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Remembering the 1991 coup against Gorbachev

August 19, 2021

On August 19,1991, the world held its breath. A coup in Moscow sent ripples through Germany, as well. Christian F. Trippe takes a personal look back at those fateful days.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Berlin in 2014
Gorbachev, it turned out, would surviveImage: Pool/Getty Images/M. Ukas

I used to work as a reporter for a regional television station in Düsseldorf and had prepared a piece about the imminent withdrawal of British troops from Germany. On August 19, a Monday, her Majesty's Armed Forces were to announce at a press conference what was to become of the more than 60 base locations of the British Army of the Rhine.

The Cold War was over. All of Europe was disarming. Barracks were being closed everywhere. In Germany, everyone was looking forward to enjoying the upcoming "peace dividend." That was the mood at the time, just following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Soviet Union was no longer the enemy, and, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, things could only get better — we in Western Europe were quite sure of that. "Gorbi" would finally put an end to the East-West standoff.

British troops had been stationed in West Germany since World War II. They were stationed at bases in Rheindahlen, Herford, Bielefeld, Dortmund and elsewhere.  They arrived as occupation troops and stayed as NATO allies. At the height of the Cold War, there were up to 100,000 soldiers from the United Kingdom stationed in Germany. Many of them brought their families along.

Steinmeier marks Nazi invasion of Soviet Union

Their imminent departure was another step toward a world free of East-West rivalries. But then the phone rang. It was August 19. On the other end of the line was the military's press officer, who said: "Stop Everything. Our withdrawal plans from Germany are suspended. A coup is underway in Moscow. We are even hearing that Gorbachev may be dead." He went on to say that Britain's Cabinet was holding crisis talks at the very moment.

Shortly thereafter, the news agencies were reporting that German Chancellor Helmut Kohl would be cutting short his traditional summer vacation at Lake Wolfgang to return to Bonn immediately.

Soviet Union's 'disintegration'

Years later, Kohl said the coup in Moscow had "not surprised him very much." What was surprising, though, was the timing of it. That evening, the Tagesschau, Germany's premier news broadcast, reported that the chancellor had met with party and parliamentary group leaders to discuss the situation in Moscow. Whenever a crisis cabinet convenes, it is commonplace that the chancellor not only invite government representatives but also the leaders of Germany's opposition parties to the talks.

East Germans in 1989 holding up a picture of their new hero, Mikhail Gorbachev
East Germans foundd a new hero in Gorbachev Image: picture-alliance/Lehtikuva/M. Ulander

At the time, no one was aware just how serious the situation was. But I still remember that many people were worried about Gorbachev's personal well-being — and how great the relief was when the Soviet head of state reappeared in Moscow three days later.

The coup attempt shifted the balance of power within Moscow's political establishment and set a political chain reaction in motion. A few days later, the foreign ministers of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia met in Bonn, the then German capital, with Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. Their common goal: to resume diplomatic relations.  

The people of the Soviet Union, Kohl wrote in his memoirs, "won a great victory for democracy, freedom and justice." But it was also clear to the German government that the coup had accelerated the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which many saw as irreversible, leaving in its wake a long trail of political uncertainties. Genscher spoke in retrospect about his and the chancellor's "concerns about what political, military and economic consequences a disintegration of the Soviet Union might entail." That is why he and Kohl approved Gorbachev's plans to remake the Soviet Union from the ground up, with a renewed treaty. 

Boris Yeltsin stands in front of the Russian flag
Boris Yeltsin became the first president of Russia in 1991 and served until 1999Image: picture-alliance/RIA Nowosti

Gorbachev, then Yeltsin

The referendum calling for a continuation of the Soviet Union failed, and people across Russia got an opportunity to get to know another politician: Boris Yeltsin. They saw him perched on the tank in front of the Russian White House. They saw him standing up to the people behind the coup. What was clear to everyone was that a new political wind was blowing in Moscow.

The coup attempt put Moscow under the political magnifying glass and showed everyone how fragile the country's future was. Old-style Soviet elites clung to the status quo. But, in doing so, they only accelerated what they were hoping to prevent: the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Incidentally, the plans for the withdrawal of British NATO troops from West Germany were then presented to the public a few weeks later.