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9 November 1989: The German People Break Down the Wall

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The fall of the Berlin Wall

In the wee hours of 13 August 1961, the government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) quietly began to build a barbed-wire and concrete-block Antifascistischer Schutzwall or so-called “antifascist bulwark” along the dividing lines between East Germany and the surrounded city of West Berlin.

Officially, the purpose of the Wall was to prevent “fascists” entering East Germany; but its immediate and practical effect was to stanch the torrent of humanity pouring from the increasingly repressive and unsustainable GDR to West Berlin and West Germany. Legally and militarily, the Allied powers occupying West Berlin could do nothing, as the edifice being constructed stood well within the bounds of the GDR's own territory. They (and the people of both Germanies) had no alternative but to get used to it. Endlessly refined, improved and expanded over the ensuing decades, the Berlin Wall stood fixed and unperturbed in mute testimony to the "achievements" of Communism -- until the fateful day of 9 November 1989.

On that day, following weeks of mass demonstrations by restive East German citizens who were increasingly emboldened by the success of anti-Communists in Hungary and Poland; weeks that had seen the openly voiced refusal of the East German army and police to fire upon these demonstrators; and weeks that had seen the forced resignation of hard-line Socialist Unity Party (SED) leader Erich Honecker and his replacement by an ostensibly more "liberal" leadership; an official of the GDR's new government convened a press conference to discuss the pending relaxation of some - but only some - travel restrictions for GDR citizens. When asked by a reporter when these new regulations would take effect, the regime's spokesman (Gunther Schabowski by name) tentatively announced  - and with some bewilderment - "immediately, as far as I know." The people of the GDR were listening, and they took him at his word.

That night, ecstatic crowds swarmed the crossing points reserved for GDR citizens that led into West Berlin. Thousands strolled freely through the Antifascistischer Schutzwall to the other side as befuddled border guards, without orders to the contrary, stood by and let them pass. Other GDR citizens had bigger and more far-reaching ideas that night; they brought hammers and pick-axes along and began to feverishly chip away at the masonry of the wall itself. The GDR's once-feared border guards, realizing what miracle the people had wrought, got into the spirit of the moment themselves, grabbed some ladders and were soon atop the Wall shaking hands with smiling policemen from West Berlin. Less than a year later, for the ultimate good or ill of both Germanies, the GDR disappeared, swallowed whole as it were by the Western-aligned German Federal Republic.

In the end, it was the human element and the long-suppressed will of a put-upon populace that prevailed over a bureaucratic, monolithic state and its fearsome internal security forces, whose rank-and-file eventually remembered that they too were part of "the people" and chose to stand alongside their countrymen - and not their rulers - at the decisive moment. Leaders who go blissfully along as if they can ignore or defy the will of their own people forever are advised to remember the fate of East Germany.

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