The Fall Of The Berlin Wall, Thirty Years Later
Thirty years ago today, history took off in a brand new direction.
Thirty years ago today, history took off on one of its occasional tangents and set in course a series of events that led to the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union, a Europe with a completely redrawn map, and a new world that we still haven’t quite figured out:
Günter Schabowski scratches his head, puts on his glasses, hesitates, then fumbles with his handwritten notes.
He seems to be trying to understand what he is reading and haltingly responds to a question about when a measure giving East Germans more freedom to travel would take effect: “As far as I know… as of now.”
History’s train has left the station. It is around 7pm on November 9th, 1989.
A member of the Politburo of East Germany’s communist party, and its spokesman, this member of the inner ruling circle of the “workers’ and peasants’ state”, as the German Democratic Republic was known, just announced to a few flabbergasted journalists the fall of the Berlin Wall.
He seems to do it by accident, at the end of a press conference and in response to questions about the new rules for East German citizens leaving the country.
There was no going back.
Günter Schabowski is entrusted on the evening of November 9th, 1989 with the mission of announcing live on television the measures decided the same day by a small committee.
From there, the versions of events vary.
Krenz still resents Schabowski, whom he accuses of having plunged the GDR “into a difficult situation” by proclaiming the immediate entry into force of the chance to leave the country.
The fall of the Berlin Wall “was the worst night of my life,” Krenz told the BBC in an interview, something he “wouldn’t want to experience ever again”.
Schabowski should have, according to Krenz, stuck to a press release drawn up announcing the liberalization of travel starting the next morning.
The idea was to allow controlled departures with a mandatory visa and to maintain border infrastructure, not to rip down the Wall overnight, and with it the GDR.
So was it an error of judgement in the line of fire? Or an audacious, intentional move? Until his death in 2015 at 86, Schabowski never clearly answered the question.
“No one could have stopped the movement that was touched off by my announcement,” he would say later, casting himself as an ardent reformer.
According to his version of events, the opening of the borders was pushed through by a vanguard of proponents of change against the wishes of the party’s central committee, dominated by Stalinist die-hards.
“We came to the conclusion that if we wanted to save the GDR, we had to let the people who wanted to flee leave,” Schabowski told the daily TAZ in 2009.
The former East German dissident and later speaker of the Bundestag lower house of parliament, Wolfgang Thierse, however is convinced that Schabowski never grasped the full impact of his announcement.
“I don’t think he knew what was going to happen,” he told public radio.
“We suspected that something was being prepared for freedom of travel because the communist party wanted to lift the lid to decrease the pressure.
But Schabowski did not have an inkling that he was going to set everything off.”
For those who weren’t alive at the time, or who didn’t grow up with the Cold War as a constant reality, it’s hard to explain just how significant and surreal the night of November 9th, 1989 was. The wall itself had been up for 28 years and Berlin, Germany, and Eastern and Western Europe had been divided since the end of World War II. The Cold War had been a reality for more than a generation, and it all basically came to an end on one night in November 1989. Within two years, the Soviet Union itself would be gone, and the world would never be the same.
I can remember staying up that night watch Tom Brokaw’s live coverage of the event. NBC News apparently had the only camera position that gave a full view of the celebration on top of the wall, the crowds in West Berlin urging their cousins to cross over, and the sight of people taking chisels and sledgehammers to the monstrosity that had divided their city since the time that Nikita Kruschev ruled the Soviet Union. It was, in many ways the cap on top of what had already been an extraordinary year.
The process began in Poland, which of course had already seen a popular uprising earlier in the decade that was never quite quelled. From there, protests spread across Eastern Europe into Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and even the dark recesses of Nicolae Ceaucescu’s Romania. Those protests even inspired a student uprising in China that led to the protests in Tiananmen Square and a showdown that had to be ended under the tracks of tanks and the guns of the People’s Liberation Army. Perhaps horrified by how far the Chinese had been willing to go, and warned by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, leaders in Eastern Europe ended up being remarkably reticent to use force to put these protests down. Instead, they let the protests continue and, in the case of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, opened their borders to the West and basically allowed anyone who wanted to leave to do so. Among other things, this led many people from neighboring East Germany to travel to these nations in an effort to get out of their own country.
It was inevitable, then, that those protests would come to East Germany itself, and that they would be centered in Berlin, the city that had come to symbolize in stark terms the division of Europe for the previous 44 years. At first, there seemed to be some danger that the East Germans would react in much the same way the Chinese did five months earlier and use violence to put the protests down. Indeed, earlier that year, Erich Honecker, the long-serving hard-line ruler of the GDR, had praised the leaders in Beijing just days after they sent in tanks and troops to bring an end to the protests in Tiananmen Square. By mid-October, though, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was making clear to Honecker and the leaders of the GDR that Moscow would not support such a crackdown. This eventually led to Honecker stepping down to be replaced by new leadership that apparently hoped to implement Gorbachev-style “glasnost” and “perestroika” as a means of quelling the protests and stabilizing the country. Perhaps that might have worked had they not come to power when they did, instead it was too little, too late. The rest, as they say, is history.
With the events of November 1989 now thirty years in the past, we have now lived in a world where there was no Berlin Wall for a longer period of time than the wall itself existed. There’s an entire generation or more of Americans, Europeans, and Russians that have come into adulthood with no memory of what the Cold War was and what the Berlin Wall represented, and it’s not easy to communicate that through mere words or a display in the museum. It was the physical manifestation of the “Iron Curtain” that Winston Churchill spoke of during his famous speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri in March 1946 and its destruction was the physical manifestation of the changes that had swept through Eastern Europe over the preceding eight months. Once it was down, much of the rest that followed, including the eventual fall of the Soviet Union itself, became inevitable. Thirty years later we can argue over whether or not all the policy decisions that were made in its wake, such as the expansion of NATO to the borders of Russia, were the correct ones, but there’s no denying that the jubilant destruction of the symbol of Soviet oppression that we saw unfold on television was a good thing.