Mielking For Power

by Savannah Ward

[Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash]

This paper analyzes the downfall of the East German government by focusing on the gerontocratic nature of its leaders—mainly Erich Honecker and Erich Mielke—and their inability to recognize and to cope with the “falling public morale” throughout the nation. Not only were these leaders unable to see the discontent among their populace, but they would not budge from a hard-lined communist rule that was becoming less common throughout even the Soviet Union. Many Soviet satellite nations, as well as Soviet Russia itself, were undergoing dramatic democratic and economic reform, but East Germany was not. East German citizens were angry with the fact that citizens in other satellite states were gaining more rights. Furthermore, the proximity of East Germany to the wealthy capitalist nation of West Germany further enraged East Germans. Some government officials could see that reform was necessary to please citizens, but Honecker and Mielke refused to act until the last second. In the final month before the Berlin Wall fell, a non-violent protest in the city of Leipzig illuminated the instability within the government; furthermore, it brought to light the ability of the East German citizens to stand up against the oppressive communist regime that was the German Democratic Republic.

Key Words: Germany, History, Leipzig, Protest, Communism, USSR

On October 9, 1989, the entire city of Leipzig in East Germany shut down. The city had become the center for political opposition in the nation. Leipzig was home to St. Nicholas Church, where the often-tense “Monday Night Demonstrations” [1] had been taking place. This Monday, however, was quite different. Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the USSR, had just come to the GDR [2] to encourage its conservative leader Erich Honecker to embrace the new policies of glasnost [3] and perestroika [4]. Meanwhile, many East Germans were becoming increasingly frustrated with the repressive nature of the government and the Stasi [5], but they were hopeful for change after successful reform movements in surrounding countries such as Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Protest groups had emerged, one of the most prominent being the Leipzig Six, a group crucial to preventing the outbreak of violence during tense demonstrations. On October 9, the struggle for reform culminated in a fight against Honecker and Mielke’s gerontocratic government. The goal of this paper is to reveal how the inadequacies of the East German government paved the way for ordinary citizens to revolt. The government’s inability to perceive the failing public morale throughout the GDR as well as their desire to hold on to as much power as possible caused a rift between them and the public. Furthermore, this paper explores how the protestors adapted their protest techniques to the government’s unstable role within the reformative Soviet Union and made their demands heard.

Because of western media’s infiltration into the GDR, East Germans began to realize that life without communism could provide better economic and political opportunities, leading to a falling morale and a desire for change. Democratic West Germany had enjoyed widespread economic success ever since the end of World War II, but East Germany had only experienced minimal economic improvement under communist rule [Tucker 444]. Even though East Germany was one of the most productive nations in the Soviet Union, the increasing prevalence of western media provided constant reminders of capitalistic gain [Stokes 163]. Additionally, widespread corruption became blatantly visible to citizens when the party rigged an important election that was intended to “[restore] trust between the Party and the people” [Popplewell 55]. More importantly, the intelligentsia arm of the Stasi was unable to recognize declining public morale throughout the nation. In short, the gerontocracy was failing to adjust to citizens’ desire for change, and their inability to do so led to an exodus of epic proportions by way of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, with an estimated 400,000 citizens fleeing the GDR [Tucker 445]. Therefore, by the events of October 9, the struggle for change became a fight between those who remained and the increasingly unstable government. As the historian Norman Naimark remarked, “those who left the country started the revolution, while those who demonstrated maintained it” [Naimark 93].

The combination of the leaders’ increasing age alongside their desire to maintain power and a dying communist ideology made them not only unable to address the needs of their people but also caused them to lose touch with society. Erich Honecker, the general secretary of the socialist party, and Erich Mielke, the leader of the Stasi, were the two most powerful men within the East German government. Honecker and Mielke had been in the party for over thirty years but were unable to empathize with the needs of the younger generation; they not only thought the youth were too naïve, but their various old-age illnesses prevented them from fully grasping the falling morale. They ignored the much desired and reformative demands of perestroika, instead sticking to a hard-lined communist rule. Mielke was suffering from arteriosclerosis and senility, and his ability to speak and to see things clearly had deteriorated. Richard Popplewell writes that Germans officials “could not understand how such a person could have been one of the most powerful men in the state” [Popplewell 48]. To exacerbate the situation, Honecker was also suffering from illness and rarely appeared in public [Tucker 445]. Stasi members said that both Honecker and Mielke were ‘cut off from reality’ because of age, leading to the inflexibility of the party and its subsequent fall [Popplewell 49]. Honecker was seventy-six years old and, after undergoing surgery, stepped back from his party responsibilities until his control of the party seemed to disappear. Mielke’s inability to suppress opposition during Honecker’s absence led to such unrest that Honecker could not rescue his position by the time he returned.

