The Opening of the Berlin Wall: A 20-Year Retrospective

November 5, 2009

The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989.
Unknown photographer, public domain.

Twenty-five years ago, just before Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the East-West divide in Europe seemed as stark as ever. Both the Warsaw Pact and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had been deploying new nuclear missiles against each other, and tensions between the two sides were acute. Certainly no one expected that, only five years later, the Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe would collapse peacefully (apart from violence in Romania) and that the Berlin Wall—the symbolic divide in Europe for nearly 30 years—would be opened.

The momentous events of 1989 led to drastic changes in the political complexion of Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War. In the mid- to late-1940s, Communist governments had taken power throughout the region under Soviet auspices. For more than 40 years, those governments dominated political and economic life in Eastern Europe. The sudden downfall of the Communist regimes in 1989 and the opening of the Berlin Wall are sometimes depicted as the inevitable result of a lengthy process of systemic decay. But in fact there was nothing inevitable about the outcome. Popular opposition to the Communist regimes had long been intense almost everywhere in Eastern Europe, as demonstrated by the uprisings in Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in June 1953, the rebellions in Poland and Hungary in June and October 1956, the public acclaim for the Prague Spring in 1968, and the rise of Solidarity (Solidarnosc, which was both a free trade union and a social movement) in Poland in 1980 to 1981. What changed in 1989, compared to earlier crises in Eastern Europe, was not the depth of popular opposition to the Soviet-backed regimes. Instead, what changed was the whole thrust of Soviet policy in the region. The largely peaceful collapse of East European Communism in 1989 was due as much to the fundamental reorientation of Soviet foreign policy under Mikhail Gorbachev as to the courage and restraint of dissidents and protesters in Eastern Europe. Admirable as the dissidents were, none of what they achieved would have been possible without the drastic changes in Moscow that allowed the events to occur.

Even though Gorbachev's reorientation of Soviet policy was a prerequisite for the events of 1989, it was hardly sufficient. In retrospect we know that leeway for radical change was available in 1989, but at the time no one could be fully sure of that. Memories of past Soviet military intervention in Eastern Europe were still vivid. Drastic change could not just occur on its own. Instead, millions of ordinary people had to overcome lingering concerns to make it happen. The vast number of Poles who voted for Solidarity in Poland's June 1989 elections, the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who gathered for the ceremonial reburial of Imre Nagy less than two weeks later, the huge crowds of East Germans who took to the streets in October and November 1989, and the millions of Czechs and Slovaks who participated in the Velvet Revolution against the hard-line Communist regime in November 1989 all played key roles. The events of 1989 resulted in part from sweeping changes in Soviet policy, in part from the courageous actions of individuals and groups in Eastern Europe, and in part from the loss of will among hard-line East European Communist leaders as they realized, to their horror, that the Soviet Union would no longer come to their aid with military force. The rapidly improving state of East-West relations was an important backdrop for the process, giving Soviet leaders greater confidence that Western governments would not seek to foment anti-Soviet uprisings or exploit changes in Eastern Europe against the USSR. In addition, an element of chance and contingency contributed to the auspicious outcome in the fall of 1989, especially to the opening of the Berlin Wall, which occurred as much through inadvertence as through design. This essay looks at each of these sources of change and then briefly explains how the Berlin Wall was finally opened.

The Reorientation of Soviet Policy

Until the rise of Gorbachev, Soviet leaders after World War II regarded Eastern Europe as an extension of their own country's frontiers. Threats to the security of an East European Communist regime, whether external or internal, were seen as threats to Soviet security as well. This sentiment took its most explicit form in the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, which linked the fate of every Communist country with the fate of all other Communist countries, required Soviet-bloc governments to abide by the norms of Marxism-Leninism as interpreted in Moscow, and subordinated the "abstract sovereignty" of states to the "laws of class struggle."

After Gorbachev came to power in March 1985, the Soviet-East European relationship initially underwent little change. During his first few years in office, the new Soviet leader sought to promote greater economic integration within the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and an expansion of political and military cooperation among the members of the Warsaw Pact (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union). In both respects, his early policies displayed strong continuity with those of his predecessors. Gorbachev's manner of presentation may have been more dynamic, but at no time during the first few years of his tenure did he disavow the Brezhnev Doctrine or even condemn the way his predecessors had handled Soviet-East European relations.

