Fallen Symbol: Berlin Wall No Longer Will Hold Germans Behind Iron Curtain

Trying to Halt Defections, Communist East Claims Citizens Are Free to Go

A 28-Year Fight for Freedom

Terence Roth in Bonn and Jane Mayer and Timothy Aeppel in East Berlin, Staff Reporters
With Robert S. Greenberger and Walter S. Mossberg in Washington
The Wall Street Journal

November 10, 1989

East Berlin -- In a move with immense symbolic importance, the East German government yesterday appeared to all but dismantle the Berlin Wall, which for 28 years has stood as the stark embodiment of the Communist Iron Curtain and East-West hostility.

In the latest dramatic effort to stem its political crisis, the East German Politburo said citizens of the country were free to leave the country through any checkpoint along the border, including those along the Wall. Guenter Schabowski, a Politburo member, told a televised news conference that only a visa would be required for emigration or travel, and that this document would be easily available at any police station. As the news spread last night, East and West Germans began celebrating in the streets around the Wall, toasting each other with champagne.

But while the Communist Party thus tried to answer unrelenting calls for reform in the country, and quell the fears of citizens that the government's recent drive to liberalization might lose steam, it was quick to diminish the significance of its border action.

"This does not mean that we mean to tear it down," Mr. Schabowski said of the Wall. In fact, he called it simply a provisional measure, a step toward a broader, new travel law that will be enacted at some later, and unspecified, date. Indeed, the government could reverse its decision, once again making the Wall a formidable block to emigration.

Yet the significance of the decision was lost on no one.

Talking to reporters, President Bush, with a map of East Germany open on his desk, called the event "a dramatic happening" and added, "I'm elated." The Soviet Union also praised the move.

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said he immediately asked for a meeting with East German leader Egon Krenz and indicated he and other German leaders were taken by surprise by the announcement. "I don't know what will emerge from this," he said. "No one can say now what the consequences will be." But, he added, "We have reached a new stage" on the road to German reunification.

When the news reached the West German parliament yesterday in Bonn, the assembly spontaneously stood up to sing the German national anthem, "Deutschland Uber Alles." Willy Brandt, mayor of West Berlin when the Wall was built in August 1961, was approached by many of the members, who shook his hand.

Walt W. Rostow, who now is a scholar in Austin, Texas, and was a national security adviser to President John Kennedy during the Berlin crisis, said: "I never believed Stalin's empire would last, but I never thought I would live to see it fall apart. It's evident that Stalin's empire is disintegrating."

In other developments in East Germany's fast-evolving political crisis, Mr. Krenz pledged to change election laws to provide for free democratic elections in 1991. The date disappointed many of the party reformers, who had hoped new elections would be called much earlier. Politburo officials also promised "radical" economic reforms to restructure the country's ailing economy, including a new legal foundation for closer economic ties to West German industry. Wilhelm Noelling, a member of the Bundesbank's policy-setting Central Bank Council, meanwhile, said West Germany could well afford to grant East Germany 15 billion Deutsche marks ($8.14 billion) in annual aid for 10 years. "Anything less wouldn't be effective," said the official, who emphasized he wasn't speaking for the Bundesbank council.

But the most startling development of the day was the announcement liberalizing travel across the border.

The Berlin Wall was thrown up overnight on Aug. 13, 1961, first as a barbed-wire fence. The object was to stop the unceasing exodus of East German citizens -- and the resulting brain drain -- that marked much of the postwar era and had reached 200,000 people a year. Five days later, construction of a more permanent concrete wall began, one that would soon be fortified with guard towers, attack dogs, and weapons which fired automatically -- all meant to keep the East German population at bay.

Nonetheless, dozens of East Germans would make mad dashes for freedom, sometimes trying to scale the Wall, other times tunneling under it and still others times trying to smash through it in heavy trucks. Over the years, 80 people would die for their efforts, and an additional 119 would be wounded, often shot by guards. Along the entire 863 mile fortified border with West Germany, nearly 200 people would be killed and 4,000 arrested trying to make illegal crossings.

All the while, the contrast between East and West, separated by the 13-foot-high Wall, grew starker. Economic stagnation marked drab East Berlin, where many buildings even today bear bullet holes from World War II. In colorful and artsy West Berlin, life reflected the benefits of the postwar boom and surging economies of the rest of Europe.

From the very first, the Wall was the front line in East-West relations. U.S. and Soviet tanks faced each other down as the first concrete blocks went into place in 1961. Nikita Khrushchev would remark: "When I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin."

Dean Rusk, who was President Kennedy's Secretary of State and is now at the University of Georgia, recalls, "We thought back in 1961 that the East Germans and Russians would have to take some measures to stop the hemorrhage of people leaving Germany through Berlin. But we were somewhat surprised at the method they used." Mr. Rusk adds that after the Wall went up President Kennedy was concerned about the morale of West Berliners. So he sent Gen. Lucius Clay and then Lyndon Johnson to boost spirits. In 1963, he went himself and delivered his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner) speech in what became a historic visit to the embattled city.

"I never thought I would live to see the time when the East Germans would be given carte blanche to travel anywhere they wanted to," says Mr. Rusk. "These developments in East Europe have been something of a surprise for those of us who are veterans of the Cold War."

The Wall, and the East German border, would again be propelled to the forefront of East-West relations this year when another mass exodus of citizens began through newly opened routes through Czechoslovakia and Poland. So far this year, more than 200,000 East German's -- 50,000 in the last few days alone -- have fled their country, hoping to escape to greater economic opportunity and freedom in the West.

