“Mr. Kleiner, you have misunderstood!” – 24 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Happy Wall Fall everyone! On this day 24 years ago, the Berlin Wall was breached after East German authorities buckled to the pressure caused by a wave of emigration and let their citizens travel West upon demand. Anyone old enough to have been aware of the event seems to have a story about where they were when the Wall fell and here is mine . . .

The Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strasse in summer 1990 (photo: author).

The Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strasse in summer 1990; in the distance the lighting masts of Friedrich Jahn Sportpark, homeground of the Dynamo Berlin Football Club (photo: author).

Soup, Sandwich with Some History on the Side

On November 9th, 1989, I was a twenty-one year old record store employee pursuing German language studies part-time at the University of Saskatchewan. That same year I’d spent three months in Germany immersing myself in a language course in West Berlin and then travelling around the Federal Republic for a few weeks. As the situation in the GDR came to a head that fall, I followed events through reports on PBS’ McNeil Lehrer Newshour which typically featured clandestinely shot footage of street protests, demonstrations and/or arrests being carried out by People’s Police officers. These grainy videos were all bathed in the distinctive orange and yellow glow cast by the East German street lights, an effect that has imposed itself on most of my memories of that tumultuous time.

On Thursday, November 9th, 1989, I was home alone preparing for an afternoon class and sat down to eat my lunch in front of the TV. I don’t recall what I was watching, but I remember that the news came on that the GDR had announced that it was opening its borders to the West. My recollection is that this report had a tone of incredulity or uncertainty to it. The reasons for this were completely understandable. At the time, many observers on both sides of the Wall felt that this structure was central to maintaining the delicate balance of power in the Cold War. Opening it, they argued, would be  inviting, at best, chaos, at worst, nuclear annihilation. Additionally, the notion that the GDR would simply lift all the travel restrictions upon which its viability appeared to be based was unthinkable to most inside and outside the country.

Günter Schabowski sets the record straight, sort of . . . (photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1109-030 / Lehmann, Thomas / CC-BY-SA)

Günter Schabowski (2nd from right) sets the record straight, sort of . . . (photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1109-030 / Lehmann, Thomas / CC-BY-SA)

Reinforcing these attitudes was the chaotic way in which the announcement was made. It came from Günter Schabowski, the spokesperson of the GDR’s Politbüro, at the tail end of a press conference at which he was updating the world’s press about this body’s deliberations. Given the upheavals that had been going on (e.g. the resignation of Erich Honecker as leader of Socialist Unity Party and East German State Council several weeks previous), there was considerable interest in the Politbüro’s activities, thus the crowd of reporters. That day, the Politbüro had approved new travel regulations that appeared to open East Germany’s borders to the West, details of which were presented to Schabowski just before he appeared before the press. When he read these aloud, a reporter followed up by asking when these were to come into effect. Annoyed or perhaps confused, Schabowski referred to the page he’d only just been handed. After pulling on his reading glasses, he scanned the page and responded:

Schabowski: (Looks through his papers…) That comes into effect, according to my information, immediately, without delay (looking through his papers further).

Question: Does this also apply for West Berlin? You only mentioned the FRG.

Schabowski: (shrugs his shoulders, frowns, looks at his papers) So … (pause), um hmmm (reads aloud): “Permanent exit can take place via all border crossings from theGDR to the FRG and West Berlin, respectively.”

(Günter Schabowski, “Günter Schabowski’s Press Conference in the GDR International Press Center,” Making the History of 1989, Item #449, http://chnm.gmu.edu/1989/items/show/449 (accessed November 08 2013, 6:24 am))

And so it was. GDR citizens tuning in to West German newscasts received word that their borders were open. GDR media was initially silent as they’d gotten no advance warning. Schabowski it turned out, had jumped the gun. The travel rules were under embargo and only to go into effect the next day to give authorities a chance to inform the relevant offices. In the chaos of the situation, however, no one remembered to tell Günter S. that this was the plan.

“Mr. Kleiner, you have misunderstood!”

Well, at the time of my lunch these details weren’t known to me, but I had a vague inkling that something very important might be happening. However, instead of parking myself in front of the TV to see what might transpire, ever the dutiful student, I gathered my things and headed to class. Now most of my fellow students had only what one might charitably call a “passing interest” in current German affairs. They were typically there to fulfill a breadth requirement and had little clue what was going on halfway around the world, so I spared them my tidbit and buttonholed our instructor.

