East Berlin , minutes before 7pm, November 9, 1989 . At the end of a press conference called by the SED, the communist party of the German Democratic Republic , the Italian journalist Riccardo Ehrmann asks about the existence of a new law that regulates travel abroad. The Secretary of Information and Propaganda, Günter Schabowski , responds that the Politburo has approved a regulation that allows all citizens who request it to leave the country. Skip a chorus of voices: “When does it come into force? Without a passport? Right now?”. Schabowski scratches his head, alludes to a note distributed shortly before and reads it aloud. The exit visas will be delivered without delay and the prerequisites are canceled (prove the need for the trip or family ties). Journalists insist: “When does it come into force?” The spokesman looks at his papers: “According to the information I have, with immediate effect . ” “Is it also true for West Berlin?” Schabowski frowns and looks back at his papers. After hesitating for a moment, he reads: “The exit can be made through all the border crossings of the GDR with the Federal Republic of Germany and West Berlin.”
The Iron Curtain that for 28 years has divided Berlin, Germany and Europe into two antagonistic blocks falls symbolically in just a few hours.
In a matter of minutes, thousands of East Berliners who have seen the press conference live on television are crowding the border crossings of the wall. The astonished guards, who have not received any order, frantically phone their superiors, but by then the situation is uncontrollable and nobody wants to take responsibility for ordering the use of force. Faced with the impossibility of containing the crowd, the guards give up and after 23:00 let pass, first orderly and then without control, their euphoric fellow citizens. On the other side they are greeted with open arms by West Berliners, who have also flocked to the border after hearing the news. In the midst of joyous scenes, they both go to the wall, climb on it, jump it. The Iron Curtain that for 28 years has divided Berlin, Germany and Europe into two antagonistic blocks falls symbolically in just a few hours.
It has always been believed that what happened that day was an accident caused by the spontaneous intervention of Ehrmann, but the journalist revealed this year that a senior official of the SED is his friend (later identified as Günter Potschke, general director of the state news agency ADN) called him before the press conference asking him to make the famous question. Schabowski denies it, and Potschke passed away three years ago, but, with or without assembly, the truth is that the press conference got out of hand to everyone. It was foreseen that the new regulations would come into force once it was finalized and communicated to the passport offices and the border posts. According to Schabowski, the note given to him by Egon Krenz himself, the new secretary general of the SED and head of state, did not mention a specific date and, nervous and harassed by the journalists, he improvised the fateful “with immediate effect”.
“We wanted to meet the expectations of the people and demonstrate that a new path could be started under the aegis of socialism.”
The errors of Krenz and Schabowski attest to the extent to which the regime was overwhelmed and decomposed at times . Both, along with Siegfried Lorenz, another member of the Politburo, had forced three weeks before the defenestration of Erich Honecker, the leader who for 13 years led the country with an iron fist. The SED, torn, was torn between the hard line and those in favor of undertaking reforms and opening the borders in the face of strong popular pressure.
The bill to change the law of foreign travel took weeks bouncing between the Council of Ministers and the Politburo, blocked by vetoes and counter-vetoes. Schabowski has claimed that the new standard “was the real reason for the break with Honecker and its fall”, as well as the internal corrosion of the regime. On November 7, the entire government resigned, presided over by Willi Stoph, and two thirds of the Politburo, while Krenz reopened the border with Czechoslovakia . Outside, the demonstrations intensified and the exodus of citizens across the neighboring country reached a rate of 200 people per hour. You had to reduce the tension, and fast.
Krenz decided to inform the international press of the changes that the new leadership of the party contemplated in response to the massive protests and complaints of Czechoslovakia. The new travel regulations were only part of a broader package of political and economic reforms that included the promise of free elections as soon as the opposition was legalized, but surprisingly it was the most controversial within the party. And for one word: “permission”. The original text stated that citizens could travel freely after obtaining the corresponding permission from the authorities, but as Schabowski recalled, “we all knew that in the GDR a permit meant that it could be denied” , so he and Krenz rewrote it, this time without the word of marras. “We wanted to meet the expectations of the people and demonstrate that a new path could be started under the aegis of socialism.”
The main task of the new minister was to negotiate with the FRG and the old allied powers the reunification of Germany.
Everything was in vain. After the disaster of the wall, the SED tried to recover a political space and influence the conjuncture that was approaching, but did nothing but self-immolation. On December 3, the Central Committee and the Politburo resigned en bloc , and four days later Krenz did the same, giving way to the refoundation of the SED into the Party of Democratic Socialism and a new government. Then the Round Table of negotiations with representatives of opposition organizations was opened, including the New Forum, the Social Democratic Party and the Democratic Awakening.
The result was the call for free elections on March 18, 1990 . He won the Alliance for Germany, a coalition of the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party led by the conservative Lothar de Maizière. In the following months, the main task of the new prime minister was to negotiate with the FRG and the old allied powers (United States, France, the United Kingdom and the USSR, which had to give their approval) the reunification of Germany , a process that concluded on October 3, 1990.
If the fall of the Berlin Wall dealt the coup de grace to the GDR, its collapse began abroad. The trigger was the decision of Hungary to dismantle the wire fences of its border with Austria on May 2, 1989. Over that hole, more than 13,000 “tourists” of the GDR fled in the summer with the acquiescence of the Hungarian authorities. Honecker responded by prohibiting travel to Hungary. It was then that the false tourists took refuge in the embassies of the FRG in Prague and Warsaw. Bonn automatically granted citizenship to all East Germans entering its territory, embassies included, but in the case of Czechoslovakia and Poland, it could not guarantee exit visas. In the end, Honecker, after extreme restrictions on mobility, allowed the deserters to flee on the condition that they did so through the GDR, on sealed trains and as expelled.
