November 9th, the Fall of the Berlin Mauer (Part II of II)
Can one man´s error, or his carelessness, change history? A lesson in the power of the simple mistake.
“Did the Wall fall because it was totally foul? Was it given an outside push or two? And did that downfall represent, as most people would like to remember it, the glorious revolution of a folk yearning for freedom – or is the matter more complicated?”
Such are questions that Victor Grossman (bottom of page for link and a short bio) raised in an article published in 2014 at the time of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He stressed rightfully that they remain legitimate and I would like to add still valid today. (Too) many people continue to believe that President Reagan´s very mediatic rhetoric strong-armed the government of the USSR to give in to the “Freedom made in the USA”.
However, nothing is ever quite so simple on the old continent as Mr. Grossman´s own life. But I would like to start with a quote from George Orwell as old as the separation of the two Germanys. It surely remains more than ever contemporary of our world:
“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
I hope that you will enjoy this article and find within a new insight on the true story of the Berlin Wall and its end. As any end, it also marked a new beginning, possibly the one of the era in which we have been living over the past quarter of a century. The question that we should all ask ourselves is if we have already left behind the legacy of the Wall´s fall, if we have forgotten the expressions of joy and genuine emancipation, and as man often does, we are now coming around to enter a new Cold War era…
The drop of the first domino that will send ripples across the politically homogeneous Soviet block
It is irrefutable that the fall of the wall symbolizes a certain notion of a recovered freedom for the capital of Germany, more generally Germany and to a larger extent Europe.
Germany was reunited to its former glorious size a year later. Another one later, in 1991, quite the opposite happened when the Union of the Soviets disintegrated and the Red Empire was partitioned in more or less wealthy oligarchic republics. The collapse of this latest and most massive domino piece was the end of a line of countries which however did not start in Berlin and, in spite of demonstrations in major towns of the GDR (´Montagsdemonstratieren´) such as Leipzig, did not even begin within the border of Germany but instead in the Central European states of Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
1989 is remembered for the photos of the baffled Eastern militia-men or, across the proportionally small wall, the enthusiasm of the occidental´Mauerpeckers´. But before celebrations poured into the streets of Berlin, other Eastern countries were first rocked by their own movements of liberation. With the erosion of the Soviet political grip, the authoritarian governments of most countries of the Red block, such as Hungary or Poland, were themselves confronted by the popular pressure for new and often very radical changes.
Many Americans, and Western Europeans alike, still believe that the speech of Ronald Reagan in June 1987 before the Brandenburg gate of Berlin, which culminated with the slogan “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” led to the destruction of the Wall. Below is an actual extract of Mr. Reagan’s speech.
“We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!
I wonder how many Eastern Germans, who later found themselves struggling for employment, standards of living, and let´s not be afraid to tell, contempt and snobbery from their counterparts of West of the border who had drunk, laughed, danced and sung with them on the night of November 9th, ever re-read these words. If they did, they must have done so with much cynicism and it is logical that the same sarcasm persists nowadays although it has since spread to pretty much all lower and middle class worker who are coping with the weight of their bureaucracy under the influence of the capitalists of Wall street. The endless debate between the shades of tyranny remains. Whether by the Politburo or the bankers and their compliant (Euro-bureaucratic) servants, only the motives vary.
“When one with honeyed words but evil mind persuades the mob, great woes befall the state” Euripides.
But the fact is that the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR and the offspring in the Eastern bloc of Europe under Soviet influence, were the true measures that prepared the sudden events of the Autumn of 1989. So, which event made for the first domino?
It is certain that discontentment had simmered for quite a while (most likely encouraged by the US, NATO and the EU which all had much to gain in an enlarged market space). But it is in August of the same 1989 year that a significant event took place and can be said to have influenced directly the fall of the Wall (from 19-6-1), some three months later.
When Hungary loosened its border with Austria, it did not just affect the local Hungarian people. A month later, more than 13,000 Eastern Germans, posing as tourists, attempted to flee the Soviet sphere of influence. Some may note that such figure (in only 5 small digits) is rather low in perspective to the migration flux that Europe has endured in the last three years. At the time, and even though these ´escaping tourists´ were merely intra-European migrants, they were judged to be relevant enough to prevent more of them from crossing into Austria. They were turned back but refused to return to GDR. Instead, they lined up in front of the gates of the West German embassy in Budapest. In response, their government forbade new travels to Hungary and allowed the return of its stranded citizens.
