Posts Tagged ‘Mikhail Gorbachev’

Erich Honecker – Berlin Wall Architect

Monday, April 24th, 2017


Erich Honecker was an uncompromising East German politician who rose to the top leadership post in East Germany. After holding several lesser positions, he was elected First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands – SED) in 1971, a post which later morphed into General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party. Erich Honecker held that position until just before the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989. It was during his leadership that the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. He is said to have been its prime architect and a proponent of the order “to fire” on border crossers. More than 1,100 border crossers died trying to escape the former East Germany during his years in office.

Erich Honecker, First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party 1971-1989. Photo courtesy of Bundesarchiv.

Erich Honecker, First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party 1971-1989. Photo courtesy of Bundesarchiv.

Erich Honecker – Communist to the core

Born in 1912, Erich Honecker was the fourth of six children in the family. By the time he was ten years old, he had already joined the children’s division of a Marxist youth organization. Two years later, Honecker entered the Young Communist League of Germany (Kommunistischer Jugendverband Deutschlands – KJVD). Following high school he worked for a farmer in Pomerania for a stint. Then he returned to his hometown to enter an apprenticeship as a roofer. He never completed that apprenticeship but entered the International Lenin School in Moscow instead.

At that point Honecker’s political career began in earnest. He entered the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands – KPD), but during the Nazi years, Communist activities became illegal. Honecker was imprisoned. Following his release in 1946, he helped form the Free German Youth (Freie Deutsche Jugend) and quickly became a leading member in the party’s Central Committee. As Party Security Secretary, he was the prime planner of the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Erich Honecker – Rise to the Top

In 1971, Erich Honecker initiated a political power struggle that ended with him replacing Walter Ulbricht as the First Secretary of the Central Committee and as chairman of the state’s National Defense Council. Under Honecker’s command, East Germany began to normalize  relations with West Germany and became a full member of the United Nations. The latter was one of his greatest political successes.

Erich Honecker – Fall to the bottom

In the late 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced several reforms to liberalize communism. Honecker refused to implement similar reforms in East Germany. Friction grew between the two men. At the national celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the East German state in October 1989, which were attended by Gorbachev, several hundred members of the Free German Youth suddenly chanted, Gorby, help us! Gorby, save us! The peaceful revolution had begun. Honecker’s leadership came to an end. He was forced to resign in October 1989.

Erich Honecker’s Final days

Following German reunification in 1990, Erich Honecker escaped to the Chilean embassy in Moscow. He was handed over to Germany a year later to stand trial for his role in the human rights abuses committed by the East German regime. Due to his illness proceedings were abandoned, and he was allowed to join his wife in Chile. In 1994, Erich Honecker died in Chile from liver cancer.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, “Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom,” click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of

Zur letzten Instanz – Berlin Restaurant

Monday, September 7th, 2015

Zur Letzten Instanz” roughly translates to “The Last Resort.” It is the name of one of Berlin’s oldest restaurants, located in the heart of the city. If you want to try some authentic German food, put Zur Letzten Instanz on your list. The current owners bought the place after the Berlin wall fell. Their daughter manages it. Her brother is the cook. During the days of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the State owned the restaurant, and East Germans were not allowed to own businesses.

Zur Letzten Instanz is located in the Waisenstrasse 14-16, not far from the Alexanderplatz, the television tower and Berlin’s red City Hall. Supposedly, Napoléon rested by the restaurant’s tile stove. In 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union, enjoyed a beer here, and in 2003 German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder treated French president Jacques Chirac to a meal at Zur Letzten Instanz.

Zur Letzten Instanz – history

First documented in 1561, a residence housing two or three tenant families stood at this site. In 1621 a servant of the Great Elector opened a pub in its basement. The pub eventually turned into a restaurant. Over the years, the building changed hands several time, and the restaurant was renamed each time. Since 1924, it bears the name Zur Letzten Instanz.

During World War II, Zur Letzten Instanz was badly damaged. Then, in 1961, East Berlin authorities decided to reopen it to attract tourists. To increase the seating capacity, the original building and the two neighboring properties were taken down to their foundations, reconstructed and reopened in 1963. Unfortunately, most of the medieval elements and the historical layout of the original three buildings were essentially lost during reconstruction. But parts of the medieval city wall can still be seen in the back of the building. Zur Letzten Instanz currently seats up to 120 guests in its three dining room. The building includes eight hotel rooms with a total of thirteen beds as well as an apartment for the owners.

