The fall of the Berlin Wall on the 9th November 1989 marked the downfall of the East German dictatorship. This article focuses on how a small but crucial misunderstanding between two politicians drastically accelerated the events of that day.
tekst & illustrasjon: Elisaveta Dombrovski, Geoscience PhD
Die Wende – A Turning Point for Germany
If you take this edition’s theme and translate it into German,you end up with something like ‘Wendepunkt’ or shorter ‘Wende’. However, for Germans,the term “die Wende” refers to a very specific period in time, from May 1989 until March 1990, which was marked by growing political upheaval within East Germany. This up heaval eventually led to the reunification of Germany. The Berlin Wall fell on the night of the 9th November, caused in part by massive protests in front of the closed border gates. Not only were these protests the beginning of a new era of freedom for the East German population, but they also marked the unofficial ending of East Germany as its own country.
Miraculously, the protests occurred almost without violence or force from either the protesters or the governmental forces. This is especially remarkable considering that the Ministry of State Safety, commonly referred to as ‘Stasi’, was well known for shooting down fugitives and torturing people whose ideology was suspect. In this article, I want to give an insight into the circumstances that led to the peaceful revolution of 1989 and into how a simple miscommunication within the ruling party had far-reaching consequences.
A Short Roundup of German History
After the defeat of Germany in 1945 at the end of World War II, the country was divided by the Allies into four separate zones: three capitalist zones led by the USA, Great Britain and France, and one socialist zone led by the USSR. Due to growing economic disparity and the emergence of a cold war between the occupying powers, Germany was officially split into two countries in 1949: West Germany or, the ‘Federal Republic of Germany’ (BRD), and East Germany, or the ‘German Democratic Republic’ (DDR).
The ideologies of the two new countries were not the only thing that divided them. In the 1950s, West Germany experienced a surprisingly fast economic recovery, which led to a new self-confidence within the country. Dailylife within the BRD was very much oriented towards American culture, which was also reflected in traditional gender roles. In contrast, economic growth in the DDR was much slower and standards of living remained low. For instance, the variety of groceries available in the DDR was limited to what grew or was produced in the Soviet Union. Also, all major purchases in the DDR, such as cars, had to be approved by the government which could take many years. Despite this, the educational system in East Germany was well-established for both men and women, especially within the technical field, making East Germanshighly sought after employees on the rising Western industrialmarket.
Berlin was the capital of both countries and was therefore also partitioned into east and west. However, due to its geographical location,West Berlin formed an exclusive enclave within East German territory and therefore served as a window for East Germans on to the Western lifestyle. As a result, many East German citizens thought about leaving their country, which the “Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands” party (SED) tried to prevent by establishing a five kilometre-wide prohibited area with automatic guns along all western borders. Finally, under the guise of protecting the East German citizens from ‘fascist-western-influence’, the infamous Berlin Wall was built in 1961.
The 9th November 1989
The year 1989, which ironically also happened to be the 40th anniversary of the founding of the DDR, was characterized by significant dissatisfaction within the East German population. Many citizens were fed up with continuous electoral fraud committed by the leading party SED, the omnipresent monitoring of the population by the government, and especially by the feeling of being trapped in their own country. As a result, many fled through third-countries, such as Hungary or the Czech Republic. Nowadays, it seems hard to believe that for several weeks German refugees were living in tents on the hopelessly overcrowded property of the German embassy in Prague. Internationally, these events cast a negative light on the ‘seemingly-perfect’ socialist state of the DDR and resulted in considerable pressure on the government to reform travel policy.
“Many Germans still describe the night of the 9th November 1989 as one of the happiest moments of their lives”
A governmental subcommission headed by Gehard Lauter, head of the Department of Passports and Registrations, was assigned to create a new travel policy. The new policy made it legal for anyone with a passport and visa to leave the country. Those wishing to leave were no longer required to explain their departure, but the application process could still take several months. However, those who left the DDR would not be allowed to return. The policy was designed to give other countries the impression that the DDR was more liberal than it was. In reality, the government knew that it would only have a small effect, as most East German citizens had well-established lives which they were unwilling to desert. For the majority of citizens who wished only to travel temporarily, the law was useless.
Concerned about a potentially negative reception of the new policy, Lauter and the others on the subcommission decided to completely discard the ‘no return’ condition from the text, despite lacking the authority to make such major changes. The policy was supposed to be released to the public during a press conference scheduled on the next day and come into force one day after that, which would have given that Lauter had enough time to seek approval for the new policy. Little did he know, his suggestions would contribute to the fall of the DDR only hours later.
Egon Krenz, leader of the DDR, and several other government representetives assembled prior to a scheduled press conference. Although the new travel policy was discussed, its recent modification and potential impacts were not raised at this meeting.17:30 Günter Schabowski, the top DDR spokesman, joined the meeting just before its end. Hewas provided with documents that he was supposed to present to the media a couple of minutes later. In amongst these documents was the modified, and unapproved new travel policy that Lauter and his subcommission had altered only hours earlier.