The Hungarian route was the first but not the last country to open, more or less loosely to the West. Soon, the same happened in Czechoslovakia. However, this time, the authorities of the GDR did not oppose people from leaving provided that they used specific train routes.
The second piece of the domino chain falls with a shout in Leipzig
In Germany though, one of the most surprising aspect of the events that lead to the fall of the Wall was their sudden and spontaneous genesis as well as the quickness of their succession in the course of the late summer and early autumn 1989, for a time which can easily be reduced to the only months of September and October. It was easy then for most casual observers to miss most of the signs that shook to wakening the lethargically intransigent regime of the GDR. Imagine yourself leaving for month of holiday in October and returning to see explosive demonstrations of jubilance on both sides of the wall instead of the normally frozen-in-time and subdued Eastern Germany.
Indeed, two months are merely blink in the timescale history, the unexpected and abrupt surge of an opportunistic wind, a short-lived tornado of impetuosity that landed traveled from city to city to finally land its climax in the heart of Berlin where it ripped the long standing, although weakened, Iron curtain and sweep off the old regimes installed since WWII, more than 40 years before. It is an even shorter time if we considered that it later accelerated the process of Perestroika and finally the dismantlement of the ideological institution and Soviet power inherited from the revolution of 1917, more than 70 years earlier.
Another exceptional, and for some observers, a pioneering feature of the way Germany woke and tore off that scab running across its old Capital (though not the administrative one for the Western Germany at the time) in the Autumn of 1989, was how the world press discovered, covered and to some extent influenced the dramatic changes of mentality in a country which had been out of sight for decades. Crucially, it is how its presence backstage, as a corroborator or as a catalyst, passively reporting from a distance or at the heart of the commotion, provided the necessary support to galvanize the people´s confidence in their revolt and encouraged the temerity of the few to rise above their fears and the only system that they had ever known. Finally, as you will later read, the unusual story behind the abdication of the GDR´s governing party to the will of the crowds may have never been if an unremarkable question from a media had not seeded chaos within its ranks. In the end, the people´s reactions made the news but it was their reports that spun the next action as far as opening the gates of the Wall.
But back to our story. Since August, in the largest cities of the GDR, the border ´air calls´ had blown on those embers of disillusion which had been dormant for a long and patient time. In spite of their occasional brutal repression by the authorities, by the end of October 1989, mass protests became regular in the socialist state. The first major one did not rise in Berlin. Nonetheless, it would be key in launching the more decisive series of developments that would take place over the next month to finally crack open the 28 years old cement of the wall. This initial wave would tripper others in a ripple effect that would finally crash against the emblematic expression of a border before the cameras of the world.
The first of several significant protests took place exactly a month earlier, on Oct. 9th, 1989, in Leipzig. The social stirring in this provincial city of Saxony may have been physically remote from Berlin but it represented an obligatory step on the path to pushing the Wall down. There, as anywhere else in the GDR, and despite the reforms introduced in the Soviet Union, which were diffusing convincingly throughout the rest of the ´Red´ side of Europe, the Eastern German regime remained adamant to keep a firm grip on its population, gradually more defiant in the context of a period when it sensed that even the imperious ruling of the USSR was supportive of their demands for changes. In fact, some signs carried slogan directly addressed to M. Gorbatchev whose Glasnost had recently sowed a whole new harvest of hopes across most countries frozen by the Stalinist expansion (”Gorbi, Hilf uns!” – Gorbi, help us). Regardless of the resistance of their own government, the social marches would be repeated until they would become part of a weekly fixed schedule, every Monday night. They were called the´Montagsdemonstratieren´.
Unlike the bloody days of the repression of 1953, they went on peacefully, initiated at first by the voice of the more vocals Eastern Germans eager to go West: “Wir wollen raus!” (We want out). They were soon responded by another clamor from those who did not seek a new country but changes in their native Germany, “Wir bleiben hier!” (We stay here). These ´Peaceful Revolutions´, as they were sometimes labelled, culminated on November 4th, not even a week before the wall came down, at the Alexander Platz of Berlin where half a million people came together to demand changes.
