air in Leipzig on October 9 as a church congregation of 9,000 swelled into a protest march of 70,000.

Riot troops were at the ready as the crowd filed out of the St Nikolai Church, nervously chanting: "Wir sind das Volk" -- we are the people.

 
 

The message was that the police and the party were on the other side: the wrong side. The crowd walked past troops waiting for the worst; for five minutes, then 10, then 15, nothing happened.

The crowd realised there was not going to be any shooting, and the fear slipped away.

The few days between "Gorby, save us" and the passive stance of the police in Leipzig defined East Germany's revolution. The State had lost its ability to terrorise its citizens.

 

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