The Fall of the Berlin Wall: It Was an Accident


Mary Elise Sarotte, The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall (New York: Basic Books, 2014).


One of the enduring controversies among historians is whether history is shaped by big impersonal forces or by individual humans through their own agency. Mary Elise Sarotte, the author of a new and truly gripping account of the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, falls firmly into the latter camp.

Sarotte says that she is trying to cut through all the false stories and triumphalist assumptions that have built up over time about how and why the Wall opened and to “investigate the crucial short-term reasons that the potential for the opening of the Wall turned into the reality of its collapse.” She sees two main and interrelated processes at work: the rise of a non-violent civil resistance movement and the collapse of the communist regime. She finds that the key players in these processes were obscure people, mostly middle- and lower-level officials, and every day citizens.

With regard to the rise of civil resistance, Sarotte invokes Alexis de Tocqueville to argue that “previously accepted grievances had become instantly unbearable as soon as their elimination appeared possible.” For nearly 40 years East Germans acquiesced, but in the late 1980s hope arose.

After explaining the horror of the Berlin Wall and the shoot-to-kill practices associated with it, Sarotte describes the events that inspired East Germans to push actively for greater freedoms. The first was Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power in the Soviet Union in 1985. The second was the decision in the summer of 1989 by the leader of Hungary to open its border with Austria. Because Hungary was part of the Soviet bloc, East Germans were free to travel there. The implications were obvious. Almost immediately East Germans were able to envision travel to the West and even emigration, which had not been a real possibility for nearly 30 years. When the East German regime started preventing its citizens from travelling to Hungary, the trouble really started.

Sarotte then takes us to Leipzig, where protesters began to coalesce around the Nikolai Church and its weekly “peace prayers.” These demonstrations started to express anti-nuclear sentiments in the early 1980s, but later took on an anti-regime tone. Among the instigators of this change were two young people. One, a young lady of 19 years, had a history of “asking provocative questions” that led the regime to deny her admission to college. The other, a young man, had also been frustrated by the authorities when they denied him permission to join the merchant marines because he was viewed as too politically unreliable to be allowed outside the country. Inspired by the events of 1989, their meetings at the church grew in size every week. By early October, they were transforming into massive marches. On Oct. 9, 1989, nearly 100,000 people marched all the way around Leipzig’s ring road. An intrepid band of activists with contacts in the West managed to film the march and smuggle it out of the country. It was broadcasted on West German television and seen in households across much of East Germany. This inspired new protests to spring up all across the country.

With regard to the collapse of the communist regime, Sarotte argues that the resistance was helped by the fact that Erich Honecker, the hardline leader of the Social United Party (as the East German communists called themselves), had cancer and was largely out of action in the critical summer of 1989. However, his regime’s general inclination was to crack down on dissidents and in particular to impose a Tiananmen-style solution, which had just happened that June, in Leipzig in an effort to intimidate the populace into submission. Egon Krenz, a young energetic member of the Politburo who opposed reflexive violence, planned an administrative coup against Honecker but failed to bring it off before the Oct. 9 protest.

Krenz did manage to overthrow Honecker in a Politburo a week later. Krenz shared Honecker’s commitment to the maintenance of communist rule in East Germany, but he preferred conciliatory rhetoric backed up with force only as a last resort. Accordingly, he set the bureaucrats in motion drafting a new law that would appear to ease travel restrictions to the West while actually having little effect in reality. The draft law was published in the newspaper on Nov. 6, but the public was outraged at the transparent ruse. Half a million people came out on the streets of Leipzig in protest. In response, the Politburo decided on a seemingly trivial concession: It would put “a portion of the draft’s wording on permanent emigration into effect immediately by fiat.” This was a fatal mistake for the regime in a way that nobody could have foreseen.

The bureaucrat assigned to draft the implementing language for this bit of legal legerdemain was a mid-level official of the Interior Ministry. He believed that the measures he was supposed to assist in implementing would be counterproductive to the security of the East Germany to which he was loyal. The measures allowed only for emigration without allowing East Germans who merely wanted to visit the West to return to their home and families. He feared this would lead to the depopulation of his country. Also, he feared that another ill-considered half measure might lead to a coup. Accordingly, he decided to follow the spirit but not the letter of his instructions. The result was language that gutted travel restrictions effective immediately. With minimal higher-level review, the text was inserted into the briefing book of Poliburo member Günter Schabowski who had become the regime’s spokesman during the crisis.

At an early evening press conference on Nov. 9, Schabowski, in response to a question about travel restrictions from an Italian journalist, read the text aloud in front of the cameras. He was clearly unfamiliar with its contents but the damage was done. Soon, pandemonium broke loose as East Berliners started flocking to border crossings demanding to be allowed to visit West Berlin. Even then, the Wall remained closed until the senior duty officer at an obscure checkpoint overheard his superiors insulting him over an open phone line. The officer’s patience was likely strained after 12 hours on post, the last few of them facing down an unruly and growing mob that wanted to cross into West Berlin. Moreover, he was expecting to receive the results of medical diagnostic tests for cancer the next day. The insult was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as the officer soon snapped and angrily decided to start letting people out. Crowds rushed through the breach and it was all over. In a matter of days, the Wall was literally being chiseled to pieces. Krenz resigned in December and by October 1990 East Germany ceased to exist.

Lest all this be too encouraging to would-be revolutionaries and radical reformers today, Sarotte carefully warns her readers in the introduction that “this book shows how much has to go right—and it is a lot—to achieve such a success.” Overall, this is a story of complex interactions, unintended consequences and catastrophic success. Sarotte says that the opening of the Wall was “accidental and contingent,” the latter word being historian jargon for “it might have turned out another way.” She makes a convincing case. In fact, if Clausewitz’s idea that war is characterized by chance, uncertainty, friction and emotion has any applicability outside the realm of war, it is here.

The implications for present-day events are clear. The Arab Spring may have failed to bring about democracy and accountable government anywhere except perhaps Tunisia, but that was not a pre-ordained outcome. Nor are future attempts in the Arab world, China or elsewhere necessarily doomed to failure or destined for success due to the nobility of their cause. Individual people have indispensable roles to play in the course of significant military, cultural or social events. On top of that they must be lucky, but sometimes they succeed against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Click here to buy the book.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.

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