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The Fall of the Berlin Wall

By Hans-Hermann Hertle

The fall of the Berlin Wall stands as a symbol of the end of the Cold War

Table of Contents

The Wall's Demise

The decisive moment of the collapse of East Germany was undoubtedly the fall of the Berlin Wall during the night of 9 November 1989. It served as the turning point for the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe and accelerated the deterioration of the Soviet empire. Indeed, the Soviet Union collapsed within two years. The fall stands as a symbol of the end of the Cold War, the end of the division of Germany and of the continent of Europe.

Political events of this magnitude have always been the preferred stuff that legends and myths are made of. The fall of the Berlin Wall quickly developed into “one of the biggest paternity disputes ever” among the political actors of that time, and it is not surprising that the course of and background to the events during the night of 9 November 1989 still continue to produce legends.

Was the fall of the Berlin Wall the result of a decision or intentional action by the SED leadership, as leading Politburo members claimed shortly after the fact? Was it really, as some academics argue, “a last desperate move to re-stabilize the country.” Or was it, as disappointed supporters of the GDR civil rights movement suspected, the last revenge of the SED, designed to rob the civil rights movement of its revolution? Did Mikhail Gorbachev or Eduard Shevardnadze order the SED leadership to open the Berlin Wall, or was Moscow completely surprised by the events in Berlin? Were the Germans granted unity by a historical mistake, “a spectacular blunder,” or “a mixture of common sense and bungling”? Was the fall of the Wall—a final conspiracy of the MfS against the SED state?

In the case of the Wall’s demise, reconstruction of the details shows history as an open process. It also leads to the paradoxical realization that the details of central historical events can only be understood when they are placed in their historical context, thereby losing their sense of uniqueness.

Mass Exodus and Collapse

Domestic and foreign political symptoms of the crisis in East Germany intensified in the first half of 1989. Gerhard Schuerer, the head of the GDR State Planning Commission, told a small circle of SED leaders in May 1989, that if things did not improve, the GDR would be insolvent by 1991. After learning from media reports that the barbed wire along the Hungarian-Austrian border was being removed in early May 1989, growing numbers of GDR citizens, above all youth, began to travel to Hungary in the beginning of the summer vacation period in the hopes of fleeing across the Hungarian-Austrian border to the Federal Republic. East Germans seeking to leave the GDR occupied the West German embassies in Prague and Budapest, as well as the FRG’s permanent representation in East Berlin. Tens of thousands of East Germans traveled to the Federal Republic via Austria. The GDR experienced its largest wave of departures since the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. This mass exodus demonstrated the weakness of the SED leadership on this issue and undermined the regime’s authority in an unprecedented manner. The exodus was a necessary precondition for the founding of new opposition groups, and ultimately, the mass demonstrations. The dual movement of mass exodus and mass protest started the process of collapse in the GDR.

The SED leadership’s options were increasingly reduced to the alternatives of either introducing—with uncertain results—political reforms, or constructing a “second Wall” between the GDR and its socialist neighbors Czechoslovakia and Poland and putting down the demonstrations by force. The essential structures of the system itself exacerbated the crisis once cracks had occurred. The party-state was guided, oriented and controlled from above, not integrated from below. The Party’s mass organizations reached deep into society and functioned as information-gathering and early-warning systems for the party leadership, but did not possess their own decision-making capacity, let alone a capacity for addressing conflict or solving disputes. The palace revolution against Erich Honecker on 17 October and the dismissal of Günter Mittag and Joachim Herrmann as SED Central Committee Secretaries of Economics and Agitation and Propaganda, respectively, was followed by the 7 November resignation of the Council of Ministers and the 8 November resignation of the entire Politburo.

