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.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs