The Fall of the Wall: 9 November 1989

Excerpt from Behind the Berlin Wall - East Germany and the Frontiers of Power by Patrick Major

The Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, 25 years ago this weekend. East Germans flooded into West Berlin after border guard Harald Jaeger ignored orders and opened the gate for the huge, unruly crowd.

The Fall of the Wall: 9 November 1989

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.
Robert Frost, ‘Mending Wall’ (1915)

1989 was to witness the collapse of communism across eastern Europe. Scenes of revellers from East and West Berlin dancing atop the Berlin Wall have remained lodged in memories as the moment the Cold War ended. The ‘fall of the Wall’became a metaphor for the end of an era, although it was not until August1991 that the Soviet Union imploded, taking with it the architect of reform, Mikhail Gorbachev. Nevertheless, the fall of the Wall was a symptom as well as a cause of other changes. Radical challenges to orthodox communism had already been under way for years in Poland and Hungary, where, in the latter instance, citizens had been granted freedom of travel in 1988. The GDR, on the other hand, had always been viewed as the most loyal eastern bloc regime. The Wall’s collapse therefore signalled to neighbouring regimes that anything was possible. 

The contagion of November 1989 soon spread to Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania, as regime after regime toppled in the face of popular protest. 

The events of 1989 were certainly complex, a concatenation of disparate factors which ‘gelled’ at a critical juncture to form a terminal crisis.¹ Debates have revolved around the extent to which the East German regime imploded from above, or whether it was effectively challenged from below, or abandoned by its Soviet big brother.² Clearly, the fact that not only the GDR, but every eastern European communist state succumbed within months of each other, indicates that they were all facing similar, structural problems. With hindsight it is clear that they were all getting into deep economic difficulties. It was these failings which prompted the new Soviet leader in 1985, Gorbachev, to opt out of the arms race and attempt to reform communism. Again, the Soviet Union’s hands-off policy was something which affected every satellite state. The uniqueness of the GDR’s situation, however, was its western aspect. The border to the West was to be crucial in determining the course of the demonstrations within the country, but also undermined the efforts of the non-communist opposition once the SED monopoly had been broken. 


When Honecker had come to power in 1971, he had rested his authority on a welfarist ‘unity of social and economic policy’, promising 3 million new apartments by 1990.³ Basic services and goods were heavily state subsidized. 

Bread cost a nominal sum; public transport just 20 pfennigs, the same as in 1945. Yet, to cover these subventions, by 1989 the GDR had run up a western hard-currency debt of 49 billion marks. Debt service amounted to 60 per cent of annual export earnings. By 1980, the GDR would have faced a balance of payments crisis, had western banks decided to foreclose. Increasingly, the GDR was taking goods on credit, only to re-sell them abroad for hard currency to service debts. Many goods originally destined for the home market were also finding their way abroad, much to the ire of ordinary East Germans. Honecker ignored the State Planning Commission’s warnings. Raising prices was always ruled out for political reasons. When Neues Deutschland broached the issue in February 1989, for instance, 200 readers’ letters of complaint reaffirmed the party’s belief in the sacred cow of a low cost of living. Instead of fiscal reform, the Ministry of Foreign Trade’s Commercial Coordination section (KoKo), under the shadowy Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski, engaged in currency speculation. 

Only in 1983 was the pressure somewhat relieved, again from the West, by the first of two billion deutschmark credits from Federal Finance Minister, Franz Josef Strauß. In return, the Wall was made porous (see above) and the GDR agreed not to ‘overreact’ to intermediate nuclear missiles stationed in the FRG. 

The East Germans also extracted further loans as maintenance subsidies for the East–West transit routes running through the GDR. Thus, in May 1988 Schalck justified to his western interlocutors a requested raise of these costs from 525 to 890 million deutschmark by the increasing volume of travellers to the West requiring hard currency. The political cost of these subventions was, however, more western leverage over human rights issues. 

The GDR also faced an energy crisis. Sheltered from the oil crises of the 1970s by Comecon imports, by 1982 East Germany faced shrinking deliveries of Soviet oil and Polish coal. A massive switchover to lignite, or brown coal, resulted. 

Yet the state’s lignite reserves, the source of the briquettes which heated East Germany’s ubiquitous tile stoves, were themselves running low. There was also a hidden environmental crisis looming as a result of the noxious emissions and river pollution created by heavy industry. Particularly near the chemical centres of Halle and Leipzig’s open-cast mines, the air was thick with particles and sulphur dioxide. After world oil prices halved in 1986, a new crisis erupted when the USSR refused to increase pre-paid crude oil exports to the GDR. Since the GDR relied on re-exported refined oil for about 30 per cent of its hard currency, this was a double blow. Despite an austerity programme, Honecker still refused to make inroads into the consumer sector. The economy’s infrastructure also began to creak ominously, much of it dating back to the First World War. 

There were few ways out. The Planning Commission championed high tech, gambling on the GDR becoming a major player in the computer-assisted manufacture of machine-tools. Not only might this generate hard currency from western exports, it would dominate the eastern-bloc market. By 1988, however, micro-electronics had swallowed 14 billion marks in investment and another 14 billion in research and development. Moreover, by 1989 the GDR could manage only 90,000 256-kilobyte chips, lagging far behind Weltniveau in quantity, quality, and price. Capital investment also came at the expense of the welfare programme, including ostentatious building projects surrounding the 750th anniversary of Berlin. By 1987–88 the Politbüro and Council of Ministers were becoming deadlocked over whether to grasp the nettle of austerity measures, which would, of course, necessitate price rises and make the malaise public. In April 1988 planning chief Gerhard Schürer even went over the Politbüro to warn Honecker: ‘Our Republic is going bust.’¹ Western exports would have to increase more than threefold to cover the rising debt. The leadership declined to take up the challenge, however, accusing the planners of deviating from the party’s long-term political strategy.
What was an open economic secret, however, was the failing consumer sector. 

Relatively high wages and savings meant pent-up purchasing power. High-end goods such as hi-fis, video-recorders, and sports equipment were in great demand, but short supply, or were vastly overpriced relative to western products. Yet by 1987 the MfS reported that shortages of even basic food products, such as pasta and packet soups, were encouraging ‘openly expressed doubts about the objectivity and credibility of the balance sheets and economic results periodically published by the mass media of the GDR’.¹¹ Rumours spread of price rises, especially for shoes, reaching ‘provocational’ proportions in some districts.¹² In late 1988, the mood was no better.¹³
By summer 1989 citizens were becoming  ‘increasingly critical’ of the central and regional economic apparatus, ‘demanding changes’. Collective petitions were also emerging. The state’s forthcoming fortieth anniversary celebrations became a negative yardstick of failure, including even direct criticisms of socialism itself or its gerontocratic leadership. Visitors to West Germany and West Berlin were passing disparaging comments on the GDR compared with consumer capitalism. ‘Goods which years ago belonged to the normal supply are now available only via ‘‘good connections’’, in Delikat shops or by swapping so-called shortage goods’, forcing long tramps around the shops.

Trade functionaries exhibited ‘signs of tiredness’ and resignation. Cars were a particular sore point: ‘waiting lists for a new purchase of up to 18 years are described as completely unacceptable’.¹ An overview of the everyday economic grievances in the final months of SED control is reflected in the petitions to the Council of State, given in Table 1, which go some way to explaining why the hitherto quiescent GDR population at large provided an audience for the reformers. 

Yet, it required some catalyst to change grumbling into an appetite for radical change. The Gorbachev factor has rightly been seen as crucial in the power equation across the eastern bloc, but especially in the GDR, where the bulk of the USSR’s European forces were stationed. In 1953 it was Russian tanks which had restored order after the rioting, while the SED Politbüro cowered in the Soviet headquarters; in 1961, it was the Soviet ‘third echelon’ which had provided the cover for the East Germans to build their wall. When Honecker had replaced Ulbricht in 1971, it had been with the express support of Brezhnev, and Moscow and East Berlin’s interests appeared to be in concert.¹ Nevertheless, the ageing Kremlin leader had become increasingly suspicious of the GDR’s overtures towards the FRG under the auspices of Ostpolitik and the modernization of its economy. Nor were his successors much more supportive. Various decisions, such as the dismantling of fragmentation devices along the border fence in 1983, or Honecker’s visit to Bonn in 1987, were not taken with prior consultation with Moscow, much to the Kremlin’s irritation.¹

Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership of the CPSU, beginning in March 1985, signalled fundamental changes to the special relationship. For his common ‘European house’, Gorbachev was keen to foster relations with West Germany, even at the GDR’s expense, despite all protestations to the contrary. The Soviet General Secretary made Delphic allusions to ‘history’ solving the German question. Moreover, the Kremlin leader had realized that the arms race could not continue. As protection for his domestic reforms, he was seeking to decrease defence spending, signing agreements in 1987 to reduce intermediate nuclear forces. The GDR’s National People’s Army was also drawn into planned conventional force cuts. The so-called ‘Brezhnev doctrine’, giving the Soviet Union the right to intervene in eastern bloc states to preserve socialism, most vividly demonstrated in the crushing of the Prague Spring in August 1968, but tacitly shelved during the Polish crisis of 1980–81, was formally renounced in favour of the ‘Sinatra doctrine’.¹ From now on, each socialist state could do it ‘its way’. In November 1986 Gorbachev told fellow communist leaders that they must rely on their own legitimacy rather than Soviet intervention,¹ and in July 1988 added: ‘Every party is responsible for its own affairs. . . . No attempts can be tolerated not to respect one another or to interfere in the internal affairs of others.’¹ The SED delegation was literally speechless. Moreover, Soviet foreign policy advisers began to think the unthinkable, such as Vyacheslav Dashichev, who publicly spoke of the Berlin Wall as a ‘relic of the Cold War’,² although in January 1989, Honecker notoriously reiterated his faith that the Wall would still stand in ‘50 or 100 years time’.²¹

Yet, it was domestic reforms—the openness policy of glasnost and the restructuring of perestroika—which caused equal alarm among the SED leadership. 

Drafting his speech for the fraternal CPSU Plenary of January 1987, Krenz, Honecker’s designated ‘crown prince’, consciously omitted Gorbachevian phras-es, fearing ‘misinterpretation of real internal processes in the Soviet Union, but also in the GDR, if they are schematically applied to the conditions in our land’. Since perestroika pertained only to developing socialism, the GDR, as a ‘developed socialist society’, saw itself as exempt. Krenz casuistically rejected the notion of ‘new thinking’ for implying a ‘community of guilt for the explosive international situation’. It was instead chiefly applicable to the imperialist West. 

Since the party penetrated all levels of society, so it was reasoned, there was an acceptable degree of openness already. In summary, the SED would stick to the ‘unity of economic and social policy’.²² In April the SED’s ideological secretary, Kurt Hager, was more dismissive still, making his notorious understatement in an interview with a West German magazine that: ‘Just because your neighbour repapers his flat, would you feel obliged to put up new wallpaper in yours too?’²³

In 1988 the GDR even began to distance itself from the USSR. Jokes circulated that a second wall would have to be built, this time to the East. One Politbüro member later complained that ‘before we were dealing with a head-on, frontal assault from Germans, but now it is coming every which way from the rear’.²

In talks with the Soviet leadership Honecker confided his misgivings about the transformation under way in the Soviet Union, which would take time to digest in the GDR.² In April articles appeared in Neues Deutschland criticizing the attacks on Stalinism in the Soviet Union, and in November the Soviet news digest, Sputnik, with the theme ‘Stalin and the War’, was banned in the GDR.

It had unforgivably suggested that the Weimar KPD had been partly responsible for the rise of Hitler.

There was much speculation at the time about whether a German Gorbachev was secretly waiting in the wings of the SED. In February 1989 Schürer had confided to Krenz that he was prepared to act as stalking horse against the SED leader, although the latter was not yet prepared to betray his mentor.²

For the time being, the SED politbureaucracy kept its collective head down and waited for a ‘biological solution’. Besides the later Politbüro challengers to Honecker who eventually toppled him, including Krenz and Schabowski, there were regional leaders such as Hans Modrow in Dresden and Kurt Meyer, Jochen Pommert, and Roland Wetzel in Leipzig. Another group of more intellectually motivated critics included Michael Brie, Rainer Land, Dieter Segert, and Bernd Okun, who wished to see a programmatic renewal. Rolf Henrich, a renegade functionary, also caused a stir with his publication in the FRG in 1989 of The Guardian State, attacking bureaucracy and advocating limited free enterprise. 

Less visible was the former head of overseas intelligence, Markus Wolf, who had broken with the MfS in 1987 and was quietly supporting Moscow-style reform communism.² In January 1989 he reportedly warned Honecker: ‘If things go on like this, there will be an explosion.’² Common to all of these groups, however, was an enduring belief that only the SED was in a position to reform the GDR. 

Among the intermediate party hierarchy, however, there was clearly disorientation. Thus, when Party Information chief Horst Dohlus convened the regional second secretaries in July 1988, he found them using grass-roots opinion to make indirect criticisms of the regime. It was the classic means/ends dilemma of the GDR:
In the discussion it was emphasized that the working people show high recognition of the successful development of the GDR, its good balance, the growing international esteem of our Republic, as well as its active contribution to the worldwide peace struggle. At the same time this positive development is not infrequently contrasted with shortcomings in the leadership and organization of the factories, supply, especially of spare parts, in the service sector and other local politics problems.²

Dohlus reported that party veterans, members of the intelligentsia and young people were especially receptive to new ideas from the East, such as strategic arms reductions.³ No reform suggestions were relayed to Honecker of applying perestroika to the GDR, however. Instead, the Party Information dutifully reported that such solutions were deemed ‘neither necessary nor acceptable’. The GDR should be permitted to go its own way and leave Gorbachev to ‘control the spirits he had summoned up’.³¹ From the perspective of the GDR’s political middle management, this made sense. Many had been in-post for decades and had become conservatives by default. 

There was also confusion at the mixed signals coming from the Soviet press. 

‘Who can find their way here?’, lamented one Erfurt cadre secretary.³² When Sputnik was banned in November 1988, however, there were unheard of reactions among the party rank and file. The deputy culture minister, Klaus Höpcke, had already criticized the decision.³³ The SED branch at the DEFA film studio issued a declaration registering ‘indignation’, berating the party for going on the ideological defensive. The ban was ‘not acceptable’ and would only foster the western media. Discussions revealed a ‘devastating’ sense of cynicism and of feeling ‘gagged’. As one member complained: ‘I have been in the party a long time and cannot remember a time when I was so helpless and clueless . . . I am constantly walking onto the non-affiliated members’ sword.’³ Others used Gorbachev to critique circumstances closer to home, such as the singer Arno Schmidt, on stage in Potsdam in February 1989:

Yes, I am stupid enough to believe that what I read in the paper about New Thinking and Openness is honest. Yes, I am gullible enough to think it possible that a society can purify itself from within and regain its moral health. Yes, I am superficial enough to think glasnost is not just something fed to us by the western media, but a rallying cry to make us more courageous, honest and committed. Yes, I am naive enough to hope that honest admission of mistakes and omissions can only make us stronger, in every regard. Yes, I am utopian enough to believe in bottom-up change.³

With these ‘waverings’ in mind, the party announced in the summer a review of the party membership, in an attempt to weed out unsound comrades.³ As I have argued in Chapter 2, rank-and-file SED members were GDR citizens with a foot in both camps, in state and society. Their behaviour in the gentle revolution of 1989 would be crucial. Would they stick with the party hierarchy, which seemed in no mood for change, or would they join forces with reformers or even groups outside the party? Throughout the 1980s party reformers and civil rights campaigners had inhabited parallel, but ‘alien worlds’, as one oral history has put it.³ The invisible boundaries between orthodoxy and ‘state enmity’ were difficult to transgress for those brought up within the system. 

For the party, besides organized rallies and indoctrination classes, there were signs of an alternative public sphere, in the FDJ singing movement or in unpublished, ‘desk-drawer’ manuscripts. Artists and intellectuals proved useful border-crossers between the two communities, including Christa Wolf, Stefan Heym, and Christoph Hein. At the top, however, the SED politbureaucracy lived in seclusion at its compound in Wandlitz. The reformers were even too timid to take advantage of Honecker’s gall-bladder operation in August, hamstrung by the need to avoid damaging publicity in the run-up to the country’s fortieth anniversary celebrations. On the day itself, the Kremlin leader refrained from direct criticism, but made it clear to the Politbüro by his body language that the time had come for change.³

By the spring of 1989, however, SED leaders were looking anxiously over their shoulders at developments elsewhere in the eastern bloc. In March the newly elected Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies included reformers calling for a multi-party system and a mixed economy. The Baltic parliaments voted for autonomy and nationalist revolts broke out in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Moreover, in June an electoral pact in Poland led to a humiliating defeat for General Jaruzelski’s communists. In July elections in Hungary brought a victory for opposition candidates, after the symbolic reburial of Imre Nagy, the leader of the failed uprising of 1956. By August Poland had a Solidarity prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki!³ At the same time, student demonstrators for democracy in China were brutally crushed in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. 

There was therefore plenty of evidence for hardliners in the East German system of the perils of reform. Yet, one should in no sense view the outcome of 1989 as Gorbachev’s intention. He had set out to reform communism, not to destroy it. 

Even up to February 1990 the Soviet leader would attempt to block reunification with West Germany, warning the western allies against interference. It would require something else beyond a faltering revolution from above; instead, it would take a movement from below to make the ‘refolution’ of 1989.⁴⁰


What began to emerge in the 1980s was a form of civil consciousness in the GDR, primitive and often improvised, but nevertheless growing. Whereas previously grievances had been articulated individually, increasingly groups of citizens came together to protest in what the Stasi called ‘combinations’ ( Zusammenschlüsse), wishing to improve the GDR rather than just leave it. These came to be known as the Hierbleiber or ‘Here-Stayers’, in contradistinction to the emigrationists described above. This growth of a nascent civil society alarmed authorities used to keeping citizens in a clientelistic dependency on the state. Moreover, it was far less easy to gain a purchase on idealists of either socialist or Christian extraction, who espoused a peculiarly Marxist–Lutheran brand of self-denial. 

From 1988 GDR dissidents were increasingly emulating their counterparts in neighbouring eastern bloc states. East Germany was in fact by no means a pacemaker of change, but more often lagged behind, copying outside initiatives, such as the round-table talks in Poland between the government and Solidarity. Moreover, East German oppositionists themselves found it difficult to envisage a reform process without the state. This ran counter to eastern European definitions of civil society as a form of social organization outwith the state.¹ Václav Havel’s advice to contrarians was to renounce evasion strategies and confront the lie of state socialism, and instead ‘live in truth’.²

Even prominent later dissident leaders in the GDR started off by trying sanctioned dissent, such as the petition. On 3 April 1986, for instance, twenty-one people, headed by Bärbel Bohley and Monika Haeger, hand-delivered a collective petition to the SED Central Committee. It was targeted at an internal party audience, to be discussed at the forthcoming SED convention:
‘Intensified official contacts at party and government level with the outside do not, however, mean world openness. This pseudo-opening is often linked with increased inward pressure.’ The petitioners complained that there was not even a party public sphere, while the general  population’s existence was dominated by other questions. Environmental pollution was not being addressed. Echoing Havel’s criticisms, a ‘silent consumer contract’ was allegedly there to ‘keep the population quiet and politically gagged’. Bohley and Haeger criticized the GDR’s ‘trivial culture and substitute art’: ‘Classical kitsch and neo-kitsch are both blocking critical consciousness and providing a safety-valve.’ Despite claims to be peace-loving, East German society was becoming increasingly militarized. Faced with state sanctions people either ‘lose the courage to engage in societal processes. They flee into the private sphere. They leave the GDR, or they identify so strongly with the problems in our land that they accept criminalization or arrest.’ The letter closed with a call for a ‘constructive dialogue’.³ At this stage, therefore, leaving the GDR was simply subsumed into the range of dissident options available and reform was not envisaged without the party. 

Several other factors broadened the constituency of concerned citizens. From the late 1970s the stationing of intermediate nuclear forces in Europe had led to an unauthorized ‘Swords into Ploughshares’ anti-nuclear movement. 

The Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster of 1986 was a further impetus, as were Soviet firing ranges, littering the landscape with munitions. Projects such as the silicon works at Dresden-Gittersee, necessary for the microelectronics programme, caused local concern. Groups such as the Church Environment Group in Schmalkalden sought to ‘codetermine our socialist state and critically collaborate. We regard the state agencies as our partner, with whom we are seeking a dialogue.’ Among the basic necessities of life were clean air, food, and water, according to Brecht’s dictum: ‘Take care that, upon leaving the world, you were not only good, but leave a better world behind.’⁴⁴ Such intercessions stressed long-term community interests, representing Hirschman’s category of loyalty. Yet the local SED was often at a loss how to handle them, wishing both to co-opt and coerce. In one case two new voices, never in trouble before, had a ‘frank’ discussion with the Rostock party, after sending an open letter protesting at the Tiananmen Square massacre, at which Chinese student reformers had been brutally repressed in June 1989. They argued ‘very emotionally’; ‘both are critical, verging on oppositional.’ Yet they demanded the right to be consulted in central decision-making, flattering the party ‘that today one can say anything in the GDR without being persecuted’. At the same time they were critical of popular inertia, as well as those applying for permanent emigration. The local party’s instinct was to recruit them as non-affiliated speakers at local meetings.⁴⁵ However, it was to be the top party leadership’s reluctance to engage in genuine, two-way dialogue which was to push such disaffected, but essentially collaborative citizens from sanctioned to unsanctioned dissent, from petition to protest. 

But where could a young oppositional movement find the free space to evade being nipped in the bud by the secret police? The churches, especially the Protestant churches, have attracted attention as both sanctuaries for dissent as well as conduits of state control.⁴⁶ Ever since the church–state agreement of 1978, the church hierarchy chose conformity, while local activists advocated confrontation. By the late 1980s these tensions were palpable. When I visited a church in Jena in January 1989, its pinboard was festooned with notices about political, environmental, and gay rights activities unheard of in a British parish church. Such grass-roots activism began to filter upwards, in the ‘Church from Below’ movement. Thus, in summer 1988 church synods in Halle and Rostock issued twenty-point theses echoing perestroika.⁴⁷ The regime responded by banning several church publications. At the Saxon synod in July 1989 when the regional bishop, Hempel, distanced himself from the activists, there was a polarization between ‘positive’ bishops (in the SED’s eyes) and ‘negative’ clerics. As party observers noted, however, nearly half the audience was under thirty and evidently sympathized with the troublemakers. Parallel to the official event, an ‘Alternative Synod’ was held in another Leipzig church, although heavily screened by the security forces.⁴⁸ Nevertheless, Detlev Pollack reminds us that such initiatives were borne by only a tiny minority of the church–state agreement of 1978, the church hierarchy chose conformity, while local activists advocated confrontation. By the late 1980s these tensions were palpable. When I visited a church in Jena in January 1989, its pinboard was festooned with notices about political, environmental, and gay rights activities unheard of in a British parish church. Such grass-roots activism began to filter upwards, in the ‘Church from Below’ movement. Thus, in summer 1988 church synods in Halle and Rostock issued twenty-point theses echoing perestroika.⁴⁷ The regime responded by banning several church publications. At the Saxon synod in July 1989 when the regional bishop, Hempel, distanced himself from the activists, there was a polarization between ‘positive’ bishops (in the SED’s eyes) and ‘negative’ clerics. As party observers noted, however, nearly half the audience was under thirty and evidently sympathized with the troublemakers. Parallel to the official event, an ‘Alternative Synod’ was held in another Leipzig church, although heavily screened by the security forces.⁴⁸ Nevertheless, Detlev Pollack reminds us that such initiatives were borne by only a tiny minority of the populace.⁴⁹

The church was also split in its attitude to emigrationism. Like the party, the church leadership argued that ‘the GDR needs everyone’. Opting out of society or leaving the GDR were not compatible with Christian conscience. 

Yet, as we know, some local church leaders took it upon themselves to offer support and guidance to emigration seekers. Some, including later key reformers such as Pastor Rainer Eppelmann, tried to mediate between the two views by formalizing the GDR’s faltering steps towards travel reform, calling ‘for a friendship society GDR-FRG’ to include long-term exchanges and institutional contacts.⁵⁰

More obviously political disaffection flared up around the communal elections of 7 May 1989. The GDR’s single-list ‘elections’ had always achieved incredible, almost unanimous results, in which non-voting was tantamount to anti-state subversion. Now, dissidents tried to catch the state breaking its own rules. Activists organized a concerted boycott, while unofficial tellers checked polling stations and counts. The security organs became particularly alarmed at developments in the capital, but also in Saxony, Potsdam, and Cottbus; or in Leipzig, where four people tried to stage a march to hand over a ‘provisional ballot box’, but were intercepted by Volkspolizei and MfS.¹ Although voting was down across the population, a ‘positive’ result of 98.5 per cent was still recorded, thus proving vote rigging in boycotters’ eyes. Small numbers of perhaps 200 civil rights activists subsequently protested on the seventh of each month, despite MfS swoops. 

Others took the state to law for alleged improprieties, filing petitions with the State Attorney, and there was a generally growing GDR litigiousness, ranging from complaints about housing and repairs, to car waiting-lists, to environmental pollution, blocking of applications to visit the capitalist exterior and religious conscience.²

On the eve of the hot autumn of 1989, the SED’s Security section summarized the national security threat. One hundred and sixty groupings had been counted, including 150 church grass-roots initiatives, involving 2,500 people. (In other words, the numbers appeared eminently manageable.) These were allegedly forcing the hands of the church hierarchy, or exploiting foreign media to act as dialogue partners for a pluralistic ‘counter-public sphere’, as well as to ‘test state tolerance’ by silent demonstrations and non-violent resistance, pressing for human rights changes. ‘The behaviour of these forces ranges from politically indifferent, unstable, wavering, to hostile attitudes against socialism in the GDR.’ 

Regarding the May elections, the Security section conceded five times as many non-voters as in 1986; straight ‘no’ votes were up 18.8 per cent (southern and eastern regions stood out), ‘unleashing occasional uncertainties or questions among other citizens, and even party members, regarding the correctness of the election procedure’. Among the emigration movement, protesters were invoking German–German dialogue, as well as events in other socialist countries. Yet, in a typical bout of East German conspiracy theory, the party feared not only organized oppositionists, but non-conformists and even awkward teenagers. 

