East Germany and Hungary move toward democracy

On October 18, 1989, the Iron Curtain nations of East Germany and Hungary take significant steps toward ending the communist domination of their countries to replace it with more democratic politics and free market economies. In Hungary, the Communist Party had disbanded on October 7. This action was followed by the razing of the barbed wire fence that had for years separated Hungary from Austria. The destruction of the fence effectively marked the end of the Berlin Wall as an impediment to travel between East and West Germany, since East Germans could now simply travel to Hungary, enter Austria, and go on from there to West Germany. Not surprisingly, the Berlin Wall came down shortly thereafter.

On October 18, the Hungarian constitution was amended to allow a multiparty political system and free elections (which took place in 1990). Many of the state controls over the economy were removed and Hungary moved toward a limited free market system. Meetings of workers, students, and others across the nation issued statements denouncing past “crimes” committed by the communist regime.

The changes were perhaps even more dramatic in East Germany, where on October 18 the nearly 20-year rule of communist strongman Erich Honecker came to an end. Honecker had been the Communist Party General Secretary in East Germany since 1971, and had ruled as head of state since 1976. With vanishing support from the Soviet Union, the effective end of the Berlin Wall (through Hungary’s action), and widespread criticism of his government from the East German population, Honecker fled to the USSR and was replaced by a more reform-minded regime. He later returned to East Germany, where he was tried and convicted of manslaughter in the deaths of East German refugees killed trying to go over the Berlin Wall since its erection in 1961. His sentence was commuted because of his poor health.

Honecker was replaced by Egon Krenz as the Communist Party leader. Krenz enjoyed a good deal of popular support due to his role as a peacemaker in the demonstrations earlier in October. On October 7, only four months after the Tienneman Square massacre in China, Honecker ordered troops to be prepared to open fire on demonstrators in Leipzig. Luckily, Krenz, then in charge of security, arrived in Leipzig two days later to rescind Honecker’s order. Krenz’s attempt to save the party’s image by preventing violence merely allowed the revolution to proceed in a non-violent manner.

The actions in East Germany and Hungary reflected not only the growing dissatisfaction of their citizenry with over 40 years of communist rule, but also the steadily weakening hold of the Soviet Union over its East European satellites.


Why is Germany beefing up its military?


In the face of new challenges, Germany is recommitting itself to the Nato alliance. But what will playing a more central military role mean to a country that has often been accused of reluctance about its armed forces?

It was an unseasonably mild morning as the Sun rose slowly over the training range at Pabrade in Lithuania. This is effectively Nato’s eastern front. Belarus is just a few kilometres away, with Russia beyond.

Lurking just outside the perimeter wire loom several Leopard battle tanks of a German armoured battalion.

So what are the Germans doing here and what is the significance of this deployment for Berlin and for the Atlantic alliance as a whole?

Germany commands the Nato multinational battle group in Lithuania, intended to reassure a small ally in the face of a more assertive and aggressive Russia.

Other countries command similar formations in the two other Baltic states – Estonia and Latvia – and in Poland, the whole mission being known in Nato-speak as an “enhanced forward presence”.

The Nato field headquarters at Pabrade, Lithuania.

Here in Lithuania, Germany is the so-called framework nation, providing the headquarters and a significant proportion of the troops. Other smaller Nato countries also provide troops for the German-led force.

Currently there are contributions from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Norway and the Netherlands. The whole German battle group then forms part of a larger Lithuanian brigade.

What is Nato?

  • Nato stands for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation
  • It is a political and military alliance of 29 countries, including the UK and the United States
  • It was formed in 1949
  • It aims to promote democratic values and for members to “consult and cooperate on defence and security-related issues”
  • If necessary, it allows for the alliance to undertake collective military action
  • This deployment has both a practical and symbolic significance for Germany.

Germany’s Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen says the country must increase its military involvement in Nato.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen told me: “The Lithuanian people can rely on the German forces to protect them, to reassure them, to train with them.”

Lithuanians should feel absolutely certain, she said, that “if 1 sq cm of Nato territory is attacked, we will all stand together to defend it”.

That is the goal of the “enhanced forward presence” strategy in a nutshell. But Germany was not always so eager to put itself forward in military matters. Revulsion at the horrors of Germany’s Nazi past fostered a deep mistrust of militarism and the military.

But, to a large extent, attitudes have been changing. The German military was engaged in Nato’s Kosovo operation and played a significant role in Afghanistan. But it was Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its wider military intervention in eastern Ukraine that really began to shift German opinion.

Ms Leyen summed up the change like this: “Nowadays, having a large political relevance, being a certain economic power, we cannot shy away anymore. We have to say, because of our history, we have to get involved.”

Germany volunteered to be one of the framework nations for the enhanced forward presence plan. It commands one of the deployed battle groups, along with the UK, Canada, and the US.

But this is only a prelude to a larger Nato role. On 25 October, Nato’s major exercise Trident Juncture 18 kicks off in Norway.

This, the alliance’s biggest exercise since 2002, will be an opportunity for German forces in particular to show their capabilities before they assume the command of the Alliance’s Very High-Readiness Joint Task Force in 2019. For that year, German forces will be at the tip of Nato’s spear.

Trident Junction 18 in numbers

  • more than 40,000 participants
  • 31 nations (all 29 Nato members, Finland and Sweden)
  • 130 aircraft
  • 70 naval vessels
  • more than 10,000 vehicles
  • 1.8 million meals, 4.6 million bottles of water, 660 tonnes of laundry

But does Germany have the military means at its disposal to fulfil the new roles it is taking on?

