“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Those words were uttered by Ronald Reagan in 1987, pleading for the destruction of the Berlin Wall. The wall, although merely 12 feet tall in height, was symbolic of the serious ideological divide between East Germany and West Germany. On the Eastern side, there was Soviet occupation and the presence of communism.
To the citizens of East Berlin, that wall would be the only thing keeping them from experiencing freedom. With the shackles of communism firmly around their arms and legs, the citizens of East Germany often risked everything to cross through that wall. Many a man and woman had been killed in a desperate bid to escape from the communist state.
When the Soviet control of the Eastern Bloc had been firmly established in East Berlin, a communist government known as the German Democratic Republic was formed. The GDR was run by the Soviets and was an attempt to continue growing communist presence in Europe. The economy became a planned economy and the government took an extreme interest in the movement of their citizens. On the western side of Berlin, they opted to operate democratically and allow for a capitalistic economy. This caused tension between East Berlin, because as West Berlin grew in economic strength, many East Berliners developed a desire to move to the West.
The wall was built quickly, designed to encompass all of East Germany as to protect them from the “fascist oppression.” The truth was that as emigration increased in East Germany, many of the young, bright and educated citizens were moving as well. In a bid to hold greater control over their people and create a stronger communist economy, the GDR made the choice to erect the Berlin Wall and isolate themselves from the West entirely. This wall would keep people in for nearly 28 years.
There was a moment, however, in history when the Wall’s very existence came into question and a spiral of events led to the complete collapse of the Wall. The interesting thing is, however, is that there never was a direct order to destroy the wall and the events leading up to the Fall of the Berlin Wall happened due to a combination of chance, incompetence and miscommunications.
It all started when the regime changed. As political pressures mounted on all sides for East Berlin to release their vice grip on their own people, problems with individuals defecting to Czechoslovakia began to increase. The regime, maintained by the Soviet Powers, began to make some minor changes to the immigration policies, loosening them just enough so that the citizens of East Germany would stop their illegal attempts to escape and try moving through more traditional means. These changes unintentionally triggered the fall of the Berlin Wall.
It was evening on November 9th, 1989, when one of the members of the Politburo, the political party of East Germany, decided to give a press release. Gunter Schabowski had received the note from the higher ups about these changes to immigration policy and he was scheduled to talk about it. He had been informed about the policy changes right before his press conference, and so he wasn’t particularly well versed with the subject matter. Schabowski wasn’t a stranger to press conferences, either. He was often seen speaking several times a day on the various different policy changes that were occurring and he was considered to be the unofficial spokesman for the current East German regime.
At the conference, he didn’t seem to think that he was discussing anything particularly special in any way. Before the various members of the press, including American reporter Tom Brokaw, Gunter began speaking at a length of the various articles of change that were occurring. He was comfortable in front of the camera and until the final article came up, even the press wasn’t terribly interested in what Gunter had to say. He took out the note that he had been given earlier and began to read from it. The words that he spoke caused the entire room to immediately become alert. Heads snapped up, eyes focused, reporters adjusted their equipment. Was he really saying that East Germans were free to have passports? This meant that the East German citizens were effectively free, because a passport would allow them to travel wherever they liked, including West Germany.
As everyone immediately became aware of the situation, Gunter continued talking with little forethought to what he was saying. He hadn’t been informed by his team about how to communicate these changes and he was unaware of the massive effects that his words would have on the world. As he casually explained that the citizens would be free to receive passports and travel, a reporter called out “When does this take effect?” Gunter, riffling through his notes for a moment, replied “As far as I am aware, immediately. Straight away.”
These words, simple words uttered by a man who was completely unaware of the situation at hand, would begin a series of events that would lead to the destruction of the Berlin Wall entirely. With his words having been spoken to the press, the citizens of East Berlin listened with excitement. They could not believe that this man had told them that they were finally free to leave.
The East German government had been planning on allowing for citizens to obtain passports, but this was in light of a heap of requirements, including visas. They did not want their people to have carte blanche to leave, but with Mr. Schabowski’s announcement, there was no going back.
Yet Gunter didn’t seem at all aware to the damage that he had caused to his own party, after he finished his press conference, he went on his way, none the wiser to what the East German newscasters were saying. The reports quickly moved across all of East Berlin and soon the people were being told repeatedly that the borders were open. This triggered a major movement of citizens with East Germany as they began to rush to the border in the hopes of finding freedom.
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One man, a wall guard by the name of Harald Jager, had been watching his party’s press conference as well. “What’s he going on about?” Harald thought to himself as he watched the news being conveyed. He was surprised that Schabowski had said such a thing, and thought there might be more to the situation, especially when he considered how it seemed like Gunter had been reading the policy change note for the first time.