Thus, skinheads, punks, heavy metal fans, and goths all counted as ‘anti-state’, as well as the couch potatoes who watched western TV.³ Nevertheless, a more formal opposition was only to emerge in September 1989 in the wake of a crisis brought on by the perforation of the iron curtain, which was to revive the spectre of mass Republikflucht to haunt and ultimately undo the SED. 


On 2 May 1989 the Hungarian authorities began to dismantle sections of their iron curtain. The following month Budapest acceded to the Geneva Convention, which forbade the previous practice of returning refugees to their country of origin. As the summer vacation approached there was mounting GDR trepidation, despite reassurances from the Hungarian secret police. The population, too, spread rumours of an impending crack-down on trips to Hungary.⁵⁴ For the moment, however, the Austro-Hungarian frontier remained guarded and border-crossers few. Hundreds of those thwarted then sought refuge in the FRG’s embassies in Budapest and Prague, as well as the Permanent Mission in East Berlin, leading to their successive closures under the weight of numbers.⁵⁵

Events accelerated nevertheless on 19 August, when Hungarian opposition groups organized a ‘pan-European picnic’ in conjunction with the Euro MP Otto von Habsburg and the reform communist Imre Pozsgay. At the border at Sopron a symbolic border opening including walkabout was staged, publicized even among waiting GDR refugees in Budapest. The Hungarian interior and border authorities then turned a blind eye while over 600 East Germans walked west through an unlocked gate.⁵⁶ Two hundred and forty more were able to sneak across three days later, but Hungarian guards and militia were still officially trying to prevent crossings, shooting one refugee dead on 21 August. Budapest was nevertheless tiring of doing the East Germans’ dirty work. On 24 August embassy occupiers were flown out with Red Cross papers. The next day Minister President Németh and Foreign Secretary Horn flew secretly to Bonn, announcing that they would permit GDR citizens across the border, in return for which Chancellor Kohl promised an additional credit of 500 million deutschmarks. On 28 August Horn warned the GDR ambassador that Hungary ‘cannot be transformed into a giant camp’.⁵⁷ By then there were up to 150,000 East Germans in Hungary.
The SED Politbüro discussed the exodus for the first time the next day, but remained bullish, blaming the FRG for spreading Torschlußpanik.⁵⁸ Tellingly, the apparatus reverted to terms such as ‘slave-trading’, last used on the eve of the Wall, spreading reports of holidaymakers being ambushed by lurking western tabloid journalists and ‘people-traffickers’.⁵⁹ After deadlocked GDR–Hungarian talks, Budapest effectively opened the border on 11 September, resulting in 18,000 crossing in three days.⁶⁰ The reactions of those emerging on the other side were ecstatic: ‘I have dreamed of flight since I was a child’, explained one teacher. ‘But I never thought it would come like this.’¹ By 20 September 1989, the GDR had lost 1,653 health workers, including 530 doctors and 145 dentists.² By 7 October it was 29,300 all told.³ 

Among the remaining population, the leak in the iron curtain only heated up the travel and emigration movements discussed above to boiling point. Some rejectees for compassionate leave threatened to file an emigration application on the spot, or provocatively requested a visa for Hungary.⁶⁴ Citizens were indignant that law-breakers were jumping the queue: ‘justice and the law are being turned on their head’. It was also suggested that ‘If we had more generous travel opportunities, so many people would not leave the state’, or ‘The state is driving people to steps they don’t want to take.’ Applicants refused to leave police premises; Vopos in Schwerin were accused of ‘concrete mentality’ and ‘to blame that so many citizens were ‘‘scarpering’’ ’. At Frankfurt/Oder comments such as ‘keep up the red-light treatment’ were among the milder insults, paling before ‘kiss my arse’ and ‘ Scheißgesetz’. Officials were at the ‘end of their tether’. Young Cottbusers were also openly threatening to ‘go on the streets’ or ‘via Hungary’.⁶⁵ In other words, Hirschman’s ‘voice’ was threatening to spill over into some very public spaces. 

For reasons of geography, Czechoslovakia had acted as a potential firewall for the GDR against Hungary. Yet, once East Germans started occupying the Federal embassy in Prague in late September, Czech police found themselves having to guard the compound fence against mass scalings. Soon, thousands of East Germans were camping out in the muddy embassy grounds, sharing inadequate toilet facilities, in what resembled a refugee camp. On 25 September the Czech leadership informed their GDR opposite numbers that they were no longer prepared to carry out this damaging role. In the background, the Soviets, in statements issued by foreign minister Shevardnadze, as well as the Kremlin’s Germany specialist Falin, commiserated with the East Germans, but maintained a hands-off stance.⁶⁶ The Soviet response throughout had been to lend only moral support. Attempts by the GDR’s foreign office to convene a meeting of Warsaw Pact foreign ministers failed. The SED’s security section then proposed three options: (a) to demand that Bonn recognize GDR citizenship, but then to liberalize travel; (b) to close all borders temporarily with the prospect of reopening them before Christmas, while demanding FRG recognition; (c) the expansion of travel in and out of the GDR, but with no commitment to providing hard currency, and exceptions only for security personnel.⁶⁷ Wolfgang Herger, head of security, pleaded for the third variant, even at the cost of further losses, otherwise ‘the situation in the interior could heat up to ungovernability’, but Krenz, who forwarded the proposals to Honecker on 3 October, pressed for the second. On the same day the border to Czechoslovakia was closed, and the next day transit routes to Bulgaria and Rumania followed. The GDR was effectively sealed off from the rest of the eastern bloc. The immediate response among citizens at police stations was ‘incomprehension and outrage’, ‘escalating sometimes to the point of hard confrontations which include insulting workers’. Individuals felt ‘punished for wanting to stay in the GDR’, or ‘locked in and may have to take steps regarding actions to apply for permanent emigration’.⁶⁸ Blocking tactics led to ‘massive queries’ at visa offices. ‘In hundreds of interviews and telephone calls they vented their outrage and bitterness at this measure, frequently escalating to insults against the Volkspolizei.’⁶⁹ Individuals threatened to stop work as well as to take part in the demonstrations (of which, more below). In some cases even Vopos petitioned the party leadership against this decision, feeling discriminated against!⁷⁰ Subsequent interviews reinforce the view that the Czech border closure represented a tipping point in popular grievances.¹
Despite the closure, however, a daily trickle of people managed to cross into Poland and Czechoslovakia. Further negotiations by Federal Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher led to a compromise solution, that asylum seekers in Prague might be released to the West, but only if conveyed via sealed train through GDR territory, to preserve the fiction of formal deportation. Standing on the embassy balcony, Genscher, himself a Republikflüchtiger in the 1950s, announced the deal to an overjoyed audience.² Thus, on 30 September the first consignment of 6,300 left, but despite the border closures, thousands more GDR citizens managed to enter the FRG embassy to join other expellees on sealed trains in early October. By the fall of the Wall, 10,000 had followed the embassy route via Budapest, 17,000 via Prague, and nearly 5,000 through Warsaw.³ Neues Deutschland’s leader reflected Honecker’s personal view that:
‘Their behaviour is a kick in the teeth for moral values and they have excluded themselves from our society. No-one should shed any tears for them.’⁷⁴ Such callousness backfired, however. As one young female chemist wrote: ‘I believe we should and will shed a river of tears. . . . Can you not imagine that as a young person I do not wish to be confined forever within concrete walls, barbed wire and state directives?’⁷⁵ Indeed, it was this aspect of soul-searching which prompted many of the civil rights protestors to ask why so many were leaving the land, overcoming some of their previous hostility to the emigrationists.⁷⁶

Hirschman has already pointed out that the growing exodus played a pivotal role in raising the consciousness of those determined to stay put, and even of those previously indifferent. In an important revision of his original theory, this time applied directly to the experience of the GDR, he postulated that exit and voice could be mutually reinforcing, acting in tandem rather than diametrically.⁷⁷ Pollack, too, has pointed out that the numbers of demonstrators in Leipzig only rose significantly, from hundreds to thousands, after the full opening of the Hungarian border on 11 September.⁷⁸ Detailed exit-voice studies carried out since the events have plotted the correlation between regional losses and willingness to protest. Steven Pfaff has suggested that GDR society was particularly susceptible to exit, since its social structure of local niche networks was vulnerable to erosion. In other words, without social bonds at the intermediate level of a public sphere, it only took a few disappearing acts at grass-roots level to disrupt local milieux.⁷⁹ Even the Evangelical Church Federation found itself on 19 September playing the role of mediator, pointing out the debilitating consequences of the emigration:
Families and friendships are torn apart, old people feel themselves abandoned, the ill are losing their caretakers and doctors, workers’ collectives are decimated. . . . Today we find ourselves facing the challenge of preserving what has proved its worth while we search for new ways to advance a society of greater justice and participation. . . . We need an open and public confrontation of our social problems, we need everybody for responsible cooperation in our society.⁸⁰

Trade unionists also began to complain to their leadership at the conspiracy theories used to explain the losses. Others took the exodus as the symptom of a sick society, in need of reform, and were determined to use it to protest for change at home. The phrase ‘We’re staying here’ was meant as a challenge to the regime, as well as to the emigrationists. Indeed, there could have been no autumn revolution inside the GDR without the exodus. As the pre-eminent expert on the fall of the Wall, Hans-Hermann Hertle, put it: ‘Mass emigration became the precondition of the unfolding mass protest.’¹

Leipzig became the focus for demonstrations for a number of reasons. The Leipzig Fair, held there every spring and autumn, provided an international audience of visitors and western media, which acted to restrain SED crackdowns. 

