Discovering the Causes of the Collapse

To put it in a nutshell, causes cannot be assumed in history any more than in any other field. They must be discovered.


ON NOVEMBER 9, 1989, AT 6:30 P.M. Eastern Time, television viewers tuned to NBC were about to see an amazing sight. The network’s anchorman, Tom Brokaw, was just beginning to broadcast the NBC Nightly News live from West Berlin. Two days earlier, he and his producers had decided that the show’s staff should travel to the divided city at the epicenter of Cold War Europe. The crew had built a high broadcast platform directly in front of the point where the Wall cut the iconic Brandenburg Gate off from the West. Brokaw and his team had also rented a cherry picker, to raise NBC’s camera operators and their equipment to a height with a commanding view, and enormous floodlights, to ensure that the nighttime scene was well lit. NBC was the only television broadcaster from any country with such a setup at this location, the most visually significant site in the city. The decision to go to West Berlin and to stake out this spot was about to pay off more handsomely than the network could ever have expected.

As the Nightly News began, the audience got its first look at Brokaw on the raised platform. His dark blue wool coat stood out in sharp relief against the Wall behind him. Thanks to the camera angle, viewers could also see the Brandenburg Gate, partly illuminated by the lights from West Berlin and partly hidden behind the Wall in the shadows of East Berlin. On the western side of the Wall, beneath Brokaw’s platform, a massive, raucous crowd filled all visible areas. Some crowd members were even taking advantage of the unusual shape of the barrier at this site—it was shorter and stockier than elsewhere, reportedly in order to prevent enemy tanks from breaking through to the gate—to climb up and to stand on it.2 The climbers already on top were struggling to keep their footing as water cannons targeted them from the eastern side.

The overall effect was striking. The spray from the upward-gushing columns of water from the East brilliantly reflected the light from the West. It looked roughly as if someone had transported an illuminated fountain from Las Vegas to the middle of divided Berlin. Stunned viewers heard Brokaw describe the scene by saying, “What you see behind me is a celebration.” The jubilation, he explained, was the result of an unexpected decision. As “announced today by the East German government . . . for the first time since the Wall was erected in 1961, people will be able to move through freely!”3

Brokaw and his crew could not sit back and relish the exclusive broadcast from the gate, however. Rather, his team had to stay alert as it became increasingly clear that the story was not a straightforward one. If the East German regime had announced that people could move freely across the Wall, why was it using water cannons to prevent them from doing just that? Divided Berlin was six hours ahead of New York, meaning that it was cold, dark, and late at Brokaw’s location. Drenching visitors in water in the middle of a November night, or knocking them off the roughly eight-foot-high Wall altogether, did not seem to be much of a way to say “welcome.” NBC’s cameras also recorded images of some celebrants on the eastern side being forcibly dragged away.

Why were East German security forces using water cannons and hauling off peaceful celebrants? Why was NBC the only television network from any country with a broadcast platform set up in front of the Brandenburg Gate? Above all, why was the Berlin Wall opening in the middle of the night and in such a bizarre manner? Did the word “opening” apply at all? Until that evening, no one expected that the Wall would fall. Instead, well into 1989, escaping East Germany remained a fatal exercise. The last killing by gunshot had occurred in February of that year; the last shooting at the Wall, a near-fatality in broad daylight, had taken place in April; and the last death during an escape attempt on the larger East German border had happened just three weeks earlier.4 And the border between the two Germanys was, of course, only a part of the larger line of division between the two military blocs in Europe, both armed with thermonuclear weapons. Up to the night of November 9, 1989, as in the preceding years and decades, the East German ruling regime had maintained forceful control over the movement of its people.

The Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate, circa November 1984, with a sign in the foreground reading, “Attention, you are now leaving West Berlin.” The shape of the Wall at this location—shorter and thicker than elsewhere—was reportedly meant to deter tanks from attacking this particularly symbolic site. (SBM, Bild Nr. 0034-09104; photo by Margret Nissen)

The regime had not, in fact, intended to part with its control on the night of the ninth. The opening of the Wall was not the result of a decision by political leaders in East Berlin, even though a number of them would later claim otherwise, or of an agreement with the government of West Germany in Bonn. The opening was not the result of a plan by the four powers that still held ultimate legal authority in divided Berlin: the United States, the United Kingdom, and France in the West, and the Soviet Union in the East. The opening was not the result of any specific agreement between the former US president, Ronald Reagan, and the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. The opening that night was simply not planned.

