The Final Soviet Curtain

‘The truth of the matter was that the hapless East German government had opened the Berlin Wall by mistake’

News | Philip Zelikow, Condolezza Rice | November 2009

Events did occur, and at an extraordinary pace. As the new East German government prepared to announce its reform program at the party plenum, ordinary citizens poured into the streets to voice pent-up dissatisfaction with decades of hardship and repression.

The daily protests were capped by a rally of 500,000 in East Berlin on Nov. 4.

Krenz [second and last GDR head of state] replaced part of the ruling Politbüro on the eve of the Berlin demonstration. The Socialist Unity party plenum reorganized the government and vaulted Hans Modrow, a reformer within the SED exiled as party boss in Dresden, into the Politbüro. Promises were made to legalize the New Forum and other opposition parties.

The U.S. embassy in East Berlin reported to Washington that the plenum had demonstrated "a significant shift toward potentially credible reform, primarily because of the dramatic rise of Modrow."

The Soviet Union certainly felt better about Modrow than

about Krenz, having long harbored a friendly interest in the Dresden chief’s future. Now that reformist communists such as Schabowski and Modrow were coming to the fore, the USSR felt even more committed to backing a new leadership which, the Soviets hoped, could stabilize the situation. On Nov. 6, Gorbachev telephoned [Soviet] Ambassador Kochemasov in East Germany and told him emphatically, "Our people will never forgive us if we lost the GDR."

The reorganized East German government quickly came face-to-face again with the problem of travel restrictions. On Nov. 4, the GDR had begun allowing East Germans to travel to the FRG through Czechoslovakia. Once again tens of thousands of East Germans crowded the roads into Czechoslovakia, trying to make their way west. Once again the West German embassy grounds in Prague began filling with refugees. Krenz had promised Gorbachev that he would allow almost all East German citizens to travel, so long as they took no money with them, and Gorbachev had posed no objection. But the Soviet bureaucracy apparently did not know about this secret conversation. The Soviet embassy in East Berlin, hearing that a new travel law was being prepared, asked Moscow what to do. [Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs] Shevardnadze’s top deputy, Anatoly Kovalyov, phoned Kochemasov to tell him to leave the East Germans alone and treat the travel laws as a GDR decision. Kochemasov insisted on receiving a written instruction to this effect. The travel law was "an internal responsibility of the GDR."

The East Germans delegated the task of preparing the new travel law to Erich Mielke, the former security chief, who has been forced out of the government and the Politbüro. In the new draft, completed in the week after Krenz returned from Moscow, procedures for issuing passports and exit visas were streamlined. The text of the law was hastily drafted, the Soviets were later told, by two Stasi [GDR secret police] colonels and two departmental chiefs from the Interior Ministry. The draft extended the new liberal rules to all trips, even short private ones, and to all of the GDR’s frontiers, including those in Berlin. No senior official on the East German side fully grasped that, in theory, the law would apply to the Berlin Wall, a border and a city under Four Power supervision. The East Germans had not yet consulted Soviet officials, who might have caught the error.

The poorly drafted text read: "Requests for private trips abroad may be submitted from now on even in the absence of special prerequisites." There was certainly no intention to authorize trips to the 213 members of the SED Central Committee present for the party plenum, and no one objected.

The Central Committee blessed the draft on November 9. Krenz then gave a copy to Schabowski, who had been holding daily press conferences on the activities of the SED party plenum. Krenz was busy with other matters. He was planning the day’s major announcement: the decision to call a special party conference in December that would transform the leadership of the GDR. One of the notes to the document promised that the new travel regulations would be announced the next day, Nov. 10, after exact instructions on how to implement the law had been circulated to East German security authorities throughout the country. Krenz had told Gorbachev that he would submit the new law to legislature before Christmas.

Schabowski overlooked this detail and read the new law near the end of his hour-long press conference. Reading and extemporizing, Schabowski said that interim travel regulations had been prepared which would allow anyone to apply for private travel, that permission would be forthcoming in short order, and that the police had been told to issue visas for permanent emigration "immediately," without application. The new law, he said, would take effect immediately.

Those watching the press conference were seized with curiosity. But the exact text of the draft was not available, so the journalists reported their interpretations of the law, garbling the language and creating a public sensation during the night of Nov. 9-10. Confused diplomats and West German officials were trying to figure out what Schabowski had meant. During Schabowski’s press conference the West German mission’s press representative – clearly more aware of the importance of the announcement than Schabowski himself – had been seen to grasp his head, moan, and dash from the room to sound the alarm. Officials in Bonn, including the intelligence service, were taken by surprise. Rumors spread that all travel restrictions were being dropped, including exit visa requirements. Thousands of people began massing near the Berlin Wall. They asked border guards about the new regulations, but the guards had no information and no guidance to offer.

As the night wore on, huge numbers of people crowded at the wall. The guards at their checkpoints still had not received their instructions. They did not know what to do and were uncertain about their legal duty. Security forces might have been able to handle a planned demonstration, but this was not a demonstration. With hordes of people forcing the guards to give way or shoot the confused and milling throng, local guard commanders gave way. The bewildered interior minister ratified what his guard commanders had already decided. Crowds streamed through into West Berlin. The wall had been opened. Nov. 10 became a holiday in Berlin as masses of East Germans joined their Western brethren in a tumultuous, euphoric celebration.

