Berlin Hauptstadt der DDR (2/3): the Eye of the Storm, one Sunday, 13 December 1981

The greatest catastrophe of the 20th century? © PP

On an external level, Berlin was at the heart of many major topics: the “Euromissiles” Crisis, the Polish Crisis, the evolution of the Warsaw Pact, and of course intra-German relations. Any diplomatic affair of importance, and a fortiori any crisis since the Soviet blockage of the city in 1948 and Nikita Khrushchev’s aggressive stance in 1958, took on a global dimension there.

Given that the East German regime was difficult to access, even for the Ambassador, and the media were state-controlled, we had “complementary information channels” available to us, as we were straddling both East and West. And then, there were high points when we had the sensation of experiencing History as it unfolded.


I remember, for example, the visit by the Soviet Ambassador Pyotr Abrassimov, within our walls. He was a leading figure of Soviet diplomacy and he reigned supreme, with his patrician demeanor, over a huge Embassy located close to ours and to the Brandenburg Gate. This great building, intended to impress, was the residence of the USSR “Proconsul” in East Germany where some 500,000 soldiers of the Red Army were stationed at the time, and mostly confined in the shelter of dense forests in prohibited zones (Sperrgebiete), which gave a country limited in size the highest military density in the world.

After a government career in the Private Office directed by Alexei Kosygin and with the Supreme Soviet, Abrassimov began a diplomatic career. He was the Soviet negotiator of the Quadripartite Agreement on Berlin, signed on 3 September 1971, notably alongside Jean Sauvagnargues for France, whose president, Giscard d’Estaing, would later make him his Foreign Affairs Minister, after Jean-François Poncet, in recognition of this diplomatic achievement. The Soviet Ambassador, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which he had just joined, was returning from Moscow where he had been in discussions with Leonid Brezhnev, and because of this quality alone, he established himself as the discussion partner of the greatest. He was Ambassador in Paris in 1968 at the time of the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia and was well versed in French politics. What was considered unusual behaviour in the Soviet civil service and additional evidence of his eminent rank, he would sometimes take on the stance of an accomplished player and his declarations often became bons mots. He once made quite a dent in Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik by declaring that “every rose has its thorn” (Keine Rosen ohne Dornen). And yet, he did have direct relations with the Mayor of West Berlin, which was not however without causing tensions with Walter Ulbricht. But he was the very embodiment of the Soviet leadership and he even happened to take part in East German Private Office meetings, which was remarkably unique.

The encounter unfolded in an atmosphere that was both friendly and tough, as was often the case with the Soviets. Abrassimov showed concern about the developments in France’s domestic policy, a topic that could only embarrass Ambassador Xavier Marie du Causé de Nazelle, given the duty of discretion to which he was bound. He refrained from giving a detailed account of his discussion partner’s remarks on this issue. Abrassimov recalled having personally met General de Gaulle, then President Georges Pompidou and did not conceal his admiration for Gaullism. He also spoke of François Mitterrand, candidate for the then upcoming presidential elections, only to say that Moscow was under no illusions about the latter, and lashed out against a personality that he personally deemed not at all “socialist” and dangerous for the interests of the country he represented. While Communists did enter the Pierre Mauroy government several months later – which contracdicted the Soviet Ambassador’s analysis – it is clear that an appraisal of the possible political developments in France had been made at a very early stage in Moscow.

Some weeks later, the French Ambassador received the former Minister, Pierre Sudreau, at his Residence, between the two rounds of the presidential elections. In my recollection, he had come to Berlin for railway operations, which involved cooperation with the countries of Eastern Europe. The Minister had maintained close relations with Margot Honecker, wife of the First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party (SED: Sozialistiche Einheitspartei), having been interned with her during the war due to his resistance activities, in particular within the “Brutus Network”. Founded in the south of France and headed by Gaston Defferre, this network had grown in importance at national level when Pierre Sudreau was arrested in late 1943. The Minister spoke of the presidential elections in France; some days earlier he had seen President Giscard d’Estaing who expressed particular concern about the result of the vote. Ambassador Abrassimov’s nightmares were taking shape.


In the spring of 1981, I travelled to Warsaw for a few days. I was not familiar with Poland and the evolution of the country driven by the Solidarnosc movement seemed to be worth the trip, which was by train, as this neighbouring country was only about sixty kilometres from the most outlying districts of East Berlin. In the capital I was staying at a colleague’s home. He was a specialist of this region where he would later be several times Ambassador. He was also hosting Jean Offredo, television journalist and great connoisseur of Poland and its church. This encounter made the stay all the richer.

