/The last East German

The last East German

BERLIN — Egon Krenz is sure he’s been here before.

Standing in the vast lobby of the landmark Hotel de Rome in central Berlin, the last leader of the German Democratic Republic turns in frustration to a passing employee. “What was this place?” he asks the young woman.

Unaware of who Krenz is, she explains that it was originally a private bank and the central bank of the GDR, the communist East German dictatorship created by the Soviet Union after World War II.

“I didn’t come here very often,” he confides to me, flashing his trademark toothy grin.

It’s been a long time since Krenz, 82, roamed the streets of East Berlin’s former government quarter, where he spent most of his political career, rising through the ranks of East Germany’s communist apparatus as the crown prince of the GDR’s long-time leader, Erich Honecker.

In contrast to his mentor, Krenz was a strong believer in Gorbachev and immediately promised “transformation.”

Krenz took over from his mentor in October 1989, just weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He spent less than two months in power before his office was abolished to make way for East Germany’s first free election.

Even if some of the details of that era have faded with time, Krenz’s take on what happened remains as sharp as ever. As the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall neared, Krenz, who lives near the Baltic coast, was back in town to hawk his latest book and set the record straight about the tumultuous events of 1989 and what came after. Wearing a dark sport coat so new he forgot to cut off the tags, the aging Marxist came to Berlin with a simple message: “I told you so.”

Germany has turned observance of the Wall’s falling on November 9, 1989 into an annual ritual to reflect on why the chasm between East and West remains. This year, the mood has been particularly somber, especially in light of the strong showing by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in a string of states that once belonged to the GDR.

As the most prominent living defender of the communist state, Krenz, a large man with a friendly bulldog face, offers welcome succor to those who feel they landed on the wrong side of history.

The Berlin Wall was toppled in November 1989 | Gerard Malie/AFP via Getty Images

“First of all, the Wall didn’t fall,” Krenz declares after ordering a freshly squeezed orange juice mixed with soda and ice on the breakfast patio of the old central bank.

‘Gorbi help us!’

Krenz’s narrative of the dramatic events of 1989 begins in the summer.

Tens of thousands of East Germans were fleeing the country, most illegally. More than 30,000 left in August alone amid signs the Iron Curtain was cracking from Poland to Hungary.

By September, scores of East Germans were taking to the streets in regular demonstrations to protest against the authoritarian government. Even so, Honecker, a staunch opponent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika policies, insisted on holding the line and closed the border to Czechoslovakia, the main route East Germans were taking to get out.

The move only intensified the pressure. Even as Gorbachev visited Berlin to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the GDR’s founding on October 7, the demonstrations continued, with protesters carrying signs reading “Gorbi help us!”

Ten days later, the East German politburo forced Honecker to step down, replacing him with his deputy and protégé, Krenz, then 52. In contrast to his mentor, Krenz was a strong believer in Gorbachev and immediately promised “transformation,” including liberalizing travel for citizens of the GDR.

Egon Krenz, left, with Mikhail Gorbachev in early November 1989 | AFP via Getty Images

Krenz, who thanks to his relative youth was the only member of the GDR’s senior ranks to have grown up under communism, says he was convinced the country could survive with open borders by engaging more with the West. “That was an illusion,” he says today.

An even bigger misjudgment, though, was trusting Gorbachev, he now says.

On November 1, as rumors circulated that the Soviet Union would drop its support for the GDR, Krenz visited Moscow, seeking reassurances from Gorbachev.

“The GDR was a child of the Soviet Union,” Krenz, who studied in Moscow and speaks fluent Russian, said. “I asked him, ‘Tell me Mikhail Sergeyevich, do you stand by your paternity?’”

Krenz said Gorbachev told him he did and that there would be no reunification.

‘Storming the wall’

Krenz says that during his trip to Moscow, the head of the KGB warned him there were reports that protesters might try to storm the Brandenburg Gate during a demonstration planned for November 4. Krenz says he ordered the area, which is where the Soviet embassy was located, to be fortified. He issued a separate order to the border police not to shoot demonstrators “no matter what.”

Several days later, the East German leadership finalized its plans to lift travel restrictions. On November 9, Krenz handed the details of the decision to Günter Schabowski, the politburo official charged with announcing the policy to an international press conference scheduled for that evening. The new regulations were supposed to take effect the next day, November 10.

But in a now famous exchange with reporters, Schabowski falsely claimed the opening was effective “immediately,” prompting thousands of East Germans to rush to the border that night.

