How the Berlin Wall fell: a chronology
Courage of people far beyond the divided city had already undermined and weakened Europe's most infamous structure
Two West German policemen prevent people from approaching as East German police, the vopos, stand on and near a fallen portion of the Berlin Wall onNovember 11th 1989.
A long row of East German Trabant cars passing through Checkpoint Charlie into West Berlin is greeted by enthusiastic West Berliners, on November 10th, 1989
East Germany ceased to exist four days before its 41st birthday, on the day of German unity: October 3rd 1990. But the emotional end of East Germany came almost a year earlier, on the night of November 9, 1989.
People pressure – not political negotiations – gave the decisive push to topple a hated structure and an unpopular regime facing economic ruin.
By its 40th and last birthday in 1989, East Berlin’s ageing Politburo was increasingly isolated in the Soviet-controlled eastern bloc for failing to follow the reform and liberalisation from Moscow.
The economy was failing, with foreign debts at unsustainable levels. Reform demands from increasingly courageous civil rights groups – for freedom of travel, press and association – were belatedly met by new leaders at the end of October 1989, but they came too late.
The historical memory of 1989 is dominated by television images from Berlin on the night of November 9th. But the city’s wall only fell then because it was weakened and undermined by courageous people far beyond the divided city.
When Chancellor Angela Merkel talks of 1989, she never fails to mention Germany’s courageous neighbours in Poland, in particular the Solidarity union, who, in 1980, were the first to take on on – and eventually topple – the ruling communist party.
In Germany, it is the people of many eastern cities, in particular Leipzig and Dresden, that played the most decisive role in 1989, alongside Berliners.
May 2nd, 1989
While East Berlin worked to silence or expel dissenters, the surrounding iron curtain was becoming more porous – not thanks to politicians or civil rights campaigners, but rabbits. For years, Hungarian border guards had complained of up to 4,000 false alarms annually on the rusting border with Austria, usually triggered by wild rabbits and the occasional drunk. In 1988, reformer prime minister Miklós Németh introduced more liberal travel rules and eliminated the budget for maintaining the border signalling system.
The first stretches of barbed wire were dismantled on May 2nd. Six weeks later, images flashed around the world of the Austrian and Hungarian foreign ministers cutting the wire. In the coming weeks, several thousand East German “holidaymakers” occupied Hungarian campsites, churches and the West German embassy in Budapest, refusing to leave.
On August 19th, Austrian MEP Otto von Habsburg, son of the last emperor, initiated the “pan-European picnic”. The plan: to highlight Europe’s divisions through a three-hour border opening between Austria and the Hungarian town of Sopronpuszta.
Over 10,000 people came, including 600 nervous East Germans who refused to go back. It was a touch-and-go moment, with Hungarian authorities unsure how Moscow would react. But no shots were fired, Moscow declined to intervene and the first chink appeared in the Berlin Wall.
“When I started home I noticed the mass of abandoned Trabants with GDR number plates abandoned on the roadside,” recalled Laszlo Nagy, one of the picnic organisers. “Their owners would not return. They left behind everything . . . because freedom has the greatest value.”
After countless “unofficial escapes”, Hungary officially opened its border to Austria for East Germans on September 10th.
East Germany presented itself as a multi-party state, with free and fair elections that were neither. Voters were asked whether they were in favour of the so-called “National Front Unity List”, headed by the dominant Socialist Unity Party (SED). Despite boycotts and masses of spoiled votes, results always showed an impressive 99-per cent for the unity list.
For the local elections of May 7th, 1989, an unlikely coalition of pacifists, environmentalists churchgoers and disillusioned former soldiers decided to expose the truth about East German “democracy”.
With no mobile phones or computers, and considerable Stasi surveillance, groups observed counts and pooled data.
This showed seven per cent opposition to the regime’s “unity list”, yet the “official” result claimed 98.85 per cent support. Three days prior to polling day, count centres were given the result they were to report back. Incensed observers lodged 84 separate criminal complaints, but prosecutors were instructed from above to drop the cases and tell the complainants there was “no indication of criminal behaviour”. Some local authorities took revenge on observers who accused them of fraud.
“We were told we would be thrown out of the country. They told us we were scum and they were happy to be rid of us.”
The real election results were passed onto the West German media and on the 7th of every successive month, observers gathered in cities around East Germany for “whistling” demonstrations, recalling the fraud that broke the ground in the GDR’s grave.
When East Berlin moved to restrict travel to Hungary, East Germans changed their travel plans to take permanent holidays in Czechoslovakia, the only country they could visit without a visa. Hopes of entering Hungary and Austria via this route were dashed when, under pressure from East Berlin, Prague ordered its guards to turn back East Germans at the Czechoslovak-Hungarian border. Unsure of where to go next, the East Germans began climbing the three-metre fence around Lobkowicz Palace, the West German embassy in Prague.
