Over its 28 years of existence the Berlin Wall became the setting for countless espionage stories, many artfully invented by crime writers, but also many which actually occurred. Even today, three decades after its demolition, the Wall continues to fascinate both Germans and foreigners and remains cloaked in mystery.
We all saw the pictures of the crowd of East and West Berliners going wild on the evening of November 9th 1989, and streaming en masse toward the loathed checkpoints along the Wall. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a seminal event in the last century, but the circumstances leading up to this ‘revolution’ are now more than ever obscure and contradictory.
So far not a single document authorizing the opening of the Wall has been found in the archives of either the Politburo or the Central Committee, the two highest governing bodies of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Who then gave the border guards the order to raise the bars? Was it the regime’s decision, an attempt to curb popular protest and save what remained of the East German State? Or was it a coup organized by ‘doves’ who wanted to prevent the ‘hawks’ conducting a campaign of repression such as had been seen in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square a few days before? Did Western intelligence agencies play a role or was the fall of the Wall, as some argue, due to a “breakdown,” a failure in communication?
As the world commemorates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, these questions have sparked debates among historians and journalists, who are now surprisingly being supplied with more details by some of the political actors and witnesses involved, who are suddenly recovering their memories of these days that changed the world.
The circumstances surrounding the announcement of the opening of the checkpoints still puzzle most of the historians and actors who were around at that time. One of the most sensational decisions of the 20th century was almost secretly announced, as if it were a trivial news item.
On the initiative of Gerhard Lauter, a young apparatchik in East Germany’s Interior Ministry, on the morning of November 9 three co-workers drafted new “free travel” regulations for all “Ossis,” apparently as a last resort to save socialism in East Germany. The draft found its way into the hands of the spokeman of the Politburo, Günther Schabowski – and apparently some other politburo member – who in the evening read the potentially explosive draft aloud in the weekly televised press conference taking place on the first floor of the Pressezentrum Mohrenstrasse. Eighteen foreign journalists were listening to Schabowski, who seemingly did not comprehend the document’s import. Outside, on the streets of East Berlin, the situation was becoming increasingly uncontrollable. At the redbrick Gethsemane Kirche (Church) in the Prenzlauer Berg district the Stasi (the secret police of East Germany) was being forced to surrender to the crowd protecting the church where leaders of the revolt had taken refuge.
On Karl Marx Allee a procession of angry East Berliners was met by crowds shouting “Wir sind ein Volk” (“we are one people”). The protest which had initially erupted as a revolt against the regime had become a revolt for national unity. Columns of East Germans were fleeing to Hungary, from where, through Austria, they could get into Bavaria.
In an attempt to stop the flow of people towards Hungary and calm the demonstrators’ fervor, the Communist regime’s long-serving leader Erich Honecker was forced to resign on October 18, 1989 and on October 24 Egon Krenz was drafted in as his replacement. But this was too little, too late for most East Germans.
During his press conference on the evening of November 9, Schabowski talked for half an hour about the implementation of new measures regulating public meetings. Then an anxious Italian reporter, Riccardo Ehrmann, asked Schabowski if there would be any new measures concerning expatriates who lived in the GDR. Schabowski went through his papers and in mock-casual tone read a memo which stated that travelers no longer needed a visa to cross the GDR borders. That did not mean that the borders were open, simply that the population would no longer be imprisoned within them.
Peter Brinkmann, a journalist from Bild Zeitung, asked when the new measures would come into force. Schabowski’s response was: “Now, I believe.”
This ‘official’ announcement on television triggered a stampede. Shortly after 19:00 p.m., regular radio and television programs were interrupted and East Germans heard one single phrase from their screens for the rest of the evening: “Die Mauer ist geöffnet” (“the Wall is open”). The rest is history.
What is rather strange is how quietly such an announcement was made to the East German public. Many years later Schabowski revealed that he had read out a note written by Egon Krenz, the regime’s new leader whose appointment had not yet been made public by the Politburo. The note did not specify a date on which the new measures would be applied. These details support the hypothesis that the fall of the Wall was a coup prepared by the ‘doves’ to present the ‘hawks’ with a fait accompli.
Another mystery is why the message made no direct reference to the Berlin Wall but only the GDR borders, the opening of which, everybody knew, would trigger a gigantic reaction. Bad communication? Maybe the Politburo’s, and Krenz’s strategy, had actually been to open the borders but not the Berlin Wall, whose collapse would have meant the end of the GRD, as later occurred. Thirty years later, questions remain unanswered.
When everything is said and done, the 1989-1991 revolutions in Eastern Europe came from below and from the Communist regimes’ internal inadequacies. The Soviet Union collapsed not as a result of the strategic policy of Western capitalist countries but because of its own inherent weaknesses, like a house of cards which suddenly falls if one of them is misplaced. The system imploded in a chain-like reaction. It collapsed due to the inherent irrationality of a system which resulted in the progressive paralysis of all production capacity.
In 1989-1991, the world discovered, in dramatic circumstances, that the planet did not have two economic systems with radically opposite principles but the functioning market economy on one hand and a totally irrational system on the other. Without the mechanism of market prices, determined by the encounter between supply and demand, the planned economy made any rational resource allocation decisions impossible. The market economy is not a perfect economic system, as it contains imbalances and periodic production crises, but so far this is the only system which has been able to produce real wealth for the benefit of ever-growing segments of the population.
What for nearly a century had been touted as the alternative system proved to be not a “system to generate wealth” but “a system to squander scarce resources”. Western liberal democratic societies are not perfect, and no one knowledgeable about Western societies (Many Putinists would say “Western civilization”) would dare describe them in such terms. Western democracies suffer from some painful ills: injustices, too many cases of social exclusion, unemployment, large political campaign spending, etc. But liberal democratic regimes are the only ones which have tools to fix, or at least reduce, the socio-economic problems.
What exists in the Western world and in some East and South-East Asian countries are imperfect societies which possess the means to revise their values and principles and correct themselves. In a world that is constantly being transformed by an ever-growing number of forces, reform is an endless task. The saddest news about the country which dominated the Soviet Empire, Russia, is that it is now busy rebuilding a type of socio-economic regime which has almost the same features as the one which not long ago plunged millions of Russians into the abyss of poverty, KGB-style surveillance, state-controlled media, state-controlled markets and scientific mediocrity.