Zur Letzten Instanz – name

Zur Letzten Instanz owes its name to a court battle in the early 1900s. According to legend, two farmers fought a long-drawn-out litigation in the nearby courthouse. Unable to settle their differences in court, they took their dispute to the pub and reached an agreement over a glass of beer or two. For them, the pub became “the last resort.” Hence the name.

Zur Letzten Instanz – menu

The menu features authentic German cuisine and includes some Berlin specialties, such as Eisbein (pork knuckle). Each menu item is named after a legal procedure so that you might find menu items, such as “Beweismittel – Evidence” (cabbage roll with mashed potatoes and salad), “Kreuzverhoer – cross-examination” (calf’s liver with shallots, apples and mashed potatoes) or “Zeugen-Aussage – witness testimony” pork knuckle with sauerkraut, pureed split peas and smoked bacon.

Guten Appetit – Bon Appetit – Enjoy Your Meal


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.


Unique Berlin Wall Segment in D.C.

Monday, August 17th, 2015

A unique Berlin Wall Segment arrived at the State Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. last Thursday, August 13, 2015. It arrived on the 54th anniversary of the closure of the border from East to West Berlin.

Plans call for the piece to be put on display in the State Department’s Museum and Education Center, which is currently under construction. The Center is scheduled to open to the public at the end of 2017.

What did the Berlin Wall really look like?

The actual Berlin Wall actually consisted of two walls: The eastern so-called Hinterland Wall, and the western wall, which we usually think of when we speak of the Berlin Wall. A death strip separated the two. Today, the graffiti-decorated western wall segments are more popular with tourists, collectors and investors. Although souvenir shops sell small pieces of the Berlin Wall for just a few dollars, an entire wall segment measures 10.5 feet in height, 4 feet in width and weighs 2.9 tons. Between 1961 and 1990, around 54,000 of these concrete slabs made up the western side of the Berlin Wall. Their costs, even without shipment and handling, can be astounding.

Typical stretch of the western Berlin Wall, Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2014

Typical stretch of the western Berlin Wall,
Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2014

The Berlin Wall is all over the world

Berliners started chiseling away at the wall immediately after the border opened on 9 November 1989 and continued to do so for the next few years. I hammered out a number of small pieces myself. But some people immediately looked beyond mementos. They recognized the profit-making opportunity. A Bavarian businessman, for instance, made an offer on an entire wall Berlin Wall segment only one day after the border opened. The bidding went from there. A Japanese company offered $185,000 for a single section. So far, around 600 segments have found new homes outside Germany. Twenty-six years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, more pieces are scattered across the globe than remain in Berlin itself. South Korea acquired five sections of the Berlin Wall for a different reason. For South Korea the Berlin Wall segments symbolize their country’s hope that North and South Korea may also peacefully reunite one day.

Why is this Berlin Wall segment so unique?

The Berlin Wall segment that arrived at the U.S. State Department on Thursday bears twenty-five personal signatures on its front face. These signatures belong to statesmen who played key roles in the reunification of Germany. The section of the Berlin Wall that just arrived in D.C. was signed by former US President George H.W. Bush, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, former US Secretary of State James A. Baker, former prime minister of the German Democratic Republic Lothar de Maiziere and others. Initially, the German energy company Verbundnetz Gas AG owned this particular wall segment. Verbundnetz Gas presented it to the Atlantic Council, a think tank devoted to international affairs, and the Atlantic Council put it on temporarily display at the German embassy in Washington. Last Thursday, the Atlantic Council gifted this unique Berlin Wall segment to the U.S. State Department, its permanent home.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.


25 years ago today Berlin Wall became history

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

Twenty-five years ago today, the Berlin Wall became history. On this day 25 years ago – on February 19, 1990 – East German border guards began the large-scale demolition of the Berlin Wall. By the end of the year, most of the Berlin Wall – or the “anti-fascist protection rampart” as it was called in East Germany – was history.

The demolition process that had been started by private Mauerspechte (wallpeckers), was completed by commercial construction crews. The initial teardown began in the area of the Brandenburg Gate. With jackhammers, crews began to remove 570 feet of Berlin Wall that stood between the Reichstag (Seat of the German Parliament) and Checkpoint Charlie (best known Berlin Wall crossing point between East and West Berlin). Trucks carted away the 2.6-ton wall segments. The East German company Limex would later sell them for up to 500,000 marks each.

