With everything going on in the world, it can seem as if the events of November 1989 happened in the Middle Ages. But it’s worth contemplating what exactly happened, and how.
The fact that the Berlin Wall fell during a peaceful revolution is as remarkable as the fact that it fell at all. The developments that led up to the event itself began a decade earlier.
Among these are the democracy movements that had begun in Poland and Hungary in the early ‘80s. Another is Mikhail Gorbachev, who became Soviet head of state in ‘85 and hinted early on that member states were responsible for their own affairs – a signal to democracy activists in the entire East Bloc that they were at least safe from Soviet tanks.
By mid-September of ‘89, the weekly peace prayers in the East German city of Leipzig had turned into open protest marches. Also that month, the Hungarian government opened its border with neighboring Austria, prompting a mass exodus of East German vacationers.
All of this occurred as the East German state was preparing for its 40th anniversary – an occasion for which the government wanted to present a happy Socialist nation.
In a desperate attempt to avoid media coverage of unhappy citizens fleeing that nation, they closed the border with Hungary.
But this only re-routed the mass exodus to Prague, where thousands sought refuge in the West German embassy.
Dramatic scenes from the embassy, and of people in the streets of East Berlin yelling “Gorbi, help us...” were the backdrop to East Germany’s anniversary.
In his speech during the festivities Gorbachev pointedly told the East German leadership that “...dangers await only those who do not react to life”.
Two days later, on October 9, the biggest protest yet took place in Leipzig. The secret police – or Stasi - had formed a special unit to intervene in case of further “anti-socialist” and “hostile” behavior.
The fact that the event stayed peaceful in this extremely tense atmosphere was a matter of collective intention, orchestrated by Gewandhaus orchestra conductor Kurt Masur, who implored protesters and police over the radio not to give in to any feeling of provocation.
Fast forward to November 9. That morning the Politburo passed a new law allowing unrestricted travel, but in the overall chaos there was no time to draft up specifics.
So the government press secretary was stumped when a reporter asked him when the law would go into effect. Flustered, he said, “Without delay, as far as I know.”
Within minutes, throngs of East Berliners gathered at the checkpoints to West Berlin.
The border guards were in a bind – they’d been trained for 28 years to prevent any unauthorized crossings by force of arms. Fortunately, they read the situation correctly – concluded there was no turning back, and opened the Berlin Wall.