By the end of October 1989, the GDR’s debt had increased to the point that the country’s leading economists considered drastic changes in the economic and social policy necessary, accompanied by a reduction in the standard of living by 25 to 30 percent. However, out of fear of a further loss of power, they considered such an austerity policy impossible. Violent repression of the protests would have ruined the SED’s last resort, suggested by the economists in the Politburo on 31 October 1989. They argued that it was absolutely necessary “to negotiate with the FRG government about financial assistance in the measure of two to three billion VM beyond the current limits.” While that would increase the debt, it would win time and avoid a possible diktat by the International Monetary Fund. In order to make West Germany’s conservative-liberal government more amenable to an increase in the GDR’s line of credit, the FRG should be told, albeit expressly ruling out any idea of reunification and the creation of a confederation, “that through this and other programs of economic and scientific-technical cooperation between the FRG and the GDR, conditions could be created even in this century which would make the border between the two German states, as it exists now, superfluous.”

If it had been the original intention of Schuerer and his co-authors to open discussion of a possible confederation in light of the threatening bankruptcy, their effort was carefully disguised. In the version adopted by the Politburo, the passage that “put the currently existing form of the border on the table” was eliminated. The editing alone could not eliminate the fact that the leading economists had suggested using the Wall as a bargaining chip with the FRG government for new loans, as a final resort to guarantee the political and economic survival of the GDR.

Schuerer’s fears have to be seen against the background of the growing protest movement against the SED which, by the end of October, had swept the entire country, including small and middle-sized cities. The MfS had registered a total of 140,000 participants in 24 demonstrations in the week of 16-22 October; the following week, 540,000 people participated in 145 demonstrations, and from 30 October to 4 November, some 1,400,000 people marched in 210 demonstrations. Their main demands were free elections, recognition of opposition groups, and freedom to travel. In addition, the number of applications to leave the GDR increased by 1,000 per week, reaching a total of 188,180 by 29 October.

One day after the Politburo discussion of the debt crisis, on 1 November, Egon Krenz reported in Moscow on the desolate situation in the GDR to USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. But Gorbachev made it clear to Krenz that he could not count on economic help from Moscow, due to the Soviet Union’s own economic crisis. Gorbachev’s advice was essentially that the government had to tell its already dissatisfied populace, which was leaving by the tens of thousands, in as positive a manner as possible that it had been living beyond its means and had to adjust its expectations to a more modest level. If Krenz did not want to accept this logic, with its un-calculable results for the political stability of the GDR, then his only remaining option was to follow the economists’ recommendation and discretely attempt to expand German-German cooperation as quickly as possible.

The FRG government displayed its willingness to discuss increased cooperation, but made increased economic cooperation contingent upon political conditions. Seiters told Schalck in confidence on 7 November that if the SED relinquished its monopoly of power, allowed independent parties, and guaranteed free elections, Chancellor Helmut Kohl was prepared , as he announced the next day during a Bundestag debate on the state of the nation, “to speak about a completely new dimension of our economic assistance.”

Thus the SED leadership was ahead of its people in its secret orientation toward the Federal Republic. The chants of “we are one people” and “Germany, united fatherland” would not dominate the demonstrations until the second half of November. The Party’s goal was admittedly the opposite of that of protesters: the SED leadership intended to stabilize its rule with Bonn’s help, while the demonstrators sought to eliminate the SED state and bring about German unity under democratic conditions.

On 6 November, the SED leadership published the promised draft travel law. Fearing a “hemorrhaging of the GDR,” the party and ministerial bureaucracy limited the total travel time to thirty days a year. The draft also provided for denial clauses that were not clearly defined, and therefore left plenty of room for arbitrary decisions by the authorities. The announcement that those traveling would only be given DM 15 once a year in exchange for GDR marks 15 demonstrated the GDR’s chronic shortage of Western currency and proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Instead of reducing the political pressure, the draft legislation spurred even more criticism during the large demonstrations taking place that same day in a number of cities. At first, the demonstrators chanted sarcastically “Around the world in thirty days—without money,” and then demanded “Visa free to Shanghai,” “We don’t need laws, the Wall must go,” and, ultimately, “The SED has to go!”

As early as 1 November, the threat of strikes in southern districts had forced the SED to remove the ban on travel to the CSSR. The Prague embassy of the Federal Republic immediately filled with a new crowd of GDR citizens eager to depart for West Germany. Under pressure from the CSSR, the SED leadership decided to allow its citizens to travel to the FRG via the CSSR as of 4 November. With this move, the Wall was cracked open not only via the detour through Hungary, but also through its direct neighbor, the CSSR. Within the first few days, fifty thousand GDR citizens used this path to leave the country. The CSSR objected strenuously to the mass migration through its country, and gave the SED the ultimatum to solve its own problems!

A Consequential Press Release

A majority of the Politburo on the morning of 7 November still considered immediate implementation of the entire travel law inappropriate given, for one thing, the ongoing negotiations with the FRG about financial assistance. As a result, the ministerial bureaucracy was given the task of drafting a bill for the early promulgation of that part of the travel law dealing with permanent exit. The four MfS bureaucrats charged with redrafting the bill felt that their assignment had not been thoroughly thought through. After all, these officials argued, would have privileged those who were seeking permanent exit as opposed to those who were only interested in short visits and who wanted to return to the GDR. Acting out of loyalty to the government and a desire to uphold the state, the officers revised the draft to fit what they perceived as the needs of the situation, expanding the regulation of shorter visits to the West. At no time did the officers intend to grant complete freedom to travel as further clauses in the draft made clear. Private trips had to be applied for, as had been the case before, and only those who possessed a passport for travel could get a visa. Only four million GDR citizens had passports; all others, it was calculated, would have to apply for a passport first and then would have to wait at least another four weeks for a visa. These regulations thus effectively blocked the immediate departure of the majority of GDR citizens. The officers decided to place a media ban on the release of the information until 4:00 a.m on 10 November, hoping that a release of the information by the GDR media at this early hour would not attract as much public attention. The local offices of the Interior Ministry and MfS and the border patrols were to be instructed about the new regulations and had until that morning to prepare for the mass exodus.

The officers’ draft, including the prepared press release, was presented to the Security Department of the Central Committee and the ministries participating—the MfS, the Interior Ministry and the Foreign Ministry—for approval around mid-day. In the course of the Central Committee meeting (which had begun the day before), or to be more exact, during a “smoking break,” several members of the Politburo approved the draft. That afternoon, the draft was submitted to the Council of Ministers in a “fast track procedure,” to guarantee a quick decision.

One copy of the draft went to Egon Krenz. Around 4:00 p.m., he read the proposed regulation to 216 Central Committee members and added, “No matter what we do in this situation, we’ll be making the wrong move.” The Central Committee showed approval for the measure nonetheless. At this point, the travel regulation was nothing more than a “proposal,” as Krenz emphasized, or a draft. The Council of Ministers had not yet made a formal decision. Krenz, however, spontaneously told the government spokesman to release the news “immediately,” thereby canceling the gag order in passing.

This decision could have been corrected since government spokesman Wolfgang Meyer had been informed about the blackout and its background. But Krenz’s next decision could not be reversed. He handed the draft and the press release to Politburo member Günter Schabowski, who was serving as party spokesman on that day, and told him to release the information during an international press conference scheduled for 6:00 p.m. that evening. This interference by the Party in the government’s procedures led to the collapse of all of the MfS and the Interior Ministry careful preparations for the new travel regulations.

Without checking Schabowski added the draft for the Council of Ministers to his papers. He had not been present when the Politburo confirmed the draft travel regulation that afternoon, nor had he been present when Krenz read the travel draft to the Central Committee. He therefore was not familiar at all with the text. Around 7:00 p.m., during the press conference, carried live by GDR television, Schabowski announced the new travel regulations. It was possible to apply for permanent exit and private travel to the West “without presenting (the previously necessary) required (documents),” and GDR officials would issue approval certificates “on short notice.”

Journalists asked when the regulations would go into effect. Schabowski appeared a bit lost, since “this issue had never been discussed with me before,” as he later said. He scratched his head and glanced at the announcement again, his eyes not catching the final sentence that stated that the press release should be made public no earlier than 10 November. Rather, he noticed the words “immediately,” and “without delay” at the beginning of the document. Thus, he responded concisely: “Immediately, without delay!”

