Nathans: Fall reminded world of power of peaceful protest

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

On Aug. 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall was erected, thereby dividing overnight a city, families and dueling ideologies for the next 28 years. On Nov. 9, 1989, the world watched as jubilant crowds gathered on both sides of that Wall to celebrate the opening of its crossings. Germany’s postwar division was over.

Next month, we mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To commemorate that event, Western News asked five scholars to reflect on its meaning a quarter century out.

*   *   *

“We arrived at The (Wall) and it was inconceivable,” recalled Regine Hildebrandt, a leading East German civil rights activist on the evening of Nov. 9, 1989. “You came to a street that was a dead-end, because The Wall was there. … A bridge you could see, but never cross. It was unbelievable. People were streaming through.”

Beginning at 9 that evening, tens of thousands of East Germans poured through the checkpoints of the Berlin Wall. The end of the closed-border regime of the German Democratic Republic turned into a celebration, as West Berliners joined East Germans on the streets of the city. Hundreds climbed upon the concrete wall that the communist government had constructed 28 years earlier to prevent its citizens from leaving for the West.

There, they stayed until East German water cannons forced them down early on the morning of the tenth.

Less than a year later, on Oct. 3, 1990, after East German voters had made clear their desire for unification, and with the assent of allied nations that led the coalition that had defeated Germany in the Second World War (the Soviet Union, Great Britain, United States and France), the former East German provinces joined the Federal Republic.

It was the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985-91, that led to the fall of The Wall and, ultimately, spelled the end of the so-called German Democratic Republic and the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. The East German government maintained itself in power largely through fear, of imprisonment and other forms of retribution, and by preventing emigration. The government maintained a vast network of spies who kept careful watch on East Germans.

But the regime’s instruments of repression were not powerful enough to prevent mass rebellion without assistance from the Soviet Army, which maintained a very large presence in East Germany. Gorbachev had openly announced the Soviet Union would no longer use armed force to support East European communist governments.

The phenomenon of Gorbachev has a variety of explanations.

By the 1970s, few people in the Soviet Union, except perhaps for a significant part of the youth, who were more influenced than adults by the propaganda of the regime, really believed any longer in the promises of a bright Soviet future. The performance, especially of the agricultural sector, was miserable. Environmental policies were disastrous.

To limit awareness of these and other realities, Western radio and television broadcasts were jammed and travel abroad limited to an elite few as well as, in the case of East Germany, the elderly. Despite these restrictions, knowledge of the economic and cultural gap with the West was widespread.

Another factor that promoted disillusionment within the Soviet Union was the war in Afghanistan, which began in 1979. Tens of thousands of soldiers were killed or wounded, and the war was being lost, despite the casualties. The meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in 1986, and the initial efforts of the government to conceal the disaster from the public, also shook popular faith in the regime.

Gorbachev was distinguished from many of his colleagues at the top of the Soviet system by his refusal simply to focus on clinging to power. He had somehow remained an idealist, still believed in the possibility of revolutionary social improvement and solidarity. It was the extraordinary power the Soviet political regime placed in the hands of the Party Secretary that let Gorbachev put his ideas into practice against the opposition of much of the government. Gorbachev declared Soviet citizens should be able to discuss the history of the Soviet Union and its current failings, openly. He called for greater democracy. Gorbachev also suggested the Soviet Union and its allies, along with the United States, Canada and Western Europe might work together peacefully; socialism and capitalism would still compete, but by peaceful means.

Gorbachev’s policies were not only a product of idealism. There was also the reality that to have any chance in the competition with the West, the Soviet Union needed greater access to Western technology and Western credits, and more freedom and openness to individual initiative at home.

The East German government did its best to repress demands for liberalization in East Germany after Gorbachev came to power. But the example of the breakdown of communist rule in Poland and Hungary proved too powerful to resist.

First, thousands of East Germans fled the country, since the regime was not willing to barricade its eastern, as well as its western, borders. Beginning in September 1989, tens, and then hundreds of thousands, of East German citizens demonstrated on a weekly basis in Leipzig, East Berlin and other cities for human rights and democracy. Early on the evening of the 9th, in response to these demonstrations, a member of the East German government announced the regime planned to permit travel to the West, without providing details.

The demonstrations by East Germans took a great deal of courage, for it was not known at the time how the authorities would react. Several months before, in Beijing, the Chinese government had violently repressed similar demonstrations, killing hundreds and wounding thousands. Initially the East German regime also responded with violence, although not with killing. As the size of the demonstrations grew, and especially after the most repressive East German leaders were deposed in mid-October, the police became more reluctant to use force.

The example of the surrounding countries suggested the regime’s days were probably numbered, and no help was to be expected from the Soviet Army. The flood of East German citizens through the Berlin Wall was in many ways the culmination of these peaceful demonstrations.

What role was played by the East German demonstrations and the fall of the Berlin Wall in bringing about the end of the German Democratic Republic and the reunification of Germany?

Although Gorbachev was willing to consider unification, he was not eager to have East Germany disappear as an independent state. Neither were, initially, the leaders of Britain or France. Without the flood of people through the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, the transformation of East Germany might have taken place more slowly.

Why, of all the events that led to German unification, and to the dissolution of communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe, is so much emphasis placed on the fall of the Berlin Wall?

One reason was the central place of Berlin in the conflict between East and West.

Since its construction in 1961, the Berlin Wall had become a symbol of the oppressive character of communist rule in East Germany and in the Soviet bloc, generally. It was in Berlin where U.S. President John F. Kennedy had proclaimed, two years after the Wall was built, he also was a Berliner, although Kennedy’s focus was more on the plight of the people of West than of East Berlin. Another reason was the non-violence of the East German demonstrators and also the overwhelming joy of the participants in the event. Finally, there was the significance of Germany, once, and potentially, the dominant power in continental Europe. How the demise of East Germany might change the political map of Europe was a question all thinking Europeans asked in November 1989.

The unification of Germany was more than an overcoming of the divisions of the Cold War. It was, in many respects, a final settlement of the Second World War. The reunited Germany was permitted by Gorbachev to belong to NATO, and Germany officially gave up all territorial claims on Poland, accepting the post-1945 revision of European borders. The Soviet Army left Germany.

Historians have compared the events of 1989 and 1990 with earlier efforts to unify Germany, in 1848 and 1870. In 1848, a largely peaceful revolution that attempted to create a German confederation failed. This led many at the time to conclude successful politics required the resort to force. This was the path taken in 1870.

The events of the fall of 1989 demonstrated the power of peaceful protest. The German people, in particular the East Germans, had taken great risks to bring about a peaceful reunification. The legacy of this revolution is a positive one, a reminder of the indispensable role of individual acts of courage in making possible democracy and freedom.

 Eli Nathans teaches modern German and European history at Western. He has written about the Nazi system of justice and the history of German citizenship policies, and is currently finishing a book about a prominent West German journalist.