Professor G. was a German emigre in his late 50s or early 60s and an enthusiastic teacher who was preferred to lead class while sitting cross-legged on top of a desk. His specialty was medieval German literature and, not surprisingly, his idea of what constituted current affairs tended to stop around the creation of the unified German state in 1870.

When I shared with Prof. G. the news that the GDR had opened its borders, he was incredulous: “Mr. Kleiner, you have misunderstood!” I assured him that I had not and that this was indeed happening. He smiled and shook his head before announcing to the class, “Mr. Kleiner tells me that the East German government has opened the Berlin Wall, I believe that this is not the case. But time will tell and we have work to do . . .” And so it was that we applied ourselves to the parsing of Goethe’s Faust or read the Coles’ Notes version of Nietzche’s contribution to world philosophy without even stopping to consider the upheavals taking place in the country we were ostensibly studying.
In the days that followed, as images of happy German dancing on the Brandenburg Gate filled newscasts and the spectre of German unification began to emerge from the scenes of jubilation, I knew I was missing out on the party to end all parties. I still had friends in Berlin, folks I’d met the previous winter who’d stayed on to improve their German and explore the oddity that was West Berlin. In those pre-Internet days, I had no idea what they were up to, but could imagine the scenes. Part of me wanted to hop on a plane and in the years since, I have always envied those people I’ve met who didn’t listen to reason and made their way to see for themselves as the “death strip” was once again filled with  life.
“Read All About It!” – The Fall of the Wall in the Socialist Press

As one would expect, control of the media held a high priority in “real existing socialism” as practiced in the GDR. All outlets received their marching orders from the highest ranks of the Socialist Unity Party and censorship was widely practiced. The result was newspapers, magazines and broadcast media with little or no credibility amongst the populace. The dramatic upheavals of the fall of 1989 placed East German media in a very difficult position. While these organizations were certainly used to generating reportage that served only the interests of their political masters and which often had only a passing resemblance to reality, reporting on the events of 1989 in this way would’ve required editors to reach truly Orwellian levels of denial (“Peace is war”, “Freedom is slavery”, “Ignorance is strength” – on second thought, that last one probably hung in some editorial offices). At any rate, my collection includes a couple of publications from the days following the opening of the Wall. I was curious to see how the opening of the Wall was dealt with and below you’ll read what I found.

The Gate is Open: Neue Berliner Illustrierte from Nov. 16, 1989 (photo: author)

The Gate is Open: Neue Berliner Illustrierte from Nov. 16, 1989 (photo: author)

The first acquisition of this kind was issue 47/89 of NBI, Neue Berliner Illustrierte, East Germany’s version of LIfe magazine which had the motto “The times in pictures.” This issue does a good job documenting the jubilation of Berliners at the dismantling of the Wall, but a report on labour shortages wrought by the thousands of workers who’d left the country in the previous months reflects the chaotic reality of everyday life in the GDR at that time too. Interviews with West German politicians are included as are what one can assume were preplanned features on sugar beet production in the GDR and, fittingly perhaps,  the tragedy of the “unsinkable” Titanic. This latter contribution immediately brought to mind the bold statement by GDR leader Erich Honecker in January of 1989 that “The Wall will still stand in 100 years!”

Wall 24 - NBI Kohl cartoon

Helmut Kohl already pulling the strings in the NBI of Nov. 16, 1989 (photo: author)

The editorial content reflects the feeling of change in the air. The Editor in Chief uses his platform to call for “honesty and renewal”, and a move away from “so-called ‘developed socialism’ that we have, towards an ever more democratic socialism.” An editorial cartoon features a puppet theatre in which West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl is pulling all the strings (see above), while on another page the East German government headquarters is pictured with a large sign hanging from its entranceway that reads “Closed for Renovations!” (see below). The first ten pages of the issue are dedicated to photos and reports on the fall of the Wall and include four reports from journalists on the ground in Berlin. The tone of these is hard to categorize. While the reporters do their best to record and relate the celebrations around them, their distance from the events and the legacy of their GDR-journalistic education come through time and again.

In the first, Ilona Rothin depicts how on November 10th, she crosses from the East Berlin district of Treptow in a scene of mass pushing.

“On the other side, the chaos is transformed into a party with champagne splashing on the roofs of Trabis. Complete strangers hug one another. One company is giving away free “Kaiser” coffee and chocolate. A friendly gesture, but the “poor brothers and sisters” ideology within the first meters is a bit annoying.

