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Germany: How the Wall Came Down Part Two -- The Politics

  • Jolyon Naegele



It has been a decade since the sudden and unexpected decision by the East German communists to permit citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to travel freely to the West. The move, which came to be known as the "fall of the Berlin Wall," took reporters, politicians and East German border guards by surprise. In the second of two reports on the opening of the wall, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele looks at how the drama played out in politics.

Berlin, 5 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in East Berlin on October 6, 1989, to participate in celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the German Democratic Republic out of the Soviet occupation zone.

Anti-communist mass demonstrations had been growing in strength across the GDR for weeks in the wake of statements by the country's communist leader, Erich Honecker, that things had never been better.

Dissident leader Jens Reich, who co-founded the civic movement New Forum, was one of many East Germans who hoped Gorbachev would persuade the East German leadership to introduce reforms. But Reich insisted that Moscow would not have the last word.

"The decision is ours, our leadership and our society and we as citizens. It's not for them to decide our fate of course."

But Gorbachev had no intention of taking matters into his own hands, as he told reporters in East Berlin.

"I am sure that the people will decide for themselves what is necessary for their own country. ...and we have complete faith in them."

For his part, Gorbachev's host Honecker remained on the defensive.

"The German Democratic Republic has proven itself on the western frontier of the socialist countries as a sea-wall in Europe against neo-Nazism and chauvinism."

The protest demonstrations grew in intensity across East Germany, with police detaining more than 1,000 protesters in just one night at the end of Gorbachev's visit.

In Leipzig, police desisted from further use of force against the weekly Monday night mass demonstrations there. The number of participants soared -- from 70,000 on October 9, to 120,000 one week later, and to 300,000 the following week.

On October 18, the East German Politburo forced Honecker to step down and replaced him with Egon Krenz, a 52-year-old former Communist youth leader whom few took seriously. He delivered a television address that night calling for an end to the exodus.

"More than 100,000, including not a few young people have left our country. That is a further symptom for the complicated situation that has arisen. We feel their departure as a tremendous bloodletting."

Krenz went on to say that socialism had a place for everyone. Six days later, the communist East German parliament elected Krenz head of state. The vote was not unanimous.

Then, the following day, the GDR Foreign Ministry announced that every citizen had the right to apply for a permanent exit permit. And on October 21, Politburo member Guenter Schabowski went out into the streets to talk with the demonstrators. He responded to a protester's call to end the ban on travel by saying this was a top priority that would be dealt with within days.

On October 27, the government announced amnesty for all those charged with trying to cross the border illegally or arrested in connection with participation in demonstrations.

The following week, as demonstrators were demanding the unification of the two German states, Krenz flew to Moscow on November 1 for talks with Gorbachev. Afterwards he told reporters that German reunification was impossible.

"There is nothing to reunite since socialism and capitalism have never stood together on German soil."

The demonstrations continued, reaching a peak on November 4 in East Berlin, with some one million people participating. Writer Stefan Heym told the crowd it was as if somebody had opened the windows after all the years of stagnation.

"We have overcome our inability to speak in the last few weeks and are ready to learn the right way." (applause)

The next day GDR Interior Minister Friedrich Dicke announced all GDR citizens would be free to travel by the end of the year. But the announcement was greeted with skepticism at home and abroad.

In Bonn, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl told the Bundestag his government was ready to respond to real political reform in East Germany with what he termed "a completely new dimension of economic help."

Politburo member Guenter Schabowski held daily news conferences. On November 8, he announced the communists would not oppose political groups wanting to participate in free elections. But the real bombshell came at the close of his news conference the following evening, November 9. Schabowski responded to a reporter's question about freedom of travel:

"We decided today to set a rule that enables every citizen of the GDR to travel abroad through the border crossings of the GDR."

East German TV broadcast Schabowski's news conference live, and within minutes, immense crowds began forming at the border crossings. But Schabowski's announcement was premature, as the policy was not supposed to take effect until the next day. Without written instructions, the guards refused to raise the barriers. Shoving and shouting matches ensued.

Hours later, after a hurried telephone consultation, Politburo members agreed that to avoid violence, the new travel policy must take effect immediately. The orders were given, and late that evening, the crowds surged across the barbed wire fences and concrete walls into freedom and the bright lights of West Berlin. The cities erupted in celebration as East and West Berliners hugged and danced on top of the Wall. East German border guards could only shake their heads in disbelief -- after more than 28 years, the Wall had been breached.

Chancellor Kohl immediately interrupted a trip to Poland and flew back to Germany to attend a nighttime rally in West Berlin. Kohl called on the GDR to follow the Polish road to democracy. He told the rally he was certain that GDR citizens would no longer flee to the West and that the two German states remained parts of a single nation.

"The pictures of these days and weeks show us our duty and so I call on all in the GDR -- you are not alone. We stand by your side. We are and remain one nation and belong together."

Less than a year later, Kohl's pledge became reality with the unification of the two German states.

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