Who really opened the Berlin Wall?

On 9 November 1989, East German Politburo member, Guenter Schabowski, stated during press conference televised from Berlin that a new travel law was going into effect. http://www.walled-in-berlin.com/j-elke-ertle/schabowski-sparks-the-fall-of-the-wall The new law was to remove a longstanding restriction to travel West. The Central Committee’s intention had been to announce the change overnight and phase in the new ruling the following morning. Instead, Schabowski, blurted out the plans prematurely. When journalists Peter Brinkmann of the German Bild Zeitung and Riccardo Ehrman of the Italian news agency ANSA asked for an effective date, Schabowski compounded his error by adding that the new rules would go into effect “unverzueglich – immediately.”

Schaboswki’s statement together with Brinkmann and Ehrman’s queries changed history. They sparked the opening of the Berlin Wall. http://www.walled-in-berlin.com/j-elke-ertle/brinkmann-or-ehrman-the-crucial-question/ But it was a border guard who actually opened it.

Harald Jaeger opens the Berlin Wall

Upon hearing the news, people headed for the border. Quickly, their numbers grew to several hundred. Demands to open the gate became louder. The crowd continued to grow. Soon, several thousand people had amassed. The guards, under order to stop anyone from crossing the border, called headquarters for direction. Nothing. The standoff between armed guards and the people grew tenser by the minute. The tide  seemed unstoppable. Twenty thousand people were demanding to cross checkpoint Bornholmer Strasse to the West.

Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jaeger, in charge of passport control at checkpoint Bornholmer Strasse that night, recalls almost choking on his dinner when he heard Schabowski’s statement on the guard’s cafeteria TV set. He was that surprised. He immediately rushed to his office to get clarification on what his border guards were supposed to do. To ease the tension, he was told to let some of the rowdier people through, but to stamp their passports invalid so that they could not return. But the departure of the few only fired up the crowd even more. Pressure from both sides mounted on Jaeger. http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/11/06/361785478/the-man-who-disobeyed-his-boss-and-opened-the-berlin-wall

At 11:30 p.m., Jaeger ordered his men, “Macht den Schlagbaum auf – Raise the barrier,” despite the strict orders from his superiors not to let more people through. With that command, Jaeger allowed East Germans to cross to the West. With that command, he opened the Berlin Wall that had been impervious for 28 years. http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/bornholmer-strasse-das-gute-an-der-boesebruecke/1623798.html

Disobedience can be a good thing

Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jaeger disobeyed his orders during those dramatic hours. That disobedience could have had serious consequences for him and for his family. We have to thank him, his men and also the people waiting at the border for their levelheadedness. Had just one shot been fired, the outcome might have been very different. By breaking all the rules, a potential bloodbath could be avoided.

Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jaeger apparently was not the only guard who had the presence of mind to make the critical decision to disobey orders. In 2009, a former East German Stasi officer, Heinz Schaefer, came forward and claimed to have ordered the opening of the Waltersdorf-Rudow border crossing hours before Jaeger opened the Bornholmer Strasse crossing. Schaefer stated that he began to allow crossings at 8:30 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. Since the Waltersdorf-Rudow crossing was only a small checkpoint without television coverage, Schaefer’s account cannot be verified. However, it would explain reports of the presence of East Berliners in West Berlin hours before the opening of the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint by Harald Jaeger.


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 my story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply