He was not one of those
who turn around one more time
after everything has been decided.
THE OPENING OF THE Berlin Wall, itself a consequence of a highly unlikely series of events, set in motion subsequent events of enormous reach and import. Although an end to the division of Germany had not been on Gorbachev’s agenda, the developments of November 9 suddenly put it there. Other leaders also had to reassess their priorities and to decide swiftly on their next steps. It was as if a starter’s gun had suddenly signaled the beginning of a race that no world leader had been expecting to run: the race to define the political structure of post–Cold War Europe.
George H. W. Bush moved quickly and decisively in cooperation with Helmut Kohl to ensure that Washington and Bonn won that race and dominated the shaping of post-Wall Europe and transatlantic relations. Their main goal, which they accomplished skillfully, was to maintain a strong US presence in post–Cold War Europe and to extend existing Western institutions eastward—and, as Robert Gates, the deputy national security advisor and later defense secretary, put it, “to bribe the Soviets out.”2 Even though Bush used the phrase “new world order” in public, in private the language that he used while strategizing was more suitable to old-fashioned hardball politics. When he and Kohl met at Camp David in February 1990 and the question of compromising with Moscow arose, Bush responded, “To hell with that! We prevailed and they didn’t. We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.”3 Bush and Kohl made certain, above all, that it would be possible for NATO not only to endure beyond the end of the contest with the Soviet Union in Europe but also to expand eastward beyond its 1989 border in the middle of divided Germany. Meanwhile, Kohl also worked with Mitterrand and other West European leaders—and in agreement with the newly elected heads of East European states and governments—to find ways to allow the European Community or EC, the immediate predecessor to the European Union, to expand eastward as well. The two most significant Cold War institutions of the West, NATO and the EC, thus retained their dominant roles in the post–Cold War world, the rhetoric about a “new world order” notwithstanding.4
A similar process unfolded inside Germany itself. A statewide election in the GDR on March 18, 1990, saw the CDU’s Lothar de Maizière become prime minister. The real victor of that election, however, was Kohl. The West German chancellor had personally run large campaign rallies for the CDU in East Germany, even though he was not on the ballot and the GDR was still a separate state. The main thrust of Kohl’s rallies was a promise to reunify the country on West German terms as rapidly as possible. Kohl’s personal efforts proved controversial but also influential: the CDU won an unexpected and resounding victory.
Since the voters had rewarded him and his party handsomely, he was able to make good on his promise. Kohl and his advisors devised a plan for adding the territory of East Germany to the FRG, thereby extending West German laws and institutions to the East, and secured the agreement of both the GDR government and the occupying powers to follow this plan—although Soviet approval came only as a result of large financial incentives from Bonn. By doing this Kohl avoided the process of drafting a new constitution, the idea originally envisaged in Article 146 of the FRG’s Basic Law. The authors of the Basic Law had inserted this article to make clear that the document was a kind of “placeholder” for West Germany, in force only until Germans could unite in free self-determination and produce a constitution, presumably by holding a formal convention. Over the intervening four decades, however, the Basic Law had proven too successful to risk discarding it, and in 1990 the prospect of holding a new constitutional convention had come to seem too daunting to risk trying it. Kohl chose instead to rely on the Basic Law’s Article 23, which allowed new states to join the Federal Republic. This article had enabled a region on the Franco-German border called the Saarland to become a West German state in 1957, following a vote by its residents to do so.5 Using that precedent, East Germany could divide itself into a collection of states, and those states could then join West Germany as a group. This plan worried the Poles, however. They were concerned that the FRG might also wish to make parts of Poland that had previously belonged to Germany into new states as well. Kohl, de Maizière, and their respective governments moved forward with Article 23 proceedings despite the Polish worries, and the resulting five new states were able to join West Germany on October 3, 1990, less than a year after the Wall opened.6
Throughout the course of this unification process in 1990, the chancellor emphasized the need to move as quickly as possible. In private, he explained his haste as a way of gathering his harvest before the storm. What kind of storm was left vague, but he apparently feared a change of heart, or change of leader, in Moscow before unification could be formally completed.7 His fears were not unfounded: Gorbachev was proving unable to manage the forces that his reforms had unleashed in the USSR. Soviet hard-liners wanted to oust him and to undo his changes, while avid reformers and nationalist leaders wanted to go even further than Gorbachev himself was willing to do. The hard-liners would launch a coup against Gorbachev in 1991, but by that point it was too late to turn back the clock. Instead, the Soviet Union collapsed into its components, a process speeded along by ambitious Gorbachev opponents such as Boris Yeltsin. A host of new states emerged, redrawing borders from Europe to Asia. The Cold War contest between the Soviets and the West was no more.8
