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A tryst with destiny

Frederick Taylor recalls the momentous few hours leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall exactly 20 years ago today

india Updated: Nov 08, 2009 21:06 IST

On the morning of November 9, the sun shone fitfully in East Berlin. The thermometer crept slowly to ten degrees Centigrade. That morning, an article appeared in Neues Deutschland, commenting on the continuing mass exodus from the GDR (German Democratic Republic) via other countries. It was not written by some party hack, but by a group of reformers. They pleaded with East Germans not to leave their country in its hour of need:
“We are all deeply uneasy. We see the thousands who are daily leaving our country. We know that a failed policy has reinforced your mistrust of any renewal of our community life until the last few days. We are aware of how helpless words are against mass movements, but we have no other means but our words. Those who leave diminish our hope. We beg you, stay in your homeland, stay with us!”

On the first day of November, Egon Krentz, the GDR Politburo’s man in charge of security, rescinded the ban on travel to Czechoslovakia, opening the floodgates once more. With East German leader Erich Honecker gone and the new rulers clearly unwilling or unable to enforce their will in the traditionally forceful post-Stalinist fashion, more than 20,000 East German citizens had crossed to Czechoslovakia into Austria during the 24 hours preceding November 9. Now it was the Czechs’ own communist government that was coming under pressure. They were threatening to close the border. The East German ambassador in Prague had been brusquely informed that the Czech government “did not intend to build refugee camps for East German citizens”.<b1>

On November 6, half a million citizens of what satirists were now calling the ‘German Demonstrating Republic’ attended the ‘Monday Meeting’ in Leipzig. Speakers pointed out the new catches in the new ‘thirty day’ travel regulations and criticised the tiny foreign currency allowance. They called not for a modification of the travel laws but for their abolition. “In dreißig Tagen um die Welt — Ohne Geld!” (Around the world in thirty days — but how to pay?) chanted the crowd.

At the Interior Ministry on the Mauerstrasse in East Berlin, a working party of four officials, including two Stasi officers, had been given the task of temporarily modifying existing laws to deal with the current crisis. On the morning of November 9, they were due to draft at the Politburo’s behest a resolution ‘For the alteration via the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic’. They had decided to entitle it ‘Immediate Granting of Visas for permanent exit’ but, one said
later, as they laboured at the draft they felt less and less happy with the concept.

“We were charged with coming up with a regulation for those citizens who want to leave the country permanently. But were we then supposed to not let out those who just wanted to go and visit their aunty? That would have been schizophrenic.”
The final draft stipulated that, so long as East German citizens were in possession of a passport and visa, no restrictions should be placed on either permanent emigration or private visits. People were allowed to leave the GDR via any border crossing point between East Germany and either West Berlin or the Federal Republic. It added rather feebly
that exits were to take place “in an orderly manner”.

The first reports from DPA and Reuters, which came over the wires at a couple of minutes after 7 p.m., simply said that
any GDR citizen would be entitled, from now on, to leave the country via the appropriate border crossing points. Low-key stuff. Then, at 7.05 p.m., Associated Press pulled ahead of the pack and spelled its interpretation out in a simple but sensational sentence: “According to information supplied by SED Politburo member Günter Schabowski, the GDR is opening its borders.”

The storm broke. Within half an hour, all other agencies had picked up the phrase. As did the news bulletins on West German television stations. The generally trusted State-financed network, ARD, led its eight o’clock bulletin with those exact words: “The GDR is opening its borders.”

By the time the news bulletin was over, a total of 80 East Berliners had already arrived at the Bornholmer Strasse, Heinrich-Heine-Strasse and Invalidenstrasse checkpoints and were requesting permission to cross to West Berlin. The border officials sought advice. They were instructed to tell would-be border-crossers to come back tomorrow. The GDR’s leadership had been caught completely off guard.

At around 10.40 p.m., ARD’s late-night news discussion programme ‘Themes of the Day’ (Tagesthemen) began with the announcement: “This ninth of November is a historic day: the GDR has announced that its borders are open to everyone, with immediate effect, and the gates of the Wall stand wide open.”

The strange thing was that when the programme went live to the Invalidenstrasse checkpoint to illustrate its claim, the border was clearly not open at all. The contradiction made no difference. It was at this point, largely in response to the ARD programme’s sensational assertion, that the mass storming of the checkpoints began.

Between 1 and 2 a.m., human swarms from East and West push their way through the Wall at the Brandenburg Gate. Some are still in their sleepwear, ignoring the November cold. Thousands luxuriate in the sensation of walking around the nearby Pariser Platz — embassy row — an elegant city landmark closed for 30 years by barbed wire, concrete blocks and tank traps, turned by State decree into a deadly no-man’s land. People are clambering on top of the Wall to caper and dance and yell their heart’s out in liberation and release and delight.

A mix of hype and hope has defeated bureaucratic obfuscation. A little over six hours after a fumbled press conference and a Western press campaign that took the fumbled ball of the temporary exit-visa regulation and ran with it, a revolution has occurred. One of the swiftest and least bloody in history. A revolution that has most certainly been televised.

It will be followed by the biggest, wildest street party the world has ever seen.

And, perhaps inevitably, by one of the biggest hangovers, too. But that is another story.

Frederick Taylor is a historian.

This is an edited extract from his book, The Berlin Wall: 13 August 1961-9 November 1989 (Bloomsbury)

The views expressed by the author are personal

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