At the same time, East Germans could see the goods for export unavailable at home. As part of the GDR provinces there was also greater resentment at the lack of infrastructural renewal, at a time when money was being poured into East Berlin for its 750th anniversary celebrations in 1987. Leipzig itself was surrounded by a wasteland of worked-out lignite mines, scarring the Saxon landscape. At the Nikolaikirche, a baroque church in the very centre of the old town, its reformist deacon, Günter Johannsen, had held peace prayers on Monday evenings ever since 1982. Yet, in March 1989, congregationists began ancillary marches with posters calling for ‘Travel Freedom not Officialdom’, timed to coincide with the opening of the Leipzig Fair, leading to police intervention.² Demonstrators sought refuge in the church in the city centre, and the following Monday the numbers had swollen at what became regular peace vespers. The authorities then maintained a strong police presence at these gatherings, videoing participants and patrolling with dogs, while the western media circled. Individuals were arrested, but not without petitioning to know the law being used against them, in one case simply for photographing events.³

Tellingly, however, when the Leipzig Monday demonstrations resumed after the summer break on 4 September, the crowd divided between those demanding civil liberties, chanting ‘We are staying!’, and emigration seekers shouting ‘We want out!’⁸⁴ Only two weeks later did the reformers win the upper hand, drowning out the emigrationists. The words ‘We are staying here!’ came to represent a struggle for public space within the GDR, not only against the massed ranks of the Volkspolizei, with their dogs and water cannon, but against the increasingly frustrated young emigrationists who were turning to stone-throwing and scuffles. This, too, partly explains the growing prevalence of the slogan ‘No violence’ among the more law-abiding protestors who felt that ‘their’ demonstration was being hijacked. On 9–10 September oppositionists formed ‘New Forum’, and on 19 September applied for recognition, the first of several civil rights groups such as Democracy Now and the more centre-right Democratic Awakening to emerge over the autumn, all prompted to go public by the opening of the Hungarian border. The refugee wave thus acted as an important catalyst to formalization of the citizens’ initiatives.⁸⁵ Yet, even then such groups seemed unaware of a potential leadership role, set for a long-term struggle rather than a knockout blow. Honecker, convalescing from his gall-bladder operation, ordered a hard line. On 21 September the new party applications were duly turned down with the argument that there was no ‘social need’ for such organizations.⁸⁶ The MfS ordered its unofficial collaborators to sow dissension.⁸⁷

The first truly massed Leipzig demonstrations occurred, nevertheless, on 25 September, when gatherers spilled out of the Nikolaikirche and 5,000 people paraded around the city ring road, calling for the legalization of New Forum. In the first tentative steps, however, demonstrators observed traffic signals, waiting for green, before bringing the traffic to a standstill.⁸⁸ Pastor Wonneberger had told worshippers: ‘In the words of Jesus: ‘‘Do not be afraid, unto me is given all power in heaven and earth.’’ . . . Against such power Stasi apparatus, dogs, and police phalanxes are but paper tigers. . . . We can renounce violence.’⁸⁹ As events threatened to get out of hand in the ensuing days, local church leaders developed a language of non-violent protest. Others cited the words of Martin Luther King: ‘We shall overcome.’ A week later, on 2 October, more focused political demands were made for the legalization of New Forum. Demonstrators chanted ‘We are staying here’, ‘Now or never’, ‘Freedom, equality, fraternity’, ‘Gorby, Gorby’, as well as singing the ‘Internationale’. A crowd of 6–8,000 then marched around the Leipzig Ring, shouting ‘Stasi out’ and ‘Release the prisoners’ before the MfS offices. Only baton charges by the police could break up the evening procession.⁹⁰
Internal SED damage limitation analyses on the new movements reveal a self-destructive unwillingness to compromise. The reviving social democrats’ call for a social market economy meant the restoration of capitalism and thus made it ‘anti-constitutional’. The Democratic Initiative group was viewed as simply an ‘underground movement’ with internationalist connections, bent on civil disobedience. Democracy Now was seen as attacking the territorial integrity of the GDR and also anti-constitutional. ‘Aufbruch 89—Neues Forum’ was a catch-all movement, ‘offering no new social conception’. Analysts believed that the movements could only gain a mass basis by dealing on SED terms. Simply banning them would achieve little. Fines would not be paid. Arrests were even more difficult because of the ‘solidarity effects’ they would cause, so the reporters argued. The only solution proffered was for the SED to publicize its ‘socialist democracy’, and to co-opt church circles and some of the ‘alternative’ groups under the motto: ‘Striving together for a better, more beautiful socialist GDR.’¹

This was much too little, much too late. Moreover, the party was beginning to witness the shearing away of the penumbra of mass organizations which had always lent it a veneer of respectability, leaving it isolated to face the growing tide of anger. 

The first serious trial of strength came with the last act of the emigration movement, when former embassy occupiers were spirited out of Prague via Dresden and on to Bavaria aboard sealed trains. On 3 October thousands in Saxony waited at stations and bends in the track, hoping to hitch an unofficial ride. In Dresden alone about 3,000 people attempted to storm the station, with one person suffering serious injury underneath a train.² Violent clashes occurred the following night, as further deportees passed through. A crowd of up to 20,000, the largest since 1953, massed outside the main railway station, hoping to board the trains, and throwing stones, to which the security forces responded with tear gas and baton charges.³ Meanwhile, army units were mobilized in support, armed with machine-pistols and live ammunition.⁹⁴ In the following days several thousand demonstrators were taken into custody by Volkspolizei and MfS. It was only a matter of months since Egon Krenz had publicly defended the Chinese use of force on Tiananmen Square and no-one was sure if there would not be a ‘Beijing solution’ in Germany too. 

Berlin, the traditional functionary capital, had not experienced the same dissident activity as the provinces. Because of the GDR’s fortieth anniversary celebrations, however, culminating on 7 October, it became a magnet for western media attention. In the run-up, as party activists tried to justify the achievements of four decades of socialism, audiences began to heckle with questions such as:
‘Why are so many GDR citizens now emigrating?’⁹⁵ Visits by the SED Prominenz degenerated into disorderly scenes. When youth secretary Gerd Schulz toured one Hennigsdorf factory, workers refused to follow the birthday script and wanted to discuss the exodus.⁹⁶ The large anniversary rallies offered perfect cover for dissidents. On 7 and 8 October demonstrators began filling the city centre, chanting in the Alexanderplatz and marching on the Palace of the Republic, where Honecker was entertaining his illustrious guests, shouting ‘Gorby help us’ and ‘No violence’. As darkness fell, the Volkspolizei cordoned off streets and made 1,047 arrests. The accompanying police brutality meted out on 7 and 8 October, often against passers-by, was clearly a shock for those on the receiving end, and many sought redress, no longer afraid to speak out.⁹⁷ Petitions to the SED also attest that victims were no longer prepared to keep silent when loaded onto Volkspolizei lorries and taken to garages where they were forced to stand facing the wall, complaining that ‘the arbitrariness and violence of the VP comrades was shocking’.⁹⁸ Subsequently, on 21 October 1,200 people formed a human chain around the Palace of the Republic, demanding the dropping of charges against those involved.⁹⁹
The real showdown, however, occurred on 9 October in Leipzig. The MfS, now carrying side arms at all times,¹⁰⁰ reported ‘a situation like shortly before the counter-revolutionary events of 17.6.1953’.¹¹ Police watched as thousands travelled in from surrounding Saxony by train and car. A total of 8,000 security personnel were on standby, as well as 5,000 functionaries. The regime was also rumoured to be preparing hospital beds and blood plasma, as well as the Leipzig exhibition centre for massed detentions. Demonstrators themselves felt that they were genuinely putting their lives on the line. The Nikolaikirche was full by lunchtime, surrounded by police, who could hear shouts of ‘Gorby, Gorby’, ‘We are staying here’, ‘No violence’, and ‘We are the people’ coming from the 6,000 inside.¹² SED plans to pack the meeting with loyalists backfired, however, when outsiders were spotted, hissed at and asked to leave. Behind the scenes, the local leadership had also been seeking direction from Berlin, with police making it clear that they would not act unless given direct orders, while the Interior Ministry in Berlin monitored proceedings on closed-circuit television. Three regional SED reform leaders, as well as Pastor Zimmermann of the Nikolaikirche, and Kurt Masur of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, signed a statement calling for dialogue, somewhat defusing the tension. At 6.15 p.m. 

