The Ordinary People Who Brought Down the Berlin Wall
On the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, an unremarkable East German functionary named
bungled an assignment—and accidentally helped bring down the Berlin Wall. A Politburo member, Schabowski had ended up with a thankless job: trying to mollify the vast, growing crowds of East Berliners who had been inspired by Soviet leader
promises of glasnost (or “openness”) and reform. By early November 1989, protests numbering in the hundreds of thousands were overwhelming communist East Germany.
The besieged regime had ousted its hard-line leader,
; his replacement, a Honecker protégé named
was struggling in his first weeks in office. Krenz was hardly a reformer, but he decided to try acting like one. As a sop to the protesters, he proposed a draft travel law that seemed to promise some increased freedom of movement—but still enabled the regime, for little or no reason, to keep its citizens from traveling. The move was essentially a public-relations ploy, and the luckless Schabowski got the task of announcing it.
At a press conference that was broadcast live and attended by Western journalists, including NBC News anchor
Schabowski botched his delivery of this news. He broached the topic only in the final minutes, after a stultifying, hourlong description of the East German regime’s internal debates. A bored Brokaw had been nodding off. Then a reporter asked about travel possibilities for East Germans. Schabowski initially answered in soporific fashion, with frequent pauses and “uhs.” But then he mumbled that the party had decided “to issue a regulation that will make it possible for every citizen…to emigrate.”
A reporter shouted, “When does that go into force?” The interruption visibly irritated Schabowski, who fumbled with his briefing papers to search for the answer. His aide finally pointed out the relevant page, and Schabowski read the text aloud so rapidly as to be almost incomprehensible: “Private trips to foreign countries may, without presenting justifications—reasons for trip, connections to relatives—be applied for. Approvals will be distributed in a short time frame.” Someone shouted again, “When does that go into force?” Schabowski scanned the unfamiliar text again and picked out some of its words: “Immediately…without delay.”
The reporters erupted with questions. A British journalist asked, “What is going to happen to the Berlin Wall now?” Schabowski ducked the fusillade of queries, mumbled excuses and scurried out. The stunned journalists were left to guess at what he had meant—even as East Germans rushed to the wall to see whether the guards would open up on the basis of Schabowki’s remarks.
Thirty years later, the fall of the wall seems like a miraculous ending for the most indelible armed standoff of the Cold War. But the nonviolent collapse of the wall was a close call. Political leaders’ grand strategies had provided the context in which it could unfold, but on Nov. 9, 1989, it was the actions of average East Germans that made it happen. Caught unprepared, the secret police, border guards and military forces scrambled to reassert their power, but it was too little, too late. The closer we look, the clearer it becomes that the peaceful demise of the wall depended largely on the actions of ordinary people.
The wall was the ultimate symbol of the inhumanity—and inadequacy—of Soviet control. In 1961, young East Germans seeking better lives had flooded into West Berlin and beyond, into democratic, capitalist West Germany. On Aug. 13 of that year, the East German regime decided to encircle its population with barbed wire and guards, dividing not only the city but also families. Over the following days and years, the regime built up the main Berlin Wall and various secondary walls, some including dog runs, tank traps and self-triggering machine guns.
The wall put an end to the 1961 refugee crisis but exposed the bankruptcy of the East German regime. The country had to kill its own people to keep them in and was still doing just that in 1989: That February, an East German marksman shot dead an unarmed 20-year-old trying to escape. The gunman was promoted.
Gorbachev’s policies only inspired Eastern Europeans to demand more openness. ”
By the late 1980s, some Soviet leaders had realized that they couldn’t sustain the costly arms race or maintain control over their unwilling satellites. Mikhail Gorbachev, who came to power in 1985 after the deaths of several elderly functionaries, tried a different approach: glasnost and also perestroika (or “restructuring”). He hoped that his reforms would lead to a more durable, less claustrophobic version of Soviet rule, both in the U.S.S.R. itself and in the unhappy East European satellites behind the Iron Curtain that
had lowered after World War II. But Gorbachev’s policies only inspired Eastern Europeans to demand more openness. Support surged for the Solidarity movement in Poland, led by
and forced the communist regime there to begin talks about power-sharing.
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The combination of decades of Western containment and Gorbachev’s reform efforts set the stage for dramatic changes. But formerly secret documents from the Stasi archive and German government collections, along with interviews, reveal that the sparks that detonated the powder keg the night of Nov. 9, 1989, came from the men and women in the middle: largely unknown officials and average East Germans in history’s path. Their actions—some intentional, some not—produced the chain of events that, wittingly and otherwise, leveled the Berlin Wall that night.
Their hopes raised by Gorbachev, East Germans had begun demanding more freedom, including free travel. When huge crowds gathered in Leipzig on Oct. 9, 1989, East German leaders considered a violent crackdown—a German version of Tiananmen Square. But the local party figure in charge that night,
refused at the critical moment to open fire on his fellow Germans. So the protests rolled on, culminating in November in demonstrations that unnerved the East German leadership. To buy time, they embraced half-baked reforms—and sent out Schabowski to try to calm the situation down.
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For decades, the barrier served as a backdrop to everyday moments and historic events
Workers build the Berlin Wall in August 1961.
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Workers build the Berlin Wall in August 1961.
When his press conference did just the reverse, another group of largely unknown individuals took center stage: East German dissidents such as
age 26 and 30, respectively, at the time. The two had earlier drawn the ire of the Stasi, the East German secret police, by smuggling videos of human-rights abuses out of the country for broadcast abroad. They endured a beating, surveillance and interrogations but kept going.
