The fall of the wall which divided the city of Berlin in 1989 shook the world completely despite the wave of protests sweeping through East Germany at the time. Germans in both East and West had by then accepted the wall as an inevitable political reality. In September 1987, when the East German leader, Erich Honecker, paid a historic official visit to Bonn, his West German counterpart, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, treated him as if they would be conducting ‘business as usual’ as leaders of two countries for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, in January 1989, when Honecker claimed that the wall would stand for another hundred years, many people did not doubt his prediction. But within months, things took a turn from which there would be no return. The fall of the wall was neither the beginning nor the end of the collapse of the Eastern European Communist regimes. However, it gave a clear and unmistakable indication of the outcome of the revolutionary year of 1989.
The Creation of the GDR
Even though the end of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe came in 1989, the beginning of the end was the beginning itself, because these were largely artificial creations orchestrated by Stalin in the latter half of the 1940s. In many of these countries, the communist parties were too weak to seize power either by democratic or revolutionary means. It was the presence of the Red Army which enabled the creation and the continuation of these Communist states. Stalin obtained a buffer zone between the West and the Soviet Union, which was essential for the national defense of his country. Also, it became an added burden to the Soviet regime as their comrades to the East could not take care of themselves.
This was largely the case in East Germany where the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was proclaimed on the 7th of October 1949. The Socialist Unity Party (SED) was the ruling party in the country. If there was a free election in the Soviet occupation zone in Germany, there could not have been much doubt over the result. The Western powers wanted a Germany united on their terms but the Soviet Union wanted a united Germany, on their terms. Both parties were not prepared to compromise as neither of them wanted to lose the potential advantages of having an ally such as Germany in Central Europe and this attitude did not allow any solution other than division. In May 1949, after the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was proclaimed in Trizonia (British, French and American zones) the Communists proclaimed the GDR in the Soviet zone.
Therefore in Germany a situation arose in which a nation was divided due to decisions of the superpowers. Furthermore, the Germans now had the opportunity of comparing the two alternative social systems; democratic politics and the market economy in the West and Communist rule and Stalinist central planned economy in the East.
In Western Germany, the Federal Republic enjoyed the cooperation of the Western powers and received aid under the Marshall plan to the extreme regret of the East German regime. The German Democratic Republic could not receive Western aid because Stalin did not allow his satellites to do so. This was only one incident where it became obvious that the policies of the GDR were not decided in Berlin. They were decided in Moscow.
Stalin’s decision making favored the Soviet Union over its satellites. After the war, the Soviets transported a large quantity of livestock and industrial plants located in their occupation zone to their own country. The GDR had to follow the Soviet economic directives. Land was collectivized; heavy industries were started following the Stalinist policy with little or no consideration of their applicability and sustainability. Less attention was given to the production of consumer goods and the development of small scale industries. Being a more agricultural area than West Germany, these policies never favored the East Germans. The GDR could not match the abundance of commodities in the West. The Federal Republic was becoming more and more attractive to the GDR citizens with the passage of time.
Vote by the Feet is Stopped by the Wall
Thus they began to ‘vote by their feet.’ A large number of East Germans left for the West, mainly through Berlin. The inner German border between the German states was closed off by a barbed wire fence in 1952. But it was different in Berlin. Although a city already divided into two political entities, there was no physical barrier dividing East Berlin and West Berlin. The two parts were connected by streets and waterways. Public transportation was functioning between East and West. To get to the West, you could get a bus or a boat or sometimes simply walk your way. West Berlin served as a small enclave in the midst of hostile territory behind the iron curtain. It was a huge loophole in the prison called the GDR and many ‘prisoners’ took the advantage to the utmost. Between 1949 and 1961, around 3.5 million people, nearly 20% of the population of the country left the GDR and many of them left through Berlin. Among these were a large number of doctors, engineers, technicians, teachers and skilled workers who were vital for the development of a nation. This brain drain and staggering loss of manpower had a negative impact on the development of the socialist state for which the Communist statesmen could find no answer. Or it seemed so, until that fateful night in August 1961.
As almost all of the major policy decisions of the GDR government, the idea of erecting a wall as a physical barrier to curb the emigration of its citizens-to seal off the prison state for good-may have come from Moscow. Walter Ulbricht signed the order on the night of the 12th of the month and after midnight, police and military units of the GDR got to work. A barbed wire fence was erected enclosing West Berlin completely, including the 43 km stretch which divided the city itself. East German citizens who went to bed on Saturday woke up in a virtual prison on Sunday morning.
