When The Wall Fell

A man chips away at the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on the West Berlin side on Nov. 10, 1989.

World-altering events tend to be triggered by something monumental — an assassination, an invasion, a natural disaster or some other great cataclysm.

And yet, it was the words of an ill-informed bureaucrat at a press conference that helped topple the physical manifestation of a global standoff, bring down oppressive regimes and reshape the world as it approached the 21st Century.  

Thirty years ago, the Berlin Wall came down in a massive spectacle.

The Press & Dakotan recently spoke with a number of educators on the factors that led to the most pivotal moment in the back half of the 20th Century:

• Tom Brokaw — Yankton native and former “NBC Nightly News” anchor who was on the scene broadcasting the night the Berlin Wall fell.

• Dr. David Burrow — chairman of the History Department at the University of South Dakota.

• Dr. Timothy Schorn — director of International Studies  and Associate Professor at the University of South Dakota.

• Dr. Nathan Bates — professor of German at the University of South Dakota.

The Cracks

For years after World War II, the Iron Curtain between East and West seemed impenetrable.

In 1961, this barrier was given its ultimate physical manifestation when the Soviet Union built a barrier enclosing the Allied sectors of Berlin in order to prevent East German citizens from crossing the border they called the “Antifaschistischer Schutzwall” — The Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart. To West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, it was “The Wall of Shame.” To the world, it became known simply as the Berlin Wall.

Despite its formidability, many daring and dramatic escapes would be made utilizing tunnels, trains, aircraft and modified cars.

But the wall remained as the 1980s dawned on Europe.

According to Brokaw, there were signs beginning to appear of trouble for the Eastern Bloc.

“The communist empire — from Moscow across Eastern Europe, was failing in every way,” Brokaw said. “Politically, as the Red bosses could maintain control only by harsh crackdowns and jail sentences; economically, by producing shoddy goods and imposing rationing on everything from bread to beef.”

Burrow said, as the mid-1980s came along, the Eastern Bloc was falling on hard times as Mikhail Gorbachev took over as general secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.

“The Soviet Union is going bankrupt,” Burrow said. “It is losing this conflict in Afghanistan. In Poland, the Solidarity union movement has started, which is challenging Communist Party rule in Poland.”

He said the challenges also lay in who was running the show in each country.

“Things were largely stagnant,” he said. “Most of the leadership of the Soviet Union was slowly aging in office. When Gorbachev comes to power in 1985, he’s (53) and he’s the youngest leader the Soviet Union has had in many decades. Most of the leaders of the eastern European states are also in their 70s or 80s and have been in power since the 1960s. Romania is a hardline dictatorship under (Nicolae) Ceaucescu. Most of them are dictatorships of one kind or another where the Communist Party is in charge.”

In order to get the Soviet Union moving in a positive direction, Gorbachev introduced a number of reforms aimed at allowing greater economic and political freedoms within the Soviet Union. It took little time at all for the rest of the Eastern Block to pick up on what was going on in the USSR.

Schorn said it was about this time the reform-minded politician made a critical promise to its satellite states.

“Gorbachev made a very important decision and announcement,” Schorn said. “He said the Soviet Union is not going to use troops to put down protests and end disgruntlement on the part of the people against their governments. Those days are over. That meant that the people could start to voice their concerns without having to worry that the Soviet armies were going to invade again like they did in ’68 in Prague or ’56 in Budapest.”

Burrow said the world was quickly taking notice and watching where the saga may go.

“The issue of how Eastern Europe is going to be allowed to develop and what it’s going to be allowed to do becomes one of the tests of Gorbachev’s ‘new thinking’ and whether he’s going to apply more humane principles,” he said. “The Berlin Wall, which was built basically to keep East German citizens in East Germany … is one of the symbols of the Cold War. Whether that will continue to serve as a barrier is one of the questions that nobody knows going into 1989.”

And one of the most critical borders was about to be breached — and it wasn’t even shared with Germany.


By 1989, Schorn said events had begun to accelerate.

“In Czechoslovakia and Hungary, those governments were starting to open up more and starting to interact with the west,” he said. “The borders between Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the West were becoming increasingly porous. You weren’t seeing a mass movement of people, but you were able to watch some people come and go between Eastern Europe and Western Europe. The East Germans were not unaware of that.”

One of the most famous examples was the opening of the border between Austria and Hungary.

“Austria and Hungary open up their border in the summer of 1989,” Burrow said. “If you’re in the Eastern Bloc, you can get a passport to travel around the Eastern Bloc. You could go from East Germany to what had been Communist Hungary and then cross into Austria and go to (West) Germany.”

As a result, hundreds of thousands of East Germans began to “vote with their feet,” taking trips to Hungary that would eventually lead them into the West.