Krenz immediately put the best face on events and pretended that the opening of the wall had been intentional. That was true in substance. But it was not supposed to happen the way it did. Actually the government had been so disorganized that it took months before Schabowski himself was able to piece together just what had happened that night. Krenz phoned the Soviet ambassador in the morning of Nov. 10, and Kochemasov had told him that the Soviets were confused about what was happening and were angry that he, Krenz, was being so indecisive. But, Krenz replied, we were planning to open the borders in any case, as your side knew. But not this way, Kochemasov answered, and on the FRG-GDR frontier, not in Berlin. Matters in Berlin affect the interests of the Four Powers. Well, replied Krenz, this is now a theoretical question.

The truth of the matter is that the hapless East German government had opened the Berlin Wall by mistake. In one of the most colossal administrative errors in the long, checkered history of the public bureaucracy, the Krenz government abdicated responsibility for the most important decision in its history to the people in the street. The enormous façade of government authority had been devastated. [American historian] Robert Darnton observed a week later that, "in East Berlin especially, the idea has spread that in conquering the Wall the people seized power." The people never let the government have its power back again. It was a mortal blow to the communist regime.

Schabowski was not worried, however. He was just glad that the government had finally done something popular. "We hadn’t a clue that the opening of the wall was the beginning of the end of the Republic," he said. "On the contrary, we expected a stabilization process." But years of insulation from the feelings of ordinary people had left East Germany’s leaders with no instincts for how they should seize this historic moment. In the next few days not a single leader of the GDR appeared at the wall. But every leading figure in the Federal Republic of Germany showed up there. They came to speak both to West Germans and to the new leaders of East Germany – the common people.

The Goal Becomes Unification 

[FRG Chancellor] Helmut Kohl first heard about Günter Schabowski’s press conference while sitting in a guesthouse in Warsaw. Kohl, too, was taken by surprise. Of course, the situation in the GDR had been on his mind. Just the day before he had delivered a speech to the Bundestag demanding a radical political reform in East Germany as the price for West German economic aid. And he had expressed confidence that, given the chance, East Germans would choose unity. But it was characteristic of the tumultuous times that the West German chancellor had moved on quickly to yet another historic event, his first state visit to Poland, to praise that country’s movement toward democracy and to celebrate Gorman-Polish reconciliation. Now there was this news from Berlin. Did it mean the wall was opening?

There was no time for analysis. Kohl and Foreign Minister Hand-Dietrich Genscher were off to the welcoming state dinner, to be hosted amid the faded elegance of the Palais Radziwill by the new Polish prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki. The dinner conversation was dominated by the news from Berlin. Poland’s own symbol of democracy, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, could not believe the East German government would just open the wall. Walesa thought that Egon Krenz was not ready to handle the democratic reform the people would demand if the wall came down. It might take another week or two, he thought. But what then? The situation in the GDR was so dangerous. Walesa was worried that the country could be overtaken by revolutionary chaos. He repeated those concerns to Genscher and [foreign policy advisor] Horst Teltschik the next morning. Things were happening so quickly, and Walesa feared that Poland "would pay the price for it."

As events unfolded throughout the evening, Kohl and his party realized that they had to cut short their visit to Poland and go to Berlin as quickly as possible. But the chancellor could not get there directly. Under Four Power rules, West German aircraft were not permitted to fly directly from Poland to Berlin.  The American ambassador, Vernon Walters, arranged for a U.S. military plane to meet the chancellor in Hamburg. Kohl left Poland, changed planes, and – in an act thick with symbolism that no one seemed to notice at the time – the Americans flew the West German chancellor to Berlin.

On the podium in Berlin that November day, facing jubilant crowds, SPD senior statesman Willy Brandt, who had been mayor of Berlin when the wall was erected, celebrated its downfall and an end to the "unnatural division of Germany." Genscher, already worried about the attitudes of Germany’s neighbors, said that no one "should be fearful if the doors between West and East opened" or if "freedom and democracy will become a reality in the GDR."

Moments before Kohl began, Teltschik had spoken to the Soviet ambassador in Bonn. Yuli Kvitsinsky conveyed an urgent message from Gorbachev angrily warning against destabilizing the GDR with talk of unification and asking Kohl to calm the people and head off "chaos." Teltschik barely had time to pass this message to Kohl before the chancellor addressed the crowd. Kohl did not respond directly to Gorbachev’s prompting. Instead he emphasized the German right to "self-determination" and thanked the Western allies for their support and solidarity. He also thanked Gorbachev for having recognized the right to self-determination. Then Kohl became more expressive: "We demand this right for all in Europe. We demand it for all Germans." Claiming that the road ahead led to "unity and right and freedom," Kohl, now filled with emotion, quoted the FRG national anthem and declared: "A free German fatherland lives! A free, united Europe lives!"

The opening of the Berlin Wall was as electrifying and emotional an event as the world had seen in many years. Although the wall’s collapse immediately called into question the postwar order and Germany’s future, those were hardly the concerns that dominated the moment. Rather, there were, first and foremost, the scenes of Germany overcoming its division in the most human of terms as families were reunited after years of separation. There were the expressions of giddy East German citizens encountering the casual prosperity most West Germans took for granted, the bewildering array of material goods that had been nothing more than images on West German television. And there were the feelings of nationhood that welled up in Germans on both sides of the divide – among people who had assumed that those emotions were long dead and properly buried. In one such response the Federal Bundestag broke spontaneously into the national anthem upon learning that the wall had been opened.

About 9 million East Germans visited the West during the first week, a majority of the entire population. They were welcomed as brothers and sisters by those in the West. The whole German nation enjoyed days of wild celebration. Almost all the Western visitors returned to their homes, but some were biding their time, waiting to see what would develop. No one – neither citizens nor heads of state – knew what would or should happen next.


An excerpt from Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in History by Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice (Harvard, 1997), published with permission of the authors.

Other articles from this issue