Politics & Policy

Party At Checkpoint Charlie

Not West. Not East. Just Germany.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth installment in a five-part series excerpted from William F. Buckley Jr.’s The Fall of the Berlin Wall. The third installment is here, the second is here; the first is here.

Egon Krenz, at 52, was the youngest member of the GDR Politburo, and ostentatiously so. Like his mentor, Honecker, he had made his career through the Free German Youth; unlike his more formal mentor, even after he was elevated to the Party’s Central Committee he continued to dress like a young FDJ functionary. When he joined the Politburo in 1983, he was given the portfolio of youth affairs, but also a security portfolio. Now, in October 1989, that security portfolio was a serious hindrance to him in his efforts to convince the East German people that reform was at hand.

However, once Krenz succeeded Honecker, he quickly set to work in the spirit of Robespierre: There go my followers–I must lead them. On October 26, GDR officials opened formal talks with opposition leaders. On the 27th, an amnesty was announced for all who had been arrested for taking part in demonstrations–and for all who had left East Germany and might now want to return. On the 31st, Krenz traveled to Moscow to meet with Gorbachev. Upon leaving their private meeting Krenz told reporters that he was ready to put the Soviets’ “vanguard experience” with perestroika and glasnost to work in East Germany. Asked about the unrest, he replied, “Many people are out on the streets to show that they want better socialism and a renovation of society. . . . I believe this is a good sign, an indication that we are at a turning point in the life of the German Democratic Republic.”

On November 1, the Krenz regime reopened the border with Czechoslovakia. Thousands of East Germans poured across it. Krenz took to the airwaves to plead with those who had not yet left. “Trust our policy of renewal,” he said. “Your place, dear fellow citizens, is here. We need you.” But many of his fellow citizens were not disposed to trust him. We should trust him, a retired factory worker asked a New York Times reporter, “after he went to China to congratulate them for the blood they spilled?” Believe him, “after he rigged our last election? After being the boss of state security? The sparrows on the roof wouldn’t believe him.” A West German reporter quoted a comment about Krenz that had been making the rounds: “He can smile and laugh more readily than any of our leading comrades. But he can also smile and laugh as he orders a death sentence to be carried out.”

Over the next few days, eleven of the GDR Politburo’s eighteen members were retired, including two of the fathers of the Berlin Wall, Willi Stoph and Erich Mielke. In the small hours of August 4, 1961, Stoph and Mielke had helped Walter Ulbricht work out the details of the “secret seal-off matter” (geheime Verschlusssache), as the division of Berlin was officially called.

The eleven retirees were replaced by four newcomers to the regime. These included Hans Modrow, the Party chief of Dresden, who had been holding talks with local dissident leaders. On November 9, Gerasimov weighed in with the Soviet response to the personnel changes. “It’s their country; they know better. But we welcome these changes.”

* * *

During all this upheaval, Günter Schabowski, Politburo member and Party chief for East Berlin, was holding televised press conferences every evening. Foreign as well as local journalists were invited, and–yet another sign of change–the conferences were broadcast live in East Germany.

At about 9 PM on Thursday, November 9, the press conference seemed to be winding up when a reporter asked one final question. Hesitantly, and without looking into the camera, as if what he had to say was not entirely fit for public discussion, Schabowski pronounced magic words. “Permanent emigration is henceforth allowed across all border crossing points between East Germany and West Germany and West Berlin.”

Viewers turned to each other in disbelief. . . . Did he say what I thought he said? Then, Is this some kind of trick?

A few decided to test out the words of manumission. There and then. A group of friends, who had been watching the televised press conference in a bar, quickly paid their bill and walked four blocks to the nearest border crossing, at Bornholmerstrasse. They showed their identity cards to the Grepo on duty. He permitted them to cross the bridge into West Berlin. One of them spoke to an American reporter. “To walk across this bridge into West Berlin is the most normal thing in the world. But things haven’t been normal here for 28 years.”

The news traveled with the speed of light. West Berliners also poured out into the streets. By midnight the whole area between the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie was one huge, joyous party. Car horns tooted, there was dancing in the streets, and champagne, or a reasonable substitute, was raised in toasts, drunk, and sprayed around the assembly.

There were tears too, of relief, of sadness for wasted years, of mourning for those who had died trying to escape. One young man said in wonderment, “I couldn’t imagine that I’d ever just be able to walk through the Brandenburg Gate. It’s unreal, unbelievable.” Willy Brandt told a group of revelers, “Nothing will be the same again.”

* * *

The Grepos found themselves in a disciplinary quandary for which nothing in their training had prepared them. Some made a great fussy show of examining people’s papers. Some responded spontaneously, even if dazed, to hands extended in greeting. One young Grepo found himself in an undreamed-of position: a microphone was thrust at him, and intense light aimed in his face. The television reporter’s question was, “What do you think of the whole thing?” He replied judiciously, with words heard round the world: “The last twelve hours, travel possibilities have improved enormously.”

The idea hit a vigorous young man: Why not climb up onto the wall itself? The hundred yards stretching out on either side of the Brandenburg Gate were well situated. This was the section that had a wide, flat top, not the big cylindrical pipes that the Honecker regime had used to replace the barbed wire on the rest of the wall. Many followed suit. Even the tallest wall-climbers needed a leg up, and the less athletic were also given a hand from above. Press accounts spoke of celebrants dancing on the wall, but this could not go on for very long. There was no room. The exultant Berliners satisfied themselves, linking arms left and right, merely to sway their hips.

At dawn on Friday the party began to break up. The Eastern celebrants mostly drifted back to their homes. If East Berlin wasn’t a prison any more, why not go home?

