The Fall of the Wall

Peter Millar

"The Wall will still be here in 50, or even 100 years"
East German leader Erich Honecker, 19 January 1989 (less than 10 months before the Berlin Wall came down)
View from the West
'Death Strip' 

From 13 August 1961, when East Berlin troops began building a wall separating the Soviet sector of occupied Berlin from the Allied sector, the city was divided into two unequal halves. The two were separated by a 'death strip' patrolled by armed East German border guards under orders to use lethal force if necessary to prevent their fellow citizens fleeing to the more affluent West.

East German leader Erich Honecker claimed responsibility for the Wall and boasted it would last a century if need be.

By early 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev's social and economic reforms in Moscow were starting to have a ripple effect across the Soviet Bloc with liberalisation in Hungary and free elections in Poland, in which the formerly banned Solidarity movement won a majority. In August, East Germans holidaying in Hungary used an open border crossing to flee into Austria and claim West German citizenship. In the months that followed, East Germans sought sanctuary in West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw, while back home protests calling for economic and social liberalisation were evolving rapidly. In Leipzig, mass marches began taking place every Monday.

For Solidarity elections represented 'High Noon'
The Round Table talks in Warsaw that led to Polish reforms and a Solidarity government
Honecker's cosy relationship with former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, here parodied in graffiti on the western side of the Wall, was not paralleled in his relationship with the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev.

Hungary was the first Warsaw Pact country to open its frontier to the West. Hundreds of East Germans holidaying in their 'socialist neighbour' took the opportunity to flee via Austria to West Germany. The Czechoslovak government closed the frontier to Hungary only to have hundreds of East Germans take refuge in the West German embassy in Prague. The same happened in Warsaw until eventually the East Berlin government relented and allowed special sealed trains to take these 'traitors' to West Germany. The problem was that the trains were required to pass through East German territory. This was supposed to show that they were being 'expelled' from their country, but it led to public disorder as citizens flocked to stations in the cities they passed through, hoping to jump on board the passing trains.

Report by East German transport police on trouble when a refugee train stopped in Dresden and was stormed by people trying to climb on board.
On 6 October 1989, the eve of East Germany's 40th birthday, the communist party organised a parade of youth members as a show of loyalty, but the reality was different.
The city's disaffected youth camped out in churches...
...heavily monitored by police and infiltrated by the Stasi.
As Honecker hosted Warsaw Pact leaders in the Palast der Republic, angry crowds gathered outside changing 'Gorbi, help us'.
The Soviet leader had told Honecker 'those who react too late will be overtaken by history', but Honecker wasn't listening.
Police and Stasi reacted violently against the crowds.
East Berliners saw Gorbachev as their potential saviour.

The protests of 6 October marked the beginning of the end for the Honecker regime. The tide had turned.

On 9 October, a group of dissidents got together at the home of Katje Havemann, widow of the human rights campaigner Robert, to pen the constitution of 'New Forum', a mass citizens' movement for change.
On 17 October, Honecker stood down but the selection of his long-standing nominated successor, Egon Krenz, did little to assuage popular anger.
Dissident group New Forum called for a mass protest 
Thousands took to the streets on 4 November.
In total, more than half a million people protested in favour of greater civil liberties, but none of them believed that the wall would ever fall.

Meanwhile, in Leipzig, the protests continued every Monday with tens of thousands now taking to the streets to walk around the ring road circling the inner city. They chanted slogans against the hated Stasi and called for democratic change and an end to compulsory military service. A figure of major importance in the crowd was Kurt Masur, music director of the Gewandhaus, Leipzig's internationally famous concert hall. Honecker had in fact asked Mikhail Gorbachev to send in troops from the nearby Soviet base. Gorbachev declined.

Up to 70,000 took to the streets each Monday in Leipzig urging reform yet fearful that at any moment they could be crushed by Soviet tanks.
Lothar König, a member of the New Forum democratic protest movement reflects on the uncertainty as to whether or not armed force would be used against them.
On 4 November, hundreds of thousands of people swamp the centre of East Berlin demanding reform, an end to the secret police and democratic elections. Yet nobody dares mention the Wall, let alone the taboo of German unification.

On the night of 9 November, at a press conference in East Berlin, politburo member, Günther Schabowski, misreads a decision taken to allow travel to the West. The intention is with visas and passports but he fluffs his words in confusion and the message that goes out to the world, relayed back into East Berlin by West Berlin television and radio, is that the borders are to be opened straight away. Hundreds, then thousands of East Berliners storm Bornholmer Strass checkpoint. The border guards, failing to receive orders to the contrary, let them through. The dam has broken.

West Berliners climb the Wall and taunt East German border guards. Thousands flock west for the party of a lifetime.

The party on the Wall.
West Berlin crowds welcome East Berliners at Checkpoint Charlie. Overnight it becomes clear that the breach in the Wall will never be sealed.
East Berliners take the future in their hands, literally, with chisels.
East German border guards begin dismantling the Wall 
Christmas 1989 saw a huge party on and around the Brandenburg Gate as Berliners from East and West celebrated the reunification of their city
Credits: Story

Curator — Peter Millar
For more details go to www.petermillar.eu

Credits: All media
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