Step by Step: How the Berlin Wall Came Tumbling Down

The Wall divided Berlin for 28 years – from the 13th of August 1961 until the 9th of November 1989 – cleaving a city and a people in two. It was the most notorious and brutal symbol of the Cold War. 30 years ago the Berlin Wall fell. Here’s how it happened, step-by-step:

1. Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985. He was a firm believer in the Soviet state and the ideals of socialism, but was convinced significant reform was necessary for the USSR to survive – especially in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. The USSR’s nuclear power program had been the pride of the nation, and the catastrophe at Chernobyl hit the Soviets hard. Abroad Gorbachev withdrew from the Soviet-Afghan war and met with Ronald Reagan – who had challenged him to ‘tear down’ the Berlin Wall in 1987 – at several summits with a view to limiting nuclear arsenals and ending the Cold War. At home he introduced reform under the banners of Glasnost (‘openness’), which allowed for more freedom of speech and press, and Perestroika (‘restructuring’), which proposed decentralising the Soviet economy – increasing efficiency and encouraging growth. The liberalisation of the Eastern Bloc had begun.  

2. The Austria-Hungary Border

In the early summer of 1989, a reformist communist government came to power in Hungary. On the 2nd May they stunned the world by dismantling their fortified border with Austria – punching a huge hole through the Iron Curtain. By July 1st, 25,000 East Germans ‘vacationing’ in Hungary turned up in Austria. By September over 100,000 East Germans had escaped in their Trabants via Hungary. Visiting West Germany, U.S president George H. W. Bush was presented with a piece of barbed wire from the demolished Austria-Hungary border. ‘Let Berlin be next,’ he proclaimed. 

3. The ‘Sinatra Doctrine’

In mid-July, Gorbachev, speaking before the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, publicly denounced the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’. Formalised after the Prague Spring in 1968, the doctrine allowed the Soviet Union to intervene in any Warsaw Pact nation attempting to change its political or social system. Gorbachev declared that all European nations should be free to choose their own political order. One of the Soviet premier’s aides jokingly referred to the declaration as the ‘Sinatra Doctrine’ – countries were free to do things ‘their way’. The message was clear. The Soviets would not intervene at the Austria-Hungary border. 

4. The Peaceful Revolution

Resistance among the youth in East Germany was growing fast. Buoyed by Gorbachev’s stance, successful escapes via Hungary, and the granting of ‘exit permits’ for thousands of East German dissidents who had occupied West German embassies in Prague and Budapest, young people began to openly challenge the border regime at home. Leipzig became a focal point for protest. Weekly prayer meetings were held at the Nikolaikirche. On Monday the 2nd October 10,000 people marched through the city declaring they would win freedom in East Germany. On the 7th of October in Berlin, during the 40th anniversary celebrations of the GDR, young people paraded in front of Gorbachev (visiting East Germany for the first time in two years) and chanted: ‘Gorbi, help us!’ The following Monday, on the 9th October, 70,000 people attended the Leipzig prayer meeting. Troops were brought into the city and given a ‘license to kill’ by Stasi head Erich Mielke. Hospitals prepared for an influx of casualties.  

5. The Fall of Honecker

Erich Honecker was standing at Gorbachev’s side during the anniversary celebrations. Head of the East German state since 1977, Honecker was a hardliner, cast from the Stalinist mould. In response to the flood of escapes via Hungary and growing unrest at home, he had declared that the Berlin Wall would stand for another one hundred years. Meeting with Gorbachev after the anniversary celebrations, Honecker refused to discuss Soviet-style reforms. Gorbachev, exasperated, washed his hands of the East German premier. At the protests in Leipzig the Russian occupation army failed to show itself. Gorbachev had confined them to their barracks. Without Russian backing, East German troops stood by motionless. Chants of ‘we are the people!’ echoed through the streets – even policemen joined in the chants. Honecker fell to a vote of no confidence in the politburo just over a week later.

6. Every Socialist for Himself

Honecker was replaced by the man who had headed the conspiracy against him, his deputy Egon Krenz. Krenz announced his intent to reform East Germany. The people jeered him down. 300,000 people marched in Leipzig on October 23rd calling for Krenz’s resignation. With the GDR effectively bankrupt at the end of the Honecker era, Krenz flew to the Soviet Union, imploring Gorbachev for aid to mitigate East German debts. The Soviets refused to bail out the GDR, and Krenz returned empty-handed. It was every socialist for himself. The end was near. 

7. Desperate Times, Drastic Measures

On the 4th of November 1989, around half a million people attended a demonstration at the heart of the regime in East Berlin, calling for free elections and freedom of movement. In the following days angry demonstrations sprang up outside government buildings, especially Stasi offices, where officials scrambled to shred incriminating documents. On the 8th of November the politburo, the governing body of East Germany, resigned en masse. Younger, reformist appointments were made. Krenz needed reforms that might placate the protestors enough to get them off the streets. On the 9th November ministers hastily put together new border legislation that stated if East Germans were in possession of both a passport and visa (both would be difficult to acquire – a buy for time), no restrictions would be placed on visiting countries outside the GDR or emigrating permanently. 

8. ‘Effective Immediately!’

The recently elected politburo members – many of them unfamiliar with the details of previous border regulations – voted the new controls through. A press conference was scheduled for later that day, at 6pm, and an announcement pertaining to the new border controls was hastily added to the agenda. Spokesperson Günter Schabowksi, though a member of the politburo, had not been present at the meeting when the new controls had been voted through. Meeting Krenz prior to the presser, he asked if there were any important announcements to be made. Krenz merely handed him the document detailing the new travel regulations. Schabowski was not briefed at all. Later, sweating under the TV lights, Schabowski read the document that had been handed to him by Krenz verbatim, in front of the world, stating that East Germans were now free to leave the GDR across any of the border crossing points. Tom Brokaw, a US journalist working for NBC News, stuck up his hand and asked exactly when the new regulations would come into place. Schabowski had no idea and, fumbling, responded: ‘so far as I know, um, that is, uh, immediately. Without delay.’

9. Media Storm

The Western media, initially, was slow to react. Then, at 7:05pm, Associated Press published their version of events: the GDR was opening up its borders. A frenzy followed. Other news outlets scrambled to keep up, picking up the phrase and broadcasting the same message. Western reporters appeared at the border crossing points, clearly still closed, and declared them open to live audiences. East German state news ran bulletins stating when passport and visa offices would be opening for citizens of the GDR to register for exit visas. But no one was watching. East Germans, desperate to know what was going on in the real world, were watching the Western broadcasts. And the Western broadcasts were encouraging them onto the streets. 


10. The Breach at Bornholmer Straße

People began arriving at the checkpoints. Lots of them. Krenz new the game was up. The only way to hold back the tide would have been to close the border entirely and reinforce it with heavy troops, including tanks – a recipe for massacre. The East German premier decided to let things run their course. By late evening, at around 11pm, the border situation was out of control. At the Bornholmer Straße crossing point thousands of people had gathered, confronting a mere handful of border guards. Huge crowds pushed toward the border gates. At around 11:30pm a group of East Berliners tore aside the screening fence and charged into the border area, followed by the crowds behind them. Commanding officer Harald Jäger, unwilling to risk his life and the lives of his soldiers, ordered the border gates to be opened – to let the crowd do what it wanted. Delirious, east berliners ran wildly over the Böse bridge toward crowds of westerners that had gathered to welcome them. Embraces were shared, and improvised toasts were drunk. 

By midnight all of the inner-city border crossing points over the Wall had been forced open in the same way. The biggest street party the world had ever seen would follow. 

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