We are searching data for your request:
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.
Great events do not always have great causes. One of history’s biggest surprises is how sometimes a series of small, seemingly insignificant events can suddenly add up to momentous change.
That’s how it happened with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the point-of-no-return moment in the collapse of the Cold War order. While there were broader historical forces at play, the Wall, a powerful symbol that had separated communist East Berlin from the democratic West for 28 years, would not have opened when and how it did without the last-minute decisions of a secret police officer named Harald Jäger. Struggling with the fear that he was dying of cancer, and angry over insults from higher-ups, he disobeyed direct orders and started letting East Germans through the gate.
Before telling Jäger’s story, we first have to ask: How did matters get to the point where a single officer of the secret police, or Stasi, could decide the fate of the ugly barrier that had divided Berlin for nearly three decades? After all, it was a confrontation between superpowers that had frozen a dividing line not just across the city, but also across all of Europe since the end of World War II.
In the wake of two catastrophic wars in the first half of the 20th century, the Soviet Union had taken swift action after its WWII victory to turn Central and Eastern Europe into a de facto buffer zone against any future repeat invasion. Residents of the countries between Germany and the Soviet Union were given little choice in the matter as Moscow—which had assembled most of them into a defensive alliance called the Warsaw Pact—came to dominate their political institutions and make all significant political and security decisions. Confrontation with the Western powers soon flared, exacerbated by rising tensions as each side developed and stockpiled thermonuclear weapons. The conflict hardened into the decades-long standoff that came to be known as the Cold War.
In the 1980s, however, the rise of both Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to power brought unexpected changes to U.S,-Soviet relations. Although Reagan initially took a hard-line stance, his personal contacts with Gorbachev, a surprisingly articulate and personable reformer, breathed new life into U.S.-Soviet arms-control negotiations. And Gorbachev himself, seeing the Soviet economy heading for collapse, decided to institute dramatic, liberalizing reforms. In doing so, he opened a window of opportunity, which protesters all over Central and Eastern Europe soon widened. Going far beyond what Gorbachev himself had intended, the Solidarity movement in Poland pushed successfully for a power-sharing regime, and Hungarian leaders began dismantling their country’s barriers to the West.
The leaders of East Germany bucked the trend, however. They were horrified at what Gorbachev was doing and took dramatic steps to try to prevent similar reforms from coming to their half-country. By late 1989, they had sealed the armed borders of East Germany entirely in an effort to prevent their population from fleeing wholesale to the West. Rather than helping to quiet protests, this sealing turned the entire country into a pressure cooker, with massive demonstrations—in Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden and elsewhere—bringing life to a standstill.
The regime launched a belated effort at damage control. At a hastily called press conference on November 9, 1989, Communist party leaders tried to reduce tensions by making it sound as if travel restrictions would soon be liberalized—when in reality travel would remain subject to all manner of fine print. But the official announcing the liberalization botched the messaging so badly that it sounded—unbelievably—as if the ruling regime might just have opened the Wall, effective immediately.
It hadn’t, but the events of that night showed the power of television to change history.
Having seen the press conference on TV, thousands of East Germans flocked to border crossings to see if they could, in fact, pass to the West. Stunned border guards had no idea why they were being inundated, and no orders on how to handle the crowds. Among the many shocked men on duty that night at Bornholmer Street, the biggest checkpoint between East and West Berlin, was Stasi officer Harald Jäger, the senior Stasi officer on duty that historic November night. A deeper dive into his personal history and experiences that evening, based on interviews with Jäger, surviving Stasi documents and television footage from the time, help reveal precisely what he did—and how the Wall opened.
By 1989, Jäger had been a loyal servant of the regime for 25 years. Born in 1943, he had followed in his father’s footsteps and started working on the border at the age of 18, signing up just in time to contribute to the construction of the Berlin Wall. He and his father felt East Germany’s overriding goal should be to avoid another war after the two brutal conflicts that had already occurred that century. To the younger Jäger, the Berlin Wall was a tragic but necessary deterrent to conflict between the states of the Warsaw Pact and the NATO-allied countries in the West.
In 1964, three years after the Wall went up, Harald Jäger secured a position in passport control at the Bornholmer Street checkpoint. Over the next two and a half decades, he ascended to the rank of lieutenant colonel and deputy head of the passport-control unit. Despite the military-sounding title, his post was in many ways a desk job that consisted largely of inspecting travelers’ papers. While he carried a pistol, Jäger had never killed an attempted border crosser. He was essentially a lower-tier record keeper, one of the deputies who reported to more senior Stasi officers. To conceal his identity, he and his colleagues wore uniforms identical to those of the ordinary border guards. But all who worked at the border crossing knew that the official overseeing the passport-control unit on any given day was the senior Stasi officer on duty—and therefore the man in charge.
As a result, the night of November 9 unfolded under Jäger’s supervision as he commanded about a dozen passport-control staff members. He had reported for duty at 8:00 a.m. that morning for an uninterrupted 24-hour shift. Eating dinner in one of the Bornholmer control buildings at about 7:00 p.m., he watched the bungled press conference live, together with some of his men. Unable to restrain himself, he yelled “Bullshit!” at the TV screen, then immediately called his boss, Colonel Rudi Ziegenhorn, the superior officer on duty at the Stasi’s operational command headquarters, to find out what had happened.
Ziegenhorn surprised Jäger by replying that everything remained the same as always, which Jäger found hard to believe. As the crowds swelled, Jäger again called the colonel, who said the troublemakers should be pushed back, as nothing had changed. But, by 8:30 p.m., Jäger’s men estimated the crowd was now well into the hundreds; soon it would be in the thousands.
It was painfully obvious to Jäger that he and the five dozen men guarding the border were outnumbered; their security at that point lay in their weapons. A number of them were carrying pistols, including Jäger, and they also had larger machine guns on-site. Jäger worried increasingly that members of the crowd might try to grab weapons from checkpoint staff.
AUDIO: Fall of the Berlin Wall Audio recording of CBS News on the scene as scores of East Germans climb on top of the once-imprisoning Berlin Wall on the night of November 9, 1989.
He kept calling Ziegenhorn, trying to get some kind of instructions on how to deal with the chaotic situation, but Ziegenhorn replied every time that it was business as usual. Later, Jäger would estimate that he placed about 30 phone calls over the course of the night, all in a mostly fruitless attempt to get new instructions in light of the dramatic developments unfolding in front of him.
Late in the evening, Ziegenhorn decided to add Jäger to a conference call with Ziegenhorn’s own Stasi superiors. Ziegenhorn instructed Jäger to “be quiet” and not let anyone know he was on the line. Unaware that Jäger was listening in, one Stasi superior asked brusquely, “Is this Jäger capable of assessing the situation realistically or is he simply a coward?”
At that, Jäger’s phone connection suddenly cut off. Holding the dead phone in his hand, Jäger felt a wave of anger wash over him. For close to two hours he had been dealing with an unprecedented and threatening situation. He had received no substantive replies to his urgent, repeated requests for guidance. He had been on duty for more than a dozen hours and would be there, at a minimum, all night.
And, if all this chaos weren’t enough, the next day he faced a personal challenge as well: He was displaying the symptoms of cancer, had undergone a battery of tests to confirm the diagnosis, and was scheduled to get the results the next day.
Jäger felt himself reaching his limit. After his 25 years of loyal service at Bornholmer, superiors were questioning his ability to provide an accurate situation report and, worse, suggesting he was a coward. Looking back, Jäger would see that his choices from then on were affected by that moment. A man who had not disobeyed an order in nearly three decades had, with that insult, been pushed too far.
Suddenly Ziegenhorn called back with one concession: Jäger could let out the biggest troublemakers once and for all, a one-way trip through the Wall with no return. When Jäger started to do so, however, he suddenly had a new problem. Protesters quickly figured out that if you got loud, you got out—and reacted accordingly. Then Jäger learned of yet another problem: Among the first people let out had been young parents. Unlike other protesters, the parents had only wanted to take a quick look in the immediate area just to the west of Bornholmer and then rejoin their young children, who were at home in bed in East Berlin. They had not been told their trip to the West was one-way.
Flush with the heady experience of a swift visit to the West, and a brief look around, they had returned quickly to the western entry of the checkpoint. They happily presented their IDs, saying in merry tones, “Here we are again! We are coming back!” And in response, they heard that they could not go home to their children.
At first they didn’t understand, but soon realized the border guards were serious. The construction of the Wall had, as all Berliners knew, split families without warning. Affected relatives had been forced to wait years to be reunited, if at all, and often were only able to do so with help from officials in Bonn, the provisional capital of West Germany. Now the East German ruling regime threatened to shatter families once again, just as it had done in 1961. Overwhelmed, the parents gave full vent to a powerful mixture of emotions.
Border officials at the western entry, cowed by the intensity of the reaction, called for Jäger to come deal with the anguished parents. When Jäger arrived, he gave in to his own personal anger as well. He had been skeptical of the plan to allow the troublemakers through, and now found he was unwilling to argue with grieving parents on behalf of superior officers who had insulted him.
