It could not continue. Someone in the Kremlin
would wake up. Or one of the Kremlin's stooges, Milos Jakes in Prague, Janos Kadar in
Budapest, Erich Honecker in East Berlin, would fight back. War loomed. Nester could feel
its approach, and in his worst moments of irrationality, he felt that only his vigilance
could keep it at bay; if war broke out, a demon voice whispered, he alone would bear the
Late summer had been tense. In August, Gorbachev had called up the head of the Polish
United Workers Party and told him, in so many words, to let the anti-Communist opposition
take power; the opposition leader fainted as he was being sworn in. Meanwhile, instead of
going on vacation, thousands of East Germans decided to obtain West German passports. They
flooded West German embassies in Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia, vaulting over
walls, begging for help, until the embassies had to shut down. In May, the Hungarians had
begun to dismantle the barbed wire and barricades along their border with Austria, and
since then, East Germans on holiday had been sneaking over it. One day, two hundred of
them went on a picnic near the border. When no one was looking, they hoisted up their
picnic baskets and crossed into the West.
In September, the Hungarians made it official. They opened the border, and East
Germans began to spill out by the thousands.
Now, in early November, West Berlin had filled with refugees, waiting for something. What
did they know that Nester had not? What had made them so sure it was time to leave their
A mere month ago, in October, on the fortieth anniversary of the founding of East Germany,
the East German dictator, Erich Honecker, had lifted a glass of red wine between clenched
fingers and toasted the friendship of the Soviets and the East Germans against his will.
In private, Gorbachev had already told Honecker he must reform his government or depart,
just as he had told the Pole. The Soviet leader had grown tired of these dinosaurs. They
had embarrassed him with their antiquated forms of repression for the last time.
Consequently, Honecker's toast had been one of utter despair, as if the old revolutionist
had been lifting a cup of his own blood to drink.
Nester had watched this moment with rising panic. On television, Honecker's voice had been
timid. His words, for the very first time Nester could ever remember, dripped fear. At
that very moment, outside the walls of the congenitally ugly Palace of the Republic,
television cameras had shown in the darkness of East Berlin a small gathering of
dissidents, two thousand or so, calling for their savior "Gorbi." They seemed
harmless enough, but under the circumstances, of course, they weren't. They challenged the
very foundation of the state, just as the students in Tiananmen Square had done, and the
police descended on them with truncheons. That night, the representatives of the East
German people, das Volk, scattered like rats, but the day after Gorbachev went
home, they returned, seventy thousand of them in Leipzig alone. Did the Soviet leader have
any idea what he had unleashed?
Nester needed no more proof Civil war would descend. The horror of his own immediate
experience in the Box felt like a foretaste of it, the first clean outbreak of fire,
blood, and terror. After Gorbachev's departure, after those first demonstrations, the
dictator Honecker had wanted to kill the agitators. He had wanted to send in the tanks,
like the Chinese, but his own followers ousted him instead.
Now they must be having a change of heart. Ever since they had dumped Honecker, as October
gave way to November, as the demonstrations swelled, as one half of the East German
population rose against them in disgust and the other half abandoned the country for the
West, these men too must have seen the sense in bloodshed. Nester was certain of it. To
keep power, they would have to shoot their people, and when they did, the Soviets, with
their hundreds of thousands of troops surrounding the two Berlins, would return their
fire. Gorbachev's credibility with the West depended upon it.
That's how it would begin, this war. The seeds had been sown with Monday-night
demonstrations following Gorbachev's visit. Hundreds of thousands of people had occupied
the streets of Leipzig, Halle, and Dresden, bearing candles, waving banners, and singing
"The Internationale" in the darkness. Hadn't World War II begun with Nazi
parades, with mass demonstrations, long before Hitler's troops invaded Poland? Crowds were
a prefiguration of armies, nothing more. His father disagreed, of course. When Nester told
him that in the little city of Suhl, East Germany, a crowd of thirty thousand had sung
"We Shall Overcome," his father had replied, "There's a step in the right
direction, son. Even you can't deny it." With great respect, Nester had ventured to
correct him: "We're talking about Europe, Daddy. Dr. King would have been shot before
he ever reached Selma."
Copyright © 1998 by John Marks
Greatful acknowledgment is made to the author for permission granted.
by John Marks