It was the most dramatic moment in an extraordinarily dramatic year. All across eastern Europe, one-party regimes collapsed in a heap. But nothing could trump the impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall on the evening of 9 November 1989. Television viewers around the world were transfixed as the loathed symbol of a divided continent broke open.
Following a confused, partly unintended announcement at an official press conference, East Berliners poured through the once-impenetrable barrier in to West Berlin; thousands more clambered on to the wall and celebrated there for days to come. Overnight, the barrier lost all its power.
This was a time of fairy-tale strangeness, a brave new world in the unburdened sense of the phrase. The fall of the wall was not, however, as unpredictable as politicians have often been eager to suggest. Indeed, it was unexpected only if one failed to see what the pressure of the crowds had already achieved, in the lead-up to that day.
Some changes were obvious and widely acknowledged. Through the summer of 1989, there was a vast outflow of East German refugees, especially through liberal Hungary, which proudly and publicly snipped a symbolic hole in its border fence in May, with unexpected consequences.
In the months to come, tens of thousands slipped across the Hungarian border to the west. East Germany’s lifeblood was haemorrhaging away. Those who remained and chanted “Wir bleiben hier!” (“We are staying here!”) provided no comfort to the regime, because their meaning was equally clear: “We are staying – because we want change.”
All of those pressures – from the leavers and the stayers alike – smoothed the way for what came next. However, probably the single most important moment came a month before the wall fell, on the evening of 9 October, in the city of Leipzig.
Throughout 1989, weekly Monday demonstrations – prayers for peace in the Nikolaikirche, followed by a demonstration – gradually gained strength, despite constant beatings and arrests. Eventually, the authorities decided enough was enough. They would teach Leipzig, and thus all of East Germany, a lesson.
A “reader’s letter” (read: an officially sanctioned announcement) in the Leipzig local paper announced that “these counter-revolutionary actions” would be dealt with, “if need be, with weapons in our hands”. In effect, the regime was publicly heralding its plans for a local reprise of the Tiananmen Square killings, which had taken place just four months earlier.
Nor was this mere bluster. The city of Leipzig was closed off. Weapons and ammunition were handed out. Hospitals were cleared. Before the demonstration began, I counted 16 trucks with armed workers’ militias in one side street alone. Inside the 13th-century Nikolaikirche, everybody knew what to expect once prayers were over. Through the tall windows, we could hear the echoing cries of the huge crowd outside, chanting, “No violence!” But it was clear to everybody: violence there would be tonight, and it might be lethal.
After the service, we moved outside. Presumably in common with many of those around me, I felt the tightening knot of fear as we waited for the shooting to begin.
A few minutes passed, without violence. And then a few minutes more. And then – utterly dramatic and conventionally un-newsworthy in equal measure – it became clear that there would be no shooting tonight. No shooting, not even arrests or beatings. As one demonstrator said after it was all over: “I felt as if I could fly. It was the most fantastic day that I have ever known. Now, we knew that there was no going back.”
Even outsiders could share in the exhilaration of that achievement.
Late that night, the Stasi secret police fetched me out of my room, searched my baggage and threw me out of the city (I had already phoned my report back to my newspaper in London from the central post office, and was thus content to be deported). The hotel receptionist asked why I was leaving in the middle of the night. I pointed to the waiting men in overcoats, and explained that my crime was to have witnessed and written about events that they would rather went undocumented. “It’s a disgrace!” she said, loudly enough for the Stasi men to hear. Such insolence would, until a few days earlier, have got her the sack or worse. Now the fear was broken. It would never return.
The regime’s threats of lethal action were intended to persuade the crowds to stay at home. Instead, more had come out that day than ever before. Despite all the guns and all its power, the regime was more afraid of the crowds than the crowds were afraid of the regime. This was, to quote Ryszard Kapuscinski’s description of the fall of the Shah of Iran a decade earlier, one of the last zigzags to the precipice.
In the next fortnight, the numbers of protesters doubled and doubled again, as the regime looked sulkily on.
Then – in an increasingly desperate attempt to slow the momentum – the government came up with a last, surreal concession. On 3 November, it was announced that all citizens could now leave for the west without special permission. Just two conditions were imposed. In a citizen-laundering exercise, they could not leave directly from East Germany to the west, but must pass through a third country on their way. Oh, and yes, everyone must give up their East German identity card when they leave, poor things.
Thus, the regime’s front door remained locked. The guns, watchtowers and minefields of the Berlin Wall were, after all, still in place. However, a side door – a simple detour of a few kilometres through Czechoslovakia and on to the west – was now officially open to all. It was a gloriously absurd contradiction.
The sacking of a third of East Germany’s ruling politburo, which happened the same day, would, in other contexts, have seemed important. By now, however, three weeks after Leipzig, the resignation of yet more men in ill-fitting suits seemed like yet another rearrangement of the deckchairs. (The loathed Communist leader Erich Honecker had already been dumped, just a week after the Leipzig showdown.)
More significant was that the Berlin Wall had suddenly become pointless – a redundant symbol. Thousands of East German refugees were crammed into the West German embassy in Prague; they received the news in dazed disbelief and headed off to the West German border.
The travel ban that underpinned East Germany’s very existence was now in free fall. The only real surprise was how utterly unprepared the politicians were for the wall’s fall when it finally came. Chancellor Helmut Kohl initially refused to believe his closest aide. “Ackermann,” he insisted, “are you sure?”
This was not a victory for Ronald Reagan (“Mr Gorbachev, tear down that wall!”), nor indeed a victory for the Soviet leader (a pragmatist who reluctantly bowed to the inevitable). Nor (another much-heard version) was it all down to a mix-up over which pieces of paper should or should not be read out at a press conference. It was a victory for the crowds of Leipzig and beyond.
The East German protesters did not stand in isolation. They owed much to the defiance of others who had come before. By autumn 1989, the Communist wheels were falling off all over the place. In partly free elections in Poland in June – the same weekend as the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing – the independent Solidarity movement defeated the Communists so overwhelmingly that the humiliated regime had no alternative but to bow to demands for a non-Communist prime minister. At the very latest from 4 June onward, the clock was ticking for one-party regimes across eastern Europe.
Elsewhere, too, extraordinary changes were afoot, demonstrating what Václav Havel called the power of the powerless. August 1989 was the 50th anniversary of the secret deal between Hitler and Stalin which allowed Moscow to gobble up the Baltic states. Two million people – a quarter of the entire population – formed a human chain that stretched for hundreds of miles through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. To the fury of Mikhail Gorbachev, they demanded a restoration of pre-war independence. (Gorbachev still pretended that the Balts had joined the Soviet Union voluntarily, which – especially given the mass deportations to Siberia after annexation in 1940 – was very sweet.)
For western politicians, the Baltic protests were either an irrelevance or an annoyance (“It’s worrying, because this makes things difficult for Gorbachev” was a frequent mantra). But the peaceful mass resistance of the Balts – despite and because of a subsequent armed crackdown – played a pivotal role in ending the Communist one-party system for all time.
Even today, many politicians still seem to believe that only their fellow politicians can initiate profound and lasting change. A seemingly plausible argument is made, too, that people should not make impossible demands. In 1989, the protesters of eastern Europe – in Leipzig, Gdansk, Prague, Vilnius and elsewhere – proved the sceptics wrong on both counts. Those lessons still deserve to be remembered. l
Steve Crawshaw is UN advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. He was east Europe editor of the Independent from 1988 to 1992. He is the author of “Easier Fatherland: Germany and the 21st Century” (Continuum, £15.99) and co-author of “Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity and a Bit of Ingenuity Can Change the World”, to be published next year
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