Although the predictability of the Montagsdemonstratieren facilitated their organization and the gathering of larger crowds, it also set the stage to organize their repression by the police forces. All the conditions were met for a large scale showdown of wills between the 8,000 available troops and the tens of thousands of protesters. The demonstration of October 9th could have taken a very different and ugly turn. The government who refused to hear of any change, even of the easing steps suggested by the Moscow of M. Gorbachev, was intent on suppressing the protest. But they had not counted on two significant factors: the determined mobilization of the people, well beyond the early protesters, and their grasp of the importance of the eagerness of the Western media to cover the movements that stirred in the guts Eastern Germany.
The system was well prepared, confident, over-confident. Strength and communication over the state media were both on their side for the expected evening of October 9th (“A brotherhood of man, imagine all the people… it’s easy if you try… to fantasize that John Lennon may have joined in on his birthday). It was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate its authority and suppress for good the next temptations of rising up against its dictate. Opposed to the lines of armed militarized police who had been instrumental to hold their country in nearly complete lock-down for the greater part of half a century, the dissidents had no intention to walk away nor to be silenced with violence unless they could make it worth it. They had already planned to film the manifestation and send the tapes to the West where they were certain to gain further support to their cause, above all else Freiheit.
However, for both the antagonistic sides, the night did not however turn out as they had quite anticipated. The initial success was in the number of protesters that showed up. In a city of half a million inhabitants, the 100,000 people who gathered invited the security forces to stand down. It was beyond the most optimistic hopes of the leaders of the movements. The second achievement was that the recorded night, after being secretly smuggled to the media of West Germany, was seen by most Germans, including the many Ossies who could receive the TV channels from across the border. The images showed the amplitude of the movement, the passivity of the government police, and, encouragingly, that protests were slowly less objectionable than they used to be.
The third domino knocked over by Mr. Schabowski
How far the domino chain would have gone, how long would the Wall have resisted, if someone had not blundered and knocked over in a single sweep of casualness, in just two words, ´Ab sofort´, the stiff but somewhat fragile balance of the Eastern German regime?
The irony about the fall of the Wall and against the emotional images of the triumphant popular pressure is that the collapse of this symbol of the post-war bipolar world was caused, or at the very least hastened, by the error of a single man, a bureaucratic blunder in a country suffocated by its flawless, over-regulated and impermeable administration.
You may ask how the mistake of one man´s negligence can take down the focal point of all efforts of repression, a barrier which had withstood all provocations, evasions, political arm-wrestling, diplomatic attempts and military stand-offs. Well, to put it as simple as possible, his speech was the spark that lighted to fuse of the powder barrel of discontentment which had built into restlessness since the summer and the early signs of disengagement of the Glasnost.
The man that we can thank for such a formidable gaffe, without which the fall of the Wall may not have been avoided, but, on the other hand, may have resisted and, we can speculate, may have discouraged over time the rising population with further potential threats of brutality, was Günther Schabowski, a rather unknown figure until that night, a member and new PR man for the Eastern German Politburo.
The second occasion the world press was given the opportunity to cover the disruption across the limit of the wall and its extension across the European continent with a political Iron curtain, and, to some degree, to influence the next events, by spreading the man´s word in the matter of minutes, was on the night of November 9th in the still divided Berlin. Coincidentally, it was also the anniversary of the major Nazi pogrom against Jews known as “Kristallnacht”. But the date was about to become known for another more pacific and liberating crisis, triggered from an unassuming press conference which aim was to answer the curiosity of the world about the impact in the GDR of the changes that were already taking place in other neighboring Eastern European countries. The encounter with the media was intended to announce the necessary but minor adjustments conceived by the ruling Party in the travel regulations of its citizens, frustrated in Hungary and still very restricted at home. The PR stunt was a gesture but little more, a step in the right direction although a small one, a show of good intention with a cheap and inconsequential price tag.
History on such a scale, one which can affect the world´s dynamics and destroy symbols, and along with them their tenacious regime, is not supposed to depend on a mistake or the actions of one man, neglectful, careless or simply tired. It is usually the outcome of conflicts, the changes of greater decisive men, the end score of grand duels… In reality Mr. Schabowski´s mistake may have gone unnoticed, and may have been trivial, if only the conference had not been attended by some of the world most prominent media and moreover if it had not been televised live. But given the circumstances and the audience, a single reply from the newly nominated, obscure and caught off-guard face of the Party to an innocuous question instead sent the attending journalists rushing out of the room.
