The opening of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago today was not only an accident but it was a dramatic de'noument 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, president of the scholarly German Studies Association and professor of history at Kalamazoo College, shared his reflections on the opening of the Berlin Wall.
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, Gunter 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 Leipzig, East Germany, the previous month. Citizens of Leipzig had been holding several Monday evening demonstrations that called for political reform.