Remembering the Fall
It's hard to remember just how impassable the Berlin Wall was -- until one day it wasn't. A memoir.
We all have those moments in our lives that we remember with unstinting clarity. In my case, they include my wedding day, the birth of my son, and the birth of my daughter. And then there’s October 23, 1989.
That was the day I arrived in Leipzig, East Germany, a not-quite-yet-journalist looking for my first big story. I wasn’t supposed to be there at all. The East German Communist Party, which was struggling to contain a rising swell of popular discontent, had declared the city off-limits to foreign reporters, so I did my best to stay low-key. I had crossed over into East Berlin from the western half of the city (where I lived at the time), and managed to make the trip down to Leipzig, about two and a half hours away, without event.
In the afternoon, when I arrived, the city was quiet. But I definitely wasn’t as inconspicuous as I thought. When I bought a snack, the vendor asked me where I was from: “The U.S.,” I said, trying to keep my voice down. He grinned and wished me luck. He had an idea why I was there — to witness how local people were standing up to the all-powerful Party.
As evening neared, I made my way over to St. Nicholas Church, the magnificent medieval building that serves as the city’s spiritual heart. As dusk approached, people began to congregate inside the church and in the courtyard outside. Soon there were thousands of people, then tens of thousands, and then even more. (Later estimates of that Monday’s crowd put it at around a quarter of a million.) At some point after six o’clock we all began to move, an ocean of people slowly flowing onto the ring road around the city center. Some held up signs assailing communist rule and demanding free elections. Others chanted slogans. The most memorable: “We are the people.” It would have been hard to find a clearer rejection of the Party’s claim that only it knew what they wanted.
Two things impressed me. One was the variety of the demonstrators. There were office workers toting briefcases, rowdy high school kids, factory workers in blue denim, and little old ladies with blue hair — an astonishing cross-section of East German society. When I asked them what they were marching for, they told me that they were sick of being treated like children by their government. They wanted to be able to vote for their leaders in fair and open elections. They wanted the freedom to travel. They wanted the same rights that other Europeans enjoyed, especially their cousins in the other half of Germany.
Then there was the strict emphasis on peaceful protest. A little less than five months earlier, the Chinese Communist Party had gunned down thousands of demonstrators around Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing. East German leader Erich Honecker applauded the actions of his Chinese comrades; he had resigned just a few days before I arrived in Leipzig, but there was no guarantee that his successors (who had spent their entire careers at his side) would think any differently.
So the people marching that night knew they could end up paying dearly for their actions. Their response was to stress their own peacefulness. Many of them carried candles, whose glow softened the spectacle of the immense procession. As we passed by the local headquarters of the secret police, the Stasi, chants broke out: “No violence. No violence.”
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This was happening in the world’s most tightly controlled dictatorship, a place where every thought and every move was carefully monitored by an army of government agents and informers. But the crowd in Leipzig that night didn’t care. They had made their statement. There were so many people that it took several hours for everyone to disperse.
I returned to Berlin with the clear realization that Communist Party rule was in deep trouble. Just how much trouble only became clear a little over two weeks later. This time, back in my usual role as a translator for visiting American correspondents, I accompanied one of them to the government press center in East Berlin to attend a press conference by Politburo member Günter Schabowski. We’d already attended two of these affairs with Schabowski, who put us all to sleep with his droning accounts of the latest doings of a special Party congress that was struggling to craft reforms in order to calm the wave of protest gripping the country.
But at this third press conference, on the evening of November 9, he had a surprise in store. At the end of a notably dull hour he announced, almost offhandedly, that his government had decided to allow East Germans to travel to the West. When one of the journalists in the audience asked him when the change in the law was supposed to take effect, Schabowski answered: “Immediately.”
It quickly became clear that this was news to his colleagues in the leadership. He was improvising; his government was falling apart, and amid the confusion he had inadvertently ended up making policy rather than declaring it. But everyone in East Germany was watching his performance live on TV, and thousands of them began going to the Wall, demanding to be let through. As the evening wore on, I watched in astonishment as East Berliners, taking Schabowski at his word, peacefully forced open the once-impregnable concrete barrier that sliced their city in two.
These experiences changed me in all sorts of ways, but I can sum up the political lesson as follows: Never trust leaders who claim that they embody “stability.” When it comes to politics, stability is always a relative term. And it’s even more relative for dictators.
There were plenty of experts who considered 1980s East Germany to be the most stable regime in Eastern Europe. The German Democratic Republic, as it was officially known, had nothing like the big and well-organized Solidarity trade union in neighboring Poland; the fearsome Stasi quashed even the smallest protests, sometimes even shipping off potential troublemakers to the West. East Germans’ standard of living was relatively high, certainly much higher than in the Soviet Union. (Academics wrote books praising East German economic reforms.) Sure, East Berlin had a lot of debts in the West, but no one — certainly not Moscow, and probably not London or Paris or Bonn — was just going to let the place fall apart. That would have shaken up the entire European balance of power, a fearsome prospect at a time when the continent was stuffed with troops, tanks, and nuclear weapons.
It’s only now, with hindsight, that East Germany’s collapse appears inevitable. It certainly didn’t look that way at the time, and it all could have happened very differently. Who would have ever predicted that the Berlin Wall could be breached, except in war? It was an outlandishly formidable structure, reinforced by watchtowers, cleared strips, closed-circuit TV monitors, motion detectors, and dog teams. What its planners never counted on was that the people who manned it might lose the will to do so.
This is what comes to mind when I hear autocrats like Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin praise the “stability” of the systems they embody. Sure, today’s China boasts economic success that East Germany’s leaders never imagined — but it’s still a Leninist single-party state that’s struggling with all kinds of profound structural crises. And Putin — who also experienced East Germany’s grassroots rebellion firsthand as a KGB officer stationed not far from Leipzig — presides over a country that offers its citizens many safety valves (freedoms to travel, to consume) that Soviets could have only dreamed of. Yet Russia is a rapidly graying police state whose economy depends almost entirely on the volatile price of oil and gas. Autocracies, in short, almost always look stable — until they aren’t.
Scholars rightly note that unpredictable events — “contingency” — played a big role in the spectacular collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. In her latest book, Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, Cold War historian Mary Elise Sarotte shows how Schabowski’s haphazardly organized press conference set off an entirely unintended cascade of events that led to the fall of the Wall. She’s right. I remember vividly just how jury-rigged it felt — even now, as we mark the 25th anniversary of the end of the Wall’s end.
All political systems are subject to unexpected shocks, of course. But autocracies, where power is so much more concentrated, are more vulnerable to random jolts than other forms of government. Contingency has a disproportionate effect in systems that are inherently brittle. In this sense, the Berlin Wall exemplified the principle of fatal rigidity diagnosed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his books on the power of the unpredictable.A wall can’t bend or absorb or adapt. It can only break.
The Wall looked strong on the outside. But that concealed a basic flaw in its design: It only worked as long as people still believed in its power. Once they stopped, it fell.