News

1989: Berlin Wall Falls Without a Shot Being Fired

Multimedia

Audio
<!-- IMAGE -->

November 9 marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Historians say in the 1960s and 1970s, West Germany developed a strong economy - and West Berlin shared in that wealth.

Frederick Taylor, an expert on the Berlin wall (author of the book "The Berlin Wall - A World Divided 1961-1989") says East Germany also had a sort of economic upswing, though not on the same level as West Germany.

"Between 1961 and around 1973-74, the standard of living and the availability of consumer goods inside East Germany improved tremendously," he said. "Washing machines were available, TV sets, even cars - you might have to wait five years for a car, but I think in 1961 three percent of East Germans had a car, by 1975 it was 15 percent. It's not America, but it's pretty good compared with what was there before. The problem was that this was all done on subsidized oil and raw materials from Russia," he said.

In the mid 1970s came the petroleum shock in the Middle East, drastically increasing the price of oil. Subsidies from the Soviet Union were cut and Taylor says the East German leadership could no longer provide its citizens with consumer goods.

<!-- IMAGE -->

"Imported fruits and vegetables, for instance, started disappearing off the shelves. Just little things - there wasn't tarmac available for the roads, so the roads got worse and worse," he said. "They were pretty bad to start with, but it got a lot worse in the 1970s and moving into the 1980s. Buildings were not repaired. Things could not be imported - luxury goods and so on - only available if you had large amounts of foreign currency, hard currency, that is dollars or Deutsch marks or whatever," he added.

Taylor and others say by the time Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, the military -- but especially the economic -- vulnerability of East Germany and of the whole Soviet bloc was becoming evident.

Analysts say one man who sensed this vulnerability and who knew the communist system had to change was Mikhail Gorbachev, who became Soviet leader in March 1985.

Serge Schmemann was former Moscow and Bonn correspondent for The New York Times.

"Once Gorbachev introduced this policy of perestroika, of glasnost, once he began loosening the bonds, then all the East European countries began sensing a sort of movement either from within the communist parties or from the bottom up - a loosening," he said.

In Eastern Europe, the communist parties' monopoly on power - propped up for decades by the Soviet Union - was on its way to being dismantled. Poland and Hungary led the way.

Analysts say 1989 was a watershed year. Historian Frederick Taylor says one decision by Gorbachev had momentous consequences for Eastern Europe - especially East Germany.

"The really crucial point in 1989 came in the summer when it became clear that Gorbachev, the new reformer leader in the USSR was not prepared to use the Red Army to suppress dissidents, to suppress protests, to suppress pressure for reform inside East Germany," he said. "And the moment he, in a sense, pulled away those quarter of a million bayonets that had kept the whole East German communist state in being for 40 odd years, then, then the wall was doomed," Taylor continued.

Gorbachev essentially repudiated the "Brezhnev doctrine" that said if any country tried to break away from Soviet control, Moscow could intervene by force as it did in 1956 in Hungary and in 1968 in Czechoslovakia.

Analysts say once Gorbachev took that decision, events in Eastern Europe and especially in East Germany, accelerated.

Taylor says in August, the Hungarian government took the momentous decision to open its border with Austria.

"This meant that in effect, for the first time in nearly 30 years, East Germans could get out into a fellow communist country - that is Hungary - and walk into a capitalist country - Austria - and from there go wherever they liked: go to Munich, Miami, Montevideo - wherever they wanted," he said. "And then those who remained [in East Germany] protested and demanded reform, demanded the ability to travel legally and easily, demanded changes in the government, demanded an end to fraudulent elections, demanded economic improvements," he said.

The historian says the protests grew throughout East Germany during the months of September and October 1989. They were peaceful. The largest demonstrations were held in the city of Leipzig.

Taylor says in early October, a massive rally was held in that city. Elite parachute troops were standing by. They were allowed to use live ammunition if called for. Taylor says East German Communist party chief, Erich Honecker and other leaders were watching the protest on television.

