On November 9, 1989, an obscure post commander in the (perversely-named) German Democratic Republic named Harald Jäger, perhaps unwittingly, ended European Communism as a global political force,
setting in motion unleashing a chain of events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Earlier in the day, a spokesman for the Politboro, Günter Schabowski, received a note just before briefing a few members of the press. The note indicated that the East German government would be easing some travel restrictions for Berliners, to appease protestors. When asked when those eased travel restrictions would go into effect and liberalized visas to the west would be issued, the confused and apparently misinformed Schabowski said, “As far as I know, immediately, without delay,” and the word got out to some people who very much wanted to go visit their families on the other side of the Berlin Wall. They began lining up at border crossings and demanding to go across.
There was no such policy; Schabowski had been given a garbled instruction to indicate that the Politboro was considering more liberal travel visas but no decision had been made by the Soviet stooges who were running the show in Europe’s most ugly governmental building.
Harald Jäger was the post commander for the GDR at the Bornholmer Gate, which is not as well-known as the Brandenburg Gate or Checkpoint Charlie, but was one of several authorized crossing-points in the Berlin Wall.* Jäger’s role in these events is succinctly described by Dana at Edge of the American West:
In a nearby possible world, this story ends with a bloody riot. Armed guards shoot the boldest of the misinformed citizens; the uninjured retaliate. Guards are killed, the police put down the riot, and the Wall stands, not forever, but for a little while longer as the Soviets eased into openness.
In this world, Harald Jäger, in command at the Bornholmer Gate, decided not to shoot. He called his superiors, who of course had heard of no such policy change, and faced with the gathering, chanting crowds, decided to let a few cross the border; by midnight, he simply opened the gate to all, not taking names or checking identification.
What happened next seems to be well-known history but especially if you are still in your twenties, it’s going to be difficult for you to understand just how momentous it was. The crowds of East Berliners were heard and West Berliners also gathered at the wall. Seeing that the GDR’s guards were doing nothing to stop them from crossing, more went across, then in the crush a group of Berliners removed a gate, and from there a kind of mania took hold. Ordinary people began to literally tear down the Berlin Wall, brick by brick, one fist-sized lump of ugly gray concrete decorated with graffiti after another.
If East Germany’s political leaders had their acts together, they’d have put a stop to this, Dana’s sour description of the alternative world was what would have happened. By letting the easterners cross the border, Harald Jäger was putting his career and maybe his very life at risk. If this had been 1988 instead of 1989 — or if the GDR’s government had been able to get its act together — Jäger would have been court-martialled for dereliction of duty and possibly executed as a deterrent to others in similar positions.
But they didn’t have their act together.
East Germany’s political leaders were paralyzed by a deep economic failure that their political ideology had told them was not even possible and which their politically-slanted educations had not armed with tools to address. They were still reeling from the political success of Solidarity in next-door Poland, stunned that the ordinary people of an enlightened Socialist regime would so thoroughly reject Communism in the face of its political promises and overwhelming power. So when the East Berliners showed up and demanded that they be allowed to see their cousins in the west because of a bureaucratic mistake, the sad old gray men driving a rusted tank the wrong way down history’s path simply had no way to really understand even that such a thing could happen in the first place, much less what to do or what orders to give.
So Harald Jäger’s instruction to let the people pass stood in place. The border guards did not shoot. Most likely, they hated the wall as much as any other German did. Most likely, they envied the prosperity and freedoms of the West as much as did the citizens they were supposed to be controlling. In some cases, they joined in the efforts to break through the wall and tear down the division in their city, in their nation, their world.
The Germans tearing the wall down chanted “Wir sind das Volk!” (“We are the people!”) and the leaders of the Second World trembled and dithered. Within weeks, Solidarity was openly challenging the legitimacy of a paralyzed Communist dictatorship in Poland that had kept power after Solidarity had won overwhelming majorities in the first elections of their kind earlier in the year. The Velvet Revolution brought down the Czchoslovakian government. Hungary had also bowed to popular demands for actual multi-party elections earlier in the year, and the government there also faced the inevitable. The Soviets yanked their stooge Todor Zhikov from power in Bulgaria. In Romania, Nicolae Ceauşescu held on to power after it had rotted and suffered a violent end.
The Fall of the Wall was perhaps the high-water mark and the most visible symbol of the Revolutions of 1989. It was not the start; the movement started with Lech Walesa in Poland in 1981. It was not the end; that happened on December 26, 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved, spinning off its constituent republics into autonomous nations and ending the bi-polar world that two generations had grown up with. But today the event is being largely ignored. There will be a ceremony with a few celebrities at Bornholmerbrucke, and U2 gave a free concert at the Brandenburg Gate Saturday. The President of the United States may note the anniversary in a public address, or he may not.
And it’s not just we in the USA who are studiously ignoring what ought to be an important anniversary — the Germans themselves have given the moment scant attention. “Tourists don’t visit Bornholmer Strasse and the locals who use the bridge don’t pay the place much mind, so no one much notices that the unlit plaque is impossible to read after dusk.” They can perhaps be forgiven for this; they’ve spent the past twenty years integrating the eastern provinces of their split nation into a single political and economic unit, while struggling with the heavy legacies of the history that caused Germany to have been split in the first place. Along the way, they’ve also become the heavy-hitters and the first among equals within the European Union.
And perhaps we can be forgiven a little bit, too — 1989 was a time before the media had adopted “narratives” to allow us to interpret events and the man most identified with bringing down Communism, Ronald Reagan, was out of office and therefore not personally presiding over the Fall of the Wall. So historically short-sighted are we Americans that Reagan’s departure from office a mere ten months previous was not associated with the momentous events that started in Berlin twenty years ago today. But it was Ronald Reagan who dealt the knockout blow to the Soviet Union by forcing it to spend itself into oblivion to compete with the USA in the military sphere. While it took that giant a year or more to stagger, totter, and fall from the force of those blows, fall it did. Mikhail Gorbachev, for his part, gets credit for realizing what was happening and ensuring that it would happen peacefully and not with the military seizing power and doing what a military does when it has no other option. Gorbachev was informed by a deep sense of history in his actions.
But at the end of the day, the Revolution of 1989 was the work of the eastern European people, not the work of Gorbachev or Reagan. It began with Harald Jäger — a man who decided to exercise his humanity in the face of a senseless bureaucratic mistake. For all of the problems Europe and Russia have had to confront since then, the world is a better, safer place because of it.
* Bornholmerbrücke can be seen at Google Earth coordinates 52.55488 N, 13.398274 E. The gate was on the east side of the bridge along Borhnolmerstraße.