Toppled: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall
Paul Vidich on the Timeline of a Historic Night
Thirty years ago tomorrow—the evening of November 9, 1989—the Berlin Wall, an enduring symbol of the Cold War, came down. It was a momentous night. No shots were fired and no lives were lost, a remarkable outcome given East Germany’s record of brutal repression. It was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union would collapse two years later.
Few people know that the Wall would not have opened as it did without the last-minute decisions of a mid-level East German government bureaucrat, Gerhard Lauter, who made what he thought was a clarifying change in a press release, and a loyal Stasi border control officer, Harald Jäger, who disobeyed orders. Their actions helped shape the peaceful outcome.
Construction of the Wall began on August 13, 1961 in an East German effort to stem the flight of its population. More than 2.2 million people, a sixth of East Germany’s population, had fled West for a mix of political, economic, and personal reasons. The Wall effectively cut Berlin in half. In the 28 years the Wall was in place, more than 140 people died trying to cross it.
By the summer of 1989, voices of discontent were being raised across East Germany, but particularly in East Berlin. Huge music festivals became peaceful political demonstrations, and as is the case everywhere, a generation of rebellious youth rose up and demanded more freedom, which meant travel to West Berlin. Limited travel was possible, but it required a visa, and they were rarely granted. Two cities, side-by-side, one prosperous and free, the other grim, gray, and poor. East Berliners got West German television and they had only to open their eyes to see the magnitude of their deprivation.
There is always an incident, isn’t there? The unexpected event that in hindsight begins the unraveling.
It happened on September 11, 1989. Hungary, a Warsaw Pact country, had opened its border with Austria, a NATO member, and thousands of East Germans traveled through Hungary to escape West. Hungary quickly realized its mistake and closed the border again. Hundreds of stranded East Germans sought refuge in West Germany’s embassies in Prague and Warsaw, creating a diplomatic standoff that was resolved when East Germany agreed to provide sealed trains that would take the people non-stop across East Germany to the West. The freedom trains were met with jubilant East German crowds as they traveled across the country and ignited protests in Dresden and Leipzig.
On November 4, half-a-million people attended a massive demonstration in the heart of East Berlin to demand eased travel rules.
The East German Politburo sought to defuse the tension by re-writing the travel restrictions and allowing people to emigrate, but the catch was, if you left you couldn’t return, and an exit visa was still required. These so-called “new” rules were intended to appeared relaxed, but the onerous visa requirement meant there was no real change.There is always an incident, isn’t there? The unexpected event that in hindsight begins the unraveling.
The press release announcing the change was written by a loyal, mid-level bureaucrat, Gerhard Lauter, who feared one-way emigration would depopulate the country and destabilize the government. He inserted into the text an unauthorized reference to temporary travel. As he would later say: “I wanted the prevent a coup.” Gunter Schabowski, the dour, older politburo member who read the release at a crowded press conference, had not reviewed the script in advance and had been absent during the Politburo deliberations. He faithfully read the release with its reference to temporary travel.
One reporter shouted the crucial question, “When does this take effect?”
Schabowski scanned the unfamiliar text in his hands and picked out the words he saw printed: “Right away.”
Incredulous journalists left the room and reported that the Berlin Wall was now open.
Thousands of East Berliners, hearing those reports, walked to the fortified and heavily guarded border crossing at Bornholm Bridge, the major checkpoint between East and West Berlin. Harald Jäger, the officer in charge, had watched the press conference in disbelief. No one had alerted him to the possible change in travel rules.
Jäger had been a loyal servant of the regime for 25 years and he immediately called his supervisor, Colonel Ziegenhorn, the duty officer at Stasi headquarters. Ziegenhorn said that everything remained the same, without change, and the gate was to remain closed.
Jäger and his men were stunned by the swelling crowd and Jäger again called the Colonel, who said the troublemakers should be pushed back. He kept calling the Colonel, trying to get instructions, but his boss replied every time that it was business as usual. Later, Jäger recalled that he placed over 30 calls over the course of the night, all in a fruitless attempt to get instructions on how to handle the crowd’s demand that the gate be opened. At one point, he was quietly added to a Stasi headquarters conference call, as a way for him to understand the confusion even at the highest level of the Stasi, and he overheard one Stasi superior, not knowing Jäger was on the line, say, “Is this Jäger capable of assessing the situation realistically, or is he simply a coward?”
Jäger felt a wave of anger wash over him. He had been on duty for twelve hours, he was exhausted, and the crowd at the checkpoint had grown to tens of thousands, filling all the approach streets. Loud chants of “Open the gates,” erupted regularly.