70–80,000 demonstrators then braved the show of force, at a point when the bluff of the GDR regime was effectively called, carrying candles and shouting ‘We are the people’, ‘Legalize New Forum’, ‘Gorby, Gorby, Gorby’ and ‘2, 3, 4, we are staying here, we are not hooligans’, accompanied by rhythmic clapping. 

As the giant procession wheeled past the police and Stasi headquarters, there were whistles and boos, as well as playful shouts of ‘join us’.¹³ The crowd had lost its fear. At 6.35 p.m. the local police chief received the order from the Interior Ministry to go on the defensive.¹⁰⁴ By the time Krenz phoned through at 7.15 p.m., authorizing this course, the moment had already passed. Only ten people had been arrested. 

Meanwhile, in Dresden on the same evening approximately 22,000 church-goers gathered, and in Berlin 2,000 people congregated in the Gethsemane church, where rumours circulated that tanks had been deployed in Leipzig, and that security personnel were wearing gas-masks, until church leaders could reassure them that non-violence would prevail. Other smaller demonstrations in Jena, Magdeburg, Karl-Marx-Stadt, and Halle passed off peacefully.¹⁰⁵ Each home town was having its own revolution. In Wernigerode on 10 October, a group of young people attempted to place candles before the Rathaus, followed by others chanting, ‘The Wall must go’ and ‘We don’t want violence’.¹⁰⁶ Groups of a few hundred to several thousands continued to agitate. Initially, the security forces still broke up these events, but gradually local civic officials began to mediate with people’s representatives. Churches continued to hold services for those arrested, as well as to marshal silent processions. In the Church of the Resurrection in Berlin-Friedrichshain, for instance, on 14 October a reading of forbidden texts was led by Stephan Hermlin, the author who had once defended 13 August 1961 against Günter Grass.¹⁰⁷ The following day in the Church of the Saviour a ‘concert against violence’ was held, including well-known bands such as Pankow, Silly, and City.¹⁰⁸ Leaflets were distributed. Occasionally there were calls for the organization of newspapers to go beyond the information sheets being distributed.¹⁰⁹ Banners called for ‘Freedom of speech and the press’, ‘We are the people—we want reforms’, or ‘Freedom of opinion, travel and the press.’

Students also started mobilizing for their own body. Amid the almost carnival atmosphere MfS officers were taunted with the words ‘Stasi onto the production line’. By the Monday demonstration in Leipzig of 16 October, with 70–80,000 participants, slogans now included ‘Legalize free media’, ‘Ecology not Economy’, ‘Free Elections’, as well as continued calls for ‘Where is our freedom to travel?’, and for New Forum. Flyers warned not to be drawn into delaying dialogues, in which the church might become a ‘brake’: ‘There is now no more time for nice fireside chats. If dialogue, then dialogue of equality, in other words, the conditions for dialogue cannot always come ‘‘from above’’, but must be co-set by us. That is why the actions and non-violent demonstrations cannot let up.’ As well as demanding civil and political rights, including electoral reform and the right to strike, freedom to travel was included, although by now significantly last on the list.¹¹

A delayed palace coup also took place. Although President Gorbachev had famously warned at the time of the anniversary celebrations that history punishes those who arrive too late, he had remained restrained. Soviet embassy staff were under orders to offer no advice and the military were confined to barracks. On 6 October he attended an FDJ torchlit parade, but even Gorbachev noticed that all was not well with even the handpicked cream of the SED’s youth movement. The Soviet leader then met Honecker and Stoph on the morning of 7 October, and sat in with the Politbüro, warning that ‘if we lag behind, life will punish us immediately’.¹¹¹ Nobody at that stage was prepared to make a decisive bid for power, however, despite Honecker’s genuine health problems. Any crucial decisions on the unfolding crisis were thus fatally postponed. On 8 October there were tentative efforts by Krenz and Schabowski for a Politbüro communiqué addressing the crisis, with a number of potential reformers being lined up. On 10 October the gathered leadership indeed admitted it was in trouble, and, backtracking from Honecker’s ‘no tears’ speech, pronounced that ‘we are not indifferent to the fact that people who worked and lived here have chosen to leave’.¹¹²

Yet Honecker would not go voluntarily. Only at the Politbüro session of 17 October did Willi Stoph move for him to step-down, ignoring arguments that cadre changes would open the party up to ‘blackmail’.¹¹³ The next day Honecker complied, but departed from the script by recommending Krenz as his successor. 

The popular movement outside the politbureaucracy was unimpressed by the partial reforms. Whereas in the week 16–22 October the MfS counted twenty-four demonstrations with 140,000 participants, the following week it was 145 demonstrations with 540,000.¹¹ On 23 October in Leipzig alone it was 300,000. ‘The land needs new men’, chanted demonstrators.¹¹ During an attempted party counter-demonstration against New Forum the same day in Schwerin, as the district SED leader began his speech, the majority of the bussed-in party faithful promptly joined in the opposition procession.¹¹ On the twenty-fourth, following Krenz’s election as chairman of the Council of State, the first demonstration in Berlin following the anniversary debacle, swelling to 12,000, moved from the Alexanderplatz to the Palace of the Republic, as well as the Central Committee building, before converging on the Gethsemane church in Prenzlauer Berg. Banners included ‘No Ego(n)ism’ and ‘Krenz cannot be left alone—Modrow [a reform communist] must be given a home’.¹¹ The Council of State even granted protestors an audience, only to hear: ‘Only because we put pressure on you from the streets have you moved; only if we continue to apply pressure will you keep moving.’ There were also calls for a separation of powers, complaints that petitioners were being ‘fobbed off’, and demands for publication of the economic facts.¹¹ At the end of October the regime finally legalized demonstrations, but with the forlorn plea to turn to a more civilized form of dialogue. In response, on 30 October 200,000 people, the most so far, marched around Leipzig, now making militant demands ‘which are long-term in their scope’: slogans included ‘we are posing the power-question’, ‘democracy instead of SED monopoly’, ‘free elections under UN supervision’, ‘without Wall for us all’, and, as 4,000 people stood outside district Stasi headquarters, ‘Mielke, your days are numbered’.¹¹

As the dam broke, so did the tone of petitions. Whereas after Krenz’s accession many had concerned supply and travel, since 1 November there had been more calls for structural reform of the economy, with fewer subsidies, but also a ‘true socialist democracy’ with electoral reform with multiple parties, as well as critique and autocritique of the SED, including a block replacement of the Politbüro.
Regarding travel, citizens wanted to know how the hard currency problem would be solved, as well as clarification of the situation for citizens wishing to re-enter the GDR. Accordingly, the term Republikflucht should be abandoned.¹²

The petitions reaching the top in this phase were unlike anything previously encountered. One lady pensioner and non-comrade wrote on 13 October how she had arrived in the Soviet Zone in 1946, citing the experiences which had taught her to ‘ ‘‘keep my trap shut’’ in order not to completely flip out. On top of that the indescribable hypocrisy and the demonstration of the ‘‘power of the little men’’—sickening!’ But now, ‘for the first time in years the red flag flew on my balcony. I was celebrating the 40th birthday of my Republic in my way.’¹²¹

Meanwhile, previously loyal regime-carriers began to question their role, too. 

One Volkspolizei officer, an SED member since 1947, explained how sour the mood had been at the fortieth anniversary celebrations among his comrades in Gera. In his apartment block where normally thirty to thirty-five flags flew, there had been four or five. What followed was an indictment of the whole system of moral bribery.¹²²

Despite the Party Information’s best efforts, it could not conceal how quickly the veneer of ideological conformity had fallen away to expose a morass of material fears and resentments, and a feeling of betrayal by the top leadership.¹²³

The party mood was ‘sensitive and sometimes tetchy’. According to the Party Information, criticisms of the Politbüro were spreading to regional and district leaderships: ‘The breach of confidence at the grass roots is often glaringly obvious.’¹² Journalists complained that Neues Deutschland was making fools of factory cadres: ‘Disappointment is turning to human resignation, and then bitterness and hatred.’¹² There was scepticism at Krenz’s so-called ‘turn’ or Wende. Most regional and district parties felt ‘left in the lurch by the party leadership’, doubting ‘the ability and readiness of leading comrades to complete the rethink, or to assess the situation realistically and to change it fundamentally’. 

A ‘pogrom mood’ was dominating rallies. As one party member reported:
‘Yesterday a foreman from my former factory said to me: ‘‘Now you are standing with your backs to the wall, if you keep on like this for another two weeks you will be facing the wall’’.’¹² Yet things were only going to get worse with the revelations of the SED leaders’ luxurious lifestyle at the Wandlitz compound. 

