Mikhail Gorbachev came to East Berlin on Oct. 5, his arrival oddly not covered on East German television. On the same day, the East Germans tightened security on East Berlin border crossings and banned visa-free travel to Czechoslovakia. The following day, at a wreath-laying ceremony, Gorbachev spoke with a crowd of reporters who pressed him about East Germany's ability to undertake reforms.
"We know our German friends very well," Gorbachev said, "as well as their ability to recognize and to learn from life and to forecast the political road ahead and to introduce corrections if necessary. They have our full confidence." To those trying to read between the lines, Gorbachev's comment seemed clear.
The next day, as riot police broke up demonstrations in Leipzig, Potsdam, Dresden and East Berlin, Gorbachev and Honecker talked for three hours. Gorbachev said afterward that issues facing East Germany would be solved in East Berlin, not Moscow. He said he hoped the government would work with "all forces in society."
The demonstrations continued the next day. On Oct. 9, after meeting with a visiting Chinese Politburo member, Honecker ominously compared the "counterrevolutionary rebellion in Beijing" to the "present campaign of defamation against" East Germany. There were even more alarming indications that Honecker was ready to apply the Chinese strategy of June massacre at Tian An Men Square in his own nation.
Kurt Masur, 62, the director of the Gewandhaus musical theater in Leipzig, was among those increasingly distressed by the brutality of police action against demonstrators in that city and the persistently circulating reports that police were to be issued live ammunition before the demonstration planned on Oct. 9. That afternoon Masur summoned three top Communists to an urgent meeting in Masur's home. Also present were a church official and a prominent writer.
Masur said the situation was dangerous: If armed police fired into a crowd, he said, East Germany could erupt in civil war. The party officials, drawing on their own sources, could offer nothing in dispute of Masur's fear. By 4:30 p.m., they prepared a statement, promising dialogue and calling for calm. It was broadcast over Leipzig radio and announced in churches. When the demonstrators assembled at 6 p.m., the police withdrew to the side streets and the demonstration, involving about 70,000, went off peacefully.
(The role of Egon Krenz, then the Politburo's security chief, in the day's events would later be the subject of controversy. Krenz's supporters said that his personal intercession had prevented an attack by the police, who had indeed been issued live ammunition. Masur later contended, and Communist officials confirmed, that it was only after the demonstration began that Krenz--who in June had praised the Chinese action in Tian An Men Square--gave instructions to let the demonstration proceed peacefully.)
But Erich Honecker was in his last days as East Germany's leader.
On Oct. 10, the East German Politburo held its regular weekly meeting in East Berlin. The session ran late into the night and continued the following day. At its conclusion, it was evident that Honecker's grip was failing. A concluding statement said for the first time that the party was "open to discussion" on ways to make socialism more attractive. It said the party was willing to discuss issues of economic efficiency, supplies of consumer goods, reform of the media and "increasing travel possibilities."
Reports that came out later described the Politburo meeting as bitter, with Honecker resolutely holding to the hard line, even as his oldest allies warned him that social pressure could not be contained indefinitely by riot police and force. The Politburo's statement, the first hint of conciliation from the regime, was passed over Honecker's objection. The first blow had been struck.
At the next Politburo meeting, a week later, Honecker's support faded entirely. Willi Stoph, the 75-year-old prime minister, told Honecker it was time to go. The next day, Oct. 18, before a meeting of the Central Committee, Honecker resigned. He had been in power 18 years.
Krenz, 52, the Politburo's youngest member, was appointed to replace him. He immediately launched a drive to win public support, touring factories and appearing on television, admitting the party had failed to respond to the country's problems. But he said the socialist system in East Germany would not change, nor would the party surrender its leading role.