The decisions made by Bush, Kohl, Mitterrand, and other Western leaders in the wake of the opening of the Berlin Wall defined European politics for the next era.9 Some former dissidents celebrated the arrival of this new era, but other activists from Warsaw Pact countries responded to it with dismay. Rather than witnessing the dawn of a “new world order,” they saw a world still dominated by the Western institutions of the Cold War. They had hoped instead for the creation of more (or at least the expansion of existing) pan-European organizations such as the CSCE, the series of conferences originating in Helsinki that had pressured the members of the Soviet bloc to respect human rights. In addition, following their opposition to the missiles of not only the Warsaw Pact but also NATO, they hoped that Central and Eastern Europe would withdraw from both military blocs and demilitarize. The lack of an effective pan-European security organization became particularly painful to them after violent confrontations broke out in Yugoslavia in the 1990s and no European institution proved capable of ending the conflict on its own.10 But the former dissidents in East Germany were largely powerless; the political parties affiliated with them had performed poorly in the March 1990 election in the GDR, and the United States remained hostile toward demilitarization and neutrality in Central Europe.11 There was another reason why leading East German activists had a hard time advocating for their causes. The pattern of dissident leaders gaining power after 1989 by transitioning to top political posts—along the lines of Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, or Lech Wałęsa in Poland—was not replicated in united Germany.12 As Hattenhauer put it, the GDR’s dissidents had to compete with a “perfect second version” of their own country, complete with established political leaders, and they did not fare well in that competition.13
AFTER THE opening of the Wall, the SED and the Stasi had tried to keep functioning as they had always done. The SED renamed itself the Party of Democratic Socialism, but was unable to hold on to its dominant role in the GDR after the election of March 1990. And the Stasi faced new challenges from peaceful revolutionaries. Upon entering secret police buildings in Leipzig and elsewhere in the GDR, they had discovered Stasi employees assiduously following Mielke’s instructions to destroy the organization’s files. To curb these efforts, activists occupied Stasi offices and called for the ministry to be dismantled altogether; their intervention ultimately succeeded. An enormous debate over whether to allow public access to the files that had been saved by the activists followed. The solution came in the form of the Stasi Archive Law of united Germany, which granted access to the files under strict guidelines.14 Similarly, East German border officials saw their former authority disappear rapidly. Their employment officially ended on September 30, 1990, three days before German unification. A reminder of the extent of the border guards’ ability to use force emerged from the dismantling process: dismissed guards returned more than fifty-four thousand guns and over three thousand tons of ammunition. Presumably they kept some for themselves or sold such items on the black market as well.15
The Wall itself started to disappear quickly. Soon after November 9, 1989, workers began using heavy construction equipment to tear down both the Wall and the border fortifications between the two Germanys. The Bornholmer Street checkpoint was razed to the ground; the only remaining traces, other than some wiring, were faded lines and white numbers that had marked the pavement where, for so many years, cars had waited to cross. Twenty years later, even these final traces disappeared when a developer built a grocery store at the site.16
Meanwhile, the individuals most directly involved in the Wall’s demise returned to the mundane concerns of everyday life, albeit under vastly different conditions than before. Harald Jäger, by opening the Wall, had put himself out of work. Since his cancer tests turned out to be negative, he still had decades of working life left, but he never found steady employment again. He held a series of odd jobs instead, including one as a taxi driver in united Berlin. His last position was as a security guard. After retiring, he moved to a small garden cottage in a rural area outside Berlin. Under the provisions of the complicated regulations governing post-unification pensions, he was allocated a small monthly amount by way of retirement support, enough to get by.17
Jäger’s willingness, at times, to talk to journalists and to scholars about his decision on the night of November 9, 1989, did create a certain amount of awareness of his role. The fact that he had been a long-serving Stasi officer meant that he would never receive any awards or medals, however. Film and television producers would occasionally create docudramas including a character based on Jäger, although such portrayals were not always flattering—a problem that Katrin Hattenhauer, the Leipzig activist who had been in solitary confinement in October 1989, faced as well. After unification, she had moved on with her life by relocating to Berlin and becoming an artist. She never bothered to read her own Stasi files, but had to revisit her past in an unwelcome way, and even threaten legal action, when a group of television producers who had seen her files announced that they wanted to make a movie based on her life. In their proposed script, they wrongly implied that she had betrayed her friends while in prison and that the main motive for her actions had been love for a Western man. With the help of the Stasi Archive and lawyers, she was able to convince them to cancel their intended project.18