By the spring of 1988, however, Soviet policy toward Eastern Europe (i.e. the Eastern bloc at that time—Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania) started to loosen, adumbrating a fundamental change in Gorbachev's approach. The first indicator of a shift in Gorbachev's policy came during his visit to Yugoslavia in March 1988, when a joint communiqué pledged "unconditional" respect for "the principles of equality and non-interference" and for "the independence of parties and socialist countries to define, for themselves, the path of their own development." In subsequent months, the Soviet Union made good on these pledges by providing the East European countries with much greater latitude for internal political and economic change—latitude that Hungary and Poland (though not the four other countries) were quick to exploit.

The reorientation of Gorbachev's policy toward the Warsaw Pact countries was further signaled in December 1988 by his announcement, in a speech before the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, that the Soviet Union would unilaterally reduce its military forces in Eastern Europe by 50,000 troops, 5,300 tanks, and 24 tactical nuclear weapons. In purely military terms, these reductions were of little significance, but symbolically their importance was enormous.

The changes in Soviet policy toward Eastern Europe were reinforced by Gorbachev's domestic reform program. As the pace of perestroika and glasnost accelerated in the Soviet Union, the "winds of change" gradually filtered throughout the Eastern bloc, bringing long-submerged grievances and social discontent to the surface. Under growing popular pressure, the authorities in Hungary and Poland embarked on much more ambitious paths of reform in 1988-1989 than Gorbachev himself had yet adopted. As ferment in those two countries and elsewhere in the region continued to increase, Gorbachev's public comments about Eastern Europe grew bolder. In a speech before the European Parliament in July 1989, Gorbachev expressed support for the maintenance of socialism in Europe, but then indicated a willingness to accept whatever result might come:
The social and political orders of certain countries [in Europe] changed in the past, and may change again in the future. However, this is exclusively a matter for the peoples themselves to decide; it is their choice. Any interference in internal affairs, or any attempts to limit the sovereignty of states—including friends and allies, or anyone else—are impermissible.

Against the backdrop of the remarkable changes under way in Poland and Hungary, including the imminent formation of a Polish government led by Solidarity (the independent mass movement that was banned in Poland from December 1981 until early 1989), this declaration took on even greater importance. Although the four other Warsaw Pact countries—Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Romania—staunchly eschewed any hint of liberalization and clung firmly to orthodox Communist policies, there was no doubt by early- to mid-1989 that Gorbachev was willing to permit far-reaching internal changes in Eastern Europe that previously would have been ruled out and forcibly suppressed under the Brezhnev Doctrine.

As events played out over the next several months, Gorbachev and his aides established two basic goals for Soviet policy: First, they wanted to avoid direct Soviet military intervention at all costs. Second, they sought to achieve a peaceful but rapid transition to a new political order in Eastern Europe—an order that they hoped would consist of pro-reform Communist governments.

But the basic problem was that if most of the East European Communist parties had been left to their own devices, they would have sought to avoid liberalization indefinitely. The hard-line regimes in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Romania had become increasingly repressive and intransigent as the internal and external pressures for reform grew. These regimes were heartened in June 1989 when the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party launched an all-out assault against unarmed protesters near Tiananmen Square. Televised images of the bloodshed in China in early June reinforced the widespread belief in Moscow that urgent steps were needed to forestall destabilizing unrest in Eastern Europe. But the "lesson" drawn by the leaders of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania was just the opposite—namely, that liberalization would be dangerous and that large-scale violent repression would enable them to crush all opposition. When Soviet officials realized that the hard-line East European regimes were willing to emulate the Tiananmen Square massacre, they concluded that the Soviet Union must actively promote change in Eastern Europe, rather than simply waiting and hoping that all would work out for the best.

The decision to assume an active role is what was so striking about the reorientation of Soviet policy toward Eastern Europe under Gorbachev. Gorbachev's willingness to accept and tolerate drastic changes in the Warsaw Pact countries was crucial in itself, but he also sought, discreetly, to promote liberalization before it was too late. As Valentin Falin, the head of the CPSU International Department, which oversaw Soviet relations with Eastern Europe from mid-1988 on, later acknowledged:

The CPSU Central Committee was aware of the unsavory processes under way in the [East European] countries and therefore—to the extent permitted by the principle of non-interference in internal affairs and respect of the right of peoples to choose—we tried to influence the situation.