But as it played out, in a pre-internet time, the man´s blunder opened the Wall which only rare men had crossed successfully since its construction and none, even the most influential men of the two opposed nuclear powers of the bipolar world, had managed to scratch. The improbable PR representative, Günter Schabowski broke unknowingly into the history of the Cold War era. He took the front seat from under all the most important men of the moment when he opened the gate of that enduring dam of cement and liberated a tidal wave of reconciliation, joy, unity and new peace in Europe. The functionary gained fame by pronouncing the wrong words and committing a ´good´ mistake which he would later shrug off in his life when asked about it. It just happened…for the best, for a better Germany which reunion would melt that icy war… until its recent renaissance.
The pan-ultimate piece at the end of the domino line came down with a single answer
A few weeks earlier, provoked by the tension building in their streets, in Dresden, Leipzig or Berlin, and the contaminating more flexible postures of the neighboring authorities in the rest of the Communist bloc, a group of reformers within the governing single Party of the GDR ousted the hard-liners of the Eastern republic. They did not seek radical changes in their comfortable position of control but these men had nonetheless sensed the need to give in, as little as possible though, to the mass protests. To survive, they had understood the urgency to make some adjustments which would temporarily satisfy the crowds and ensure the prolongation of their political model. As part of such a reform and to carry their project, Mr. Schabowski, largely unnoticed until then, became the new face of the government.
Erich Honecker had openly stated the same year that their Wall would outlive all of them by a fifty to a hundred years. And indeed, without the fatidic election of Mr. Schabowski, it may have lasted a few years more. Little did they know that, he, once a man of lesser responsibilities before November the 9th, would change the destiny of their Germany and the symmetry of the post-war world.
When the longtime leader of the GDR, Mr. Honecker, stepped down on the 18th October 1989, he was replaced by Egon Krenz. Meanwhile, the flow of impatient migrants leaving East Germany was swelling. By early November, more and more had managed through the Western embassies in Hungary or Czechoslovakia. The phenomenon was tolerated by Mr. Krenz´s government who renounced defying the migration under the long-standing agreements of free travel between his state and the other communist countries sharing its borders. However, such flux of people took an amplitude that was becoming increasingly difficult for both the Eastern Germany and its neighbors to channel and control. To facilitate the inevitable movements, the Politburo decided to announce on the KristallNacht that such emigration would be allowed directly but disciplined through few crossing points between the two Germanys, including in Berlin.
On this day, the administration drafted a proposal to waive the old rules which had imposed since 1958 a mandatory visa limited to exceptional and pressing circumstances, such as a funeral or wedding of a family member in the West. The change was to expand cross-border travels to private round-trips and, although East Germans would still have to apply for visas to leave their country, such authorizations would be granted more easily, more quickly and without the habitual severe requirements. The new regulations were written hastily on the day of the press release entrusted to Mr. Schabowski. They were to take effect the next day, on November 10th. They still demanded the application for a visa and provided the necessary time to inform the border guards of the newly and rather abruptly drafted policy.
Caught in this timeline, Guenter Schabowski, a Communist Party official green in his role of higher responsibility amidst a time of tense mutation for the rigid system installed by the Soviet since 1945, was given the charge to announce the changes – except that he missed the key meeting during which the actual details of travel procedures were decided. Shortly before the announcement, Mr. Schabowski met with his boss en route to the press conference, which was in itself an innovative reform for the all-secretive, all-controlling Communist party.
He asked, “Anything to announce?”.
Krenz thought for a moment, and simply handed him a short two-page memo, with the sole direction, “Take this, it will do us some good.”
Schabowski quickly scanned the two page document on his way to the conference in the back of his official limo. It was a straightforward outline of a legislation that his superior had forced that very afternoon through a reluctant Parliament. The new measure was meant to be a popular one which would instantly turn the new leaders of the reforming Party into instant heroes of their people. But the memo failed to contain the latest update and, most importantly, the adequate instructions on the manner to publicize the information, including the crucial delay of one day imperative to notify the border posts before 4 am of November 10th.
