Berlin August 13th 1961
At midnight, the trucks came East German troops and workers disembark lining up behind the white lines that separate East and West Berlin, The soldiers have orders to fire if approached. Berlin has been divided since World War II, the communist German Democratic Republic surrounding an enclave of the western Federal Republic of Germany, But that division was political People crossed the border to work and see family Couples lived on either side. No more, East Germany was suffering a brain drain doctors, lawyers, and professors fleeing to the west via the easy crossing.
The embarrassment became too much for the Soviets. The soldiers string barbed wire, the workers tear up the streets, Four days later the first concrete slabs arrive. They’re building a wall.
28 years later, the wall still stands. On one side, it s filled with color, graffiti political slogans art. On the other, bare concrete. It s twelve feet high, four feet wide, and 87 miles long. It encircles the city, the land linked only to West Germany by rail, road, and air corridors. But, the wall itself is only one obstacle, Behind it sits a yard death strip covered with gravel, the buildings that stood there cleared, Flood lights glare down on it There is no cover. Machine gun bunkers watch over it, and it s seeded with mines, anti vehicle moats, and dogs. By 1989 somewhere between 140 and 192 people had died trying to cross. But, Five thousand more made it, digging tunnels, ramming through in cars, even floating across in hot air balloons. The wall has become a fact of life, For West Berliners it was a good place to find parking, Pubs nearby featured photos of West and East Berliners clinking steins over the barbed wire, and rock musicians from Genesis to Springsteen to Bowie hold concerts close, to it so those over the wall can hear.
The wall people think will not fall anytime soon, Some in the west say it shouldn’t that reunification would be too expensive, that the number of East German refugees would wreck the economy. Kennedy had declared himself a Berliner, and the wall didn’t fall. Reagan challenged Gorbachev to tear it down and the wall didn’t fall.
As the new president George HW Bush comes into office, he’s decided to focus on Asia, deeming European problems too static, nothing will change there. In reality, the wall is about to come down, and The people who’d destroy it are mostly unknown in the west. Groups of Mid range communist officials, and leaders of Eastern Bloc nations, some looking to sabotage the Iron Curtain, some to maintain it, But in the end the wall would fall by accident.
June 1989. East Germany is in trouble, In fact, communism is in trouble in general, Nearly bankrupt from a multi decade arms race, and supporting proxy conflicts around the globe, battered from its invasion of Afghanistan, and its image tarnished by the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet Union needs change. Its new leader Mikhail Gorbachev comes to power with two new ideas; a new economic and social policy called perestroika, which introducing market elements, and reforms to the socialist model, and also “glasnost” a new openness of government. He’s hailed as a peacemaker all over Europe, especially after negotiating with Reagan to eliminate a whole class of nuclear weapons. He also talks about giving the governments of Eastern Bloc countries a freer hand.
No one believes him at first, The USSR had previously intervened to crush opposition movements in countries like Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, but the nations of the Eastern Bloc soon realize he’s genuine, it starts to snowball.
Poland holds its first free elections in June 1989. Kicking out most of the communists, and sweeping in the opposition Solidarity Party.
In Hungary, the central committee picks a Harvard trained economic minister Miklós Németh to be Prime Minister. They know he’s reform minded, but if his reforms fail; he will make a good scapegoat. But Németh secretly believes that a reformed communist state will be on economic life support. He wants Hungary to join the west, and crustily he wants to do it before the rest of the Eastern Bloc, so it gets a few years of special treatment and development aid. To make that a reality, he has to bring down the Iron Curtain, and be seen doing it, and the easiest way to do that is trigger a flood of East German refugees. He announces on television that it s become too expensive to maintain Hungary’s border with Austria. International news watches as Hungarian officials switch off the electric fence.
In a meeting with Gorbachev, Németh has telegraphed this move asking if the USSR would intervene Gorbachev says no. But the flood of East German escapees didn’t t arrive, So Németh pushed it further. He announces a picnic A Pan European Picnic where Hungary would open a gate and allow visitors from Austria to cross and join the fun. A sign of thawing tensions.