Gorbachev had pledged in mid-1988 that the Soviet Union "would not impose [its] methods of development," including perestroika and glasnost, "on anyone else," but the situation in Eastern Europe was moving so rapidly by early to mid-1989 that it necessitated greater Soviet involvement than he initially anticipated. Unlike in the past, when Gorbachev's predecessors relied on military force to "defend socialism" in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union in 1989 had to try, at least in a modest way, to counter the "unsavory processes" that might eventually have led to widespread violent unrest in one or more East European countries.

Far-Reaching Consequences

The radical implications of Gorbachev's approach were evident in the first eight months of 1989 when drastic reforms were adopted by Hungary and Poland, culminating in the ceremonial reinterment of Imre Nagy in Hungary and the formation of a Solidarity-led government in Poland. But the full magnitude of the forces unleashed by Gorbachev's policies did not become apparent until the last few months of 1989, when millions of people in Eastern Europe—most of whom until 1989 would not have dared to join mass protests against Communist rule—seized the opportunity to push, both collectively and individually, for sweeping political change. Events that would have been unthinkable even a year or two earlier suddenly happened: a peaceful revolution from below in East Germany, the opening and gradual dismantling of the Berlin Wall, popular ferment and the downfall of Todor Zhivkov in Bulgaria, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and violent upheaval and the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu in Romania. Change from below in East Germany and Czechoslovakia had been made possible by change at the top in the Soviet Union, but neither element on its own would have been enough to transform the political complexion of the region. Only through the interaction of these sources of change could the Soviet bloc have collapsed.

Although Gorbachev certainly had not intended to undermine the bloc and did not foresee that the changes he initiated would lead to the rapid demise of Communism in Eastern Europe, he consistently stuck to his policy of avoiding the use of force in the region. He originally had hoped to preserve the integrity of the Warsaw Pact and to create favorable conditions in Eastern Europe for a liberalized form of Communism ("socialism with a human face") that would enable the socialist commonwealth to overcome the political instability that had plagued it so often in the past. But when the process of change in Eastern Europe took on a revolutionary momentum of its own, he declined to interrupt it or even to try to slow it down. As a result, the upheavals of 1989 transformed the region so comprehensively that they undermined Soviet influence.

Nonetheless, even though Gorbachev did not anticipate that the bloc would disintegrate or that reunification of Germany would loom, his basic approach to Soviet-East European relations proved remarkably successful in averting violence. Had it been left to the East German, Bulgarian, or Czechoslovak authorities, bloody repression would have resulted. The lack of violence was attributable in part to the remarkable discipline shown by the East European peoples, and in part to the deliberate policies adopted by Moscow. Throughout the latter half of 1989 (and even earlier in Hungary and Poland), the Soviet Union took timely and effective action to forestall violence and promote liberalization in the Warsaw Pact countries. At each of the many points when the Soviet Union could have stepped in to halt or reverse the process of fundamental change in Eastern Europe, Gorbachev instead expedited it, sometimes deliberately and other times inadvertently. By eliminating any hint that the USSR would use military force in Eastern Europe, he effectively deprived the hard-line East European Communist leaders of the option of violent repression.

The Opening of the Berlin Wall

As events unfolded in the last several months of 1989, the role of chance and contingency became crucial. Nothing illustrated this better than the opening of the Berlin Wall, which occurred on 9 November largely by chance. By this point, the GDR had been in political turmoil for nearly two months, Erich Honecker's regime had fallen, and throngs of East Germans were continuing to try to flee to the West via Hungary or Czechoslovakia.

On 9 November, East German Communist leaders agreed to allow refugees to pass through checkpoints along the border between the GDR and West Germany and between East Berlin and West Berlin, starting the following week. The East German government later in the day expanded the measure to cover private travel for people with appropriate documents. A senior East German Communist official, Günter Schabowski, who had just returned to East Berlin and had not yet seen the directive, was given the task of announcing it on East German television. Schabowski mistakenly assumed that the measure was immediately effective, and when asked by journalists whether it applied to checkpoints along the Berlin Wall, he responded affirmatively.

