Today's selection -- from Out of Ashes by Konrad H. Jarausch.
In 1989, with the economy of East Germany (and other communist countries) disintegrating, a tentative decision had been made to allow increased travel by East Germans to West Germany. And though East Germans were frantically awaiting, the details had not been worked out:
"On the evening of November 9, 1989, journalists assembled in East Berlin, eager to listen to the latest SED [the communist party of East Germany] Central Committee plans for liberalizing travel and emigration. Asked when the new regulations would take effect, press spokesman Günter Schabowski, who had not been sufficiently informed, erroneously replied 'immediately.' Hearing this welcome news on TV, incredulous East German citizens rushed to border-crossing points such as the Bornholmer Strasse, demanding to be allowed to go to West Berlin. The frantic frontier guards could not reach any higher officers, who had already retired for the night, to instruct them on how to react. They therefore eventually decided to yield to the growing crowd and simply opened the gates. Hearing of the first breach, 'hundreds of thousands of East Berliners romped through the newly porous Wall in an unending celebration' to express their joy. Chancellor Helmut Kohl reassured the elated newcomers: 'We are on your side; we are and remain one nation. We belong together.' Lifted by accident and popular pressure, the Iron Curtain could never be closed again.
"The fall of the Wall was the product of a democratic awakening that swept over Eastern Europe much like the Springtime of the Peoples in 1848. It started in Poland, the least repressive satellite, when in 1979 Gdańsk dockworkers led by Lech Walesa formed an independent trade union called Solidarnosc, which martial law proved unable to suppress. The unrest subsequently spread to Hungary with hundreds of thousands of Budapest citizens turning out for the reburial of the heroes of the 1956 uprising, thereby protesting anew against communist repression. Thereupon a crisis of mass flight to the West and mass demonstrations against the regime engulfed East Germany, challenging the SED dictatorship and demanding unification with the West. Next the popular rebellion, encouraged by Soviet passivity, confronted the orthodox Husak regime in Prague, and from there moved to Bulgaria and Romania, attacking Zhivkov and Ceausescu. Finally the movement reached the Soviet Union itself when nationalists in the former Baltic states and Ukraine demanded independence, and Russians themselves began to repudiate communism. It was a stunning grassroots revolt that fundamentally redefined Europe. ...
"Amplifying the prior Polish and Hungarian challenges, the East German exodus threatened Soviet control over Eastern Europe. The flight of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens from the GDR [East Germany] was a symbolic rejection of the Leninist version of modernity. The spontaneous escapes undermined the Iron Curtain and showed that the SED had lost its control over its citizenry. At the same time, the humanitarian emergency of the mass movement evoked a wave of international sympathy, which made measures to restrict the flow look arbitrary and repressive. The stampede from East to West also created a diplomatic crisis by forcing countries to choose sides: Aided by West German credits, the Hungarians maintained the border opening, while the Czechs tried to crack down at the risk of alienating their own people. TV images of East German refugees in overcrowded trains, tearfully celebrating their arrival in the West, also reopened the national question for FRG politicians who had become all too comfortable with division. Finally, the mass flight was the moment of truth for Gorbachev, forcing him to decide whether to live up to his own promises.
Among the many joyful moments of 1989-90, the fall of the Berlin Wall stands out because of its practical and symbolic importance for the overthrow of communist dictatorship. The opening of the border in Berlin and along the whole frontier between East and West Germany allowed GDR citizens to witness the reality of everyday life in the West firsthand. Their shocking experience of the FRG's [West Germany] superior standard of living and political pluralism derailed the project of the reform communists and civic-movement dissidents who wanted to democratize East Germany but maintain its independence as an alternative to liberal capitalism. Moreover, the free movement of West Germans to the East also endangered the Soviet military presence by exposing the numerous Soviet army bases, creating pressure for their withdrawal from amidst a largely hostile population. At the same time, forcing open the Brandenburg Gate was also a highly symbolic event that signaled the breach of the Iron Curtain at a central barrier of the Cold War. Other satellite regimes could liberalize without endangering Russian hegemony, but toppling communism in East Germany threatened the survival of the entire Soviet empire."
Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century
Author: Konrad H. Jarausch
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Copyright 2015 by Princeton University Press
Pages 667, 677-681