The sight of the Berlin Wall told you all you needed to know about Communism. The way it ran through the city, the ugliness, the armed guards with field-glasses dominating it, were a monument in cement to inhumanity. As a soldier stationed in Germany I had had sightings of the whole Iron Curtain, its minefields, electrified wiring, and watchtowers. Later journalistic assignments in East Berlin were enough to convince me that Soviet Communism had East Germany in its grip and would never relent. In October 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev came to East Berlin and warned his faithful party servant Erich Honecker not to be left behind by history. Gorbachev and Honecker — I didn’t believe anything they might be saying, and prepared myself for a declaration of emergency, military rule, the shooting of large numbers of demonstrators, nuclear alert, the lot.
Honecker would have had no scruple about giving orders to fire on the crowd, and nor would Erich Mielke, brutal head of the Stasi. Egon Krenz likes to boast that as prime minister he killed nobody but this was because he lost the chance to do so. Plans for armed repression certainly existed. Instead, as often seems the case at historic turning points, accident took over. Gyula Horn, on behalf of the Hungarian Communist party, decided to open the Hungarian section of the Iron Curtain. To a certain extent, the Hungarians wanted to make life difficult for the Soviets, but more generally, they hadn’t perceived that from that moment East Germans would come and go as they pleased in huge numbers. The moment the Soviet bloc was no longer a properly controlled entity the Berlin Wall became a relic.
That November 20 years ago, Günter Schabowski was the East German Politburo member who had the task of explaining to the world’s press this sudden and unexpected breech in the Soviet empire. He had drawn the short straw. Maybe he was even an honest man, as such types go. Once he was no longer a Communist apparatchik, he took a job as a lowly journalist in Rothenburg, an unspoilt little town in West Germany, and there I interviewed him. At the outset of his famous press conference, he was to say, he had had no intention of declaring that the Berlin Wall was now open. But the questions threw him off balance, (Daniel Johnson, son of Paul Johnson, was one of the questioners) and he misspoke — as politicians like to put it — giving the unintended impression that people could indeed now cross the Wall freely.
Within a short time, the picks and jack-hammers were out and cheering people were dismantling the Wall. In another interview, I questioned the Stasi officer who had been on duty that night at the crucial point. When Schabowski’s press conference brought the demonstrators charging towards him and his men, he would willingly have opened fire but needed the order to do so to cover himself. His urgent telephone call to his superiors for instructions went unanswered. What is the likelihood that this was deliberate rather than incompetent? So this officer and his bewildered Stasi men were overrun with their weapons in hand, and so Schabowski played the sort of minor role on whom the plot turns that Shakespeare loved to write about, and so Gorbachev was as surprised as the rest of the world to be granted the great good fortune of entering the history books as the man who freed millions from Communism.