In the view of other former activists, post-unification public recognition could be problematic in another way as well: it did not, in their opinion, always fall on the most deserving recipients. Christian Führer and Hans-Jürgen Sievers, the ministers of the Nikolai and the Reformed Churches of Leipzig, respectively, both continued their work, with the difference that Führer became a celebrity and had to make room in his calendar for one award ceremony after another. He received, among other recognitions, the Theodor Heuss Medal in 1991, the Augsburg Peace Prize together with Gorbachev in 2005, and the Hans Böckler Medal in 2008. Former activists repeatedly asserted that—though many church members such as Führer had contributed to the success of the Monday marches—if there was any one minister who should be singled out, it should be Christoph Wonneberger. However, Wonneberger’s devastating stroke of October 1989, which rendered him mute for years as he struggled to learn how to speak again, had taken him out of both the public scene and popular memory. The activists’ efforts eventually bore some fruit. When Führer, along with Schwabe and Gesine Oltmanns, learned that they would be receiving awards from the president of united Germany in 1994, the three agreed to request as a group that Wonneberger receive one as well. And Wonneberger got more belated recognition in 2014 when the selection committee for the German National Prize similarly decided to grant an award not only to Führer but also to Schwabe and Wonneberger.19
Another kind of memory lapse was intentional. An investigative committee in Saxony charged with uncovering the abuses of former regime leaders began work after unification, but its task proved to be difficult. Documents mysteriously disappeared from archives when investigators came searching for them, and interviews yielded repeated cases of amnesia and statements such as “I cannot remember” or “That was beyond my knowledge.”20 These difficulties in Saxony matched those of similar investigations elsewhere in the five new states.
Legal efforts to bring the crimes of the former East German regime to light were also subjected to the criticism that they were nothing more than “victors’ justice.”21 Courts in the united Germany did, nonetheless, hold a number of trials of former border guards and SED officials. One of the prime movers behind these trials was the tireless Karin Gueffroy, whose son Chris had been killed while trying to escape to West Berlin in February 1989. She collected as much evidence from her son’s killing as possible, and her efforts resulted in the very first legal proceedings arising from the shootings at the Berlin Wall. Starting on September 2, 1991, the four border guards involved in her son’s death went on trial. Karin was soon shocked by the amount of hostility directed at her. She received repeated death threats and her home was burglarized; she assumed these were the actions of former Stasi agents and their sympathizers.22
The proceedings at court were hardly more auspicious. The lawyers for the defense were allowed to accept payments from a media group. Perhaps not surprisingly, evidence from the unfolding trial found its way into various broadcasts and publications. At one point a magazine even printed a photograph of Chris’s corpse on an autopsy table. Representatives of the magazine distributed copies at the courthouse—including one to Karin, who had never seen the gruesome image before, and who began to weep. She later declared the moment of seeing that photo as “the worst thing that had happened to me since Chris’s death.”23
In 1994, after a lengthy trial and appeal, all of Karin Gueffroy’s efforts yielded only one conviction, of the marksman with the “shooter’s cord” who had fired the fatal bullet into her son’s heart. His sentence was light.24 Karin could at least share the burden of keeping Chris’s memory alive with her son’s former friends, such as Dirk Regel, who, like Chris, had dreamed of seeing America. After the Wall fell, Regel did not just visit the United States, he moved to San Francisco permanently. He earned an MBA and became a US citizen in 2013. Despite living so far from Berlin, Regel remained in regular contact with the mother of his deceased friend. He told her that, at least in his own mind, Chris had come to California with him.25
In all, about 250 people were charged for their actions at the former border, resulting in roughly 130 convictions. By and large these convictions were of former lower-level officials and guards, but ten former SED leaders, including both Egon Krenz and Günter Schabowski, were among them.26 Because of his advanced liver cancer, which his physicians had initially diagnosed and concealed in 1989, Honecker was released from legal proceedings in 1993. The disease killed him roughly a year later.27
Yet another way former East Germans sought justice was in the court of public opinion. This was the route that Roland Jahn chose. On November 10, after helping to broadcast the news of the opening of the Wall and celebrating in the Cuckoo’s Egg, he traveled to his East German hometown, Jena. He wanted, for the first time since having been expelled forcibly from the GDR in 1983, to walk through the door of his parents’ house, which he soon did. He had more serious business in mind, too. On another trip he took a camera team with him to the nearby city of Gera, where he had been imprisoned. He and his colleagues came across one of his former Stasi interrogators, who asked, “What, now you want revenge?” Jahn replied simply, “No, justice.”28 Jahn filmed and produced countless news reports and documentaries, uncovering the banality, corruption, and venality of the former East German ruling regime. He and Marianne Birthler, the Gethsemane Church activist who had cataloged police brutality, served as the second and third directors, respectively, of the Stasi Archive in united Germany. The first person to run the archive was another former dissident, Joachim Gauck, who went on to become president of Germany in 2012.
