Thirty years ago, on 9 November 1989, the barrier between communist East and capitalist West Germany was breached. In a series of articles for BBC World Histories magazine – on sale from Thursday 9 November, three experts revisit that pivotal moment and explore its global legacy. Here, historian Hester Vaizey offers her take on the events and what happened after the Wall came down…
Arguably the most seismic changes in European geopolitics – certainly in the second half of the 20th century – stemmed from events that unfolded in Berlin on 9 November 1989.
In the aftermath of its defeat in the Second World War, Germany had been divided into two countries: the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, comprising the Soviet zone of occupation, and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), which evolved from the combined occupation zones of the British, French and US allies.
Over the following years, in the competitive climate of the Cold War, it was troubling to East German leaders that the equivalent of a town’s worth of people were electing to move each year from the communist state to capitalist West Germany in search of jobs and higher living standards. So the GDR decided to erect a physical barrier between East and West Berlin to stem the flow of this tide. The Wall was constructed rapidly and without public warning, and the first barrier was largely completed in just a few days beginning on 13 August 1961.
During the 1980s, the communist Eastern Bloc countries faced increasing economic challenges, and the socialist dictatorships in Poland and Hungary lost their stranglehold on power,
a situation that raised questions about the future of the GDR. The East German Politburo was keen to avoid similar upheavals; one member commented: “Just because one of your neighbours changes the wallpaper in his house, does that mean you have to follow suit?” Yet many East Germans were hopeful of reform, buoyed by what they had seen in neighbouring countries. Peaceful protests later known as the Montagsdemonstrationen (Monday demonstrations), beginning in Leipzig on 4 September 1989 and spreading to other East German cities, called for democratic reform and freedom to travel. The huge demonstration in Leipzig on 9 October, which was not suppressed with violence, is often cited as marking a turning point for the GDR.
The critical moment came at a press conference on 9 November 1989, when Communist Party spokesman Günter Schabowski announced that travel restrictions to West Germany were to be eased. Asked when the new travel arrangements would come into effect, Schabowski responded: “immediately”. Schabowski later admitted that he had “only read the damn press release once, and diagonally at that!” – but after that declaration, there was no going back.
As news of Schabowski’s pronouncement spread, thousands of East Germans flocked to the six border crossing points in the Wall. Faced by overwhelming numbers of East Berliners demanding to be let through to the West, late that night border guards opened the gates. Politically and psychologically, if not yet physically, the Wall had fallen.
Strange new world
The opening of gates in the Wall was met with euphoria across both Germanies. East Berliners were greeted with glasses of champagne as they crossed the border, many of them for the first time in their lives. Strangers embraced in excitement, overwhelmed by the enormity of what they were witnessing. The party atmosphere reigned all night in downtown Berlin.
Within six weeks of the Wall’s fall, some 2.5 million East Germans had visited the West. They were understandably amazed by the broad range of items piled on shelves in supermarkets there after the more limited choice in the GDR, and were excited to sink their teeth into a bona fide Big Mac – a potent symbol of capitalism – for the first time, and to taste ‘real’ chocolate.
Once the initial excitement had subsided, East Germans faced a serious decision about their future. In the first free elections in the GDR for 40 years, they voted in favour of a speedy reunification with West Germany, which promised huge benefits: free elections, freedom of speech, freedom of travel. But stitching the two Germanies back together would involve overcoming tremendous logistical challenges. Each of the two countries had its own flag, national anthem, armed forces, legal code, educational system, approach to health care and method of taxation.
What followed was essentially a takeover of the East by West Germany. Perhaps the biggest challenges for East Germans were economic. Food prices and rent were no longer subsidised by the state, and employment was no longer guaranteed but individually determined and, therefore, markedly more competitive. As the cost of living skyrocketed in East Germany, so too did unemployment, which rose from 0% to 16% three years after reunification. So, although the end of the GDR brought new freedoms, the downsides of the transformation came to be uppermost in the minds of many who struggled to put bread on the table.
Champagne erupts at the Checkpoint Charlie border crossing between East and West Berlin on the night that the Wall is breached. (Photo by Tom Stoddart/Getty Images)
Each day in the reunited Germany revealed new areas of ignorance for East Germans feeling their way in unfamiliar
territory – ignorance that they were keen, but understandably ill-equipped, to hide. Confronted with new street names, new money and new shops, to name but a few changes, many felt overwhelmed. No one took East Germans by the hand and guided them as they attempted to get to grips with the new system. Many felt shame that they didn’t know all the answers automatically: that they didn’t know how to pronounce the food they wanted to order in McDonald’s, that they didn’t know how the supermarket trolleys worked in the West, that they didn’t know what to wear to blend in with West Germans.
Articulating the sense of uncertainty felt by many East Germans, one woman noted in her diary in December 1989: “Everywhere is becoming like a foreign land. I have long wished to travel to foreign parts, but I have always wanted to be able to come home again.” The range of choices available to East Germans after unification was certainly advantageous, but the transition period – as they learned to navigate and fit in with the new modus operandi – was profoundly unsettling.
After 40 years living in societies with very different values, it is hardly surprising that in 1990 both East and West Germans said that “their clocks tick differently”. A similar sentiment was reflected in a joke popular that year: an East German says to a West German, “Wir sind ein Volk” (We are one people); the West German replies, “Wir auch” (Us too). Because they shared the same language and the same long-term history, it was widely expected – as Willy Brandt, former chancellor of West Germany, said on 10 November 1989 – that the two countries would “grow together” seamlessly. Yet this ‘growing together’ has taken much longer than anticipated, perhaps because after such a long time divided, each group of people found the others quite foreign.
The concrete wall had been the physical barrier, but in many ways the result of that division was brought into sharper relief when it was gone, and East and West Germans stood side by side. When the states were divided, West Germans supported Eastern friends and relatives, sending some 25 million parcels across the border each year. Yet these friendships commonly dwindled to nothing once the Iron Curtain had been drawn back.
To West Germans – indeed, to any outsider schooled in the virtues of democracy – it might seem counter-intuitive to think that the new opportunities presented to East Germans by reunification could be anything other than positive. They now had far greater choice: about what they said, what they did, where they went and what they ate. Nonetheless, not all East Germans embraced the changes with open arms. Many in the West felt that East Germans were both ungracious and ungrateful after 1990, given that the West German taxpayer footed the bill for the effective incorporation of East within West – to the tune of 140 billion Deutsche Marks per year during the 1990s – and many in the former Federal Republic dubbed their new compatriots Jammerossis – ‘moaning Easterners’.
To some West Germans it seemed to defy logic that former GDR citizens might experience nostalgia for their former life in a world barricaded with barbed wire. It seemed to suggest that East Germans had been infected or brainwashed by the propaganda to which they had so long been exposed. East Germans, for their part, felt hurt and disappointed that West Germans did not seem to acknowledge the hugely disorientating upheaval to their lives caused by the fall of the Wall. Their nostalgia was not for the machinations of the GDR’s political system but, rather, for a familiar culture in which they felt comfortable and at home. West Germans – who seemed overly confident, quick to criticise the GDR or to extol to the East the superiority of Western ways – earned a reputation as Besserwessis’(‘know-it-all Westerners’).
Voicing the resentment of many others, an East German bishop wrote a letter to the former West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, saying: “It is constantly suggested that we are not capable of anything, and that everything we have done was wrong. We are the only ones who have to learn something, because, it is said, all of our experiences belong on the trash pile of history… But we can no longer take this permanent know-all manner and our degrading treatment as disenfranchised failures.”
Such feelings exacerbated the cultural disconnect between Germans from either side of the border, and the notion of
a persistent ‘Mauer im Kopf’ (‘Wall in the head’) became an accepted phenomenon.
Reactions to the fall
TV and newspaper images suggested that euphoria reigned in both halves of Berlin – yet those affected by the sudden changes experienced a diverse range of emotions
RELIEF: Katharina, Protestant vicar, Golzow, East Germany
On the night of 9 November, Katharina, her husband Gilbert and their newborn baby were at an isolated cottage in the forested countryside east of Berlin, and didn’t hear about the fall of the Wall till they turned on the radio the following morning. “We couldn’t believe it,” recalls Katharina. They travelled directly to Berlin, where thousands like them were pouring across the border, collecting the Begrüßungsgeld (‘welcome money’) that all East German visitors were promised, and spending it in department stores.
Convinced that the border opening was only temporary, Katharina stocked up on vitamins, then she and Gilbert sat in a café drinking fresh coffee, which was not easily available in the GDR. She had been subjected to persecution her whole life because of her Christian faith, and Gilbert had spent two years in prison for disseminating leaflets critical of the communist regime. So she felt a sense of freedom: “I knew that no one was going to lock us up anymore.”
DISBELIEF: Petra, communist-leaning student, East Berlin
Petra was a member of the Communist Party but was keen to see reforms, and had joined in demonstrations against the government in the preceding days. At around 6pm on 9 November, she switched on her television and caught the start of the momentous press conference. But before the crucial moment – when Schabowski confirmed that travel restrictions would be lifted immediately – Petra left her home to go to the theatre with her mother and friends.
Before the performance, the group discussed the rumour that the East-West border would be opened, but no one took it seriously. When they left the theatre at around 9.30pm, Petra remembers saying: “Something’s up. I can feel it in the air.” Once home, Petra turned on the radio and heard the news. Though her impulse was to get out on to the streets, her mother was staying overnight. Petra instead hung out of the window and saw the road below thick with traffic as East Berliners drove to the nearby border crossing.
EXCITEMENT: Lisa, student, East Berlin
On the evening of 9 November, Lisa’s boyfriend rushed in and told her that he was about to drive across the border and join a street party on the Kurfürstendamm, West Berlin’s most famous shopping street. Lisa was confused: how was he going to cross to West Berlin? He replied: “Everyone’s going. I heard it on the radio!” He was eager to cross quickly for fear that the Wall would be closed again.
Lisa agreed to join him on the trip. Initially they sat in a massive traffic jam among people buzzing with excitement as they thronged the streets leading to West Berlin. Once across the border, they went to look at the Brandenburg Gate from the western side for the first time.
Lisa saw people with little hammers chipping pieces off the Wall to take as souvenirs. She drank in the details of West Berlin’s streets, which were much more colourful than their counterparts to the east, with graffiti and brightly coloured advertising. “The West had been a white speck on the horizon when we were living divided by a wall,” Lisa recalls. Now that white speck became a real place.
WORRY: Peggy, schoolgirl, Prenzlau, East Germany
When 10-year-old Peggy woke up on the morning of 10 November 1989, she knew that something was amiss. She found her mother sitting at the kitchen table, hands wrapped around a cup of coffee and staring into space. “Why didn’t you wake me?” Peggy asked. “The Wall has fallen,” her mother replied. Various thoughts passed through Peggy’s head, but it was fear, more than hope, that dominated. She’d heard about high unemployment and homelessness in West Germany, and mused: “I hope we get to keep our flat, and that my parents don’t lose their jobs.”
FEAR: Mario, former political prisoner, West Berlin
On 9 November, Mario worked a long shift at a bar before speaking to his father, who phoned from East Berlin to tell him what had happened. “Young man, the Wall has fallen,” his father said. “Shall we come over?” Mario’s initial reaction was that it was a sick joke. “I’d had a hard day of work behind me, and I said: ‘Are you drunk? What kind of joke is this?’ then hung up.”
Unlike many who were jubilant, Mario’s first reaction was fear. While the Wall had been up, he was safe from the Stasi (officially the Ministry for State Security, the East German secret police) who had ruthlessly pursued him. He had been incarcerated in Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison, on the north-east outskirts of Berlin, for attempting to flee the GDR illegally, before being released in 1987 and crossing to West Berlin. Now he could no longer be sure of that safety, and was afraid of running into the Stasi. Those like Mario, who had battled to escape the GDR prior to November 1989, also felt a sense of resentment that all East Germans could now simply walk over the border without any personal risk.
Hester Vaizey is a historian and author of books including Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall (Oxford University Press, 2014)
This article was taken from issue 19 of BBC World Histories magazine, published in November 2019