The opening of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago today was not only an accident but it was a dramatic dénoument to a number of events that led to the end of the Cold War. The process of dismantling the Eastern Bloc, however, was accelerated because of the collective failure of nerve by Communist Party elites who didn’t know what to do when the Soviet Union was not there to protect them anymore.
David Barclay, professor of history at Kalamazoo College and the Margaret and Roger Scholten Professor of International Studies, recently shared his reflections with the College community on the opening of the Berlin Wall. He is also director of the national German Studies Association, which attracts scholars in all fields of German Studies spanning the period from early times to the present Federal Republic of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
The old post-war German leadership was already on the wane long before the opening of the Wall or the public demonstrators advocated unification between East and West Germany, he said. The new leadership, however, was so “befuddled,” it easily lost control of the reins of power.
“I tell my students that history is about great sweeping trends like the collapse of communism, the end of the Cold War and the dissolving of the Soviet Union,” said Barclay. “But history is made interesting by the quirkiness and accidents that occur.”
The opening of the Berlin Wall began about 6:30 p.m. on November 9, 1989. The head of the East German Communist Party, Günter Schabowski, was trying to articulate new travel regulations between East and West at a press conference. He inadvertently said that East Berliners could go to West Berlin without previous permission. Western journalists, including Tom Brokaw, asked for a clarification of his surprise statement and Schabowski simply repeated himself apparently unaware of its implications.
By 8 p.m. the borders were opened even though no official confirmation had been given. By 10 p.m. 20,000 East Berliners were lined up at the border crossings ready to go West.
Barclay said that the military commanders at the gates hadn’t heard the broadcast so when they faced thousands of people, the commanders wanted to avoid any violence or loss of life so they simply opened the gates. At first, they stamped people’s visas but as the overwhelming numbers of people advanced, the guards gradually withdrew.
As dramatic and important as the opening of the Wall in Berlin was, Barclay said that the real impetus for change occurred in Liepzig, East Germany, the previous month. Citizens of Liepzig had been holding several Monday evening demonstrations that called for political reform.
On October 9, 1989, the protestors held their biggest demonstration because they thought that if Liepzig was to be their “Tiananmen Square” (referring to the Chinese government’s June 4 massacre against on-the-street reformers), it would happen that night. The situation was so tense emergency medical staff set up aid stations in anticipation of massive bloodshed. At one point, Kurt Masur, the conductor of the Liepzig Orchestra (who later became conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra) also appealed to the leadership not to use violence against the protestors. In the end, the leadership did call up the army but in the end, but it didn’t order any shooting at people, so nothing happened.
Liepzig proved to be the testing ground for the Soviets’ surprisingly nonviolent response that not only tore down the Berlin Wall but pulled down the entire Iron Curtain.
“It is an example of how a number of serendipitous things can contribute to a powerful revolution and how a confluence of events can make a difference,” said Barclay. But it also illustrated how unprepared Westerners, including German scholars, were for the monumental changes taking place in Communist countries.
On the same night that Schabowski was flubbing his press conference in East Berlin, Barclay was hosting Michael Geyer, a famous German scholar from the University of Chicago, who had delivered a speech at Kalamazoo College. After his speech, the professors were having dinner at a local restaurant when they heard the news about the Berlin Wall. They scoffed at the prospect until they returned home and saw the television images of people standing on top of the Wall by the Brandenburg Gate.
“I was shocked,” said Barclay. But he wasn’t the only one. Two days before the October Liepzig incident, he was in Milwaukee attending the annual meeting of the German Studies Association. A panel of five British and American historians addressed an audience of 800 about the possibility of change in East Germany. Four of the panelists contended that the East German regime would quell any unrest and that it should not be underestimated. One British panelist believed the regime was “brain dead without a future.” Although he was hooted down by most of his colleagues, the wife of Willy Brandt, who was also present at the meeting, agreed with him. Brandt had been mayor of West Berlin in 1961 when the wall was built and later served as chancellor of West Germany 1969-74.
