I remember watching TV pictures of the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989. The wall divided Germany into east and west for nearly 30 years. Further posts on the blog delve deeper into East Germany (GDR) and the Stasi secret police – why they spied on their citizens and the methods they used.
Today, social media would have been their ultimate weapon of surveillance, their crowning glory. First, back to the story of the Berlin wall…..
After the Second World War, Germany was split between the Soviet Union in the east, and in the west, the UK, USA and France. A cold war developed between the hostile superpowers of the USA and USSR, with East Germany on the front line.
Looking for a better life in the west, up to 3 million people escaped from the east. As a result the East Germans built a 28 mile long wall that went up overnight on Saturday August 12th 1961. By Sunday morning people woke up to find themselves cut off from friends, relatives, work and school. Soldiers with binoculars and dogs, barbed wire, guard towers and light pylons, with an area known as the ‘death strip’ attempted to keep people in.
Bus routes were altered, train stations cleared and road blocks set up along the border. The GDR leader, Honecker, believed ‘the wall will last for 100 years’. Eastern Communism pushed back hard against Western Capitalism.
In 1985 the leadership of the Soviet Union changed – Chernenko was out and Gorbachev was in, bringing in perestroika and glasnost – his policy of restructuring and openness. East German government was normally in step with Soviet Union policies but believed glasnost was wrong and put a newspaper ban on any Gorbachev speeches.
The people disagreed, although many of them wanted to stay in the East they just wanted change. On the streets they publicly criticized Honecker and praised Gorbachev.
On 7 October 1989 parades in Berlin celebrated forty years of the GDR. Gorbachev stood next to the much older German leaders including Honecker and Mielke who was head of the East German Ministry of Security (Stasi) and oversaw the building of the wall. Gorbachev was there to try and convince the leadership to adopt his reformist policies. Honecker and Mielke ignored him. A decision that changed the world.
On 9 October 70,000 people went out onto the dark streets of Berlin carrying candles. Protesters were coming together around the country, momentum was growing. Outside Stasi offices they demanded ‘Reveal the Stasi informers. We are the People. Free elections’. Peaceful protests increased real pressure on the government.
On 9 November the Politburo policy making committee arranged an urgent meeting. They knew freedom of movement was a big problem to the people so to help squash the protests they decided to relax travel restrictions. A press conference was called and Politburo member Schabowski was given instructions to read a note on live TV – ‘a phased relaxation of travel restrictions’ was the plan. But it didn’t play out that way.
A journalist asked ‘When will this come into force?’ Schabowski was embarrassed as he looked at the note then turned it over. It was blank. ‘It will come into force….to my knowledge…. immediately’. Within hours of his blunder 10,000 people on foot and in their Trabant cars were at Berlins Bornholmer Bridge checkpoint. The border guards were swamped and the Stasi held their fire.
People streamed into West Berlin, crying, singing and dancing on the wall. It was all over. On 10 November as fireworks exploded in the night sky, people used hammers and pick axes to attack the wall, it wasn’t taken brick by brick – it was smashed wide open. Demolition trucks rolled in on 11th. Finally, after nearly 30 years the Wall came crashing down.
In the reformed Germany free elections were held on March 18th 1990.
Parts of the Wall are in 50 countries around the world where it is seen as a symbol of freedom.
Sources: Stasi: The Untold Story of the Secret Police by John O. Koehler
Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder.
Fall of the Berlin Wall with John Simpson (BBC documentary).
Behind the Wall (2011) a film by Michael Patrick Kelly.
If you have any stories related to the Berlin Wall or the Stasi don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Gary Alikivi November 2020.