This Tremendous Week in European History, 9-15 November, 1989   Leave a comment

The Fall of the Wall in Berlin

By the Ninth of November the forty-year-old German Democratic Republic (DDR) was on the verge of total disintegration. Egon Krenz, who had replaced Erich Honecker as its leader just a month previously, had finally decided to bow to the inevitable when, on that day, his government announced that, effective the next day, exit visas would be granted automatically to all citizens wishing to visit the west. For some time afterwards, no one knew who gave the order for this announcement to be made. It was given in a most extraordinary way at the end of a press conference given by Günter Schabowski, the general secretary of the Communist Party (SED) in East Berlin and a member of Krenz’s Politburo and the Central Committee’s secretary for the media. He had a reputation as a straightforward, honest man.  He wasn’t scared to go onto the streets after the fall of Honecker to argue for the unpopular policies of the SED with ordinary people, just as Gorbachev had done in Moscow. Shortly before 7 p.m. on 9 November he gave a press conference to announce the latest decisions of the Council of Ministers. Much of it dealt with the new philosophy of the Party. It was now accepted, he said, that the DDR was a pluralist society. There were also some details about the forthcoming Party conference.

Schabowski came to the end of these announcements and there was an awkward pause during which the three hundred journalists sitting there became restless. He whispered something to the person sitting next to him, and shuffled his papers. The man next to him leaned over and a piece of paper appeared in Schabowski’s hand.  He read from it slowly and hesitantly:

This will be interesting for you: today the decision was taken to make it possible for all citizens to leave the country through the official border crossing points. All citizens of the DDR can now be issued with visas for the purposes of travel or visiting relatives in the West. This order is to take effect at once.

Everyone started talking at once. A correspondent from DDR radio stood up and asked for more details. Schabowski had used the expression unverzüglich (at once, immediately); when precisely did that mean? It just means straightaway, he replied. Schabowski admitted later, after he had left office in December, that he had had the piece of paper all along, but had somehow misplaced it among the rest of his sheaf, and that it was only when he tidied this at the end that he found the note, which was one of the decisions reached by the politburo that afternoon, typed up, which he had intended to read first, but ended up reading after Any Other Business. There was therefore no miracle or magic involved in its mysterious delivery, just a slight cock-up on his part! The decision had been made by the full politburo that afternoon, in response to the anger building up in East German society over the inequitous rules governing permission to visit the West. Schabowski stated that they had wanted to make it clear, in plain language, that if people wanted to visit the West, they could. Full stop. There would need to be some kind of transitional visa system, because most people did not have passports, but they were trying to introduce a western-style passport control. However, the decision to make this immediately effective, in order to end the perceived inequities of the way the current system operated, also effectively meant the end of the Wall. Schabowski stated that no one at the meeting had seemed to realise this:

No one realised. No one said anything like that. No one really thought about the result. We knew we had to take this step. As to its leading to the end of the DDR, none of us expected that at all. And I have to say that none of the opposition groups in the country expected it either. We hoped, quite simply, that this measure would create a better DDR, more open human rights and so on. We thought the wall was stable, I must say.

In its way, then, the sudden announcement was a kind of miracle, because without the immediate opening of the crossing points, the impact of the breaching of the wall would have been less. That night, crowds began to gather at eight crossing points in Berlin. The first news that people could pass freely and immediately to the West had been broadcast on the East German television news bulletin at 7.30 p.m. The pictures of Schabowski’s celebrated news conference had been broadcast, but there was little explanation.  The TV station’s switchboard had been jammed by callers trying to find out more, but all the director of news could do was to repeat Scabowski’s announcement at regular intervals throughout the evening. Soon it was also being broadcast on West German TV and people in East Berlin were continually switching between the two. As more and more arrived at the checkpoints, curious to see what was really happening at the wall itself, they were still skeptical and suspicious; after all, nearly two hundred people had been shot trying to cross the wall that had divided the city for twenty-eight years.

