Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall, toppled 20 years ago today, was brought down by Ronald Reagan's hawkish stand, right? Peter Beinart explodes conventional wisdom—crediting Reagan's dovish side instead.

Ira Schwartz / AP Photo

Ira Schwartz / AP Photo

June 12, 1987: President Reagan challenges Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”

What may be the most famous phrase of Reagan’s presidency almost didn’t make it past his advisers. According to the U.S. News & World Report, a cautious State Department warned the president against showing up Gorbachev (at that point only two years into his tenure as Politburo chief) and counseled him to avoid any mention of the wall. But speechwriter Peter Robinson, visiting West Berlin in advance of Reagan, found Berliners’ deep-rooted dislike for the wall impossible to ignore. Feeling that something had to be said, the writer placed in his draft the famous challenge: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Chief of Staff Howard Baker and Deputy National Security Adviser Colin Powell strongly objected to the language, worrying that its aggressiveness would alienate and embarrass Gorbachev; Reagan left the issue up in the air until days before he was to give the remarks. “I think we’ll leave it in,” he told Deputy Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein in Italy before the trip. Pressed on the issue again in the limousine on the way to the remarks, the president was firm: “The boys at State are going to kill me for this, but it’s the right thing to do.”

AP Photo

January 19, 1989: Erich Honecker vows wall will stand "100 years"

Despite Reagan’s theatrical provocation, his presidency was outlasted by the wall. Erich Honecker, the head of the East German Communist Party and de facto head of state, expected it to last longer even than that. Responding to calls to demolish the wall from Secretary of State George Shultz and West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the hardliner compared the wall to the border between U.S. and Mexico and described American foreign policy as “hypocritical.” Honecker—who as state security chief in the early 1960s had supervised the wall’s planning—declared in a speech celebrating the 500th birthday of peasant revolutionary Thomas Meuntzer that the wall protected GDR citizens from “robbers” and the “drug society of the West.” “The wall will be standing in 50 and even in 100 years,” he prophesied.

AP Photo

February 6: Chris Gueffroy becomes last victim of border guard shooting orders

Honecker’s seriousness about the wall was underscored by the Schießbefehl, or “firing orders,” given to the wall’s guards. Though officially the use of weapons by border guards was called for only in an “extreme measure,” documents found in 2007 seem to indicate otherwise. “Do not hesitate with the use of a firearm,” the orders read, “including when the border breakouts involve women and children.” Chris Gueffroy attempted to cross the wall with a friend at a canal separating the East German neighborhood of Treptow from the West German area Neukölln. After triggering an alarm, border guards opened fire, killing the 18-year-old instantly. His friend was shot in the leg and later sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. Gueffroy, the last casualty of the Schießbefehl, said he attempted his escape because he believed the shooting orders had been lifted; his death, according to the Irish Times, led to their quiet cessation in April of that year.

Chris Niedenthal / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

August 19: Tadeusz Mazowiecki nominated as first non-Communist Polish PM in four decades

While East Germany grappled with the possibility of its own end, other Eastern Bloc countries were rapidly coming to grips with newfound political freedoms. The non-communist trade union Solidarity, of which Tadeusz Mazowiecki was a leader, had emerged from a decade of repression to lead the opposition in 1989, holding roundtable talks with the communist government and securing semi-free elections. Solidarity expected to win at most 20 out of 100 seats in the new Polish parliament; they emerged with 99, and Mazowiecki was nominated to be the country’s first non-communist prime minister since the 1940s. The Guardian, writing on the same day as Mazowiecki’s appointment, crowed that “the ideological change of complexion in Warsaw is bound to chill the hearts of the conservative leaders in Prague, Bucharest, and East Berlin.”

AP Photo

September 10: Hungary opens western borders to GDR refugees, thousands of East Germans defect via open border to Austria

As countries like Poland began to liberalize and open their borders, it became increasingly difficult for the GDR to maintain its draconian border policy. Hungary, which had lifted border restrictions on its own citizens in 1988 and dropped its ban on opposition parties in February 1989, decided on September 10 to allow East Germans within its borders to move on to their final destination: West Germany. “Crying, laughing, and cheering with happiness,” reported the AP the next day, “thousands of East Germans poured across the border into Austria early Monday.” The Politburo was furious, accusing the Hungarian government—which had broken the Warsaw Pact in allowing the emigration of East German citizens—of “engag[ing] in the organized smuggling of human beings,” but it was too late; the fortifications had begun to crumble, and the mass exodus was a huge embarrassment for the flailing communist regime.

