“Who was Egon Krenz?”

by Greg Mayer

Egon Krenz was the last General Secretary of the East German Communist Party. He comes to mind today, the 101st anniversary of the end of the First World War (Veterans Day in the US), as the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall is also being widely commemorated.  A relaxed immigration policy was announced on November 9, 1989; East German border guards, without clear orders, and after some hesitation, decided to open the gates, and the wall soon came down.

As the Communist regime disintegrated in 1989, there was a shuffling of leaders in a desperate attempt to stave off the Party’s loss of power. Krenz was a deputy of Erich Honecker, the previous General Secretary, and was elevated to the Secretaryship in October, 1989, when his boss and mentor was removed. The Party hoped that Krenz, in the face of demonstrations throughout East Germany, could reimpose order.

I was paying close attention to the news from Germany at the time, and my sharpest memory is of a sign held up by one of the demonstrators who greeted Krenz as he assumed office. It read, in English, “Who was Egon Krenz?” The sign captured perfectly the sense of the time: the inevitability of the fall of Communism, the ineffectualness of attempts to save it, the newly realized (or hoped for) invulnerability of the demonstrators, the ultimate insignificance of Krenz as an historical footnote, and the knowledge that the world was watching.

A demonstration in Berlin, 4 November 1989. “Großmutter” (who is actually, of course, the Big Bad Wolf in disguise) is a caricature of Krenz. Krenz was in office for less than two months.

I have searched for, but been unable to find an image showing that sign, although images of demonstrators holding signs (such as the one above, from a UC-Santa Barbara history course) are easy to find. A common slogan at the time was “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people”), and, as a call for German unification, “Wir sind ein Volk” (“We are one people”). A sign I just found that is almost as good as “Who was Egon Krenz?” is “Keinen Ego(n)ismus“!

26 Comments

  1. JezGrove
    Posted November 11, 2019 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    The BBC’s Steve Rosenberg recently toured Berlin with Egon Krenz. In the interview, Krenz described the night the Berlin Wall came down as “the worst night of my life”: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-49971599

    • Posted November 11, 2019 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      Ah yes – I heard that!

      I found a reference in the Nexis database –
      The Quadrille of Nations
      Newsweek
      December 18, 1989, UNITED STATES EDITION
      Section: THE COLUMNISTS; George F. Will; Pg. 84
      ” (“Who was Egon Krenz?” asked a sardonic banner at a protest rally while Krenz was the head of state.) “

      • Posted November 11, 2019 at 11:43 am | Permalink

        Dom–

        Thanks so much for finding an actual citation!

        GCM

        • Jenny Haniver
          Posted November 11, 2019 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

          When I googled “wer var Egon Krenz” (or in English) I found several citations including these two from Die Zeit Online: “Words of the week”
          https://www.zeit.de/1989/46/worte-der-woche/komplettansicht and “Words of the year” https://www.zeit.de/1990/01/worte-des-jahres/komplettansicht.

          It made the list for words of the year at Die Zeit, and is well remembered elsewhere, but no photos? Perhaps the other citations will yield more clues. But I’d bet that Dominic’s response at #6 will nail it — what could beat asking the director of the wall museum?

          • Posted November 11, 2019 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

            Thanks for these German citations. The second link specifically cites a banner at the East Berlin demonstration of 4 November 1989, the same demonstration pictured above. The banner I saw was written in English; it may be that the same phrase in German was on other banners.

            GCM

  2. mike cracraft
    Posted November 11, 2019 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    How ironic. One of Hitler’s favorite slogans was: “Wir wollen ein Reich sein”

  3. MKray
    Posted November 11, 2019 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    When you say `A relaxed immigration policy was announced on November 9, 1989′ do you mean `..relaxed emigration policy’… `emigration’ is the oppossite to `immigration’

    • Posted November 11, 2019 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      I suppose I do. In the US the bureaucracy that handles visas and border checks is (or was) the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and I was assuming there was some similar East German agency. But in East Germany you needed exit visas, which could mean emigration, and perhaps they had another agency for that. The ad hoc policy of the border guards allowed people to move back and forth, so there was both emigration and immigration of a sort.

      GCM

    • Posted November 12, 2019 at 3:41 am | Permalink

      Immigration or emigration? Both technical designations sound wrong. Actually residents of G.D.R. were German. Nobody really (even in those days) would have called that process as an instance of migration.

