The Miracle of Berlin

Twenty years after the border between East Germany and West Germany was breached, we now know that in that fateful press conference Schabowski simply read the wrong memo. But after Schabowski, a member of the Central Commitee of the SED,  had announced that all travel restrictions had been lifted for all East Germans – effective immediately – there was no turning back. At least not without violence. And I suppose that is really the miracle of the 9th November 1989. One can easily imagine an East German border guard commander ordering his troops to fire. Instead, though, they finally gave in to the thousands of people who were demanding to cross the border and opened the gates. First at Bornholmer Strasse, then everywhere.

I suspect that they saw that the winds of history were blowing in their face and that they might just be held accountable by someone else than the Stalinists who used to give them orders. They – the SED bosses – did not really get it yet. Schabowski himself was just like “oops” but he did not realize what had just happened. Yes, the big guys like to take credit for taking down the wall. Bush Sr, Helmut “Birne” Kohl and Gorbatchow like to pat their own shoulders for “taking down the wall.” But to me it looks like the crack that breached the wall and brought the Stalinist regime down was just a clerical error. “Ooops – wrong memo, guys.” Schabowski then just plowed ahead with his “effective immediately” bit.

The thing about this is that his announcement contradicted the orders of the border guards. They heard his pronouncement on the news. But they still had orders to shoot anyone who tried to leave. Their superiors tried to contain the situation by ordering the border guards to tell people to come back tomorrow. Yeah right! Then they started letting people cross and marked their passports – with the intention of refusing them re-entry. But this was too slow and thousands of people were converging on the border crossings, surging toward the boom that was still held shut by machinegun-toting border guards.

This was going to be the moment of truth. And I like to think that his humanity was the motivation in Harald Jäger to decide to open the boom at the Checkpoint Bornholmer Strasse and let the people go.

That was it. One after the other the border crossings were opened and the border guards were watching as thousands and thousands of people started surging across the border they had so faithfully guarded as a Stalinist bulwark against the evils of Capitalism and Fascism. I wonder what went through their heads as the relevance of their work was swept aside by history. The wall was breached 20 years ago – effective immediately – it fell and with it the German Democratic Republic. This was the end of the Cold War and the GDR was incorporated into the Federal Republic of Germany 3rd October 1990.

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