It was late on a Saturday night in August 1961, when a group of young East German servicemen were handed a startling order: they were to move up to the borders between allied West Berlin and Soviet-occupied East Berlin and “expect some sort of conflict.”
But instead of weapons, they were given construction equipment and told to build a wall. Overnight, the border would be closed. Seventeen million people would be trapped inside the barbed wire and hastily dug ditches that would morph into the geopolitical monstrosity known as the Berlin Wall.
Then, just as abruptly, on a damp fall night in 1989, the wall that brutally divided East and West Germany opened up — with a new cast of confused servicemen playing a pivotal role in history.
To the outside world, the wall’s demise 25 years ago was the last act of a cataclysmic drama that spanned the Cold War. It was also the culmination of the courageous acts of ordinary people whose persistence wore it down.
But within the East German regime, the wall’s final hours were closer to a comedy of errors, says Mary Elise Sarotte, author of .The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall. “If I published the same book and called it a novel, people would say it was too ridiculous to be true.”
At the heavily barricaded Bornholmer Street checkpoint the night of Nov. 9, 1989, it was anything but a laughing matter for 46-year-old Stasi officer Harald Jager, the passport control official temporarily in charge of the crossing. Surrounded by surging, euphoric crowds struggling to breach the border, he groped in vain for orders. When none arrived, “he looked at the colleagues standing nearby and said words to the effect of, ‘Should we shoot all these people or should we open up?’ ”
The Stasi had a reputation as all-knowing and all-seeing, a diabolical force to be feared. Without direction, in an age of limited communications, they were reduced to Keystone Cops.
Jager had no idea that an equally befuddled East German official had just issued a stunning statement — one that was internationally broadcast and seemed to declare the wall kaput. With no command from officialdom, he went with his gut. The checkpoint was opened. The Cold War was on fast defrost.
But as jubilant East Berliners streamed through to the West shedding tears of joy, Jager’s colleagues wept with pain, betrayal and fear. For nearly two decades they had guarded the barrier from “traitors.” Brought up to revere the communist system, they understood that the reign of repression was over, and they were standing on shifting ground.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was the result of years of East German dissent, Western pressure and mounting efforts by East Germans to slip through the Iron Curtain.
The perseverance of the non-violent protest movement ultimately created an unstoppable tide that was able to sweep away the regime without bloodshed. But it was the chaos, blunders, misunderstandings and failures of communication within the regime that created a juggernaut of errors that unwittingly brought down the wall.
“Individuals were the sparks that set off the explosion,” says Sarotte, a history professor at Harvard and UCLA.
One of those was Gunter Schabowski, a high-ranking Politburo member described as “a man with the face of an outraged bulldog” by British journalist Anne McElvoy.
Schabowski was accustomed to East German-style press conferences: recounting turgid explanations of equally tedious communist events. And he had the bad fortune to be handed a slap-dash announcement of a new draft travel law to read to the international media on the night of Nov. 9.
In the stuffy, overheated East Berlin press centre, a large gathering of reporters and broadcasters waited expectantly, including NBC superstar Tom Brokaw. “The first 50 minutes of the meeting were excruciatingly boring,” said Sarotte. “People were falling asleep. Then he misread the announcement that he himself was only reading for the first time. And suddenly everyone who spoke German snapped awake.”
What Schabowski announced — although droningly delivered and painfully worded — echoed around the world like a gunshot.
“The party had decided ‘to issue a regulation that will make it possible for every citizen . . . to emigrate,’ ” recounted Sarotte. “He would now read a text of the new rules, he said, as soon as he could find it. He began digging through his thick stack of papers.”
The press conference fell into frenzy and farce, as flabbergasted journalists bellowed rapid-fire questions. With the help of flustered aides, Schabowski found and read the missing text in a rapid, mumbling voice: private trips to foreign countries “may be applied for,” he intoned, and the response would be quick.
After dodging numerous queries, he answered the crucial question: “When does that come into force?”
Seizing on some words from the text, he blurted, “immediately.” And ja, the rules included passage to West Berlin. With the announcement broadcast live in the West, and wire reporters rushing from the room to file the story, the stampede for the Wall was on.
In fact, the statement was not intended as instant revolution, but a modest advance. East Germans below retirement age were to be allowed visits to the West without going through an official justification process. The communist machine would maintain control over visas, and travel would happen in regulated fashion.
The dismantling of the Wall was never part of the plan — rather, the new rules would begin the next day with exit visas, stamps and passports still in force. But the poorly worded statement, compounded by blundering delivery, hurtled into history like an unguided missile.
The event, however, was only one link in a frayed chain that combined panicky errors in judgment with a failure of communication and the crumbling of a system that would break because it could not bend.
The panic set in months earlier with mounting pressure on the East German authorities, as Iron Curtain countries Hungary and Czechoslovakia — taking advantage of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization — opened their borders to the West, and disgruntled East Germans flocked to those countries for a quick getaway. The East German authorities tried to block their exits, and hundreds took refuge in West German embassies.
By November, more than 30,000 had managed to stream through Czechoslovakia and into Bavaria — infuriating communist officials in Prague, who feared it would embolden their opponents. They threatened to “take action” to stop the influx. Meanwhile, in early October, violent clashes swept East Germany’s Saxony region near Czechoslovakia, after the authorities tightened the rules for visiting neighbouring Warsaw Pact states.
To make matters worse, two plucky dissidents, Aram Radomski and Siegbert Schefke, evaded the Stasi to film one of the massive demonstrations in Leipzig, smuggle the videotape to West Germany and enable its broadcast in both countries, inspiring protests across East Germany.
As events sped out of control, newly installed leader Egon Krenz had the impossible mission of holding the sinking ship of state on course in a typhoon of change. Deeply shaken, the ruling communist cadre knew that something must be done — and sooner rather than later. Among other things, their own jobs were at stake.
After days of debate they decided on a plan to create a “hole” in the East German border in an obscure spot next to West Germany, allowing East Germans to travel west without a detour. It was meant to pacify the neighbours and quell the protests by issuing a “deceptive ruling” that would seem to liberalize the rules, but still allow strict state control.
The original plan had been for a “new” law that would maintain so many restrictions that release of its draft sparked even more furious protests. Now, with angry Czech leaders on the phone, and the threat of swelling protests and strikes looming at home, a group of second-string bureaucrats was handed the task of producing a quick but palatable measure.
But with unclear instructions and no guidance from Moscow or their own leadership, they misinterpreted the task, drafting “temporary transitional rules” that gave East Germans the right to freely leave the country until a new law was made. Schabowski’s announcement that it would happen immediately only piled mistake on misunderstanding.
In the melee that followed, no one bothered to inform the besieged guards at the crossing points, including Jager, of what was to come. “We were kept in the dark,” he told the Daily Telegraph this week. “My world was collapsing and I felt like I was left alone by my party and my military commanders.”
By morning, the security forces had managed to take back control of a number of checkpoints, but their efforts were futile. In a comic opera finale, Gerhard Lauter, the chief official responsible for the fateful text, was ordered to appear on television and “explain that applications (to travel) were still necessary.”
The 3 million East Germans who surged into the West over the next three days could only chuckle. Some kept shards of masonry they had chipped off the Berlin Wall as souvenirs. But it would be several months before the demolition of the wall officially began.
What remained, like the East German Communist Party, was cracked and crumbling. The wall of fear was gone.