The Fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989
The winds of change had been blowing through Eastern Europe since 1985. Mikhail Gorbachev's accession to leadership of the USSR and his declaration of "Perestroika" marked the beginning of an attempt to effect a fundamental reform the Soviet system. Whilst the SED leadership rejected any notion of "changing the wallpaper" (as Kurt Hager, the chief ideologist of the SED, referred to it), many hoped that the long-needed reforms would manifest themselves in the GDR. Indeed, many in the opposition movement still persisted in the illusion that Socialism could be reformed to become more democratic. However, the fall of the Wall, and the eventual reunification of Germany, was sparked by people who had lost all hope of reforming the system in which they lived. Chanting "we want to leave," demonstrators regularly congregated around the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig every Monday night. The summer of 1989 saw thousands of East Germans surround the West German embassy in Budapest hoping to be allowed to leave for Austria. The trickle of people leaving the GDR in this way soon developed into a mass exodus. Hundreds of "refugees" camped in the gardens of the West German embassy. Pictures were sent round the world of young East Germans fleeing the state as they would a natural catastrophe. Within East Germany, the New Forum issued a declaration on 10 September 1989. The mood of the country demanded change. Following the fall from power of Erich Honecker on 18 October 1989, the new SED leadership under Egon Krenz sought to keep control by making concessions. They even began to discuss the possibility of free travel. The shift in tone came too late. The East German people were no longer prepared to wait for the "benevolence" of their masters.
THE DAM BURSTS
It was all a mix-up. Explaining the new reforms at an international press conference broadcasting live from the Mohrenstraße in Berlin on 9 November 1989, Günter Schabowski inadvertently sounded the death-knell of the SED system. Following the official announcements, the Italian correspondent Riccardo Ehrmann asked about the draft "travel legislation." Rummaging through his papers for the relevant notes, Schabowski muttered: "Today, the Party leadership has issued provisions which er… um… permit every citizen of the GDR …er… to leave ..um … the GDR through its border crossings." The question followed: "when does this come into effect? Immediately?" Scratching his head, Schabowski shuffled his papers, put his glasses on and replied: "Comrades, I have received the following information (and he read): '…Journeys from the GDR can be made without the need to present notification of cause - grounds for a journey or [the visit of] family relations.'" Responding to further questions, he replied "As far as I am aware … this takes effect immediately, without delay." The digital time code on the television monitors showed 19.00.54 CET - the dawn of a new age.
THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL
East Berliners flooded to the border crossing points, expecting to be allowed to pass. When the barriers failed to rise, they began to chant and the local commanders decided to open the gates and let the citizens cross. Only six months previously, the 18 year-old Chris Gueffroy had been shot in the back and killed whilst attempting to cross the death strip. He was to be the last victim of the Wall. Tens of thousands of Berliners crossed into the Western half of their city, and large crowds danced into the night at Berlin Zoo train station. "Amazing" was the most-heard word of the night. The long process of reunification was far from over and the pain it would cause was yet to come. This was probably the happiest hour of German history.