Mielke and Honecker attempted to milk whatever remaining power they had by increasing ideological repression and imposing violence among dissidents, though attempts to do so ultimately failed. For example, Mielke refused to listen to the recommendations of other Stasi members about how to make the people content. According to Popplewell, “[Stasi members] recommended an improvement of consumer supply and the unleashing by the Party of a vigorous public relations campaign.” Mielke simply responded by claiming that “socialism is so good, but [the people] demand more and more. . . . They take it for granted and disregard it all, and put forward all possible reasons for wanting out” [Popplewell 57]. To end opposition, Mielke “ordered that ‘good forces’ be deployed, to show that oppositionists were [nonsensical]” [Popplewell 57]. He also ordered the dispersion of additional informants to prevent public dissent. When citizens expressed their concerns, these informants would shut them down and report on them to the government [Popplewell 57].  But the mood only worsened, and people became more helpless. Mielke’s failing mind became too feeble to comprehend public opinion; the only way he could see the future was with him in power.

Attempts to repress the people ideologically further fueled the opposition movement, so Mielke and Honecker decided to use violence to suppress protesters. They established Plan X, a strategy to destroy all opposition throughout the country via the establishment of a police state and internment camps [Hadjar 118]. In addition, government support of the Tiananmen Square Massacre [6] in China signaled to protestors that the government was not afraid to enact such violence to destroy its dissidents. The government repeatedly blared its support of the Chinese decision through East German television airways, thus those who turned on their television sets in the GDR could not escape the images of the students being violently shot down by Chinese soldiers [Stokes 164]. Kurt Masur, a prolific member of the protest group the Leipzig Six, had these tormenting images and sounds of violence burned into his brain. The Tiananmen Square Massacre inspired him to advocate for non-violent protest, for he was fearful of what was to come [Stokes 166]. The continual sounds and images of the Chinese massacre on East German television became a harrowing reminder of the potentially violent nature of the East German government. There is no wondering why many East German citizens wanted to demonstrate against Mielke and Honecker’s repressive and violent communist regime.

[Photo by Hosein Emrani on Unsplash]

Months of ideological repression passed, protests in other communist nations proved to be successful, and East German citizens became ever more inspired to demonstrate. Another Leipzig demonstration was approaching, and the people were becoming more indignant. The government was considering using Tiananmen-like solutions to disband the protestors, so the best course of action for demonstrators seemed to be non-violence [Popplewell 60]. Groups such as the Leipzig Six, a group consisting of prominent East German citizens that people associated with political and moral influence, formed to advocate for non-violence [Harris 25]. To facilitate meaningful political dialogue, they wrote a message advocating for peace. They did not want to engage in violence, fearing the government’s response in kind. Like the protestors, the government did not want to engage in violence. Their role within the Soviet Union was diminishing; Gorbachev did not look kindly at the fact that the GDR was unwilling to accept the policies of glasnost and perestroika. By enacting violence on the demonstrators, it would lead Gorbachev, as well as other world leaders, to lay down severe economic repercussions that the GDR could not withstand [Hadjar 120]. Furthermore, if the demonstrations became too violent, the USSR would not send in troops to help the East German government defuse the situation, as they had done in demonstrations prior [Hadjar 120].

As the demonstrations were approaching, the government in Berlin became ever more frustrated with its dissidents, leading to friction within the government itself. One historian writes that the GDR was “not ready to tolerate the demonstration” [Hadjar 199]. For example, government-directed policemen had bulldozers ready to stomp down protestors. During the demonstration, a party official was “ready to give the order to start a bloody inferno” [Hadjar 199]. Gale Stokes writes that “Honecker had signed Secret Order Number 8/9 [drafted by Mielke and other party officials] directing all security agencies, including the army, to prevent hostile actions and provocations by any means” [Stokes 165]. However, Honecker rescinded this order shortly after protests began, revealing instability within the party’s highest ranks [Popplewell 60]. The government wanted to prevent all dissidence to preserve its power, but the risks of engaging in violence to stop the protestors were too high. So, it became a question of survival: should the government violently attack its citizens to prevent dissidence, or should they allow peaceful protest so that the state might survive?

