The Promise How a Newspaper Tried to Prevent East Germany from Collapsing

Part 3: It Was About the Existence of the GDR


"It was based theoretically on democratic centralism. You know all that," he says. I nod. "Marx was a dictatorial editor-in-chief," Wengler says with a wry smile. Marx. Now he has solid ground under his feet.

"We were issued the following instructions for the anniversary: We won't let them spit in our soup. We have every reason to be proud of ourselves, and the torchlight procession is the centerpiece. We knew that all hell was breaking loose out there, but the youth of the GDR would show the world what we had achieved. That's what Achim Herrman kept repeating over the phone. I don't know how often he called me that evening. More-or-less constantly. 'Is everything all right with that torchlight procession, Fritz?' It was always the same. He must have called from the municipal parliament. Then your piece landed on my desk, and I knew we couldn't run it like that."

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He pauses, sips his coffee and says, "For three reasons." I can sense him growing -- and I shrink back into a young editor again. There were always three reasons why things weren't right. "Firstly, the questions. Secondly, the 'Gorbi' cries and the omission of Honecker, and finally the girl who was crying because her friend left the country," he says. "I wanted to keep the girl in. I really wrestled with my conscience. But in the end I wasn't sure anymore. That's why I added the 'Yes.' My head was on the line, after all."

"But you promised me you wouldn't."
"This wasn't Osang's opinion we were printing. It was our editorial position. And I went to bed with a guilty conscience that night, believe me."
"Guilty towards me?"
"Towards my party. Towards my country," he says and looks me straight in the eye.

I Am a Cog

I am a cog -- a tiny part of a machine. At this moment in time Fritz Wengler is my living memory.

I remember all the times I was warned to ensure my personal interests matched those of the society in which I lived. It was always automatically about everything. If you fell asleep in class, you were putting global peace at risk. And sometimes you had to kill your personal interests to bring them into line with those of your society. In the light of this, an agreement between two men is not worth much.

It is strange how all this comes flooding back in this small room. Maybe it's better that you see nothing but trees when you look out of the windows.

Fritz Wengler doesn't meet his former colleagues anymore. He occasionally sees one at a demonstration, he says. On his bookshelves there are historic tomes about the Hapsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, the Huns, and the Celts. They sit alongside memoirs of East German celebrities such as Frank Schöbel, Eberhard Esche, Inge Keller, Gisela May, and Gaby Seifert as well as the sort of communist-era reference manuals about the world and about socialism given to young people at Jugendweihe celebrations, a secular coming-of-age ritual. My individualism must seem pathetic to him; so self-centered and whiny. He says he doesn't want to hide behind anyone. "If you want to become the Pope, you have to be Catholic," he says. "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."

It wasn't about me, it wasn't even about the Berliner Zeitung, he explains. It was about the existence of the GDR.

'Consensus Can't Get You Anywhere'

"Did you think about me for one second when you added that 'Yes'?" I ask, realizing I am on the verge of tears and have a job fighting them back. I get smaller and smaller.

"Oh, come now! Of course I wasn't oblivious to the fact that I was ruining a young journalist's article and maybe also his reputation. But I had a job to do," Fritz Wengler says. "My party had given me instructions, and I had identified with them. I was convinced we could save the country if we just held firm. Consensus can't get you anywhere."

He tells me how, as a student member of the FDJ, he had been sent to guard the House of Ministries in Leipziger Strasse against insurgents on June 17, 1953 -- the day when widespread demonstrations broke out in East Berlin. He talks about troublemakers and troop units and tricky situations. But in the end they had got everything under control again and he could return to his FDJ school, he became a youth brigadier at the Upper Spree cable plant and wrote an inspiring diary about the life of a brigadier, a journal that got him first into the Bitterfeld writers' conference and eventually a job at Junge Welt newspaper.

"I once did what you did at the Berliner Zeitung: Going out, writing, then going out again. I was quicker than the others and always had a good eye," he says. He explains how he wrote his pieces to rub people up the wrong way and how he used every opportunity to present a snapshot of reality.

"He's reeling me in," I think. Perhaps he wants to say that October 7, 1989 could be for me what June 17, 1953 had meant to him; an experience that could have made me tougher, wiser, more insightful, and maybe one day first deputy editor-in-chief, in which capacity I would attend weekly meetings of the Central Committee's Agitation Committee and receive instructions that I wouldn't always understand, but would follow nonetheless because they hadn't come from nowhere, but rather been issued by people I would know; confidants, so to speak. I could have been yet another representative of a power that wouldn't have existed without me.

Fifty Years

A little later, Wengler's wife brings us a bowl of potato chips, and we nibble a few like old acquaintances; confidants, so to speak.

"We've now talked about that single 'Yes' for four hours," Wengler says.

I tell him that the torchlight procession article comes back to haunt me every now and again whenever someone with a grudge against me photocopies it and mails it out to all and sundry to show what kind of a person I used to be.

"So you want to be rid of it?" Fritz Wengler asks, with a pitying smile.

He tells me he's read everything that's ever been published in Germany about the French Revolution. It was 50 years before historians started doing the Jacobins justice to any extent, he says.

Fifty years.

Fritz, my editor-in-chief, sits there reading his historical books, waiting for history to do him justice. Many years ago he made a promise that was far greater than the promise he made me that October night. He kept one by breaking the other. That's how he sees it, and that puts me in his boat. His 'Yes' will remain in my article forever. Even when the living memory is long gone, Fritz Wengler and I will remain inextricably linked in this article in this newspaper.

Some things simply can't be put right.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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