Jahn’s former partners, Aram Radomski and Siggi Schefke, both thrived in unified Germany. At long last, they enjoyed the opportunity to receive both recognition and material rewards for their labors. Radomski converted his talent as a clandestine photojournalist into a profitable career in business, founding a successful company that produced large-format prints of photographs as wallpaper.29 Schefke also drew on his background as a kind of undercover correspondent to build his post-Wall career. He moved from Berlin to Leipzig to accept a job at a regional broadcaster, and about twenty years after the Wall opened, together with his wife and children, he embarked on his own American dream as well. The Schefke family bought a second home in Miami, Florida, after falling in love with the city on a vacation. Schefke also treated himself to a sleek black Mercedes. When former dissident friends teased him about the luxuries, he responded that he had not helped to cause a revolution so that he could stay home and keep driving a car with a two-cylinder engine.30
Among those who prospered after the fall of the Wall were Tom Brokaw and his Nightly News producers. They continued their already successful careers in broadcast news—although, surprisingly, they did not win a single Emmy Award for their exclusive coverage of November 9–10, 1989. Perhaps the seeming inevitability of the Wall’s opening made NBC’s decision to broadcast from divided Berlin look obvious, rather than farsighted, to those charged with dispensing the awards.
Former servants of the East German and Soviet ruling regimes met with difficulties of their own after the Wall. Helmut Hackenberg, the Leipzig party secretary who ordered his forces to assume a defensive position on October 9, appears to have suffered a nervous breakdown shortly afterward.31 Gerhard Lauter, the prime author of the text that opened the Wall, moved from Berlin to Leipzig after his employer, the Ministry of the Interior, and his state, the GDR, both ceased to exist, although he remained a believer in the ideals of Communism. He practiced law in Leipzig for a time before retiring to live in a modest apartment outside the city center. Igor Maximychev, the deputy Soviet ambassador, moved back to Moscow and wrote books about European politics. His younger colleague, Vladimir Grinin, continued his career as a diplomat and returned to the former Soviet embassy on Unter den Linden in Berlin in 2010 as the Russian ambassador. And Vladimir Putin, the KGB officer in Dresden, returned home full of regret at how “the Soviet Union had lost its position in Europe.”32 He began a career in politics fuelled by a desire to restore Russia, at least, to what he viewed as its rightful position.
Putin’s later political prominence was the exception: on the whole, the individuals most directly involved in the dramatic events of November 9 faded from public view and led prosaic lives after the dust had (literally) settled. For at least some former East Germans, the everyday realities of capitalist life proved to be disappointing. An unexpected wave of public nostalgia for the certainties of life in the GDR, even if they had been constraining, began to emerge. But as Durs Grünbein, one of the most successful writers to emerge from the former East Germany, suggested in an essay about Bornholmer Street nineteen years after the fall of the Wall, the legacy of the events there on November 9 meant that there was no turning around.33 The opening of the Wall was the point of no return in the collapse of the Cold War.
IT WAS NOT only contemporaries who largely forgot the individuals directly involved in that opening. Later scholars accepted at face value Krenz’s claim that he had been responsible for it.34 In this narrative, East Germans are passive recipients of a gift handed to them from their leaders on high. A variant of this is the idea that, in some practical way, a detailed road map for the Wall’s opening emerged after President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech in Berlin, in which he demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall.”35 And academics who do acknowledge the chaotic nature of the border-opening process have nevertheless started to discount it and the peaceful revolution of 1989. According to scholars in this camp, if the Leipzig ring road had not opened on October 9 or the Wall had not fallen on November 9, these events would have happened the next day, or the next day, or soon after that. How those events actually happened is thus not of great importance.36
The evidence presented in this book shows just how wrong such views are. The Wall’s opening was not a gift from political elites, East German or otherwise, and was in no way predetermined. It resulted from a remarkable constellation of actors and contingent events—and not a little courage on the part of some of the individuals directly involved—that came together in a precise but entirely unplanned sequence. And the larger, successful peaceful revolution surrounding the opening was a truly rare event, one to be considered carefully, not discounted. The history of 1989 shows just how many things have to go right for such a revolution to succeed.
