Berlin Wall Legend Shattered

New revelations in Germany have shattered the official story on how the wall came down 20 years ago. Far from a spontaneous protest, it was a carefully planned government plot.

AP Photo

The fall of the Berlin Wall on the night of Nov. 9, 1989, has always been portrayed as the spontaneous result of a foul-up at a press conference: East German government spokesman Günter Schabowski, finishing up an evening briefing, shuffled through a stack of notes and came upon one more thing he needed to announce. He paused before saying that travel restrictions were to be lifted. The freedom for East Germans to travel beyond the wall was at hand. Pressed for details about when the measure would take effect, Schabowski stammered, apparently unprepared, and replied, “Immediately, as far as I know.”

Not only was the GDR leadership planning to open the wall, but by Nov. 6, Kohl’s office knew the East German government was already planning to do so.

Soon afterward, East Berliners lined up at various checkpoints and demanded to be let through to West Berlin. At about 8:30 p.m., a little-known checkpoint between Waltersdorfer Chaussee in the East and Rudow in the West opened; about an hour later, the famous scene at the border crossing at Bornholmer Strasse began to unfold, with a huge crowd gathering there before the gates were fully opened around 11:30 p.m.; then Checkpoint Charlie opened and the party was on. It was all a surprise in the West, sudden and unexpected, with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, on a state visit to Poland, rushing back as events unfolded.

More Daily Beast takes on the Berlin Wall anniversaryThis version of history, however, has been contradicted by information about the days preceding the fall of the wall that has emerged in recent German news reports. A new chain of events has commentators wondering whether the seemingly inadvertent fall of the wall was in fact “staged,” as a headline last week in Munich’s nationally significant Suddeutsche Zeitung put it. Not only was the GDR leadership planning to open the wall, but by Nov. 6, Kohl’s office knew the East German government was already planning to do so.

The plan was revealed on Oct. 29, 1989, during a lunch meeting at East Berlin’s Palast hotel between Walter Momper, the mayor of West Berlin, and the official who would open the wall less than two weeks later, Günter Schabowski. At the meeting, arranged by prominent Eastern church leaders and assistants to Momper, Schabowski told Momper in unambiguous language that the GDR would soon lift travel restrictions for all its citizens.

“We’re putting together a travel bill worthy of the name,” Schabowski said. “There will be travel freedom.” Subsequent conversation included discussions of logistical topics such as which checkpoints could be opened to best facilitate use of the subway system, as well as the volume of visitors to expect.

The Berlin municipal government sprang into action, establishing a task force to prepare for the imminent arrival of what they thought could be half a million GDR citizens. The task force met for the first time on Nov. 1, trying to anticipate, among other things, how to prepare the transit system for this massive influx.

On Nov. 6, Momper sent a communiqué to Kohl, explaining that the Berlin government was operating under the assumption that the wall would be opened by December, and suggesting the federal government also prepare for this eventuality. (In an interview in the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung last week, Momper claimed he also alerted Allied forces in Berlin.) In his letter to Kohl, the mayor used the phrase weitgehende Reisefreiheit—broad travel freedom—to describe what was on the way, saying “virtually every GDR citizen will soon be able to travel.” The chancellor’s office did not reply.

Details of the secret meeting between Momper and Schabowski emerged in the last few months; last week came hard evidence, when as part of a documentary about the fall of the wall, the TV station ZDF showed for the first time the letter Momper sent Kohl.

At the beginning of the second week of November 1989, Berlin newspapers reported on the city task force beneath such headlines as “As if the Wall Were Nothing More Than History.” The reports were ignored by the national and international media.

Then on Thursday, Nov. 9, the mayor was interrupted during a meeting and informed that the new travel rules might be revealed by the East German government that day. Momper had his staff notify the mass transit authority to expect additional riders. Schabowski held his news conference that evening, and 2 million Easterners streamed into West Berlin during the first weekend alone.

Tim Mohr spent most of the 1990s as a club DJ in Berlin and much of the current decade as a staff editor at Playboy magazine. He is the translator of the German novels Guantanamo, by Dorothea Dieckmann, which won the Three Percent award for best translation of 2007, and the international best seller Wetlands, by Charlotte Roche. His translation of Broken Glass Park, by Alina Bronsky, will be published in April, 2010. He is currently at work on a book on the punk music scene in East Germany.