This announcement spurred subsequent broadcasts on West German and East German television and radio that the Wall had opened. The reports were erroneous, but hundreds of Germans on both sides of the border assumed that they were true. Large numbers of people began streaming toward the Berlin Wall from both sides, gradually forming an immense crowd. East German border guards, who were still technically under orders to prevent any crossings, had no idea what they should do. They called the authorities to ask for instructions, but no one at upper levels was willing to give orders to enforce the existing rules. Hence, the erroneous broadcasts triggered actions that ultimately converted the error into reality.

Without any clear instructions to follow, the border guards started to let people through, at first in a trickle and then in an overwhelming wave. Germans gathered along the wall, crossed over it, danced on it, hacked away at it, hugged, drank euphoric toasts, and savored a moment that many until recently had felt they might never experience. The sheer exuberance of that magical night is unforgettable for anyone who witnessed it.

The Wall did not fully open until several weeks later, but the breach of it on 9 November signaled the rapid end of Communism in the GDR and the growing movement toward German reunification. It also marked the death knell of East European Communism and the end of the Cold War. On 10 November, the long-time Communist dictator in Bulgaria, Todor Zhivkov, was forced to step down, and a week later the Velvet Revolution began in Czechoslovakia. By the end of the month, Communist rule in Czechoslovakia was over. At the start of November 1989, a modicum of uncertainty had still existed about the prospects for Eastern Europe, but by the end of the month there was no longer any doubt that the Soviet bloc was irrevocably in tatters. Never before had political change of this magnitude occurred so quickly with almost no violence.


The collapse of East European Communism and the opening of the Berlin Wall were by no means inevitable. Everything seems inevitable in retrospect, but the reality is more complex. If Gorbachev had been determined to uphold orthodox Communist rule in Eastern Europe, as his predecessors were, he undoubtedly could have succeeded. The Soviet Army in the late 1980s was still perfectly capable of enforcing the Brezhnev Doctrine, provided that Soviet political leaders were willing to shed blood. If the top post in the CPSU in March 1985 had gone to a hardline Politburo member such as Viktor Grishin, Grigorii Romanov, or Nikolai Tikhonov instead of Gorbachev, the Brezhnev Doctrine undoubtedly would have remained in full force. It is inconceivable that Grishin, Romanov, or Tikhonov—all of whom nearly outflanked Gorbachev in 1985—would have even contemplated a drastic change of policy vis-à-vis Eastern Europe or would have refrained from the use of military force if necessary to keep the Soviet bloc intact.

Gorbachev's acceptance of the peaceful disintegration of the bloc was the unintended consequence of his reorientation of Soviet domestic priorities—a reorientation designed to "lay to rest all remnants of Stalinism and start the Soviet Union on its way to the 20th century." This is the phrase that the late Adam Ulam used when he speculated in an interview with Radio Free Europe in 1975—ten years before Gorbachev came to power—about what would happen if "ten years from now" a Soviet leader were to come along who was determined to pursue "modernization, rationalization, radical economic reform, political relaxation," and other measures that would do away with the Stalinist legacy. Ulam correctly foresaw that any Soviet leader who was truly intent on extirpating the Stalinist residue at home would have to be willing to implement drastic changes in policy toward Eastern Europe. Far-reaching political liberalization and greater openness within the USSR would have been incompatible with, and eventually would have been undermined by, a policy requiring military intervention on behalf of orthodox Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. A fundamental reorientation of Soviet domestic priorities toward far-reaching liberalization, accountability, and openness necessitated the relinquishment of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe.

By the end of 1989, the pace and scope of events in Eastern Europe had greatly outstripped Gorbachev's expectations. Millions of people in the region had decided that the opportunity for drastic political change was finally at hand. Twenty years later, all the East European countries apart from the former Yugoslavia have been integrated into NATO and the European Union. Numerous problems persist there, both economic and political, but the upheavals of 20 years ago brought lasting improvements, above all the spread of democratic polities. The combination in 1989 of reform from above, pressure from below, and sheer luck produced some of the most positive and memorable developments of the 20th century.

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