In 1987, speaking at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, Ronald Reagan issued a challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev. "If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalisation, come here to this gate," Reagan said. "Mr Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
Reagan's speech was triumphalist. He knew that communism was on the ropes. Yet Gorbachev did not rise to the challenge and tear down the Berlin Wall. Reagan left office in January 1989 with the most potent symbol of the Cold War still standing. The following month Chris Gueffroy, a 20-year-old East Berliner barred from university for being politically suspect, tried to escape across the wall to the West. He was shot by a border guard. East Germany appeared as determined as ever to keep its citizens in the country, even if it meant killing them.
Only 10 months later, David Hasselhoff was prancing around on top of the partly demolished wall in a jacket with lights stitched into it, belting out his hit 'Looking for Freedom' to a crowd of united Germans on New Year's Eve. Swift was the passage from cruelty to kitsch.
So what happened in those 10 months? In this fascinating account of the final weeks of the wall, Mary Elise Sarotte explains how we got from Gueffroy's shooting to the Hoff's cavorting. The sequence of events that resulted in thousands of East Germans flooding into West Berlin on the night of November 9, 1989, had little to do with the grand strategies of Cold War statesmen. On the 25th anniversary of that momentous event, Sarotte tells us that it came about by accident.
"The wall's opening was not a gift from political elites, East German or otherwise, and was in no way predetermined," Sarotte writes. "It resulted from a remarkable constellation of actors and contingent events - and not a little courage on the part of some of the individuals directly involved - that came together in a precise but entirely unplanned sequence."
At the beginning of 1989, East Germany was led by Erich Honecker, a grim hardliner, and the Stasi was run by Erich Mielke, nicknamed the 'Master of Fear'. Sarotte tells us that by 1989 the Stasi was "the largest surveillance organisation in recorded history" and had "90,000 full-time employees and at least 100,000 'unofficial colleagues', or undercover agents and informants". Not fertile ground for a peaceful revolution.
Yet late that summer, protests gathered momentum, fuelled by anger at the closing of borders to Warsaw Pact countries. On October 9, the attention of both the authorities and the dissidents focused on Leipzig, where a large protest march was planned. The army was deployed and 3,000 police officers were placed on duty. Hospitals were primed. As Sarotte makes clear, everything was set for "a German Tiananmen".
That there was no massacre was down to the determination of protesters to keep the march peaceful and the heat-of-the-moment decision of Helmut Hackenberg, the Leipzig party secretary, to tell the security forces to revert to a defensive position. Hackenberg had orders from Honecker to "choke off" the demonstration, but having heard rumours of a coup in Berlin, Hackenberg did not want to be left with blood on his hands. A hundred thousand protesters marched around the Leipzig ring road without a shot being fired.
Honecker then was forced out by Egon Krenz and the dissident movement sensed weakness. On November 9, four "mid-level bureaucrats", led by Gerhard Lauter, were tasked with redrafting a travel law to appease the growing number of protesters. This group, with misguided diligence, decided to exceed their authority and rewrite the whole thing. They added to the law, saying it no longer only applied to a remote rural crossing but to the whole border, including Berlin, and that it would come into effect "right away". They had no idea what they'd done.
Events swiftly devolved into farce. The law was approved by the Politburo during a smoking break and then took eight minutes to be passed by the central committee. Nobody paid attention to the content. Krenz told colleagues it had been approved by Moscow when only a draft had been. The announcement was supposed to be assigned to a minor spokesman for release at 4am the next day. Instead, Krenz distractedly handed it to Günther Schabowski, the main party spokesman, who was heading to a live press conference.
The first time Schabowski read the new law was live on air. The press conference erupted with questions. Had history just been made? Schabowski fled the room.
As the news spread, crowds of East Berliners made their way to the border crossings and demanded to be let through. At the Bornholmer Street crossing, Harald Jäger, a veteran of 25 years as a border guard, asked for help. While on the phone he overheard one of his superiors call him a coward. Jäger was awaiting the results of tests for cancer and was in a fragile state. The insult influenced his decision to open the gate just before midnight. Overcome, he went to a control building to hide his tears only to find a colleague already there weeping.
The decisions of relatively minor figures such as Lauter, Schabowski and Jäger had major consequences. It was they who had brought the wall down that night. Gorbachev, George H W Bush, Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher were caught on the hop. World leaders had to watch from the sidelines.
That night created a new generation of ambitious politicians. A young chemist, heading home from a sauna, heard about what was happening and spontaneously decided to cross into West Berlin. That night was her political awakening. This was Angela Merkel. In Dresden, a KGB officer watched in frustration, believing the Soviet Union was losing its place in Europe. This, of course, was Vladimir Putin. If the causes of the collapse were messy, so was its legacy.
The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall; Mary Elise Sarotte; Basic Books, hdbk, 320 pages, £18.99
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