Over recent years, the German press has paraded a litany of stories about the inadequacies of Germany’s armed forces: submarines and aircraft that were not operational, shortages of personnel and spare parts and so on.

In the wake of the Cold War, Germany’s armed forces were essentially hollowed out and maintained at well below full strength.

With the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House this became not just a military problem but a diplomatic one too. He pressed all Nato allies to spend more. They ultimately agreed a defence spending goal for each country, that some 2% of its gross domestic product (GDP) – the value of all the goods and services it produces – should go on defence.

German spending was well below this figure and, given its economic strength, it came in for particular criticism from Washington.

Ms Leyen has battled to increase German defence spending, with some success. More money is going to the armed forces but there are still political differences within the ruling coalition as to exactly how much is needed.

Though Germany has adopted the new spending target, it is not going to get there any time soon. Even if Ms Leyen’s plans are realised, Germany will be spending only about 1.5 % of GDP on defence by 2024.

Nonetheless, the shift in Germany’s defence thinking is significant. It’s a measure of the twin shocks of Vladimir Putin’s assertiveness and Donald Trump’s apparent questioning of the utility of Nato and the whole liberal order of which it is a part.


Norway apologizes to war-time ‘German girls’

Norway has apologized to women and their descendants ostracized after World War Two for coupling or having children with occupying German soldiers. Prime Minister Erna Solberg said Norwegian reprisals were “shameful.”

Solberg said the estimated 50,000 women labelled “German girls,” who had or were suspected of having intimate wartime relations with Nazi troops, ended up marked “for the rest of their lives.”

Seven decades later, most have since died. After Norway’s liberation in 1945, reprisals inflicted included job dismissals, detentions, expulsions and removal of nationality.

“For many, this was just teenage love, for some, the love of their lives,” said Solberg Wednesday, adding that their treatment breached the principle that no citizen should be punished outside the court system.

The prime minister delivered the government apology at an event to mark the 70th anniversary of the UN’s universal declaration of human rights.

Neutral Norway was occupied from April 1940 by more than 300,000 German soldiers.

SS chief Heinrich Himmler encouraged German troops to partner and breed with local women. It was part of Nazi Germany’s white supremacist agenda that also led to the establishment of a “Lebensborn” reproduction center in Norway in 1941.

In 2000, Norway formally apologized to the estimated 10,000 to 12,000 children who also suffered reprisals because they were the offspring of Norwegian mothers and German soldiers.

Many were placed in host families or special institutions and later battled for compensation.

German girls were treated shamefully, says Solberg.

Late but important

Reidar Gabler, the son of a Norwegian woman who was expelled in 1945 along with her German husband, told the Aftenposten newspaper that apology delivered by Solberg had come late but said it was” important for history.”

“The people directly affected are no longer with us… but this also touches their families and the children,” Gabler said.

Historian Guri Hjeltnes presented a study on Norway’s post-war treatment of various groups.

None of the 28 Norwegian men married to German women during the war were subsequently expelled or deprived of their nationality, she said.

“We cannot say women who had personal relations with German soldiers were helping the German war effort,” said Hjeltnes. “Their only crime was breaking the unwritten rules.”


October 18, 1977

The Lufthansa plane which had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists on October 13 is taken by commandos and the passengers are freed. Lufthansa Flight 181 was a Boeing 737-230 Adv aircraft named Landshut, hijacked on 13 October 1977 by 4 militants who called themselves Commando Martyr Halime. On October 18, the aircraft was stormed by the West German counter-terrorism group GSG 9 in Mogadishu, Somalia and all 86 passengers rescued. The rescue operation was codenamed Feuerzauber (German term for “Fire Magic”). The objective of the Lufthansa hijacking was to secure the release of imprisoned Red Army Faction leaders and is considered to be part of the German Autumn.


German intelligence foiled 2016 Islamic State terror attack


Intelligence officials in Germany thwarted a 2016 attack that was planned by the “Islamic State” militant group. A couple who traveled to Syria was said to be trying to send teams of militants back to Germany.

Three teams of “Islamic State” (IS) terrorists were to have traveled to Germany in 2016 to prepare for and carry out a devastating attack — with the target possibly a music festival.

A man, Oguz G., and woman, Marcia M., who traveled to Syria in autumn 2015 to join IS were to have played a central role in the attack.

From IS’ then-de facto capital of Raqqa, Marcia M. — who was herself a convert to Islam — tried to recruit women in northern Germany to marry IS members so that they could be granted permission to enter Germany. However, one of the women who was contacted was an informant for Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), who alerted authorities.

Details of the case emerged after an investigation by the German broadcasters ARD and WDR, as well as the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Zeit newspapers. The case was confirmed by the German Federal Prosecutor’s Office.

“We learned of the attack plan, so we were able to able to initiate criminal proceedings in October 2016,” Public Prosecutor General Peter Frank told ARD. “For us, the facts in the case were very concrete and also credible.”

In Kurdish custody

The plans were foiled both as a result of the investigation and the purging of IS from areas that it once occupied. Zeit reported that the couple handed themselves in to Kurdish authorities in October 2017. Since then, they have been held in detention in northern Syria.

There, reporters interviewed Oguz G., who is reported to come from the German city of Hildesheim, in the northern state of Lower Saxony. He claimed to have become embroiled in the attack plan accidentally and to have tried to get out of the situation once he found out about it.

The plot is thought to have been initiated by a high-ranking IS official with the combat name Abu Mussab al Almani, possibly referring to Swiss Islamist militant Thomas C., who died in fighting in Syria.