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.
On October 9, 1989, the protestors held their biggest demonstration because they thought that if Leipzig 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 Leipzig 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.
Leipzig proved to be the testing ground for the Soviets' surprisingly noinviolent 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 Leipzig 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 1990, 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.