European Affairs

Remembering the Fall of the Berlin Wall—25 Years Later     Print Email
By Michael D. Mosettig, former Foreign Editor of PBS News Hour

michaelmosettigIn forums across Germany and Europe and in Washington, along with a new batch of books, former officials, analysts and authors are taking stock 25 years later of the most important and dramatic event of the late 20th century --- the end of the Berlin Wall. 

On November 9, 1989, thousands of East Germans streamed through openings in the Wall, which had been the most brutal symbol of Europe's division since the East Germans, backed by the Soviet Union, built it 1961. The breaching of the Wall marked the end of the post-World War II Cold War, and a stand-down of the stand off between the nuclear superpowers --the United States and Soviet Union -- with the nations of Western and Eastern Europe fearing they would be the first casualties should a shooting war break out.

Within two years of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist; the United States emerged as the world's only global power; a pro-market, capitalistic ideology had spread across the globe, and the world was released from the hair-trigger tension of potential nuclear war. Sober-minded strategic thinkers such as Britain's Michael Howard invoked lines from the poet Wordsworth, written in the early days of the French Revolution 200 years earlier, to usher in a new era:" Bliss Was It in That Dawn to be Alive, but To Be Young Was Very Heaven."

Alas, bliss, like youth, does not last long. The 25th anniversary observances come with the commentary, notably from Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times speaking at the Brookings Institution, that the post-Cold War era is pretty much over, amid Russia's revisionist challenge to the European order and economic fragility across the world. America's unipolar predominance is being challenged by Russia in Ukraine, by China in the South and East China Seas. The so-called Washington consensus of free market economics has been under assault around the world since the 2008 financial crisis. The post-Wall European bargain that France would share leadership in the European Union with an increasingly powerful Germany in exchange for the Euro and a tighter federal Europe has stumbled into financial and political turmoil across the expanded 28-member grouping. The comforting idea that democracy would inevitably spread around the world has dissolved into chaos around the Middle East amid the failed dreams of the Arab Spring.

But within the political analysis come reminders that the opening of the Wall was an intensely human drama, obviously in Germany, which had been the cockpit of a destructive century in Europe, but also in populations and government ministries far beyond.

At the Brookings Institution, journalist and analyst Constanze Stelzenmuller mesmerized a crowd with a personal history that spoke to and of Germany's post-World War II generation. Her father had swum across the Elbe River to avoid capture by the Russians. Her mother lived in a region occupied by the Americans. Her parents had made clear that the precious gifts of peace and prosperity had come from the allies, who had liberated not conquered her country. Like most of her generation, "I grew up believing partition, occupation and the Wall would be there forever, a metaphor for our guilt."

Stelzenmuller was a student at Harvard's Kennedy School in November 1989, when a friend called and told her to turn on the television because the Wall was coming down. After first believing the call was a joke, she saw the pictures from Berlin and to her surprise, broke into tears. For her generation, it was a political and emotional liberation that has taken 25 years to work out.

As noted in sessions at Brookings and the German Marshall Fund, the collapse of the Wall and Germany's peaceful re-unification anchored into both NATO and the EU might seem now, in retrospect, like historic inevitabilities. But such an outcome was anything but preordained. Rather it was a combination of luck and shrewd diplomacy and political leadership, especially from Helmut Kohl and Hans Dietrich Genscher in West Germany and from the United States during the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

Indeed, the very lack of inevitability is the constant theme of “The Collapse,” a well told and reported history from American academic Mary Elise Sarotte, published by Basic Books. At almost every turning point of a drama that extended for months, things could have gone fatally and tragically wrong. As Sarotte reports, and former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick confirmed at the GMF session, top U.S. officials had no idea in the evening of November 9, if East German troops might shoot their compatriots crossing into West Berlin. As recently as February 5, 1989, a young East Berliner was shot and killed trying to escape the maze of wall and wire that divided the city.

One key theme of Sarotte's work is the extent of the rot, masked by brutality, of the East German communist government. Western intelligence agencies vastly over-estimated the German Democratic Republic's economic strength and political durability. It maintained the highest ratio of secret police and informers to population of any dictatorship in the world. But its government was rent by in-fighting; it was losing support from its patrons in Moscow once Mikhail Gorbachev took power there, and every day on television its 17 million citizens could contrast the bleakness of their lives with the prosperity over the Wall. (If there is one weakness in Sarotte's book, it is underestimating the effect of Western television across Central and Eastern Europe and that East Germans were heading to the West as much in search of bananas as for constitutional democracy.)

Throughout the summer of 1989, as Sarotte well weaves her tale, tens of thousands of East Germans were finding escape routes, first when Hungary opened its border with Austria and then through Czechoslovakia. That those East Germans who ended up in Prague were then shipped to West Germany in sealed box cars was a bitter irony widely perceived but little commented upon at the time.

Even the crumbling East German government realized by November it needed to revise its strict travel and emigration rules. Its misfortune was to have the changes announced at an East Berlin press conference by an official --Gunter Schabowski-- who had not even bothered to read the documents before facing the unfamiliar experience of dealing with Western reporters, who actually asked questions and expected responsive answers. But what he said at the press conference and in a subsequent interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw left the impression that East Germans were free to leave the country, including Berlin, right away and without passports. That is not what the government really had in mind. Even more bizarrely, the Soviets who shared Berlin occupation rights along with the U.S., Britain and France, had no idea what was coming.

As word spread on television news broadcasts, East Germans started gathering at the Wall, even though neither they nor border guards had any idea whether they could go through. Sarotte's most dramatic personal tale is of the commander of the Bornholmer crossing, Harald Jager. A true regime loyalist, Jager had no clear orders and then was angered and humiliated in a conversation with superiors whom he felt were denigrating his patriotism and courage. At 11:30 that night, as crowds grew into the tens of thousands, Jager made the unilateral decision to open the gates. Jager and his men broke down in tears, not of joy, but sorrow.

"The Berlin Wall had opened--but not by force of arms,” writes Sarotte. “The breakthrough was nonviolent. While the enormous crowd of protestors had loudly and insistently demanded to pass, they had remained peaceful and had not smashed their way through with force, even though Jager and his men feared they might. Thanks to the presence of so many camera crews, the simultaneous collapse of the regime's control of the Wall and the ultimate moment of peaceful success for the revolution were both caught on film and soon, thereafter, televised."

As this book makes clear throughout, and as Zoellick observed , the less told sub-story of this drama was the courage of thousands of ordinary East Germans. Sarotte gives an important reminder of the church-organized demonstrations in Leipzig the month before-- how they grew in number and how footage was bootlegged to the west and then seen by other East Germans. It was a hair-breadth outcome that these early demonstrators were not shot on sight, demonstrators who were well aware of what had happened in Tiananmen Square just months before. And many of those courageous dissidents would be among the most disappointed with the ultimate outcome. They had dreamed of some sort of Third Way Germany, united but perhaps neutral, and were disappointed to see their country totally absorbed into the Federal Republic of Germany.

As Sarotte concludes:

"The Wall's opening was not a gift from political elites, East German or otherwise and was in no way predetermined. It resulted from a remarkable constellation of actors and contingent events -- and not a little courage on the part of some of the individuals directly involved--that came together in a precise but not entirely unplanned sequence. And the larger, successful peaceful revolution surrounding the opening was a truly rare event, one to be considered carefully, not discounted. The history of 1989 shows just how many things have to go right for such a revolution to succeed."

It was, indeed, bliss to have been alive through one of the most exciting political transitions of my life time, even though I could not claim youth then.Alas, for the current youth of Europe and the West, much less in continents beyond, a lot less blissful and much harder slog seems to be ahead.

Michael Mosettig is currently a Visiting Professorial Lecturer at Johns Hopkins SAIS (School of Advanced International Studies).