NOBODY expected it to happen the way that it did: not the East German leader Egon Krenz, nor his West German counterpart, Helmut Kohl — and certainly not the border guards at the frontier dividing Germany’s historic capital. The Berlin Wall’s sudden fall on 9 November 1989 took everyone intimately connected with the public life of the two Germanys unprepared. That said, indications that something would happen had been accumulating for months. Some of the most important emerged from the Churches.
The date 9 November provides a lesson in the power of historical contingency — more specifically, what can go wrong when someone tries to “wing it” at a press conference.
GÜNTER SCHABOWSKI, the media chief of the SED (Socialist Unity Party) was new to Western-style press conferences. He had introduced them only a day earlier (8 November) as part of a programme of mild modernisation. Unfortunately, Schabowski did not take the format particularly seriously: his modus operandi involved reading out, in an automated fashion, information bulletins to assembled journalists without any research into background. This blasé attitude was to result in Schabowski’s undoing — and sudden, epoch-marking change for the country that he served.
Reacting to disaffection at home, increasing emigration to West Germany via third countries, and signals from Moscow that reform was overdue, the new East German leader, Krenz, had embarked on a programme of controlled liberalisation.
His reforms included the relaxation of travel restrictions across the “inner German border”. More or less free transit to West Germany was to be allowed for the first time since the Wall’s construction in 1961.
The policy was announced to the politburo on the morning of 9 November. Schabowski received a briefing note that day, which was intended for relay to the news media. But a vital detail got lost in transmission: the announcement was embargoed for 24 hours to allow border police and intelligence officers to prepare. Schabowski held that the only two things needed to manage a press conference were: being “able to speak German, and read a text without mistakes”. This proved mistaken. Had he checked his papers, and made just one phone call for clarification, history might have turned out very differently.
At the evening news conference, he relayed mechanically each of the routine information notices in his sheaf of papers in a clear but ponderous monotone, before reaching the last in the pile: the one about travel. Incongruously bland delivery only heightened the sense of unreality for journalists as they heard him say: “Private travel outside the country can now be applied for without prerequisites or conditions. . . Permits will be issued at short notice.”
A radical change to the core pillar of the GDR’s control of its citizens — its ability to pen them inside the country’s borders — seemed to have been announced as casually as details of the weather report or alterations to the agriculture minister’s schedule for visiting model farms.
An incredulous Italian journalist asked when the new arrangements would become effectual. Schabowski improvised. Glancing at his papers, as if for reassurance, he answered confidently: “I understand immediately: without delay.”
Once the news was out, it could not be suppressed. The conference had been broadcast live inside the GDR on state television. Furthermore, the West German networks ZDF and ARD were widely — if illegally — watched by East Berliners, via the West Berlin relay station. Those networks reiterated the news to the city’s inhabitants at 7.17 p.m. and 8 p.m. respectively.
Within minutes of the broadcast, people had begun to assemble at the nine city checkpoints that, for almost three decades, had provided limited, fragile valves of communication between East and West Berlin. During the next four-and-a-half hours, their numbers grew. Police held back would-be visitors to the West as they chanted “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people”).
Lacking instructions, and unwilling to deploy significant force to disperse the crowds without them, frontline officers became very fearful of their ability to manage matters. Finally, at 11.30 p.m., Lt. Col. Harald Jäger of the Stasi (security police) made a bold choice. With only 46 men to hold back a crowd of 20,000 at the Bornholmer Straße crossing, and no promise of reinforcements, Jäger decided to raise the barrier and let the crowds through.
Years later, he told reporters: “My world was collapsing and I felt like I was left alone by my commanders. . . The heroes were the East German citizens who gathered that evening. . . The only thing I can be credited with is that it happened without any blood being spilled.”
Commanders at the other eight posts rapidly followed Jäger’s example, watching helplessly as vast numbers of people first flooded through the wall, and then began to tear it down with their bare hands.
The next day, 10 November, Anatoly Chernyaev, an adviser to the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, wrote in his diary: “The Berlin Wall has collapsed. This entire era in the history of the socialist system is over.” His words were prescient: within one year, German unification had been achieved; within two, the USSR had vanished.
THE fall of the Berlin Wall is known to Germans as Die Wende (“The Turnaround”). It was certainly the iconic and decisive moment that marked the end of the Cold War. It was, however, neither the first nor the last episode in the end of Communism in Eastern Europe.
In fact, external developments had placed pressure on the East German authorities to liberalise. In June, multi-party elections had taken place in neighbouring Poland, and were promised for Hungary in 1990. Even the Warsaw Pact’s ultimate security guarantor, the Soviet Union, was signalling a desire to change.
