1980s, Socialism; Continent: Europe

Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall by Mary Elise Sarotte

  • So did Gorbachev “tear down this wall,” as challenged by Reagan in a 1987 speech? Um…no, but the real story has its own drama
  • 320 pages (Acknowledgments, et cetera, begin page 185)

November 1989, and I stood transfixed in the living room of the duplex where I grew up. A high school senior who had never been farther out of the U.S. than Niagara Falls, even I knew that the images on CNN were important. Germans – it wasn’t obvious to me who was from East or West Berlin – were literally breaking apart the Berlin Wall. Guys who looked only a few years older than me had leapt atop it with tools to manually topple sections of that iconic cement barrier. I remembered the Reagan soundbite challenging Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Did that mean the West had won the Cold War? Was that what I was seeing?

Well, not exactly. Certainly Reagan and Gorbachev had their own indirect impact on the story of the Berlin Wall, but the story as Sarotte tells it is very much German history. It is also a story of snowballing ridiculously bad decisions and inattention – willful in some cases – by people who could have prevented the wall’s collapse.

East Germany’s Internal Problems

East Germany in the late 1980s saw Erich Honecker, General Secretary to the East German socialist party, worry about staying in power. He had reason to fear: the younger second-in-command, Egon Krenz, was beginning to quietly move against him. For the political figures below him in the pecking order, it was time to cover their butts for the coming political chess match, and never mind public policy. Honecker had other problems, too. The East German Politburo took its cues from Moscow, and Gorbachev disliked him (Sarotte tells us Gorby went so far as to call him “an asshole”). In an attempt to consolidate power, Honecker tried to take a harder line in his government than did other Eastern Bloc countries in the era of glastnost and perestroika. The effect eroded support for him.

Speaking of changes within the Eastern Bloc during this time, the Soviets began to allow Bloc countries to manage their own borders. Bucharest took advantage of this shift in doctrine to open its border with Austria, the first opening in the Iron Curtain. East Germans flooded into Hungary and across the Austrian border, into the West. Not long after, thousands of East Germans tried to gain access to West Germany by squatting on the property of the West German embassy in Prague. The refugee problem was a political nightmare, but Honecker arguably made it worse by letting these refugees go to West Germany, but only by way of a sealed train and after stripping them of their East German citizenship. The East Germans wanted to limit the exodus, which was going to mean reexamining their existing travel laws.

Meanwhile, in Leipzig…

The year 1989 saw the Tiananmen Square protests and the Chinese government’s violent means to put a stop to them. East German reactions to this event were mixed. Many private people were personally horrified by the violence, but their East German newspapers blamed the Chinese student protesters for their own fates. The East German government needed to make sure protesting was an unattractive idea: a growing body of anti-communist protesters in Leipzig had begun coming to what was arguably a religious service of “peace prayers” at St. Nikolai Church.

These protesters would later march along a major thoroughfare in that city for the sake of more freedoms, and the local law enforcement would be left to make the final call in how to handle the demonstration. No one in any power wanted to claim responsibility for attempts to end the protest, although they insisted that the police do something.

However, thousands more peaceful protesters had shown up than the police had been trained to expect. Sarotte tells us that Leipzig’s local party leader couldn’t get anyone in Berlin to answer the phone when he called for more explicit instructions: he was on his own, and likely to become a scapegoat. When the local leadership chose to let law enforcement stand down, Egon Krenz (back in Berlin) would later claim credit for the decision. What did any of this Leipzig business have to do with the Berlin Wall later on? This protest meant that East Germans who were neither extremists nor malcontents had begun to feel their strength and that their lack of freedom was beginning to chafe.

New Travel Laws

Krenz did eventually assume power, and he sought to distance himself publicly from Honecker’s restrictive policies. So, he began putting out hints about loosening travel restrictions for Christmas 1989. The draft of the “new” travel law was very much a rehash of existing laws, however, and no one within East Germany or in the international community was impressed. Pushed into revising this travel law, Krenz delegated the task to a party loyalist, Gerhard Lauter. Although he had very specific instructions for how the revised law was supposed to read, Lauter went out on a limb and completely rewrote the laws concerning both permanent immigration and temporary travel, and crucially, he wrote the law to take effect immediately. Interestingly, Lauter didn’t think he and his mid-level colleagues were tearing apart the Wall. He thought that enough stamps, signatures and other hoops to jump through remained to prevent a mass exodus. Oops.

This travel law blew past Krenz, the East German Justice Ministry, the Politburo and the Soviets before any of them could react. It didn’t get by the East Germans living in a divided Berlin, though, and their desire to act before their government changed its mind was what I was watching on CNN from my American living room. Reagan and Gorbachev had only indirectly to do with any of Sarotte’s very German story. The story she tells has much more to do with a government crippled by individual efforts to watch their backs, the growing disgust of average citizens and the failure to communicate among bureaucrats. What strikes me about this tale is that it isn’t a morality play about the inherent evil of Soviet-style socialism, but rather a comedy of errors that any government could live out if it isn’t paying attention.

Image Source: Photo by Yann Forget, November 16, 1989, from www.commons.wikimedia.org. The author’s own caption reads, “Juggling on the Berlin Wall on 16. November 1989. The black, white and red graffitti banner on the wall below the juggler depicts a pair of marching hammers, an allusion to the film Pink Floyd The Wall. The text sprayed over the banner reads “Der Kampf gegen [d]ie Mauer geht [weiter.]” (German), which means “the fight against the wall continues.”

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