A ruse for a great escape, Németh holds it during tourist season when thousands of East Germans are vacationing in Hungary, He even busses some in for the event and gives them maps so they knew where the border is, For safety Because the border is right there And the gates are very open, And the guards are so busy checking Austrian passports that you might accidentally wander into Austria, But No one wants that right Because Austria is so close to West Germany.
Chaos, 600 Germans take off at a run through the open gate. West German officials and Red Cross volunteers wait on the other side.Soon, Hungary claiming to be overwhelmed by East German refugees start letting thousands cross the border each day. After the East German government bars the border with Hungary, the great escape spreads to Czechoslovakia.
The West German embassy in Prague begins giving out asylum visas, allowing East Germans to cross the Czech Austrian border and head to the west from there.
By November 9th 250,000 have fled East Germany.30 mile traffic jams snarl the autobahn, and a Mass protests calling for democracy economic reform, and especially the right to free travel explode in Leipzig, and East Berlin, But the hard line is East German leader Erich Honecker, the man who built the wall, and who controls the Stasi, one of the most feared secret police in the world refuses to make reforms. When Gorbachev visits Honecker in Berlin, a crowd gathers chanting “Gorby save us” “Gorby save us”.
It s the moment Honaker’s subordinates have waited for. They vote him out in a coup, planning to save East Germany through reforms, that will keep the state running, and them in power, and The first thing on the agenda A new travel law.
November 9th 1989, A Press Conference in East Berlin, Günter Schakowsky, a communist party boss reads the press briefing on live TV He doesn’t that realize that this speech unrehearsed, and unscripted will do what no speech by a president or a pop has ever accomplished, It will bring down the wall.
He reads off new dull regulations, saving the new travel law for last, East Germans will be able to apply it at the checkpoints to go to cross into West Berlin. They will need to obtain a visa in their passport, or have a special stamp on their ID card.
Next item… Wait! Said a journalist, Effective when?
Around Berlin everyone stopped, staring at the TV. The press release was supposed to be dated the next day November 10th, the idea was: that people would line up to get their visas, and If Schabowski had known that, and said so, maybe that what would’ve happened. Instead, he just shuffled the paper, found the wording ‘’shrugged’’ and said: As far as I know immediately, Without delay.
East Berliners stood stunned, and then they went. Dropped everything they were doing, and left. Closed shops, left telephone switchboards, snatched up passports, and thronged the checkpoints.
The first woman at Checkpoint Charlie, crossing to the former American sector wore a coat, thrown over her bathrobe. She still had curlers in her hair, they insisted the guards let them cross, Schabowski had said they could on TV Immediately Without delay.
Panicked, border guards went into their booths, and tried to dial party officials for confirmation. There were thousands of people outside; But Schabowski had gone home unaware of the firestorm he’d created Most of the party leaders were at the opera. So after a few hours, the border guards shrugged: “Okay open up”. The first people through the wall didn’t walk, the surging crowd carried them, and they were met by West Germans holding flowers and champagne.
A spontaneous party started Boom boxes, and pop music. East, and West Germans kissed climbed the wall, and chanted to tear it down. They were climbing both sides now, the colorful, and the blank, Hammers, and chisels came out, People took turns pecking at the wall, It was wild, It went on for days.
The Cold War ended, not with nuclear annihilation, but a street party. The celebration did more to undermine the German Democratic Republic, than anything else The images of partying refugees were hard to dismiss, and weakened East Germany so that reunification became inevitable, Not with a melding of states but with East Germany absorbed into the Federal Republic. And the party continued.
In a month, Czechoslovakia’s last communist leader fell to the Velvet Revolution. Bulgaria had ousted its hardline leaders, and called elections, and the next year it was Russia itself.
thou Not everywhere was it easy or peaceful, Street fighting rocked Romania, and the breakup of Yugoslavia would roil the Balkans for over a decade, But considering that Europe had lived 44years divided, and fearing world war, it seemed almost unreal how quickly the barriers melted away, but Though the walls destruction meant great things for geopolitics, it meant even more to everyday people, Families reunited, East German children tasted oranges and bananas for the first time, Europeans once again could travel, and learn from each other without artificial divisions.
They had torn down the wall, and could now build a future.