Berlin Wall/German reunification: Still believe in the myth of the “freedom-hating” communist East?


Prepare for another big shocker, then. This landed in my mailbox yesterday:

Washington, D.C., November 8, 2009 – Just before the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago, even the hardline Czechoslovak Communist leaders called for the opening of the German border, according to documents from high-level archives in Berlin, Bonn and Prague published for the first time in English and posted on the Web today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Czech police try to stop wall jumpers

Compiled and edited by Czech historian Vilem Precan and translated by Todd Hammond, the documents show that waves of East German refugees fleeing to the West through Czechoslovakia (more than 62,000 just in the period from November 4 to 10, 1989) so alarmed the Czechoslovak Communist authorities – who previously had resisted the reforms under way in Poland, Hungary and in Moscow – that they asked the East German leadership on November 8 to allow its citizens to go directly to West Germany, in effect to open the border.

The documents posted today include the secret diplomatic exchanges between the West German foreign ministry and its embassy in Prague where thousands of refugees took shelter, between East German diplomats in Prague and their bosses in East Berlin, between Czechoslovak diplomats and Party officials and their counterparts, and eyewitness accounts by dissident Charter 77 spokespeople about the refugee crisis.

The posting also includes contemporaneous photographs of the scene at the West German embassy in Prague, Czech police attempting to prevent refugees from scaling the embassy walls, the tent city that arose in its courtyard, and rows of abandoned Trabant cars in the streets of Prague.

The detailed essay by Vilem Precan, “Through Prague to Freedom,” that accompanies the documents cites the Czechoslovak government’s demarche to East Berlin on November 8 as “a kind of ultimatum” that forced the East German Communists into a rapid “modification of rules for permanent exit” – a reform famously announced and flubbed by an East German Politburo member at a press conference on November 9. The statements by Gunter Schabowski led Western TV reporters to declare the Berlin Wall open when it was not, but the televised news brought crowds of East Germans to the checkpoints in East Berlin that evening who eventually forced their way through and made the media reports ultimately accurate.

I’ve never been to Prague. My mother and grandmother passed through it once, though–on their way out of northern Yugoslavia in 1944, as displaced persons, fleeing the Russian invasion. Their memories of that great artists’ city were anything but golden; the Czech authorities robbed them blind. They literally came out of there with nothing but the clothes they wore. Ordinary locals weren’t terribly friendly to the German-speaking refugees passing through, either, even though these ethnic Germans had nothing to do with what those other Germans were doing to Eastern Europe. If they didn’t know a word of Czech, how could they explain that their family had lived in Yugoslavia for some 200 years? Well, they couldn’t–and no one was listening anyway. All too soon, the mistrust became mutual. My mom says a lot of women from the DP camps were raped by “partisans”. Even little girls, which my mom and aunt were at the time, were not safe. The Batschka-German refugees huddled in fear, and were only too glad to leave as soon as the opportunity presented itself, if not sooner. From Prague they went on through Silesia; my mom’s family ended up in the countryside in Bavaria. None of them ever went back to Prague again, not even to visit–not even when it became fashionable for Germans to do so again.

So it comes as some surprise to learn that the Czechs–and their hardline communist leaders, at that–later became allies, however inadvertent, to Eastern Germans wanting to go west. It’s one more irony for wingnuts to break their teeth on–and one more proof that the West, not the East, stood to profit more from the continuance of the Iron Curtain and the Wall. It’s also the ideal bookend to my post from the other day. There’s a real wealth of surprising information there, folks, so here’s that link again. Go read!

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5 Responses to Berlin Wall/German reunification: Still believe in the myth of the “freedom-hating” communist East?

  1. Manaat says:

    Apropos the discussion we had about Vaclav Havel a while back: here’s a post by the Angry Arab, ostensibly about The Economist magazine, but ends with some observations about Hegel that I entirely agree with:
    “The Economist is, no competition, the best magazine there is. Of course, I have my criticisms and complain. The tendency of the Editor to use and over use the word “reckon” in every article is really annoying. In the section on the US in the new issue, I counted two articles with that word. You need to stop that. But there are topics in which the Economist and its editors and writers lose their marbles, completely. One such issue is communism. When the Economist talk about communism it is like reading that propaganda book by J.Edgar Hoover on communism: “Master of Deceit”, he called it. They don’t even try to be a bit more detached or professional when they speak about communism. Look at this: “The third big achievement, alongside democracy and prosperity, is the partial restoration of public-spiritedness, trust, decency and kindness.” I would say that decency and kindness has been particularly abundant in the former Yugoslavia and also in the treatment of the Roma people by the disciples of Vaclav Havel. By the way, there is no European figure who bothers me more than Havel. He really does. He is poseur par excellence, more so than even Wiesel. Havel has nothing to say, so he mentions Hegel, without really citing him at all, in order to sound (in his head) profound. He would say something lame and then add Hegel as in: And as Hegel reminded us more than a century ago, we need to eat dinner now.”

  2. Well, I could take a lot of issue with his assertion that The Economist is “the best magazine there is”; I much prefer Ms., Mother Jones, The Nation and In These Times (and The Beaver, Briarpatch, The Walrus, etc. up here).
    But no argument from me at all that The Economist sucks at “doing” leftism. They can never say a good word for it; they’re just all toxic spite on the whole topic. It wouldn’t surprise me if in fact it IS an old CIA crapaganda outlet–a lot of “rah rah, capitalism” rags turn out to be just that, to a greater or lesser extent.
    I have to say I snickered at “The third big achievement, alongside democracy and prosperity, is the partial restoration of public-spiritedness, trust, decency and kindness.” A “partial restoration” is a “big achievement”? Wow! Please, sir, may I have some more waffles?
    And Vaclav Havel really is an overrated “leader”–outside of eastern Europe, his influence is nil. He’s no leader, he’s a follower. And yeah, human rights haven’t exactly flourished on his watch, either. For him to pontificate on what’s going on in Venezuela as if it were a restoration of the bad old days of Eastern Europe just goes to show how far out of touch with reality he is. You can tell he doesn’t do his own homework on the issue. Some hero of democracy and prosperity he is…

  3. Nolan says:

    Havel, like Walesa in Poland, was as much an opportunist as anything else, and the two of them have shown time and time again that economic liberalization was the main goal and everything else was secondary, and both of their presidencies showed that they were just as willing to backstab their supporters as the communist leadership before them. Havel and Walesa might not be thuggish monsters like Boris Yeltsin, but they are far removed from heroes.

  4. Yep.
    In fact, when it comes to the difference between them and their hardline Soviet predecessors, about the only thing that can be said is “Same shit, different asshole.” Just as the Bolsheviks carried on the repression of the Czars, so these “democrats” carry on the fine old tradition. Only now, over there, you get to pick who’s gonna screw you over. So, will it be six of one, or half a dozen of the other?

  5. Manaat says:

    Oops I meant “Havel”, not “Hegel” in my comment … ick 🙂

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