"They have to decide what to do. And this is a crucial point where Honecker, the old hardliner, is mumbling about 'we've got to do something about this. We've got all these cops and all these troops there and we are doing nothing.' And he turned basically to the general, the army general who was in the room. And the army general said in effect 'I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to give that order.' And that was the moment - that and Gorbachev's unwillingness to use the Red Army," said Taylor. " And it was clear that the demonstrations could not be stopped by force. There would be no Tiananmen Square, if you will. It should be noted that the Politburo of the East German Communist party was one of the few from Eastern Europe by 1989 that sent congratulations to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party after the suppression of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in June 1989," he said.

Within weeks Erich Honecker was gone. The new leadership was preparing up to date regulations for foreign travel.

At a November 9 news conference in East Berlin, Gunther Schabowski, a member of the East German ruling Politburo, said private travel and permanent exit from East Germany were now permitted. Asked when this regulation came into effect, Schabowski said immediately, without delay.

Once again, historian Frederick Taylor.

"Most people in East Berlin, particularly at this point when dramatic events were occurring every day, were not watching the official East German news which would have given them a doctored version of this whole thing and said queue in an orderly fashion tomorrow at your local passport office," he said. "They were watching West German TV and West German TV said 'the wall is down, the wall is open.' And before the end of that bulletin - it was only a 15-minute bulletin - people had started arriving, East Germans, East Berliners had started arriving at various checkpoints saying 'okay, what do we do to get out of here?'" Taylor said.

Very quickly thousands of East Germans gathered at various checkpoints. Taylor says the crush at these border crossings was intolerable. The guards had no orders. Finally, they said:"throw open the gates."

"Thousands of people then, of course, swarmed through into West Berlin and the whole game was up. By the end of the night, all the other border crossings were opened and East Berliners were swarming into West Berlin and West Berliners, for that matter, were swarming into East Berlin because - why not? You can get back again," he said.

Former New York Times correspondent Serge Schmemann was there.

"At about midnight I went to the wall and the party was in full swing," said Schmemann. "There were people dancing on top of the wall, pouring through it and all the West Germans came with champagne. It was spilling over for hundreds of yards in all directions. It was a fabulous party that continued for several days. And that, I remember, as just one of the best parties that I've ever been to. It was really a moment of just high exhilaration," he said.

In the final analysis, the Berlin wall came down without a single shot being fired. As British historian Frederick Taylor says, by the end of 9/10 November everyone felt that everything and anything was possible.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threati
X
Greg Flakus
May 29, 2015 11:24 PM
Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threat

Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video New York's One World Trade Center Observatory Opens to Public

From New Jersey to Long Island, from Northern suburbs to the Atlantic Ocean, with all of New York City in-between.  That view became available to the public Friday as the One World Trade Center Observatory opened in New York -- atop the replacement for the buildings destroyed in the September 11, 2001, attacks.  VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Seoul Sponsors Korean Unification Fair

With inter-Korean relations deteriorating over the North’s nuclear program, past military provocations and human rights abuses, many Koreans still hold out hope for eventual peaceful re-unification. VOA’s Brian Padden visited a “unification fair” held this week in Seoul, where border communities promoted the benefits of increased cooperation.
Video

Video Purple Door Coffeeshop: Changing Lives One Cup at a Time

For a quarter of his life, Kevin Persons lived on the street. Today, he is working behind the counter of an espresso bar, serving coffee and working to transition off the streets and into a home. Paul Vargas reports for VOA.
Video

Video Modular Robot Getting Closer to Reality

A robot being developed at Carnegie Mellon University has evolved into a multi-legged modular mechanical snake, able to move over rugged surfaces and explore the surroundings. Scientists say such machines could someday help in search and rescue operations. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Shanghai Hosts Big Consumer Electronics Show

Electronic gadgets are a huge success in China, judging by the first Asian Consumer Electronics Show, held this week in Shanghai. Over the course of two days, more than 20,000 visitors watched, tested and played with useful and some less-useful electronic devices exhibited by about 200 manufacturers. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Forced to Return Home, Afghan Refugees Face Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.

VOA Blogs