How 12 words helped bring down the Wall

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How 12 words helped bring down the Wall
Genscher on Tuesday on the balcony where he gave his speech 25 years ago (below). Photo: DPA

Half a sentence uttered 25 years ago on Tuesday by the then West German foreign minister helped catalyze the reunification of Germany, which Germans celebrate on Friday. Now 87, Hans-Dietrich Genscher is The Local's German of the Week.


In 1989, 4,500 East Germans fled to Prague in then-communist Czechoslovakia to find safety at the West German embassy.

The Czechoslovakian Government forbade them from entering West Germany due to travel restriction from communist East Germany, the GDR, so they camped out in the embassy grounds. 

Genscher was serving as foreign minister to West Germany and could sympathize with the refugees. He himself had fled East Germany in 1952.

He decided to reach out to Russian and GDR officials to negotiate a deal to allow them to cross into the West.

On September 30th, 1989 at 6.58pm, Genscher stepped out onto a balcony of the West German embassy.

He only managed to say these words: “Wir sind zu Ihnen gekommen, um Ihnen mitzuteilen, dass heute Ihre Ausreise..." ("We have come to you to tell you that today, your departure..), before the crowd erupted into cheers, tears and screams that drowned out the rest of his speech.

"At that moment Europe was born again," Genscher told reporters at a commemoration of the speech in Prague on Tuesday. "For me it was the most beautiful and happiest day of my political career."

That same day, at 8.50 pm, 1,200 refugees left Prague on the first of the so-called “freedom trains” towards Dresden before turning to the Bavarian town of Hof. 

Those few thousand started a flood. The number of East Germans leaving for West Germany soon became too great, and led to the announcement on November 9th 1989 that the GDR’s borders would open.

The Berlin Wall was no more.

"Those refugees who were in Prague took their fate in their own hands, but in reality they made history," Genscher said on Tuesday.

Nazi, communism, capitalism

Genscher continued to work as foreign minister until 1992 when he stepped down. He had held his position for 18 years, making him Europe’s longest-serving foreign minister at the time.

Now 87, he was born in the East German town of Reideburg, now part of Halle, in 1927.

During World War II at the age of 16, he was drafted to the German Luftwaffe and was briefly held as a prisoner of war by American and British forces.

After the war he began studying law and economics at the universities of Halle and Leipzig and became a member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPD) in 1946.

In 1952, he fled East Germany for the West and joined the Free Democratic Party (FDP) the same year.

He went on to complete his law exams in Hamburg and worked as a solicitor in Bremen before working for the FDP for many years.

Genscher rose through the Liberal party ranks, becoming a member of the Bundestag and was named interior minister by Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1969, before becoming foreign minister five years later.

Today, the father-of-one still works as a lawyer and runs his own consulting firm in Bonn.

On Tuesday, he warned of a fresh split in Europe between East and West because of the Ukraine crisis. "Anyone who feels responsibility for European stability, peace and cooperation should be deeply concerned," he said.

Pining with privilege

In an interview with Deutsche Welle in 2009, Genscher said that some Germans may still “pine for the old days, but it's worth noting that they do so with the privilege of living in a free society”.

“I have the impression that unity is much more advanced than some would like," he said.

"It is particularly encouraging for me when I speak at universities or spend time with young people,” he said. ”The future - and that is their life - is a shared future. They have to face this together and that's why looking into the future is also a common vision. Nobody can deny that.”

By Emma Anderson


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