To remember one of most important events in the history of human freedom, here are a few excerpts from the history books.
From Timothy Garton Ash’s The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of 1989 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague:
Since the late summer, the regular Monday evening ‘prayers for peace’ in Leipzig’s Church of St Nicholas had been followed by small demonstrations on the adjacent Karl-Marx-Platz. At the outset, most of the demonstrators were people who wanted to emigrate. But on 25 September there were between 5,000 and 8,000 people, with the would-be emigrants now in a minority, and on 2 October, as the emigration crisis deepened, there were perhaps 15,000 to 20,000—the largest spontaneous demonstration in East Germany since the uprising of 17 June 1953. They sung the Internationale and demanded the legalization of the recently founded ‘citizens’ initiative’, New Forum. The police were baffled, and in places peacefully overwhelmed.
On Monday, 9 October, however, following the violent repressions during the fortieth anniversary celebrations two days earlier, riot police, army units, and factory ‘combat groups’ stood ready to clear the Karl-Marx-Platz, East Germany’s Tiananmen Square. An article in the local paper by the commander of one of these ‘combat groups’ said they were prepared to defend socialism ‘if need be, with weapon in hand.’ But in the event some 70,000 people came out to make their peaceful protest, and this time force was not used to disperse them. … It was claimed, by sources closest to the Politburo member responsible for internal security, Egon Krenz, that he, being in overall political control of internal security, had taken the brave, Gorbachevian decision not to use force. It was even claimed that he had personally gone to Leipzig to prevent bloodshed.
Subsequent accounts by those actually involved in Leipzig gave a quite different picture. By these accounts, the crucial action was taken by the famous Leipzig conductor, Kurt Masur, together with the well-known cabaret artist, Bernd-Lutz Lange, and a priest, Peter Zimmermann. They managed to persuade three local Party leaders to join them in a dramatic, last-minute appeal for non-violence, which was read in the churches, broadcast over loudspeakers—and relayed to the police by the acting Party chief in Leipzig. This made the difference between triumph and disaster. It was, it seems, only later in the evening that Krenz telephoned to ask what was happening. The moment was, none the less, decisive for Krenz’s bid for power. Nine days later he replaced Honecker as Party leader. But in those nine days the revolution had begun.
To say the growth of popular protest was exponential would be an understatement. It was a non-violent explosion. Those extraordinary, peaceful, determined Monday evening demonstrations in Leipzig—always starting with ‘peace prayers’ in the churches—grew week-by-week, from 70,000 to double that, to 300,000, to perhaps half a million. The whole of East Germany suddenly went into labour, an old world—to recall Marx’s image—pregnant with the new. From that time forward the people acted and the Party reacted. ‘Freedom!’ demanded the Leipzig demonstrators, and Krenz announced a new travel law. ‘Free travel!’ said the crowds, and Krenz reopened the frontier to Hugary. ‘A suggestion for May Day: let the leadership parade past the people,’ said a banner, quoted by the writer Christa Wolf in the massive, peaceful demonstration in East Berlin on 4 November. And more leaders stepped down. ‘Free elections!’ demanded the people, and the Council of Ministers resigned en masse. ‘We are the people!’ they chanted, and the party leadership opened the Wall.
The cup of bitterness was already full to the brim. The years of Wall Sickness, the lies, the stagnation, the Soviet and Hungarian examples, the rigged elections, the police violence—all added their dose. The instant that repression was lifted, the cup flowed over. And then, with amazing speed, the East Germans discovered what the Poles had discovered ten years earlier, during the Pope’s visit in 1979. They discovered their solidarity. ‘Long live the October Revolution of 1989’ proclaimed another banner on the Alexanderplatz. And so it was: the first peaceful revolution in German history.
From John Lewis Gaddis’s The Cold War: A New History:
What [Party Chairman Egon] Krenz did not expect was that one of his own subordinates, by botching a press conference, would breach the wall. After returning from Moscow Krenz consulted his colleagues, and on November 9th they decided to try to relieve the mounting tension in East Germany by relaxing—not eliminating—the rules restricting travel to the West. The hastily drafted decree was handed to Gunter Schabowski, a Politburo member who had not been at the meeting but was about to brief the press. Schabowski glanced at it, also hastily, and then announced that citizens of the G.D.R. were free to leave “through any of the border crossings.” The surprised reporters asked when the new rules went into effect. Shuffling through his papers, Schabowski replied: “[A]ccording to my information, immediately.” Were the rules valid for travel to West Berlin? Schabowski frowned, shrugged his shoulders, shuffled some more papers, and then replied: “Permanent exit can take place via all border crossings from the G.D.R. to [West Germany] and West Berlin, respectively.” The next question was: “What is going to happen to the Berlin Wall now?” Schabowski mumbled an incoherent response, and closed the press conference.
Within minutes, the word went out that the wall was open. It was not, but crowds began gathering at the crossing points and the guards had no instructions. Krenz, stuck in a Central Committee meeting, had no idea what was happening, and by the time he found out the crush of people was too large to control. At last the border guards at Bornholmer Strasse took it upon themselves to open the gates, and the ecstatic East Berliners flooded into West Berlin. Soon Germans from both sides were sitting, standing, and even dancing on top of the wall; many brought hammers and chisels to begin knocking it down. …
With the Wall breached, everything was possible. On November 10th, Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s ruler since 1954, announced that he was stepping down; soon the Bulgarian Communist Party was negotiating with the opposition and promising free elections. On November 17th, demonstrations broke out in Prague and quickly spread throughout Czechoslovakia. Within weeks, a coalition government had ousted the communists, and by the end of the year Alexander Dubcek, who had presided over the 1968 “Prague spring,” was installed as chairman of the national assembly, reporting to the new president of Czechoslovakia—Vaclav Havel.
And on December 17th the Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceausescu, desperate to preserve his own regime, ordered his army to follow the Chinese example and shoot down demonstrators in Timisoara. Ninety-seven were killed, but that only fueled the unrest, leading Ceausescu to call a mass rally of what he thought would be loyal supporters in Bucharest on December 21st. They turned out not to be, began jeering him, and before it could be cut off the official television transmission caught his deer-in-the-headlights astonishment as he failed to calm the crowd. Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, fled the city by helicopter but were quickly captured, put on trial, and executed by firing squad on Christmas Day. [Internal citations omitted.]
From Steven Hayward’s The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980 – 1989:
ABC News reached Ronald Reagan at home in Los Angeles, and he agreed to go on ABC’s Primetime Live, where he appeared to be as astonished as everyone else. … Prompted to revisit his 1982 prediction that Communism was headed to the “ash heap of history,” Reagan ended the interview with the short observation: “People have had time in some 70-odd years since the Communist revolution to see that Communism has had its chance, and it doesn’t work.”
But it was the end of more than a twentieth-century story. Some of the East German protestors in the streets of Leipzig in early November carried banners that read 1789-1989. If the storming of the Bastille in 1789 could be said to have marked the beginning of utopian revolutionary politics, then the storming of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked its end. As Timothy Garton Ash observed, “Nineteen eighty-nine also caused, throughout the world, a profound crisis of identity on what had been known since the French revolution of 1789 as ‘the left.’” The deep unpopularity of the Communist regimes revealed by the people’s of Eastern Europe in 1989 was an embarrassment to moderate liberals and value-free social scientists who had regarded these nations as stable and legitimate forms of governance, and it was a faith-shaking crisis for the far Left, which openly sympathized with those regimes.