Remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years on

For the past week 30,000 messages, written on colourful streamers by Berliners and others from around the world with their memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall and their hopes for the future, have floated in the air near Brandenburg Gate in the German capital. Last night, 30 years on from the notorious border crossing being opened, the sprawling art installation formed a canopy over thousands enjoying a giant party on Strasse des 17 Juni.

The main event was a free show staged in front of Brandenburg Gate, featuring musical performances and speeches from those involved in the protests three decades ago, before DJs took over for the after party. Fireworks and colourful strobe lighting illuminated the night’s sky.

Crowds gathered under canopy of 30,000 messages on Strasse des 17 Juni last night

The events leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and its aftermath, have been marked for the past week at seven key locations across the city as part of the 30th anniversary commemorations. Those in the city this weekend have been able to trace the story from the site of the biggest protest in the history of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), through to the check point where the first East Berliners crossed to the West and finally through to re-unification.

The programme of activities helps to remember the barrier that for 28 years divided Berlin. Families and friends were separated overnight in 1961 has the Wall cut through hundreds of streets. Some 40,000 East Germans managed to escape across the heavily fortified border, but other weren’t so lucky 140 people died as they attempted to cross.

Brandenburg Gate

It was presented to East Germans as a necessity to preserve socialism and stop the capitalist West from invading, but the reality was that the Wall was installed to stop people in East Berlin from escaping. In the decade leading up to 1961, some two million had fled the GDR’s territory after freedom of speech, free media and freedom to travel was curtailed.

Over the next week, I’ll be marking the fall of the Berlin Wall through a series of posts charting what it meant to live in a state controlled by the secret police, the building of the border and its legacy.

But returning to the events of 30 years ago – the night on November 9th 1989 – just how and why did the Berlin Wall fall? There both long-term and short-term factors that need considering.

Countdown to fall

“The [Berlin] Wall will still be standing in 50 and even in 100 years,” GDR leader Eric Honecker confidently boasted to a journalist in January 1989. But in a matter of months, the border crossings would be open for anyone who wanted to cross.

Trouble had been brewing in the East for some time. “The Soviet empire was unassailable as long as it was capable of growing,” wrote the historian Niall Ferguson. “When stagnation set in — when productivity growth turned negative in the 1970s — the system began to rot.” Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1989 as the new leader of the Soviet Union and ushered in reforms, which in 1989 would stretch to allowing self-determination for individual Eastern bloc states.

In East Germany specifically, debts to foreign creditors continued to mount, there was a lack of investment in plant and machinery and the economy became increasingly uncompetitive. The Berlin Wall prevented the countries brightest and most productive workers from fleeing, but the border was expensive to maintain and this helped contribute to the territory’s economic woes.

Events elsewhere in the Eastern bloc in 1989 provided hope for the people of East Germany. In Poland, the trade union Solidarity was legalised in April 1989, after eight years operating under ground underground, and two months later it won every single seat up for election in the Sejm and nearly all the seats in the upper house.

Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of Hungary and Austria cut a section of barbed wire on the border between their two countries at a ceremony in June 1989, a sign that relations with the West were warming. In August, a picnic was organised at the border whereby citizens could pass into the neighbouring country without the need for passport checks. East Germans who were on holiday in the area at the time, used it as an opportunity to escape into Austria and then onto West Germany. In September, the Hungarian government permanently flung open the border to anyone who wanted to cross and thousands from the GDR left via this route.

Other East Germans escaped via Czechoslovakia, another country that could be reached from the GDR. There were, at peak, some 4000 East German refugees in the West German embassy in Prague – some spent several months camped there. West Germany didn’t recognise East Germany as a country, so they were considered German citizens by officials and looked after as such. Special trains were laid on to take the refugees to West Germany. The Czechoslovakian regime made it clear to their comrades in East Germany that they weren’t happy with the situation and made it clear something needed to be done.


By the end of September 1989 more than 30,000 East Germans had fled the territory and Honecker was panicking. On October 3rd he took the decision to seal all of the GDR’s borders. The military were given the order to shoot to kill and demonstrators were beaten and imprisoned.

But East Germans were not deterred from standing up to the regime. In Leipzig, the GDR’s second city, some 70,000 to 120,000 turned out for a mass protest on October 9th. The brutal tactics employed by communist forces in China’s crackdown in Tiananmen Square earlier that year could have been replicated in Leipzig. But given the large numbers of people out on the streets, no one wanted to give the orders to shoot during the demonstrations on October 9th.

Back in Berlin, Gethsemane Church at Oranienburger Strasse became an important meeting point for the opposition from early October onwards, with well-attended events and a telephone hotline set-up to allow different groups to coordinate activity. Vigils were held here in solidarity with those who had been arrested during protests in the GDR. Family members and friends took to the pulpit to give short addresses about their loved ones who were being detained. Opposition groups often met at Protestant churches, which provided them with some degree of cover.