Meanwhile, throughout the country, especially in Dresden and Leipzig, hundreds of people began to go out spontaneously . At first they shouted “We want to leave!”, But on September 4, at the first Monday demonstration in Leipzig, a thousand citizens chanted what would be the two most important slogans of the so-called peaceful revolution: “We stay!” and “We are the people!” Five days later the New Forum was born, the movement that would lead the opposition to the regime and the popular protests. It would be followed by Democracy Now, Democratic Awakening, the SDP (the country’s first independent political party, social democrat) and many other organizations.
Honecker boasted that the Berlin Wall would remain standing for another 50 or 100 years.
The demonstration on Monday, October 9 in Leipzig gathered some 70,000 people. Some leaders of the SED demanded the adoption of a “Chinese solution”, in reference to the events of Tiananmen Square in June of that year, when Beijing crushed a popular rebellion with tanks. The authorities bet 6,000 riot police and soldiers in Leipzig, ready to make mass arrests and use force, but international pressure ensured that the demonstration took place without incident. The corset with which Honecker had kept the country at bay was shattering beyond repair .
Among the leaders of the Eastern Bloc, the leader of the SED was the one who most strongly opposed the political and economic reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR, the famous glasnost and perestroika. In January, just one month after Gorbachev announced at the UN Assembly a significant reduction of Soviet troops in Eastern Europe, Honecker boasted that the Berlin Wall would remain standing for another 50 or 100 years.
In fact, Gorbachev’s warning, which made it clear that the USSR would not intervene militarily in support of their ward (as it had done in 1953 in the GDR, in 1956 in Hungary and in 1968 in Czechoslovakia), was aimed at Poland and Hungary. The strikes of the Solidarity union in protest at the uncontrolled increase in prices, as well as the massive civic demonstrations of the Hungarians on internal issues, had put the governments of the two countries on the ropes.
The official speech of the USSR sentenced the political death of Honecker. Isolated internationally and questioned within the SED, he resigned.
Gorbachev, like the one he had started at home, wanted to proceed with a controlled blast of the stagnant regimes of his satellites. Aware that the communist base was minimal in Poland and Hungary, he decided to start there. His tactics could not be more successful. Both General Jaruzelski and Károly Grósz allowed political pluralism and called for elections in the spring of 1989. Gorbachev’s message could now be heard throughout Communist Europe: mobilizations and political organization were not only possible, they were successful.
Then came the Hungarian border breach and, in a more humiliating way for Honecker, the disavowal he received from Gorbachev in person during the 40th anniversary of the founding of the GDR, on October 7: “We must hurry to recognize the needs and the wishes of the people. ” The official speech of the USSR, with “history will punish those who arrive late,” sentenced the political death of Honecker. Isolated internationally and questioned within the SED, he resigned on October 18 after Krenz’s coup.
Unwittingly, Schabowski recently glimpsed the pathos that reached the party apparatus in those days: “Only by removing Honecker could we save ourselves.” On October 23, the Monday demonstration in Leipzig gathered 320,000 people. On November 4, 500,000 East Berliners clamored for freedom of expression and movement and democratic elections while a new wave of citizens escaped through Czechoslovakia. All this tolerated by an impotent Krenz. The fate of the regime, surpassed by events, was cast .
But what about the population of the GDR? How is it explained that his reaction was so late and that there was hardly opposition for so many years? According to the official story in Germany, the adhesion of citizens to the SED was always possible. The regime dominated the economy and controlled society through the Stasi, the secret police, the omnipresence of the SED and censorship, so that the vast majority was made to the system. This was helped by a few cheap commodities thanks to official subsidies, the great international successes in the sporting field and the fact that the country reached in a very short time the highest level of production and standard of living in the entire Eastern Bloc. .
Honecker’s paranoid zeal, with its shielding of the country restricting travel and any hint of individual freedom, led many to flee the GDR.
Despite the propaganda, the population gradually admitted that the goal of overcoming the West was a chimera. In the eighties, the depletion of resources, the loss of productivity and the general crisis of the communist countries, its main trading partners, led the RDA to borrow more and more abroad (strategically, the Chancellor of the FRG, Helmut Kohl quickly offered to lend him money, which he would use as an instrument of political pressure). The consequent improvisation in the supply of consumer goods and their increase in cost, added to Honecker’s stubborn refusal to adopt the reforms that Gorbachev had undertaken in the USSR, increased the frustration. Honecker’s paranoid zeal, with its shielding of the country restricting travel and any hint of individual freedom, was what drove many, convinced of the impossibility of a change, to flee from the GDR.
But this account of the inevitable decline of a repressive system, defeated by the evidence of its failure and the majority desire of the population to embrace democracy and the market economy – in short, the Western way of life – usually obviates the reality It was much more complex. On the one hand, external factors were decisively influenced: the “Gorbachev effect” , but also Kohl’s secret negotiations with the USSR and Hungary. Gorbachev demanded 12,000 million marks for the withdrawal of his troops from the GDR (he received a payment of 8,000 million plus another 4,000 million in credits) and the Hungarian government accepted a loan of 1,000 million in exchange for the opening of the border with Austria. On the other, neither the opposition of the society was total-hundreds of thousands of people supported the peaceful Revolution, but the GDR had then 16 million inhabitants-nor those who longed for freedom and economic reforms necessarily commune with the capitalist order.