Primary Sources

Berlin Embassy Cable, GDR Crisis: The Honecker Era Fades Quickly


In this excerpt of a diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, we see the first official analysis of East Germany's new leader Egon Krenz, who replaced Erich Honecker on October 18, 1989. In the summary remarks, the embassy officials make clear that Krenz is attempting immediate reform, but not yet on a scale that could be compared to Gorbachev's perestroika.

The U.S. diplomats saw Krenz's decision to meet with the leadership of the East German Protestant church as a significant and positive step. Throughout the late 1980s, the East German Protestant church played a significant role cultivating and sheltering the leading figures of the popular opposition. The church officials used this initial meeting with Krenz to plea for immediate reform on social issues and Krenz responded that he had personally traveled to Leipzig on October 9, 1989, in order to prevent a confrontation between the armed police and the demonstrators - what Erich Honecker had been referring to openly as the "Chinese solution."


Berlin Embassy to U.S. Secretary of State, "GDR Crisis: The Honecker Era Fades Quickly," 20 October 1989, Cold War International History Project, Documents and Papers, CWIHP (accessed May 14, 2008).

Primary Source—Excerpt


2. Summary and Comment: Two weeks ago the GDR was Eastern Europe's most prominent holdout against reform. In day two of the Krenz era it is embarked on reforms, both officially sanctioned and developing spontaneously the mix is uncertain and shifting. The new leadership's degree of tactic and commitment unknown. It is glasnost or, to use the new slogans, "renewal" (Erneuerung) or a "turn" (Wende, but not really perestroika. At least not yet. How genuine, consequential and permanent these changes are, how much they are his doing and how much they are to his liking, no one can say, but there is no doubt that Krenz's GDR is rapidly distancing itself from Honecker's.

3. The new leader used October 19 to talk candidly with Berlin workers about problems - not least that the party had not been listening to their complaints - and to meet with the senior GDR protestant clergyman, Bishop Leich, in an obvious gesture of reconciliation, media glasnost spread. Television, one of the last bastions of orthodoxy, fell with an unprecedented call-in-your-complaints talk show during which politicians sounded new notes on topics like opposition, price supports and travel. Neues Deutschland reported the debate at the Central Committee meeting which deposed Honecker and installed Krenz. It portrayed the reformers' hope, Dresden boss Hans Modrow, as fighting and losing to open up the debate but succeeding in modifying Krenz' speech to the nation.

4. Meanwhile, independent activists who are highly suspicious of Krenz' intentions, continue their organizational activity, establishment institutions are showing independence, and small-scale, peaceful, street demonstrations have made their first appearance in the north (Greifswald and Neubrandenburg). End Summary and Comment.


7. Perhaps the day's biggest news was that Krenz put discussion with the church leadership so high on his agenda. In doing so, he seemed to be saying that the party, which had shunned dialogue for two years, was now eager to use the bishops to help it communicate with the discontented activists who are a growing political factor.


9. The 75-minute session at a hunting lodge near Berlin produced little specific, but Krenz went out of his way to be open and forthcoming. Leich said that Krenz had spoken clearly and effectively in the small circle and was a better communicator than his wooden TV-appearances would indicate (comment - this matches our impression as well, from conversations with Krenz - end comment).

The church representatives urged Krenz to take careful note of the church's position on societal problems. The church was not a flatterer or know-it-all, but a responsible entity. It urged quick, clear signals of a new beginning. Krenz had agreed that to reduce tensions it was necessary to get things moving. He claimed that he had gone personally to Leipzig [on] October 9 to prevent a police-demonstrator confrontation.

... Krenz has a long way to go to establish credibility outside of the narrow party circle that selected him, and the GDR reform has along way to go before its contours can be determined much less before it can be considered irreversible. But for now at least. he is making gestures to blur his hardline image and each day’s kaleidoscope of events is challenging the old assumptions of this society’s passivity.


How to Cite this Source

U.S. Embassy Berlin, "Berlin Embassy Cable, GDR Crisis: The Honecker Era Fades Quickly," Making the History of 1989, Item #428, (accessed May 28 2021, 3:24 pm).

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