I’m doing a series on German history in the 20th century on my blog this year. In intervals of 10 years, I pick a crucial event and explore it – with the help of precisely one board game. You can find the previous posts here:
- The Berlin Crisis (1959)
- The Ecology Movement (1979)
- The Kosovo War (1999)
- The Division of Germany (1949)
- The Naval Arms Race (1909)
- World War II (1939)
- Willy Brandt and Deténte (1969)
- The Fall of the Weimar Republic (1929)
Today, we go into very recent history: Only 30 years ago, the world was still divided into the power blocs led by the United States and the Soviet Union. The frontline of this confrontation known as the Cold War ran right through the heart of Europe – Germany, and even its major city, Berlin, divided by the Berlin Wall. We’ll look at what this wall meant, how influences from outside Berlin gave an impulse for change, how the Berlin Wall finally came down, and which way the divided country took afterward. The game to accompany all of this could be no other than 1989 (Ted Torgerson/Jason Matthews, GMT Games).
Concrete: The Berlin Wall
While the division of Germany and Berlin was a direct result of the occupation which followed World War II, its most powerful symbol only came later: In 1961, East Germany built the Berlin Wall to seal the border to West Berlin. From its simple beginnings – on the very first days, not much more than a few rolls of barbed wire on the ground – the Wall became a complex structure of towers, dogs, fences, guards, and, of course, a concrete wall. The Wall did what its creators had intended with it and stopped the mass exodus of East Germans to the west – at the price of 17 million people locked up, and 245 would-be escapees killed in their attempts to cross the Wall until 1989. In 1989, the Berlin Wall is a powerful instrument for the Communist player to keep East German political opposition in check – at least in the early months of the tumultuous year.
Cracks: Solidarity, Hungary, and Leipzig
East Germany might have been a very stable member of the Eastern Bloc. Poland, however… not so much. In 1980, the not-state-sanctioned Solidarity trade union had attracted so much popular support – from the workers, the alleged base of a Communist country! – that the Soviet army was close to intervening. Nine years later, the enmity between Communists and Solidarity trade unionists remained – but the country was in economic shambles, and the Communist party attempted to save itself by seeking rapprochement with their opponents. The pesky trade union was legalized, and round table talks about political reform established. The Solidarity card in 1989 is an amazing kickstarter for the Democrats which can place up to nine (!) Democratic influence markers in Poland. If you play it before Poland is scored for the first time, chances are good that the Democrats will oust the Communists for good in the power struggle.
Poland, therefore, experienced reform from below. A different model of transformation was tried out in Hungary: Here the Communist party itself surfed the wave of change. The Hungarian Communists, inspired by Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union, saw their best chance for continued political dominance in becoming the vanguard of reform. Besides their domestic moves like re-writing the constitution (erasing the leading role of their own party), they also announced that the heretofore closely guarded border to Austria would not be maintained anymore. The Iron Curtain had a hole now.
It was not long until Easterners crossed this border – not only Hungarians, but also many East Germans who were on summer vacation in Hungary. And those who weren’t quickly applied for travel permits to the „socialist brother country“ of Hungary. Naturally, the East German regime put an end to granting any soon, but now people applied to travel to Czechoslovakia (and attempted to move on to Hungary and, eventually, the West, from there). With the travel permits revoked, however, many East Germans were stranded in countries they had only regarded as transit stops. They sought refuge in the West German embassies in Prague and Budapest by the thousands, often camping in the gardens. That was a logistical challenge for the embassies, and even more, a really bad look for East Germany whose regime was always keenly interested in its international standing. Grudgingly, East German leader Honecker agreed to let the refugees move to West Germany – provided they were transported by trains which would run via East Germany, so that the semblance of East Germany conducting orderly emigration business could be kept.
The emigration via Hungary and Czechoslovakia electrified the East German dissidents – some of them with the grudge of not having made it out, some with the even firmer conviction of staying and changing their country from within. In September, the first dissidents who heretofore had kept to themselves in the shelter of the protestant churches took to the streets.
The first of these Monday Demonstrations were small – dozens of people rather than hundreds. However, they grew rapidly. By October 9, an unimaginable crowd of more than 50,000 people – in a city of just half a million inhabitants! – gathered to march. The regime had amassed police and army forces, but they were not numerous enough to cope with the protesters in a measured way. So the only two options remaining were either to let the protesters march unmolested or dissolve the demonstration with massive violence, using firearms, armored vehicles, and paratroopers. Honecker himself had given out instructions to use force to dissolve the protests if they were not deterred, similar to how the Chinese leaders had dealt with the Tiananmen Protests earlier in 1989. Such a response would likely have shifted the tide against the growing dissident movement (albeit at a price to the international standing of the regime).
A „Chinese solution“, however, was avoided. Contrary to Honecker’s orders, other party executives close to Honecker’s „crown prince“ Egon Krenz contacted the officer in charge during the demonstration and called for restraint in the face of the huge crowds. They knew that Honecker’s time was about to end. And so, the largest Monday Demonstration passed safely. Footage of the events (filmed by two East German dissident videographers) was smuggled to West Germany and broadcast there – on channels most East Germans could also receive. The lack of a violent response by the regime emboldened many more East Germans to take to the streets in the coming weeks. A wave of peaceful protest swept through the country – just like the five powerful support checks the Monday Demonstrations card in 1989 grants to the Democratic player.