Jäger snapped. Despite having personally received instructions from Ziegenhorn to prevent anyone who had left from reentering East Germany, he told the young parents that he would make an exception for them. Hearing that, other East Germans standing nearby who also wanted to return asked to be allowed back in as well. Having already taken one step on the path toward disobedience, Jäger felt he might as well take a few more. He instructed the officials at the western entry to let several others return as well. Jäger then returned to the heart of the checkpoint.
The thought crossed his mind that he ought to at least tell Ziegenhorn what he had just done. But then he thought, why bother?
Decades later, he would recall that moment as the key to all that had followed, the end of his loyalty to the regime. From there, it was a slippery slope to the truly major decision of the night: opening the gates entirely. By about a quarter past 11:00 p.m., the crowd on the eastern side of Bornholmer had grown into the tens of thousands, filling all of the approach streets. Loud chants of “Open the gate” erupted regularly. Jäger was facing an uncontrollable sea of thousands of agitated, chanting people. He worried he and his men might soon be in mortal danger.
Surveying the scene, Jäger sensed the time had come to make a fateful decision. He looked at his men and said words to the effect of, Should we shoot all these people or should we open up? Jäger was in charge and did not need their assent, but given the enormity of the choice, he wanted to poll the mood of his men. After looking around, he decided.
A little before 11:30 p.m., Jäger phoned his commanding officer with his decision: “I am going to end all controls and let the people out.” Ziegenhorn disagreed, but Jäger no longer cared, and ended the call. His steps down the road of disobedience had taken him to the point where he was willing to ignore his superior entirely.
He began implementing his decision. Jäger’s subordinates Helmut Stöss and Lutz Wasnick received the order to open the main gate, a task that had to be completed by hand. But before they could open it all the way, an enormous crowd started pushing through it from the eastern side. Cheers, jubilation, kisses and tears followed as tens of thousands of people began sweeping through. The massive, unstoppable, joyous crowd poured through the gate and toward the bridge beyond, where even more camera operators filmed the flood of people surging into the West.
The Berlin Wall had opened—but not by force of arms. While the enormous crowd of protesters had loudly and insistently demanded to pass, they had remained peaceful and had not smashed their way through with force, even though Jäger and his men had feared that they might. Thanks to the presence of so many camera crews, the simultaneous collapse of the regime’s control of the Wall and the ultimate moment of peaceful success for the revolution were both caught on film and, soon after, televised.
Jäger had thereby turned the table on his superiors: Now they were the ones surprised by developments at the border. Fortunately, their reactions were belated and confused. Due to the time difference between Berlin and Moscow, it was already in the small hours Soviet time, and apparently no one woke up Gorbachev or his closest advisers. Back in East Germany, the sheer size of the crowds soon overran the ability of the regime to respond. By the time Gorbachev became informed of the situation—which shocked him—it was too late to undo by any other means than massive bloodshed. To his eternal credit, he decided not to go that route.
Thus, a combination of the broader changes in the conduct of the Cold War, the courage of protesters on the street and the last-minute decision of a Stasi officer under almost inconceivable pressure all combined to bring about the unexpected, sudden and peaceful opening of the Berlin Wall. The outcome could have been very different if someone other than Jäger had been on duty that night. Other Stasi officers were anxious to start “spraying bullets,” as they would later recall. And Jäger belatedly learned, when he finally got his medical test results, that he did not in fact have cancer after all, removing one of his main motivations for throwing caution to the wind. He might have been less willing to disobey orders if he hadn’t thought of himself as a dead man walking on the fateful night. But he had—and made history as a result.
AUDIO: West German Foreign Minister on the Fall of Berlin Wall. West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher traveled to the U.S. to meet with President George H.W. Bush the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In his public remarks, Genscher pledges to encourage democratic reform.
Fortunately for Jäger, the collapse of the regime meant that he was never punished, although he did put himself out of work and never again held steady employment. He eventually retired to a small garden cottage near the Polish border, gradually becoming forgotten. But the consequences of his actions, combined with the broader historical forces involved, remain with us today. A combination of great and small causes had, for once, given the history-making night of November 9 a happy ending. It is one of the tragedies of the present day that the peaceful relations between Europe and Russia engendered by the wall’s collapse are once again coming into question.
Mary Elise Sarotte is the Kravis Distinguished Professor of Historical Studies at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author or editor of five books, including 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, and The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall.
History Reads features the work of prominent authors and historians.
Watch The Untold Story of the 90s now.
Why the Berlin Wall Really Fell
Mary Elise Sarotte is the author, most recently, of The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, an updated edition of her last book, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, a Financial Times Book of the Year, has also just appeared. She is Dean’s Professor of History at the University of Southern California and Visiting Professor of Government and History at Harvard University.
In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, one of the characters is asked how he went bankrupt. “Gradually and then suddenly,” he replies. That observation has much to teach us about how political change happens—and especially how, twenty-five years ago this week, the Berlin Wall fell.
The Berlin Wall fell gradually—and then suddenly.
The moving and remarkable images of the fall of the Berlin Wall from November 1989, again in wide circulation this weekend, haven’t lost any of their power with the passing of time, but even now, a quarter century later, it’s difficult to put together a simple narrative of how the embodiment of the Cold War collapsed on November 9 th after months of rising tensions in Eastern Europe.
As a professor and a historian, I have spent many years seeking out the evidence that remains from the months, weeks, days, and even hours leading up to the moment when the Berlin Wall opened. It happened around 11:30 p.m., when two checkpoint sentries, Helmut Stöss and Lutz Wasnick, acting on the orders of Stasi officer Harald Jäger, grasped the handles on the main barrier gate at the Bornholmer crossing in Berlin and began to pull. Before they could open the gate all the way, jubilant masses pushed it aside and swept like a tidal wave toward the West.
In order to understand that moment, I have interviewed dozens of the people who contributed to that day, read stacks of once-secret Stasi files, worked in archives in a half-dozen countries, viewed hours of videotapes of that night, and read countless German accounts on these topics. After all of that research, I’ve been left with a contradictory but compelling conclusion: to understand the big picture, you have to dive deeply into the details. Both the longer-term contest between the U.S. and the Soviet Union—the “gradually”—and the short-term, contingent, and even the accidental developments of the day—the “suddenly”—are essential for understanding how the Wall fell.
In other words, no one in either Washington or Moscow, or West Germany or East Germany, or even East Berlin woke up on the morning of the 9 th with the intention of opening the Wall. One of the East German officials most responsible for unleashing the day’s events, Gerhard Lauter, so thoroughly failed to grasp what he’d unleashed that he spent the evening at the theater with his wife. He arrived home to two messages from his son: The interior minister had called repeatedly—and “oh, by the way, the Wall is open.”
There was no sense of impending history. Right up until the moment a Politburo member named Günter Schabowski misinterpreted the statement that he was supposed to read at an evening press conference and seemed to open the Wall, NBC’s Tom Brokaw—who had traveled from New York to East Berlin to attend—was watching his media colleagues nod off in the meeting room. Brokaw was even allowing himself to give in to jetlag and close his own eyes—until Schabowski’s words snapped them open.
As many commentators have recounted this past weekend ( myself included), Schabowski was supposed to announce relatively minor changes, but his announcement unintentionally made the changes sound much more far-reaching than they were—with fatal consequences for the regime.
Across the divided city, the mayor of West Berlin, Walter Momper, seized on Schabowski’s unclear statement and decided to do what he could to make it tough for the Politburo to retract it. Momper swiftly decided on a plan: to act as if the border were open, even though it was not as he kept saying to himself during his TV appearances through the night, “Just keep acting ‘as if,’ and it will build pressure.”
And then there was Jäger, the senior Stasi official on duty at the Bornholmer Street crossing, who could have fired on the demonstrators—but chose instead to open the wall. A loyal party official, he was no revolutionary. Yet that night, the pressures of crowds demanding to cross the border, party leaders screwing up, and his superior officers leaving him in the lurch to clean up the mess all combined and caused him to snap.
Of course, none of these people—and none of the many others whose actions or lack of action that day changed the course of history—acted in a vacuum. These individuals created the “suddenly,” but their actions mattered only in the context of the “gradually.”
To understand why, we could do much worse than to turn to Alexis de Tocqueville. It is, of course, simply a remarkable coincidence that the Wall opened during the two-hundredth-anniversary year of the French Revolution, but that coincidence suggests that we should use Tocqueville’s famous account of 1789 to help us understand how the pressure built.
Tocqueville found that a loosening of the old guard’s oppressive rule had, rather than satisfying the people, only inspired the masses to demand more. Long-tolerated grievances became unbearable as soon as their elimination appeared possible. Tocqueville’s insight suits 1989 in Europe admirably, because that autumn followed a similar period of loosening.
Mikhail Gorbachev, in his four years in power to that point, had reduced the burden of oppression on the residents of the Soviet Bloc. Without his reforms, the Wall would not have fallen. Yet Gorbachev’s reforms alone were not enough to open the Wall, for they were in no way intended to end the occupation of divided Berlin.
That occupation had been purchased at far too dear a price for any leader in Moscow to abandon it for nothing in exchange, as President Reagan had called on Gorbachev to do in his famous speech of June 1987. Millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians had perished in the brutal struggle following Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Four years later, Nazi Germany had surrendered unconditionally.
