The day the Berlin Wall fell

9 November 1989 will be remembered as the day the Berlin Wall fell. The Berlin Wall became the hated symbol of the Cold War. It had stood for twenty-eight years and fell unexpectedly within a few short hours. Not one shot was fired.

What caused the Berlin Wall to fall

In the wake of glasnost and perestroika, Hungary had opened its borders to Austria on 19 August 1989. The following month, thousands of East Germans raced to Hungary to flee to free Austria. Hungary’s border opening created a chain reaction. Demonstrations for increased freedoms broke out all over East Germany. Two months later, in October, East German leaders forced longtime Head of State, Erich Honecker, to resign and installed the moderate, Egon Krenz. With this action they hoped to appease the public. But the protests and the exodus continued. When Hungary tightened its new border crossing policies again, East Germans begged the West German embassy in Prague for help. The situation was quickly becoming a public relations disaster for East Germany.

What was supposed to happen

To release some of the pressure that had built-up, Egon Krenz decided on 9 November 1989 to allow East German refugees to exit legally through the crossing points between East Germany and West Germany, including West Berlin. Furthermore, his government intended to also ease private travel restrictions. These new regulations were to take effect the following day to allow time to inform the border guards. In other words, the East German government intended to relax the regulations for travel abroad. It did not mean to open the borders completely.

What happened instead

Shortly before giving a live evening press conference on 9 November 1989, party spokesman Guenter Schabowski was handed a note announcing the planned travel restriction changes. The regulations had only been written a few hours earlier. Schabowski had not been made privy to their content. Instead, he read at 6:53 p.m. the press release handed to him, “…Und deshalb haben wir uns entschlossen, heute eine Regelung zu treffen, die es jedem Buerger der DDR moeglich macht, ueber Grenzuebergangspunkte der DDR auszureisen – …And that is why we decided, to introduce a new regulation which will make it possible for every citizen of the GDR (East Germany) to legally exit the GDR through existing border crossings.” http://www.kalenderblatt.de

When a reporter asked when the new regulations would go into effect, Schabowski shrugged his shoulders and guessed, “Sofort – Immediately.” His offhand answer brought about dramatic consequences.

The beginning of the end of the Berlin Wall

The press conference was aired on East German television and news agencies around the world. Shortly after hearing the broadcast around 7 p.m., East Berliners began gathering at the six checkpoints between East and West Berlin, demanding that the border guards open the gates to the West. The surprised guards frantically called their superiors but received no clear instructions. By 8 p.m. hundreds of people had reached the border crossings. Soon thousands. The crowds failed to disperse. The situation was rapidly deteriorating. The vastly outnumbered soldiers had no way of holding back the huge crowds of East German citizens. By 9 p.m. the guards began to open the checkpoints. By midnight, all of Berlin’s border crossings were open. One hour later, West Germany’s checkpoints were open as well. They never closed again. 9 November 1989 will be remembered as the day the Berlin Wall fell.

East and West Berliners celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in the early morning of 10 November 1989. AP Photo - Jockel Finck

East and West Berliners celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in the early morning of 10 November 1989.
AP Photo – Jockel Finck

 

For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of http://www.walled-in-berlin.com. Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.

 

 

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