Why, then, was it happening? Enormous crowds were surging toward both the eastern and western sides of the Wall. The East German regime struggled to maintain order not only at the Brandenburg Gate but also at the Wall’s border crossings—for there was no crossing at the gate itself—with armed troops, physical barriers, and other means. At some locations, security forces succeeded in regaining control over the crowds, but the people kept coming. Again and again, East Germans told the border officials, in so many words, You should let us pass. Again and again, those same officials—who only weeks if not days before would have turned weapons on them—let them out. Why?

IN ORDER TO ANSWER this question of why, it is also essential to answer the question of how.5 These questions are of course closely related, but they have a sequential order: it is necessary to figure out how the Berlin Wall opened first, before moving on to why.6 And to understand how the Wall fell, it is in turn necessary to go back to the original evidence, because many false claims have sprung up in the intervening years.7 These claims are not surprising, given that any success always has a number of fathers. But when we reexamine the immediate causes of the collapse of the Wall on the basis of firsthand evidence and interviews, the significance of accident and contingency—rather than of planning by political leaders—rapidly becomes apparent. The opening represented a dramatic instance of surprise, a moment when structures both literal and figurative crumbled unexpectedly.8 A series of accidents, some of them mistakes so minor that they might otherwise have been trivialities, threw off sparks into the supercharged atmosphere of the autumn of 1989 and ignited a dramatic sequence of events that culminated in the unintended opening of the Berlin Wall. This book will examine not only those sparks but also the friction between the two competing and contemporaneous processes in East Germany that produced them in the first place: the rise of a revolutionary but nonviolent civil resistance movement, and the collapse of the ruling regime.9 Put simply, the opening of the Wall represented the moment when the movement eclipsed the regime.10 The opposition seized on mistakes made by the dictators themselves to end their control over the border, and that control turned out to be the key to their power; without it, the regime crumbled.

It is simply a remarkable coincidence that this sequence of events unfolded during the two-hundredth-anniversary year of the French Revolution. This coincidence serves to suggest, however, that we should draw on Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous account of 1789 to help us understand what happened two centuries later. Tocqueville concluded that a loosening of the old guard’s oppressive rule in eighteenth-century France had, rather than satisfying the people, only inspired the masses to use violence to demand more changes. Previously accepted grievances had become instantly unbearable as soon as their elimination appeared possible. Tocqueville’s insight suits 1989 admirably, because that autumn followed a similar period of loosening. Gorbachev, in his roughly four years in power to that point, had dramatically alleviated the burden of oppression on the residents of both the Soviet Union and its larger bloc through a number of reforms. Without this alleviation, the Wall would not have fallen. Yet Gorbachev’s reforms alone were not enough to open the Wall, for they were not meant to end Communist Party control of either the USSR or Eastern Europe. Rather, they represented an acknowledgment of the failures of the Soviet Union both to provide for the needs of its citizens at home and to compete with the United States on the world stage.11 To address these failures, Gorbachev instituted many changes to the running of his party and his state, but he did so in the hope of saving them, not of dismantling them. In other words, he did not want to betray his socialist ideals; instead, he wanted to safeguard them, by making what he felt were necessary adaptations.

He expected that his allies, the men in charge of the East European states in the Soviet bloc, would do the same, and he did not intend to empower alternative movements, such as Solidarity in Poland or the nationalist groups within the Soviet Union itself.12 And Gorbachev’s reforms were in no way intended to dissolve the Soviet military alliance, the Warsaw Pact—or to end the occupation of divided Germany. That occupation had been purchased at far too dear a price for any leader in Moscow to abandon it for nothing in exchange. Millions of civilians and soldiers had lost their lives in the unspeakably brutal struggle following Adolf Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Moscow viewed its subsequent occupation of defeated Germany as wholly legitimate, given all the blood that had been shed to repulse and to conquer the Nazis after that invasion. Even after the Soviet occupation zone was notionally declared to be an independent state called the German Democratic Republic, or GDR, on October 7, 1949, the new state remained de facto under the control of Moscow, and the Soviet troops stayed.13 At no point was this control more apparent than in 1953, when an unexpected revolt broke out in many parts of the GDR following the death of Communist leader Joseph Stalin. It was Soviet tanks that ultimately ended the revolt and reasserted order.14