As a result, Moscow viewed the permanent stationing of Soviet troops in East Germany—approximately three hundred and eighty thousand were still there in 1989—as wholly legitimate. And, just as Gorbachev had no intention of giving up occupied East Berlin, his German allies had no intention of giving up their dictatorial powers.
Yet suddenly, on the night of November 9-10, 1989, Gorbachev unexpectedly witnessed the unexpected opening of a large hole in the Iron Curtain. What really turned one bad press conference into the fall of the Wall was the momentum of the peaceful revolutionaries in East Germany. They had gained enough adherents and confidence by the night of November 9 that they could capitalize on the sudden opportunity offered by that press conference.
The evidence now available suggests that they did so in four ways. First, the resistance movement adhered to nonviolence. As an important recent Foreign Affairs article by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan has pointed out, a peaceful revolution “succeeds because it is more likely than armed struggle to attract a larger and more diverse base of participants and impose unsustainable costs on a regime.” This dynamic was most starkly apparent on the evening of October 9, 1989, in the East German city of Leipzig, where (as the new evidence shows) the Politburo planned the German version of Tiananmen Square, which had unfolded just a few months earlier that spring.
Both the overwhelming number of protestors and their nonviolent behavior on that night, however, deterred the security forces from attacking. Some troops joined the ranks of the protestors instead. The demonstrators’ admirable conduct in the face of grave danger allowed them to swell their own ranks in a way that they had never previously been able to accomplish. October 9 in Leipzig paved the way for November 9 in Berlin.
Second, undercover “chroniclers,” such as Siggi Schefke and Aram Radomski, magnified the impact of civil resistors by making their actions known worldwide. At great personal risk, Schefke, Radomski, and others smuggled video cameras and tapes into East Germany, recorded protests, and then smuggled the resulting footage back out to Western media outlets for broadcast (see their powerful October 9 video here.)
These illicit video-journalists thereby publicized the regime’s retreat in Leipzig on October 9, a retreat that East German censors had hoped to keep quiet. Knowledge of the dictators’ defeat both encouraged protestors and unnerved armed border staff elsewhere in the country. Radomski and Schefke were, in other words, practitioners of a phenomenon now much more widespread in the YouTube age: they used cameras to constrain dictators. Of course, earlier journalists had done the same, but the development of inexpensive, portable video cameras—and then, later, of the internet—multiplied the possibilities for such actions.
Radomski and Schefke were able to do their work because of a third source of support: small measures taken by churches, correspondents, diplomats, and human-rights organizations to supply and support them and other dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. For example, even though Protestant churches in East Germany suffered heavy Stasi surveillance—and some religious leaders actively betrayed their flock by serving as informants—dissidents and their chroniclers could use churches as locations to meet and to plan.
And the on-going international Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), in which the U.S. took part, helped as well. Among other things, the CSCE implemented measures allowing some journalists to cross the Berlin Wall without a search. It was because of such provisions that Ulrich Schwarz, a reporter for the West German magazine Spiegel, was able to serve as Radomski and Schefke’s main courier, smuggling out the crucial videocassette out on the night of October 9-10, 1989.
Fourth and finally, revolutionaries showed a surprising willingness to trust complete strangers in potentially life-threatening situations and to work together successfully under pressure. In contrast, Stasi files show again and again that members of the ruling regime did not have trust in each other, or in their subordinates—and that this lack of trust gravely undermined their ability to blunt the rising revolution.
All of these factors combined to overwhelm the Wall at Bornholmer Street, the largest border crossing point between the two halves of Berlin. Jäger, fearing for himself and his men, in the end decided to exceed his own authority and to open his checkpoint. His colleagues at other crossing points between the two halves of Berlin soon followed suit.
The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, by Mary Elise Sarotte
Thus, by the night of November 9, peaceful revolutionaries had gained the momentum needed to challenge the checkpoint controls at the Berlin Wall when the press conference suddenly created the opportunity to do so. The movement had emboldened both itself and masses of average East Germans, who marched to the Wall by the tens of thousands, stared down armed border officials, and demanded to know, will you let us pass? The people had become so certain of themselves, and the Stasi officers on duty so uncertain and lacking in support from their superiors, that the unexpected answer was, we will.
As Tocqueville had predicted, the barrier was no longer bearable, and the people demanded its removal. The ruling regime thereby lost the cornerstone of its power—the ability to control the movement of its people—and swiftly crumbled.
It’s a lesson that Tocqueville understood two hundred years ago. Power and authority evaporates gradually. And then it goes suddenly.
9 Essential Berlin Wall Stories
From the Aug. 31, 1962, issue of TIME
For a structure that stood only about 12 ft. high, the Berlin Wall left quite a mark on modern history. Throughout the 28 years during which it endured, TIME followed the wall’s surprise construction, those who died attempting to get across, and finally its fall and aftermath.
You can trace that tale through our timeline of the Berlin Wall’s history or, below, read how the wall went down in the words of those who were watching it happen:
Aug. 25, 1961: Berlin: The Wall
The Berlin Wall went up quickly and with no warning on Aug. 13, 1961. Though it was at that point less a wall than a fence, it startled the world. For nearly a decade, Berlin &mdash a divided city situated within the Eastern portion of a divided country &mdash had been the easiest way to cross from East Germany to West, but the East had been facing a dwindling population and took drastic measures despite earlier promises to preserve freedom of movement:
The scream of sirens and the clank of steel on cobblestones echoed down the mean, dark streets. Frightened East Berliners peeked from behind their curtains to see military convoys stretching for blocks. First came the motorcycle outriders, then jeeps, trucks and buses crammed with grim, steel-helmeted East German troops. Rattling in their wake were the tanks &mdash squat Russian-built T-34s and T-54s. At each major intersection, a platoon peeled off and ground to a halt, guns at the ready. The rest headed on for the sector border, the 25-mile frontier that cuts through the heart of Berlin like a jagged piece of glass. As the troops arrived at scores of border points, cargo trucks were already unloading rolls of barbed wire, concrete posts, wooden horses, stone blocks, picks and shovels. When dawn came four hours later, a wall divided East Berlin from West for the first time in eight years.
Aug. 31, 1962: Wall of Shame (see map at top)
A year later, protests erupted in West Berlin, sparked by cruel treatment of an attempted escapee named Peter Fechter &mdash who was shot and left to bleed in the no-man’s-land between the two sides. TIME explored whether extended violence and further protest was likely to become a constant in the divided city, finding that many Berliners believed such an outcome unlikely but felt that the Wall would stand for the rest of their lives:
In flat, open country within the city’s northern boundary, the land to the west is checkered with brown wheatfields and lush, green, potato gardens. Eastward stretches a no-man’s land where once fertile fields lie desolate and deathly still. They could be in two different worlds&mdashand, in a sense, they are. Even the countryside outside Berlin is divided into East and West by a vicious, impenetrable hedge of rusty barbed wire and concrete. As itsnakes southward toward the partitioned city, it becomes the Wall.
Seldom in history have blocks and mortar been so malevolently employed or sorichly hated in return. One year old this month, the Wall of Shame, as it is often called, cleaves Berlin’s war-scarred face like an unhealed wound its hideousness offends the eye as its inhumanity hurts the heart. For 27 miles it coils through the city, amputating proud squares and busy thoroughfares, marching insolently across graveyards and gardens, dividing families and friends, transforming whole street-fronts into bricked-up blankness. “The Wall,” muses a Berlin policeman, “is not just sad. It is not just ridiculous. It is schizophrenic.”
Aug. 18, 1986: East-West Tale of a Sundered City by Jill Smolowe
On the 25th anniversary of the wall’s construction, TIME checked in on the city and found that Germans on the two sides of the Wall had evolved into two very different groups of people. West Berlin was more modern, East Berlin was quieter, their economies were distinct &mdash but Berliners from both sides still harbored hopes that they would one day be reunited. Even with a quarter-century of division under their belt, they felt that they could all get along:
West Berliners have managed to make an uneasy peace with the monstrous Wall. Almost every Berliner’s emotional survival kit includes a wisecracking sense of humor. Standard encounter: an American, returning to Berlin after 60 years, asks his taxi driver to run down the events during his absence. Responds the driver: “The Nazis came, the war came, the Russians came. You didn’t miss much.” No less mordant are the graffiti spray-painted on the western side of the Wall. ALL IN ALL, YOU’RE JUST ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL, reads one bit of wisdom. DONALD DUCK FOR PRESIDENT, declares another. One of the newest decorations is a purple cake, divided in two by a brown wall. The inscription: HAPPY 25TH BIRTHDAY.
There are no clever messages on the eastern side of the Wall. East German officials regard the barricade with pride. To celebrate its anniversary, they plan to stage a parade and have already issued a commemorative postage stamp. “Since its construction,” says Karl-Heinz Gummich, a representative in the East German Tourist Office, “the economy has grown strong, relations with West Germany have been stabilized, and the threat of war has been removed.”
June 22, 1987: Back to the Berlin Wall by George J. Church
The Berlin Wall had already been the site of much speechifying when President Ronald Reagan appeared there in 1987 &mdash but by that point, something that changed. In the USSR, the words glasnost and perestroika had entered the political vocabulary. Mikhail Gorbachev spoke of openness, and his influence in East Germany presented a glimmer of hope that the Berlin Wall might not be forever. Reagan urged that hope on with one of the most famous lines of his career: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall.”