Gethsemane Church this weekend

In a very short time some 150,000 people joined the New Forum civil rights movement. “We are calling on all citizens of the GDR who want to help reshape our society to become a member of the New Forum,” it’s founding proclamation declared in September 1989. “It’s high time.” It’s founding meeting was held at Gethsemane church on November 10th 1989, the day after the Wall fell.

The 40th anniversary celebrations of the GDR on the October 7th at the Palace of the Republic did not go to plan for the Social Unity Party (SED) leadership as demonstrations took place outside the venue. It was a major embarrassment for the regime as they had invited numerous international guests. On October 17th Honecker was replaced as leader of East Germany by Ergonomic Krenz.

On November 4th 1989 came the largest protest demonstration in the GDR’s history. Some 500,000 gathered in Alexanderplatz, the commercial heart of East Berlin, to call for the freedom to travel, free elections and freedom of speech. “We are the people,” they chanted. The SED had been forced to give its approval for the demonstration following protests across the GDR from mid-October onwards. It realised it could no longer suppress the people, so instead it hoped to control dissent.

Remembering events of 1989 at Alexanderplatz this weekend

This weekend in Alexanderplatz, the occasion was remembered with footage from that day projected in 3D on the side of buildings around the square. The demonstration had been planned by members of leading East German theatres, who invited playwrights and actors, as well as dissidents, to address the crowds. SED officials also gave speeches, during which they were booed and heckled. In the footage you could see people waving banners with a variety of slogans, demanding change.

Wall opens 

On the evening of November 9th 1989 Politburo member Gunter Schabowski told a press conference that those who wanted to cross the GDR border to the West could do so “immediately and without delay”. Previously, obtaining permission for people of working age to cross from East to West Germany had been very difficult and was, at best, generally limited to special occasions such as funerals and weddings. Schabowski also promised free elections.

It seems Schabowski hadn’t read his notes properly before giving the press conference. The agreed policy was actually that people still needed to apply for permission before crossing. But by then it was too late as East Germans soon started making their way to the checkpoints along the Berlin Wall.

Schabowski later told the Times’s then correspondent in East Berlin, Anne McElvoy, that the statement had been “a slip of the tongue”, which he had made because he was tired. “When I said ‘immediately’ I meant that people would present themselves with ID at post offices and form a queue,” he said. “This was the GDR – it was the only way we could imagine doing anything!” There was, he added, “anger in some phone calls but you have to remember by this point we were all pretty much in the shit together!”

Some have argued that West German media also helped to hype up the situation by reporting that East Germany had opened its borders when they were officially closed. Many in East Berlin turned into bulletins and it’s these that reports that caused crowds to rush to the Wall.

Tens of thousands of East Germans gathered at the crossing point at Bornholmer Strasse, where just 60 border guards were on duty. But Lieutenant Colonel Jäger struggled to get hold of his superiors to be told what action to take. He was eventually ordered to let the loudest and angriest people through, however he feared this would start a riot and so, following his decision to open it to all, at 11:30pm – the time is today stamped on the pavement – it became the first border crossing to be opened. Other checkpoints were then opened as sizeable crowds gathered.

Today, at Bornholmer Strasse you can see plaques on the ground marking the very spots where the crowds gathered on November 9th as they demanded to be let through the Wall. Photos taken on night have been reproduced on large blocks positioned in front of the bridge over railway tracks which East Berliners were finally allowed to cross that night.

Crossing point at Bornholmer Strasse today – remembering events of 1989

Brandenburg Gate – where last night’s party took place – wasn’t an official border crossing at the but thousands still headed to this landmark which had been shut-off in the Wall’s death strip since 1961. People clambered onto the top of the Wall here, ignoring calls from border guards to get down, and used hammers and chisels to remove part of the structure. The border guards later withdrew and people could walk through the columns to reach West Berlin.

There were jubilant scenes in Kurfürstendamm, the heart of West Berlin, as East Berliners crossed over the border the early hours of November 10th. “Berlin is again Berlin. Germany weeps with joy,” screamed the headlines of free special-edition tabloids that were handed out. The new arrivals to the East continued in large numbers in the following weeks.

The morning after the Berlin Wall fell long queues developed outside savings banks in West Berlin with people waiting to collect so-called welcome money. These payments of 100 Deutschmark were awarded by the West German government from the 1970s for East Germans who escaped across the border. East Germans could only bring limited money with them, so the welcome money was meant to help ease them into their new lives. After the Berlin Wall fell there were chaotic scenes given the volume of new arrivals, with some claiming their payments more than once. Welcome money was paid out until December 1989.

“Huge traffic jams built up as people abandoned work to witness the amazing scenes,” wrote the journalist Michael Binyon of the events he witnessed when he arrived in West Berlin on the morning of November 10th. “West Berlin threw all rules to the wind. Cars were allowed to park anywhere and people rode free on public transport. The underground, which was already stopping at a newly opened station in the East, was dangerously overcrowded. By Saturday evening spontaneous parties filled the Kurfurstendamm, one of the main thoroughfares in West Berlin.”

