This week in History: the fall of the Berlin Wall

The course of world history was changed in Berlin on 9th November 1989; indeed, in the eyes of political scientist Francis Fukuyama, it came to an end altogether.

The man responsible was Günter Schabowski: a member of the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) ruling Politburo, who will be remembered as the man who started a revolution by accident. The under-informed Schabowski mistakenly stated in a press conference that the government’s newly relaxed travel laws (which suddenly allowed unrestricted passage through to West Berlin) were to come into effect immediately, rather than the following morning.

Within hours, bewildered border guards at the wall had been overwhelmed by crowds as Europe witnessed some of the most joyous scenes of a century which had been too often defined by bloodshed.

The Peaceful Revolution of 1989 did not come about by chance. Günter Schabowski’s bureaucratic mishap brought it to a head. The fall of the Berlin Wall began as soon as it was built in 1961; two months after the GDR’s leader, Walter Ulbricht, had emphatically declared that “nobody has the intention of building a wall”.

The wall was a 96.3-mile-long admission of failure, an admission that the GDR was far from the socialist paradise that had been intended. Elections were a grim farce, with dissenters required to cross out every single name on the government’s approved list of candidates (and risk subsequent attention from the Ministry of State Security). Citizens instead chose to “vote with their feet” by defecting en masse to West Germany.

By 1961, over three million people had done just that, mostly younger students and workers vital to the task of post-war reconstruction and development. Not only was losing 20 per cent of its population to its demonised western neighbour humiliating for the GDR, it was economically crippling.

For the GDR’s blinkered Politburo, as well as their Soviet puppet-masters, the wall had become a necessity: the only solution was simply to shut the population in.

By 1989, the situation had once again become untenable. The regime’s lavish 40th anniversary celebrations served only to encapsulate just how fatally out of touch the government had become from the mood of its people, despite controlling one of the largest and most sophisticated mass-surveillance networks in history. Mikhail Gorbachev, the USSR’s reforming leader, tried to reason in private with the GDR’s long-serving leader Erich Honecker, who stubbornly refused to acknowledge the writing on the wall.

The anniversary celebrations ended with the GDR portraying itself as a guardian of traditional socialism in the face of the modernising influence of the Soviet Union. This was an ironic twist, given that it had been the occupying Soviet forces who imposed socialism upon East Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe in the first place.
The Stasi was losing control in the face of protests originating in Leipzig, leading to half a million demonstrators gathering on the streets of East Berlin to demand change. By this point, Honecker’s inept leadership had been brought to an end by his Politburo colleagues, but the wave had become irresistible.

Schabowski’s press conference was the culmination of weeks of power vacuums and chaos.

As citizens from both sides of Berlin flocked to the wall to celebrate together, it marked the end of four decades of division within Germany, which was officially reunified within a year. German reunification was (and continues to be) far from a smooth process, but it reunited families and friends after decades apart and restored freedom to millions who had lived in fear.

Perhaps the most interesting lesson is that not a single shot was fired; non-violent protest proved capable of breaking down one of history’s most imposing barriers and toppling one of the world’s most powerful surveillance states.

 

Image: via today.com

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