Thinking Aloud: “The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall”

Nov. 9, 2014 by Darius 

This afternoon, I saw historian and University of Southern California professor Mary Elise Sarotte discuss her new book The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall.  According to Sarotte, the American sense of the story of the fall of the Berlin Wall is quite different from what actually happened.  Rather than being something that the US created from outside, the fall of the Berlin Wall was almost entirely the result of events inside East Germany and especially in Berlin itself on the night of November 9, 1989, which incidentally is 25 years ago tonight.

In 1989, the prospects for the fall of Communism looked dim.  Yes, there was the Solidarity movement in nearby Poland, but what resonated most strongly with would-be dissidents was the crushing of student protests in Tiananmen Square, China.  A Communist country had shown that it was willing to fire on large numbers of its own citizens to stay in power.  Although Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was a reformer, the Communist governments of Czechoslovakia and East Germany were emphatically not interested in any kind of opening.

In mid-1989, Hungary became the first Warsaw Pact country to step out of line when it opened its border with Austria.  The open border was meant for Hungarians only, but hundreds of thousands of East Germans travelled to Hungary in an attempt to cross the border into Austria.  Hungary was facing economic difficulties at the time.  The West German government promised Hungary aid from German banks if Hungary allowed East Germans to leave Hungary, too.  Faced with the prospect of its citizens leaving via Hungary, East Germany closed its borders entirely.  As a result, hundreds of thousands of East Germans who had started the journey towards Hungary were trapped in Saxony in the south of East Germany.  Protests there against the government began regularly, especially in the Saxon city of Leipzig.

On October 9, protests in Leipzig came to a head.  East German authorities planned for a Tiananmen-scale event to crush the protests.  Thousands of secret police and soldiers were deployed.  On the night of October 9, as a massive crowd of protesters assembled, though, the local party functionary started to get cold feet.  The official in charge that night was actually the second-in-command, but his immediate superior had called in sick for the day.  The second-in-command began to suspect he was being set up if things went badly; moreover, there were rumors of an upcoming coup against the hardliner East German government.  The second-in-command in Leipzig called Berlin for clarification of his orders.  He was told that he would be called back—and never was.  Left to act on his own authority, he ordered the soldiers and police to pull back at the last possible moment.  A video of the successful protest was smuggled out of East Germany and broadcast in the West, allowing it to be seen across eastern Europe.  It became a major confidence boost for East German dissidents, as it showed that the government had backed down.

Soon after, the rumored coup actually occurred.  The hardline leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, was replaced by his deputy, Egon Krenz.  The new leader decided to do things a bit differently: talk a good talk but not make any major reforms.  To that end, he approved some “reforms” to the restrictions on travel.  Unfortunately for his government, though, errors were made in the assembly of the press release—errors that made the reforms sound much larger.  When a member of the East German politburo gave a press conference about the new regulations, journalists thought the regulations meant that the Berlin Wall was opening up.  Literally within two minutes of the official reading the statement, wire reporters were reporting the opening of the Berlin Wall.

According to Sarotte, based on interviews she conducted, East German dissidents didn’t truly think the Berlin Wall was coming down.  But they did realize that the events of the press conference made for an excellent opportunity to make life miserable for the border guards manning the wall.  First as individuals, then in larger and larger groups, dissidents went to border crossings, claiming that the East German government had said they could be let through.

According to Sarotte,  the man who literally opened the Berlin Wall was  Harald Jaeger.  Jaeger was the Stasi commander in charge of the border crossing at Bornholmer Street.  He was a complete loyalist to the East German regime and had served at the Bornholmer Street crossing for 25 years.  Critically, though, he felt he had been abandoned by his superiors that night and was going through a medical scare: he thought he had cancer.

Confronted with hundreds of people at his border crossing, Jaeger called his superiors to ask if his orders had changed.  His superiors told him that it was to be business as usual.  More people kept arriving, though, so Jaeger kept calling his superiors.  Jaeger was first told that everything was normal.  He was even patched into a phone conversation of the superiors of his direct superior, where he listened in silence as the higher-ups asked each other if Jaeger was delusional or a coward.  Eventually, Jaeger was told to pick a handful of the biggest troublemakers out of the crowd and let them cross into West Berlin—without telling them that they were being expelled forever.  This turned out to be a very bad idea.  The crowd, seeing that the biggest troublemakers were being let through, got much larger and louder.  Then something unexpected happened: many of those let through to the West were young parents.  They didn’t actually want to go to the West; they simply wanted to cross through and look around.  Soon, they began trying to return to East Berlin—only to be told that they had been expelled forever.  Facing separation from their children, these young parents began losing it on the western side of the border.

At this point, Jaeger, who had just heard that his superiors thought he was a delusional coward, and who also thought he was a dead man anyway due to cancer, disobeyed orders for the first time in his 25 years of Stasi service.  He permitted those expelled from East Germany to return back across the border.  Quickly, this became a slippery slope, as West Berliners too tried to cross into East Berlin.  Eventually, Jaeger decided that he had disobeyed enough orders that he might as well open the entire crossing, first only from west to east but then in both directions.

News of the events at Bornholmer Street spread, and in the face of mounting crowds other border guards opened their border crossings as well.  By the time the Stasi command decided to respond (given that most of the high officials were asleep), it was too late.  The staff of the Soviet Embassy also declined to wake the ambassador for instructions while events were unfolding.

Today, the crossing at Bornholmer Street, the place where the Berlin Wall and by extension the East German state accidentally began to collapse, does not feature a grand memorial.  Instead, it is the new home of a discount grocery store.

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