Before an audience estimated at 20,000, the President rose to the occasion. Referring to the city’s division and deliberately inviting comparison with John F. Kennedy’s famed “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963, Reagan expressed “this unalterable belief: es gibt nur ein Berlin” (there is only one Berlin). Taking note of the violent demonstrations against U.S. foreign policy that swirled through West Berlin before his arrival, Reagan asserted, “I invite those who protest today to mark this fact: because we remained strong, the Soviets came back to the table” and are on the verge of a treaty “eliminating, for the first time, an entire class of nuclear weapons.”
Oct. 16, 1989: Freedom Train by William R. Doerner
On the occasion of Eat Germany’s 40th birthday, the Berlin Wall had begun to lose its oomph. Originally meant to prevent traffic between the two sides of the city, it was made far less effective when it became possible to get to West Germany by other routes:
So far this year, more than 110,000 East Germans have left, far and away the most since the Berlin Wall went up in 1961. Slightly more than half have departed with official permission, a sign that the Honecker regime has been forced to relax its policy of limiting emigration to the elderly and a few political dissidents. According to West German officials, some 1.8 million East Germans — more than 10% of the population — have applied to leave, despite the risk of job and educational discrimination.
But growing numbers refuse to wait for permission. In August and September, more than 30,000 vacationers took advantage of the newly opened border between Hungary and Austria to cross into West Germany. East Berlin tightened controls on travel to Hungary, yet new refugees continue to slip over at the rate of 200 to 500 a day. Hungary has rejected any suggestion that it close its borders.
Nov. 20, 1989: Freedom! by George J. Church
Until the Wall fell at midnight on Nov. 9, 1989 &mdash losing its power as suddenly as it had gone up, though it would take many months for the concrete to be dismantled &mdash TIME had been planning to run a cover story about the election of the first black governor in the United States, Doug Wilder of Virginia. But, as then-managing editor Henry Muller recounted in a letter to readers, “then came the stunning announcement that East Germans be allowed to travel through the Berlin Wall and would be granted freer elections as well. Bonn bureau chief Jim Jackson called me to urge that we change the cover, but my fellow editors and I hardly needed to be persuaded.” The result was 12 pages of reporting and photography and, as Muller put it, “history as it is made, each day and each week”:
What happened in Berlin last week was a combination of the fall of the Bastille and a New Year’s Eve blowout, of revolution and celebration. At the stroke of midnight on Nov. 9, a date that not only Germans would remember, thousands who had gathered on both sides of the Wall let out a roar and started going through it, as well as up and over. West Berliners pulled East Berliners to the top of the barrier along which in years past many an East German had been shot while trying to escape at times the Wall almost disappeared beneath waves of humanity. They tooted trumpets and danced on the top. They brought out hammers and chisels and whacked away at the hated symbol of imprisonment, knocking loose chunks of concrete and waving them triumphantly before television cameras. They spilled out into the streets of West Berlin for a champagne-spraying, horn-honking bash that continued well past dawn, into the following day and then another dawn. As the daily BZ would headline: BERLIN IS BERLIN AGAIN.
Coverage of the wall’s fall wasn’t all about serious pronouncements on the future of Europe. There were also some gems like this one, the story of some American entrepreneurs who were marketing chunks of the Wall as timely gifts for that holiday season:
Last week two shipments of gray and white rubble, totaling 20 tons, were airlifted from Germany to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The Missouri entrepreneurs who imported the debris swear that it comes from demolished portions of the Berlin Wall. Just in time for the Christmas shopping season, they will split it into 2-oz. chunks to be sold, along with an “informative booklet and a declaration of authenticity,” for $10 to $15 in gift shops and department stores.
Dec. 18, 1989: What the Future Holds by Frederick Painton
About a month after the Wall fell, TIME gathered five experts on European politics and economics to predict what would be next for the continent &mdash including whether the end of the Wall would inevitably lead to the reunification of Germany:
For the third time in this century the old order is crumbling in Europe, and the world waits anxiously for a new one to be born. The transition promises to be long, difficult and hazardous. But rarely if ever has the vision of a peaceful and relatively free Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals seemed so palpably within grasp. Thus 1989 is destined to join other dates in history — 1918 and 1945 — that schoolchildren are required to remember, another year when an era ended, in this case the 44-year postwar period, which is closing with the rapid unraveling of the Soviet empire.
Oct. 8, 1990: Germany: And Now There Is One by Bruce W. Nelan
In their rush toward unification over the past 11 months, East and West Germany struck down the barriers between them like so many tenpins. The most unforgettable and heart-quickening breakthrough was the first, the fall of the Berlin Wall last Nov. 9. Then came free elections in the East on March 18, economic union on July 1, and the Sept. 12 agreement of the four World War II Allies to end their remaining occupation rights in Berlin.
Any of those could be taken as the date on which unification became inevitable. But the date that will be celebrated in the future Germany comes this week, Oct. 3, when the Freedom Bell in West Berlin’s Schoneberg city hall tolls and the flag of the Federal Republic of Germany is raised in front of the 96-year-old Reichstag building. At that moment, the German Democratic Republic, a relic of Stalin’s postwar empire, ceases to exist.
Read more about the fall of the Berlin Wall here in TIME’s archives, where the Nov. 20, 1989, cover story is now available.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall: 30 years
WEST GERMANY. 1962. West Berlin. The Berlin wall. Contact email: New York : [email protected]
Thank you, Mrs Shellie Schwanke, and thank you, Dr. Jamel Wright, for giving me the occasion to be with you on such an important event. As all of you, I look forward to hearing John Morris’s remarks, so I will be brief.
It is an honor to participate in the celebration of 30 years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I speak to you as someone who spent his childhood behind the Wall, in one of the countries that belonged to the Warsaw Treaty. I am a former “enemy.” As such, I will begin with recollecting these early days of November 30 years ago, in my hometown, Fagaras, Romania. As always when there were important news coming from the West or news that demonstrated some unrest among people in the East, we were glued to two radio stations, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. At times, the phone we had in the house were covered with pillows, so that “they,” as we called them, would not be able to listen to what we were doing in the house. We lived in a paranoid state, in which we were not afraid of those people who were beyond the Berlin wall, but rather of “them,” the unnamed multitude who could decide on a whim your entire existence. Those who lived during communism, in East Germany, Romania, the Soviet Union, or elsewhere, know that we always talked about them—an impersonal them, but a powerful one, for all the aspects of our lives seemed to be dependent on it. They listened to everything you said they were giving potatoes at the grocery store they could put you in prison they could turn you to the secret police they were the secret police. They were the “bad guys.” But somehow theywere also us.
In fact, this separation between them and us, between friends and enemies is, perhaps, one of the main problems with communism. For a society that claims to unite all people, to unite all proletarians, it is surprising that it begins with a wall. But a communist society needs walls because it is based on a notion that divides people on moral grounds. If you think in a different way than the establishment, you are an “enemy of the people,” and as such you need to be deported, imprisoned, or simply murdered. These objectified enemies could change: wealthy peasants, intellectuals, priests, but they all shared one characteristic: by freedom of thought. In any case, as Anne Applebaum says in her Gulag: A History, “people were arrested not for what they had done, but for who they were.”  They were objects that did not fit the new order.
The Berlin Wall was not only a physical entity, but it also was a metaphysical one. The enemies that the communist regime wanted to keep out were ideas expressed in freedom. But the communists also wanted to keep their internal enemies in, to persecute them, to change their souls and, if all of this were not possible, to take them out of existence. The regime established a wall that did not separate nations, but people who had different ways of perceiving the world. Instead of protecting its own people, the regime built a wall so that they could not escape persecution. I do not know of people attempting to run away from the West to an Eastern communist society. And so the celebration of 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall is important because it also celebrates the fall of a regime that persecuted its own people.
But all of this can be interpreted wrongly, with the same approach the communist regime had when dealing with human beings. “Let us eliminate the communists,” some may say, “build a wall between them and us, so that we would never be corrupted by their way of thinking.” This would mean that we replace an evil wall with what we may consider a new and improved moral wall. If we are, however, to truly follow these words, ‘tear down that wall,’ then we may remember, in the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Price Laureate and a victim of deportations to the Gulag in Siberia, that the line between good and evil does not separate people. I quote:
“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil.” 
Indeed, many memories of people who have gone through communist persecution emphasized precisely this: that the fight against evil does not presuppose fighting other human beings, annihilating their ideas, or building walls between them and us, but rather fighting precisely against the temptation of the heart to see in one’s adversary an enemy.
Now, 30 years after the tearing down of this wall, let us remember the words of pastor Ferenc Visky, who was imprisoned in Communist Romania for his beliefs: “The source of cruelty is always fear,” he says. “Whoever tortures you has a great fear inside of him. He is more afraid than the one being tortured. And you have to understand his state, because if you do not understand, then you have lost, and the torturer has lost also. This is the problem of suffering, that you will see that the man who tortures you is more afflicted than you who are being tortured.” Let us also remember the words of Fr. George Calciu, who spent 24 years in a Romanian communist prison because he believed in God and openly spoke against the communist regime: “Slavery to ideas is as serious a form of slavery as any other.” Let us not allow our own slavery to ideas to build walls against others within our hearts and let us tear down the walls that still harm us by accepting all within our souls.