Until October, the GDR’s leadership firmly resisted such pressures. Erich Honecker, the General Secretary of the SED, found himself in the uncomfortable position of doggedly defending a rigid old-style Marxist orthodoxy against the wishes of his de facto Soviet overlord, Gorbachev.
Starting in 1985, and intensifying over the next years, Gorbachev had shown through his Glasnost (Openness) and Perestroika (Restructuring) reform programmes every sign of wanting to abandon the USSR’s inherited ideological straitjacket. He also wanted to divest the Soviet Union of its expensive military stand-off with NATO in Europe — and, with it, support for unpopular satellite regimes.
Gorbachev and Honecker had exchanged a ritual full-lips kiss in Berlin on 7 October (an echo of Russian Orthodox liturgical practice), in celebration of the GDR’s 40th birthday. But it was more a kiss of parting than of friendship.
A young man igniting candles in front of Gethsemane Church during the demonstration in 1989, Berlin
Honecker stood little chance of quelling an increasingly restive, reform-hungry populace without support from the 380,000 Soviet troops stationed in the country. Clearly, Gorbachev’s support for such action would not be forthcoming. Eleven days later, Honecker was gone.
The decision to open the crossings in an organised manner was intended to save the GDR’s government. It would allow disaffected elements to leave, and placate those remaining with the knowledge that they could travel to the FRG (West Germany) to purchase consumer goods and see relatives whenever they desired. Opening the crossing was meant to remove the stark binary choice that East Germans (“Ossis”) had felt between continuing to live in a restrictive atmosphere or seeking to reach West Germany via newly passable third countries. Communist Hungary and neutral Austria had demilitarised their border in June, and had subsequently relaxed visa controls.
During the next four months, 80,000 Ossis left the Eastern bloc for the FRG via the Austro-Hungarian frontier and other routes. The GDR was threatened with a dawning depopulation crisis. Paradoxically, by making the country porous, Krenz trusted that his regime could be rendered permanent.
In the event, the confusion amid which the Berlin border-opening happened led to ordinary citizens’ taking the initiative and de facto control of the GDR’s frontier. The government lost more than operational control that night: sovereign legitimacy passed to the people. This was radical populism, but in a very different form from that now seen in Europe: it came authentically from “below”.
BERLIN was the locus of change in November — and that change was secular. The symbolic genesis of popular unrest occurred, however, in the provinces in late summer — and its roots were in the sacred.
Since 1982, the Nikolaikirche (St Nicholas’s Church) in Leipzig had been holding “Prayers for Peace” on Monday evenings. Intercessions were offered both for a peaceful end to the Cold War and universal respect for human rights. The latter petition carried an implied criticism of the government’s setting what happened in the church against the state’s plentiful official “peace propaganda” and the activities of its tame clergy, “the peace priests”.
The Nikolaikirche slowly became a discreet gathering-place for people, many of them non-religious and disaffected with the regime.
In an atmosphere of frustration at Stasi surveillance, stalled liberalisation, and the threat of mass emigration, protest spilled from the church on to the adjoining Karl Marx Platz after the end of the peace service on the night of Monday 4 September.
That night, there were about 1200 demonstrators, but this was only the start. The protests, co-ordinated with the church services, became a weekly event, and grew as the nights became shorter. Those attending carried candles and demanded change. By 23 October, 320,000 were assembled: equal to more than three-fifths of the population of Leipzig. It was on the streets of Leipzig that the chant “Wir sind das Volk” began.
As the Leipzig protests continued, they were replicated in more cities around Germany. Of particular significance were the subsequent gatherings at the Gethsemane Church, East Berlin. There, Gottfried Forck, a local bishop of the United Protestant Church, caused a stir on 9 October when he called for free multi-party elections.
ALAMYResidents of Leipzig with candles outside the Stasi headquarters, three days after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Every Monday evening up to and after the fall of the wall thousands of residents marched and protested their freedom after meeting at the St Nicholas Church
Some arrests occurred at the early protests, but, for the most part, security forces held back from forceful suppression. A brief but bloody fracas in Berlin (close to the Gethsemane Church) on 7 October stood out as exceptional. Partly, this muted response reflected division among those pulling the levers of power, and fear of not being able to contain mass civil unrest without Red Army support. Both the police and their political masters, however, felt disarmed by the spiritual character of the protests. As Honecker’s deputy, Horst Sindermann, later remarked: “We had planned for everything . . . but not for candles and prayers.”
The contribution of Christian communities to the end of the GDR was presaged in the June national elections in Poland. There, a limited but considerable number of seats were freely contested: one third of the Sejm (lower house). Those seats were won overwhelmingly (160/ 161) by candidates of the Solidarity movement, led by Lech Walesa.
Solidarity had enjoyed strong support from the local Roman Catholic hierarchy, and, later, the Polish Pope John Paul II, since its inception at Gdansk in 1980. The meeting at which it morphed from trade union to political party occurred in the Church of the Divine Mercy, Warsaw, on 18 December 1988.
THE church context for Germany’s “Peaceful Revolution” was prefigured in Poland and echoed in form, if not final character, in Romania, which was the only country where the regime fell violently.
On Saturday 16 December, the infamous Securitate (secret police) attempted to evict the Hungarian-Reformed pastor László Tokés from his manse in the culturally diverse west-Romanian city of Timișoara (Temesvár). The attempted eviction was punishment for Tokés’s outspoken criticisms from the pulpit of President Nicolae Ceaușescu’s suffocating regime.
In a rare show of intercommunal solidarity, a large crowd of ethnic Hungarians and Romanians linked arms and formed a human chain around the manse, and successfully blocked the Securitate. Peaceful resistance subsequently turned to protest and, finally, rioting, which carried on late into the night.
The next day, Sunday, was anything but a quiet day of prayer in Timișoara. Protests continued, and soldiers arrived to reinforce police. The troops opened fire on the demonstrators with live rounds; about 100 died.
Those killings sparked nationwide confrontations during which the army changed sides, joining the people in a fight against the hated Securitate. Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were executed in the capital, Bucharest, on Christmas Day. The event was ghoulishly filmed for broadcast on Romanian television.
Journalists dubbed 1989 an annus mirabilis (year of miracles). Churches played an important part in the events that changed the continent. In several countries, they nurtured — and even initiated — movements for change, but they could not always guide events thereafter. Change often started at the geographical margins and progressed inwards to the centre: journeying from “Galilee to Jerusalem”.
The part that Christians played in transforming Europe’s political order was quiet but important — and it deserves greater recognition.
The Revd Alexander Faludy is an Anglican priest presently pursuing studies in law.
Listen to a conversation between Fr Faludy and Dr Anna Rowlands on The Church Times Podcast.
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In December 1989, Fr Constantin Jinga was a student at the University of Timisoura. Today, he is a Romanian Orthodox parish priest, serving in the same city.
He told his story to the Iron Curtain Project (www.ironcurtainproject.eu)
Fr Constantin Jinga in 1989
“Throughout Romania, people were waiting for a “spark” those days. We only wanted one thing: an end to the dictatorship. We wanted food, electricity, but, most of all, freedom. The news of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in November, travelled through the streets.
At 9 a.m., I had to be at the university. We made serious plans to occupy the radio station that night, but first I wanted to see what the situation was. So, in the afternoon, I went into the city. I heard gunshots, but I was sure that they had to be blanks.
I looked the soldiers in the eye. They were even younger than me, maybe just 18 years old. An officer gave an order, and the soldiers took four steps back — I counted them. I could not believe that they had opened fire on us until I saw the old man next to me collapse. I pushed my friend to the ground and fell down on her to cover her with my body. Before I even hit the ground, a bullet pierced my shoulder.
Fr Constantin Jinga today
I felt no pain, just a feeling of powerlessness. I saw blood and thought that I was going to die; I had seen it in movies. Strangely enough, it also flashed through my mind that I would arrive late at my parents’ home. I started to pray, and everything became quiet.
I woke up in the hospital and watched the rest of the revolution through the window. I still have problems with my shoulder, but do I regret it? No, not one moment, never!”
In 1989 Dr Ela Lazarewicz-Wyrzykowska was a schoolgirl in Poland. Today, she is a lay Roman Catholic biblical scholar, who researches and teaches the Old Testament at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, Cambridge.
Dr Ela Lazarewicz-Wyrzykowska in 1989
MY MEMORIES of the events of 1989 are like a series of snapshots, or, rather, short video clips. It was the year in which I turned 12.
In the early months, from February until April, I remember following the news updates on the Round Table negotiations. These were discussions about a transition of power between the Communist government and the representatives of the democratic opposition, and also the [Roman] Catholic and Lutheran Churches.
Then, on 1 May, with my parents and younger sister, I marched for the first time in a demonstration, the first legal alternative to the official May Day parades. Then we nervously awaited the results of the parliamentary elections on 4 June. For the first time since the Second World War, parties other than the official Communist PZPR and its satellite/puppet parties were allowed to run for a limited number of seats.