The construction of the Wall in 1961 further solidified the division of Berlin and, by extension, of Germany. Even decades later, the most famous call for an end to that division—delivered by Reagan himself on June 12, 1987—did not result in any opening of the barriers. Reagan made this call in a speech delivered at the same location in front of the Berlin Wall from which Brokaw would broadcast the actual, chaotic opening two and a half years later. In his address, Reagan challenged the Soviet leader personally: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace . . . come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”15 Despite these dramatic lines—which some of Reagan’s own advisors had attempted to cut from the speech because they found them too confrontational—no opening of the gate, or even tentative agreement or provision for a future opening, resulted. Gorbachev and Reagan met at a number of summits, agreed on arms control measures, and ratcheted down Soviet-US hostility, but they did not produce a plan for the end of the German division, either before or after Reagan left office in January 1989 and his successor, former Vice President George H. W. Bush, became president.16 As a result, while the actions of Moscow and Washington provided the overall context in which the Wall could open—and have rightly been the subject of extensive study already—we cannot understand the immediate causes of the collapse of the Berlin Wall by looking solely at what the superpowers did.17We must look elsewhere, and that is the purpose of this book: to investigate the crucial short-term reasons that the potential for the opening of the Wall turned into the reality of its collapse.

The wisdom of yet another great French thinker, Marc Bloch, is illuminating on this count. Bloch suffered grievously at the hands of the Nazis after the Germans successfully conquered France in a matter of weeks in spring 1940. Bloch, a First World War veteran and the father of six children, became an active member of the French resistance in response to that invasion. Bloch’s last writings were published posthumously, for he was caught by the Gestapo, subjected to torture, and executed by firing squad on June 16, 1944, just days after the Allies successfully landed on the beaches of Normandy and began to free Europe from the brutality of the Germans.

Writing after the fall of France, Bloch drew not only on his scholarship but also on the tragedy that his country was experiencing to issue a warning about causality in history. Causes, he cautioned, are not to be assumed—in history, politics, or any other field. Instead, they must be searched for and discovered.18 And in searching, we must not fall prey to the bias of hindsight, the assumption that what happened had to happen. Events such as the French Revolution of 1789, or the swift fall of France in 1940, appear inevitable in hindsight, even though they were not. If we assume the inevitability of events, we ignore the agency of people forced to make far-reaching decisions under immense pressure, the core of the story told here.19

Following Bloch’s suggestion, this book will move beyond assumptions about the opening of the Berlin Wall by searching for causes in the evidence from the time. It will explore first how, then why, the Wall opened in the course of a narrative based on sources from multiple countries. Fortunately, such evidence is now abundantly available. Many of the relevant archival materials have become accessible, and, crucially, it is still possible to pair these sources with interviews of the people who were there. Such interviews have to meet a high standard: they must stand up not just to the interviewer’s estimate of their veracity but also to the written historical record itself.20

That historical record is an extremely detailed one, due largely to the decades-long work of the East German secret police, known formally as the Ministry for State Security and informally as the Stasi. After German unification in 1990, the legislators of newly united Germany decided to make Stasi files available to former targets of surveillance and to researchers alike, rather than locking them away. Thanks to the law that they put in place, it is possible to view the daily paperwork of dictators with minimal restrictions.21 Since the files of the Stasi’s political master—the Socialist Unity Party, universally known by its German initials, SED—are nearly all available as well, it is possible to fill the gaps in the Stasi records by using these party sources. Many files from the ruling parties of East Germany’s former Warsaw Pact allies are also open, as are state sources from various former Soviet bloc countries.22 Western sources are now available in large amounts as well. Last but not least, since the events are recent enough, audio and video clips from the time serve as additional evidence. In short, the sources available on this topic are diverse and plentiful to the point of being overwhelming.23

This evidence not only makes the accidental and contingent nature of the opening of the Wall plain but also reveals that the people who brought about the fall of the Wall on November 9 were, by and large, not internationally known politicians. Rather, they were provincial figures, deputies rather than bosses, and even complete unknowns. Roughly a dozen of them will loom large in the pages to follow: they were individuals such as Katrin Hattenhauer, a teenage rebel thrown into solitary confinement for her political views; Uwe Schwabe, a former soldier turned public enemy number one; Christoph Wonneberger and Hans-Jürgen Sievers, two ministers at Protestant churches in the Saxon region of the GDR, convinced that change had to come and that they could help to usher it in; Roland Jahn, a very well-connected staffer at a West Berlin TV station; Aram Radomski, an East German drifter brutally forced apart from his girlfriend and seeking revenge; his friend Siggi Schefke, dreaming of forbidden travel to the West; Marianne Birthler, a youth counselor in East Berlin; and midlevel loyalists such as Helmut Hackenberg, one of the party’s many second secretaries; Gerhard Lauter, an ambitious young department head in the East German Interior Ministry; Igor Maximychev, the deputy Soviet ambassador in East Berlin; and, finally, Harald Jäger, a second-tier passport control officer running the night shift at an East Berlin border checkpoint. Most of these people were little known beyond their immediate communities, if even that, but they would all contribute significantly—and at times unintentionally—to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. They would become the catalysts of the collapse.24 The story of these people and their struggles amid the tide of larger historical changes is at the heart of this book.25

