ABSTRACT

As the military band goose-stepped its way past the East Berlin reviewing stand followed by other military units, and delegations of the Free German Youth and mass organisations, the East German leaders smiled confidently at their followers below. The date was 7 October 1988 and the occasion was the 39th anniversary of the founding of their state, the German Demo­ cratic Republic (GDR), in 1949. Most of them remembered that first celebra­ tion. Certainly Erich Honecker, General-Secretary of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and head of state, Willi Stoph, head of government, Kurt Hager, SED secretary responsible for ideology, and Erich Mielke, Minister for State Security, had been there in 1949 celebrating the new state amid the ruins of the old. They had grown old in the service of the GDR. Honecker was 76, Stoph 74, Hager 76 and Mielke already 81. The other 22 members and candidate members of the Politburo of the SED were nearly all as old. The man widely tipped to succeed Honecker, Egon Krenz, was regarded as a youngster at 51. The age factor did mar the image of the GDR. The leaders of the two countries most important for the GDR, the Soviet Union and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl, were 56 and 58 respectively. In practical terms, age mattered in that the SED leaders found it difficult to adapt to the changing situation. It mattered too in that they appeared determined to cling to power at all costs. Many citizens of the GDR could not see why their leaders should go on and on when they were classified as pensioners at 65 and forced to retire.