 Anne Applebaum. Gulag: A History. New York: Anchor Books, 2003, p. xxxvi.
 Archipelago Gulag. Vol II, New Work: Harper Perennial, 2007, p. 615.
Learning the lessons of the fall of the Berlin Wall
Looking back, senior administration officials recall feeling “horrified” as they listened to the U.S. president unload a taunting broadside about foreign leaders and border walls before an assembled crowd of thousands. The White House chief of staff, who worried that the speech’s tone was “unpresidential,” warned against a needless rattling of international relations. But the commander-in-chief had insisted, ever confident in his unique style of communication.
“Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe,” Ronald Reagan thundered. “As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind.
The speech concluded with a now-famous call to the general secretary of the Soviet Union: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
The history books now unanimously praise President Reagan for that speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Popular unrest had already begun to spread across the Eastern Bloc police states, and it wouldn’t be long before the concrete barrier bisecting free and communist Berlin was opened — exactly thirty years ago this month.
The uprisings of 1989 did not stop with the reunification of Germany, but also resulted in the independence of more than a dozen nations across the continent, from Estonia to Bulgaria. A younger generation that had grown up behind the Iron Curtain enamored with Western fashion, music and cinema entered adolescence at a time of maturing civic links between U.S. and Soviet institutions.
Universities provided some with the opportunity to live and study on America’s most prestigious campuses, where political ideas took hold, and migrated back across the Atlantic. It should come as no surprise that several former Soviet satellite nations modeled their new forms of government on the democratic principles of the United States.
Today, the long totalitarian winter has thawed across Eastern Europe, where residents are now generally able to live lives free from political coercion or central dictate. The Cato Institute’s annual Human Freedom Index ranks the former Soviet-bloc nations nearly on par with their Western European neighbors — a positive development that was unimaginable just three decades ago. The people of Germany, once held prisoner behind razor wire and guard towers, currently enjoy higher levels of freedom than the United States.
Here in the United States, we can be proud of the role we’ve played in the advancement of liberty. Our political ideals reshaped a continent and the lives of millions for the better. People all around the world now rightfully yearn for the freedom to live and travel to the places of their choosing, the freedom to assemble and the freedom to speak out against the powerful. And economic freedom has gone hand-in-hand with these positive developments. “Prosperity can come about only when the farmer and businessman enjoy economic freedom,” Reagan noted in his Berlin address. “The [West] German leaders reduced tariffs, expanded free trade, and lowered taxes,” which catapulted standards of living for the benefit of all.
Yet, we still haven’t reached the so-called end of history. The flourishing of liberal reforms in the many former Soviet bloc states has been offset with unexpected setbacks elsewhere. The recent crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong shows how seemingly progressive tools like social media, smartphones and big data can also be harnessed for totalitarian purposes.
Closer to home, the resurgence of anti-trade, anti-immigrant and big government policies has shown that the forward march of progress is far from an inevitable one. But Reagan knew that America’s greatest achievements have involved the tearing down of walls and the advancement of personal and economic freedoms.
The United States would do well to reflect on the inspirational message that Reagan articulated thirty years ago, and recommit itself to a new birth of freedom here on our own shores.
Roger Ream is president of The Fund for American Studies (TFAS), a nonprofit educational organization that promotes the principles of limited government, free-market economics, and honorable leadership to our nation’s future leaders. Since the early 1990s, TFAS has offered academic and professional development opportunities to students from former Soviet Bloc countries.
The Surprising Human Factors Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall - HISTORY
German unification was one of the most dramatic developments in contemporary history, as well as one of the most unexpected. After decades during which the press and public measured political wisdom according to how well leaders managed the apparently permanent realities of German and European division, leaders in 1989 had to improvise responses to the literal collapse of the most concrete of those realities in Berlin. As much as German politicians had claimed for years to be hoping for this day, none had actual plans ready. Into this potentially dangerous vacuum stepped a most unlikely improviser. Helmut Kohl was a reasonably successful party leader of enormous bulk and moderate political gifts, generally underestimated even by his political allies and known neither for creativity nor dynamism. To the surprise of all, he proved remarkably adept at managing the international and domestic complications of 1989. Within thirteen months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he rode successful reunification negotiations to a landslide victory in the first all-German democratic elections since 1932. Even if many of his decisions during those months can be (and have been) questioned, his place in history is assured.
Kohl’s story provides but one of many crucial insights into how the story of German reunification displays both the limits of realism and the unpredictability of history. That unpredictability reminds us of the role that individuals can still play in the modern world, even in the face of enormous complexity. For it was the combined actions of individuals, neither beginning nor ending with Kohl, who changed the world in 1989, and all students of international affairs can profit from reexamining that dramatic story.
To appreciate just how important those individual actions could be, one has to remember the state of the world (and of most thinking about the world) in the 1980s. After decades of Cold War, the US-Soviet rivalry still shaped most global conceptions, on issues ranging from economic development to the world chess championships, not to mention the Olympics. Even as progressives decried the focus on East-West rivalry and advocated more attention to North-South issues of economic development, conventional wisdom dictated that intelligent people assume the existence of Eastern and Western blocs for as far as the eye could see. The sense that this rivalry was permanent, and required careful management rather than bold transformations, was pervasive. Indeed, that attitude was so widespread that when commentators spoke of the End of the Cold War at all, they imagined a world in which the United States and the Soviet Union, with their associated allies, still coexisted, though at a reduced level of tension, allowing the allegedly inevitable process of convergence to make their systems look as much like each other as possible. No one imagined one side would disappear. That would have been dangerously unrealistic.
Nowhere were these assumptions more obvious than in Berlin. Although actual defenders of the “anti-Fascist protection barrier” were few outside of the upper leadership of East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), the world had come to accept the presence of the Berlin Wall as the price to be paid for stability and security in Central Europe. President Ronald Reagan had declared “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” when he spoke before the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, but his words were greeted at the time as the tired echo of anachronistic sentiments. No one really expected it to happen—perhaps not even Reagan himself, who by that time was committed to negotiating arms control treaties with the Soviets based on his positive assessment of his new partner, Mikhail Gorbachev. If anything, informed observers assumed that Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika would stabilize the Soviet Union, making the situation even more permanent. That was, after all, why Reagan felt he had to ask Gorbachev to tear down the wall no one else had the power to do it.
By 1988, the academic world, entranced by the brilliant writing and daring prognostications of Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, as well as by Gorbachev’s ponderous yet oddly optimistic Perestroika, was more concerned about whether the United States would collapse under the pressure of “Imperial Overstretch” than they were willing to speculate about the collapse of communism. The milestones of those years reinforced that impression. The Washington Treaty (INF Treaty) that abolished intermediate range nuclear missiles capped the Great Rapprochement between Reagan and Gorbachev, celebrated at the time as the end of the Cold War. When Reagan visited the USSR in 1988, shaking hands and kissing babies in Red Square, he dismissed his own rhetoric of the “evil empire” as the “product of another time.”
By 1989, Europe was in a strange position. Strong awareness that things might be changing in places such as the Soviet Union and Poland mixed with a lack of any clear sense of where they were going. Gorbachev had become an international celebrity. His visit to Bonn in June 1989 was the high point, as he thrilled wildly cheering crowds with his rhetoric of a “common European home.” The Cold War might be ending, but communism was here to stay. Events on the other side of the world reinforced the sense of a permanent status quo, Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square offering proof that when push came to shove communist regimes would shove back especially hard against reform.
Ironically, the revolutions of 1989 came precisely at a time when the idea of German reunification was about as far from anyone’s mind as it had ever been. Gorbachev himself said it was “not on the agenda of History.” Helmut Kohl and the center-right Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) had criticized the détente oriented Ostpolitik of the previous Social Democratic governments through the 1970s. But once they returned to power in 1982, Kohl and the CDU/CSU pursued continuity in Ostpolitik, including seeking a modus vivendi with the German Democratic Republic. Partly this was due to the fact that Hans-Dietrich Genscher of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), which had changed partners to bring Kohl to power, remained foreign minister, the job he had held since 1974. It also reflected the realist foreign policy consensus, which preferred the stability provided by division to the frightening uncertainties of unity.
Officially, the West Germans continued to avoid formal legal recognition of German division, and Kohl himself was careful to maintain the rhetorical connection to reunification. At the same time, his government helped stabilize the regime in East Berlin. When currency shortages raised fears of a major collapse, the Kohl government arranged for billions of marks in bank credits. The Western representative in those negotiations was one of the Federal Republic’s premier Cold Warriors, Kohl’s friendly rival Franz-Josef Strauss of the CSU. Strauss claimed then and after that the goal was to undermine the East German regime by exposing its economic weakness, but his willingness to help the regime avoid catastrophe showed that the Germans had learned to live with division. In September 1987, SED Chief Erich Honecker visited West Germany and received a greeting worthy of a visiting head of state, a sure sign of normalization.
His success in receiving such respectful treatment led Honecker to his most famous pronouncement, in January 1989. Confronting the question of whether the Berlin Wall should remain standing, he declared, The Wall will be standing in 50 and even in 100 years, if the reasons for it are not yet removed.”
