Could the GDR have survived? Part III – the Geopolitics of Stealing the Future



As I said in Part II, in Stealing the Future I’ve tried to remain as true to historical fact as possible – practically this means trying to keep the history of countries other than Germany pretty much true to real life. Outside the GDR the biggest surprise is the continued existence of the USSR. I decided to let Mikhail Gorbachev keep the Soviet ship of state afloat, despite all its leaks and mutinies.

One of the best parts of writing counter-factual literature is the endless opportunities to engage in thought experiments. I decided to save Gorbachev from the coup attempt of 1991 (transferring many of those events to September 1993),  thus making Boris Yeltsin wait in the wings for a bit longer. My interference in the USSR was partly due to feeling sorry for the GDR – an independent GDR fighting for its existence without even nominal protection from Big Brother in the east seemed, at the least, an unlikely scenario; but the postponement of the Yeltsin regime also gives Dmitri a chance to play his part in the story.

I decided not to imagine the US drawing up plans to bomb East Berlin, or to encourage terrorism (as they did in Italy in the 1970s), but I did consider and draw conclusions from the way West Germany behaved towards the GDR once the Wall fell. The politicians struggling to hold the GDR together were subjected to extensive Western interference and demands at all political levels. Helmut Kohl, the Chancellor of West Germany knew he was pushing at an open door – just a week after the opening of the Wall, Gorbachev’s adviser Portugalov told Kohl’s adviser that Moscow was fundamentally reconsidering its position on the German Question. This coded message was more than enough to encourage the West German government to build links to all parts of the GDR government, as well as with the right-of-centre political parties. The links were used to push through demands that the state structures of the GDR should be changed to make them compatible with the West German system, or, in modern parlance: unification-ready.

In February 1990 Kohl and Gorbachev enjoyed a cosy chat on the Crimea, in which the West German chancellor was given a clear go-ahead to pursue unification. From that moment on, unification was inevitable, and Kohl got to dictate both the terms and the pace.

But let’s imagine that Gorbachev had kept the promises he’d made to the leadership and the people of the GDR back in 1989. Let’s imagine that Gorbachev continued to support the idea of an independent GDR, and refused to give Kohl carte blanche to take over the other German state. I believe Kohl would have tried to game the situation anyway – he had nothing to lose: his popularity ratings were down and the economy was flagging – he needed some good press. But without Moscow’s blessing he might have moved more cautiously, attempted to engage the GDR representatives in dialogue rather than simply issuing directives. If he’d faced stiff opposition in the GDR he may even have pulled back, started negotiating for a confederation between the two states rather than full unification.

If Gorbachev had kept his promises, that could well have been enough to give the people of the GDR enough time and political space to decide their own fate, and the political experiments envisaged in Stealing the Future may have been more than just dreams and hopes in the heads and hearts of many East Germans at the time.