At the press conference, Schabowski read the notes of his announcement monotonously as the items of a grocery list. It had to do with passports which from then on every East German would have the right to obtain. With it, they would be able to go where they wanted, including to the West. It may not seem like a privilege but for the people who had lived locked behind the Iron Curtain, this was a piece of news short of a revolution. I suppose that in our time, it compared to the restrictions imposed on the North Korean people. In the press room, the loosening law was received with an abrupt silence, like an announcement long awaited but for which one is never quite ready when it comes. The declaration had also the effect of fuel thrown on a slow burning fire. It was soon followed by a ripple of excited murmurs in the rows of attending journalists. The result was that the welcome ease of border regulations played out in a what some would call a farce which exploded like a firework of celebration in the night of Berlin, a beacon of hopefulness for the whole world to turn to that would consumed the very texture of the infamous Berlin Wall and bury in its rubble half a century of Cold War.
From the back of the room, where the cameras rolled, broadcasting live to the nation(s), a reporter shouted out the fateful question that would send a shattering earthquake deep into the foundation of the Wall.
“When does it take effect?” (implying the freedom to travel)
Mr. Schabowski paused, looked up, suddenly confused. “What?”
The question was repeated in chorus this time. Mr. Schabowski scratched his head, mumbled to his aides on either side, his glasses perched on the end of his nose. He shuffled through his papers, leaned back — and shrugged. Based on the summary wording of the note, he replied, “Ab sofort” (“As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay”).
The blame laid partly but not solely in the hands of the Party which had been as casual as its spokesman in preparing for the potential risks of an announcement made in a climate of expectation before the zealous representatives of the Western media. Mr. Schabowski´s real blunder could have been avoided if he had pleaded ignorance or deferred the simple legitimate question. At the time, he was largely oblivious to the impact that his words would cause worldwide. He had just returned from a short vacation on the very same day. He had arrived at the planned press conference far from ready for the ramification of the new regulation, which even the Party must have had underestimated, and partially informed on the procedures to follow his press release. He ignored that the new rules were supposed to take effect the next day and were before subject to all sorts of fine prints, including the requirement to obtain visas as well as the necessity to prepare the border authorities for the application of the new law.
The journalists or the other Eastern Germans who listened or watched him speak did not know either. They did not need to. All that they heard on the radio and the TV was that they were free to travel West ´Ab sofort´. The interpretation that Mr. Schabowski had permitted to transpire was that anyone people could immediately cross the border, although he should have specified more accurately with visas and in an orderly manner. Everything had been organized in a disciplined and slow moving way as it is always done in Germany, and especially in the GDR. The spokesman of the Party failed to appreciate that “Immediately” could not be a literal statement. It never was. All was set to unfold placidly, except him.
The incredulous journalists pressed Schabowski with more questions. He confirmed that the change in the travel regulations applied to the border crossings through the Wall, marking the immediate death sentence of the most hated emblem of the Cold War. The room and soon the whole of the two Germanies, before the world, erupted. Before the spokesman could add more, the journalists were running out of the conference to be first to report that the Berlin Wall was opened.
The symbolic domino, that old gray resilient wall, toppled by a blunder makes for a bridge
The statement marked by the two words that held the key of a 30-year-old wait was broadcast faster than it could ever be withdrawn or moderated. Had Mr. Schabowski´s reply been phrased differently, had the Western media been absent from the press conference or had the technology of communication been slower, the images of excitement and confusion that we all saw on the night of November 9th, may had never appeared on our screens.
The advent of the age of instant unedited TV was already changing the world. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a significant, although, on the same morning, an improbable event. It sprang with the suddenness of a faster world, which had been underappreciated by a dormant obsolete regime. It was a pivotal incident that showed the emerging influence of the news in the way information passed unfiltered and unaltered from the closed rooms to the mass population. The media began on that night of the Autumn of 1989 to drive history as much as they witnessed it.
Extracts from the press conference made the lead story in the two main new programs of West Germany that evening, at 7:17 pm in Heute on ZDF, and shortly after at 8 pm on ARD´s Tageschau. The news spread to nearly all of East Germany as well from the many TV posts that received the Western waves. On TV and radio, people on both sides of the border heard it loud and clear. Later that night, on ARD’s Tagesthemen, the West German anchorman Hanns Joachim Friedrichs proclaimed:
“This 9th of November is a historic day. The GDR has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone. The gates in the Wall stand open wide.”
Many first doubted it. Still they decided to go to the border to check its reality, and, for many eager Eastern Germans, to possibly move across the forbidding wall without waiting any further. After all, they had already waited the whole of their life.