Even as he said this, and as he resisted the new ideas coming from Moscow, however, the pressure for reform inspired by Gorbachev was encouraging changes in Poland and Hungary. When the Hungarians opened their border to Austria that summer, their reforms in turn spilled over into the GDR. East Germans hoping to evade the border restrictions chose to visit Hungary and escape to the West. Honecker’ s efforts to close off that escape route led hundreds of despairing East Germans to flood the West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw, demanding exit visas.
By this point the people of East Germany had emerged onto the historical stage at last. First in the small groups crossing the Hungarian border, then the larger crowds flooding the embassies, and finally in the throngs marching through the streets of Berlin and Dresden and Leipzig, their simple yet powerful declaration “We are the people!” shook the foundations of the regime.
The first reactions of Western policymakers, however, were halting. Though many made speeches endorsing human rights, most politicians were more afraid of change than willing to see an opportunity. Genscher, for example, was not sure what to do about all the East Germans crowding the Embassies in Prague and Budapest. Only after long negotiations did both sides agree to allow the occupiers to head west in sealed trains. Opposition politicians were even more ambivalent, as they had moved further and further to the Left in the 1980s. In June 1989, SPD Minister President of Lower Saxony Gerhard Schröder famously remarked: “After forty years of the Federal Republic we should not lie to a new generation in Germany about the chances of reunification. There are none.” In late July, Joschka Fischer of the Greens, future Foreign Minister, went one better, dismissing the demand for reunification as “a dangerous illusion” and called for removing the call for reunification from the preamble of West Germany’s Basic Law. Even later that fall, Fischer said “Forget about reunification we should shut up about that for the next twenty years.”
The people of East Germany, however, decided not to shut up, but to speak out. As October, which saw anti-government protests during the official celebrations of the GDR’s Fortieth Anniversary, turned to November, the pressure from the people had become unbearable for the East German regime. Warned by Gorbachev that “history punishes those who change too late,” the SED tried to stave off its end by jettisoning Honecker and offering a new reformist face in Egon Krenz. Krenz deserves credit for rejecting the possibility of using force against the protesters (what the security forces called, with sinister subtlety, the “Chinese solution”). But Krenz could not keep up with a population whose hunger for reform grew with the eating. When the SED Politburo tried to rush out an announcement easing the visa requirements for foreign travel, the garbled press conference inspired crowds to rush to the center of Berlin and demand the Wall be opened up immediately. As the befuddled border guards acquiesced, the Wall designed to last another fifty or a hundred years had seen its last day.
Once the wall fell, reunification was still only a hazy possibility. Many East German dissidents and western intellectuals still hoped for a “Third Way” between Soviet communism and western capitalism. This reflected of course an ideological split between those on the left who had prided themselves on leaving nationalism behind and those on the right who had been rhetorically committed to the nation for so long. But the split was generational as well. When younger social democrats such as Gerhard Schröder or Oskar Lafontaine expressed worries that the costs outweighed the benefits of national unity, the grand old man of their party Willy Brandt, simply declared, “That which belongs together will grow together.”
Even as government agencies proved to be unprepared for the events, Kohl seized the opportunity to back up a lifetime of rhetoric with decisive action.
On November 28, 1989, he gave a speech offering a ten-point plan for German unification, beginning with easing travel restrictions, and ending with reunification within a unifying Europe. Choosing boldness over drift, Kohl’s plan attracted crucial support from Washington. His Europeans allies, especially France, Britain, and Italy, were publicly more reserved, but President George Bush lined up behind Kohl, and helped in talks with Gorbachev.
Kohl’s plan also resonated with the people in East Germany. Uninterested in serving as subjects of another social experiment, they began to agitate for unification, or forced the issue by moving to the West themselves. Only the promise of ultimate reunification could keep the East Germans at home. “We are the people” became “We are one people.” Free elections in East Germany on March 18, 1990 showed where things were going. The CDU and its allies, Kohl’s parties, won a strong mandate. The stage was set for reunification, which Kohl and Bush negotiated with the Soviets. Careful negotiations led to the German-German Financial Treaty on May 18, which went into effect on July 1, making the Deutschmark the common currency of the two German states. On the broader international stage, negotiations on the Two Plus Four treaty, including the two German states and the four occupying powers, (a formula initially suggested by State Department official and future FPRI President Harvey Sicherman) proceeded apace. German offers of financial assistance helped sweep away remaining Soviet reservations. The conclusion of the Treaty on September 12 led to official unity on October 3, 1990.
It had all happened very fast, faster even than the protesters in the streets had expected. The hollowness of the SED regime and its utter lack of legitimacy certainly played a role. Most important was Kohl’s surprising willingness to press ahead, confident both that Washington was behind him and that Gorbachev could be convinced through a combination of political pressure and economic inducement to agree. Later on, he would be criticized for moving too fast, and for downplaying the potential costs as he predicted “blooming landscapes” in the former East. Much Western intelligence on the GDR proved incorrect East Germany was not as prosperous and strong as their propaganda had indicated. There was also a great deal of wishful thinking about the challenges of reuniting a country after four decades of division. Consequently, Germans suffered from a long economic and social hangover that continues to bedevil German politics and society. Kohl rode the euphoria of reunification to a big victory in 1990 elections, as the SPD leadership under Oskar Lafontaine was torn by ambivalence over reunification and its costs. In 1994, Kohl was re-elected, but with a much smaller majority as the costs of reunification became clearer. In 1998 he suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the new generation represented by Schröder and Fischer. But by then there was no going back.
Bismarck has famously been quoted as saying, “A statesman cannot create anything himself. He must wait and listen until he hears the steps of God sounding through events then leap up and grasp the hem of his garment.” Some opportunities appear only once, and for a very brief time. German unity was such an opportunity. Kohl represented a generation that considered reunification a natural goal, but that generation was on its way out by 1989. Considering further what happened in the Soviet Union, especially the intense backlash culminating in the 1991 coup attempt, one sees that it was good that Kohl had moved so quickly, because the window of opportunity was very small. What was possible in 1990 had been unthinkable in early 1989, and would have been unthinkable again by the summer of 1991.
German unification should humble all who profess to be able to predict the course of history, and also demonstrates the limitations of a realism that attempts to reduce international and domestic politics to the sum of external structures. Structures may indeed strongly shape reality, but they alone are not enough. It takes people to give them meaning. The Cold War did not end because the superpowers said so. Or rather, what the superpowers meant by the end of the Cold War would have left the Berlin Wall standing, and a great many other walls besides. It took people with imagination to grasp the possibilities, not simply to end, but to transcend the Cold War.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in Europe is a story full of fascinating characters. They include a man in Rome, born in Cracow with a kindly smile and an iron will another in Moscow who risked the fate of an empire, and lost, to win a victory for humanity two men in Washington, mocked as an “amiable dunce” and a “wimp,” who showed both skill and empathy in dealing with friends old and new and the ponderous, slow-talking man in Bonn who grasped the opportunity to unite his divided nation.
But it is not enough to focus only on the powerful. It was the people in their broadest sense that made this history possible, often in the face of criticism from experts who clucked and told them that they needed to accept the permanence of concrete realities. They are the thousands of individuals who marched together for freedom in Leipzig, Dresden, East Berlin, and other German cities and towns, as well as thousands more in Prague, Warsaw, Vilnius, Kiev, and even Moscow. We do not know their names, but we know what they accomplished. By tearing down a hateful monument to dictatorship, they helped build a better world.
 Not FPRI, though. In 1987 FPRI convened a three-day conference in New York City on the question “Will the Communist Regimes Survive?” Covered extensively in the news media at the time, the conference featured 36 speakers—all dissidents or exiles from 12 communist countries. According to FPRI’s then-deputy director Alan Luxenberg, the vibrancy of the cross-national ties of the dissidents and exiles was readily apparent. “Freedom was in the air,” he said. Alas, FPRI may have been farsighted, but it was not terribly efficient at that time: the volume of conference papers was not published until 1991—after communism collapsed. See Vladimir Tismaneanu and Judith Shapiro, eds. Debates on the Future of Communism (Palgrave Macmillan, 1991).
Ronald J. Granieri is a Templeton Fellow, Executive Director of the Center for the Study of America and the West, and Host of Geopolitics with Granieri at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
The rise and fall of the Berlin Wall and why it matters today.
Border policemen stand next to the sign at the Berlin Wall and Brandenburg Gate in Berlin June 17, 1986. The sign says: "Achtung! Sie verlassen jetzt West-Berlin" (Attention, you are leaving West Berlin). (CNS photo/Wolfgang Kumm, EPA)
The Berlin Wall stood for 10,316 days. As of Feb. 5, 2017, it has now been breached for over 10,316 days. From now on, Berlin will live with the memory of the wall for longer than it lived with the wall itself.
For the generations that grew up in a divided Berlin, the fact that the young will not experience such a life must be seen as evidence of the city’s achievement. Still, there is something lost as the hard-won lessons and perspectives of living in the shadow of the wall begin to recede.