  4. DrBrydon
    Posted November 11, 2019 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    That was such a surreal time. After all that time…with a whimper.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted November 11, 2019 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Very good story. I remember it all happened very fast and the govt. here in America was surprised and not ready for it. Frankly I don’t think we ever got over the whole idea of the soviet collapse. Our military industrial complex never missed a beat and the increased spending is only evidence. Was also a bad time for Putin although he eventually benefited many times over.

    • JezGrove
      Posted November 11, 2019 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      Putin was actually serving in East Germany just after the Berlin Wall came down: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-32066222

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted November 11, 2019 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        Yes, pretty dramatic for Putin. His vision or ideas for a modern soviet society have become somewhat limited. Limited to him and a few of his buddies. There is one person here in the U.S. that is very impressed.

      • Posted November 11, 2019 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

        More than that! He was in Dresden on the night the wall fell. Having heard that the offices of the Stasi in Berlin had been occupied by by the public, a lawyer (and later Green Party MP) Hans-Peter Ströbele decided to walk into the Dresden Stasi offices. He was stopped by a raterh icy young man holding a pistol and telling him “This building is the property of the Soviet Union.”

        Ströbele left. A few years later he saw the same man acting as Yeltsin’s deputy.

        One of Putin’s tasks was stealing computer technology from the west.

    • Posted November 11, 2019 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      Interestingly, after the Reagan administration, there were five terms for Republicans (two Bushs with each two terms, and one for Trump) and four terms Democrats (Clinton and Obama, two each), i.e. 5:4.

      And yet, despite the end of the Cold War, and despite that the “good” Democrats were in office about half the time, and despite that most Americans were represented half of the time, the military budget doubled, and is twice as big as those of Russia and China combined, or about as large as the next twenty nations combined. The US is still an outlier when it comes to many features of delevoped nations. Supporting single moms, guns, health care, population in prison and so on. So much winning!

      Apparently, there’s no need for educated or healthy citizens, and apparently the idea is to extract resources elsewhere, including brains.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted November 11, 2019 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

        Very true and that reality you point out regardless of party is a primary reason why the democrats got themselves into the problem of 2016. The republicans were a known entity and they performed on cue. The democrats were suppose to do better and so the disappointment much greater. They became the phony party and it seems there are still quite a few who have not learned much.

  6. Posted November 11, 2019 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    My brother’s friend Axel Klausmeier is director of the wall museum – I’ll ask my brother to ask Axel!
    https://thewallmuseum.com/?lang=en

  7. drew
    Posted November 11, 2019 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    It is very important to not get Egon Krenz confused with Egon Spengler.

  8. Mark R.
    Posted November 11, 2019 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    I recently read Cornelius Ryan’s harrowing book The Last Battle, documenting the fall of Berlin, Hitler and the Reich. He made some interesting historical points regarding the fact that the anglo-Allies decided not to engage in the Berlin battle. He (and rightly so imo) regarded this decision as a big mistake as it led to the formation of a communist East Germany. At the same time, however, not engaging Berlin saved untold thousands of lives. Bradley warned Eisenhower that taking the capital would cost 100,000 lives. Indeed, Russia lost over that amount during their siege.

    Here’s the book’s inscription:

    This book is for the memory of a boy who was born in Berlin during the last months of the war. His name was Peter Fechter. In 1962 he was machine-gunned by his own people and left to bleed to death by the side of the most tragic memorial to the allied victory-the Berlin Wall.

    • Posted November 11, 2019 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      America wanted to profit from the war machine much longer. It was a huge job motor, brought a lot of money, and the other allies, rivals in a post-war world, were paying for it. When the East Front collapsed, the Americans were bummed out and had to change the tune to eventually engage, to prevent the Soviets from gobbling up Europe. And so they did — swooped in last minute and met relatively mild german resistance, because they wanted everything but fall into Russian hands, who would seek terrible revenge. The US then looted the best assets and scientists, which eventually put them on the moon and ahead.

  9. Jon Gallant
    Posted November 11, 2019 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    It is worth remembering that the party Egon Krenz served was officially named the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands). The Socialist society it imposed in East Germany was such a dazzling success that they had to build a wall to keep people from flooding in from the desperately unhappy regions to its West—wasn’t that the reason for the Wall?

    Two other little-remembered names from the great events of 1989 are Gyula Horn and Miklos Nemeth, respectively Foreign Minister and Prime Minister of Hungary. It was their opening of the Hungarian/Austrian border which indirectly brought about the fall of the Wall and the subsequent collapse of the East German police state. See:
    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hungary-horn/gyula-horn-the-man-who-tore-the-iron-curtain-dies-at-80-idUSBRE95I1G320130619 .


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