East Germans began gathering by the thousands, in their Trabant cars or for most on foot, before the Wall, at all the six checkpoints, demanding that border guards immediately open the gates as promised. The problem was that the guards had not been informed of the announcement, not yet, nor of when and under which conditions could anyone cross the sealed border. Since the country’s leaders hadn’t intended to completely open the border before 4 am, orders were still being printed or were on their way. The guards were surprised and soon overwhelmed by the thousands demanding their ´right’ to exit the country. But the fact remained that none of the supervisors at the crossing points had received the actual new orders. They made hectic phone calls for confirmation and orders as the mass of people was pressing against the barriers and their small guard posts.
At the other end of the line, the officials were incapable to apprehend the tidal wave of thousands of people who wanted through as Schabowski had said they were allowed to. At first, the guards were told to seek the most aggressive people and allow them through with a special stamp that would prevent them from returning home late that night or on the next morning into East Germany. In effect, they were advised to let people through while revoking their citizenship.
It soon became clear that no one amongst the East Germans was willing to take personal responsibility and issue any order that would encourage riots or permit the use of lethal force to keep the East Germans in their closed country or definitely out of it. The soldiers, even the most trained of them, were vastly outnumbered. They eventually gave up. Finally, at 10:45 pm, the commander of Bornholmer Strasse, at the crossing, yielded to the numbers and threw down the towel. He gave order to open the border and let people through with minimal or no control at all. The impatient Ossis swarmed through and were greeted by the ecstatic Wessis, some with champagne and gifts.
Coming from one side of the bridge, people tasted the very nature of freedom which has been kept from them; waiting on the other side, people danced and drank to the triumph of their unrestrained political model (that is in the appearances), individualistic, capitalistic, indulgent, free, over the socialist oppression. We all have seen the rest, the chanting, the dancing, the bouquet and wine offered to their lost cousins and to the stunned border guards.
Images of East Germans flooding through the Bornholmer crossing quickly hit the airwaves. Upon seeing the images and hearing reports from other posts, other guards opened their barriers. In the early hours of November 10th, in completely spontaneous and uncoordinated fashion, one border crossing after another surrendered. The tide could not be halted nor reversed. Anecdotally, although Bornholmer Strasse was seen as the first point of meeting and release, it is said that another border crossing to the south of the city may have been opened earlier. The local commander indicated later that he too had acted independently and ordered the opening of the gate at Waltersdorf-Rudow crossing (at the South-Eastern corner of the American-controlled zone) a couple of hours before the bridge. This is confirmed by reports that East Berliners had appeared in West Berlin some time earlier the more mediatized images.
Soon, the exalted crowd of West Berliners was jumping on top of the Wall or literally initiated its destruction with hammers, pickaxes, or any tool at hand… attacking with hate, joy, translated in mixed smiles and tears the representation of an institution that they had learnt to despise, an ugly scar across the face of their city, their country, their continent and their modern world.
On the night of November 9th 1989, the hundred-year Wall of Honecker and his predecessors was merrily smashed down by the people of the re-assembled Vaterland, some in their nightclothes, others drinking vodka with chunks of the Wall for ice cubes. The fall of the Berlin Wall continued over the following days and weeks, with people nicknamed Mauerspechte (wall woodpeckers) using various tools to chip off souvenirs, demolishing lengthy parts in the process, and creating several unofficial border crossings. Initially the East German military attempted repairing damage done by the “Wall peckers”; but gradually these attempts ceased, and guards became more lenient, tolerating the increasing demolitions and “unauthorized” border crossing through the holes.
Television coverage of citizens demolishing sections of the Wall on the 9th of November was soon followed by the East German regime announcing ten new border crossings, including the historically significant locations of Potsdamer Platz, Glienicker Brücke, and Bernauer Straße. Crowds gathered on both sides of the historic crossings waiting for hours to cheer the bulldozers that tore down portions of the Wall to reinstate ancient roads. The East German regime never fully regained control. One can wonder what may have gone through Schabowski´s head that evening and for the years to come.
“One is never to underestimate the power of the human error”.
In August 1989, the GDR (DDR in German), as J. Lennon had a few years earlier, had celebrated its 40th anniversary. As the Beatle, it would never reach its next birthday, far from its 50th, farther from the century jubilee predicted by Mr. Honecker.
