In a panel discussion last week I said that November 9, 1989 may be the second most important day of the 20th century. (I put June 22, 1941 as the most important, since that’s the day I think Germany’s defeat in WWII became inevitable). It is the day that the Berlin Wall became irrelevant, as citizens of East Germany were allowed to cross into the West, and started physically chipping away at the wall. The Cold War was ending.
Communism did not fall because of what happened November 9th. It fell mostly due to internal collapse. Bureaucratic socialism didn’t work, was inflexible, denied personal initiative, and led to a system that from the late sixties onward was in constant decay. By the mid-seventies the Soviet KGB knew that they would face a major economic crisis in the eighties, but the political leaders didn’t believe them. Aging Politburo members were oblivious to reality, caught up in their own world of jargon and superpower ambitions.
By the mid-eighties the crisis was acute. Though the West vastly over-estimated the strength of the Soviet economy and political system, the Soviet government was becoming aware that things were starting to fall apart and they had no way to deal with it. Thus they chose a leader from a new generation, relatively young Mikhail Gorbachev, who argued that the system had to be opened (glasnost) and restructured (perestroika). He hoped to turn Communism from a system of the bureaucrats to one that took the needs of citizens seriously, and gave people the right to speak up and participate openly. It would ultimately fail — the system was incapable of such dramatic reform. Yet his efforts opened the way for real change in Eastern Europe. By 1989 Poland and Hungary were making dramatic changes, with Gorbachev signaling acceptance of even those changes with which he disagreed.
In East Germany, the leader Erich Honecker was from the old guard, aloof and convinced by his own ideology. He ignored or didn’t even understand how weak the East German economy was, and he dismissed dissidents as “immoral” for rejecting the state. Even as East Germans fled to the West through Hungary and Czechoslovakia in September and October of 1989, he thought the problem minor. As protests within East Germany mounted, he decided to end them with the “Chinese solution,” refering to the June 4, 1989 Chinese crackdown on their protesters.
But Gorbachev had convinced Honecker’s subordinates to torpedo such efforts and remove the aging leader from power. Honecker’s orders were ignored, and on October 17th he stepped down. The new government then tried to convince the public it would reform the system, yet protests continued to grow. By November 4th a half a million filled East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz to demand change. Then, on the evening of November 9th, it got surreal.
Gunter Schabowski, a member of the Politburo and East German press spokesman, was giving a press conference. It was to end at 7:00, but at 6:53 an Italian journalist asked about travel between East and West Berlin. Schabowski had papers about travel between East and West Germany (not internal Berlin), which was an issue to be decided at a Politburo meeting later that evening. He thought, however, that the paper was part of what the journalists had been given, and was already in effect. He read that travel would be allowed. When asked when it starts, he looked at his paper and read ‘immediately’ (unverzueglich). The journalists weren’t sure what to make of this, and a slightly confused Schabowski headed towards his next meeting. That Politburo meeting was to determine next steps at winning public support, and they left strict instructions not be disturbed.
West Berlin TV praised Schabowski’s unintended announcement and invited East Germans to come over. East German protest leaders rounded people up to go to the border crossings. Yet, since no decision to allow travel between the two parts of the city had actually been made, the border guards had their usual complement and orders — kill anyone who tries to cross. The crowds grew. East German radio reported Schabowski’s statements. The border guards called to get orders on what to do, but their calls went unreturned — the man who had to make the decision was a member of the Politburo, in a meeting that could not be disturbed. As time passed, frustrated guards decided to go ahead and make the decision to open the gates. East Berliners poured into the West. Soon they stood atop the wall, chipping away at the structure which symbolized communism — a wall was needed to lock people in, people desperate to escape the “workers and farmers paradise.”
When the Politburo meeting ended and they realized what happened, they knew there was no going back. Back in 1961 when the wall was built, President Kennedy came to the wall and gave his historic Ich bin ein Berliner speech (and yes, his phrase was gramatically correct), where he made the wall the symbol of communism: A repressive system that walls their people in, in contrast to the freedom of the West. When that symbol was breached on November 9th, East Europeans realized that the power to change their countries was in their own hands, and within two months Eastern Europe was transformed — mostly in a peaceful manner.
What is also striking about the fall of the wall is how it emphasizes the power of the people, not the governments. It was average East German citizens trying to escape through Hungary who started the crisis, and by October East Germans were willing to endure Stasi beatings, arrests and pressure to keep protesting and demanding change. They left the leaders speechless, they had no idea what to do to fix things. It is especially fitting and a bit ironic that a mistake made by a press secretary would lead to the wall’s demise — it shows how little control the government has when the people are willing to take charge.
Many people down play that day. Perhaps I magnify its importance because of my emotional connection to Germany and Berlin. I had been in Berlin in August of 1989, and visited the East. I recall the vast differences between the two parts of the city, and how sad I felt as I truly understood the meaning of the Cold War division. I talked to Germans who had tragic stories of families and loved ones divided by the wall, sometimes never seeing each other again.
I heard about the news driving in to the University of Minnesota on November 9, 1989. I took the elevator to the Poli-Sci offices on the 12th floor and started telling people what was happening. There was no internet news yet. A number of us went to the Lippincott room which happened to have a television. We tuned in and watched the scenes as people now were atop the wall. I realized I had to go home. The emotion was sweeping me thinking about the drama of the change and how totally unexpected it was. Experts on East Germany from all major political parties and some major research institutes had told me that summer that this kind of scene was impossible. The experts were caught off guard as well as the politicians.
I got home to my basement efficiency apartment on Lyndale, Avenue, and watched the scenes and interviews on my small portable TV with rabbit ears, letting tears roll down my checks as I was amazed at the meaning of these events, so glad I’d taken the chance to see East Berlin a few months earlier, just before things started to unravel. I was there literally in the final days of the “old order,” a week before events in Hungary and protests at home began. Watching history being made I felt a deep and immense sense of joy.
It was truly one of the great stories of the 20th century. The people take control and overthrow a regime that had oppressed them for half a century. A system in economic collapse falls peacefully. And though there would be problems in the transition to something new, and many in the East still believe western style capitalism goes too far the other way, nothing can diminish the meaning and drama of that day.
November 9th is an odd day in German history. On November 9, 1918 Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed that the Kaiser had abdicated and Germany would have a Republic. On November 9, 1923, in the midst of the great inflation, Adolf Hitler failed in his attempted Beer hall Putsch. On November 9, 1938, the Nazis started the wave of violence with the famous Kristallnacht, attacking Jewish shops and buildings. In a way, November 9, 1989 symbolically ends that story. The birth of Democracy in Germany, followed by the rise of Hitler, the violence of the holocaust, and the subsequent division of the country and Europe. That chapter of German (and European) history finally ended twenty years ago today.