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.
    As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Filli
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 11, 2016 8:01 PM
    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video US Co-ed Selective Service Plan Stirs Controversy

    Young women may soon be required to register with the U.S. Selective Service System, the U.S. government agency charged with implementing a draft in a national emergency. Top Army and Marine Corps commanders told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that women should register, and a bill has been introduced in Congress requiring eligible women to sign up for the military draft. The issue is stirring some controversy, as VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Lessons Learned From Ebola Might Help Fight Zika

    Now that the Ebola epidemic has ended in West Africa, Zika has the world's focus. And, as Carol Pearson reports, health experts and governments are applying some of the lessons learned during the Ebola crisis in Africa to fight the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Illinois Voters Have Mixed Emotions on Obama’s Return to Springfield

    On the ninth anniversary of the launch of his quest for national office, President Barack Obama returned to Springfield, Illinois, to speak to the Illinois General Assembly, where he once served as state senator. His visit was met with mixed emotions by those with a front-row seat on his journey to the White House. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Heated Immigration Debate Limits Britain’s Refugee Response

    Compared to many other European states, Britain has agreed to accept a relatively small number of Syrian refugees. Just over a thousand have arrived so far -- and some are being resettled in remote corners of the country. Henry Ridgwell reports on why Britain’s response has lagged behind its neighbors.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.