- The Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago, on November 9, 1989.
- It was a moment that shocked the world and marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War – culminating in the toppling of the East German communist dictatorship, the reunification of Germany in 1990, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
- But the story of “Mauerfall” – how Germans refer to the fall of the Berlin Wall – is much more complicated and fascinating than many recall today.
- For one thing, the wall was felled peacefully, as the direct result of an East German bureaucrat misreading a memo about loosened travel restrictions.
- Massive crowds of East Berliners soon rushed the border, expecting to finally be allowed to travel freely beyond the borders behind the Iron Curtain.
- East German border guards who had been given no instructions about any change to the “shoot to kill” policy, meant to prevent anyone from escaping East Germany, decided not to kill their fellow citizens.
- It was these border guards who decided to open the border, risking their lives and effectively toppling the Berlin Wall.
- Insider spoke with witnesses to this moment in history. Here’s what they had to say.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago, on November 9, 1989.
It was a moment that shocked the world and marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War – culminating in the toppling of the East German communist dictatorship, the reunification of Germany in 1990, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
But the story of “Mauerfall” – how Germans refer to the fall of the Berlin Wall – is much more complicated and fascinating than many recall today.
A brief history of postwar East Germany and the Berlin Wall
First, some basic history:
- After World War II, Germany was divided among the occupying powers: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union. The latter fully controlled the east of Germany, eventually shepherding its foundation as the German Democratic Republic.
- The capital city of Berlin is deep in the east. It, too, was divided among the allies, with the Soviets administering the eastern part of the city.
- In 1961, the GDR was desperately in need of workers to keep its authoritarian communist state functioning, so the government erected a wall to keep its citizens from fleeing to the west. The GDR called this wall “the anti-fascist protective rampart.” The rest of the world called it the Berlin Wall.
- The wall cut streets in half and led to heartbreaking images of women and children leaping from rear windows because exiting through the front of their building would leave them trapped in the East.
- East Germans were forbidden from leaving the country unless they were going to other Soviet-dominated East bloc countries. Traveling even to West Berlin or West Germany was extremely rare for East Germans. Many families were broken up, some permanently.
- The Berlin Wall was actually two walls, surrounding West Berlin and separated by a “death strip.” As its name implies, East Germans who tried to escape would be summarily shot by GDR border guards. Estimates vary, but well over 300 people are believed to have been killed trying to escape East Germany.
- The GDR’s Ministry for State Security, known as the Stasi, imposed near-absolute obedience to the state through surveillance, intimidation, torture, and a massive network of informants that turned neighbors and families against one another. A common saying in East Germany was “If three people are in a room, one is an informant.”
- In 1989, anti-communist, pro-democratic revolutions abounded in Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania.
- East Germany was no exception. Peaceful protests against the regime brought tens of thousands to the streets of Leipzig and Berlin in October 1989.
- Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet premier, had instituted a series of reforms in his country known as “perestroika” and was encouraging other East bloc dictatorships to do the same. He also made it clear that East Germany in particular should no longer rely on the Soviet Union for fiscal solvency.
November 9, 1989, was just another morning for the people living under the East German dictatorship
Insider conducted a series of phone and email interviews with witnesses who were in Berlin 30 years ago. Here’s what they remember about Mauerfall.
Michael Höppner, opera and theater director: I was 9 years old in 1989.
My parents generally approved of the GDR and its system and benefitted from it. Both were scholars, and my father was a department secretary of the Communist Party. Both were kind of shocked [when the wall fell]. I think in those days they had serious hopes that the socialist system could be preserved by reforms, like Gorbachev had tried in the USSR. And those hopes came to an end with the fall of the wall.
Philipp Lengsfeld, scientist, former member of the federal German Bundestag from 2013 to 2017: In 1989, I was 17 years old.
My mother was an opposition activist. My friends and I were very critical of the system. In autumn 1988, I paid a price for that: I was jointly expelled with three other pupils from our high school in East Berlin, ending any academic ambitions in communist East Germany. I followed my mother into exile in Cambridge, UK, and had the privilege to spend the year before the wall came down in an international and highly academic setting.
My mother and my family were openly spied upon by the Stasi – not every day, but around activist activities.
Sebastian Pflugbeil, physicist, East German civil-rights activist, former member of the Berlin state Parliament: My older sister lived in the western sector of Berlin, because she could not get any professional training in East Germany. In 1961 she spent her summer holiday with our family on the East German island Hiddensee. A few weeks later she illegally passed the border to return to West Berlin.
After that, we could not visit each other anymore. Only after 13 years, for our father’s funeral in 1974, was she was allowed to visit the GDR for the first time. I could not go to my grandparents’ funeral in West Berlin.