Collapse: The Travel Law and the Unlikely Fall of the Wall
And indeed, only a week after the demonstration, Honecker was ousted by the Politburo (or, as they politely had it, stepped down for health reasons). His successors knew that they could not go on with his hardline stance. If they wanted to stay in power (and continue to attract Western capital), they needed to address the obvious problems and offer concessions, like the Communists in Poland and Hungary.
One of these problems was the matter of travelling. When the Wall was built, the East Germans suddenly were locked up in their country, no matter if they had worked in the West, had family there, or only wanted to watch a Hollywood movie. So the Politburo set themselves to work on a new travel law which would allow emigration to the West – provided the traveller had applied for it and would then lose their East German citizenship. Such were the guidelines of the Politburo. However, a law as limited and punishing as this could never attract support for the regime. So the working group headed by Gerhard Lauter, a mid-level government official who was tasked to draft the law, changed it on their own accord to include private travel without losing the citizenship. Therefore, the draft was radically different from the original idea, but when it was discussed in the Politburo, nobody spoke against it – apparently nobody had bothered to read the draft. Press secretary Schabowski was to announce the intended new law in a press conference (for which he did not prepare, because he was „able to read from a piece of paper quite well“ to use his own words).
The press conference thus proved to be memorable. After an hour of inconsequential and boring announcements, Schabowski, prompted by an Italian journalist’s question, proceeded to read the note about the travel law in the last minutes of the press conference. The journalists were electrified. One of them asked when the new rules would take effect. Schabowski glanced at his notes, did not find the passage which would have stated that they were only to take effect the next day, and mumbled „To my knowledge… that is immediately, without delay“. Minutes later, the news of the Wall being opened was on all major news channels in East and West.
The Wall, however, was still closed. No new instructions had been given to the guards on the border. But now groups of East Germans gathered at the checkpoints and demanded to be let through. The commanding officer at the largest checkpoint at Bornholmer Straße, Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jäger, telephoned to his superiors and asked for new instructions. Keep calm and carry on, they said. Nothing special tonight. But the crowds became bigger and louder. Jäger telephoned again and again – around 30 times according to his recollection, but the instructions remained the same. Jäger became concerned that violence could erupt – and no matter if the firearms of his border guards or the sheer numbers of the would-be travellers would prevail, it would be a human tragedy. At some time, Jäger was told by his superiors to let the loudest protesters pass, but stamp their passports so they lost their citizenship and could not re-enter. Around 11pm, however, the first of these returned – a young couple who had just taken a stroll in the West and now wanted to get back to their apartment where their children were sleeping.
Finally, Jäger’s superior officer secretly entered him into a top-level phone conference. And there Jäger heard how his highest boss, State Security chief Erich Mielke, asked if Jäger was reliable, if he was not just personally unable to deal with the situation, if he was a coward. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Jäger. He ignored his previous record of discipline and obedience and made a decision himself: The couple and all others were allowed to pass back again. Shortly after, when the pressure from the crowd was ever harder to bear – literally, the outer fence was bending already! – Jäger made another decision: No further border controls were to be done at his checkpoint. People could freely move through in either direction. The Wall was open.
The opening of the Wall rested on a plethora of contingencies. What if Lauter had not dared change the draft? What if Schabowski had read it before? What if Jäger had waited longer, or even ordered his guards to shoot at the crowd? None of these decisions was predetermined, and none of them was made at the very highest level. The protesters made history from below, and Lauter and Jäger made history from the middle. In comparison to that, the opening of the Wall in 1989 is, despite the dice-rolling involved, almost calculable. Sometimes, history is wilder than the what-ifs of a game.
Conclusion: Unity and Justice and Freedom
The images of Berliners, East and West, meeting in the once-divided city and climbing together on the wall that used to keep them apart, were televised around the world. But how would the situation develop now that all previous certainties were as shattered as the Wall was soon to be?
The man who reacted fastest and most skilfully to the new situation was West German chancellor Kohl. He climbed nimbly through a small window of opportunity: In the wake of the peaceful protests in East Germany and the end of the Cold War, signified by the collapse of its most powerful symbol, he proposed German reunification. The Western Allies were skeptical, but could be convinced by Kohl’s coupling of reunification with a deeper integration of Europe. Kohl’s perfect timing allowed him to advance the project while the cooperation-minded Gorbachev was still in power, but already weakened by domestic opposition and therefore more concerned with other matters. During the course of 1990, the remaining issues were worked out – the GDR would not join NATO, but a reunified Germany could, the two economies were simply merged and eastern Marks exchanged for western Marks at a rate of 1:1, and instead of the long process of writing a new constitution for the reunified country, the administrative sub-units of the GDR simply joined West Germany. Thus Germany became one country again on October 3, 1990. The protesters of 1989, those who had made the fall of the Wall and everything that followed possible, were largely passed over. Their ideas and dreams have been ignored. It is up to us to make sure they are at least not forgotten.
An excellent account (in fact, the best history book I have read in a while!) of the collapse of the Wall is Sarotte, Mary Elise: The Collapse. The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, Basic Books, New York City, NY 2014.
For the wider events in Eastern Europe and how they influenced each other, see De Nevers, Renée: Comrades No More. The Seeds of Political Change in Eastern Europe, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 2003.
A short survey of the road to German reunification is Haftendorn, Helga: The Unification of Germany. 1985—1991, in: Leffler, Melvyn P./Westad, Odd Arne: The Cambridge History of the Cold War. Volume 3. Endings, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011.