Twenty-five years ago tonight, Harald Jaeger stood at the fulcrum of the world.
It is all too easy for us, nearly a generation later, to think of the fall of the Berlin Wall as inevitable, as though the gradual collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union was destined to happen sooner or later. But when I remember the experience of those days – of the happy confusion and terror of that early November night, and of the year that preceded it – what sticks out the most is not inevitability, but how incredibly contingent it became on a handful of choices.
I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. Our world was dominated by the fact that there were two powers, roughly equal in strength, each claiming the right to shape the future of the world. Each local political conflict was simply a piece in this larger game; each day brought with it the real risk of nuclear annihilation. (And it was only years later, with the publication of things like the story of Stanislav Petrov, that we discovered just how terrifyingly close we had indeed come) And the USSR remained secretive, terrifying, threatening: these were still the days of political prisoners, of refuseniks, of the crushing of dissent.
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, there were suddenly new words on Russian lips: Glasnost (“openness”), perestroika. (“Reform”) The next few years were a steady mixture of hope and uncertainty, since nobody knew what these terms would actually prove to mean. Would dissent be allowed? Apparently, sometimes. Would the East and the West achieve some kind of rapprochement? Perhaps; a day of open dialogue and communication would be followed by the collapse of the nuclear summit at Reykjavík, negotiations coming to nothing. Gorbachev would allow some industry to privatize, and it would be unclear if the new system was working or not; hard-liners would grumble, and we all remembered that in the Kremlin, murder was a perfectly accepted means of both career advancement and the selection of political direction.
But over four years, we started to really hope that Gorbachev not only meant what he said, but that he had the capability to gradually pull the Soviets to greater openness. The possibility of a world out of the shadow of terror became real.
It came to a head in 1989. We first started to see it in Europe, where (Eastern Bloc) Hungary started to demilitarize its borders with (Western Bloc) Austria. We saw it in Poland, where despite the imprisonment of many of its leaders, the Solidarity movement started to make public demands to make openness and freedom real within its government. (And how ironic, that one of Communism’s most successful foes was an independent labor union!)
And it was quickly clear that the demands were now real enough that governments could no longer simply let them quietly happen, answer some and defer or ignore others. The gradual progress of the past few years was turning into a tide that the Communist world had to either yield to or destroy.
The first crisis came in China, with the April 15th death of Hu Yaobang, former General Secretary and a noted reformer. Students gathered in Beijing’s central square to mourn him; the mourning turned into protest, demanding greater government accountability, freedom of the press, and worker control over industry. At first, the government allowed it to progress, as similar protests in Europe had; but then the students started to be joined by workers, and the regime saw a true threat to its existence. On June 4th, the government sent in the tanks, and the Tiananmen Square protests were crushed. Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 protesters were killed; unknown others were sent to labor camps or prisons. Today, many of the younger generation in China are not even aware of these protests: like the failure of the Cultural Revolution, this became one of the things that was “too dangerous to know about,” and the protests, and the nascent attempt at greater freedom, was never mentioned again by those who wished to not have their families disappear.
The second crisis came only weeks later, as the fiftieth anniversary of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and the Nazis, partitioning Europe between the two powers, approached. Remembrance days had been planned across the West for this day, and in the three Baltic republics of the Soviet Union – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – pro-independence movements started to make a stand. On August 8th, the Estonian government tried to limit the voting rights of immigrants, specifically Russian immigrants. (The steady moving of ethnic Russians into potentially restive regions of the Soviet Union, from Estonia to Chechnya, had been policy since Stalin; it served the same role as the moving of Protestants into Ireland by the English, or the movement of Han Chinese into Xinjiang today, to create a “reality on the ground” of a population loyal to the central state which had rights which the central state could then protect by force) This led to mass protests by Russian workers; Moscow stood ready to defend their rights, and East Germany and Romania started to offer troops.
Fighting did not start, however. This was the most serious challenge which had ever been posted to Gorbachev’s vision of a free and open Soviet world: could such freedom countenance the possibility of even direct challenges to Russian rule? It appeared that Gorbachev wanted to find every opportunity to make the answer “yes,” and to find a peaceful resolution. On August 18th, the Soviets officially admitted (for the first time!) to the reality of the pact and its secret protocols, a major concession. But it wasn’t enough: on August 22nd, the Lithuanian government stated that the Soviet occupation of their country was therefore illegal, and on August 23rd, the 50th anniversary day, two million people joined in a human chain across all three republics to protest Soviet rule.
