Tim Evanson‘s Today’s Memory
German citizens tear down the Berlin Wall
Originally shared by Tim Evanson
November 10, 1989 – Germans spontaneously begin to tear down the Berlin Wall.
As the Soviet Union began to collapse in spring 1989, its ability to militarily enforce its will on its puppet regimes in Eastern Europe ended. On August 19, Communist Hungary opened its border with Austria. More than 13,000 East Germans escaped through Hungary to Austria in September. When the East Germans complained, the Hungarian government refused to let any East Germans leave Budapest. So these East Germans flooded the West German embassy and demanded asylum.
Czechoslovakia also opened its border with Austria, and thousands of East Germans attempted to enter Czechoslovakia to escape as well. When the East German government allowed this, massive protest demonstrations against the Communist erupted in East Germany in late September 1989. The longtime leader of East Germany, 76-year-old Erich Honecker, was ill with cancer. He resigned on October 18 and was replaced by 52-year-old Egon Krenz.
The day he took office, Krenz received a top secret report that showed East Germany was bankrupt. Honecker had kept the news from almost everyone in his government, which was not 123 billion deutschmarks in debt. Indeed, the government was on the verge of being unable to pay the military or the Stasi (the secret police). Krenz secretly begged West Germany for a short-term loan to make interest payments, but West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl refused to even consider negotiations until the Communists allowed free elections — something Krenze could never allow.
Krenz refused to close East Germany’s borders with Czechoslovakia or Hungary, arguing his government had treaties with these nations providing for free movement of Communist citizens from one Warsaw Pact country to another. The protest demonstrations grew considerably by early November. On November 4, 500,000 people gathered at the Alexanderplatz in in East Berlin to demand political change.
On November 7, East German Prime Minister Willi Stoph, his entire cabinet, and two-thirds of the Politburo (the chief policy-making body of the East German Communist Party) resigned. Krenz made a speech criticizing Honecker and pledging political reform, but no one believed him.
Krenz now led the Politburo in creating new regulations which would provide for emigration to the West and for direct crossings between East and West Germany. These included crossings between East and West Berlin. Günter Schabowski, the Communist Party leader in East Berlin, was told to announce the new regulations. However, he knew next to nothing about them, and the chaos in the East German government meant that he had received no instructions on how to release the information. He didn’t even know when the regulations were due to come into effect.
Schabowski read aloud a statement about the new emigration regulations, a note which he had received only hours before. When asked at a press conference when the regulations would take effect, he replied „immediately”. When asked where the border crossings would be, he mentioned West Berlin.
Portions of Schabowski’s press conference were the lead story on West Germany’s two main news programs that night. ARD anchorman Hanns Joachim Friedrichs proclaimed, „The GDR has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone. The gates in the Wall stand open wide.” He was wrong, but tens of thousands of East Berliners rushed to the Berlin Wall, demanding that the gates be opened. The surprised and overwhelmed guards refused to shoot in the crowds for fear of provoking them. Military leaders told the guards to let the loudest protestors through, but this left thousands of people demanding to be allowed to leave.
Krenz had been elected Party leader with a bare majority in October. It soon became clear he had no support for authorizing lethal force against the protestors, and he himself refused to take responsibility for it without Party backing. At 10:45 PM, Harald Jäger, the commander of the Bornholmer Straße border crossing, opened the gates. He told his guards to allow freedom of movement back and forth, without checking any papers or identity.
As East Germans began flooding through the gate, two others also opened. West Berliners greeted the „Ossis” with flowers and champagne. West Berliners scrambled on top of the Wall, dancing and cheering. Tools were thrown to them, and they began hammering and chipping at the Berlin Wall. By November 10, several sections were severely damaged. Although East German border guards attempted to repair the Berlin Wall, these efforts ceased after a few days.
Television covered the „Wall Fall”, and on November 10 the East German government announced 10 new border crossings in Berlin. Over the next few days, East German bulldozers tore down portions of the Berlin Wall that blocked many of Berlin’s ancient, most important roads. „Unauthorized” border crossings were made as entire sections of the Berlin Wall collapsed due to the „Woodpeckers” (common people hammering at them).
By spring 1990, the inter-German border was essentially meaningless throughout East and West Germany. On June 13, 1990, the East German military officially began dismantling the Wall. Virtually every major road in Berlin was reopened by August 1.
On October 3, 1990, Germany reunification was completed.
Most of the Berlin Wall was gone by December 1990. The final portions came down in November 1991.