Discussing these momentous events with my daughter last weekend it emerged on reflection that coincidentally I had been in First Year at Secondary School when the Wall was built in 1961, and that she, in turn had been in First Year when it came down in 1989. Now 20 years later we mark this important, ground-breaking anniversary in our column this week. Or if you like a flight from the DMR to the GDR, or should that be the other way round!!
The beginning of the end started on August 23, 1989 when Hungary removed its physical border defences with Austria, and in September more than 13,000 East German tourists in Hungary escaped to Austria This set up a chain of events. The Hungarians prevented many more East Germans from crossing the border and returned them to Budapest. These East Germans flooded the West German embassy and refused to return to East Germany. The East German government responded by disallowing any further travel to Hungary, but allowed those already there to return. This triggered a similar incident in neighbouring Czechoslovakia. On this occasion, the East German authorities allowed them to leave, providing that they used a train which transited East Germany on the way. This was followed by mass demonstrations within East Germany itself. The long time leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, resigned on October 18, 1989, and was replaced by Egon Krenz a few days later. Honecker had predicted in January of that year that the wall would stand for a “hundred more years” if the conditions which had caused its construction did not change.
The Peaceful Revolution
Protest demonstrations broke out all over East Germany in September 1989. Initially, they were of people wanting to leave to the West, chanting “Wir wollen raus!” (“We want out!”). Then protestors began to chant “Wir bleiben hier”, (“We’re staying here!”). This was the start of what East Germans generally call the “Peaceful Revolution” of late 1989. By November 4, the protests had swelled significantly, with a million people gathered that day in Alexanderplatz in East Berlin.
Meanwhile the wave of refugees leaving East Germany for the West had increased and had found its way through Czechoslovakia, tolerated by the new Krenz government and in agreement with the communist Czechoslovak government. To ease the complications, the politburo led by Krenz decided on November 9, to allow refugees to exit directly through crossing points between East Germany and West Germany including West Berlin. On the same day, the ministerial administration modified the proposal to include private travel. The new regulations were to take effect on November 17, 1989.
Gunter Schabowski, a spokesperson for the politburo, had the task of announcing this; however he had not been involved in the discussions about the new regulations and had not been fully updated. Shortly before a press conference on November 9, he was handed a note that said that East Berliners would be allowed to cross the border with proper permission but given no further instructions on how to handle the information. These regulations had only been completed a few hours earlier and were to take effect the following day, so as to allow time to inform the border guards—however, nobody had informed Schabowski. He read the note out loud at the end of the conference and when asked when the regulations would come into effect, he assumed it would be the same day based on the wording of the note and replied “As far as I know effective immediately, without delay”. After further questions from journalists he confirmed that the regulations included the border crossings towards West Berlin, which he had not mentioned until then.
Novermber 9th – An Historic Day
Soon afterwards, a West German television channel, ARD, broadcast incomplete information from Schabowski’s press conference. A moderator stated: “This ninth of November is a historic day.” East Germany “has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone.” After hearing the broadcast, East Germans began gathering at the wall, demanding that border guards immediately open its gates.
The surprised and overwhelmed guards made many hectic telephone calls to their superiors, but it became clear that there was no one among the East German authorities who would dare to take personal responsibility for issuing orders to use lethal force, so there was no way for the vastly outnumbered soldiers to hold back the huge crowd of East German citizens. In face of the growing crowd, the guards finally yielded, opening the checkpoints and allowing people through with little or no identity checking. Ecstatic East Berliners were soon greeted by West Berliners on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. November 9 is thus considered the date the Wall fell. In the days and weeks that followed, people came to the wall with sledgehammers to chip off souvenirs, demolishing lengthy parts of it in the process. These people were nicknamed “Mauerspechte” (wall woodpeckers).
But believe or not, or perhaps a case of surprise, surprise, it met with opposition from a certain so-called Iron Lady, opposed to the knocking of the Iron Curtain –Ironic or what? She said in September 1989 to Gorbachev:
“We do not want a united Germany. This would lead to a change to post war borders, and we cannot allow that because such a development would undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security”
Celebrations of the Fall
n December 25, 1989, Leonard Bernstein gave a concert in Berlin celebrating the end of the Wall, including Beethoven’s 9th symphony (Ode to Joy) with the word “Joy” (Freude) changed to “Freedom” (Freiheit) in the text sung. The orchestra and choir were drawn from both East and West Germany, as well as the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States.
Roger Waters performed the Pink Floyd album The Wall just north of Potsdamer Platz on 21 July 1990, with guests including Scorpions, Bryan Adams, our own Sinéad O’Connor, Thomas Dolby, Joni Mitchell, Marianne Faithfull, Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Van Morrison. David Hasselhoff performed his song “Looking for Freedom”, which was very popular in Germany at that time, standing on the Berlin wall.
20th anniversary celebrations
On Monday last, November 9, 2009, Berlin celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a “Festival of Freedom”, during which over 1,000 foam domino tiles over 8 feet tall were stacked along the former route of the wall in the city centre and symbolically toppled. The celebrations were lead by Chancellor Angela Merkel along with Mikhail Gorachev, Lech Walesa, men who help shape the end of the Cold War, also there will be President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev, along with Hilary Clinton representing the US and not forgetting our own Brian Cowen. In the United States, the German Embassy has been in the process of coordinating a public diplomacy campaign with the motto “Freedom Without Walls” to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. An international project called “Mauerreise” – Journey of the Wall takes place in various countries. Twenty symbolic wall bricks were being sent from Berlin starting in May 2009. Their destination: Korea, Cyprus, Yemen, Northern Ireland (which still has divisive so-called peace walls) and other places where everyday life is characterised by division and border experience. In these places the bricks will become a blank canvas for artists, intellectuals and young people to tackle the “wall” phenomenon. By the way, there is a piece from the Berlin Wall mounted in a glass case in Jack Meade’s – under the bridge- pub.
I am looking forward to visiting Berlin next Spring, friends who have already been there say that it is truly a wonderful city.
Auf Wiedersehen bis zur nächsten Woche/Slan.