Rather than rely on false assumptions that matters were inevitable and preordained, we should remember Bloch’s warning about the bias of hindsight. The paradox of unexpected events, such as the opening of the Wall on November 9, 1989, is that they are improbable outcomes—but after they occur, they seem inevitable.37 In 1989, on both sides of the border between the two Germanys, hundreds of thousands of troops along with thermonuclear weapons stood at the ready. Gorbachev had certainly been trying to reduce tensions, but he could have been felled by a single bullet, and the capability of the Soviet Union to start a nuclear war remained. Local actors were capable of using force as well. If a member of what Karin Gueffroy had called the brutal quarter had been on duty at Bornholmer Street on the night of November 9, the outcome of the events of that night could have been very different.
Looking back twenty-five years later, Krenz, who had initially claimed authorship of the peaceful outcome in late 1989, conceded that “we were closer to a civil-war-like situation than many people want to believe today.” On the day that the Wall opened, there existed “the real danger of a military escalation in which the superpowers could have become involved.”38 Krenz’s latter-day remarks suggest that violence remained an option well into 1989; it had certainly been Erich Honecker’s preferred method of proceeding. As Kohl repeatedly pointed out, if Honecker had instituted reforms, he might have been able to save himself and his party, but he preferred the use of force instead. While such violence might have been a sensible response early on (from the point of view of the regime) when protests were small and could be crushed in secrecy, such violence became a much riskier strategy once the ranks of protestors swelled and the possibilities for information leaking out multiplied. Once that happened, the use of violence carried added costs that ultimately served to undermine the regime.39
A comparison with the People’s Republic of China is useful in illuminating this point, the numerous differences between China and East Germany notwithstanding. Unlike Honecker, Deng Xiaoping, the de facto leader in Beijing in 1989, appears to have understood this dynamic—that violence cannot easily be scaled up, that bloodshed on a large scale carries added costs—and adjusted his course accordingly. Deng authorized the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 in order to keep the party’s control over the country intact in the short term, but he realized that he needed a different strategy to succeed in the long term. When the time came to hand out jobs in the political reshuffle after the bloodshed, he snubbed the hard-liners in Beijing who had overseen the crackdown.40 Instead, he summoned Jiang Zemin, the Shanghai party chief, to become the new general secretary. Deng also intensified the drive to liberalize China’s economy. He thereby managed to keep political control for his ruling party. Honecker, a vastly less skilled leader than Deng, had no such insight. His unwavering use of violence in response to the events of the autumn of 1989, unaccompanied by reforms, contributed greatly to his own ouster, the collapse of his regime, and the collapse of Soviet control of Eastern Europe.41 Given the East German ruling regime’s violent inclinations, the opening of the Wall on November 9, 1989, was not inevitably peaceful.
In short, how the Wall opened is a story of highly contingent events. Many of the causes would even be historical trivialities, if not for what followed. These causes—such as the presence of the words “Berlin (West)” and “right away” in Lauter’s draft, the myriad failures of communication on November 9, the confusion of Schabowski’s press conference that evening, the insults paid to Jäger by his superiors that night—show that significant events do not always happen for significant reasons.