I was critically engaged in an analysis of the East German government’s official energy [policy]. All these activities were not desired at all. It was possible to communicate such “hot” topics to other people only in the sort of protected rooms of the churches, since the churches were granted a certain independence within the GDR system. We lived with the constant threat that we could go to prison for many years. It was a risky time – we had four children.
Popular revolutions were bubbling up in countries behind the Iron Curtain, and East Germany was no exception
Ferdinand Protzman, The New York Times’ economic reporter covering Germany in 1989: I began working in late 1987 on stories in East Germany.
I went in via S-Bahn in Berlin and was usually followed by plainclothes [officers]. Once I was loudly accosted by a uniformed police officer on Unter den Linden who wanted to know why I had just purchased a book of official economic statistics at a bookstore. The two guys following me found that amusing.
When I crossed the border to go back to West Berlin, I was put in an interrogation room for a couple hours and questioned. They photocopied all my notes. So there was a certain level of anxiety involved. I was always worried about compromising my sources in some way. I don’t think that ever happened. But the security presence was always on my mind.
My reporting showed that the country’s economy was far weaker than the government claimed. The official economic data just wasn’t accurate. Meanwhile, many people, especially young people, were dissatisfied with their lives and had lost faith in the socialist state. They were tired of having their career prospects controlled in large measure by their party status or lack thereof. They wanted a better standard of living. They wanted to travel. Many of them were able to receive West German radio and television or had family ties in the West.
There was the feeling that something big was going to happen.
Beginning in the summer, East Germans had been fleeing to the West via Hungary. Their countrymen were peacefully marching and demonstrating in Leipzig, Berlin, and other cities. Pressure on the East German regime was growing steadily. What we didn’t know was how the government would respond.
Some observers thought the GDR leadership would be emboldened by China’s violent crackdown on the protesters in Tiananmen Square and would authorize use of deadly forces. But many of the marchers were extended families – grandparents, parents, children, babies. Ordering the armed forces to use lethal force against them would tear the GDR apart.
- Reuters Photographer
The misread memo that brought down the Berlin Wall
Late in the afternoon of November 9, Günter Schabowski, a senior official in the GDR’s ruling Socialist Unity Party, held one of his regular press briefings, which were known to be interminably boring displays of propaganda.
Alison Smale, Associated Press bureau chief in Vienna from 1986 to 1998: It was so dull that although I had a seat in the hall to start with, I actually left and went up to the AP’s office in the same building – East Germany’s center for the foreign press – where I was kidding around with colleagues when Schabowski was suddenly asked about reports that the East German leadership was considering allowing its citizens to leave for the West via designated routes through Berlin and across the East-West German border.
Schabowski was clearly aware that this was under discussion – which was a potentially huge development – but clearly not fully aware of developments. It was only months and years afterwards that the world learned that Mr. Schabowski had not attended all of the discussion on changing travel policies and did not realize when he was asked when this might happen that he was looking at answers compiled as if they would appear the next day. So he shuffled through the papers and saw something that said the changes would take effect “immediately.”
He read that to the stunned reporters, apparently unaware that that timing was supposed to be announced in the early hours of the following day, November 10, presumably after East German leaders had cleared it internally and with Moscow.
What had started out as a newsless, boring press conference concluded with one of the biggest stories I would ever cover!
- Eric BOUVET / Contributor
‘That’s it. The wall is going to go.’
Protzman: I turned to Bob McCartney of The Washington Post, who was sitting next to me at the press conference, and said, “That’s it. The wall is going to go.” He had the same thought. But other reporters disagreed.
Robert McCartney, Washington Post’s Central European bureau chief: We were all stunned and wondering if it really meant what it appeared to mean.
Schabowski left the room immediately after reading it, so we did not have a chance to ask follow-up questions. We were listening repeatedly to the tape recording of what he said. My impression was that many of the East Germans in the room were downplaying it and said it didn’t mean what it appeared to mean. They thought there was some loophole in the text. The impression of Western media was that it was more significant, although we found it hard to believe without more explanation and confirmation.
Smale: I immediately got in a car with Ingomar Schwelz, the AP’s man in East Berlin, telling him we should take the official report on the Schabowski news conference so that we could show it to East Berliners when asking for their reaction, because they would doubtless not believe us. Indeed, on a couple of stops in Prenzlauer Berg, East Germans were joyful but cautious upon being told the news; some just shrugged and were openly skeptical.
We filed the reaction, such as it was, watching West German television, which had swiftly sent reporters to the inner German border, and also scattered through Berlin, where Bornholmer Strasse was, where the largest crowds gathered.