The editors at America were hard at work, observing and commenting on developments from around the world, throughout the 10,316 days the Berlin Wall stood. And as with most people around the world, for most of that period the editors seldom noted the wall’s existence. It was a fact of life, a physical manifestation of the Cold War and its underlying ideological conflict. But at its rise and then at its fall, America’s editors took note. Their writings help us understand the continued relevance of the physical symbol of the Iron Curtain.
The wall rises
On June 10, 1961, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev presented President John F. Kennedy with an ultimatum: The Western Allies must leave their zones of occupation in West Berlin or the Soviets would take unilateral action to seize the city. America’s editors were not impressed, writing in the June 14, 1961, issue: “Anyone who has followed the Berlin question for the past three years knows that the West cannot accept any of the choices offered by the Soviet memorandum. If we do, we throw away the key to the defense of Western Europe and the key to our own security. Khrushchev knows in advance that we must reject his proposals, no matter how often he shouts that West Berlin is like a cancer on his face or a bone in his throat.”
Berlin was indeed a problem for the Soviets. An outpost of freedom behind the Iron Curtain, West Berlin provided not only a ready example of a political alternative for East Germany’s oppressed population but also a practical means of escape. Voting with their feet, millions of East Germans were condemning communism in the clearest terms by using West Berlin as an escape hatch. Khrushchev intended to close the hatch.
From now on, Berlin will live with the memory of the wall for longer than it lived with the wall itself.
The editors next weighed in on the escalating crisis in the Aug. 12, 1961, issue: “As we start out down this snaky and dangerous road of ‘negotiating’ the Berlin crisis with Khrushchev, the President’s thinking is undoubtedly dominated by considerations as those that follow. We must somehow buy time on Berlin without backing down on our commitments to that city or selling out some other vital interest of the free world. How is this to be accomplished?”
For the editors the main consideration was a military one: “Despite the modest buildup we plan for our conventional forces, we are and shall remain overwhelmingly outfaced by the conventional forces of the Soviet Union. True, we have our stockpile of H-bombs, but Khrushchev is convinced that, so long as he fights with conventional weapons, we would never be morally callous enough to push the big nuclear button. Our military position, therefore, is weak. This makes our bargaining position weak.”
Yet the editors were clear that despite Soviet pressure, the United States must not back down: “Whatever political ‘accommodations’ we make with the Soviet Union, they must not lead us onto the slippery path of appeasement. Once we set our feet on that road there will be no place left on which to make a stand. This thought must be uppermost in Mr. Kennedy’s mind.”
On Aug. 13, 1961, the day after the issue including that editorial, construction on the Berlin Wall began. In a sense the wall can be said to have prevented a military confrontation, as it represented the Soviets’ giving up any hope of reuniting Berlin under communist control. They would solve their problem of emigration with a border wall instead. Peace would be maintained, but it was the citizens of Berlin that would pay the price. Over the course of the next 10,316 days, at least 140 people would lose their lives as a result of the wall.
By the Oct. 14, 1961, issue, the editors were suggesting that the world need not be so single-mindedly following the events Berlin, writing: “World attention is focused on Berlin these days to the exclusion of almost all else. Yet, as President Kennedy reminded his listeners during his recent UN address, Berlin is not the only place where peace is imperiled. There is an insidious ‘creeping war’ in South Vietnam. Because of its ‘creeping’ character, it may not strike us as a deadly serious affair. Nevertheless, as the President pointed out, aggression is no less real when men are knifed in their homes rather than shot on the battlefield. And aggression anywhere is a threat to all.”
At least 140 people would lose their lives as a result of the wall.
The nation’s Cold War attention would indeed soon turn away from Berlin and toward Southeast Asia, driven there by a war that America would at first support. For Berlin, the wall would become a fact of life, occasionally thrust into the spotlight when used a stage by President Kennedy in 1963 or President Reagan in 1987 (or David Bowie in 1987 and Bruce Springsteen in 1988 for that matter) but otherwise an accepted, if resented, part of life for West Berliners. It was among East Berliners that the seeds of the wall’s collapse were being sown.
The wall falls
On Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall “fell,” as the East German government suddenly allowed its citizens to pass through to the Western side Rarely has such a major development taken the world so completely by surprise. America addressed the momentous implications of in an editorial titled “Glasnost as a verb: to open a wall,” run in the Nov. 25, 1989, issue: “Now that we have all had a chance to pinch ourselves and rub our eyes, the momentous implications of Nov. 9 are coming clear.”
The main question the opening of the wall raised was German reunification, which at the time was not a foregone conclusion: “The speed and the force with which the topic of German reunification came rushing to the fore have been breathtaking and inevitable—the speed matched that of the wall’s collapse, and the force came from the wall’s having functioned as a symbol of artificial, enforced division. Not everyone is pleased at that prospect. Margaret Thatcher, whose party and Government have seemed content to live with a divided Ireland (in no rush, at any rate, to solve the “Irish question”), said predictably that any talk of German reunification was much too fast.”
Twenty-nine years later we know that, of course, Germany would reunify and would become the dominant power in Europe, much as Mrs. Thatcher feared. However, it is also clear that in East Germany reunification has not been as beneficial as hoped. The formerly communist East continues to lag behind the West. Resentments at the disappearance of jobs and financial security the communist regime once afforded have turned ugly, propelling the genuinely frightening return of far-right violence. The Berlin Wall may have fallen, but many divisions will take a longer time to heal.
The Hope of 1989: How the fall of the Berlin Wall transformed world politics
There are few turning points of history of near unmitigated joy, but the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of them. On 9 November 1989, the exuberance of Berliners spread like wildfire around the globe. The Wall had been an icon of the Cold War. But the Wall did not ‘fall’, nor did it ‘collapse’, on its own. It was overcome by the people of East Germany. When this happened, it was clear for all to see: socialist regimes could no longer stand in the way of citizens’ desire for democracy and human rights.
Thirty years later, populists govern in many parts of Eastern Europe, as oligarchs have created new economic (and political) dependencies. Even in eastern Germany, support for the anti-immigrant, climate-change denying far-right ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD) is at an all-time high, at over 20% of popular support in recent state elections. What has gone wrong? How could such deep-seated disillusionment with democracy emerge, in just a few decades?
If, in 1989, capitalism appeared to be victorious, its superiority is hardly a given thirty years later, least of all in Eastern Europe. To be sure, there has been huge economic progress after socialism. But vast areas have been left behind by a vicious circle of loss of jobs, depopulation, and a decline in services. But this phenomenon did not start in 1989. In fact, a key factor in the collapse of communism was the growing technological gap between socialist countries dominated by heavy industry worse for wear, and a West boosted by rapidly developing computing power and a fast-changing, globalising banking and services sector. 1989 marked the first public protest about regions and socialist countries increasingly left behind, just on a massive, transnational scale.
Hopes for a new system were dashed
Most Berliners were joyous in 1989 &ndash but not all. Those who had fought for socialism could see their world crumbling as Berliners hacked the Wall into pieces. Even a number of environmental activists and demonstrators feared &ndash rightly, as it turned out &ndash that their dreams of a new society that was neither socialist nor capitalist would be dashed by the lure of unification. The problem was not that there was an alternative to speedy unification. Already from as early as the summer of 1989, thousands of East Germans voted with their feet every month and left for West Germany: this haemorrhage of talent alone dictated rapid unification. Rather, the problem was that the optimism of 1989 drowned out those who warned how difficult the transition to capitalism would be. The maelstrom of transition caught East Germans unprepared, and this transition was completely one-sided: West Germans cared little about how they might in fact learn from the East. The experiences and memories of millions of East Germans became discounted, resurfacing only occasionally in wider consciousness, in films like ‘Goodbye Lenin’ and the ‘Lives of Others’.
The Wall was overcome peacefully
But none of this should take away from the significance of 9 November, which has shaped the past thirty years in significant ways. First, and above all, the Berlin Wall was overcome peacefully. This was far from a foregone conclusion. The GDR was one of the World’s most militarized states, and it had the largest security apparatus (per capita) worldwide. In theory it had the means at least to try and quell the revolution, and some had the will to follow the Chinese example of Tiananmen Square of June 1989. Instead, East Germans made a peaceful revolution that shook the world. Precisely because so much of their experience during socialism has since been discounted, it is important to honour the courage of the protesters, and the wisdom of crucial decision-makers.
1989 is also a moment that transformed Europe. West German leaders were acutely aware of the nervousness in London, Paris, Washington and Moscow about a resurgent, united Germany. When West German politicians addressed the East German crowds in the days following the overcoming of the Wall, none of them wasted an opportunity to emphasize that the German future lay within a shared European home. The European Union, founded in 1992, is a direct consequence, with Germans willingly (and begrudgingly) giving up the DM, their prized currency, for the common Euro. The EU is the final legacy of a generation marked by the Second World War, to create a Europe that is so intertwined and united that War could never again emanate from German soil.
The demise of the Cold War
Finally, the Wall’s demise marked a rapid end of the Cold War. Thirty years on, it is easy to develop a nostalgia for the bipolar global order established between the US and the USSR. But this apparent stability was built on a massive nuclear arsenal around the world. It propped up countless corrupt, dictatorial regimes in Africa, the Americas, and Asia, irrespective of the suffering endured by their exploited citizens, as long as these regimes were suppliant to one or the other superpower. This global, nuclear confrontation imploded quickly, and with little noise. Once protesters had overcome the Wall as the visible demarcation between East and West, cold-war division was defenceless.