An article in the Berliner Zeitung, showing container-loads of luxury goods, including Dior perfume and Persil washing powder, caused particular offence. 

Each revelation created a ‘wave of indignation’ among comrades, who were increasingly turning to the opposition.¹²

On 4 November the GDR’s largest ever rally of 500,000 took place in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, inspired by artists, including New Forum leaders, who welcomed ‘colleagues and friends, like-thinkers and stayers-here’. The chief demands were for freedom of speech and association, as well as the renunciation of the SED’s constitutional leading role. Overhung with witty banners—one depicting Krenz as a wolf in a nightdress above the motto ‘Grandmother, what big teeth you have’—the event had a carnival atmosphere. Stilt-walkers warned Krenz not to ‘trip up’. At the same time, rage was vented on the security services, with calls for ‘Stasi onto the production line’. The former MfS counter-intelligence chief, Markus Wolf, accused the leadership of living in a ‘fairytale world’, but warned against the MfS being turned into whipping boys. Berlin party boss Günter Schabowski, drowned out at times, tried to make the SED’s reform spirit plausible. Jens Reich for New Forum called for proper elections, but also for the return of those who had departed. Pastor Schorlemmer, too, enjoined listeners to: ‘Stay here! Now we literally do need every man and woman’ for a ‘coalition of common sense’. Christa Wolf expressed her ‘dream’: ‘Imagine there is socialism and no-one runs away!’ Like many others, the writer Christoph Hein challenged the view that the Politbüro had inaugurated the Wende: ‘It was the reason of the street, the demonstration of the people’, inveighing against ‘bureaucracy, demagogy, spying, corruption, paternalism and even criminality’.¹² The SED Central Committee’s propaganda section praised the lack of violence, but SED speakers had ‘great difficulty being heard’. Behind closed doors, the party could accept demands for non-violence, as well as free elections, although not ‘bourgeois party pluralism’. The National Front, face of the single list, would have to remain. 

The SED could also join in calls for a restructuring of the MfS, but not its abolition. ‘Demands for a removal of the leading role of the SED are unacceptable for us communists.’ In order to regain control of the situation, analysts suggested the usual salami tactics of small-scale talks ‘in order gradually to push back the barely controllable mass rallies’, suggesting that little had changed.¹² The party’s only consolation was that previous rumours of a mass border breakout at the rally had not materialized.¹³


The new SED leadership under Krenz had been seriously considering liberalizing travel almost as soon as he succeeded Honecker. As already noted, Krenz had much hands-on experience with the travel and emigration complex as former security secretary. Already on 10 October, his subordinate, Wolfgang Herger, had secured support from other ministries for a detailed travel law, which was mooted for December. There were already worries about the possible effects on the GDR’s manpower, as well as the hard currency situation (each traveller currently was entitled to exchange 15 deutschmarks, not enough to reach even nearby rail destinations in the FRG, but sufficient to bankrupt the GDR if claimed en masse).¹³¹ On 23 October the Politibüro then considered a draft travel law that would dispense with previous requirements about relatives and justification for travel, but would still have reserve blocking clauses in the interests of ‘national security, public order, health and morals’.¹³² Yet, internally, the GDR leadership was still concerned that opening the borders could expose the state’s sovereignty, and was still seeking formal recognition from the FRG before such a move. 

Yet at this stage the GDR was hardly in a position to bargain. The full horrific truth of the GDR’s economic plight only became fully clear after Honecker’s fall, when the Politbüro took stock on 31 October 1989. State Planning Commissioner Schürer revealed that, whereas most lending banks advised that debt should never exceed 25 per cent of export capacity, in the GDR it was currently running at 150 per cent. The repayable debt would reach 57 billion hard marks by the end of 1990. In order to stabilize this alone, 30 billion marks would have to be deployed—the equivalent of three years’ worth of planned economic growth, or 25–30 per cent of domestic consumption. In short, the GDR was facing financial ruin and a terminal balance of payments crisis. The only alternatives were a moratorium, in which case the International Monetary Fund would have a say in the GDR, or to turn to the FRG again. Although this solution was for the moment rejected, the notion of bargaining for a lifeline with the Wall was moot. Indeed, over the coming days Chancellor Kohl abandoned his previous non-interventionism to make considerable demands in return for economic aid, such as the recognition of new parties, the renunciation of the SED’s leading role, and the timetabling of free elections. The SED was to shift on all three points, but the Wall was to be retained as a trump card.¹³³
The border to Czechoslovakia had been reopened on 1 November. At the same time the occupation of the FRG’s Prague embassy resumed, with Czech party leader Jake putting renewed pressure on the East Germans to permit their citizens to cross direct into the West, and indeed, on 3 November the Politbüro authorized the GDR embassy in Prague to stamp passports with exit visas and the promise of retained citizenship and non-punishment. Over the weekend of 4–6 November 23,000 East Germans left via this route. Effectively, the Czech iron curtain was now breached. Yet new regulations announced in the GDR press on 6 November did not go anywhere near as far as the population wanted. Travel abroad still had to receive official approval and could not exceed one month; foreign currency could not be taken in any quantity; the Berlin sector boundary remained closed. It seemed to be another case of offering too little, too late. The Czechoslovak leadership was still not happy. Meanwhile, events got ahead of the legislators. On the same day a 300,000-strong Leipzig demonstration demanded visa-free travel— visafrei bis Hawaii —and an end to the Wall, and even the SED.¹³ Demonstrations across the GDR took up this call for unrestricted travel without SED strings attached. By 9 November the Party Information was labelling the situation as ‘very tense with widespread fears for the continuation of socialism in the GDR’.¹³

The Foreign Ministry, along with the MfS and Interior Ministry then worked out revised regulations, proposing on 7 November a single crossing-point in the south-west, clearly aimed only at would-be émigrés, but not those wishing to come and go. To its credit, the slowly democratizing Volkskammer rejected this as inadequate, leading to the resignation of the Council of Ministers (the GDR’s government) and a serious power vacuum as the Politbüro was also reshuffled. Then, on the morning of 9 November, in response to renewed calls to solve the Czech impasse, two Interior Ministry and two Stasi officials met to produce a credible draft travel law. They agreed that by liberalizing emigration while doing nothing serious about short-term travel would only exacerbate the situation. Those denied the right to come and go would simply join the queue to leave permanently.¹³ The Politbüro’s new security secretary, Wolfgang Herger, also hoped to use the absence of previous hardliners to get the revised version through. The troubleshooters produced a new draft that all passport holders were entitled to leave by any checkpoint, including Berlin. Since only about 4 million GDR citizens possessed a passport at this point, it was hoped that passport applications would buy some time to regulate the flow. The Soviets gave the green light from Gorbachev personally (although the ambassador later claimed to have understood only an opening of the Demarcation Line, not the Berlin sector boundary¹³), and during the afternoon Krenz read out the new draft to the SED Central Committee, which, besides permanent emigration, included ‘private trips’. Whether the gathered delegates, or even Krenz for that matter, realized the implications is unclear, since there was no substantial discussion. It was approved with immediate effect, ignoring the original reporting ban until the following day.¹³ Günter Schabowski, who had been absent from this part of proceedings, was then sent off to announce the decree that evening at a press conference. What amounted to the Wall’s death certificate was then read out from a scribbled text in an atmosphere of improvisation and confusion. On live television Schabowski simply read what was in front of him, appearing slightly baffled himself about whether the measures were to take place with immediate effect.¹³ Meanwhile the gathered journalists rushed to file their stories. 

Within hours, bemused East Germans watching western news programmes heard that the Wall was to all intents and purposes already open, and by 9 p.m. a large group had congregated at the Bornholmer crossing-point between Prenzlauer Berg and Wedding, in a mixture of expectation and anger. The Trabis tailed back a kilometre. Local border guards had not been forewarned, but when they telephoned for confirmation from their superiors, clear instructions were not forthcoming. Eventually, the officers in charge requested to be allowed to filter out some of the crowd to relieve the pressure, although ID cards were secretly invalidated with a stamp over the photograph, effectively deporting leavers. 

Almost immediately, however, some wanted to return. For those thousands remaining, this was not the signal to give up, as they began chanting ‘Open the gate, open the gate!’ and, hoping to reassure the border guards, ‘We are coming back!’ By 11.30 p.m. the border units were no longer able to control the situation and informed their superiors that they were opening the swing barriers. Around 20,000 people flooded over the bridge at Bornholmer Straße. 