Social Services offices and banks are the first destinations. The Kudamm (ed. West Berlin’s showcase shopping street) is next. After my return, I hear our television report that “Everyone just wants to have a look.” It’s not true. Most want to shop. And that means money. Especially in this society.”

Later on the reporters ventures into a newspaper stand to pick up all the western papers. The saleswoman tells here the East Germans are most interested in the TV Guide and confesses that she’s an Easterner who left the GDR earlier that year:

“‘I’ve been terribly unhappy since I arrived. The people here are ice cold.’ A few GDR citizens in the kiosk contradict her, speak of how well they have been received by Westberliners (ed. this formulation reflected official GDR policy wherein they refused to acknowledge any distinction between East and West Berlin, arguing that it was the aggression of the western Allies which had led to the city’s division; interesting to find this term still in use at this point in time.)

‘Wait and see,’ prophesied the kiosk woman. ‘Westberliners won’t tolerate this sort of thing for long, then the mood will turn nasty. That’s the way it was with the Ausländer (foreigners). The workers will raise a stink when they start arriving to work late because the subways are packed to the rafters.”

Evidence of the backlash: Cover of the November 1989 edition of German satire magazine Titanic featuring "East Zone Gaby: My First Banana".

Evidence of the backlash?: Cover of the November 1989 edition of German satire magazine Titanic featuring “East Zone Gaby: My First Banana”.

On Saturday the 11th, the reporter crosses from Friedrichshain into Kreuzberg and encounters a sergeant from the East German border police with a flower in his lapel. Asked about the border regime, he states, “Each time has its means. Unfortunately we realized only too late that ours didn’t accomplish the intended end.” And the strangest thing he’d experienced in the last two days? “A family from the Westberlin side asked me if I couldn’t arrange an apartment for them.” Strange days indeed. Most peculiar, mama.

The East German State Council Building Closed for Renovations in NBI 47/89.

The East German State Council Building Closed for Renovations in NBI 47/89.

Thomas Wendt titles his piece “The First Night” and relates his experiences at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing, the first to open and site of many scenes which have gone on to be replayed on TV every year on this day. Wendt talks of growing up in this neighbourhood in shadow of the Wall: “The cut it made through this street was deep and painful.” He recounts a “party atmosphere in ‘no-man’s-land'”, and the harsh light of West German TV cameras once he reaches the other side. “Some start to sign a song,” (ed. likely the West German national anthem), “but there’s a lump in my throat.” He wonders whether the people streaming westwards intend to return but is reassured when he hears the “answer of my fellow Easterners: ‘We just want to have a look at the Kudamm, then we’re coming back.’, ‘I’ve got work tomorrow morning.’ He encounters several Westerners who praise the Easterners for the way they’ve achieved their revolution, “Without balaclavas and stones. If I were wearing a hat, I’d take it off to you,”

Reichsstrasse 1 reconnects Mitte and Tiergarten (NBI 47/89).

Reichsstrasse 1 reconnects Mitte and Tiergarten (NBI 47/89).

Günter Blute takes NBI’s readers to the Potsdamer Platz, once Europe’s busiest square and later perhaps the most poignant site of Berlin’s division. He describes how the Wall has been breached on each side to allow traffic between the East Berlin district of Mitte and the West Berlin Tiergarten neighbourhood. The road being reattached, Blutke tells us, is Reichsstrasse, one of the main axes in Albert Speer’s plan for the German capital after the Nazis final victory in World War II. After denouncing the Wall and the way it sealed off the two sides of the city from each other, Blutke then falls back into old patterns:

“It was through this opening border at the Potsdamer Platz that the East German state was mercilessly plundered in the years before August 13th (ed. the day the Wall was erected in 1961). That remains unforgotten. Such conditions may not be allowed to exist. We will not sell out our country at an exchange rate of 1:10.” (ed. Blutke was right: East Germans held out of for 1:1 for the first 4,000 Marks and 2:1 for their remaining savings).

Meanwhile in Westberlin . . .
"The Truth", the whole truth and nothing but (photo: author).

“The Truth”, the whole truth and nothing but (photo: author).

