The opening of the Berlin Wall, 25 years ago this Sunday, marked a surprisingly joyous end to a conflict that could have erupted into thermonuclear combat. In the decades since, many Americans have come to believe that the wall fell thanks to President Ronald Reagan’s direct, personal intervention. In a 1987 speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in a divided Berlin, he told Soviet leaders to “tear down this wall” — and so, we’ve been told, they did.
This misreading of the actual fall of the wall is, at best, incomplete; at worst, it’s dangerous, contributing to the belief that American leaders can go “from Berlin to Baghdad,” shaping world events while ignoring the complex realities of the locals.
In truth, the opening of the Berlin Wall on the night of Nov. 9, 1989, was not planned. Well into that year, East Germany remained nearly inescapable: The last killing by a guard at the wall occurred in February 1989; the last shooting, a very near miss, in April; the last death during an escape attempt on the larger East German border, only 10 days earlier.
So what happened to make this heavily armed border open literally overnight? The answer lies in a series of mistakes by East German officials. These errors threw off dangerous sparks into the tense atmosphere of autumn 1989, already supercharged by the conflict between the rise of an East German resistance movement and the collapse of the ruling regime.
It was the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev who had opened the door to these events. In his four years in power, he had introduced a series of social and political reforms across Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe — but to enhance his Communist Party’s control, not end it.
These reforms put the hard-line dictators in East Germany in a bind. They felt they had to make some sort of concession, too. Politburo members in East Berlin decided to make minor changes to the state’s draconian travel rules — but to retain their power to deny travel permission on a whim.
The announcement of this pseudo-reform, at an international news conference televised on the night of Nov. 9, was botched. The bumbling Politburo member running the conference, Günter Schabowski, read the news release for the first time on air. Much of his reading was garbled, but a few phrases popped out: that trips abroad would be “possible for every citizen,” starting “right away, immediately.” Shorn of their context, these phrases mistakenly gave journalists and TV viewers the impression that the wall was open.
But his error need not have been fatal. Politburo members making mistakes was nothing new, and the bottom line had not changed: The regime’s armed sentries still stood at the wall, with orders to keep the gates closed.
What had changed was the self-assurance of the people. By autumn 1989, the protest movement had gained sufficient confidence to take advantage of this incompetence. The people already knew the authorities would back down: A month earlier, peaceful protesters in Leipzig had turned out in such overwhelming numbers that the security forces, which we now know had planned a Tiananmen-style crackdown, had backed off.
And they knew they could trust each other. Stasi interrogators had once asked a prisoner named Katrin Hattenhauer, a young rebel, how she and her fellow dissidents held together despite all of the Stasi’s actions against them. She replied that shared suffering welded people together more strongly than shared success: “Where the hammer has come down, whatever is underneath is going to hold together.”
In contrast, Stasi files demonstrate how members of the regime did not trust their colleagues, or their subordinates — and that this lack of trust gravely undermined their ability to blunt the rising revolution. And so, when tens of thousands of Berliners headed toward the wall in the minutes after the news conference, the entire system cracked.
When one of the regime’s most loyal subordinates, a Stasi officer named Harald Jäger who was working the Nov. 9 night shift at a crucial checkpoint in the Berlin Wall, repeatedly phoned his superiors with accurate reports of swelling crowds, they did not trust or believe him. They called him a delusional coward. Insulted, furious and frightened, he decided to let the crowds out, starting a chain reaction that swept across all of the checkpoints that night.
In short, the fall of the wall came about because of the complex interplay among Soviet reforms, East Berlin’s incompetence and, crucially, rising opposition from everyday Germans. As another dissident, Marianne Birthler, puts it, Westerners believe that “it was the opening of the wall that brought us our freedom.” Rather, “it was the other way around. First we fought for our freedom; and then, because of that, the wall fell.”
This doesn’t mean the West was irrelevant. The attractiveness of the freedoms of the West, both political and commercial, served as motivation for large numbers of East Germans, as shown clearly by their later vote for rapid German reunification on Western terms. And the support that the United States gave both to its allies in Western Europe and to dissidents in Eastern Europe over the course of the long Cold War helped to shape an environment in which the wall could open.
But that support did not open the barrier all by itself. Rather than congratulate itself for things that it did not do, on this anniversary Washington should learn from what it did do. Playing a long game, it helped to create a context in which locals could seize on opportunities to overcome their own dictators. That is indeed a success worth celebrating.
Mary Elise Sarotte is a professor of history at the University of Southern California, a visiting professor at Harvard and the author, most recently, of The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall.