EAST BERLIN -- Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev told East Germans on Friday that there is "no need for panic," and he urged them to "be patient . . . and don't be sad."
The visiting Soviet president made these impromptu remarks as he greeted crowds at a monument to an unknown soldier, and was obviously referring to the East German refugee crisis. So far this year, more than 100,000 East Germans have fled the country, legally or illegally.
About 1,000 East Germans shouting "Gorby! Gorby!" greeted him at the monument and one asked, "What do we do?"
'We Are Partners'
"Be patient, don't panic and don't be sad," he replied. "We are partners. We must fight to solve our problems together, to fight for socialism."
Gorbachev's off-the-cuff remarks were more pointed and more poignant than the prepared speech he delivered later in the People's Assembly building, where he followed Erich Honecker, the East German leader, to the podium. He was in East Berlin for official ceremonies marking today's 40th anniversary of the Communist state.
He arrived as the government here was closing three key crossing points between East and West Berlin and as new violence erupted over efforts by increasing numbers of East Germans to flee to the West.
Privately, sources reported, Gorbachev has urged Honecker to take a more liberal line, but Honecker has told him, in effect, to mind his own business.
Gorbachev apparently wants to present himself as the apostle of reform--reform that began in the Soviet Union and has spread to Poland and Hungary--but he does not want to provoke the 77-year-old Honecker or encourage anti-government elements here.
Along with his wife, Raisa, Gorbachev was met at the airport and embraced by Honecker, whom he bussed on both cheeks. Their 40-car motorcade into the city was greeted by thousands of flag-waving young people turned out by the Communist Party machine.
After visiting a Soviet memorial to soldiers who fell in World War II, Gorbachev's caravan stopped at the Grecian-style temple on the Unter den Linden dedicated to the "victims of fascism and militarism." Interred there are the bodies of an unknown soldier and an unknown resistance fighter.
'What Are You Doing?'
After a quick look at the interior, Gorbachev emerged and suddenly headed toward the crowd behind a barricade, a crowd that consisted mostly of reporters. One called out in Russian, "What are you doing?"
Gorbachev, apparently calling up a memorized statement, replied:
"My generation is the last generation which, though it did not take part in the war, saw it and knows what it was. We have something to tell today's youth of what sort of people we were then and are now. Not everything happened after the war the way that we wanted in the first days of victory. The memory of those who died makes us responsible for doing now what is needed for peace. We live in one land, have one civilization, and we should do everything in order to live together."
He was asked about his relationship with Honecker, and he replied: "Good. I have known him a long time. We get on fine."
In reply to a question about perestroika , or restructuring, in connection with East Germany, he said: "The important thing is what the citizens of East Germany want. If we in Russia had decided to do our thing the way people outside told us--and not on the basis of our own problems--we wouldn't have got anywhere. What we are doing is extremely difficult. But maybe it is the most significant turning point in our history. It is absolutely necessary. I am convinced of it."
'Our Full Confidence'
Pressed about the East German government's ability to follow the Soviet lead, he said: "We know our German friends very well, and their ability to recognize and to learn from life and to forecast the political road ahead and to introduce corrections where it is necessary. They have our full confidence."
But could changes in East Germany be dangerous? he was asked. Could they create instability?
"No," he said. "Compared with our own difficulties, nothing can surprise us. We have much tougher problems. There is danger only for those who don't react to life. Those who understand and are aware of the influence of life and society and are able to transform and adapt themselves politically--these people won't have any difficulties."
An authority on Soviet affairs said that, in this context, the word life could be taken to mean "situation." He said Gorbachev was suggesting that it is dangerous not to change with the times--implicit criticism of the refusal by Honecker and his colleagues to introduce political and economic reforms.
Gorbachev then headed for his black Zil limousine but suddenly turned and crossed the broad avenue to chat with people in the crowd. It was there that he made his remarks about the need to be patient, suggesting that reforms were on the way.
Need for Solidarity
In his formal speech, Gorbachev emphasized the need for Soviet solidarity with the East German regime. He said that every country in East Europe should find its own path to socialism, and added, "The decision on how society is organized is for the people themselves to decide, but there is need for variety."
As for the future of the embattled regime in East Germany, caught up in the refugee crisis and plagued by a lagging economy, Gorbachev said it "must be decided in Berlin, not in Moscow."
Honecker, in his speech, recited the achievements of his Communist government and, referring to suggestions that he introduce reforms, said that "we have no desire to change society with patent medicines in a short time."
The closest Honecker came to promising reforms came when he said: "New problems demand new solutions. We will find answers to these problems."
Yet he suggested that there is absolutely no alternative to state socialism.
In the course of the day, two different aspects of the East German problem emerged.
Workers' Militia Unit
In East Berlin, the government distributed copies of a Leipzig newspaper containing an article quoting a "workers' militia unit" as saying that huge recent Monday night demonstrations in Leipzig are an "obvious abuse of religious freedom."
"We are ready and able to stop this counterrevolutionary action if necessary with weapons in hand," the group was quoted as saying.
The pastor of the Leipzig church where the marches have started, the Rev. Christian Fuehrer, said that despite this threat he will continue the demonstrations and ask other Protestant churches to accommodate overflow crowds that wish to join in prayer services between the marches.
In Dresden, church sources reported that 90 people were injured in Wednesday's riot, the worst in decades. Most suffered head wounds and cuts in clashes with police who charged rock-throwing demonstrators with clubs and water cannon. Half of the injured were police officers.
The sources said the situation in the city remained tense Friday night. About 1,000 people milled in the city center demanding reforms or the right to emigrate.
In West Berlin, meanwhile, Winfried Wok, an executive of the Christian Democratic Union, said in an interview on West German television:
"The political leadership (in East Germany) must understand that with every day that passes without open discussion of the things that trouble us, (it means) that this leadership has lost the moral right to represent the people of East Germany. It is a harsh thing to say but it must be said."
Asked if the leadership should resign, Wok replied: "I don't know if the leaders of the East German government can simply resign. But I think it must be possible to give a sign of a new start, especially on the anniversary of the nation's 40th anniversary."
East Germans are generally more enthusiastic about Gorbachev than about Honecker. Among those waiting for Gorbachev's arrival along the Unter den Linden was a 37-year-old toolmaker who said he had left his home in Halle at 6 a.m. in order to get to Berlin in time to see the Soviet leader.
The East German press carried no information about when and where Gorbachev would appear, but this man waited patiently on a bench across the Unter den Linden from the unknown soldier's memorial. He said he admired Gorbachev for "giving the people more rights, more self-determination and better economic policies."
Asked how he would compare Gorbachev and Honecker, he replied: "Gorbachev is young, he has much more vitality. Honecker has been traveling along a well-trod path."
He said he hoped that Gorbachev "wouldn't be toppled" and would stay in office for a long time.
Nearby, at a sidewalk cafe, sat a young couple from Frankfurt-am-Oder who had also come to Berlin for a glimpse of Gorbachev and the anniversary ceremonies.
The man, a mechanic, said his main complaint against the government was the new restriction on travel to other East Bloc countries.
He said he had been working in Hungary in August but had not taken advantage of the opportunity to flee to the West through Austria because he believed that his situation "was basically good." He said he did not want to leave friends and relations, and that he had "genuine hope to see something change, as in Poland and Hungary."
"It can't be long," he said, "before it happens here."
He said--and his wife nodded assent--that unless the new travel restrictions are lifted, "there could be very much frustration that could lead to the kind of uprising we saw here in 1953," referring to the short-lived rebellion that was triggered by increased Sovietization along with severe food shortages.Copyright © 2015, CT Now