Thirty years on, the hope of the revolutionaries of 1989 for a better world does not appear to have materialised. But that should not take away the extraordinary courage of those who took to the streets in the autumn of 1989. Nor should it cause us to forget the extraordinary news of 9 November 1989, when the Wall was overcome. At that moment, everything seemed possible. Ordinary citizens could make history &ndash and they still can.
Jan Palmowski is Professor of Modern History, with an interest in German political and cultural history since the nineteenth century. His research focuses on how political power is exercised, expressed and refracted &ndash in popular practice, political rhetoric, and symbolic action.
Jan is the joint editor of German Division as Shared Experience which considers everyday life across the two Germanies, using perspectives from history, literary and cultural studies, anthropology and art history to explore how interconnections as well as fractures between East and West Germany after 1945 were experienced, lived and felt.
Image: West and East Germans at the Brandenburg Gate in 1989 via Wikimedia Commons
Terms for republishing
The text in this article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).
1. For GERMANY, give the following information:
- location/the countries that share its borders
- the religious breakdown of the population
- the type of government
- the chief of state (and head of government if different) If monarch or dictator, since what date has he/she ruled? – include name of heir apparent for monarch
- the population
Find the answers at the CIA World FactBook website. For each country, answers can be found under the “Geography” “People” and “Government” headings.
NOTE: Before answering the following questions, read the “Background” and watch the video under “Resources” below.
2. For GERMANY:
a) What was unusual about the Berlin Wall? What the purpose of the Berlin Wall?
b) Who built it? When was it built?
c) What was the Brandenburg Gate?
d) What were the Stasi?
e) What was Checkpoint Charlie?
f) How/why did the wall come down?
g) What role did President Ronald Reagan have in the fall of the Berlin Wall?
CHALLENGE: Watch the videos and check out the links under “Resources” below the questions. What two facts impressed you most about the people who never stopped trying to escape from communist East Germany to the freedom of West Germany?
Fall of the Berlin Wall: The guard who opened the gate – and made history
Tears still well up in Harald Jäger’s eyes when he recalls how he famously gave the order to open the Berlin Wall.
But the tears the former Stasi lieutenant-colonel first shed on that November night 25 years ago came from feelings of humiliation and defeat rather than joy.
Mr Jäger, now 71, is renowned in Germany for being “the man who opened the Berlin Wall”. On the night of 9 November a quarter of a century ago, he was the East German border guard officer in charge of the Bornholmer Strasse crossing point separating the communist East Berlin borough of Prenzlauer Berg from the West Berlin district of Wedding.
By 11.30 that night he and his colleagues were confronted by an angry and rapidly growing crowd of over 20,000 East Berliners chanting “Open the Gate”. Amid complete confusion, without clear orders and fearing a stampede, bloodbath or both, he took the snap decision to breach the divide.
The career border guard had passionately believed in and even helped to build the Berlin Wall back in 1961. Now, unwittingly, he was ordering its destruction, triggering German reunification. He didn’t know it then, but one of his next jobs would be running a newspaper kiosk just yards from where he now stood.
The fall of the Berlin Wall – in pictures
1 /10 The fall of the Berlin Wall – in pictures
The fall of the Berlin Wall – in pictures
The fall of the Berlin Wall – 25 years on
The fall of the Berlin Wall – in pictures
The fall of the Berlin Wall – 25 years on
The fall of the Berlin Wall – in pictures
The fall of the Berlin Wall – 25 years on
The fall of the Berlin Wall – in pictures
The fall of the Berlin Wall – 25 years on
The fall of the Berlin Wall – in pictures
The fall of the Berlin Wall – 25 years on
The fall of the Berlin Wall – in pictures
The fall of the Berlin Wall – 25 years on
The fall of the Berlin Wall – in pictures
The fall of the Berlin Wall – 25 years on
The fall of the Berlin Wall – in pictures
The fall of the Berlin Wall – 25 years on
The fall of the Berlin Wall – in pictures
The fall of the Berlin Wall – 25 years on
The fall of the Berlin Wall – in pictures
The fall of the Berlin Wall – 25 years on
“After I gave the order, I and the other guards couldn’t believe what we were seeing. We were shell shocked, we felt the world was collapsing around us” he told The Independent in the small communist-era flat he shares with his wife in the village of Werneuchen north of Berlin.
“We stood there and watched our citizens leaving en masse. These were our people. We cried. We felt betrayed by our superiors. It was the terrible realisation that not only the system and our leaders had failed. We had too,” he added.
It wasn’t until about half an hour later when the vast tide of East Berliners – cheering, clapping, hooting and weeping with emotion as they poured westward – reached full ebb, that the penny dropped for Mr Jäger and his colleagues. “The crowds won us over with their euphoria, we realised that they were overjoyed and our tears of frustration turned to those of joy,” he said. “At that point one of the guards came up to me and said, Harald, I guess that was it with East Germany. It suddenly dawned on me that it was.”
East Germany’s end had been proclaimed, albeit in a garbled statement, by East Berlin politburo member Günter Schabowski some four hours earlier. Buckling under the pressure of a huge anti-communist demonstration in Berlin five days before and a mass exodus of East Germans across the now open Iron Curtain on Hungary’s border with Austria, the regime knew that easing its ban on travel to the West was its only slim chance of survival.
Mr Jäger was in a Stasi canteen grabbing a bite to eat at the time. Sitting in front of the canteen TV set he watched in disbelief: Schabowski had first announced on state-run television that East Germans could now travel to the West providing they obtained the correct travel documents from the authorities. But then he suddenly declared that they could do so “immediately and without delay”.
“I almost choked on the roll I was eating. I thought ‘what is this nonsense all about?’” By the time he reached the Bornholmer Strasse guard post, small knots of inquisitive East Germans had started to gather outside. They were anxious to find out whether they could travel West. Mr Jäger telephoned his superior, Stasi Col Rudi Ziegenhorn, for advice but was bluntly instructed to send away anyone who did not have the right travel documents. “Why are you calling me about such nonsense?” Mr Jäger was asked.
But by 8pm West German television was interpreting Schabowski’s statement with the news headline: “East Germany opens its borders to the West.” The gathering of East Germans at Bornholmer Strasse was fast becoming a crowd. Mr Jäger made more increasingly desperate phone calls to his superior. “I have no order from above for you,” Ziegenhorn told him.
By 9pm the crowd had become so big that Mr Jäger was beginning to panic: “We have to do something,” he shouted down the phone.
He was then ordered to defuse the situation by letting the noisiest East Germans leave the crossing point for West Berlin. The aim was to make it impossible for them to return by rendering their passports invalid with a special stamp. “I realised then that I was doing something which was illegal even in East Germany,” he said. The tactic soon backfired. The crowd, seeing that the noisy were allowed West, started to get noisier.
The other guards, realising that East Germany’s entire military and political apparatus appeared to have lost control, begged Mr Jäger to take action. All of them were armed with pistols and Kalashnikovs were on hand in the border post hut. But Mr Jäger feared a bloodbath even more than the possibility of a stampede which seemed imminent. Shortly after 11.30pm he gave the order “Open the barrier” and the human tide flowed west until dawn.
At the end of his shift, Mr Jäger called his sister: “It was me who opened the border last night,” he told her. “You did well,” was her reply. The rest is history.
But for Mr Jäger the experience was an ideological trauma. His father was one of East Germany’s first border guards. After the Second World War, he was granted early release from a Soviet prisoner of war camp in Siberia because he had signed up for the job. His son grew up to be a communist and joined the border guards as his father had done.
In 1961, he policed the Berlin Wall as it was being built. “We all thought that unlike the West, which still had former Nazis in power, that we in the East were building the better Germany,” he said.
He said he was overjoyed when the Berlin Wall went up because it “put an end to corruption and chaos” that was being caused by capitalist West Berlin. Of the scores shot dead at the Berlin Wall trying to escape, he says: “We always thought that any death at the Berlin Wall was one death too many, but we turned a blind eye to the fact that people were actually killed.”
Even after the Wall fell, like millions of East Germans, Harald Jäger still hoped that East Germany would reform its system and continue to co-exist with West Germany. “We didn’t believe in or even particularly want reunification,” he recalls.
It came less than a year later and Mr Jäger, who had by then transferred to the East German army, lost his job. After a few years, he scraped together enough cash to buy a newspaper kiosk just a few hundred yards from his former Bornholmer Strasse crossing point. “Some of the customers used to shout ‘don’t buy your papers from this Stasi pig’,” he recalls. “But most used to congratulate me for what I did,” he says.
Harald Jäger is now retired. But only recently has he been reaping the benefits of the freedom of travel he secured for his fellow citizens 25 years ago. Last month, he was in Liverpool, where he told his story to a packed audience at the city’s university. “I had a great time,” he says. For tomorrow’s anniversary he was interviewed by South Korean television. Mr Jäger is convinced that the North-South Korea divide will eventually go the same way as the Berlin Wall. “Sooner or later the Koreans – like the Germans – will find the way to each other,” he said.