Afterwards, the Politburo thought that Schabowski was more than negligent, tired or careless. It could not possibly be otherwise. The interpretation of their announcement could not have been so unusually misunderstood nor the way of the system so blatantly ignored. The most rational explanation was that he must have been a Western agent. The man was expelled from the Party. He would maintain for the rest of his life that all that was a blunder. If so, it was a major one of the man who released the East Germans from the captivity of their own country and with them a giant sigh of relief across the world.
In the weeks and months that followed its collapse, the wall remained officially guarded, although with a decreasing interest. Some border crossings continued to operate for some time, including at the Brandenburg Gate until the 22nd of December 1989. The West Germans were only allowed visa-free travel from the 23rd December 1989. Until then, they could only visit their oriental counterparts under restrictive conditions that involved application for a visa, which could take up to several weeks to get and a fee of 25 Deutsche Marks per day of their planned stay. Such measures hindered most spontaneous visits. Thus, in the six weeks that ensued the famous Berlin night, the East Germans could actually travel more freely than any Westerners.
The fall of the Wall marked the first critical and symbolic step towards the German reunification. From this date, it could no longer be halted and was formally concluded a mere 339 days later on the 3rd of October 1990 with the dissolution of East Germany. Contrary to popular belief the Wall’s actual plan of demolition did not begin until June 1990 and was not fully completed until 1992. On the 13th of June 1990, the East German military officially began dismantling the Wall, starting with the section in Bernauer Straße (where a church had once been destroyed to make room for the wall and where oddly now stands some of the last traces of its existence). It progressively extended around the old town Mitte district. On the 1st of July 1990, East Germany adopted the West German currency, and all border controls ceased, although the inter-German border had been meaningless for some time already. Every road that had been previously severed by the Berlin Wall in 1961-62 was reconstructed and reopened by the 1st of August 1990. The demolition of the wall continued through Prenzlauer Berg, Gesundbrunnen, Helligensee and the rest of Berlin until the next December, completing the full removal in November 1991.
For many Germans, particularly those born and raised in the East, unification proved more challenging than expected, with high levels of unemployment and an accompanying resentment, sometimes perhaps tinted of a melancholy for the old ways of the dictatorial socialism, in the 1990s and beyond. Although it was a shock at first, the Eastern part of Berlin and the other provinces have much changed in the last 27 years. The movie Goodbye Lenin shows well the initial differences between the two regimes, between one people split in half and which parts had been isolated from each other for generations, and the difficulty that the Eastern Germans met at first and for a long decade.
The East was swallowed by the ways of the West which were imposed on them. Bright advertisements and commercials appeared everywhere, on the walls, the buses, jumping at them from the TV screens, etc… There were new TV programs. The streets changed in the East, the food, the cars, the clothing too… In the Eastern GDR, people were used to depend on the state for most of their social needs and often felt lost in fending for themselves in a competitive world driven by profit and performance. All had a (higher) price in the West and little of it was free, provided regardless by the government. Faced with a society based on individualism and consumption, many found themselves impoverished and unemployed. Their training and education lagged behind their Western cousins. They found themselves in a radically different environment and unaccustomed to the new technologies to which they had not be exposed and they struggled to master, especially for middle-ages engineers and technicians, past the age of learning. The Eastern industry and the community farms were obsolete and disappeared.
Nevertheless, millions of Eastern Germans moved West to look for basic jobs in the more modern factories and offices. Luckily, Germany possessed a strong economy which permitted to absorb the shock of the two heterogeneous people united to make for a new single country in no more than a few months. However, the comfortably settled Westerners, who once rejoiced under the wall, greeting the comrades from the East, would resent for many years the invasion of cheaper labor from the East and the burdening charge of the added population suspended to a market unprepared to incorporate them within a year of the unexpected night of November 9th, 1989.
There has been a partial recovery and a good third of the Eastern Germans have generally done better than before (in terms of economy, let´s not consider the appreciation of the divergent regimes), but still, about a third of them are still struggling to make ends meets. The fall of the Wall changed the life of most Germans and certainly more for the citizens of the old GDR. Polls taken even in recent years show that the Eastern Germans were on average friendlier and closer to family and workmates before 1990. Some Eastern Germans still remember a time when opportunities for women to find jobs were easier and professions were not so permissive to economic agenda of the bosses. Although subdued by elitist political system, the gap between the more and the less prosperous used to narrower, although no one could ever be truly wealthy in the GDR, unless sitting at the top, in the higher Party seats. In fact, in their opinion, in the by-gone GDR, no group was played off against others because of differences in age, gender or background. There was feeling of economic and social security even if it meant a life of restricted and policed comforts. Many recall a life with less worries for the future. The business plan of their employer, the foreign policies and various interest groups did not enter into account. Life was simpler, with less, including less freedom. Somehow, it was less preoccupying.