Although the details of 1989 in divided Germany are unique, these individuals and their broader experience have a significance that transcends their own time and place. Even though this book focuses on the specific story of one dictatorial state, it also tells a more general tale of an extremely rare and heartening event: a citizenry that peacefully overcame an abusive regime. It is all the more astonishing that this peaceful success culminated in Berlin, a city steeped in a militarism that had inflicted so much suffering on the world.26

The dozen or so individuals featured in the story told here experienced 1989 in their own personal ways, yet they also serve as representative examples of dissidents, loyalists, and chroniclers in a time of successful revolution. Their histories show that passage through a time of upheaval such as they collectively experienced is anything but a smooth process. The GDR opposition movement in particular was small, fragmented, and quarrelsome. Human frailties were all too often apparent within it. Yet that movement’s members were ultimately able to rise to the occasion. Inspired by the Solidarity movement in Poland, by Gorbachev, by the mistakes of their own rulers, and by each other, they became able in 1989 to do what for so long had eluded them: motivate the broader population of East Germany to join them. Once they did, the revolution that resulted was able to breach an armed border without violence and to produce the single event that, above all others, still symbolizes the end of the Cold War. The fall of the Wall may have been just one event in the larger collapse of the Cold War, but it was the event that forever ended the possibility of a return to the past.27

Learning the story of the rise of the peaceful revolution, the collapse of the East German regime, and the opening of the Berlin Wall therefore means learning about more than one particular country or event. It involves understanding the larger challenges inherent in making a nonviolent struggle against dictators succeed. This book shows how much has to go right—and it is a lot—to achieve such a success.28 By examining how it happened in East Germany in 1989, we can learn how and why dictators’ subordinates choose to disobey orders, and so do not use violence against unarmed protestors even though they have instructions to do so, or how and why oppressed people choose to extend trust to total strangers in crises, and so begin to form large, durable communities of protest. The latter point is particularly important, and surprising. As we will see, dictatorial leaders who had worked together for decades had no trust whatsoever in each other, while dissident leaders in groups riddled with secret police spies exhibited a startling openness to, and confidence in, outsiders willing to help.

We can also perceive in this story the costs of triumphalist assumptions made by outsiders about what happened in divided Berlin in 1989. In the United States, the opening of the Wall lent credibility to the unfortunate motto “From Berlin to Baghdad.”29 In other words, the opening contributed to a mistaken belief that Washington was the sole author of the collapse of the East German dictatorship, and that the United States could duplicate that success in other locations around the globe at little cost. Certainly the freedoms of the Western countries played a profoundly motivational role in 1989, but the story told here shows the need for a more nuanced understanding of the significance of accident, contingency, and, above all, the agency of local actors.

IN SUMMARY, IT is worth spending time looking at the details of how and why the Berlin Wall opened on November 9, 1989, because they add up to larger lessons that matter. That night represented the moment when a peaceful civil resistance movement overcame a dictatorial regime. It is all too seldom that such a peaceful success happens at all, let alone leaves a magnificent collection of evidence and witnesses scattered broadly behind itself for all to see. By looking at this evidence, listening to these witnesses, and learning this story—as it actually unfolded, not as we assume it did—we gain new respect and understanding for people who try to promote peaceful change in the face of dictatorial repression, for the odds that they face, and for the ways in which outsiders can actually help to promote their success instead of merely assuming that they have done so.30 A blunter way of putting this is that it was not a given that Brokaw would be broadcasting good news from his perch in front of the armed border on the night of November 9. Twentieth-century Berlin was a city with a history of brutality. The events of the late 1980s had indeed given those Berliners living behind the Wall the inspiration needed to challenge their repressive rulers, as Tocqueville’s analysis suggested they might. But Tocqueville’s writings also suggested that, in rising up, East Germans would reject the regime’s laws and borders with violence.31 How and why that violence did not occur are what makes the story of the opening of the Berlin Wall at once unique and universally significant.32

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