The elections ended with a crushing victory of the Citizen’s Committee, organised around Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity movement. Walesa’s ally, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, became the first democratically elected PM of modern Poland. Watching the live coverage of Mazowiecki’s inauguration on 13 September was nerve-racking. He collapsed during the ceremony; my parents feared him poisoned. This fainting turned out to be caused by stress and exhaustion. He served in the office for another five months.
Marta Kiela-CzarnikDr Ela Lazarewicz-Wyrzykowska today
When I watched from my family home in Warsaw the news coverage of the November events in Berlin, I watched it, so to speak, from “the other side of the Rubicon”. The people who were tearing down the wall were doing so to join me: a citizen of a democratic, free country.
The political reality of Poland of that time was far more complex than I realised. Yet I still think it important to see the iconic autumn moment in Germany in the context of the wider process that made it possible.
The following is based on a text supplied by Pastor Tomas Groß. Today Tomas is a United Protestant (EKD) Pastor and schoolteacher in Saxony-Anhalt. In 1989, he was a theological student training for the ministry inside the GDR.
THE GDR in Autumn 1989 was not “softening”, like some other places. In schools, the government had just implemented obligatory military drill for the pupils. If you evaded this, it damaged your career.
There were nuclear weapons on the inner German border, poisoned rivers behind it, and industrial smog everywhere. This and the Chernobyl accident in 1986 led East German Christians to advocate for environmentalism: preserving God’s creation.
The Church did something really valuable in the 1980s: it offered to those who were allowed no public voice by the regime a place to speak and be heard. Only in the Church was there free speech and open discussion. Outside it, there were consequences for activism: loss of employment, perhaps, even imprisonment.
As committed young churchgoers in the 80s, my friends and I drew attention to social and environmental problems. We organised special services, staged topical theatre plays in churches, spread flyers, and spoke with people, both Christian and not.
Back then, the biblical phrase “swords into ploughshares” (Micah 4.3) was printed on badges, and stitched on coats and backpacks. In schools, universities, and industrial training-centres, the authorities asked youngsters to remove those badges and punished those who refused.
Even with the Church’s protected status, the Leipzig protests were risky. Before the demonstration on 9 October (when 70,000 gathered), the city hospitals went on high alert in case the police or army opened fire, as had happened in Beijing that June.
The call “No violence“ was one of many of the demonstrators’ shouts. It wasn’t addressed only to policemen and soldiers, but to themselves. They knew that the slightest provocation would lead to immediate and drastic action from the government.
For me, at least, there was no one “great hope” for the future, but many little hopes. I wanted to participate in a real election and vote for a party of my choice. This happened in 1990. I wanted to travel. Since ’89, I have seen Western Europe, Israel and, America — unimaginable when I was growing up! I wanted to canoe on a clean river and send my children to schools without military drill. These things happened, too.
Germany today isn’t the heaven of which some people dreamed in ’89: it has problems and weaknesses. The experience of changing things in a peaceful way is imprinted in our memories, however.
There might be times when we think that prayers cannot change anything. In those moments, we should remember the autumn of 1989: of how things changed “with candles and with prayers”.
The Rt Revd Jana Jeruma-Grinberga is a British-Latvian Pastor who grew up in exile in the UK. In 1989 she was an NHS nurse in London. She later served as Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Great Britain and as Anglican Chaplain in Riga, Latvia.
23 August 1989 was the 50th Anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. The latter not only divided Poland between the two great powers but opened the way for the USSR’s annexation of the Baltic states.
By summer 1989 the multiple internal subject nations of the USSR were highly restive. A symbolic act of defiance and unity took place across the Baltic States. Between 1,500,000 and 2,000,000 people took part in ‘the Baltic Way’, a continuous line of people holding hands along the roads between Tallinn in Estonia, through Rīga in Latvia to Vilnius in Lithuania — a distance of over 600 km.
This protest demanded an astonishing ability to organise in an era when there were no mobiles, no internet and even home phones were not widely distributed. At the same time, it was an expression of defiance and bravery at a time when KGB surveillance and punitive action was still very much a reality.
The Baltic Way was immensely important for Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, proclaiming a desire for self-determination and freedom. It also had a much wider resonance throughout the wider Soviet ‘sphere of influence’: the organisers of the Baltic Way were in constant contact with dissidents in other countries, although Baltic independence itself would have to wait until 1991.
That day in a village on the Welsh borders a British-Latvian children’s summer camp was taking place, and there all the parents and children also joined hands around the flag post, flying the Latvian flag. For us, watching from a distance marked not just by geography but also by history, this was the moment when we began to hope against hope.