“I said to the porter, ‘I’m a citizen of the GDR and I’m not leaving’,” said Christian Bürger, one of the thousands who came here. By the summer of 1989, a trickle of East Germans had turned to a flood. By September, some 3,500 people were crammed into every room in the embassy, with more in Red Cross tents on the embassy grounds. The toilets were overwhelmed and embassy staff moved around wearing wellies after heavy rain washed faeces from bushes back into the garden.
The ambassador warned Bonn on September 26th that “humane accommodation . . . is no longer possible” for the occupiers. One spark, he warned, could trigger disaster.
Bonn hoped East Berlin would do a deal to prevent the Prague embassy crisis overshadowing its 40th anniversary on October 7th. To expedite matters, West German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher met Soviet foreign minister Eduard Schewardnadse in New York and described the disastrous conditions in the embassy.
“He asked me if there were children there and when I told him there were many there, he promised immediate help,” said Dr Genscher.
Moscow leaned on East Berlin and when Dr Genscher arrived at the Prague embassy on evening of September 30th, the deal had been done. At 6.58pm, he stepped onto the embassy balcony to deliver the most famous half-sentence in Germany history: “We have come to you today to inform you that today your exit . . .” – euphoric cheers of relief drowned out the rest – “. . . has become possible.”
After the good news, the bad: the trip to West Germany would not be direct but, at SED leader Erich Honecker’s insistence, through East Germany. Mr Genscher, who had just suffered a heart attack and was at risk of another with each passing minute, gave his word they would arrive safely in West Germany and, after some hesitation, the occupiers boarded the trains.
“At that moment, Europe was born again,” said Mr Genscher, now 87, when he revisited the embassy last September. “For me, it was the most beautiful and happiest day of my political career.”
The first of six trains left Prague at 9pm; in all, 6,000 people left Prague in trains that “stank of angst”, according German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger. Stripped of their passports by East German police, passengers threw their East German money out of windows in protest. In an editorial in Neues Deutschland newspaper, dictated by Honecker, the asylum seekers “trampled over our moral values and sidelined themselves from society. One should not shed a single tear for them.” On October 17th, Honecker was deposed by his SED colleagues. Few tears were shed.
Honecker’s last hurrah was the 40th anniversary of the GDR, to which all eastern bloc leaders were invited. All efforts were made to paper over a growing chasm between the reformist thaw in Moscow and East Berlin’s ongoing deep freeze. Asked about his recent health problems at Schönefeld airport, Mr Honecker replied: “Totgesagte leben länger”, which can be roughly translated as, “There’s life in the old dog yet.” Ten days, to be precise.
A torchlit parade on the anniversary’s eve, October 6th, was a humiliation for Honecker as blue-shirted youths cheered “Gorbi! Gorbi!”.
To rolling cameras, as a coded message for his hosts, the Soviet leader repeats an old Russian saying: “Danger awaits those who don’t react to life.” A snappier translation soon enters circulation and become the motto of 1989: “Life punishes those who come too late.”
The next morning, after the official parade of marchers and tanks through East Berlin, Gorbachev warns Honecker that “people want a new atmosphere, more oxygen, a new breath”.
“We have only one choice,” he warns Honecker’s Politburo. “Either we move forward or else life will hit back.” Frustrated by the the empty, silent faces, a frustrated Gorbachev stands and leaves. Despite the new icy atmosphere, the anniversary celebrations grind on. The official reception in the Palast der Republik is a macabre affair with an atmosphere, one guest joked later, “like on the Titanic”.
Inside, guests sipped nervously on sweet sparkling wine as a boys’ choir sings Peace in the Land. Outside a 7,000-strong crowd gathers shouting “Gorbi, help us!”, hoping the Soviet leader can force change in East Berlin.
“They all wanted to celebrate and we wanted to add a little soup to their birthday soup,” said Stefan Müller, in the Berlin crowd on October 7th.
When Gorbachev departed, Stasi chief Erich Mielke announced an “end to the humanity”, ordering a violent crackdown that saw demonstrators in a dozen cities from Berlin to Erfurt attacked by police and dragged away to prison. The party was over.
After the anniversary disaster, Honecker issued an order for police to “prevent further riots before they begin”. Mielke issues orders to activate all 90,000 full-time security officers, their 170,000 secret informers to round up all people who may carry out “anti-social behaviour”.
In Dresden, the local Stasi and police officers lashed out at peaceful protestors, “particularly at women, children and pensioners”, according to a later investigation. When they are brought to a local prison, over 2,000 candle-protesters follow. Back in Dresden city centre, exhausted police struggle to contain a growing, spontaneous demonstration. Protesters only disperse after two Catholic priests secure guarantees from local political leaders to hold talks on freedom of travel and the press.
