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Fall of the Berlin Wall

Just as the Berlin Wall itself had for many years been a defining point in Germany, separating not only a city and a country, but also the spheres of ideologies, its fall has been a defining moment in Germany’s self-conception ever since then. The Fall of the Wall, the ensuing reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc have been the most significant historic events in the second half of the 20th century.

The actual reunification of the two German halves took place on October 3, 1990 and that date has afterwards become the German national holiday. The emotional event however, the day when people from the East got to see the Western part of the country - and often their relatives - for the first time again after decades, was the fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989.  

Mauerfall

As that November date is however also associated with the “Night of Broken Glass”, the Nazi pogrom against Jews in 1938, it was unsuitable for a National holiday. That did not change the fact that those Germans in East and West who witnessed the chaotic, vividly joyful atmosphere in 1989 will always remember that special day fondly. For a few weeks leading up to November 9 and afterwards, the whole country appeared to be in a state of trance as the compatriots from across the formerly invincible border started exploring the other half.

The day the Berlin Wall came down was the culmination of a series of events that gradually became more energetic and powerful over time. Below we chronicle the time leading up to November 9, 1989.

 

1986
In his position as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party - the de facto leader of the Soviet Union - , Mikhail Gorbachev, who had taken office the year before, introduced a series of reforms commonly known as “Glasnost”. These were actually aimed at removing problems of corruption and intransparency in the ruling circles of the Soviet Union, yet were later associated with the revolutionary movements in Eastern Bloc countries everywhere. In fact, other country leaders in the Eastern Bloc often were reluctant if not hostile towards Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika ideas.


April 4, 1989
In Poland, the country immediately neighboring East Germany, the “Solidarity” trade union is reinstated after it had been prohibited in 1981 and suppressed for many years. Also, an improvement in the government and election system is ratified.


May 2, 1989
After a few months of continuing reform steps initiated by the parliament a year before, Hungary began cutting down the fence marking the border to Austria. This was largely a symbolic move, as citizens of other Warsaw Pact countries such as the German Democratic Republic were not allowed to travel to any place West. However, this move would later prove to be a pre-defining one, not at least due to the fact that already many Romanians had fled their home country and waited in refugee camps in Hungary.


June 3-4, 1989

There had been protests and demonstrations by students, later reinforced by factory workers and others, in China for many weeks when the Communist government decided to put an end to these protests which had increasingly gathered international attention. At midnight, the military violently cracked down on the protesters on Tiananmen Square. Many participants died, their number is not known to this day. The widely broadcasted pictures of the brutal suppression sparked fears in many Eastern Europe countries including East Germany about similar reactions by their governments should protests intensify.


June 4, 1989
Solidarity wins the parliamentary elections in Poland by such a landslide, gaining 99 of the 100 seats in the parliament chamber, that it becomes immediately obvious that Poland stands on the verge of revolutionary reforms.


July 8, 1989
In Bucharest, the Soviet Union officially ends the Brezhnev Doctrine, which had for years basically kept Eastern European Communist governments aligned in the Warsaw Pact to make their own decisions without consulting with Moscow. The end of the doctrine meant that all satellite countries now had the freedom of choice for their policies, but they also lost the Soviet defense guarantees for them. East Germany’s leader Honecker positioned himself strongly against all reform ideas by Gorbachev. 


August 19, 1989
Hungarian and Austrian democracy activists organize a peace demonstration nicknamed the Pan-European Picnic at the border between the two countries. Due to a West German politician distributing invitations among the many GDR tourists in Hungary, hundreds of them participate in the event. As Hungarian border patrol officers have the explicit order not to protect a section of the border for a few hours, about 600 East Germans seized the opportunity and practically overran the border markings and fled to the West, leaving behind friends and relatives for what they thought would be forever. However, several thousand of their East German compatriots were still in Hungary, a popular vacation destination for them and upon learning of the border break, many decided not to return home. Many of them storm onto the grounds of the West German embassy in Budapest, hoping to obtain a visa from there.
 

August 24, 1989
Hungary officially opens its Austrian borders to East German citizens camping at the West German embassy, allowing them to move freely into Austria, from where they would get the opportunity to transfer on to West Germany.


September 4, 1989 
In Leipzig, the first of a series of so-called Monday demonstrations takes place. Following the traditional Monday evening prayer for peace at the Lutheran St. Nicholas Church, a group of protesters with selfmade banners demanding peace and democracy take to the streets. While cameras of Western TV stations roll, Stasi agents rip the banners down. The cameras also catch the ensuing loud protests of the onlookers.