Moreover, even if it were somehow possible to guarantee a constellation of causes that would ensure a peaceful opening of the Wall on any given day, how that opening actually occurred November 9 was extremely fortuitous in foreign policy terms. If the Wall had fallen later, Gorbachev would have been under far more pressure from the hard-liners who would eventually stage a coup against him.42 Inside the Soviet military and other institutions were a number of leaders who, unlike Gorbachev, were still very much willing to enforce with violence what they believed to be their legitimate rights in East Germany.43 The timing was also fortuitous with regard to the United States. Kohl often remarked on how lucky it was that the Wall opened before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990 and Iraq became the highest priority of the Bush administration.44
UNDERSTANDING HOW the Wall opened also helps us to understand why it did. The opening resulted from a dramatic interaction between long-term causes, such as the global superpower contest and the economic decay of the Soviet Union, and shorter-term developments, such as the growing inability of the East German ruling regime to govern and the rise of a peaceful revolution. A dramatic interaction between these two sets of causes was catalyzed by local actors in 1989. Since the longer-term causes have received the attention they deserve, but the shorter-term causes and catalysts have not, it has been the purpose of this book to tell the story of the latter.45 To summarize them briefly, by the autumn of 1989, weakened by Gorbachev’s reforms and its own ineptitude, the SED’s authority was slipping, but the party still retained its capability for violence. A series of mistakes by the regime, however, such as sealing the GDR’s borders, using violence on its own anniversary, and above all botching the process of rewriting travel regulations, created an opening for the newly emboldened opposition movement. Encouraged not only by its own successes earlier that autumn but also by the ongoing sense that the Soviets would not intervene, the civil resistance movement turned the potential for change inherent in the regime’s mistakes into actual change. It brought down the Wall on November 9, 1989.
By contrasting the behavior of revolutionaries during this sequence of events with that of party leaders, we can better appreciate the proximate causes of the opening of the Wall. One of them was the resistance movement’s adherence to nonviolence, since the regime’s use of brutality had only served to inspire more converts to that movement. As Jahn put it, the state created its own enemies with its use of force. There was, of course, always the temptation for protestors to give in to rage as well, and that temptation became a reality in Dresden as the “last trains to freedom” passed through the city. And any crowd numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands of course carries within itself an implicit potential for violence, a potential not lost on the rulers. But the protestors in Saxony successfully returned to nonviolence, as shown by their actions in Leipzig on October 9. Ultimately their peaceful conduct allowed them to garner followers and to swell their own ranks in a way that they had never previously been able to accomplish, and to capitalize on mistakes by dictators.46
Another cause was the willingness of peaceful revolutionaries to trust one another.47 Again and again, the story recounted in these pages shows that members of the ruling regime did not have confidence in each other or in their subordinates, such as Jäger, and that their lack of trust hindered effective action. This lack is surprising, given the fact that most party leaders had known each other or worked together for years or even decades. In contrast, among members of the opposition, there was a willingness to trust complete strangers in potentially life-threatening situations. The Leipzig interrogators at one point demanded to know of Hattenhauer how she and her friends held together, despite the Stasi’s actions against them. She replied that shared suffering welded people together more strongly than shared success. As she put it, “Where the hammer has come down, whatever is underneath is going to hold together.”48 So they held together and, despite betrayals, remained willing to trust outsiders. Hattenhauer and other dissidents understood this as a conscious choice. They were small in number and could not have functioned without taking on new converts and the skills and energy that they had to offer, in part to compensate for those who had been imprisoned or who had headed west. As Wonneberger later put it, “We consciously chose to be naive.”49 Their example suggests that movements, like states, prosper when their leaders have the skills necessary to maintain confidence among themselves.50
The story told here also shows the significance of even small steps—whether taken by international organizations, outside broadcasters, or video-smuggling operations—aimed at promoting human rights inside dictatorial regimes. Even though churches in the GDR were subject to heavy Stasi surveillance and some church leaders betrayed the trust of their parishioners by serving as Stasi agents, the shelter that many religious establishments managed to provide to dissenters proved crucial. Similarly, the small measures implemented by the CSCE Final Act and its follow-up agreements, most notably the one emerging from Vienna, had a crucial cumulative impact. It was, to cite just one example, largely thanks to the relaxed border-crossing restrictions provided by CSCE to Western journalists in Eastern Europe that Schefke’s most reliable courier, Ulrich Schwarz, could reliably cross the border without being searched and thereby deliver videocassettes to Jahn.51 Again, such small measures mattered.
Yet another short-term reason the Wall opened was the power of the applied combination of protest and publicity. In other words, both the local activists and their immediate chroniclers—in this case, video camera operators working together with major Western media outlets—were essential in bringing down a dictatorial regime. Peaceful revolutions face steep odds and limited chances of success, but the more publicity they can generate, the better their chances. The dictators in this case were right to fear not only dissidents but also camera crews, who covered the regime’s retreat, thereby emboldening protestors and unsettling armed border staff. By the night of November 9, when the people appeared at the Berlin Wall and demanded to know of the border officials, Will you let us pass?, those people had become so certain of themselves, and the officials so unsure of themselves, that the answer was We will.