American journalist Tom Brokaw, anchorman of NBC’s Nightly News, succeeded in organizing an exclusive interview with Schabowksi immediately after the press conference. He was even more surprised at Schabowski’s improvised and uncertain answers, which gave the interview a surrealistic atmosphere. According to Brokaw and his colleague Marc Kusnetz, Schabowski asked his assistant to show him the text once more in the course of the conversation:

Brokaw: “Mr. Schabowski, do I understand correctly? Citizens of the GDR can leave through any checkpoint that they choose for personal reasons. They no longer have to go through a third country?”
Schabowski: “They are not further forced to leave GDR by transit through another country.”
Brokaw: “It is possible for them to go through the Wall at some point?”
Schabowski: “It is possible for them to go through the border.”
Brokaw: “Freedom to travel?”
Schabowski: “Yes. Of course. It is not [a] question of tourism. It is a permission to leave the GDR.”

“When I sat down with him for an interview, he was still learning about the policy,” Brokaw noted before airing the interview. A short time after his exclusive interview, Brokaw stood in front of the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate. NBC had opened a direct line to New York the day before, and Brokaw reported live to America from the historic stage that was, at that point, nearly empty. “Tom Brokaw at the Berlin Wall. This is a historic night. The East German government has just declared that East German citizens will be able to cross the Wall from tomorrow morning forward—without restrictions.”
The German public was not as correctly informed as the American one. Schabowski’s announcement was the lead story in both the East and West German nightly news broadcasts that aired after the press conference, between 7:00 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. Western press services—including West German television—interpreted the contradiction-laden statements from Schabowski to mean an immediate “opening of the border.” Anchorman Hanns Joachim Friedrichs of West Germany’s public station First German Television (ADR) announced that “the gates in the Berlin Wall stand wide open.” The media suggested to an audience of millions in East and West a reality which had yet to come about. The distribution of this false image of reality contributed significantly to turning the announced events into reality. It was the television reports in particular that mobilized ever greater numbers of Berliners to go to the border crossings.

Without any information on the new policy or orders from the military leadership, the GDR border patrols stationed at the Berlin border crossings, faced growing crowds that wanted to test the alleged immediate freedom to travel. Initial inquiries by the border patrols to their superiors did not yield any results, since during the evening only deputies, or deputies of deputies, were available. They, in turn, could not reach their superiors because the meeting of the Central Committee had been extended to 8:45 p.m. without notice. The highest echelons of the party and the government were therefore unaware of the press conference, the media reaction it had engendered, and the gathering storm on the border crossings.

The crowds were the heaviest at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing, located in Berlin’s densely populated Prenzlauer Berg district. At first, the border guards reacted by telling the gathering crowds to wait until tomorrow. To relieve some of the pressure, they allowed certain individuals to exit, but they placed an “invalid” stamp in their identification cards. Without knowing it, the first East Berliners who crossed Bornholmer Bridge into West Berlin had been deprived of their citizenship by this maneuver to “let off steam.”
When the Central Committee meeting finally ended and the higher levels of the party hierarchy were available to formally make decisions, they were shocked by the news. But they had already missed the time for corrective action. The room for maneuvers that would not destroy the plans for the coming days had been reduced to a minimum. The dynamic of the events, constantly accelerated by the live reports of the Western media, overtook the decision-making process. In contrast, the exchange of information between the SED leadership, the MfS, Interior and Defense ministries moved like a merry-go-round; the decisions that were ultimately made were based on information that no longer was up-to-date.

The maneuver “to let off steam,” rather than reducing the pressure at the border crossings, had raised it to the breaking point instead. Passport controllers and border soldiers at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing, fearing for their lives, made the decision on their own to cease all controls at 11:30 p.m. “We’re opening the floodgates now!” announced the chief officer of passport control, and the barriers were raised. The border guards gave way to the pressure from the crowds until midnight at most of the border crossings in the inner city, allowing East Berliners to cross without papers. The same thing happened until 1:00 a.m. at the border control points around Berlin and on other parts of the German-German border. Thousands of Berliners crossed the fortifications and the Wall at the Brandenburg Gate, and then strolled for several hours around Pariser Platz. Dances of joy erupted along the Wall; the symbol of the division of Germany had fallen.