September 11, 1989
For the second issue of the Monday demonstrations, more than 1000 people arrive at St. Nicholas Church. The police block the churchyard and arrest about a hundred participants. The following Mondays, the number of demonstrators grows continually, despite may arrests being made by the police. On Monday, October 2, already more than 20,000 people attend the weekly event. The Stasi and police use violence to disperse the crowds. 


September 30, 1989
In recent weeks, the embassies of West Germany in Prague and Warsaw have become a refuge for thousands of GDR citizens. Those in Warsaw had already been promised by the Polish government that they would not be deported to their home country. In Prague, around 4000 have climbed over the fence and now live in makeshift camps under terrible conditions when West German Foreign Minister Genscher visits. After talking to his GDR colleague, Genscher finally steps on the balcony and announced to the refugees that their leave for West Germany - in trains via East Germany - had been allowed.


October 3, 1989
Fearing a wave of citizens fleeing from the GDR via Prague, the East Berlin government suspends visa-free travel to Czechoslovakia. One day later, travel to Bulgaria and Romania was also made impossible, leaving the people virtually locked in their country.  


October 4, 1989
Four of the trains transporting the embassy refugees from Prague cross through Dresden. At the Dresden railway station, about 5000 people gather, mostly in hope of jumping these trains and go to West Germany. When police attempts to disperse the crowds, violent riots begin, resulting in many people getting injured or arrested.


October 7, 1989
The day that was scheduled to be a national holiday as it marked the 40th anniversary of the constitution of the GDR, turned out to be another milestone towards the end of the state. Large demonstrations happened in East Berlin, Leipzig and Plauen statt with several thousand participants respectively. Law enforcement units again apply violence against these demonstrations; in Plauen however, they fail to break the event up. Mikhail Gorbachev visited East Berlin, hosted by Erich Honecker who had previously prohibited all material on Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost politics from being distributed. East German citizens greet the Soviet leader with loud calls “Help us, Gorbi”.  


October 9, 1989
The violence used by police against peaceful demonstrators in recent days may have led to an overwhelmingly large crowd showing up for the Monday demonstration in Leipzig. Despite rumors that the government was planning on a “Tiananmen solution” to the protests, about 70,000 people gathered. Repeatedly emphasizing their intention to remain peaceful and under the watch of state security which did not intercept them, the large demonstration moved through the city, passing the Stasi headquarters and leaving burning candles on the steps in front of the building. It is until today not entirely clear why police did not use force like they did the days before, but it might have been a case of refusal to obey orders on local levels. As almost everyone had expected a violent end of this day’s demonstrations - even blood reserves at the hospital had been increased - this day became yet another turning point, as the government’s forces seemed to have capitulated in the face of the huge crowd.

October 16, 1989
Encouraged by the events a week before, the number of participants in the Monday demonstration rises to an estimated 120,000. In the following days, demonstrations take place in all cities of the country and the next Monday, 320,000 gather in Leipzig. It becomes obvious that the government has no means to keep the people in check anymore.


October 18, 1989
Having been very sick for many weeks and without any actual grasp of what was going on in the country, Erich Honecker is forced to step down from his political offices. He is replaced by Egon Krenz the next day.


November 4, 1989
East Berlin sees the largest demonstrations in history when more than half a million people take to the street to demand the right to travel, the right to gather and to free speech, for democracy and reforms. Another 350,000 demonstrate peacefully in Leipzig two days later.


November 9, 1989
The day that made history. GŁnter Schabowski, who had become the unofficial spokesperson of the ruling politburo after Honecker had been forced out, held a press conference in East Berlin that is broadcast live on East German TV. At the end of it, he reads an announcement from a piece of paper of which he obviously has no further information. Schabowski announces that East Germans would be allowed to leave the country for West Germany via all border crossings, but in his announcement he refers to a permanent leave of the country, an emigration. A West German journalist in the room, understanding the dimension of this announcement, asks him at what date this new rule would take effect and Schabowski answers “according to my knowledge....that’s effective immediately”, an assumption that was not true. In fact, the order was supposed to be realized the next day and border guards did not have knowledge of this new law. But it was too late. News agencies spread the breaking news and at least one was using the expression “border opening”, which was not accurate as it was not intended for East Germans to be able to travel back and forth.
However, word spread quickly. Soon after the press conference, thousands of people gathered at the Wall, demanding the guards to open the gates, while in West Berlin, people also moved to the Wall, waiting to see what would happen. Under the mounting pressure of the crowd and in the absence of any clear and definite orders on how to handle the situation, the officers at Bornholmer Strasse are the first to remove the barriers and let people pass through without any control whatsoever. In a domino effect, all other border crossing staff follow suit within minutes. The border is open, first in Berlin, later in all other places of the intragerman borderline. In Berlin, people jump on the Wall to celebrate, arm in arm with their compatriots from the other side. 

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