As news of the new border policy spread yesterday evening, crowds began gathering on both sides of Checkpoint Charlie, one of the most famous of the Wall's crossings. Hundreds of people began walking through the checkpoint to the West and were met on the other side by cheering crowds. Some West Germans showered the new arrivals with sprays from champagne bottles, while others sat atop the Wall and shouted "Welcome."

As the crowd on the Eastern side became more agitated, police came out to try to calm residents and handed out cigarettes. One middle-aged East German woman, who said she had witnessed the construction of the Wall, said simply, "I just want to go and stand there, and then I'll be happy," referring to the West side of the city. By midnight East German time, a huge traffic jam stretched through the center of East Berlin, as East Germans waited in their cars for the chance to cross over.

On the West side, the main boulevard, the Kurfuerstendamm, was clogged with traffic, as drivers honked their horns in celebration. Crowds stood on the traffic islands toasting themselves and singing. Nearby, two cars -- one East German and one West German -- drove down the center of the street, linked together by garlands made of paper.

Most of the East Germans seemed determined to just get a taste of the West -- and then go home. "I want everybody to know that I've been here," said one, as he stood at a street corner busily filling out postcards to his friends in the East. "Of course, I've got to get back soon; I have to be at work in the morning."

Although most people interviewed on both the East and the West sides of the Wall last night applauded the latest developments, virtually all of them also expressed fear too. In the West, a grandmother who has been a lifelong resident of West Berlin, admitted that "it's been cozy inside the wall," and she wondered how the opening of the border would affect her feelings of security.

The phone in her suburban West Berlin home rang every few minutes with calls from excited friends, one of whom escaped over the wall 17 years ago and hasn't been able to visit his family in the East since. There was a lighter side to some of the new concerns: The grandmother's daughter called to tease her about some obnoxious relatives on the Eastern side of the wall who they now would have to see more often. "This could prove a nightmare," the grandmother joked.

Others in West Berlin expressed more serious fears about the flood of immigrants coming from East Germany. Ben Gasmeln, an Iranian "guest worker," as the Germans call immigrant laborers, feared that "it will be a catastrophe." He added, "There won't be enough jobs here, or places to live. Maybe not even enough food. The West should build its own wall."

In fact, in Bonn, East Germany's action sparked an emergency debate in parliament. While offering reassurances that no one would be refused entry, the West German government also called on East Germans to think twice before coming to the West. Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told a news conference that West Germany was finding it hard to provide shelter for the immigrants and that new arrivals would have to put up with poor housing for a long time.

The U.S. Defense Department, for its part, announced that three U.S. military facilities at undisclosed locations in West Germany were being made available to house about 980 East German refugees for up to six months at the request of West German officials.

Among East Berlin residents, there were many worries, too. A well-dressed middle-aged schoolteacher, who is also a member of the Communist Party, said, "The people here aren't ready for this kind of change yet. The people want to be free. They have this idea stuck in their heads. But people who have lived here for a long time haven't seen a lot of things on the outside, they don't know all the rules." She predicted that many would nonetheless leave, and as a result, "There will be some kind of chaos."

Sixteen-year-old Matias Karl, wearing his blond hair in a hip looking brush cut, said he hopes to leave himself. "Why not?" he asked. But asked what his reasons were, he suggested some his elders may not have thought of. "I think that love is better in the West," he said, "Couples can live together there for years, and not get married."

In his promise of free elections, Mr. Krenz didn't specify which parties would be eligible, which worried officials in West Germany as well as the reformers in the East. In fact, he didn't say whether parties beyond his own SED Communist Party and four smaller SED-linked groups -- the so called block parties -- would be allowed to field candidates in any future, national ballot. Nor did Mr. Krenz amend his current position that the Communist Party wouldn't relinquish its grip on power.

Indeed, Johannes Rau, the governor of the West German industrial state of North-Rhine Westphalia, came away with his own doubts after meeting with Mr. Krenz for an hour in East Berlin.

"His understanding of elections doesn't coincide with mine," Mr. Rau said. He said Mr. Krenz should allow for the formation of independent trade unions and the political freedom to form coalitions.

A smiling Mr. Krenz may have inadvertently raised some doubts about his freeelection claim himself by telling reporters yesterday, "We never had elections before that weren't free."

The East German Government has also said it will convene a full Communist Party conference on Dec. 15, the first such gathering since 1956. Mr. Schabowski told a news conference that the agenda might include a purge of a large part of the 160-member Central Committee.

In a speech, delivered before the Central Committee and published yesterday, Mr. Krenz sought to forge closer economic links with West Germany through a future meeting of the Inter-German Economic Commission, which hasn't met once since its formation in 1987. "We want our economic cooperation to become closer and contractually regulated," said Mr. Krenz.

Bonn is willing to listen. "We are always prepared to meet," said a Bonn Economics Ministry spokesman. "Our position is that economic reforms must go hand in hand with political reforms." Just this week, West German Chancellor Kohl set free elections and fundamental economic reforms in East Germany as conditions for financial aid.

Meanwhile, in West German boardrooms, amazement at the speed of events is quickly giving way to a search for opportunities, given that East Germany appears about to lift its 40-year ban on joint ventures and other West German investments in the Communist state. Dieter Spethmann, the chairman of Thyssen AG, suggested that West German companies begin thinking of building plants in East Germany. Similar thoughts have been expressed by officials of Daimler-Benz AG and Volkswagen AG, among other West German industrial giants.

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