Boris Yurchenko / AP Photo

October 7: Gorbachev greeted as liberator during visit for 40th anniversary of East Germany

By the fall of 1989, Gorbachev’s reform-minded liberalism was clearly apparent, especially in contrast with the still hard-line Communist Party of East Germany. His visit to East Berlin was met with thousands of people—“troublemakers” who were chanting “slogans against the republic,” according to the GDR’s official news agency, ADN—shouting his name and asking for his help. Honecker rejected the protesters’ demands, saying their hopes were “built on sand,” but Gorbachev’s message was clear. “Dangers await only those who do not react to life,” he told reporters asking about the wall.

AP Photo

October 9: "We Are the People" protests in Leipzig

Berlin was naturally the focus of international interest as the GDR visibly crumbled, but the wall may never have fallen as quickly or as peacefully without the Monday Demonstrations— Montagsdemonstrationen—in Leipzig. Christian Führer and Christoph Wonneberger, parsons at the city’s Nikolai Church, had been holding small group prayers for peace on Monday nights throughout the '80s. As dissatisfaction with the state grew in 1989, so did the size of the groups, until thousands were regularly meeting on Monday nights, in Leipzig and elsewhere, to peacefully express their discontent. The night of October 9 saw the largest of these protests—the largest in East German history—when somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 demonstrators assembled, despite fears of Stasi retaliation. Honecker, at the time meeting with Deputy Chinese Premier Yao Yilin (whose own country had thwarted a democracy movement earlier in the year) was unyielding, calling the protests “evidence of a particularly aggressive anti-socialist action by imperialist class opponents with the aim of reversing socialist development.”

Rainer Klostermeier / AP Photo

October 18: Honecker resigns and is replaced by Egon Krenz

Honecker’s tenure, rigid and orthodox as it was, could not last long in the rapidly changing world of the Soviet Bloc. Meeting days after the mass protests in Leipzig and elsewhere, the Politburo decided that Honecker would resign—for “health reasons,” it was said—and be replaced by his protégé, the 52-year-old Egon Krenz. Krenz’s ascendance was a disappointment to unification-minded Germans, who saw the former security boss as a handpicked successor and ideological clone. In an editorial in The New York Times, German journalist Josef Joffe described Krenz as “no Gorbachev”: “What we do know about him is not very interesting,” going on to call him the GDR leader Honecker’s “crown prince” and comparing him with “tired old apparatchik” Konstantin Chernenko. “For Germany to be reunited,” wrote Joffe, “bigger things must happen.”

AP Photo

October 31: Politburo meets to discuss economic problems

Even with the departure of Honecker, the GDR faced problems—in particular, its dire economic circumstances. Gerhard Schuerer, the head of the State Planning Commission, had already told a select few GDR higher-ups that the state would be insolvent by 1991 if conditions didn’t change. The mass exodus of young professionals and talented workers, begun years earlier but hastened by the opening of the Hungarian border, made prospects even worse. According to the Woodrow Wilson International Center, at the end of October 1989, Schuerer and other state economists presented findings to the Politburo indicating that the standard of living in East Germany would have to be reduced by 25 to 30 percent to pull the state out of the red. But the Schuerer report—couched in the cautious language of a lifelong bureaucrat—revealed a powerful voice within the party willing to admit that the wall might not last forever: “through… programs of economic and scientific-technical cooperation… conditions could be created even in this century which would make the border between the two German states, as it exists now, superfluous.”

AP Photo

November 1: Gorbachev and Krenz meet in Moscow

Fully briefed on the dire economic state of his country, Krenz traveled to Moscow on November 1 for a series of talks with Gorbachev. Outwardly cheerful and optimistic, Krenz told reporters that he and the Soviet leader were “in full agreement on all issues”—a turnaround from the anti-perestroika sensibility espoused by Honecker. Nonetheless, the wall would remain, he said, and Germans and the world “should accept the fact that two different German states exist.” Behind the scenes, Gorbachev was letting Krenz know that the Soviet Union, thanks to its own crisis, could not provide economic aid to the GDR, and unless Krenz could break the news of a lower standard of living to his citizens, Schuerer’s proposal of increased ties to West Germany—and the possible superfluity of the border—was his only option.

Rudi Blaha / AP Photo

November 3: East Germans allowed into West Germany via Czechoslovakian border

With the East German state attempting to deal with its catastrophic economic forecast, its population continued its wholesale emigration, which was crippling the industrial sector. Since October, GDR citizens had been arriving in Prague and camping out on the grounds of the West German embassy; East Germany, in turn, closed its border with Czechoslovakia. On November 1, Krenz reopened the border, and the embassy refugees were allowed into West Germany through a system that required them to surrender their GDR citizenship and become stateless persons. But the complicated process could only handle a few dozen citizens a day—a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands pouring into Czechoslovakia daily. On the night of November 3, the floodgates opened: The East German Embassy notified West Germany that its citizens were free to leave to the BRD. “We have freedom of movement,” a “clearly stunned” West German official told The New York Times that evening. “The wall is history.”

Tom Stoddart / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

November 4: Hundreds of thousands show up to demonstrate for democracy

As their friends and relatives fled through Czechoslovakia and Hungary, East German citizens continued to protest, with their efforts culminating in the biggest rally seen in the GDR yet on November 4. Somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million East Germans marched through the streets of East Berlin before arriving at Alexanderplatz in a peaceful demonstration followed by a series of speeches from activists and even some Communist Party leaders. The protesters were unharmed by the police, and all four hours of the rally were broadcast on ADN, which had rapidly become more open and independent over the preceding weeks. The demands were wide and varied: The Los Angeles Times reported signs reading “Theater Without Censorship,” “Community Service Instead of Conscription,” and “Free Travel for the Deaf.” Others had less specific slogans, like “Democracy, Now or Never.” One said, simply, “Thanks, Hungary.” Meanwhile, the West German newspaper Bild revealed that some 30,000 Stasi members would be removed from duty and sent to work in industry, taking the place of the thousands of decamping refugees.

Lionel Cironneau / AP Photo

November 6: New travel laws published to intense criticism

The Politburo found its back up against a wall, with a steadily flowing stream of citizens leaving the country (according to the AP, 1 percent of the country’s population had emigrated legally between January and November 1989) amid a similarly steady tide of opposition rhetoric and action. Deciding that their power could be retained only by providing the people with what they wanted, the party made public a draft of its new travel law, which it hoped would reassure both those planning to emigrate and those agitating for democracy. The new rules, which allowed only 30 days of travel per citizen per year, and, crucially, did not provide travelers with Western currency—a necessity given the East German mark’s deflated status—were greeted with skepticism at best. Sebastian Pflugbeil of the opposition group New Forum, speaking with the West German radio station RIAS, said that the effort was misguided. “Travel is not the primary problem in East Germany… The leadership must take other steps to prove it is earnest enough in its reform efforts and to win the trust of the people.” The Politburo was confused: “We couldn’t believe it!” Berlin boss Günter Schabowski told German paper The Local in 2009. “We’d taken the most incredible of decisions to open the border and it was greeted by… demonstrations!” Mass protests—and mass defections—continued throughout the week.

Jockel Finck / AP Photo

November 7: Council of Ministers resigns; November 8: Politburo resigns

Calls for a new government had intensified throughout the week as opposition groups grew emboldened and the SED’s shaky hold on power became clearer; at the same time, liberal forces from within the party—including the Communist Youth and several city mayors—were publicly demanding the resignation of the current government and the installation of reformists like Dresden chief Hans Modrow. Those demands reached a fever pitch early in the week, and on Tuesday, November 7, the 44 members of Council of Ministers, including Prime Minister Willie Stoph, who had reigned almost uninterrupted since 1964, resigned. Though not the locus of power in the East German state (the Council merely carried out the policies put into place by the Politburo), the move was a powerful signal that serious change was on the horizon. Krenz, who could appoint the new ministers, now had the chance to prove his reform bona fides to the people, who were eager for democracy: “Almost immediately,” the New York Times wrote, “a cry went up in the streets for free elections.”
Krenz seems to have known that the replacement of the cabinet wouldn’t go far enough. The next day, heeding calls from Culture Minister Hans-Joachim Hoffmann, the party boss ousted the ossified Politburo, forcing the resignation of a significant portion of its 21 hard-line members—mostly former allies of Honecker—and attempting to replace them with party liberals and reformers like Modrow in a bid to maintain control of the increasingly chaotic country. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl seized the opportunity to offer economic aid to the GDR if it continued with reform; the U.S., meanwhile, pondered the remote, and scary, possibility of Russian intervention—“it’s not going to happen that way,” a Bush administration aide told the Boston Globe, “but it is frightening to think about.”


November 9, around 4 p.m.: Krenz reads draft of expanded travel regulations

Pressure from both within and without—Czechoslovakia was becoming increasingly impatient with the flow of East German refugees—had led Krenz and the Politburo to charge Stasi with re-revising the travel laws. Four Ministry for Security bureaucrats produced a cautious draft on the morning of November 9: Travel restrictions were to be loosened, but GDR citizens still needed passports and applications to leave the country. The Stasi functionaries, expecting the news would lead citizens to rush the passport and immigration authorities (though not the border), decided to embargo the announcement until 4 a.m. on the morning of the 10th, hoping to lessen its immediate impact. Around midday on Thursday the 9th, the Stasi and the Foreign and Interior Ministries approved the draft during a smoking break from the ongoing Central Committee Meeting, and passed it along to be fast-tracked through the Council of Ministers. It arrived in Krenz’s hands at around 4 p.m.; the embattled leader told the Central Committee “no matter what we do, we’ll be wrong.” He decided, spontaneously, to release the news that day instead of early the following morning, and gave the release and the draft to Günter Schabowski, who was acting as party spokesman that day.