My collection also contains a copy of “The Truth”/”Die Wahrheit“, the daily of the Socialist Unity Party of Westberlin (SEW). As the name would indicate, this Party was the West Berlin presence of the SED and distinguished itself during its years of existence by not distinguishing itself in any significant way from its “father Party” (and, it should be noted, financier) on the other side of the Wall. The issue of the paper I have the weekend issue from Nov. 11/12, 1989, two days after the opening of the Wall.

Lapel pin of the Socialist Unity Party Westberlin (photo: Jo Zarth).

Lapel pin of the Socialist Unity Party Westberlin (SEW) from my collection. At less than 1 cm. across, the pin is easily overlooked. Perhaps that was intentional  (photo: Jo Zarth).

from my collection: at less than 1 cm. across, the pin is easily overlooked. Perhaps that was intentional

Having read a number of East German papers, I was first struck by just how similar “The Truth” (named after Pravda, the paper of the Soviet Communist Party) was in content to these in the way it reported on West Germany. The FRG found here is made up of strikes, the exploitation of workers, environmental degradation and social decay (no articles on drug abusers in this issue though!), so business as usual then. But of course, this is not the case. The headline reads “Massive Joyride to the Kurfürstendamm” with the accompanying article carrying the dateline “Westberlin/Berlin” a continued reflection of the GDR’s stance on the city. Under a photo of East Germans heading West, another headline states “SED seeks trust”. Yeah, no kidding. Elsewhere a report on the “Rally for Freedom” at West Berlin’s city hall finds praise for Walter Momper, the mayor of the western side of the city, for his “truly prudent words, ‘This day is not the day of reunification. but rather a day of reunion.'”

Only good for page 2! - GDR leader Egon Krenz in "The Truth" of Nov. 11/12, 1989 (photo: author).

Only good for page 2! – GDR leader Egon Krenz in “The Truth” of Nov. 11/12, 1989 (photo: author).

Inside, one quickly gets a primer in the internal politics of the SEW and the consequences its blind loyalty to the SED had on its Party culture. On page two, the Editor in Chief Klaus-Dieter Heiser delivers a half-hearted example of the Communist practice of “self-criticism”. He starts off by stating,

“Perhaps it’s of no interest to anyone what feelings and thoughts have been moving me since the Wall between Westberlin and the Capital of the GDR lost one of its functions. . . . Still, I would like to try and write down some of these.”

Heiser then outlines the reasons for the Wall’s existence (Westberlin’s “destructive and negative position vis-a-vis the East”) and argues that the SEW made a contribution to the establishing of “normal neighbourly relations” between the two Germanys. At this point, Heiser takes a confessional tone: For years “The Truth” has faithfully reprinted the SED position that the Wall would continue to exist as long as the conditions which made it necessary were still present: ‘The question as to whether these conditions still actually existed was not asked.’ He goes on to note that “The Truth” lined up behind the SED when it claimed that the Party was realizing its economic and social goals and that, as a result, ‘an inaccurate image of the GDR was given by this newspaper. . . . It must now be acknowledged that this reporting compromised the credibility of this paper.” Heiser calls for “an unsparing examination of history – including the history of the SEW and the way it has dealt with members expressing criticism – and a renewal of the Party program” before trying to salvage a shred of dignity by proclaiming that he is not interested in “taking a blow on the ‘Wende’ trumpet that has now become fashionable. That would be too easy.” And in his case, I imagine, completely, utterly unbelievable.

"Breaking the Silence" in "The Truth" of Nov. 11/12, 1989 (photo: author).

“Breaking the Silence” in “The Truth” of Nov. 11/12, 1989 (photo: author).

Opposite this editorial is a statement from what I can only assume are the “critical Party members” referred to by Heiser. Under the headline “Breaking the Silence”, a group of signatories attach their name to a statement calling the opening of the Wall “a symbol of the end of a post-stalinist model of socialism”.  In language that would have been unprintable only a week before, the text chastizes the SED for interpreting Lenin’s notion of working class power to grant itself a monopoly on truth and decision making. The SEW’s leadership is accused of “defending and legitimizing the politics of the SED-Politbüro right until the end in an irresponsible way. Our Party leadership has been silent since the beginning of the Wende in the GDR and has left the Comrades alone in their work.” They call for personnel changes to make the Party capable of acting.