My first impression, coming from East Berlin, was as though I had journeyed towards the West, as Warsaw was buzzing and brimming with vitality to the point perhaps of giving the illusion of an already acquired freedom. In reality, a certain disorder was also creeping in, beyond what the communist order and discipline under the surveillance of the European Socialist Camp were then ready to accept. Before leaving Warsaw for Berlin one Sunday evening by night train, we took a last trip around the capital city by car. At night, the city was quite sinister and I passed below the windows of the Defence Minister’s office, which were all lit up despite the late hour. The Minister was a certain General Jaruzelski, who shortly afterwards would concurrently hold this office with those of head of government and then of the party. On my return, I shared my impressions with Ambassador du Causé de Nazelle.

Despite our common sympathies for Solidarnosc and the romantic impetus it could spark, we had to resign ourselves to the observation that the force structures of the Polish State were still solid and at work – Poland being one of the main components of the Warsaw Pact, along with East Germany, incidentally, – and that storm clouds were gathering, which ran the risk of altering the fragile Warsaw Spring. Significant military manoeuvers in the countries of the Pact constituted the initial threats that alerted the chancelleries.

We were also requested by Paris to take steps to firmly caution the authorities of our country of residence against any possible participation in military reining in, which inevitably would be the source of very serious international tensions. On several occasions, the East German reaction consisted in denying such a plan – either resulting from an autonomous action, or coordinated within the Pact – by referring in particular to the previous German adventures in Poland which made this prospect inconceivable.

In my recollection, a review of the position – and such was my perception in any case – was that some recognition could be given to this key argument according to which “Germany, albeit the Eastern part, could not invade Poland again”. As it turned out – and history will be the best judge of this – our discussion partners were right, despite the skepticism of several Western capitals. The sabre-rattling of the Warsaw Pact had been sheer gesticulation and the solution, however brutal, turned out to be exclusively Polish. Just as in Andrzej Wajda’s film Danton, the “Robespierre-Jaruzelski”, as a parallel to the “Danton-Depardieu”, displayed his “sacrifice” with this declaration “I would commit any ignominious act for the good of my country”. This general, who was working late one Sunday night while others were in the midst of a revolutionary process, complied with this reflection in his own manner. Incidentally, he subsequently sought to obtain a form of pardon, in recognition of a certain national role. This was the core of his defence. The state of war had been imposed by a figure which, hitherto, had been considered as relatively moderate within the system.

The plea expressed mezza voce gained ground and several years later earned him the right to be received in Paris by President Mitterrand, much to the visible dismay of the Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius, who distanced himself by declaring the following regarding his mentor: “He is who he is, I am who I am”. Indeed, the President of the Republic was justified in observing that the Soviet tanks had not entered Warsaw, as they had in Budapest in 56 and Prague in 68. The world had changed and new forces were significantly contributing to these changes.


As part of an enquiry for France’s main television channel on the topic of the “role of young people in changing Eastern bloc countries”, I met with the journalist Jacqueline Dubois. I was very interested in her project, to which I endeavoured to contribute privately, but I was even more fascinated by her history and her personality.

Jacqueline Dubois, a leading expert on the topic of China on French television, where she where she spoke with an unmistakable accent, was in fact born as Galia Gourevitch in Moscow. Her father, very advanced in age, had been one of Lenin’s companions and his Marxist-Leninist convictions had never been shaken. During the Stalinist terror, his wife, who was in a dire state of health, had made him promise to leave the country with their children, who were then very young. The family went to China after many adventures, which were retold by Jacqueline Dubois in a book entitled Le Petit Octobre (little October). It was in her beloved Tianjin – where life was both brilliant and superficial, Galia said – and where she met her future husband, a French lawyer, that she witnessed the Maoist revolution firsthand. She was marked for life by these events, which still lived inside her and her favourite topic was that revolutions were always pure at the beginning, as her father would constantly tell her. In Tianjin, Mao’s young soldiers, who came from extreme poverty and a rural background, slept in the gardens of the finest estates and treated her with respect, standing up whenever she passed by.

I shared my somewhat limited knowledge of the East German youth with her. I was impressed by the former due to its modesty, or even its asceticism – contrasting with many of western life’s conveniences – its level of education and naturally its respect for the State and for discipline, despite youthful dreams and plans that differed little from those of other young Europeans. Young women showed photographs of themselves in military or civil defence uniform. There was a certain pride, that was both touching and respectable, in representing another Germany, one that was not chosen but rather their destiny, one that demonstrated great prowess as a spearhead of the Eastern bloc and elevating it to the forefront of global industrial powers, despite its small population and limited size.

