1989: Berlin Wall Falls Without a Shot Being Fired


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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.

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"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.

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