* * *

Already on Thursday evening someone had improvised a chisel, and the first piece of the wall was broken off. On Friday, hundreds of Berliners, West and East, were there with real chisels and claw hammers and screwdrivers and sledgehammers to pry loose their own piece of the wall. Resident foreigners joined in. Some shared their souvenirs with people back home whom they deemed persistent friends of a free Berlin. (Reporter Bennett Owen kindly sent one to National Review’s managing editor.) On Saturday, official East German workers arrived on the scene. Some used jackhammers to widen openings in the wall; others set about restoring the streets and resetting the rail lines that had been ripped up 28 years before. On Sunday, the wall came down at Potsdamerplatz, and West Berlin’s mayor, Walter Momper, declared, “The heart of Berlin will soon beat again.”

Chancellor Kohl was in Warsaw when he got the news. He cut short his visit to fly to Berlin. He stood on the steps of City Hall, where John Kennedy had addressed Berliners 26 years before. “I want to call out to all in the German Democratic Republic,” Kohl said. “We’re on your side. We are, and remain, one nation. We belong together. Long live a free German fatherland. Long live a united Europe.”

His government offered 100 Marks (about $55) in “greeting money” to any Easterner who wanted to come over and see the western half of Berlin. Thousands did so, flocking wide-eyed to the shops on the Kurfürstendamm, shops they had seen on TV in their “nightly emigration.” They couldn’t buy much with 100 Marks. But they could express delight and awe at such a profusion of goods. They had in years past expressed proper pride in the relative strength of their own economy, up against those of the other satellites. But it was nothing like what they now saw, even if they could not taste it.

In my column written on November 10, I began: “When the news came in, President Bush sat quietly in his large chair in the Oval Office and said in grave tones that we must not overreact. He is absolutely right about this. Jingle bells! Jingle bells! Jingle all the wayyyy! It is proper to deem it a historical development, but its significance must not affect our judgment. Oh what a beautiful mor-ning! Oh what a beau-ti-ful day!!! After all, there is tomorrow to think about in Germany Germany?!?! What do you mean, ‘Germany’? You mean West Germany or you mean East Germany? and the score allows for many variations. Calmness is in order.”

The holiday atmosphere at the wall continued for days. Many, including Grepos (border guards) and Vopos, stood in the new openings posing for photographs. A popular slogan in the pro-democracy movement, “Die Mauer muss weg”–”The wall must go”–had been among the graffiti on the western side of the wall. Now someone wrote on the eastern side: “Die Mauer IST Weg.”

* * *

The breaching of the wall sent waves of euphoria through the Free World. But many were afraid to hope that this was truly a turning point, not a culminating point. Eastern European émigrés in particular expressed doubt that their own native countries would experience similar relief. “Oh, it’s wonderful, wonderful,” a Czech waiter in New York told a customer a few days after November 9, “but nothing like that could happen in Czechoslovakia. My people are too demoralized. They’ll never rebel.” At the time, he seemed to be right. Ever since the brutal suppression of the October 28 demonstration, the streets of Prague had been quiet.

Then on Friday, November 17, the Czechoslovak Youth Union held a rally, with government permission, in honor of two students who had been killed fifty years before while protesting the Nazi takeover. The rally turned into a pro-democracy demonstration and was decisively put down by the police. It was reported that one protestor, a mathematics student named Martin Smid, had been beaten to death. The government first denied responsibility, and then said the charge itself was phony. Not one but two youths claiming to be “Martin Smid” were shown alive and well on state television.

Whatever actually happened to Smid, every day the following week there were strikes and protests. On Monday, the 20th, two hundred thousand demonstrators marched peacefully in Prague. For the first time since 1968 there were also demonstrations in other Czechoslovakian cities. The following day, Premier Adamec began talks with the principal opposition group, Civic Forum, modeled on the East German New Forum. After that meeting, Vaclav Havel, standing on a balcony in Wenceslaus Square, reported to a crowd of a hundred fifty thousand that Adamec had promised not to impose martial law and had said he would be willing to bring non-Communists into the government. A Czech priest, Father Vaclav Maly, also spoke to the crowd. He read an incendiary letter from Frantisek Cardinal Tomasek, the primate of Czechoslovakia. “We are surrounded by countries that have broken the bars of totalitarianism. We cannot wait any more. We need democratic government.”

On Thursday, the 23rd, Alexander Dubcek addressed a crowd of seventy thousand in Bratislava. This was his first public appearance since his ouster in 1969. On Friday, he came to Prague–again, for the first time since 1969–and addressed two hundred thousand people in Wenceslaus Square. “Long live socialism with a human face,” he said. “Long live our new generation.” Also on Friday, General Secretary Jakes led the Presidium in a mass resignation. However, six of his colleagues were reappointed to the Presidium by the Central Committee. On Saturday, Havel told some eight hundred thousand of his fellow citizens that the shakeup was a “trick.”

Two weeks earlier, Gorbachev had responded to the opening of the wall by admonishing the West against opportunizing on the changes in Eastern Europe. Now he published an article in Pravda defining his own perestroika as an attempt to give socialism a “human face.” This wording was widely viewed as an homage to Dubcek.

On December 10, a coalition government with more non-Communist than Communist members was sworn in, and Wenceslaus Square was filled once more, this time not in anger but in joy. Dubcek and Havel both declared their candidacy for president, but the following week Dubcek withdrew in Havel’s favor. On December 28, the Federal Assembly elected Dubcek as its Speaker, and the day after that elected Havel president. He was the first non-Communist president of Czechoslovakia since Eduard Benes, 41 years before. The Velvet Revolution was gathering speed.


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