October 9th Leipzig
Leipzig’s Monday demonstrations in the 12th- century church of St Nicholas, the Nikolaikirche, began in 1981. After difficult years of apathy, the Moscow thaw boosted attendance at Pastor Christian Führer’s Monday prayer meetings exponentially.
On September 4th, with West German television cameras rolling, Stasi officers ripped away from a young group a banner reading: “For an open life with free people”. On every subsequent Monday the Nikolaikirche – and the streets of Leipzig – were full.
“I remember the amazing feeling one Monday,” recalled Gerd Harry Lybke, a Leipzig gallerist and long-time marcher, “of arriving back at the march starting point and realising the last people hadn’t even left yet.”
On the night of October 9th, around 70,000 gathered to march. Would this date enter the history books alongside other violent crackdowns: 1953 in Berlin, 1968 in Prague or even Tiananmen Square the previous June? Rumours did the rounds: 8,000 police were on standby; in hospitals blood supplies and body bags had been brought in. Clutching their candles, and each other, they began their circuit. Chanting “We are the people” was a direct, peaceful repudiation of the SED’s claim to represent all East Germans.
Police didn’t intervene and the march passed off peacefully. Secretly-filmed television images of East Germany’s largest, peaceful march were broadcast on West German television.
“Without you all, without us, I wouldn’t be standing here today,” said President Joachim Gauck, an East German-born pastor, in Leipzig on that same date this year. Sitting in the Nikolaikirche, Bettina Schuster, one of the protestors from 1989, agreed.
“Without October 9th in Leipzig,” she said, “there would not have been a November 9th in Berlin.”
October 31st Berlin
After removing Honecker on October 17th, the Politburo, headed by Egon Krenz, received a top-secret economic paper revealing East Germany was on the verge of bankruptcy. Two alternatives were presented. The first: reduce standards of living by 25 per cent, considered political dynamite given the mood on the streets. The second: offer the Berlin Wall as a bargaining chip to Bonn in exchange for 13 billion deutschmarks in loans and enhanced economic co-operation.
Fast-moving events prevented this dubious deal ever coming to fruition. Krenz presented other reform proposals, on free travel and association, but it was too little, too late: the street was setting the pace.
November 4th Berlin
The East German endgame was now playing out all over the country. In Jena, 10,000 people demonstrated for free elections; in Suhl it was 30,000. In Berlin, half a million braved icy cold to gather on Alexanderplatz to hear speakers, from dissident Marianne Birthler (later custodian of the Stasi files) to actor Ulrich Mühe (later the star of the Stasi drama The Lives of Others) share a stage with Stasi foreign intelligence head Markus Wolf.
The battle of ideas and ideology in the speeches was reflected in the slogans on the crowds’ banners, from “40 years are enough” to “No lies – new people”.
Though the Berlin Wall’s fall was just five days away, for the Alexanderplatz crowd it was still unimaginable. Instead, speakers talked about reforming the existing GDR.
“It’s as if someone has opened a window after all the years of stagnation,” declared author Stefan Heym. “After all the years of stagnation, intellectually, economic, political years of dullness and fug.”
The cheers were deafening and civil rights marcher Bärbel Bohley noticed Markus Wolf’s hands trembling as he spoke on the podium.
“When I saw that, I realised we could go home, it was over,” said Ms Bohley, before her death in 2010.
The hopes of groups such as the Neues Forum for a reformed GDR were eventually lost in the rush for free travel and consumerism, and Helmut Kohl’s push for German unity. But, for those few hours on Alexanderplatz, a reformed GDR seemed possible. It was, actor Johanna Schall said later, a “euphoric day of discipline and anarchy”.
November 9th Berlin
It was almost 7pm and a dreary press conference was drawing to a close on East Berlin’s Mohrenstrasse. Then Günther Schabowski, spokesman for the ruling SED, announced plans for revised travel rules, allowing East German citizens to leave the country. He was unaware of the finer points of the rules, not supposed to be announced until the next day, such as the need for a passport. So when a journalist asked when this new travel regime would apply, he replied: “As far as I can tell, immediately.”
What was supposed to be an announcement of reformed travel restrictions was the de facto end of the Berlin Wall. Disbelieving crowds flocked to border crossings, overwhelming uninformed, uniformed guards. Confusion reigned over how Schabowski’s remarks were to be interpreted but no one knew what to do. By 11.30pm, the crush at the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint was so great that guards ended all controls.
After 38 years of ordered division, Germany was effectively united by a joyous surge of revellers.
As a cheering crowd streamed over the Bornholmer crossing to West Berlin, a 36-year-old woman emerged from her weekly visit to the sauna.
She joined the crowd for a few hours in West Berlin but, while the rest of the city danced on the wall through the night, Angela Merkel returned to East Berlin and was at her desk as usual the next morning.