But one could also sense that minds were ready for major change. The intense cultural life of the country – spurred by competition with the other Germany – where theatre, music and opera reached the highest levels of excellence, was a stimulating factor for significant change. I remember magical evenings at the Staatsoper, designed by the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who also built several prestigious neoclassical buildings in Berlin. I also travelled to Leipzig at Easter, the city where Johann Sebastian Bach composed most of his cantatas, to listen to the Passions in the local churches. There was also the famous Gewandhaus, where atmosphere was not lacking at that time of the year, as was the case for the International Trade Fair, light years from the atmosphere shrouding the everyday lives of the State of workers and labourers.

Jacqueline Dubois also got carried away with her reporting, as did I in the background, by discovering an unsuspected reality that even today we still find difficult to imagine. She frequently came to East Berlin, which was quite daring, especially at that time. While shooting with her crew at the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park, a unit of the Red Army passed her and she managed to make them parade, several times, for the requirements of her cameraman. She had in fact shouted out in her native language, which was also that of the unit, and the commanding officer asked her where she was from. By an astounding coincidence, they were both born in the same street in Moscow, and from then on, anything was   possible.

In the end, Jacqueline Dubois, on the strength of her history, her personality and her experience, had managed to sense the embers that smouldered under the apparent ice, and this was more difficult to detect than in a country such as Romania, with its turbulent and rebellious reputation in the socialist camp. Subsequent events proved her right more quickly than anyone had imagined. But there would be much turmoil beforehand, and ten years would still have to pass.


On Sunday 13 December 1981, it was snowing heavily in Berlin. Visibility was drastically reduced and sounds were strongly subdued, but the entire city was not quite lulled.

Helmut Schmidt was there to meet Erich Honecker, Party leader, within the context of inter-German dialogue. In the midst of this impressive calm – and I have no recollection of ever having experienced anything like it in the city – it was on the previous night that General Jaruzelski had begun to introduce a state of war in his own country, thus brutally ending the Solidarnosc experience. The contradiction between both events was astonishing. Many questions were instantly raised: How would the easing of tensions resist what could represent an abrupt stop? Would inter-German relations maintain their cruising speed? What would happen in Poland itself as the date of 13 December alone would not suffice to muzzle the country and annihilate any form of resistance? Both German leaders, with their “business as usual” behaviour, immediately provided some possible answers: the Polish Crisis was a blip within a bloc that was  cracking; pacifism, kindled by the Evangelical churches of both countries, was starting to take shape, especially in the West. In 1983, this would lead François Mitterrand to pronounce in the Bundestag what was perhaps the most important speech of his presidency, and one that weighed in the electoral victory of Helmut Kohl, whereas the Federal Republic was displaying restlessness, to say the least. France’s President declared that “Pacifism was in the West and the Euromissiles were in the East”.

Precisely one week later, it was still snowing. I was the diplomat on duty on that Sunday, 20 December. It was not yet the time of mobile phones and I routinely went to the Embassy in the afternoon to ensure everything was in order. A few days before Christmas, some ladies fashion shops at the foot of our building were open, exceptionally. Hence, a queue had formed on Avenue Unter den Linden, which concealed our entrance from the scrutinising gaze of East German militia factions. I made my way through, entered the building and climbed the stairs. Between two floors, in the half-light I came up against a body that was not totally inert and discovered quite a young man, visibly in a bad way, whose clothing was wet and causing him to shiver.

I very quickly informed both the Ambassador, no longer de Nazelle, as he had stepped down some months earlier, and the Consul, after my first concern of providing some physical comfort to this stranger who did not speak German. He was first of all brought into the security entrance, and then into the diplomatic chancery premises, a decision that was taken in consultation with the Consul, and a matter of consequence. After much explaining, questioning and verification, with the help of representatives from our specialised departments of the “Quartier Napoléon” in the West, it turned out that the man was Polish, a modest executive of Solidarnosc, who wanted to “go to the West” with a companion. The latter had undoubtedly perished while swimming across the Lusation Neisse river at night in the middle of winter. The survivor, who had managed to pass so many obstacles, including the very sophisticated surveillance systems between Poland and East Germany (despite belonging to the same bloc), had been briefly taken in on a farm in East Germany, just enough time to change clothes. He had then managed to take the train clandestinely in Frankfurt an der Oder, although it was a Soviet garrison town under strict control, to reach Berlin and freedom in the West, as he probably quite naively believed. The French flag fluttering over the Embassy, a perfect landmark, close to the Brandenburg Gate, had indicated his final stage, after managing to get through the insurmountable barrier that separated the city.

                                                                                         (To be continued)

Bust of Karl Marx © PP

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