“Honecker was right about Gorbachev. I believed in him for much too long” — Egon Krenz, the last leader of East Germany

“What really happened is that the border was opened at the invitation of a politician of the GDR,” says Krenz.

The next day, he wrote a telegram to Gorbachev telling him that of the 60,000 GDR citizens who crossed the border that night, 45,000 had already returned home and to their workplace. “Those were very disciplined people storming the wall,” he jokes.

Krenz’s point is that most of the pictures people associate with the fall of the Wall, Berliners standing atop the barrier with sledgehammers, were taken well after November 9. That matters, he argues, because in his mind it was he and his politburo colleagues who paved the way for a peaceful transition by suspending the order to shoot and lifting the travel restrictions.

To make his point, he cites a telegram he received shortly afterward from U.S. President George H.W. Bush congratulating him for “opening” the border.

Footage of Egon Krenz is projected on the Humboldt Forum building in Berlin, as part of the festival week to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall | John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

The glow didn’t last long.

In early December, Krenz was forced to resign along with the entire politburo. In January, he was kicked out of the party, which by then was crumbling. Less than a year later, Germany would be reunified.

“Honecker was right about Gorbachev,” he said. “I believed in him for much too long. My relationship to Honecker was destroyed because he knew how much I admired Gorbachev. Today I know more than I could have then.”

‘Everything would have been different’

Like most failed communists, Krenz insists that the GDR’s problems weren’t ideology but execution. “The logic and analysis of Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’ make it clear that capitalism cannot be the last word of history,” he says, sipping his third orange juice and soda.

He’s convinced that what East Germans really wanted wasn’t Western-style democracy but to be able to travel, own cars and buy electronics. “If we managed to achieve that on the economic side, everything would have been different,” he says.

But what about the crises of leftist regimes in Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea? All the result of American efforts to undermine them, he insists.

As a Soviet-trained politician, Krenz still knows how to parry critical questions with a flurry of moral relativism and whataboutism.

“I operated in accordance with the laws of the GDR” — Egon Krenz

The Stasi? “The CIA has engineered wars,” he says, before citing the revelations of U.S. spying detailed by WikiLeaks and others.

The GDR’s infamous prisons? “Up until 1989, no one complained about the conditions there.”

The scores of East Germans killed trying to get past the Wall? “I regret every death, but it was a military zone, there were laws.”

In 1997, a German court sentenced Krenz to six and a half years in prison, on the grounds that as a member of the GDR leadership he bore a share of the responsibility for some of the deaths. Krenz, who served about four years before being released, still considers the decision “absurd.”

“I operated in accordance with the laws of the GDR,” he says.

‘Reunification failed’

As one of the last living links to a country and system that shaped generations of East Germans, Krenz is not without his admirers. Many former East Germans knew him from a young age because he was in charge of the communist youth organization.

Krenz says he receives a regular stream of requests from the children and grandchildren of GDR old-timers asking him to congratulate their loved ones on a big birthday or anniversary.

Over the summer, hundreds of people convened on Berlin’s Russia House, a cultural center, for the presentation of his latest book, “We and the Russians, Relations between Berlin and Moscow in the fall of ’89.”

The book has been a bestseller. It’s easy to see why: Krenz tells East Germans they have nothing to be ashamed of. Even on the rare occasion when he acknowledges that the GDR “sinned,” he qualifies the admission by stressing it happened a long time ago.

“Large numbers of East Germans feel like second- or third-class citizens,” he says, referring to a series of recent polls.

Egon Krenz holds a copy of his new book | Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images

He says that in 1991, he sent Helmut Kohl a study by a Leipzig professor warning that attitudes in the East were turning and that if the former GDR citizens weren’t treated with more respect the East-West divide would never be overcome. “Reunification failed,” he tells me.

That failure, he says, is largely to blame for the rise of the AfD in the East, where many Germans, frustrated by a sense that they’ve been left behind, turn to the populists.

Krenz sees the answer to most of Germany’s woes, not unsurprisingly, further to the East. “What we really need to do is to get closer to Russia again,” he says. “Germany has done best when it’s close to Russia.”

Krenz, who last month celebrated the 70th anniversary of the GDR’s founding with a group of several hundred comrades, sees his continued allegiance to the ideals of East Germany as a sign of “character,” not delusion. 

“I’m not sitting here pouting,” he says at the end of our long exchange. “Thirty years have passed. The GDR is going and won’t return. I’m a realist. Open wounds? Yes. It was my life.”

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