1989: Remembering The Fall Of The Berlin Wall

Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the streets that November night in 1989, Germans celebrated the demise of the barrier, but had no way of knowing what political and cultural fallout would follow. Host Guy Raz recaps the events from 20 years ago and talks with Mary Sarotte, author of 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, about the fall of the wall and what came after.

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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

On this day 20 years ago, our world was ordered into three spheres - the West and the countries aligned with the United States, the Eastern Bloc and its allies under the Soviet Union, and the non-aligned movement, which included countries like India.

Now, that world order had begun to unravel years before 1989. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev unveiled his perestroika policy in 1987. There was the solidarity movement in Poland, and in the Baltic states, people were openly challenging Russian influence. And all of these movements seem to find expression in Berlin the night of November 9th, 1989.

Unidentified Woman: It's a great day for Berlin and for all German people. The border is finally open´┐Ż

Unidentified Man #1: There are thousands of people here in front of the wall at the Brandenburg Gate at this hour. The West Berlin police are keeping the crowd away from the wall but the sense of excitement is undeniable.

Unidentified Man #2: This just in to the newsroom: Associated Press is reporting that East Germany has thrown all of its border open to its citizens to travel anywhere they wish.

RAZ: November 9th happens to be a pivotal date in German history. In 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated. In 1923, the fledgling Nazi movement, under the young Adolph Hitler, attempted a coup in Munich. And in 1938, the Nazis ordered an anti-Jewish pogrom known as Kristallnacht.

But there was nothing planned for 1989 - it was an accident of history. For months, East Germans had been mounting protests calling for economic and political liberalization. The night of November 9th, an inexperienced East German spokesman announced that travel restrictions would soon be relaxed. When will that begin, asked a reporter?

The spokesman, Gunter Schabowski, fumbled his papers and said offhandedly, immediately. And so over the next few hours, East and West Berliners began to gather on opposite sides of the wall.

Historian Mary Sarotte picks it up from here.

Professor MARY SAROTTE (International Relations, University of Southern California; Author, "1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe"): The individual border guards decided that once 20,000 people showed up, they had no alternative but to open the border because they would just be overwhelmed. So, this actually happens for the first time at the Bornholmer Street crossing at about 11:30 p.m., and that is the end of the division of Germany.

RAZ: Mary Sarotte is the author of "1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe." She explains that leaders on both sides of the iron curtain were caught by surprise.

West German Chancellor Helmut Cole was in Warsaw; Mikhail Gorbachev was asleep in Moscow. And President George H.W. Bush in Washington reacted soberly. Aren't you excited, asked a reporter? I'm just not an emotional kind of guy, Mr. Bush said.

Prof. SAROTTE: That was a moment where what President George H.W. Bush was doing was right on substance, which is to say he didn't want to in any way make an already volatile situation more volatile, so he was trying to be calm and show restraint. But the problem is that it was also a moment of great celebration and he missed acknowledging that in his remarks.

RAZ: Mary Sarotte, when did it become clear, how long after the events of November 9th, 1989 - did it become clear that the Federal Republic of Germany, West Germany, and the GDR, East Germany, would unify?

Prof. SAROTTE: It was not immediately apparent. Indeed, the first thing Chancellor Helmut Cole did was announce that there should be a confederation of West Germany and East Germany. And then over some longer period of time, he and his aides guessed internally that it will be a minimum of a decade but probably a lot more that the two Germanys would gradually merge.

What happens is that it becomes apparent that the East Germans are not happy with that outcome. And when Helmut Cole goes to East Germany in December 1989 to give a speech, he's just overwhelmed by the desire for national unity. And he realizes, wait a minute, I actually can be the chancellor of German unity, and decides to push very, very quickly for rapid German unity. And he enjoys the very strong support of George H.W. Bush.

RAZ: Washington also saw it as an opportunity to expand NATO. That riled the Soviets. How did they manage to convince Mikhail Gorbachev that this was going to work out?

Prof. SAROTTE: Well, basically with a lot of money.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SAROTTE: Robert Gates, who at this time was at the National Security Council - of course, he's now the defense secretary - was very clear about this in him memoir. He said we were trying to bribe the Soviets out of East Germany. And so basically at the end of 1990, Helmut Cole agrees to give a very large sum of credits and other forms of support to Mikhail Gorbachev, and in return, Gorbachev agrees that the Soviet troops will leave East Germany and that the united Germany will be able to go into NATO.

RAZ: Now, of course, not everybody was in favor of this united Germany, particularly Britain's Margaret Thatcher and France's Francois Mitterrand.

Prof. SAROTTE: Yes. They are two very interesting characters. Both Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand were very surprised when the wall came down and initially, very, very anxious. But Francois Mitterrand realizes fairly early in 1990 that the smart move is to get on board with German unification, since it's coming, and see what percentage there is for France in it.

Thatcher has a bit of a more emotional reaction (unintelligible).

RAZ: She initially calls it an (unintelligible) - dry comparisons between the Nazi unification of Germany and Austria in 1938.

Prof. SAROTTE: It's interesting though when you look at Thatcher. But she had at least three good reasons for worrying about rapid German unification. And history has borne(ph) her out on these.

Her first worry is that driving forward too quickly to German unification would weaken Gorbachev's position at home. And she felt very strongly that Gorbachev was the best possible leader of the Soviet Union from the Western point of view.

Secondly, she worried about the long-term economic consequences, both within Germany but for Europe as a whole of rapid fire unification, funded largely by West German borrowing. And there was a currency crisis, a severe currency crisis in 1992 with dramatic consequences for the British pound that shows that these were not unwarranted concerns.

And third and finally, she speculates internally if the Germans start changing borders in Europe, then we have to worry about Yugoslavia. And tragically, history showed that she was right in that regard as well. So, Thatcher actually had some substantive reasons for worrying about German unification on top of just an emotional reaction.

RAZ: At the beginning of 1989, would anybody have predicted that the end of the year would have brought about the collapse of communism, the beginnings of the collapse of communism?

Prof. SAROTTE: I doubt that very much. I think that it was clear that the long-term trend was downward. But if you said that at the end of the year the wall will be down, I think people would have thought you were crazy.

RAZ: Mary Sarotte is a professor of international relations at USC and the author of the new book, "1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe."

Professor Sarotte, thank you so much.

Prof. SAROTTE: Thank you very much.

RAZ: And one quick question before we let you go.

Prof. SAROTTE: Sure.

RAZ: I've heard that the man who really brought down the wall was David Hasselhoff. Any truth to that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SAROTTE: No comment.

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