On Nov. 9, Radomski watched Schabowski’s press conference and swiftly realized that—whatever the Politburo intended—he and Schefke could repeat the words “immediately…without delay” to border guards and demand to be let out. They rushed to the nearest border crossing: Bornholmer Street, in northern Berlin.
A second-tier Stasi passport-control officer became the man who opened the wall. ”
There, another man-of-the-middle would determine not only their fate but the fate of the wall itself. The Stasi official
a second-tier passport-control officer overseeing the night shift at Bornholmer Street, became the man who opened the wall. He was an unlikely candidate for this title. Jäger had amassed 25 years of loyal service to the Stasi, mainly as a paper-pusher. Yet on the night of Nov. 9, he was the senior Stasi officer on duty at Bornholmer Street, in charge of all of the men and weapons present.
Jäger watched Schabowski’s botched press conference from a television while on the job and couldn’t believe his ears. Yelling obscenities at the screen, he grabbed the phone to find out what was going on. His superiors told him that there were no new orders—it was business as usual for the wall. But it wasn’t. The crowd of would-be border crossers swelled. Among the first to demand to exit were Radomski and Schefke. They were soon joined by dozens, then hundreds, then thousands more.
Jäger kept calling to plead for orders, but his superiors accused him of being delusional. Finally, at his insistence, they gave him new instructions: Pull the biggest troublemakers out of the crowd and let them out—but put a stamp over the photo on their identity documents. That stamp would mean that they could never return to East Germany.
More on the Fall of the Wall
Jäger and his men yanked some of the rowdiest protesters from the throngs. Radomski and Schefke were among the first to get the stamps and be let out of the Bornholmer checkpoint-control building on its western side. They crossed a bridge into the West on foot, wondering all the while if they were about to be grabbed just before getting out. Once in West Berlin, they headed straight for the home of friends—and later guessed that they weren’t sober again for five days.
A young couple also exited this way and then returned swiftly to the Western entry to Bornholmer, telling the guards that they had only wanted to have at least one peek at the West before returning to their children, home alone in bed. But the East German border guard told them that they had been expelled forever. The young parents were shocked, grief-stricken and furious; just as had happened to so many East Germans in 1961, they had been abruptly amputated from their family by the wall. They pleaded for human mercy, and the guards insisted that Jäger come over to lay down the law.
Instead, seeing the devastated young couple, Jäger snapped. It was, in part, personal: Jäger believed on Nov. 9 that he was dying of cancer. He had recently received suspicious test results and had a doctor’s appointment scheduled for the next day, where he expected to learn the worst. After hours of being called delusional, fearing for the lives of his men in the face of the massive crowds, and feeling that he was a dead man with nothing to lose anyway, the sight of the anguished parents was the final straw. He let them return to East Germany—disobeying a direct order.
Soon, Jäger started letting others back in as well. Around 11 p.m., with the crowds reaching into the tens of thousands, Jäger had had enough. He gathered his men and said, in effect, that either they were going to start shooting or they were going to open up. In a moment that changed history, Jäger decided to open up: He instructed some junior officers to pull open the main gate by hand. The crowds immediately surged peacefully and joyously through the opening.
Jäger’s doctor’s appointment was much delayed amid the tumult, but when he finally made it later that fall, he learned that he didn’t have cancer after all. If he had known that on Nov. 9, history might have been different.
Word that the wall had opened spread quickly. Other border checkpoints opened. Hard-liners at some crossings and at the Brandenburg Gate managed to reseal them, sometimes using fire hoses—but it was far too late to restore overall control.
While ordinary Germans made history, the Soviet bloc’s political leadership was asleep, both metaphorically and literally. The East German regime didn’t grasp what it had unleashed, leaving commanders at the crossing points to their own devices. In Moscow, the drama unfolded in the wee hours of the morning, and no one wanted to wake Gorbachev with the news. By the time he was apprised of the crisis, tanks would have been needed to inflict massive bloodshed to get through the crowds on Berlin’s streets.
‘We know that the KGB and the [East German] State Security Service had been willing to let the tanks out.’ ”
—Helmut Kohl, chancellor of Germany
Gorbachev refused to resort to that level of violence, but we now know that others in the Soviet bloc didn’t agree. U.S. documents declassified at my request show that
the West German leader in 1989 and the first chancellor of the reunified Germany, told Washington in 1993 that “we know that the KGB and the [East German] State Security Service had been willing to let the tanks out” to reseal the Berlin Wall that night. “That,” Kohl said, “would have been a repeat of 1953,” when Soviet tanks had crushed an earlier popular uprising in East Berlin. Only thanks to Gorbachev, Kohl said, was such a disaster averted.
In the first days after the opening, the number of border-crossers surged into the millions. Among them was a 35-year-old East German chemist named
who wondered what the new era might hold for her.
perhaps the most important man-of-the-middle that night. In November 1989, he was a midlevel KGB officer in his late 30s stationed in Dresden, 120 miles south of Berlin. We cannot reconstruct his activities precisely because he burned nearly all of his files before leaving Germany, but an officer charged with surveillance might well have gone to Berlin to see for himself.
Putin clearly found the fall of the wall excruciating. Ever since 1989, he has described the loss of Soviet control in Eastern Europe as a disaster—to be followed by what he has called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, the collapse of the Soviet Union itself in 1991. That loss still powers Putin’s statecraft. His resentment at liberty’s triumph that night lives on in his determination to suppress popular protests at home, to dominate Ukraine and his other neighbors, and to undermine the West.
Even as we celebrate the extraordinary events that brought down the Berlin Wall 30 years ago, it is important to note that there are still those who look back nostalgically to a world defined by walls and barriers. They could yet send history down a far less hopeful path.
—Dr. Sarotte is the Kravis Professor of Historical Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall” (Basic Books).