The 1987 summit between West-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and East-German leader Erich Honecker in Bonn was criticized as a “victory for Honecker” by conservative West-German media.
Honecker had been invited years before by the previous West-German government, and Kohl had renewed the invitation. Honecker had long wanted to accept, but couldn’t get permission from Moscow. Though the GDR-government was increasingly more closed and inflexible in political and ideological terms than their Soviet overlords themselves, the latter interestingly still feared the potential of a cultural familiarity. Who knows, they must have wondered in Moscow, what Germans might talk with Germans in German across the global dividing line of the Iron Curtain?
When Honecker eventually got the green light from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the concerns grew on the western side. Would the protocol of a state visit, with the two German anthems played, the two German flags hoisted next to one another, not finally seal the division? And was a recognition and perpetual coexistence of two separate German states not Honecker’s ultimate goal?
To give the state dinner some adequately bitter flavor, Kohl toasted that “the Wall literally stands in our way and appalls us,” to which Honecker toasted back that “capitalism and socialism, like fire and water, are not to be mixed and must be separated for world peace.”
Was the enormous attention suddenly paid to Honecker, the authoritarian ruler of an economically run-down and increasingly isolated half-country, not inappropriate? Hardly any West-German politician, cultural figure or business leader wanted to miss the photo opportunity for a handshake with the veteran communist.
And Honecker’s new popularity, in a way, reached stardom thanks to West-German plain-talk rocker Udo Lindenberg. His 1983 song “Special Train to Pankow,” personally dedicated to “Honni,” had become the underground anthem of the GDR. When they finally met in 1987, some said the real summit was not between Kohl and Honecker but between “Udo and Honni.”
And that’s where the conservatives got it wrong. Let dictators look “human” -- it won’t boost their authority!
We Germans started meeting each other again during the 1980s. It was around the time of the summit when my family, living on the western side of the border, felt safe enough for a day trip to the GDR. And guess what we realized: “Socialism” and “capitalism” had become vain ideologies to justify the unbearable human separation. We might have different opinions about the acceptability of inequalities -- but we all want freedom, fun and life without fear.
We don’t have to say it too loudly that Honecker, of course, was no winner. When I saw the border break open two years after the summit, I didn’t feel the victory of one side. I felt the triumph of humanity over inhuman forces.
From Michael Bergmann
German citizen living in Seoul