Ten thousand people were on the streets of Leipzig on October 9. Nobody saw this coming—not even the Stasi. They, alongside local police, were unequipped to handle the situation. If the situation became violent, the reformist Soviet government would not come to assist them in pacifying the situation. Thus, the mass nature of the event further influenced higher party officials not to enact revenge. In addition, the magnitude of the demonstration revealed how widespread the opposition actually was and how the government was unable to recognize the grave extent of declining morale in the nation. The GDR began to collapse in on itself. Some members of the government joined in protest alongside the demonstrators to revolt against the government.  In fact, the reason why no ‘bloody inferno’ occurred during the demonstration was because three SED [7] head officials had joined the Leipzig Six, leading to discord within the SED itself [Hadjar 119]. Honecker and Mielke were at odds with each other, and the rest of the party was splitting into factions. In the end, the protests of October 9 ended peacefully, surprising many who had expected a bloodbath.

[Photo by Sunyu on Unsplash]

Thus, it was a combination of the party’s fear of consequence, the Leipzig Six’s appeal for nonviolence, and the instability within the government that caused the Monday demonstration of October 9 to remain peaceful. Even though the government in Berlin ultimately decided not to use violence, fearing potential economic repercussions, it was already too late. The nation was visibly discontent. Policemen had turned their lights off and left the protests. It became quite clear that things had changed, and “within a week of the Leipzig demonstration, the Politburo met in a long session to discuss the questions of society” [Naimark 90]. Honecker resigned due to failing health, but it was clear that other party officials, especially Mielke, wanted him gone so they could hold onto more power themselves. Therefore, the Leipzig demonstration of October 9 revealed that the party was becoming increasingly unstable and was bound to fall.

The demonstrations of October 9 proved to be fatal for the East German government. They revealed the instability and inflexibility of the government and brought to light the popular discontent among the people. Similarly, they revealed the great power of the people to organize themselves and to withstand the government’s violent threats. Moreover, even government members had joined the people in their demonstrations against the repressive regime. If Honecker and Mielke had been able to recognize the failing morale within their country and had attempted to unite everyone through positive means and not through criticizing dissidents, the country may have been stable enough to rescue itself. However, their minds were too feeble to comprehend the worsening situation. After the Leipzig demonstrations, new government leaders came and went, but it became clear that things were falling fast. Soon the Berlin Wall came falling down with them.


Diehl, Jackson. “Leipzig Leaders Prevent A Bloodbath.” The Washington Post, January 14, 1990. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1990/01/14/leipzigs-leaders-  prevent-a-bloodbath/19a82f14-0a9e-4ea6-b082-f8a075311235/?utm_term=.408f7179d3f8

Hadjar, Andreas. “Non-Violent Political Protest in East Germany in the 1980s: Protestant Church, Opposition Groups and the People,” German Politics 12, no. 3 (2003): 107-128.

Harris, Todd W. “The Revolutionary Church? The Role of East German Protestants Amid Political Change,” Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe 12, no. 6 (1992): 14-34. Accessed October 12, 2018. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/51120078.pdf

Naimark. Norman M. 1992. “‘Ich will hier raus’: Emigration and the Collapse of the German Democratic Republic.” In Ivo Banac (ed.), Eastern Europe and Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Popplewell, Richard. “The Stasi and the East German Revolution of 1989,” Contemporary European History 1, no. 1 (1992): 37-63.

Stokes, Gale. “The Glorious Revolutions of 1989.” In The Walls Came Tumbling Down. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Tucker, Spencer C. Europe Since 1945: An Encyclopedia, 1st ed., “German Democratic Republic.” New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2001.


[1]Demonstrations after Monday church services become so common that they became referred to as the “Monday Night Demonstrations.”

[2] German Democratic Republic, otherwise known as East Germany

[3] An “openness” policy that granted rights to Soviet people (such as criticizing government officials), leading to increased democratization in Russia.

[4] A restructuring program in the USSR leading to not only economic decentralization, but also to a decreased involvement of the communist government in local politics.

[5] Soviet Secret Police Force

[6] Many students in China were murdered by the government-supported army because they were protesting the communist government.

[7]The SED was the communist party that was in power in East Germany.

Citation Style: Chicago