The press conference was well-attended by both national and international media representatives, impatiently awaiting news of the new travel policy. Over the past few days, the DDR had gone from a country where people were afraid to share their opinions in public, to a country experiencing demonstrations with well over a million participants. It was clear that major political changes were required if the state were to survive. However, Schabowski did not mention travel policy at all during the hour-long press conference. It was only in the subsequent round of questioning, when an Italian journalist asked specifically for news regarding the travel situation, that Schabowski remembered the document that he had received earlier, a document that Schabowski himself had still not read.
After searching for the document for several uncomfortable minutes, Schabowski started reading out loud the information that was written on it. When the journalists asked when the new policy would come into effect, Schabowski, not aware of the unapproved status of the document, announced that the policy was now in effect. He left the press in a state of disbeliefand massive confusion. Meanwhile, Gerhard Lauterwas on the phone to the Minister of Justice, discussing the rephrasingof the new policy. He was absolutely unaware that the law was being released to the international press at that very moment. Suspecting no further political activity until the next day, he spent the rest of the evening at the theatre. Unsurprisingly, the news of the new policy revealed at the press conference,‘Free travel for everyone -The Wall is down!’,was immediately broadcasted in both the DDR and the BRD, and internationally. Many of the leading politicians concerned, including the Soviet Union minister in Berlin, only learned about the new policy the daily news.
It took only twenty minutes for the first East German citizens to show up at the border gates, expecting to finally be able to visit West Berlin. The border control officers however, who had not received any updated instructions, refused to open the gate for anyone not in possession of an official visa. Within a couple of hours, several thousand EastGermans had made their way to the gates and were demanding passage with growing impatience. Meanwhile, the completely overstrained border control officers desperately sought orders from higher authorities, only to find that their superiors were unaware of the events of the last few hours, and therefore failed to understand the gravity of the situation.
The border control officers received instructions to allow five hundred of the loudest troublemakers pass. However, they had no intention to allow these individuals to travel freely. The first East German travellers were to have their passports stamped, but denied entry should they attempt to reenter the country. This was an attempt to simultaneously deescalate the situation and to get rid of troublemakers. It is important to be aware that, as these events occurred at night, many of the ‘lucky’ first travellers had children and other family members sleeping at home back in the DDR. If the East German officials had had their way, they would most likely have never seen their loved ones ever again.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall, West German citizens gathered in front of the gates to welcome the new arrivals. Many bars offered free drinks to everybody with an East German passport, as well as free public transportation to facilitate sightseeing. To the surprise of the West Berliners, the majorityof East Berliners still were not able to cross the border, despite media reports that the gates were open. In a show of solidarity with the East Berliers, some students from West Berlin climbed the wall and added their voices to the protests in the east. In contrast to the increasingly volatile atmosphere on the eastern side, the atmosphere on the western side was festive, with people drinking champagne and sharing food. Both East and West Berliners began to try and break through the border. Luckily, the outnumbered border officers understood that violence had to be prevented at all costs. Even a single shot fired could have led to a tragedy of immense proportions.
Caving under pressure from the protesters, the first DDR gate opened completely and gave up attempting to stamp passports. Other gates soon followed and the fate of the Berlin Wall was sealed. Gerhard Lauteronly learned that the Wall had fallen after he finally came home from the theatre.
30 Years on German Union: The Situation Today
This year on the 3rd October 2020, Germany celebrates the 30th anniversary of the official German reunification. Compared to other countries, Germany’s national day is strikingly recent, well within the living memory of many citizens still alive today. Many Germans still describe the night of the 9thNovember 1989 as one of the happiest moments of theirlives. This is readily understandable if one watches one of the innumerable video recordings made by both press and private persons at thattime. These recordings show people crying and hugging each other, people dancing and celebrating the beginning of a new era under the Brandenburg Gate, and people enjoying exploring their neighbouring country for the first time. Today, almost every German citizen who was alive and not too young back then, can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“Many citizens were fed up with continuous electoral fraud committed by the leading party SED”
Even though Germany is now one country again, thirty years of division have left a clear mark on today’s society. A survey by the Bertelsmann foundation published on 7th September 2020 says that that there are still crucial differences between the former East and West. For instance, the German reunification was perceived as a radical change by most former East Germans, even more radical than the changes caused by the current global pandemic. In contrast, most former West Germans do not consider the changes that occurred due to reunificationas very drastic. This may be be due to a commonly-held feeling that reunification did not lead to the creation of a new country by uniting two cultures, but instead led to the takeover of East Germany by West Germany. As a result, many former East Germans claim that they still feel treated like second-class people that were ‘kindly adopted by the west’. Former East Germans also tend to believe that the reunification was caused by their peaceful, but powerful protest movement. Former West Germans on the other hand, believe that the unsustainable economic situation within the DDR was the main trigger for reunification.
Some people argue that it was only a matter of time before the DDR regime collapsed, even without the infamous misunderstanding between Lauter and Schabowski. Unarguably though, their misunderstanding accelerated events in a way that could not have been foreseen by anyone at the time and that ultimately made the 9th November 1989 a truly unforgettable day.■