From 13th 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.
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 close 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.
The protests of October 6 marked the beginning of the end for the Honecker regime. The tide had turned.
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.
On the night of November 9, 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.
Curator — Peter Millar
— For more details go to www.petermillar.eu