Harald was quick to call his superior and ask if this were true, was the government really just letting people out? The superior was just as surprised as Harald was, but ordered anyone who tried to get through the gate to be turned away. There wasn’t going to be any kind of open immigration, regardless of what Schabowski had said.
It was already late at night, but the news shows had been blasting out the news over and over again, whipping up the German people into a frenzy. The idea that they could be free had spurred many of them to rush to the gate. There were only thirteen other guards accompanying Harald on that evening, and it soon became apparent that they were outnumbered by the hundreds of German citizens who had appeared. At first there was an attempt to divert the people. The police had arrived with a loudspeaker, telling the crowd that they were required to get their documentation from the police station. This was a lie, however, because the police station was closed. It was meant to buy Harald and his team more time to prepare and get in contact with their superiors, but when the people returned they were very irate about having been tricked.
“Let us out!” they cried, “Mr. Schabowski said we were allowed to go through, so let us out!” The tension between the mob and the guards was growing worse by each passing moment. The crowd was refusing to get up close to the gate and instead were waiting for the guards to open it, but Harald had been instructed to keep the place sealed up. He tried calling his superior officer again, but the man was simply annoyed with Harald. He didn’t grasp the fact that there nearly 10,000 people gathered outside of the gate. “Send them away!” Harald’s commanding officer instructed him via telephone. “Your orders still stand.”
The media had gathered there too. There was a live news team watching closely. The threat of violence from either side hung in the air. The guards were no strangers to using violence to enforce control of the border, as there had been many killed while attempting to cross before. The numbers of the people had swollen to a point where if there was a fight, the guards would quickly be overpowered. The government had given strict orders not to use violence, however, due to the fact that there was significant political scrutiny on East Germany and violence against people trying to leave wouldn’t reflect well on them.
Tension continued to build. There were aggressive individuals near the front clamoring to get in and it seemed they might instigate a riot. The government made the call to allow for some of these aggressive people to be allowed through, marking their passports with a special insignia that essentially revoked their citizenship. They had hoped that this action would ease the tension in the crowd by removing the agitators. This measure didn’t work as intended, instead throwing the crowd into a greater frenzy. They demanded to be free to leave and it was growing more apparent by the minute that they intended on getting through those gates no matter what.
Harald was in a tough bind. Without support from his superiors, he would be blamed for being the man to allow for the people to leave Berlin freely. Hours ago, it had been business as usual, but now he was facing a world in which one of two things was going to happen: either the East German government was going to collapse or he was going to get in a ton of trouble for letting everyone through. He hadn’t planned for this and his difficulty in contacting any high-ranking government official only contributed more to the stress of the moment. Violence wasn’t an option and it was clear that this wasn’t going to go away.
Looking out at the sea of humans chanting “Let us out!” Harald Jaeger took a deep breath and made a decision. It would be the decision that would echo forever in history as the moment the Berlin wall came down. He looked over at his subordinates, men who were confused and terrified, and shouted “Open the barrier!” And they did.
Over 20,000 citizens cross from East Germany into West Germany that night. It was a sea of humans moving through the barriers, cheering and crying out in joy. A few guards were given kisses and bridal bouquets from women who were moving their wedding location to somewhere safer. The freedom and joy of the people rang out throughout the entire city of Berlin as Germany once again began to be reunified.
The West Berliners had been waiting eagerly for their brethren to break through the barriers of the wall and soon a party in the streets had begun as the East Berliners were showered with flowers and Champaign. As an act of defiance, the wall was climbed by a few Germans and there was dancing and rejoicing atop the once oppressive structure
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It all had started with a gaffe, a hasty answer to a question had started the destruction of a longstanding divide between two nations. There was no direct order to destroy the wall, it fell due to a combination of pressure, frustration, opportunity and luck. Harald Jager, to this day, maintains that it was not he who opened the gates, but rather it was the people of East Berlin themselves. It was a spirit of revolution that had led to the destruction of that wall and while the actual wall itself wasn’t officially demolished until a year later, the message was loud and clear. Germany would be reunited; the Cold War would come to an end and communism would release its hold on the German people once and for all.
The Guard who Opened the Berlin Wall: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/the-guard-who-opened-the-berlin-wall-i-gave-my-people-the-order-raise-the-barrier-a-660128.html
Border Guard’s Snap Decision: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/border-guard-s-snap-decision-ensured-joyful-end-to-wall-1.1992745
The Man who opened the wall: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/07/opinion/gnter-schabowski-the-man-who-opened-the-wall.html
How the Berlin Wall Really Fell: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/07/opinion/how-the-berlin-wall-really-fell.html
Man who Disobeyed His Boss: http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/11/06/361785478/the-man-who-disobeyed-his-boss-and-opened-the-berlin-wall