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Tearing Down The Wall
For decades, the Berlin Wall represented the frozen frontline of the Cold War. Then suddenly, on November 9, 1989, everything changed.
In the course of an evening, the world’s most famous border was breached. Defying expectations, this momentous event was remarkably peaceful. Millions viewers around the world watched the celebrations in Berlin. However, few knew that the night had nearly become a tragedy. The actions of one East German border officer played a major role in averting a bloodbath.
A monument to tyranny
The Berlin Wall was vital to East Germany’s survival. After the establishment of the Communist Bloc, over 3.5 million Germans had emigrated to the West, a disproportionate number well-educated and highly-skilled. Similar brain drains took place in other Soviet satellites. Worried leaders recognized that without sealed borders their nations would collapse.
West Berlin posed a unique challenge. Divided by the Allies after WWII, it was geographically within the Iron Curtain. Nevertheless, diplomatic agreements allowed individuals in West Berlin to travel freely into West Germany. Before rail lines were severed, East Germans could defect to the West just by hopping on a subway to West Berlin. Clearly, this escape hatch needed to be closed.
On a calm summer Sunday in August 1961, the East German authorities shocked Berliners by closing the border and quickly erecting a barbed wire barricade. In an Orwellian twist, the Communists declared the wall would safeguard national security against capitalist subversion. Over several months, residents watched helplessly as a monstrous concrete structure encircled West Berlin. In East Berlin, border guards were given orders to shoot anyone trying to escape.
During the 28 years that the wall stood, well over 100 people died trying to reach freedom. The vast majority, including women and children, were murdered by the East German guards.
The first cracks
Shortly after the wall’s construction, President Kennedy famously declared: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” A quarter-century later, President Reagan demanded that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” Despite their eloquence, neither President could offer much more than moral support to the divided city.
However, behind the Iron Curtain, things were changing. By the mid-1980s, although it continued to project military power, the Soviet Union was in trouble. War in Afghanistan and a renewed arms race had stretched finances to the breaking point. Saving the USSR required a systemic overhaul. As leader, Gorbachev championed major reforms including glasnost, a policy of openness, and perestroika, an experiment with capitalism.
In repressive societies, initial concessions can begin an uncontrollable cascade towards freedom. Across Eastern Europe, movements arose demanding greater civil rights and national sovereignty. The desire to throw off the Communist yoke was nothing new. In 1956 a wave of resistance swept Hungary. In 1968, the Prague Spring saw similarly enthusiastic protests in Czechoslovakia. In both instances, Soviet tanks brutally crushed the demonstrations. In 1989, Hungary and Austria dismantled their border, opening a path to the West. The world waited for the Soviet response. Unlike his predecessors, Gorbachev refused to use force to patch this crack in the Iron Curtain.
Following Gorbachev’s lead, most Eastern European nations began a series of overdue reforms. One exception was Communist hardliner Erik Honecker who ruled East Germany. In mid-1989, Honecker declared that he expected the Berlin Wall would last another century. However, East Germany was in economic crisis, unable to even pay interest on its debts. In October 1989, the aging and ill Honecker was replaced by Egon Krenz, another party loyalist.
Krenz only intended to make cosmetic changes to the regime. His government developed a modest plan to loosen a few restrictions on travel outside the Communist Bloc. With little explanation, on November 9, 1989, East German government spokesman Günter Schabowski was handed the new policy just before an international press conference. The East German government had recently begun these press conferences to demonstrate their newfound “openness.” As the state controlled East German media, Schabowski had little experience with a free press.
Problems started for Schabowski when one journalist asked about changes to travel policies. Schabowski, who either had reviewed the policy or was confused by its provisions, indicated that all restrictions on border crossings would be lifted. Astonished, another journalist asked when the changes would take effect. After a brief pause, Schabowski replied “immediately.” Many East Berliners had access to West German television, and so the response across the city was nearly instantaneous.
Tens of thousands of Berliners rushed towards the wall. On the Western side, crowds chanted for their Eastern neighbors to come through. On the Eastern side of the wall, the situation was becoming tense. Increasing numbers of people were approaching the checkpoints and demanding passage. As the protestors became more aggressive, the East German border guards began to fear for their own safety. Their officers had no orders, and in a system that demanded absolute obedience, that was a recipe for chaos.
At the Bornholmer Strasse crossing, Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jäger tried to reassure his men. He had worked for the East German government for nearly thirty years. Yet, he was getting worried. He had repeatedly tried to contact his superiors to no avail. When he finally got through, he held up the phone to the shouting crowd that had surrounded the guards. Still, no clear order came. As midnight approached, the wave of people had reached their boiling point. They were actively challenging the guards and showing no indication of backing down. Jäger would have to decide. Would he try to disperse the crowd with bullets, or would he open the checkpoint? At 11:30 PM, he chose the peaceful option. A torrent of East Berliners poured into the arms of their ecstatic Western neighbors. In a matter of hours, the East German government bowed to the inevitable and opened the other crossings as well. The city was free again.
In the intervening 30 years, the world has changed immeasurably. A reunited Germany has taken a leading role in Europe. The Soviet Union only survived the Berlin Wall by a couple years. The initial optimism about a democratic Russia has since faded. For America, being the world’s sole superpower has brought a unique set of challenges ranging from foreign entanglements to internal divisions. Nations such as China and India have established themselves as major global players.
The fall of the Berlin Wall paradoxically seems both inevitable and accidental. Gorbachev’s reforms set in motion an economic and social unraveling of the Eastern Bloc. Once he declined to back up the satellite states with the Soviet military, their days were numbered. However, Schabowski’s bungled press conference seems an almost comical catalyst for such a historically important event. The fact that the wall came down without bloodshed owes much to the Jäger’s courageous decision to open the border. That November night, a lifelong East German civil servant was the right man in the right place at the right time.
While it stood, the Berlin Wall represented division, oppression, and fear. Its fall was a victory not only for the German people but for lovers of freedom everywhere.