That being said, and as a counterweight to the nostalgic of the socialist utopia, I also recommend the wonderful movie The Life of Others. Whether the cultural and political intricacies of East Berlin interest you or not, it is still a rare picture in quality, storyline and acting.
Images on a TV screen are never enough. History is in the details and makes for the real good tales to remember, recount and teach. The Fall of Berlin Wall indeed did not happen as most of us remember it. It truly occurred in strange, accidental, coincidental, and sudden way… We were flooded with images of celebrations but it would have been much more interesting to be told an enthralling story, worth remembering, worth telling our children, so they may know and, why not, may never build another Wall for all the efforts, pains, and amounts of luck that it takes to push a modest three meter one down.
I have begun this article with a quote from Mr. Victor Grossman and shall conclude with more of his text and a couple question: Would those who crossed the bridge at Bornholmer Strasse that night celebrate again if they knew the life that awaited them in the pool of the grinding capitalism, and what would they think, after their revolution, of the 2.0 version of the Cold War that is being promoted these days on our behalf by the representatives of the transatlantic allies?
“But in view of today’s economic doldrums in Europe and the threat of a hard, belt-tightening future, some East Germans are wondering if, in believing all the promises and rejecting everything the GDR had offered, they made a partial blunder 25 years ago like that, once more with Alice, of the gullible little oysters who fell for the friendly invitation to a stroll with the hungry Walrus and the Carpenter:
“Now if you’re ready, oysters dear, we can begin to feed” – “But not on us!’ the oysters cried, turning a little blue. “After such kindness that would be a dismal thing to do!”
Does all this matter? Fat Cheshire cats are grinning as they corner ever more of the world’s wealth, damage the planet irreparably and gain control of every phone call, email or Sunday trip to the country with an efficiency Stasi officers would have envied. While the dangers of communism or socialism seem abolished, they aim at preventing any reconsideration of their possibilities, while squelching by intrigue or by force all signs of independence, progressive or not, in every country”….
“…But there remains an almost panicky fear that the remnants, recollections of past accomplishments, might some day go into cooking up a healthy new souffle – though not one at all to their taste…”
The rest of the article can be read following this link:
Memory lane is a movie which too has its soundtrack. The German band was influenced by the events of 1989 and their aftermath in early 1990, in their country or more widely in the USSR and its protectorates. Their song ´Winds of Change´ topped the charts at home and in the US. Its gold record was later offered to M. Gorbachev in 1991, the year the Soviet Union was abolished. It is estimated that 15 million copies were sold and the video was since viewed more than 320 millions times on YouTube. Everyone remembers this ballad typical of the 80´s slow songs from a hard rock band but behind its lyrics, there has always been more, a testimony to the 1989 mutation of our world.
“…The world is closing in / Did you ever think / That we could be so close, like brothers / The future’s in the air / I can feel it everywhere / Blowing with the wind of change
Take me to the magic of the moment / On a glory night / Where the children of tomorrow dream away (dream away) / In the wind of change…”
About Victor Grossman
American publicist and author, he writes for the Monthly Review.
Born Stephen Wechsler in New York City, he changed his name to Victor Grossman after his defection to East Germany in order to shield his family members in the US. Before his war service, Grossman had graduated from Harvard University.
In 1952, while serving as a U.S. soldier in Austria, he swam the Danube River and became one of a handful of soldiers from the NATO nations who defected to the Soviets. He later stated that he defected because he feared prosecution by U.S. authorities for not declaring his membership in socialist political organizations prior to enrolling. Following his assessment by the Soviet authorities, he was sent to East Germany, where he continued his studies in journalism at Karl Marx University and earned a living as journalist and translator.
In 1994, the US Army dropped charges of desertion against him. Grossman reclaimed his US passport, traveled to America several times, including to promote his memoir Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany, published in 2003. He still lives in Germany.