“Bands played, people embraced one another, hotels handed out hot soup, dozens of firms distributed chocolate, fruit and souvenirs and the big stores were overwhelmed with East Berliners gazing at the cornucopia of unimaginable prosperity and scrambling to find something to take home,” added Binyon. “Most settled on bananas.”
On the night that the Berlin Wall fell, border guards let citizens through without their documents being checked. But by the following night – Friday November 9th – things were more controlled and there was a requirement for people to have stamps to exit.

“The two halves of the city have embarked on a process of coming together,” the annual review of the British Army in Berlin noted later in the year. “New crossing points are appearing every week and the wall is being ravaged by souvenir hunters. The sound of 1989 is the chipping of hundreds of little hammers.”

Work began on removing the Berlin Wall between the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie in March 1990. Most of the inner-city sections of the border had removed by the November of that year. Today, less than total less than two miles of the former Wall remains in situ – the biggest section being at the East Side Gallery.

Was the fall inevitable?

The overriding narrative for the toppling of the Berlin Wall is one of people power. It was the vast crowds of East Germans taking to the streets in Leipzig, East Berlin and other cities that brought about the events of November 9th 1989 through a peaceful revolution. Gunter Schabowsk’s bungled press conference gave demonstrators the final trigger they needed. East German dissident Marianne Birthler, said: “First we fought for our freedom and then, because of that, the wall fell.”

But there are a number of other possible factors that could have influenced the fall of the Berlin Wall down. When asked in a 2009 survey who contributed the most to the peaceful revolution, 62% of Germans responded Mikhail Gorbachev – more than the East German people. “Gorbachev made it all possible, much more than we could ever expected,” Angela Merkel said at the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. Gorbachev came to power as leader of Soviet Union in 1985 and introduced reforms that would have a ripple effect across the Eastern bloc.

“There mustn’t be bloodshed,” Gorbachev said in an interview this month. “We couldn’t allow that, over an issue of such magnitude for Germany, for us, Europe, the whole world. So, we declared we would not interfere.” It wasn’t therefore what the Soviet Union did do in Berlin in 1989, but rather what it didn’t do that in the end helped bring down the Berlin Wall. The Soviets could have stopped things that night, had they sent in reinforcements.

Germany’s president Frank-Walter Steinmeier yesterday tribute to Germany’s neighbours, saying: “Without the courage of the will to freedom of the Poles and Hungarians, the Czechs and Slovaks, the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe and Germany’s reunification would not have been possible.”

“The Berlin Wall fell as part of a chain reaction that began in Poland in the summer of 1988 and spread to Hungary and on to Leipzig (the crucial location, which might have been the German Tienanmen Square) before it reached Berlin,” wrote the historian Niall Ferguson.

And then there was the actions of Egon Krenz, the leader of the GDR at the time the Berlin Wall fell. “It was the worst night of my life,” Krenz said recently. “I wouldn’t want to experience that again. When politicians in the West say it was a celebration of the people, I understand that. But I shouldered all responsibility. At such an emotionally charged moment, if anyone had been killed that night, we could have been sucked into a military conflict between major powers.”

It’s claimed that at the time the Wall was toppled, Krenz was talking to West Germany about economic aid in return for reforms, including the easing of travel restrictions for East German citizens. Indeed, on November 10th – on the night after it was opened – Krenz went as far as suggesting “it used to be said here that people would not leave if they could travel whenever they wanted. Now we are giving it a go.” More recently Krenz has stated that it was his intervention in ordering security forces not to shoot at demonstrators that prevented bloodshed.

Krenz said in a recent newspaper interview that the “images you see of people hacking away at the wall with hammers and pick axes were taken from the western side or shot later.” He added: “No one in the east was trying to destroy the wall. They were full of joy at being able to cross to the west. It was only three-quarters of a year later the wall actually fell.”

Others have argued that consumer forces were crucial in helping to bring down the Berlin Wall. Four years before it was toppled, the French leftist philosopher Régis Debray, commented: “There is more power in rock music, videos, blue jeans, fast food, news networks and TV satellites than in the entire Red Army.” Indeed, when the West Berlin shops, such as the department store KaDeWe, opened on their doors on the morning of Friday November 10th East Berliners flooded in. What they could afford to buy given the weakness of their currency against the West Germany Deutschmark was another matter.

The following year, on March 19th 1990, the first and only democratic elections in GDR history were held. East Germany got the Deutschmark on July 1st, which was followed by re-unification on October 3rd. Finally, in 1994, the last Russian, US, British and French troops left Berlin.

The last three decades have by no means been easy for Germany and the country remains divided in a number of ways, a subject I’ll cover in this series of blogs. But last night at the 30th anniversary events at Brandenburg Gate everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and it was very much a celebration. It struck me how many young people were there – a large number of whom wouldn’t even have been born when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989.

A cynic could say that some attending weren’t even bothered about the significance of this important anniversary. They could have just come to drink beer, eat bratwurst and enjoy the free music and fireworks. But whatever their motives, the world is a different place since the Wall came down 30 years ago.

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