Jäger looked at his dozen frightened, heavily-armed officers and said words to the effect of, “Should we shoot all these people, or open up?” Jäger called his commanding officer and said, “I am ending all controls and letting the people out.”
The Berlin Wall opened at about 11:30 pm. Camera crews among the bystanders on the West Berlin side, broadcast the moment live. The sight of thousands of East Berliners crossing the bridge was seen on TV by other East Berliners, and by midnight crowds had gathered at border checkpoints across the city.
Weeks before, NBC producers had decided to air the Tom Brokaw’s Nightly News from Berlin and had reserved satellite transponder time for a window starting 12:30 am in Berlin, which was 6:30 pm in New York. Brokaw knew the border had opened at the bridge when he began his broadcast from a raised platform in front of the Brandenburg Gate, which was illuminated by huge floodlights. There was no checkpoint by the Brandenburg Gate, but it provided a powerful symbolic background for his broadcast. The floodlights had also attracted a crowd on the opposite side of the wall.
Brokaw interrupted himself a few minutes into the broadcast, glancing over his shoulder, to see the first East Germans summit the Wall, arms raised and waving, faces bright with joy. The historic moment was broadcast live and seen around the world.
Five books address the fall of the Berlin Wall, and life in East Germany in the years leading up to its collapse in 1989. They are:
The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall
The opening of the Berlin Wall was not planned by the East German ruling regime—nor was it the result of a bargain between either President Ronald Reagan or President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It was an accident. In The Collapse, prize-winning historian Mary Elise Sarotte reveals how a perfect storm of decisions made by daring underground revolutionaries, disgruntled Stasi officers, and dictatorial party bosses sparked an unexpected series of events culminating in the chaotic fall of the Wall. Sarotte brings to life a story that sweeps across Budapest, Prague, and Leipzig and on to the armed checkpoints in Berlin. The Collapse offers the definitive account of the night that brought down the Berlin Wall
Stasiland: True Stories Behind the Berlin Wall
Australian writer Anna Funder uses a series of East German character sketches to reveal life under former Communist rule. The German Democratic Republic’s surveillance apparatus, run by the Stasi (secret police), was more pervasive than elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc; many people became informers, while others had their lives ruined for minor infractions. Funder interviewed ex-Stasi employees and she befriended several survivors, such as Miriam, who was arrested at 16 in 1968 for anti-authoritarian pranks and was persecuted for years. Funder shrewdly blends memoir elements with these personal histories and casts a keen eye on the remaining traces of the old regime. The former GDR is out of the news these days, but Funder’s colorful and intensely observed portrait of the Stasi’s victims reads like a warning of the dangers of totalitarianism.
Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall
Hester Vaizey, Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, details the dramatic changes that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 through the lives of eight citizens of the former East Germany. What was it really like to go from living under communism one minute, to capitalism the next? All of the people in the book were born in East Germany after the Berlin Wall was put up in August 1961, so they knew nothing other than living in a socialist system when the GDR fell apart. Their stories provide a fascinating insight not only into everyday life in East Germany, but about how they remember the now-vanished state today—with a measure of loathing for the Stasi and some fondness and regret for a lost world of guaranteed employment.
The Wall Jumper: A Berlin Story
Peter Schneider’s short novel is a West Berlin writer’s account of his relationship with the divided city he has lived for 20 years; and of his friendships with East Berliners who tell the nameless narrator a number of Wall stories. One friend who jumped the Wall 15 times, apparently for no reason except that, like Everest, it was there. “Sometimes it’s so quiet in the apartment and so gray and cloudy outside and nothing’s happening and I think to myself: Hey, let’s go and jump the Wall again.” And three moviegoers who jumped the Wall to see western movies and then jumped back East again after the show. The stories are marvelous, balanced between the mythic and the plausible, boundary-walking tales that create, in very few words, the unreal reality of Berlin.
Man Without a Face
For decades, Markus Wolf was known to Western intelligence officers only as “the man without a face.” In his autobiography, the legendary head of the Stasi’s foreign intelligence branch emerges from the shadows to reveal his remarkable life of secrets, lies, and betrayals. The memoir illuminates the reality of espionage operations as few nonfiction works before it have. Wolf tells the real story of Gunter Guillaume, the East German spy who brought down Willy Brandt. He reveals the truth behind East Germany’s involvement with terrorism, and he describes how the Stasi used so-called Romeos, East German spies married to West German women, to collect intelligence. With its high-speed chases, hidden cameras, phony brothels, secret codes, false identities, and triple agents, Man Without a Face reads like a spy thriller—except this time the action is real.