The border guards on duty that night had never seen such crowds and were uncertain what to do. They called their headquarters but received no clear instructions. At first they insisted that everyone must have a valid visa stamped in their identity cards and that this could only be obtained from their local police station, before they could depart the following day. People demanded the right to cross that night; why did they have to wait for visas? However, at the less crowded checkpoints, by 9.30 p.m., some couples had been allowed through without a visa on the condition that they returned through the same check-point that night. At first a few more wary couples and individuals passed through, but soon the trickle became a flood of people moving towards the check-points. The guards were letting people through very slowly, checking their identity cards. A big crowd built up and from time to time there was chanting.  But as the numbers grew, the situation was in danger of erupting into disorder, especially when guards began pouring out of buildings by the dozen. However, rather than charging the crowd, they removed the concrete obstacles in the road and opened the gates. allowing the bottle-neck to surge through, surging forward, ten abreast.  As thousands poured into West Berlin, through the Berlin Wall, for a taste of freedom, the Western Berliners came out onto the streets on their side of the wall to welcome and cheer the Easterners. They offered cups of coffee, glasses of champagne, flowers and West German Marks. Families, long divided by the wall, were reunited, and complete strangers hugged each other as well. At Checkpoint Charlie one elderly woman came through the gate in slippers and night-clothes, with a coat over the top, explaining that her daughter had telephoned to tell her that she could come to West Berlin to see them.

As the crowds gathered at the Wall, where it started to bulge out in semi-circle to take in the area round the Brandenburg Gate, two young men in their early twenties vaulted over the low railings and stood beside it. One made a stirrup of his hands and launched the other upwards. Fingers scrabbled until he found a purchase. He got to his knees, then stood, the raised his arms over his head, fists clenched. The crowd roared. A new Germany and a new Europe, for good or ill, was being born.

Hundreds of people began standing, sitting, squatting, dancing on top of the Wall, and went on celebrating all night. Over the next days, using hammers, chisels and any other tools and makeshift implements that came to hand, people began to chip away at the ugly concrete barrier that snaked through the city. People power triumphed, and over the next year, bit by bit, the symbol of the cold war was almost totally demolished.

 

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Pictures of the breaching of the Wall were carried live on satellite television and seen around the world. Everywhere people were moved to tears by the emotional scenes unfolding in Berlin. However, in the White House, when the reporters and TV crews were permitted into the Oval Office to record President Bush’s reaction, he told them that, though very pleased, he was not an emotional kinda guy. He didn’t want to dance on the wall, as he feared that might provoke resistance to Gorbachev in Moscow. He was right. In private, Gorbachev was far from enthusiastic over the tumbling down of the wall. Gerasimov described the event as a positive and important fact in line with socialist development in the Soviet Union. But historic realities were coming home to roost, as the dust from the fall of the wall settled. The prospect of German reunification, and of Germany once more becoming an economic and political giant at the heart of Europe, filled the Soviet President with anxiety. Moscow did not want to lose East Germany as a strategic ally by watching it being integrated into Western Europe.

Americans were disappointed by Bush’s apparent lack of enthusiasm, since every president since Kennedy had called for the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Polls showed that ninety per cent of the US public thought it was exciting and encouraging to see it actually happening. Critics accused Bush of failing to rise to the occasion and Richard Gephardt, the House leader, commented: Even as the walls of the modern Jericho come tumbling down, we have a president who is inadequate to the moment. Privately, however, Bush showed greater enthusiasm to his aides, telling them that if the Soviets are going to let the Communists fall in East Germany, they’ve got to be really serious – more serious than I realised. But Gorbachev wrote to Bush and the other Western leaders emphasizing the Soviet Union’s vital interests in the future of Germany, and that events needed to be handled carefully and slowly to prevent events from spinning out of control. As President Bush told his staff when he read this, the guy’s really upset! 

The Stasi, the much-hated secret police force was disbanded. Krenz was replaced as premier by Communist reformer Hans Modrow, and the Volkskammer, or parliament, renounced the leading role of the Communist Party, beginning to expose the corruption and brutality of the Honecker regime. East Germany seemed to be moving steadily towards reunification, but the Soviets continued to oppose this for several more months.

Sources:

John Simpson (1990), Dispatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Transworld Publishers

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