“Who was Egon Krenz?”

November 11, 2019 • 10:00 am

by Greg Mayer

Egon Krenz was the last General Secretary of the East German Communist Party. He comes to mind today, the 101st anniversary of the end of the First World War (Veterans Day in the US), as the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall is also being widely commemorated.  A relaxed immigration policy was announced on November 9, 1989; East German border guards, without clear orders, and after some hesitation, decided to open the gates, and the wall soon came down.

As the Communist regime disintegrated in 1989, there was a shuffling of leaders in a desperate attempt to stave off the Party’s loss of power. Krenz was a deputy of Erich Honecker, the previous General Secretary, and was elevated to the Secretaryship in October, 1989, when his boss and mentor was removed. The Party hoped that Krenz, in the face of demonstrations throughout East Germany, could reimpose order.

I was paying close attention to the news from Germany at the time, and my sharpest memory is of a sign held up by one of the demonstrators who greeted Krenz as he assumed office. It read, in English, “Who was Egon Krenz?” The sign captured perfectly the sense of the time: the inevitability of the fall of Communism, the ineffectualness of attempts to save it, the newly realized (or hoped for) invulnerability of the demonstrators, the ultimate insignificance of Krenz as an historical footnote, and the knowledge that the world was watching.

A demonstration in Berlin, 4 November 1989. “Großmutter” (who is actually, of course, the Big Bad Wolf in disguise) is a caricature of Krenz. Krenz was in office for less than two months.

I have searched for, but been unable to find an image showing that sign, although images of demonstrators holding signs (such as the one above, from a UC-Santa Barbara history course) are easy to find. A common slogan at the time was “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people”), and, as a call for German unification, “Wir sind ein Volk” (“We are one people”). A sign I just found that is almost as good as “Who was Egon Krenz?” is “Keinen Ego(n)ismus“!