German Reunification 30 Years Later: The Story of How East German Citizens Were Freed from Tyranny

By Jonathan Spira on 3 October 2020
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The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, a site that came to symbolize the city’s Cold War division between East and West

Thirty years ago on this day, West Germany and East Germany ended 45 years as a divided country and united to become a single nation.

The occasion, the New York Times, reported, was marked with “pealing bells, national hymns, and the jubilant blare of good old German oompah-pahs.”

German reunification, or Deutsche Wiedervereinigung, marked the point in time at which the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or not-so-aptly named German Democratic Republic, colloquially known as East Germany, became part of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, or the Federal Republic of Germany, known then as West Germany under Article 23 of West Germany’s Grundgesetz or constitution.

The original separation between East and West goes back to the collapse of the National Socialist regime in 1945.  The victorious Allied Powers divided Germany into four occupation zones, and did the same with the capital, Berlin.  Immediately after the end of the Second World War, the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union each governed a single zone, but Cold War politics transformed the divide into a de facto East-West split.

West Germany was formed on May 23, 1949 and was comprised of the sectors that had been under the control of United States, Great Britain, and France. East Germany, also formed in 1949, became a satellite of the Soviet Union.  Typically described as a communist state in the West, it described itself as a socialist “workers’ and peasants’ state.”

East Germany closed its borders to the West in 1952 and, nine years later, erected a wall that ran through the center of Berlin and past the Brandenburger Tor, or Brandenburg Gate, to keep its citizens from fleeing to the prosperous West.  This became known as the Berlin Wall and became the world’s most tangible symbol of the Cold War and communism, and served a demarcation point of the Iron Curtain.

As countries behind the Iron Curtain began to face economic hardships as state-run economies in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and even the Soviet Union began to falter, the Iron Curtain began to crumble.

The disassembly of the Iron Curtain began when Hungary openedits Austrian border, which showed the world that the divisions of post-war Europe were coming to an end.  On June 27, 1989, the foreign ministers of the two countries, Gyula Horn, who later became Hungary’s prime minister, and Alois Mock, who was also vice chancellor of Austria at the time, cut through a section of barbed wire that had divided their two countries – once united under the Habsburg emperor – for decades.

The open border soon became an escape route for East German citizens.

That November, after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev turned down pleas from East Germany leader Erich Honeker, then the general secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, to intervene militarily, the end of the Berlin Wall and indeed the entire Iron Curtain was in sight.

On November 9, 1989, a somewhat comical slipup toppled the Berlin Wall when Günter Schabowski, the newly minted spokesman of the East German Politbüro, as a footnote to a press conference, added a statement concerning plans to lift travel restrictions between East and West.  When an Italian reporter asked when the change would come into effect, Schabowski assumed it would be the same day and replied, “Das tritt nach meiner Kenntnis … ist das sofort … unverzüglich” (“As far as I know … effective immediately, without delay”).

In other words, Schabowski implied that the checkpoints at the Berlin Wall – the concrete barrier that physically and ideologically divided East Germany and West Germany, which were guarded by soldiers with orders to shoot anyone trying to cross – were now open.

Schabowski then repeated the statement in an interview with NBC reporter Tom Brokaw after the press conference. Within East Germany, the news began to spread after the West German Deutsche Presse-Agentur issued a bulletin incorporating Schabowski’s statement and the two leading West German network news programs, ZDF’s heute and ARD’s Tagesschau broadcast excerpts of the press conference to an audience that included most of East Germany.

Later the same evening, Hanns Joachim Friedrichs, the anchorman of the ARD Tagesthemen news broadcast, made a more pronounced proclamation: “Dieser 9. November ist ein historischer Tag. Die DDR hat mitgeteilt, daß ihre Grenzen für jedermann geöffnet sind, die Tore in der Mauer stehen weit offen.” (“This ninth of November is an historic day.  The GDR has announced that its borders are open to everyone. The gates in the Wall stand wide open.”

The gates to the wall weren’t open but it didn’t stop jubilant East Berliners from storming the checkpoints and demanding the right to cross into West Berlin, most making that journey for the very first time.  Many cited what Schabowski had said on television just hours earlier.

The surprised and in some cases greatly overwhelmed guards at the Wall’s six checkpoints turned to their superiors and no one in authority in East Germany wanted to take responsibility for the use of lethal force.

At 11:30 p.m Central European Time still on November 9, Harald Jäger, commander of the DDR-Grenzübergangsstelle Bornholmer Straße or Bornholmer Straße border crossing, yielded to the protestors, ordering his guards to open the gates and allow the ever increasing crowd of East Germans through without having their identify cards checked.  The jubilant Ossis were greeted by equally exuberant Wessis waiting with flowers and sparkling wine.  West Germans jumped on top of the Wall and began to dance, soon joined by East Germans.

Another way of looking at it is that the fall of the wall was, in fact, a kind of accident, an almost farcical bureaucratic mistake that snowballed thanks to an Italian and an American journalist.

Germany was reunited less than a year later.  The move capped one of the most extraordinary stories in modern history, one that included the toppling of a communist dictatorship, the release of 16 million people from fear of and surveillance by the Stasi, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit or State Security Service, and the end of censorship by a regime that repressed its own citizens. It was a first: unlike any other country in history freed from tyranny, the people of East Germany were immediately given full citizenship in one of the most prosperous economies and democracies in the world.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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