Protzman: After the press conference, there was a lot of debate about what we’d just heard.
Then Tom Brokaw of NBC News came out of an interview with Schabowski and shared what had been said. The gist was that everyone in the country would be free to travel, but the timing of when that would happen and how was still unclear. Since it was pre-internet era, we weren’t under pressure to report immediately about the press conference. Once we got back to West Berlin we got to work, but the situation was so fluid at first that we weren’t sure what to write.
Everyone was waiting and watching television – East German and West German – to see what was going on. Television played a huge role. So many East Germans I’ve talked to, that night and since, say that when they saw on TV that crowds were gathering at Bornholmer Strasse and elsewhere, they decided to go down and see for themselves.
- Fabrizio Bensch
‘The whole game, the East-West Cold War, the rifts that separated peoples and nations, was over’
Smale: At one point, an announcer on West German TV said, “Und wir hoeren dass es auch schon an Checkpoint Charlie geht.”
“CHECKPOINT CHARLIE?!” I screamed. If that was true, then the whole game, the East-West Cold War, the rifts that separated peoples and nations, was over – at least in the form we knew it.
There were about 100 to 150 people massed at the checkpoint. Someone shouted to the border guards “We only want to go over and drink a beer! We’ll be at work tomorrow!” In what other country, I wondered, would someone have said that!
The border guards had no instructions about whether to let East Germans cross to the West, breaching the wall that the guards had been trained to give their lives to defend.
Luckily for everyone, one of the first things the commanders did that night was to lock away their guns, which massively reduced the chances that a confrontation would turn deadly.
The first border crossing opens at Bornholmer Strasse
In the hours after Schabowski’s press conference, thousands of East Berliners rushed to border crossings. But the GDR border guards knew nothing about any new policy and struggled to get instructions from their government superiors on the phone.
After several tense hours being confronted by thousands of East Berliners who believed they now finally had the right to leave, the senior Bornholmer Strasse border guard officer Harald Jäger decided he had two choices: order his guards to open fire on the people, or open the gate. He chose the latter.
Border crossings soon fell like dominoes throughout Berlin.
And just like that, it was over. The wall was how the GDR maintained power. Without it, the communist dictatorship’s yoke on the people vanished overnight.
The deadliest border in Europe turned into a ‘huge party’
Protzman: I went to Checkpoint Charlie and started interviewing East Germans as they came out. Many of them were suspicious and would only give their first names. At one point I was standing on top of the wall with a huge crowd, and people were handing us bottles of sparkling wine and beer. It was like a huge party.
A few weeks before, I’d been questioned by stone-faced Vopos [Volkspolizei, the GDR’s national police] at that same crossing. Now the guys on duty were smiling and laughing. Then I scrambled down and raced back to write.
Smale: At some point, the guards noticed me, with my notebook, as a Western journalist with no official permission to be in East Germany. They knew for sure that that was no good and opened a door to the narrow corridor that led to passport control and then the West. They shoved me through the door, and a woman somehow entered with me.
Her name was Angelika Wachs. She was 34, like me, and had papers that were good from November 17 to visit the West. A border guard protested that the documents were not yet valid. I yelled at him in my best German: “Look around you, man, it’s history that is being made here!” He shrugged and pressed a button that opened the door to the West. Angelika said she felt it was all “really quite normal” and rushed off to friends.
I made my way to a phone in a cheap billiard bar and finally spoke to my Western colleagues at the AP’s office on West Berlin’s glitzy Kurfüerstendamm. “Guess what I just did!” I screamed. “I walked through Checkpoint Charlie with the first East German to cross!”
Some people thought that the border opening might only be temporary and that the wall would survive
Kerstin Gueffroy was 22 in 1989. Her husband’s cousin, Chris, was killed trying to escape over the wall the previous February. He would be the last person killed in an attempt to flee the GDR.
Gueffroy: I did not leave the GDR after the fall of the wall. I was still too scared at first. I crossed the border that Saturday, but with a lot of friends around me to protect me.
The sights and smells and sounds were all totally new for us. Everything shone in advertising and was mega brightly lit. We went to a big department store that gave me total sensory overload.
I was still afraid that the wall would be closed. We were all afraid. But every day afterward, thousands of people went over, again and again. It was not until weeks later, when parts of the wall were removed, that I stood in front of it and knew that there would soon no longer be a wall. My children would have a better future.
Hope M. Harrison, associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University: On November 9, 1989, I boarded a plane in New York City at Kennedy Airport for a long-planned trip to West Berlin. Since there were no direct flights allowed to West Berlin from outside of West Germany during the Cold War, I had to go through Frankfurt.