The East German regime tried to justify the wall as an “anti fascist rampart” and a protective wall against Western agents. However, the fact that citizens of the Western countries including the West Germans were not prohibited from traveling to the East while the East Germans were forbidden to travel to the West made these arguments obsolete. The fact that West Berliners were not permitted to travel to East Berlin was an exception arising from the fact that the Soviet bloc did not recognize it as an integral part of the FRG.
Although the wall was successful in curbing the emigration of East Germans, it could not kill their longing for freedom. Numerous escape attempts were made and some of them were successful while others were not, including the notorious incident involving the 18 year-old Peter Fechter, who was shot and let to bleed to his death by the guards in full view of the Western world.
After taking the most important decision of its lifetime-albeit at the Soviet overlord’s prompting-the GDR regime could now turn its attention to the development of the socialist economy. This was largely based on the centrally planned model although there were some minor reforms attempted occasionally. Although not immune to the inherent problems of central planning, East German economy improved. The GDR could boast of the largest per capita income of the Soviet satellites. Social conditions improved and even by early 1989 when other Eastern bloc nations were facing economic difficulties, business was as usual in East Germany. Food and other commodities were available in stores although the consumer demand was rising faster than the supply. The regime had total confidence in its stability and Erich Honecker could claim that the wall would remain for another hundred years if the conditions which made the wall a necessity did not change.
But, the conditions changed abruptly within the year.
The Berlin Wall Dies, Aged 28
The dramatic turn of events started because of several decisions made outside East Germany. Surprisingly, it was not in the Soviet Union, although the Gorbachev regime must have given its blessing to these developments. In early 1989 the Hungarian government took the surprising step of allowing other political parties to function. Then on the 23rd of August 1989, the Hungarian government dismantled the barbed wire fence on the border with Austria. The iron curtain was breached. The East Germans people, among others in the Eastern bloc, took full advantage of it.
Initially only a small number of East Germans, mainly people who were spending their holiday in Hungary, took advantage and traveled to West Germany through Austria. However, when more and more people joined the procession, it became a serious issue. Hungary eventually stopped the East Germans from crossing the border to Austria. The East Germans flocked to the West German embassy in Budapest refusing to leave for the GDR. They could not leave and the GDR allowed the people to return. Meanwhile in Czechoslovakia too, the East Germans demanded passage to the West. This time, the SED regime allowed them to leave for West Germany, but the trains which carried them had to go through the GDR. East Germans who tried to board these trains in GDR clashed with the Volkspolizei (Peoples’ Police). These events triggered demonstrations first in Dresden and Leipzig and initial crackdown by the government only managed to increase the number of protesters. By early October, when the GDR was celebrating its 40th anniversary, the regime was in its worst crisis ever. Gorbachev visited the country to participate in the celebrations and made it clear that unlike in the past, the Soviet Union would not come to the defense of its satellites. The GDR had to deal with her internal affairs herself.
Things were moving faster than all expectations. Honecker was replaced by Egon Krenz, who tried to implement some reforms. But, it came far too late. Protesters flooded the streets in a number of cities and the SED was losing control rapidly. Then, they took the decision from which there could be no return. On the 9th of November, they opened the wall.
Actually, it was not intended to open the border immediately but the official who announced the decision, Gunther Schabowski, had not been briefed properly. Upon hearing the news, East Berliners flooded the checkpoints in the wall and there was a lot of confusion because the border guards had not been informed. Of course, there was no East German official who dared to countermand the announcement and the wall had to be opened. The dramatic celebrations might not have occurred if the wall was opened as the GDR government had intended.
The intention of the Communist regime was to win the support and confidence of the people by allowing them the freedom to travel. They wanted the population to stay and rebuild the country following the virtuous, humane aspects of Communism. However, the vast majority of the East Germans were not prepared to make the sacrifices which were required to rebuild the shattered economy. Living under the autocratic rule of the SED for 40 years, the people had lost the interest in making sacrifices for the country. Also, life in the West seemed easier and therefore more people left the East. Apart from that the change of political currents became obvious in March 1990, when the East German Christian Democrats swept the first free elections in the country. In July, the failed GDR Mark was replaced by the Deutsch Mark in an attempt to arrest the further collapse of the economy of East Germany. Thus, with the two economies linked, the reunion of Germany was to be only a formality. On the 3rd of October 1990, the GDR ceased to exist and the two German nations became one.
1. Cyril E. Black, Jonathan E. Helmreich, Paul C. Helmreich, Charles P. Issawi, A. James McAdams. Rebirth: A History of Europe Since World War Two, Westview Press (1992)
2. Taylor, Frederick. The Berlin Wall: A World Divided. Harper Collins (2007)