Aftermath of the Fall

While the fall of the Wall occurred during prime time television in the United States, Moscow was at disadvantaged by the time difference. When the border crossings were “flooded” and East Germans were dancing on the Wall, the Soviet leadership was sound asleep. Mikhail Gorbachev reported that “I learned what had happened during the night of 9 November on the morning of 10 November from a report from the ambassador. I asked him what the GDR leadership had done, and he started to explain the situation and told me about Schabowski’s press conference. He informed me that they had opened all border crossings along the Wall. I told him that they had taken the proper action, and asked that he inform them of that.” The CPSU Politburo met a few hours later. While the question of whether to recreate the former status quo was not debated by the high-level politicians, such discussions occurred in the military. But, Shevardnadze said, “the Soviet Army was very disciplined and would not have done anything without a specific order. If we had used force to close the Wall, we would have started a spiral of violence that would have started World War III.” Gorbachev, according to Shevardnadze, therefore strongly recommended to the East German leadership that “they not shed blood under any circumstances.” Gorbachev’s conclusion was: “that politics must now be guided by the people’s will.”

The early hopes of the SED leaders to regain control of the Wall and restore order the next day or the day after were not fulfilled. The crowds in Berlin and at the German-German border over the weekend were huge. For reasons unknown, elite units of the GDR army were still placed on higher alert at midday on 10 November, and the entire MfS was called on duty until further notice—but neither were deployed. The fall of the Wall proved to be irreversible.

The historical reconstruction of the political decisions and actions that led to the fall of the Wall eliminates explanations that portray the event, as a planned action by the SED leadership, a masterminded plot to oust the party and the state leadership, or even as the “opus magnum” of the MfS. The fall of the Wall can be analyzed as a classic case of an unintentional result of social action, a self-fulfilling prophecy can be applied to the circumstances surrounding the fall of the Wall.

On the evening of 9 November, it was the media that decisively influenced the “definition of the situation” as a result of the uncoordinated decisions by the SED leaders and the dis-synchronization of the leadership structures. The restrictive details of the planned travel regulations were not covered up by the press agencies and the television reports, but were very quickly pushed into the background by the far-reaching and heavily symbolic interpretations.

The interpretations publicized by the Western media (“GDR opens border”), incorrect assumptions (“The border is open”), and “false” images of reality (“The gates of the Wall stand wide open!”) ultimately caused the action that allowed the assumed event and the “false” image of reality to become fact. Those television viewers who actually had only wanted to be a part of the event and therefore had hurried to the border crossings and the Brandenburg Gate actually brought about the event they thought had already happened. A fiction spread by the media took hold of the masses and thereby became reality.
The prerequisite for that occurrence was admittedly that “real existing” reality, meaning the political and military leadership of the GDR, border soldiers, passport controllers, and the people’s police did not stand in the way of these actions. The most important condition for the peaceful outcome of the storming of the Wall was, again, that the Soviet leadership under Gorbachev—after the democratic upheavals in Poland and Hungary kept the 350,000 Soviet soldiers in the GDR in their barracks and accepted the fall of the Wall without military intervention. It is certain that they did not anticipate that the “pearl of the Soviet empire” would be lost in less than a year.

The fall of the Wall, however, created a completely new situation. With the end of the forced detention provided by the Wall, the SED government lost control of “its” citizens over night. The lack of legitimacy became obvious and led to the dissolution of the SED state. Hans Modrow, newly elected chairman of the Council of Ministers, was deprived of his most important negotiating tool with the FRG government for the billion-mark loans needed to stabilize the GDR’s economy—the people had destroyed the last real collateral in the GDR by breaking through the Wall. The people nullified Modrow’s idea of at least allowing free elections and relinquishing the party’s leadership claim in the GDR constitution in return for emergency loans from the FRG government. The mass demonstrations against the government continued during the second half of the November and forced these concessions even before the negotiations with Bonn could be completed.

The text is adapted from Hans-Hermann Hertle’s "The Fall of the Wall: The Unintended Self-Dissolution of the East German Ruling Regime," CWIHP Bulletin No. 12/13, Winter 2001.