The Berlin Wall came down on the evening of November 9, 1989, during a hastily arranged international press conference in East Berlin. Günter Schabowski, an official in East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party, ambled to the podium clutching some papers. Neither he nor the assembled journalists had got much sleep. Both had been preoccupied with the changes convulsing Communist Europe in the wake of Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberal reforms summarized under the buzzwords Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring). Over the summer, East German tourists in Hungary had already taken advantage of that country’s newly relaxed border controls to evade their country’s ban on travel to the West and poured through the border to Austria. More crowds of East Germans had been gathering at West German embassies in Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw to demand passage to West Germany. By the time Schabowski mounted the podium, nearly 200,000 East Germans had made their way to West Germany by these routes. In East Germany itself, the regime teetered as mass demonstrations demanded Gorbachev-style reforms. This protest movement continued to grow despite the resignation the previous month of Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany since 1971, and the entire East German Politbüro only the day before. It was clear that East Germany was facing a crisis, but no one in the room that evening could have foreseen the historic drama that was about to unfold.
Schabowski opened the conference, which was broadcast live on East German television, with a dull recounting of a recent Central Committee meeting. About an hour into the proceedings, an Italian journalist named Riccardo Ehrman asked a question about East Germany’s travel ban. Under the circumstances the question might have been expected, but Schabowski seemed caught off guard. He fumbled through his papers, familiarizing himself with their contents on the spot. Other journalists sensed his vulnerability and began to pepper him with questions. Finally, reading haltingly from a paper he said he had just received on his way to the conference, Schabowski seemed to say that East Germans were free to travel via all transit points from East to West Germany, including West Berlin, “ab sofort” (effective immediately). Then he adjourned the conference.
Clamoring reporters trailed Schabowski as he left the room. Was the Wall now truly open? Would East German border guards no longer shoot at those attempting to leave, as in the past? Would East German citizens be allowed to return after they left? Within hours such questions were swept aside by the tide of events Schabowski’s comments unleashed. Aided by recent advances in cable and satellite technology, the international media soon broadcast the news, along with scenes of joy at the Berlin Wall as people began to cross it unhindered for the first time in nearly thirty years. Near the streetcar stop of Friedrichstrasse, some in the crowd recognized Ehrman and hoisted him onto their shoulders, proclaiming him the Maueröffner, the man who opened the Wall. In less than a year, East Germany would crumble along with its Wall, and Germany would be reunified.
To understand why the Wall fell it is necessary to understand why it was built. After World War II the victorious allies, known as the Four Powers, set up occupation zones in Germany—the Soviets in the East, the Americans, British, and French in the West. A special status was accorded to Berlin. It was located deep in the Soviet zone, but, like the country as a whole, was administered by the Four Powers. Originally conceived as a provisional arrangement until occupation ended, this division of Germany and Berlin soon solidified as the expedient wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and the Western powers gave way to the ideological and military confrontation of the Cold War. After the founding of two German states in 1949—the Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East—Germany’s erstwhile capital of Berlin became the neuralgic heart of the Cold War, its western half an outpost of freedom while its eastern half languished under the Soviet Union’s repression of freedom in central and eastern Europe.
Unlike their fellow subjects elsewhere in Soviet-dominated Europe, East Germans could look next-door to a free and prosperous counterpart, with a shared culture and language, perhaps even with relatives now separated from them by their country’s division. These affinities and contrasts grew more acute over time as radio and television broadcasts from West Germany reached the East, and divided Berlin was where they were most painfully apparent. Massive migration to the West was the result, especially through West Berlin. In 1960 alone nearly 200,000 East Germans left the GDR for West Germany. This added to the over 2.5 million that had left since the war. As always in such movements, it was mostly the young and the skilled who risked the wrath of the authorities to seek their freedom. The GDR, meant to be a showcase of the Soviet model in the middle of Europe, was being drained of brains and bodies, and East Berlin, the self-styled “capital of the GDR,” was the center of the hemorrhage.