This was much to the chagrin of hardline East German leader Erich Honecker, and just in time for him to play host to the reformer whose ideals were beginning to spread throughout the Bloc.

“Gorbachev is supposed to meet with Honecker to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the founding of East Germany,” Burrow said. “He shows up, the two of them are visibly tense and they don’t really get along.”

At one point in the visit, Gorbachev reportedly gave Honecker a piece of advice: “Life punishes those who come too late.” Honecker replied with, “We will solve our problems ourselves with socialist means.”

Ten days later, the East German Politburo forced Honecker to resign. He was replaced by Egon Krenz.

With Krenz’s appointment came regular press conferences from East German Politburo member Günter Schabowski on the fluid situation in East Germany.

‘Joyous Storming’

After a summer and fall full of developments throughout Eastern Europe, Brokaw found himself in West Berlin bringing the situation to the world.

“Thirty years ago, I came to West Berlin to report on the growing unrest in the East — the Communist Sector,” he said. “East German young people especially were aware that their generation in the West was far ahead in education, jobs, hope — and they began to demand change in the east with strikes, political rallies and flight to nearby Czechoslovakia.”

He said that East Germany had been aware of this and was starting to bend slightly by early November.

“The East German leadership depended in the Berlin Wall and mass arrests to keep control, but it also considered some freedom to travel,” he said.

Brokaw was on hand for one of Schabowski’s press conferences on Nov. 9.  Krenz had given Schabowski an embargoed text about broader travel opportunities that would be available to East Germans with permission. However, he lacked full knowledge of the new regulations and had not been briefed on when they would go into effect. When asked for a time frame for implementation, he answered:

“As far as I know — effective immediately, without delay.”

“It was widely broadcast in the east, setting off a stampede for the exits,” Brokaw said.

Soon, Brokaw was broadcasting near the wall as the overwhelmed border guards opened the gates and stood down, allowing the gathered masses to cross the once-forbidden barrier.

“NBC had the only satellite capacity available, and so a few hours later, I was broadcasting to the world the greatest exclusive of my career — the joyous storming of the wall and the mass break for freedom,” Brokaw said. “I stayed on the air for hours reporting on what turned out to be the rapid beginning of the end of Communist empire.”

Burrow said that it provided a spectacle that would cause ripples throughout the world the night it was broadcast.

“It was an event that could be televised,” he said. “It was a tangible, seeable object. You could film people on the wall, crossing the wall or hitting the wall with sledgehammers. The dramatic arc of people literally standing on and tearing down a boundary made for great television. It was a visual representation of the collapse of Eastern Europe.”

Brokaw said 30 years haven’t erased the excitement of that moment.

“I am now back for the 30th anniversary, and the thrill remains,” he said.

Teaching Today

At the University of South Dakota, Dr. Nathan Bales has made it a point to keep the memory of this event in history alive, thanks to help from the German Embassy.

 “Vermillion had an Oktoberfest in September and we set up a wall made out of cardboard boxes, graffitied over them and made kind of a mock Berlin Wall,” Bates said. “It was turned into a game and we had people come and try to knock it down with beanbags to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

The activity is set to be held again on the USD campus during International Education Week later this month.

Bates said his classes have also viewed The Lives of Others, a film documenting life in East Germany.

A photo exhibition on life in East Germany is also set for later in the semester.

According to Bates, the activities come as a result of a grant from the German embassy.

Bates said the fall of the Berlin Wall was a turning point for German history.

“If you look back at Germany’s history, they have a pretty terrible track record of revolutions, dealing with democracy and then, of course, initiating disastrous world wars,” he said. “The fall of the Berlin Wall was a chance for Germany to be reborn, to really find a new identity and to distance itself from some of the past catastrophes and to really have a new beginning.”

He said that it’s important to remember this event and the reunification of the two Germanys in order to understand current world affairs.

“We really can’t really understand modern Europe today without Germany the way it is and Germany’s role in the European Union,” he said. “These two events have played an important part in world affairs. I think, even for South Dakota with its strong German cultural heritage, I think it’s important to see the connection between the two cultures and two societies.”

The Promise Of Peace?

The fall of the wall only accelerated events that had been underway in Eastern Europe. By the end of 1989, a number of Eastern European nations had brand new governments — attained both through peaceful means and by bloodshed. Within five years, there would be no Soviet Union and a number of new countries on the map.

The fall of the wall also heralded a promise of peace for many, and the ensuing 30 years would deliver a number of victories to this end — and a number of harsh realities.

In the next installment, the Press & Dakotan discusses the aftermath of the Wall’s fall.

Follow @RobNielsenPandD on Twitter.

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