“My generation thought the Cold War was frozen in place and would never go away,” said Barclay. “I was teaching a course about Germany at the time and when the question of unification came up in class, I told the students it would not happen in my lifetime or even in theirs. The opening of the Berlin Wall teaches us that historians shouldn’t predict the future.”
However, Barclay was still in disbelief of what had happened until he visited Berlin in July 1989, his first trip after the opening of the Wall. He wanted to walk through the Brandenburg Gate to convince himself that what he had seen on television had actually taken place! Nearby, he found an Italian ice cream stand, so he bought a lemon gelato, a treat he’s typically unable to resist. As he stood at the Brandenburg Gate with his gelato in one hand, he touched the gate with the other.
“I’ll never forget this experience,” he said.
The opening of the Berlin Wall and the fall of communism is a lesson in “historical humility,” said Barclay, where people thought history was on their side. It also illustrates the dangers of false utopias, the arrogance of power and the law of unintended consequences.
“Marxism and Leninism were driven by a utopian vision where its leaders were convinced of its rectitude and absolute, scientifically-determined necessity,” he said. “They believed communism was on the right side of history.”
In the mid-1960s the communist leaders pretty much stopped believing in historical inevitability, all except for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1958-64), said Barclay, but the oafish regimes of the Eastern Bloc were still products of this belief system. In 1989, they held a monopoly of power and lived under the ultimate protective cover of the Soviet Army. They also relied on two tenets. The first was the belief in the absolute political monopoly of the Communist Party where the party was always right, even if it shifted its position.
The second tenet is the Brezhnev Doctrine, which was first articulated in 1968 after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia: any country in the Eastern Bloc that attempted to break with communist principles would confront the Soviet army. Slovak leader Alexander Dubček (1968-69) had gone a step too far in the region’s de-Stalinization effort when he tried to decentralize the Czechoslovakian economy and democratize its political system by granting certain freedoms, which included a loosening of restrictions on the media, speech and travel. However, things had drastically changed in 1980-81 when the Solidarity movement in Poland challenged its Communist leadership. The Soviet military did not intervene. By 1988-89, Soviet Premier Gorbachev finally declared he would no longer enforce these two tenets.
Gorbachev’s move was really one that came out of necessity, said Barclay. The Soviet Union had exhausted its resources, the Army had been bled dry by its nine-year war with Afghanistan (1979-89), and the economy was in shambles and unable to support any further military adventures.
Today, the developing consensus among historians is that President Ronald Reagan’s (1981-89) strategy of forcing the Soviets to spend beyond their means not only worked but it accelerated their demise. And although a lot of Americans were upset at the time by Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (a.k.a. Star Wars), the plan for the extravagant space-based anti-missile system scared the Russians enough that it led them to increase their military spending.
Finally, the influence of the Tiananmen Square massacre (June 4, 1989) on the opening of the Berlin Wall cannot be underestimated, said Barclay. The bloodshed inflicted by the Chinese government was a no-holds-barred reaction to popular dissent against communism.
“I watched old videos of fall 1989,” said Barclay “where the East German leadership praised the Chinese solution to uprisings and threatened their people with a bloody massacre if they tried rebellion. However, when the time came, it didn’t happen.”
The opening of the Berlin Wall is also an opportunity to see the confluence of local and global events, said Barclay.
“It was a product of local circumstances where people discovered they no longer had to be afraid of their government given the political situation and state of the Communist Party in the Eastern Bloc.”
Also, the number of serendipitous events that culminated in the fall of communism was by far the most peaceful of revolutions after the most horrifically violent century in history, said Barclay. This gave people some cause for optimism. (The exceptions to peaceful change, of course, were the 1991 overthrow of the Nicolae Ceauşescu government Romania and the Moscow coup in August 19-21, 1991 when Communist Party hardliners tried to arrest Mikhail Gorbachev.)
Barclay was in Berlin in December 1991 when the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. He noted that the huge Soviet embassy flew the red flag with the hammer and sickle one day and that it was replaced the next day with the red, white and blue-striped flag of Russia.
“I had literally seen the pages of history turn,” he said, alluding to Goethe’s comment on change.