A more complex situation had been developing at Checkpoint Charlie and Invalidenstraße, where West Berliners were also demanding entry, requiring the West Berlin police to restrain them. MfS and Interior Ministry officials were paralysed by the indecision of their superiors, however, but were evidently not prepared to initiate a bloodbath on their own initiative, although many saw their life’s work evaporating before their eyes. Around midnight all the checkpoints were opened up amid scenes of tears and joyful hysteria, while border officials looked impassively on, occasionally letting slip a furtive smile. At the Brandenburg Gate, where the Wall was several metres thick, West Berliners began to climb up onto the edifice, defying the water jets aimed at them. Already, some were beginning to chisel away at the Wall. Soon after 1 a.m. East Berliners simply climbed over the fencing around Pariser Platz and milled around under the Gate itself, with some joining westerners on the Wall. During that night at least 70,000 East Germans explored the new freedom, to be greeted with flowers and sekt, or headed off to the Kurfürstendamm or the nearest hostelry. 

The following morning the SED Central Committee was seemingly in denial about the importance of what had happened, indulging in personal recriminations over the economic disaster, until repeated telephone calls from the Soviet ambassador prompted Krenz to broach the subject. Indeed, Foreign Minister Sheverdnadze subsequently claimed that the Soviet military had been gearing up for a defence of the iron curtain, against the will of the politicians.¹⁴⁰ Krenz explained: ‘The pressure which was directed until yesterday at the Czechoslovakian border, has been applied since last night against our frontier. . . . The pressure could not be contained, there could only have been a military solution, comrades.’¹¹ Rather pathetically, he tried to hitch the muddle of 9 November to the statesmanlike vision of Gorbachev:
You know, in a game of football when a free kick is awarded, a wall is formed in front of the goal. Free kicks are the result of fouls by the other team. Let us make sure together of fair play. . . . May this historical edifice, the witness of dramatic chapters of changing German history . . . be a symbol for cooperation, stability, peace and friendship in the heart of Europe. Indeed, a building block . . . for the formation of the new European house, which needs many entries and exits.¹²

In the course of the meeting, the Central Committee drew up an Action Programme, promising free elections, a planned economy ‘orientated to market conditions’, and the uncoupling of party and state. Yet the following weeks witnessed repeated revelations about the lifestyle of the politbureaucracy at its country retreat in Wandlitz. The SED rank and file grew increasingly alienated from the leadership, demanding an extraordinary party convention in December, at which most of the surviving old guard were voted out and the party renamed Party of Democratic Socialism. On 1 December the party had even voted in the Volkskammer for the removal of its own constitutionally guaranteed ‘leading role’. Although the perceived moderate Hans Modrow took over the caretaker government, it was widely accepted that once free elections had been set, the SED would be consigned to the wilderness. 

The Wall was opened up in a desperate gamble to persuade East Germans to stay or to come back after they had satisfied their curiosity in the West. In the first ten days after its opening 11 million East Germans visited West Germany and West Berlin! The regime watched with trepidation. On 10 November reports were reaching the Central Committee that ‘panic and chaos are spreading’, as workers were leaving work to apply for visas at police stations.¹³ Krenz set up an ‘operative leadership group’ on the morning of the same day to restore order at the border. The Interior Ministry reported that this move had ‘defused the situation somewhat’. There was less frenzied curiosity about checking that the changes were real. There were also cases of citizens appearing at the Demarcation Line and demanding egress. At Nordhausen border troops relented when 400 people appeared, opening a gate in the fencing. Later that afternoon they were back, demanding re-admittance.¹⁴⁴ Moreover, in the days following the dramatic nocturnal opening, West Berliners began hacking away at the Wall, trying to create their own unofficial openings. South of the Brandenburg Gate one slab was dragged away on 11 November, only to be returned and welded back into place. Alongside West Berlin police, the border troops succeeded in clearing the reinforced wall at the Brandenburg Gate of revellers. Yet, in the ensuing days dozens of impromptu crossing-points had to be cut out of the Wall in response to the inundation of those wishing to travel.¹⁴⁵

Yet it was not just the party which watched the fall of the Wall with anxiety. 

The citizens’ groups and the Hierbleiber were by no means the unqualified champions of toppling it so quickly. For some conspiracy theorists, the SED had opened up the border in order to make the country ungovernable in a last suicidal fit of Machiavellianism. In a BBC interview soon after 9 November, New Forum had expressed concern that the new travel freedoms would reduce the pressure of protests against the SED’s monopoly. Leaders such as Bärbel Bohley were ambivalent about the border opening, labelling it a misfortune, although she was persuaded not to go public with this view. Finally the New Forum leaders resolved on the following statement: ‘We have waited almost thirty years for this day. Sick of the Wall, we rattled the bars of our cage. Youth grew up with the dream one day to be free and experience the world. This dream is now fulfillable. This is a festival day for all of us.’ Yet, the reformists warned against being ‘diverted from demanding a political reconstruction of society’. ‘We will be poor for a long time, but we don’t have to have a society in which profiteers and sharpies elbow ahead.’¹⁴⁶ Friedrich Schorlemmer, one of the spokesmen for Democratic Breakthrough, even pleaded that the remains of the Wall might ‘exist a bit longer’.¹⁴⁷ The seeds were nevertheless sown for the marginalization of the civil rights groups, who soon showed that they did not have a finger on the more materialist popular pulse, representing instead narrower church reformism or green-alternative interests.¹⁴⁸
Despite pleas to stay, the exodus of permanent leavers continued over the winter of 1989–90: 133,429 in November; 43,221 in December; 73,729 in January 1990; 63,893 in February; 46,241 in March, until the authorities stopped collecting the statistics in July.¹⁴⁹ Since the same qualified young people were leaving as had gone before the Wall, the economic impact of the hole left behind began to be felt in the spring of 1990. The loss of qualified workers was accelerating the free fall of the economy. By late January 1990 Modrow as caretaker leader was reporting serious economic problems, and a number of strikes spread across the GDR. The influx of new citizens also strengthened the FRG’s resolve to become more interventionist with the GDR. Despite Kohl’s initial claims that he was only interested in a ten-point plan and confederation, the continuing exodus provided the rationale for a more radical solution. 

Modrow had offered a ‘contractual community’ in November, but as the chaos spread, in January Bonn announced that it would only negotiate with an elected government. In February Kohl sounded out Gorbachev about his opposition to unity. The Kremlin leader realized that the GDR was by then a lost cause. The most he could argue for was that a united Germany should not be part of NATO.
At the same time the demonstrations took on a fundamentally different tone. 

Rather than democratically announcing that ‘we are the people’, the slogan became the more nationalist ‘we are one people’. Over the winter, the Leipzig demonstrators became more proletarian and male, carrying flags rather than candles.¹⁵⁰ Behind the political rhetoric, Pfaff has also tried to prove statistically that, beyond a certain critical mass of exodus which had goaded the protestors of September–October into action, leavers will always fatally undermine voice:
‘as more and more people have walked out of the game, the exodus erodes social capital among the residents of a country, thereby undermining the movement potential of the population’.¹¹ The reforming civil rights campaigners soon found themselves isolated, even once they had established themselves as interlocutors at the Round Tables instituted in December 1989. When Federal Chancellor Kohl visited Erfurt, the crowd was a sea of black, red, and gold, the colours of the West German flag, significantly devoid of the GDR emblem of the hammer and dividers. This was a disaster for those who saw themselves as the genuine reformers who had put their necks on the line in the hot autumn of eighty-nine. 

Dismissing the SED as a travesty of socialism, they had wanted to seize the chance to build a truly socialist state, with equality for men and women, as well as some social guarantees for the millions of workers now facing redundancy. 

Instead, they saw themselves being drawn irresistibly closer to West Germany’s capitalist bigger brother. The chance of a third way for Germany now seemed a forlorn and utopian hope.
In the unfolding crisis, the new Volkskammer elections were brought forward from May to 18 March 1990. They ended by becoming a referendum on unity. 

Unlike the political parties emerging in other eastern bloc states, such as Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia, who had no outside option, politics in the terminal GDR became linked to western patronage. The CDU under Chancellor Kohl soon forged links with the former bloc party, the CDUD, and the Christian Socialists in Bavaria sponsored the emergent DSU. An ‘Alliance for Germany’ was founded, campaigning specifically on the promise of rapid reunification. 

Likewise, the initially semi-autonomous Social Democratic movement in the GDR, the SDP, soon came into line with its western sister party, which provided it with the wherewithal to campaign. Unlike the Alliance, the Social Democrats were more hesitant about unification, for which they paid in the elections. The former protest movements had coalesced into an Alliance ’90 list, but many had from the outset been resistant to remodelling themselves from movements into formal parties, and scored surprisingly poorly at the polls. The surprise winners, in what had been an SPD heartland in the Weimar Republic, was the Alliance for Germany, which won 48.1 per cent (CDU 40.6 per cent). 
As Maier noted:
‘Voting for Kohl represented the equivalent of going West the previous fall.’¹²

The civil rights movement represented by New Forum received only 2.9 per cent. The final nail in the coffin of the GDR was the currency union of 1 July, which created a single economic space. On the same day the Federal Government stopped the policy of asylum for East Germans.

The Night The Berlin Wall Came Down