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The Curtain Rises: Eastern Europe, 1989 : CHAPTER 6 CZECHOSLOVAKIA : The Trickle Rapidly Grows Into a Torrent : Prague becomes the next escape route for fleeing East Germans. But their government remains paralyzed.

December 17, 1989

The hole was widening.

Within two days, 12,000 East Germans had crossed the Hungarian border into Austria and on to West Germany amid scenes of jubilation. By Sept. 20, the count was up to 20,000.

And now it was Prague. The buildup started slowly--there had been 60 to 70 East Germans in the West German Embassy in Prague as far back as June--but it was rapidly gathering strength. Since the Hungarians opened the border, reports persisted of Czechoslovak border guards roughing up East Germans trying to cross into Hungary, of East Germans drowning in attempts to swim the Danube between Bratislava and Esztergom, where the river forms the Czechoslovak-Hungarian border.

Now, East Germans were not bothering to go as far as Hungary. The closest West German embassy would do, and Prague, only 60 miles from the nearest East German crossing point, was it.

Michael Steiner, 40, was a second secretary at the West German Embassy, in Prague only since June and fresh from two years in New York at the United Nations. He had asked for the Prague assignment, chosen it because he was certain, sometime in the standard two-year diplomatic tour, "things were going to start happening" in Prague, and he wanted to be there to see it.

On Sept. 27, Steiner, like everyone else in the embassy, was going on cigarettes, coffee and adrenalin and looking out at a crowd of more than 2,500 East Germans inside the embassy compound. The hallways, stairs and formal reception rooms were jammed. The cable traffic said the West German Embassy in Warsaw had 400 East Germans waiting.

In the evening, as Steiner hurried about his errands and the crowd continued to grow, a fog of human heat rose over the embassy's back garden, over the draped canvas of hastily erected tents, mingling with the mist and lantern light in the wet tree limbs. Three thousand, 4,000 of them--it was hard to count, they were everywhere--waited with their plastic suitcases and grimy backpacks and squealing children. Wet, sleepless, the East Germans waited for the word that would send them on their way, to the West; goodby to communism forever.

On the surrounding streets, their little boxlike cars were nosed in across the curbs, abandoned in driveways, under bridges, even under expressway overpasses. Sometimes, the East German auto ID tags were already scratched out, like a last insult flung over the shoulder.

In East Berlin, the authorities did not seem to have been jolted out of the bewildered paralysis that Gyula Horn, the Hungarian foreign minister, had discovered. On Sept. 25, Erich Honecker made his first public appearance since August, accepting the credentials of two newly arrived ambassadors. That same day, in the biggest demonstration in years, tens of thousands of people marched through Leipzig, calling for reforms and the legalization of a newly formed opposition group, New Forum.

The group had come into being only on Sept. 10 but already claimed it had between 5,000 and 10,000 members. Its application for registration had been denied by the Interior Ministry, which called its platform "subversive" and "anti-state."

Now the Czechoslovak government was caught in the middle. Unlike the Hungarians, the Czechoslovak government was ideologically sympathetic to the East Germans and saw Honecker's stubborn resistance to political reform as a bulwark for its own brass-knuckle policies. A threat to Honecker was a threat to Milos Jakes, the Czechoslovak party leader, whose claim to power rested solely on a 20-year dedication to exorcising any taint of liberalism from the party's membership rolls.

Never known for their political agility, the Czechoslovaks could not provide consistent orders to Prague police units patrolling the narrow, sloping streets around the West German Embassy. For a time, they tried to bar access to the embassy, then they relaxed, then they tried again. In the end, they simply gave up.

In East Berlin, the pressure was intensified by the approaching 40th anniversary of the East German Republic on Oct. 7. Gorbachev himself was coming for the observances, along with Communist dignitaries from all over the East Bloc. It was shaping up as an event of high embarrassment.

More than 100,000 East Germans had emigrated already in 1989, 35,000 of them illegally. The country seemed to be hemorrhaging its population. The street demonstrations were growing daily in numbers and intensity.

To members of the East German government with a grip on reality--and these did not seem to include Honecker--if there was a limit to Soviet patience, East Germany must now be approaching it. Gorbachev had tolerated Honecker's resistance to change and even, on occasion, his lectures on the proper course of socialism, as long as Honecker kept the lid on. But this was humiliation on an international scale, and Gorbachev could hardly be pleased.

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