The same area that was first freed from the Berlin Wall was also the location of the first provisional border crossing between East and West Berlin, hastily created in December 1989. Less than three years earlier, President Ronald Reagan had appealed to the Soviet leader: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” No one had imagined then that those words might soon become reality.

When the concrete elements were finally released from their foundation in February of 1990, most Berliners celebrated the event like a street festival. But not everyone shared their enthusiasm. Also on the day the Berlin Wall began to come down, a group of East German civil rights activists, clergy and politicians came together to discuss potential paths to a democratic transformation of East Germany. The group did not want to join West Germany and hoped to find a different solution. But East Germany was facing bankruptcy and economic collapse. In the preceding weeks and months, Hans Modrow, the last premier of the East German regime, had tried in vain to obtain a 15 billion mark loan from West Germany. At the end of their meeting on February 19, 1990, the group of round table members rejected the plan of joining West Germany and called for a demilitarized united Germany instead. We know that history did not support their decision.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is my story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.


Palace of the Republic

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Berlin’s Palace of the Republic — Palast der Republik — was the seat of the legislature of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) from 1976 to 1990. Constructed between 1973 and 1976, the exterior of this cubic building was defined by its distinctive bronze mirrored windows and the interior by its unique multi-purpose concept.

House of the People

When the East German government decided to build the Palace of the Republic in the 70s, the country was hurting financially and could barely afford the construction. Nonetheless, East Germany built the most modern cultural building in all of Europe at the time. One part of the building housed the People’s Chamber, the legislature of the East German government. The other served a multitude of cultural purposes as the House of the People. Here citizens could visit art galleries, a theater, a bowling alley, a post office, a discotheque and thirteen restaurants. Cultural, political, academic, and social events at the Palace of the Republic included famous concerts and events, party congresses and even the state gala on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic in October 1989, which was attended by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It is difficult to image nowadays that ordinary people would be allowed to be entertained within meters of government being conducted. I think it would be a security agent’s worst nightmare.

Former Stadtschloss

The Palace of the Republic was not the original building on this site however. The location had once been home to the former Berlin City Palace–Berliner Stadtschloss–an edifice dating back to the Prussian-era. In 1950, the East German government demolished this heavily World War II-damaged building to make room for the Palast der Republik. But just prior to German reunification in 1990, the modern monument to the people had to be closed to the public because of asbestos contamination. By 2003, the asbestos was declared removed, but soon more was found. It was then that the German parliament voted to demolish the Palace of the Republic altogether. The action ran against the opposition of many former East Germans, and what was to be constructed in its place became the subject of many heated debates.


Eventually, the German government decided to rebuild the Prussian-era Stadtschloss, not the Palace of the Republic. Its last vestiges were removed in 2008.

Construction of a new Stadtschloss began in 2013. It will be called the Humboldtforum house the Humboldt collection and gallery of non-European art. Three facades of the new palace will be exact replicas of the Prussian-era Stadtschloss, but the interior will be a modern one. Construction is in progress and is expected be completed in 2019.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of






Mikhail Gorbachev

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev paid a State visit to the Federal Republic of Germany on this day in history–on June 13, 1989. Mr. Gorbachev, then First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had come to sign a declaration along with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl The joint statement affirmed the right of peoples and States to self-determination.


During his four-day stay in West Germany, Mikhail Gorbachev visited and spoke in several cities. Each time, the crowds cheered affectionately, “Gorby, Gorby, Gorby.” When the First Secretary and his wife, Raissa, appeared on the main plaza of Bonn, the former German capital, thousands of well-wishers applauded. A young boy presented him with him flowers. The people tied their hopes to the man who had introduced Glasnost and Perestroika in the Soviet Union. He had instilled new hope for change and peace.

Despite the general enthusiasm, no one realized though that Glasnost and Perestroika had opened a crack that would continue to widen. Five months later it would allow the Berlin Wall to come down. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell after twenty-eight years. Mikhail Gorbachev refrained from giving orders to intervene militarily. On October 3, 1990, the unification of East and West Germany was complete. It is doubtful that any of that could have happened without the restraint shown by the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.