On this day 26 years ago: The Fall of the Berlin Wall

“I was at the pub that night. When we heard the announcement on TV the bartender announced drinks were on the house for the rest of the evening, but we all left to see what was happening,” my neighbor told me and my flatmates as we enjoyed a beer outside our apartment in Prenzlauer Berg on October 3, the Day of German Unity. He, however, was referring to the night of November 9.

Photo: https://62e528761d0685343e1c-f3d1b99a743ffa4142d9d7f1978d9686.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/files/63845/area14mp/8szmpkpt-1415250319.jpg
Photo: https://62e528761d0685343e1c-f3d1b99a743ffa4142d9d7f1978d9686.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/files/63845/area14mp/8szmpkpt-1415250319.jpg

November 9 is known in Germany as Schicksalstag, or Fateful Day. Several events of historical importance have taken place on this particular day, most notably the end of German Monarchy in 1918, the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, the Kristallnacht pogroms in 1938, and the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Because of this historical coincidence, it was decided not to celebrate the Fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9 but on the anniversary of the official reunification of Germany, which took place on October 3 1990.

By the end of 1989, the situation not only in the German Democratic Republic but in the Communist World had escalated beyond repair. Ever since the late 1980s, there were demonstrations across the Eastern Bloc: Nationalist rallies for independence in the Baltic Soviet Republics, environmental protests throughout the Soviet Union, and calls for political reform (though not necessarily overthrowing the system) and democratization in countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania.

Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Velvet_Revolution#/media/File:Havla_1989.jpg
Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Velvet_Revolution#/media/File:Havla_1989.jpg
Photo: http://www.irishtimes.com/polopoly_fs/1.1987943.1415126909!/image/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/box_620_330/image.jpg
Photo: http://www.irishtimes.com/polopoly_fs/1.1987943.1415126909!/image/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/box_620_330/image.jpg

In late 1989 came the revolutions. Pressure had been mounting in East Germany. Weekly demonstrations took place in Leipzig. This was dubbed Friedliche Revolution, or Peaceful Revolution. Alarm bells were ringing at the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (or SED). Not even a month before the Wall was thrown open today 26 years ago, the SED had voted out its leader, Erich Honecker, in favor of Egon Krenz.

Demonstration in East Berlin on November 4 1989. Photo: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e9/Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-1989-1104-437%2C_Berlin%2C_Demonstration_am_4._November.jpg
Demonstration in East Berlin on November 4 1989.
Photo: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e9/Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-1989-1104-437%2C_Berlin%2C_Demonstration_am_4._November.jpg

The German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, had seen a huge migration in August 1989 after Hungary opened its borders. Germans from the East crossed into Hungary from Czechoslovakia, and kept going from there to Austria, and then West Germany. Refugees arrived by the thousands. The system was overwhelmed.

Photo: http://ichef-1.bbci.co.uk/news/660/cpsprodpb/15D7D/production/_85396498_migrants1.jpg
Photo: http://ichef-1.bbci.co.uk/news/660/cpsprodpb/15D7D/production/_85396498_migrants1.jpg

In a desperate effort to stem the flow of people leaving for the West, and knowing that the Wall had become by that point superfluous, the SED called for a press conference in which new measures that would allow free travel were to be announced.

The lack of communication within the party became evident. Günter Schabowski, the party boss in East Berlin, was nervous as he announced that provision-free travel permits to travel to non-Socialist countries could now be applied for.

—Is that also valid for West Berlin? —Asked a reporter.
—Well, yes, yes. (…) —Answered a shaky Schabowski.
—When will this take effect? —Asked another reporter.
As far as I know that becomes effective… Immediatly, without delay. —Answered Schabowski.

Schabowski was wrong. The news made the rounds on East Germany’s television between 7:30 and 8:00pm. By 8:30, multitudes of East Berliners had gathered at the border crossing on Bornholmer street. The police gave up trying to control the border crossing any longer. Confusion reigned. By midnight all border crossings were open.

Photo: https://www.bayernkurier.de/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Mauerfall-1989_Gran-Angular_imago52050384h-1024x682.jpg
Photo: https://www.bayernkurier.de/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Mauerfall-1989_Gran-Angular_imago52050384h-1024×682.jpg

The Wall had already become obsolete and it would be opened at some point. That it happened on that day was the product of miscommunication. A lucky slip of the tongue. From that day onward, the SED’s monopoly on power and the structures it had erected since the establishment of the German Democratic Republic 40 years earlier rapidly crumbled into nothingness.

The German Democratic Republic no longer exists, and the Wall has become more a tourist attraction (or a minor inconvenience for real estate developers) than a place to remember those shot or incarcerated trying to cross it. On the other hand, however, the ruins of the Wall symbolize the victory of the people over politics.

Ich bin der Meinung, dass wir alles falsch gemacht haben.” Günter Schabowski in 2009.

That’s part of the Berlin Wall behind me.

Thanks for reading, Sebastián


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