When Ronald Reagan demanded in West Berlin in 1987 that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall”, the US president’s words stirred hearts and hopes – but Germany’s physical divide still seemed as solid as ever.
Even as Gorbachev sought to end years of stagnation in the USSR with his perestroika and glasnost restructuring, the East German (GDR) government under Erich Honecker was among the most reform-resistant in the Eastern Bloc.
“We thought the Wall would last forever, that’s what we were told,” says former East Berliner Monika, 61. “[In January 1989] Honecker said the Wall will stand for another hundred years.”
It might have done.
Despite calls for the GDR to end the forced confinement of its 16 million citizens; economics, the balance of power and fear of a resurgent or Soviet-aligned united Germany meant western leaders talked very differently backstage.
In April 1989, according to Gorbachev’s foreign policy adviser Anatoly Chernyaev, British premier Margaret Thatcher told the Soviet leader that Britain and Western Europe were not interested in German unification.
“We are not interested in the destabilization of Eastern Europe or the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact either … I can tell you that this is also the position of the US president,” Thatcher added, citing a personal message from George H. W. Bush.
But the numbers of East Germans on the move began to grow rapidly.
With Moscow’s tacit assent, Hungary opened its border with Austria that spring, allowing thousands of GDR ‘tourists’ to flee into Austria and then on to West Germany. Czechoslovakia later followed suit.
“There was definitely a feeling that something was brewing,” recalled Mike Trobridge, a British student of German, who visited East Berlin in October 1989 during the 40th anniversary celebrations of the GDR.
“I was surprised to see such crowds on Alexanderplatz – and so many army trucks hidden away on side streets. Still, there was no feeling that the Wall itself was about to tumble.”
Meanwhile, the pro-democracy Monday demonstrations that began in Leipzig that autumn swelled in size. But the authorities stood back lest a forceful dispersal of the crowds became a massacre.
Even if the Wall still seemed unassailable, the writing was already on it for Honecker.
After 18 years at the GDR helm, he was ousted on October 18th by Politburo colleagues who then tried to woo the public with promises of more democracy.
But the barrier’s fate was also likely sealed with an unprecedented outpouring of feeling on November 4th, when half a million people rallied against the regime in East Berlin.
Five days later, a premature announcement of relaxed travel procedures precipitated the spontaneous opening of the Wall.
Within days, it became clear that this could not be reversed. The map of Europe was being redrawn, and this would include the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later.
Putin breaks his stove
As the implications of the Wall’s opening sank in, anxious Soviet representations in the GDR set about destroying tons of documentation about networks and informers.
“We burned so much that the stove burst,” Russian President and former KGB operative in Dresden Vladimir Putin wrote in his autobiography.
“I understood that [the fall of the Wall] was inevitable,” Putin recalled. “I was only sorry about the Soviet Union’s lost authority in Europe.
“I wanted it to be replaced by something different. But no one proposed anything different, and that’s the pity of it all. We just dumped everything and left.”
In December, the East German parliament revoked the leading role of the East German Communist Party (SED). German reunification came a year later, on October 3rd, 1990.
The number crunchers are still thrashing out how much has been spent on the process since then. Some economists put the figure at €2 trillion and the issue has triggered a fresh round of squabbling in this commemorative year.
“Instead of recognizing and valuing this as a great feat of solidarity that we have accomplished in Germany, the discussion is being reduced to a one-sided transfer balance sheet,” Reiner Haseloff, the state premier of the east German state Saxony-Anhalt, lamented.
But speaking of achievements since 1989, Chancellor Angela Merkel this month noted that “new generations are now welded” to modern Germany.
“It has changed lives,” she said of the peaceful revolution that occurred and the jubilation she witnessed as a former GDR citizen. “The feeling can never be forgotten.”
And if the consensus among western leaders then really was not to rock the European apple cart, some still seemed genuinely inclined to wish away the most hated symbol of Communist oppression.
Near the end of his 1987 appearance, Reagan spotted some spray-painted graffiti on the Berlin Wall and digressed from his speech to read it aloud: “This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality.”
By Nick Allen