The Baltic crisis dominated the news for the next several months. Gorbachev continued to search for ways to come to a mutual solution: increased autonomy, perhaps, further recognition of the independent authority of the SSR’s. He wanted to keep the Soviet Union itself together; it was clear that a failure to do so could cause a collapse of his government, and a seizure of power by the hard-liners who wanted a return to Stalin’s system.
In early November, the news story everyone was watching was this: satellite photos showed Soviet armored divisions massing on the Estonian border.
When I began this story by saying that the fall of Communism was by no means assured, this is the world I wanted to remind you of. Nobody outside the Kremlin knew the economic stability of the Soviet Union for sure. We had perpetual word of increased reform and openness in the USSR, but we had seen such small changes before, only to see them crushed back by force when they went too far: everyone remembered Hungary in 1956, or Prague in 1968. (How many people today realize that the name “Arab Spring” is a deliberate callback to that “Prague Spring,” or how well the Prague Spring ended?) And in the past few months, we had seen China crush dissent as brutally as anyone ever had, and now Soviet divisions seemed primed to invade the Baltics again and bring the reform project to an end.
Even as this happened, the rest of Europe was not quiet. One June 4th – the same day as the Tiananmen Square massacre – Poland had its first semi-free elections, with Solidarity winning nearly every seat it was allowed to run for. On August 19th, Hungary had effectively loosened its border with Austria, and 13,000 East German tourists escaped to the West. Further similar incidents were happening elsewhere, and protests began to start up across East Germany, chanting “Wir wollen raus!" (“We want out!”). East Germany’s Chancellor resigned in October, and his successor was left trying to manage an increasingly complex problem. Half a million people were demonstrating in the Alexanderplatz by November 4th.
Taking its cue from Moscow, the Politburo seemed to be looking for a compromise, while keeping its military option open: but history is built out of the mistakes of individuals, not just the grand strategies of leaders. On November 9th, the East German Politburo came up with some new regulations easing the rules about exit to the West. The party spokesman, Günter Schabowski, had been scheduled to give a press conference that day, and he received a brief note about this change just before – but not having been at the meeting, and not knowing anything more than this somewhat unclear message, all he could do was simply read the announcement aloud. When the press asked him when the new regulations would take effect, he hesitated for a few seconds, re-read the note, and responded: “As far as I know effective immediately, without delay.”
The word spread like wildfire. West German news carried the story, and radio waves not understanding political boundaries, this meant that East Germans heard the news as well: “This is a historic day. East Germany has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone. The GDR is opening its borders ... the gates in the Berlin Wall stand open.” The news spread back to the Politburo as well, much to their terror, as whatever it was that they had intended, this was most definitely not it. But as they were trying to find one another and figure out what to do, tens of thousands of people approached the Wall.
Harald Jaeger was a lieutenant-colonel in the Stasi, and that night he was in command of the 46 men guarding the Bornholmer Straße border crossing. As an increasingly angry mob appeared, and closed in to within the range at which he would normally have to open fire, he called his superiors for instructions, and was met with confusion. Stamp the passports of the most vocal agitators with a “no entry” pass, he was told, effectively revoking their citizenship. No, don’t do that. Shoot them. Don’t use force. Wait for instructions. Sort it out for yourself.
That was the only real order he got: “sort it out for yourself.” The reason – as it gradually became clear to him and to everyone else – was that nobody had any idea what to do. The German Politburo was in a panic, and had called back to Moscow for help; Moscow’s Politburo was still arguing. Everyone seemed to hope that the problem would just go away, and nobody was willing to give a clear order. The entire command hierarchy of the Soviet Union had effectively ground to a halt.
Jaeger was the one who did not have the luxury of trying to sort things out. He had 20,000 people right there
demanding to be let through the gate right now.
And he had to make a choice.
I often wonder what would have happened had Jaeger taken the other option: he could have easily ordered his men to begin arresting people, to shoot anyone who approached into the secure zone nearest the wall, and called for armed reinforcements. They would not have been long in coming; the Soviet military apparatus had been preparing for such an eventuality for months, after all. I think that the East Germans would have been able to quash the protests there as effectively as the Chinese had months earlier, and this would in turn have forced Moscow’s hand in the Baltics. The tanks would have rolled in, and the USSR’s brief flirtation with openness would have come to an abrupt end. Gorbachev would not have lasted much longer, of course; he would have either resigned or been resigned, and his successor would have started a swift march back to the Soviet Union of the 1950’s. How long it would have lasted, and what our world would look like today, is hard to imagine; but the Cold War would have lasted into the year 2000 at least, and the politics which shape our world today would be replaced by something wholly different. It would certainly have been the safer choice for Jaeger personally: for a Stasi officer to do such a thing could easily be marked as treason, and end with him in the basement of Lubyanka.
But this was not the choice that Jaeger made. At 11:30 PM Central European Time on November 9th, Jaeger ordered his troops to open the Wall.
I remember watching this on the news as it happened. The first thought in my mind – and in millions of other minds, I’m certain – was Oh my God, it’s over.
The Soviet Union, the “Evil Empire” of Reagan’s speeches, had stared down the hard choice between repression and surrender, of the admission that maybe its core ideas weren’t actually going to work, and somehow, incomprehensibly, it had chosen the latter. It had not surrendered to tank divisions or nuclear weapons, but simply to the wishes of its own people, and we all knew that there was no turning back.
The first news stories started to come in from West Berlin: families reunited after 45 years. East Germans wandering, shell-shocked, through West German supermarkets: they had always been told that under capitalism the West Germans were even worse off than they were, how was there so much food there?
There were bananas!
(Bananas were, apparently, one of the biggest shocks) And from both sides of the city, people started to descend on the Wall, and the largest party in the history of our lives began.
At some point that evening, people clearly decided that if they were going to be allowed to walk back and forth, they clearly didn’t really need a wall there, and so people started to show up with sledgehammers and pick axes. While the rest of the Wall wasn’t torn down for several more months, by the time the Sun rose on Berlin the next morning, that entire central section of it was gone, smashed and carted off as if it had never been there.
But the moment I remember the most was when a small West German girl, no more than six years old, was walking along the Wall and handing out yellow flowers to the East German soldiers who were guarding it. The cameras caught a particular pair of them. One was clearly terrified and bewildered; he knew that, only a few hours ago, had anyone approached this close to the wall it would have been his duty to shoot them, including that girl, and now he did not know what was happening. The other, though, was not confused at all: he took the flower and put it in his uniform’s lapel, smiling like a new father.
The end of Communism was written into the events of that day. A few weeks later, Poland held elections for its presidency, and Lech Wałęsa, leader of Solidarity, was elected. Calls for elections spread across Eastern Europe, and soon only Romania, home of one of Communism’s most brutal dictators, stood firm against any possibility of reform. That came to an abrupt end on December 17th, when a popular revolution in the style of France in 1789 deposed Ceaușescu. He and his family were taken out and shot a week later. Gorbachev worked with the newly independent Eastern Bloc and the SSR’s to build a new world, even as Soviet infrastructure continued to collapse; he was deposed by a hard-liner coup in August of 1991, but the coup failed when the Army refused to fire on protesters. Gorbachev returned to power two days later, and announced the plan to wind down the Soviet Union, and at midnight, December 31st, 1991, the Hammer and Sickle came down over the Kremlin for the last time, to be replaced by the flag of a newly independent Russia.
This day, a quarter of a century ago, reshaped our entire world. It could have gone incredibly differently, and the world we live in today would be nearly unrecognizeable. Historical forces came together to create a situation of uncertainty, but in a situation of uncertainty the actions of single individuals are greatly amplified. A single gunshot, a single different word at a press conference, could have redirected the flow of millions of people. We are fortunate that the man who stood at the fulcrum of the world that day, the lieutenant colonel who today runs a newspaper stand, chose well.
The above account is necessarily incomplete; the full events of 1989, and the years leading up to it, would require several volumes to explain. If you want to read some more about this, the following can be good places to start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiananmen_Square_protests_of_1989http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baltic_Wayhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Wallhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harald_Jägerhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solidarity_(Polish_trade_union)http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolae_Ceaușescuhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revolutions_of_1989
This is an excellent documentary about the fall of the Berlin Wall, including interviews with many of the key players: Berlin History - The Fall of the Wall - BBC Our World Full Documentary
And if you want a longer documentary about the whole history of the Berlin Wall, including the various escape attempts, try this one: The Berlin Wall : Documentary on the Berlin Wall from Construction to Destruction