Finally, this examination of the proximate reasons why the Wall opened suggests that outsiders should exercise caution when estimating the impact of their own contributions. The evidence presented in these pages shows that outsiders mattered more in the longer term than in the shorter, and that the agency of local actors was decisive in the final instance. The attractiveness of the freedoms of the West, both political and commercial, served as motivation for large numbers of East Germans, judging by their vote for rapid unification on West German terms in March 1990. But while the superpowers and their allies played significant roles in shaping the context in which the Wall could open, they did not open it themselves. The Wall fell because of the decisions, both intentional and unintentional, made by people in the GDR, both dissidents and loyalists. In the years since, many US policy makers have undervalued, or failed to understand, this dynamic. Washington has instead seen itself as the primary author of developments that rapidly and at little risk tore down a wall and overthrew dictators. Such self-perceptions have, among other things, made relations with a still-resentful Russia difficult, and contributed to misguided attempts to “repeat” the performance.52
These photos from 2010 show the final traces of the Bornholmer Street checkpoint shortly before the construction of a grocery store eradicated them completely. The white lane lines of the former vehicle control area and the faded lane numbers were still visible on the pavement more than two decades after the collapse of the Wall. (Photos by the author)
A physical expression of this belief is the fact that memorials dedicated to the opening of the Berlin Wall in the United States are more elaborate than anything in Germany. Among many other locations in the United States, the town of Fulton, Missouri—where Winston Churchill, the former British prime minister, gave his “Iron Curtain” speech—boasts an enormous installation of sections of the Wall. Multiple presidential libraries also have pieces of the Wall presented in a dramatic fashion, most notably the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush Presidential Libraries. Even the statue of Reagan in the US Capitol Rotunda contains a band of concrete chunks from the Berlin Wall beneath the former president’s feet.53
These memorials have no direct parallel in Germany—other than an exact duplicate, or “sister casting,” of the Bush Library statue, given to the city of Berlin by American donors as a gift for a location in the south of the city where US troops used to reside.54 In contrast, while the location of the Wall’s first opening at Bornholmer Street was renamed November 9, 1989 Square, the dominant structure at that site remains a grocery store. Some information panels advise passersby of what once happened there, but they are already falling prey to vandals and weather, and do not match the massive US memorials.55
This present lack of a major single monument to the opening of the Wall actually speaks well of the attitudes of today’s Germans. Fragile information panels at Bornholmer are much less likely to incite feelings of nationalism and triumphalism than mighty statues.56 There are also smaller memorials scattered at sites along the former path of the Wall, now a bike path, particularly at locations where deaths occurred. And at its Bernauer Street location, the Berlin Wall Foundation focuses its energies on keeping alive an awareness of the Wall’s inhumanities, not on celebrating its demise in a triumphalist manner. The foundation does so by maintaining, among other memorials, a still-standing stretch of the former Wall and an installation dedicated to those who died at it.57
When the German parliament in 2007 set aside 10 million euros for a central, celebratory sculpture or other structure in Berlin, the international design competition that took place afterward ended in 2009 with a hung jury and no winner, despite receiving more than five hundred submissions.58 A potential Leipzig memorial has also run into difficulties.59 Given the tragic history of the twentieth century, Germans are wise to proceed cautiously in celebrating their own victories. Whether or not it was a wise decision to resume the Berlin design competition in 2010—and, this time, to choose a model for a “Freedom and Unity Memorial” for construction—remains to be seen.60
We end as we began: with Tocqueville, because he understood how evils once patiently borne can suddenly become intolerable once their removal seems within reach. By the night of November 9, 1989, East Germans had indeed reached the point where the Wall had become intolerable, once the Schabowski press conference presented them with an opportunity to remove it. The failures of the ruling regime and the success of the revolutionary movement of fall 1989 combined to give both activists and average East Germans the confidence needed to seize that opportunity, and to turn a bungled press announcement into the end of the regime’s control over their lives. In seizing that opportunity, however, East Germans behaved in a way that ran counter to another of Tocqueville’s predictions: they did not resort to the violence that Tocqueville theorized would follow. The way that later observers still underestimate the significance of this accomplishment amazes Birthler and other former East German revolutionaries. In her view, outsiders seem to think that “it was the opening of the Wall that brought us our freedom.” She views this as a fundamental misreading of the situation, and she is right. Rather, “it was the other way around. First we fought for our freedom; and then, because of that, the Wall fell.”61