Lutz Schmidt / AP Photo

November 9, around 5 p.m.: Günter Schabowski receives updated regulations and skims document

Schabowski had been absent for much of the Central Committee meeting, and had missed the discussion of the planned travel regulations. He only had time to skim over the document and the press release before giving a press conference at 6 p.m., and was unfamiliar with the specifics of the planned legislation. Schabowski was in the loop—he had met earlier in the week with West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper to let him know that new travel regulations were coming—but he didn’t know what, exactly, the new law would entail, or when it would be made effective. His press conference, broadcast live on ADN, began at 6 p.m. and lasted the majority of the hour—Tom Brokaw, who was in attendance, remembers it as being “boring.”


Nov 9, 6:57p.m.: Schabowski tells press regulations are “effective immediately”

At 6:57 p.m. the Italian journalist Ricardo Ehrmann asked Schabowski if he felt that the November 6 travel regulations were “a big mistake.” Schabowski gave a long and somewhat rambling answer, remembering at the end to highlight the proposed legislation he had been given almost immediately prior to the press conference: “We have decided today to implement a regulation that allows every citizen of the German Democratic Republic to leave the GDR through any of the border crossings.” The briefing room erupted with voices asking Schabowski when the regulation would take effect. Schabowski expressed surprise: “I was informed today that such an announcement had been distributed earlier today. You should actually have it already.” He rapidly skimmed the document, reading bits of it aloud to the reporters. A journalist asked again when it would take effect. Schabowski, missing the embargo notice on the press release, replied: “That comes into effect, according to my information, immediately, without delay.” Reporters began to run out to file their stories; Brokaw and his producer, Marc Kusnetz, were able to get to Schabowski for an interview, during which, they say, he continued to consult the document, as though he still wasn’t sure of it. “It is not a question of tourism,” Schabowski told Brokaw. “It is permission to leave the GDR.” At 7:05, the AP issues a newsflash: “GDR Opens Border.”

Claus Eckert / AP Photo

Nov 9, 9:20 p.m.: Some allowed through at Bornholmer Street crossing

The Central Committee was still meeting through Schabowski’s press conference, and had no idea what had just happened, but guards at the Bornholmer Street crossing of the wall were watching on television. Lieutenant-Colonel Harald Jäger, the Stasi officer in charge of passport-checking, says he “almost choked on his lentil soup.” “What sort of shit is he talking?” the officer shouted at the television. Journalist Siegbert Schefke showed up around 8 p.m., demanding to be let through, and by 9, hundreds of people had massed by the gate—and not to the visa or passport administration, as had been expected. Schabowski’s muddled press conference, combined with the absence of the party chiefs, meant that no one knew what the rules entailed, how to enforce them, or how to handle the people who had shown up at the gate. The Ministry for Security, scrambling to deal with increasing crowds, decided to attempt a “valve solution,” where border guards would check whatever papers, passports and IDs they could while letting the assembled crowd in slowly.

Tom Stoddart / Getty Images

November 9, 10:42 p.m.: West German reporter Hanns Friedrich announces opening of borders

While East Germans flocked to border crossings, West Germany attempted to process Schabowski’s somewhat unclear announcement. According to historian Mary Elise Sarrtte, the 8 o'clock news in West Germany declared, cautiously, that the border would soon be “permeable.” Two and a half hours later, news channel ARD decided that the announcement was bigger than that. On the 10:30 program (broadcast 12 minutes late thanks to a soccer match), highly respected broadcaster Hanns Joachim Friedrich told his audience that “the gates in the Berlin Wall are standing right open.” It didn’t matter that the shot that came next, showing the still-secured border, contradicted his pronouncement: Friedrich’s proclamation convinced the West German populace that East Germany was serious about opening the border, and soon West Germans, like their counterparts on the other side, began to assemble at the wall.

Andrej Reiser / Agentur Bilderberg / Aurora Photos

November 9, 11:30 p.m.: Traffic barriers raised at Bornholmer

In Bornholmer, the GDR citizens hoping to cross were growing more and more frustrated with the “valve system,” and Harald Jäger and his men were beginning to feel threatened by the increasingly hostile crowd. Though the Central Committee had adjourned and Krenz was aware of the situation, no orders were given, either to open the border or to repel the crowd; the decision-making process had taken a backseat to the quickly growing crowds and the rapidly spreading images of the scene being broadcast in Germany and elsewhere—including on NBC, where Tom Brokaw was the only American television reporter live on the scene. Moscow, on the other hand, was asleep. At 11:30, Jäger—still without official orders, and afraid for the safety of himself and his men—decided to open the traffic barrier. Thousands of East Germans, on foot and in the government-manufactured Trabant cars, spilled into West Berlin, cheering. By midnight, all the border crossings along the wall had been opened.