The Wall was East Germany’s answer to this existential threat. On August 13, 1961, at one o’clock in the morning, the boundary between both halves of Berlin and the checkpoints between West Berlin and the surrounding region of Brandenburg were sealed off. At first, rolls of barbed wire were installed, guarded by soldiers of the East German army and police. These were soon replaced by two-meter-high barbed-wire fences. In the densely built-up center of Berlin, windows and doors of buildings bordering the western sector were bricked up as guards prevented residents (and the laboring masons) from escaping. Despite the growing Wall, the number of those attempting to flee to the West continued to climb. Many paid with their lives. On August 23, the Wall claimed the first of over 130 victims in its lifespan. Ida Siekmann lived directly on the sector boundary; her house could only be entered from the West Berlin side. Only days earlier she could cross the street to visit friends and family in the French sector. As the Wall went up, she died after jumping from her third-floor apartment in her attempt to join them.
The Wall met with little more than verbal protest from the Western powers. U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Berlin in June 1963 and his stirring proclamation, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” could not disguise the West’s accommodation of Soviet and East German actions. This fact was bitterly noted by Germans at the time but demonstrated the modus vivendi of the victorious allies after their failure to agree on a policy for all of Germany. The West would defend its rights in West Germany and West Berlin, but by the same token it would not interfere with Soviet and East German actions in “their” portions of Germany. Thus was Berlin a microcosm of the global Cold War standoff between the superpowers.
By the mid-1970s, the Wall had acquired the mechanized brutality familiar to observers in later years. Entire blocks of houses and other structures were bulldozed to make way for moats, security perimeters, lighting and alarm systems, watchtowers, and dog runs. By the time it finally came down, the Wall was a technologically sophisticated, virtually impenetrable concrete and steel barrier with an elaborate infrastructure, guarded by a special unit of the East German army. Its official designation in East Germany’s Orwellian phrase was “anti-fascist protective barrier.” For the free world, it was a stark monument to the GDR’s illegitimacy and repression.
That such a monstrous structure could crumble overnight after some awkward remarks by a Communist official at a press conference seemed surreal to observers at the time. In retrospect it’s easier to see that the Wall fell because the conditions for the GDR’s survival had already vanished by the time Schabowski made his remarks. Gorbachev had ripped them away when he revoked the so-called Brezhnev doctrine of intervening militarily to quash popular opposition in Moscow’s satellites, as in Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968. In his last days in power Honecker hoped Gorbachev would do just that as protests engulfed East Germany and thousands were fleeing the country. Gorbachev refused. In one of the most surreal and ironic moments in recent European history, Gorbachev chose the festivities of the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the GDR in October 1989 to warn Honecker: “Life punishes those who arrive late.” Moscow left its satellites to their own devices; East Germany, as became clear within a month, had none. It had never succeeded in establishing a unique identity sufficient to win the loyalty of its subjects in the constant comparison with its western counterpart. Aside from Communism’s valiant resistance to Nazism in World War II, it had no independent cultural foundation. While West Germany saw itself as the only free representative of the entire German people and anchored the goal of a peaceful and united Germany in its constitution, East Germany’s reason for existence derived solely from the exactitudes of the Cold War and the projection of Soviet power. These existential deficiencies were why the Wall was built in the first place. With Gorbachev’s famous warning, both it and the state it had isolated were doomed.
The fall of the Wall did not entirely end Germany’s division. Germans still speak of a Mauer in den Köpfen, a wall in people’s minds. Thirty years after joining one of the world’s most advanced economies practically overnight, many eastern Germans continue to feel like second-class citizens as they grapple with rapid social and economic change. This sense of alienation has contributed to the growing appeal of populist movements in the region. In the West, many have long resented the billions of euros in subsidies that have flowed to the East since reunification and wonder if it was a good thing after all. These mutual doubts and resentments show that Germans continue to struggle with the trauma of national division and the legacy of the Wall that so brutally reinforced it.