Refugees Freedom Train

Freedom Train As thousands of its citizens flee to the West, East Germany celebrates a bitter 40th birthday

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The timing of Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to East Germany could not have been more awkward. On the 40th anniversary of the country's founding as a separate socialist state, the government in East Berlin found itself utterly humiliated. Like storm-besieged dikes, the borders of the country had sprung one leak after another, and thousands of refugees were pouring out. The routine anniversary visit threatened to turn into another diplomatic nightmare for the Soviet President, fraught with the kind of tensions and prodemocracy demonstrations that marred his trip to China last spring. It was Gorbachev's message of change, after all, that had largely inspired the freedom flight.

But through a combination of cautious diplomacy on Gorbachev's part and careful crowd control by his hosts, the two-day visit went off without any major embarrassments. Arriving at Schonefeld Airport on Friday, the Soviet leader was greeted with enthusiastic cries of "Gorbi! Gorbi!" but the reception remained calm. About 3,000 people gathered the next day in Alexanderplatz to demand government reform, the biggest such demonstration in East Berlin since 1953, but again the police managed to control the crowd. Officials were less successful in keeping the lid on demonstrations outside the capital: in Dresden and Leipzig violent clashes between protesters and police continued throughout the weekend.

In public statements Gorbachev walked a fine line between encouraging reform and offering support for Erich Honecker, East Germany's aged and embattled leader. Wading into a crowd with characteristic aplomb, the Soviet visitor urged patience. "Don't panic. Don't get depressed. We'll go on fighting together for socialism." He made a strong show of solidarity with Honecker, standing shoulder to shoulder with him as they reviewed a torchlight parade. When he alluded to the current crisis in a televised address, Gorbachev took pains to be circumspect. "We know our German friends well," he said. "We know their ability to think creatively, to learn from life and to make changes when necessary."

But those measured words came too late for the East Germans who had already opted to make a run for a better life in the West. Last week alone some 8,200 fled, raising the total number of refugees over the past five months to 50,000. Some jumped at the opportunity without a moment's hesitation, others agonized over it. "We talked about it way into the night for days on end," said Christiane Weinbauer of Halle, who joined the exodus with her husband last week. "One minute we had decided to go, and the next we were staying for the sake of our relatives or the children or for reasons of security. Then we heard on a West German radio station that the people in the embassy in Prague were being taken to the West. It was Saturday night. We stayed up talking again, and by early morning we were packing. We had finally made up our minds."

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