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Mary Elise Sarotte -- How an accident caused the Berlin Wall to come down

The show cut live to Berlin, where its lonely correspondent failed to find drama or crowds at either the Brandenburg Gate or the Invaliden Street border-crossing point. It had been nearly four hours since the end of Schabowski's news conference, but no one was crossing or celebrating. The journalists had gotten ahead of reality -- though reality was about to catch up. East Germans, who could watch such western broadcasts illicitly, believed the news and began to gather on their side of the wall.

At the Bornholmer Street border-crossing station in East Berlin, guard Harald Jäger, on the job since 1964, had watched Schabowski on television. Dumbfounded by the remarks, he told his fellow guards that the official's words were "deranged," and he started calling around. His superiors assured him that travel remained blocked, and he and his colleagues were armed as always.

But soon Jäger and his team were busy waving back some would-be crossers who had heard the western reports. A police car arrived and an officer announced over a loudspeaker that it was not possible simply to exit, but the crowd kept swelling.

Before long, the guards at Bornholmer Street were outnumbered by thousands of people; the same thing was happening at several other checkpoints. Overwhelmed and worried for their own safety, Jäger and his fellow guards reasoned that the use of violence might quickly escalate and become uncontrollable. They decided instead at around 9 p.m. to let a trickle of people cross the border, hoping to ease the pressure and calm the crowd. The guards would check each person individually, take notes and penalize the rowdiest by refusing them reentry. They managed to do this for a while, but after a couple of hours the enormous crowd was chanting, "Open the gate, open the gate!"

After more debate, Jäger decided that raising the traffic barriers was the only solution. Around 11:30 p.m., the decades-long Cold War division of Germany ended.

Throughout the night, other crossings opened in much the same way. Every opening meant more people flooding into the west and more images beaming back east, in turn sending more easterners onto the streets. Because of the ongoing top-level crisis meetings, those who might have ordered bloody reprisals were largely uninformed, and unaware that the known parameters of their political lives had suddenly disappeared.

Of course, the wall would have come down eventually, but not necessarily in the same way. An opening on a later date could have posed far more dangers. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had made clear that he would not use violence as political change began sweeping Eastern Europe, but what if he had already moved farther down his arc toward losing all power? What might another Soviet leader have done?

Even the exact hour mattered: The wall opened when many East German political and military leaders were sequestered in meetings, and many significant Soviet leaders -- because of the time difference -- were already asleep. What if they'd had time to fortify the borders before the flood of people arrived? As it was, none of them could mount an immediate response, and soon it was too late to undo the events of the evening.

We like to think that all great events have great causes, and obviously long-term political, economic and military forces shaped the Cold War -- and how it ended. But momentous events are also a sort of ambush of history, when all those long-term pressures come together in an unexpected way. The opening of the Berlin Wall, largely unintentional, was such an event, an unsettling thought for those who see history as the result of strategy and planning by pivotal leaders.

If only a few things had been different, we might not have such happy memories to celebrate next week. But thanks to the mumbling of a sleep-deprived East German official, some overzealous Western reporting and the willingness of East Germans to risk a trip to the wall, the Cold War reached a swift and peaceful conclusion.

Mary Elise Sarotte, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and a Bosch public policy fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, is the author of "1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe," to be published next week. She will be online to chat with readers Monday at 11 a.m. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.


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