One can imagine that seeing these words in print would have perhaps brought a small measure of satisfaction for some of these Quixotic, socialist idealists who had tried in vain to reform from within an organization which, as must have been clear (!!), was not just hostile to, but rather incapable of, achieving such change on its own. I’d hazard a guess that the end of the GDR was possibly more painful for the idealists who signed this statement than it was for the “pragmatists” who’d toed the SED line. The idealists’ worldview centred on the values at the heart of the socialist project, not on the matter of power and how this was to be maintained, concerns which were always paramount for the SED leaders and its supporters in the SEW. In their statement, the idealists greet the opening of the Wall, but clearly identify the threat that could be posed to the GDR through this act. Given the fundamental shifts taking place around them, their calls for a renewal of the SEW seem (and as events would prove) a bizarre, wholly inadequate response to the situation; a race to the tool shed while the Titanic is sinking around them.

Postscript: July 1990

I did get back to Germany n the summer of 1990, before Unification was formalized and when the GDR still existed (or persisted). I first spent six weeks in southwestern Germany on a language course. Once could not have found a place more insulated from the changes wracking Germany than this affluent corner of the country. The local paper dedicated a few column inches daily to the news from the East, but most of it was inexplicable – to me and to the locals. Something was happening, but it was all so very far away.
Unlimited travel/traffic jams: cars cross from West Berlin to East via Potsdamer Platz (photo: author).

Unlimited travel/traffic jams: cars cross from West Berlin to East via Potsdamer Platz (photo: author).

In mid-July, after our course wrapped and after the Deutschmark had been adopted in the East as a means of staunching the continuing outflow of people from East into the West, I headed to Berlin. It was all surreal. At Friedrichstrasse train station, once the main site for passage from West to East, all border controls had ceased. Border guards had removed the structures used to funnel visitors into rooms for vetting. Now one got off the train and could head straight out into the street. Out here, however, nothing much seemed to have changed. I hardly had a trained eye, but the street scene looked a lot like the ones I had seen the previous year on my day trips into East Berlin.
"Security services of the world unite!": East Meets West at the Brandenburg Gate, July 1990 (photo: author).

“Security services of the world unite!”: East Meets West at the Brandenburg Gate, July 1990 (photo: author).

I wandered around he Wall area at the Brandenburg Gate and saw police officers from East and West in discussion, just like on TV. I made my way down to where the observation platforms had stood near the Berlin Philharmonic and here the Wall had been removed to reconnect a road between the two halves of the city. In “no-man’s-land”, a stage was being erected for Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame to perform “The Wall” in the city which had inspired its creation.
Comfortably dumb: Rebuilding "The Wall" at Potsdamer Platz, July 1990 (photo: author).

Comfortably dumb: Rebuilding “The Wall” at Potsdamer Platz, July 1990 (photo: author).

One of my abiding memories of this trip was spending an inordinate amount of timing queuing in East Berlin’s Lichtenberg station trying to get a cheap train ticket from East Berlin to Prague. I’d heard good things about the place. On several occasions I made my way to the station, only to find that the ticket line up was huge and moving at a snail’s pace. There was only one wicket and it closed frequently for breaks – of the counter person or the massive Robotron computer/printer which he used to print out the tickets. The day of the train I arrived around 8 am thinking that this would ensure my success. I found about 15 people already lined up ahead of me. That left me just under four hours to get my ticket. No problem surely.
As the line slowly moved forward and the clock ticked, I realize it was going to be close. By 11:45 am, I was second in line behind an American backpacker trying to buy a ticket to Moscow. He spoke no English and insisted on paying in US dollars. The counter person was having none of it.: Deutschmarks only. I tried to intervene, but the backpacker wasn’t interested in explanations. An East German who didn’t want America dollars?! It was impossible! Seeing that I was making no progress, I tried another tack: his train left in a few hours, mine in 5 minutes. Perhaps I could still make it if he let me in front of him? He shook his head and told me that I should’ve gotten there sooner.
Inside the former "death strip" of Berlin Wall: graffiti on Eastern side reads "Diestel You Stasi Bum!", a reference to democratically elected GDR Interior MInister Diestel's decision to keep former Stasi officers on his staff (photo: author).

Inside the former “death strip” of Berlin Wall: graffiti on Eastern side reads “Diestel You Stasi Bum”, a reference to democratically elected GDR Interior MInister’s decision to keep former Stasi officers on his staff (photo: author).

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2 comments
  1. Erik Newson said:

    This one’s going out to Ron Spizurri!

  2. Tim Dutcher-Walls said:

    Der Mauerfall . . . who would’ve thought?

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