I was a graduate student at Columbia University writing my dissertation on the Berlin Wall, and at the time I was also a pre-doctoral fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Each year the city of West Berlin paid for a group of American “young leaders,” drawn from Harvard and Stanford, to spend 10 days in the city. The goal of the program was to have us get to know West Berlin and presumably to convince us of the importance of protecting democratic West Berlin from any pressure the communist regimes in East Berlin or Moscow might exert in the future.
After landing in Frankfurt in the early-morning hours of November 10 and boarding the flight for the short trip to West Berlin, I looked around and saw everyone reading newspapers with banner headlines that said “Die Mauer ist offen!/”The Wall is open!” I wondered, is my German not as good as I think it is? What is going on? Or is November 10 the equivalent of April Fools’ Day in Germany?
I didn’t have to wonder for long. The pilot got on the intercom and announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, in case you haven’t heard, the Berlin Wall fell last night, and we are flying into history!” Everyone burst into applause as I sat there stunned and then very excited about this incredible turn of events and my lucky timing.
Pflugbeil: On the afternoon of November 9, I participated in a meeting about the GDR’s educational system. After that meeting I was quite exhausted and went to bed early.
But at 2 a.m. the phone rang, and a journalist from Israel asked me what I was thinking about the fall of the wall. I answered, “You are mad.”
- Reuters Photographer
East Germans’ first taste of freedom was often a banana
Pflugbeil: The next day my eldest daughter wanted to go together to West Berlin, but she had a violin lecture. I urged her to go to the lecture first. She was not amused, but she obeyed. However, her violin teacher did not show up to the music school that day – and never came back.
I think this order to my daughter was my biggest mistake in the 1989 revolution.
Harrison: I watched as a bulldozer removed a section of the wall at Potsdamer Platz to allow East Germans to come through driving their pollution-emitting Trabants or walking. I watched as West Germans showered East Germans with hugs, flowers, money, or sparkling wine. Everyone was cheering and/or crying tears of joy. Huge A&P trucks were camped out at some of the crossing points in the wall giving the East Germans free bananas (not generally available in East Germany) and good coffee (also not generally available there).
Tens of thousands of East Germans headed to the KuDamm, the Fifth Avenue of West Berlin. With so few interesting or good-quality consumer goods in the East, East Germans wanted to see the stores on the KuDamm. In fact, so many of them headed there that weekend (more than 2 million East Germans flooded into West Berlin over the weekend) that West Berlin had to close the street to cars.
East Germans walked up and down the wide, tree-lined street and headed to the famous department store KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens, Department Store of the West) and especially to its sixth floor, packed with restaurants and food stalls selling food and drink from all over the world and including hundreds of types of German sausage. The most famous sex store in West Berlin, Beate Uhse, was also thronged with people.
- Adam Berry/Getty Images
30 years after the fall of the Wall, there’s still joy, but mixed with regrets
Lengsfeld: That it happened, and that it happened without bloodshed on both sides – the system and opposition – was the best thing about the fall of the wall.
Harrison: The main narrative doesn’t give much attention to the people in power who gave that up. It is more inspiring to talk about the brave East German citizens who took to the streets even knowing that they might be beaten up or imprisoned and that if they were imprisoned their children might be taken from them and put in an orphanage or given away for adoption. It is less inspiring and moving to talk about the various officials who didn’t use force to hang on to their power or to maintain the wall.
A brilliant example of that is Lt. Col. Harald Jäger, who was on duty on the night of November 9, 1989, at the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint in the wall.
He was faced with thousands of angry East Germans who had heard the regime spokesman (mistakenly) announce at a press conference that night that the Berlin Wall was open. When Jäger’s attempts to get advice or orders from his superiors failed, he decided to open the Wall at his checkpoint. His counterparts at other checkpoints soon followed his lead. There should be much more investigation of what he and his counterparts were thinking that night and in the days and weeks before (and after).
Höppner: The fall of the wall and the reunification would initiate a process that so radically changed identities of millions within a year and would start a process of devaluation of some parts of the Eastern society from which Germany still suffers today.
As a very personal statement, it is until today interpreted as the ultimate and definite proof of the failure of any kind of socialist system. But those events should not prevent us from keeping on to think about and try to realize alternative models of a society.
The fall of the wall and the dissolution of the GDR were the logical and necessary consequence of a perverted, often criminal, authoritarian, and patronizing system.
If it is about a final judgement: positive, yes. Because it shows that no system whatsoever can deny and oppress people’s desire for individual freedoms and democracy in the long run.