Outlook: How the Berlin Wall came down

Mary Elise Sarotte
Mary Elise Sarotte (The American Academy in Berlin)
Mary Elise Sarotte
Professor of International Relations, University of Southern California and Bosch public policy fellow, American Academy in Berlin
Monday, November 2, 2009; 11:00 AM

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, was online Monday, Nov. 2 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss her Outlook article titled "How the Berlin Wall came down."

Sarotte is the author of "1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe," to be published next week.


Mary Elise Sarotte: Hello all, and welcome! Thank you for your questions. I can already see a long list of question, so please let me apologize in advance if I do not get to your question. Also, there are some questions that are similar -- a lot of people have asked about Reagan, for example -- so I will just answer one of those types of questions. There are also one or two questions about my book _1989_, but since this chat is about my Washington Post article, I will stick to the article because not everyone will have read the book (although I hope that you will)!

Okay, let me go to the questions...


washingtonpost.com: How it went down (Post, Nov. 1)


Detroit, Mich.: I am tired of hearing Republicans stating it was Reagan who was responsible for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Is there any truth to this? It seems to me that the history of their own economic turmoils, Gorbachev, etc., led to these events and that Reagan's policies had a minor, if any, effect on such events.

Mary Elise Sarotte: Hello Detroit Michigan, I picked your question out of the numerous Reagan questions because you are from my home town.

In the years that I have been working as a professional historian, I have found again and again that significant events have multiple causes. In other words, I caution my students against believing in monocausality -- that one explanation will suffice.

The Washington Post asked me, for the anniversary of the Wall coming down, to look specifically at the night of Nov. 9, so that's what I did. The bungled press conference was obviously the short-term cause, but there were a number of long term causes as well. The Americans clearly played a role; the arms build-up under Reagan created great difficult for the economically very weak Soviet Union, which could not really keep up. Meanwhile the East Europeans played an important role too. Movements like Solidarity in Poland or New Forum in East Germany helped to bring down already weak governments.

So, I think it is clear that Reagan had an important impact, but it is also clear that you need to look beyond his role to understand why the Cold War ended when it did and how it did.


Calgary, Alberta: I happened to be in Alsace that fall as a student and, if memory serves, Eastern Europeans were already crossing into Austria from Czechoslovakia in September. Was this not a precipitating cause as well? At the time it seemed like East Germany was just the next in line to open. It was an exhilarating shock when it actually happened, though, and we rushed to Berlin to see it happening.

Mary Elise Sarotte: Hello Calgary. Yes, your memory is correct. In the summer of 1989, Hungary decided to open its border to the West. East Germans tried to leave as well as Hungarians, but under a treaty between East Germany and Hungary, the Hungarian government was not supposed to let the East Germans out. They kept coming to the border anyway and huge crowds built up. Finally, the Hungarian leadership organized a secret meeting in August with the West German government. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl promised the Hungarian leadership that if they let East Germans out, West Germans would help them with the consequences and with loans from German banks. In September 1989 the Hungarians opened the border for East Germans as well, creating the mass exodus that you saw.

Then the East German Politburo, to cut off the Hungarian exodus, stopped all East German travel to Hungary. As a result, East Germans made it to Prague and then go on to the grounds of the West German embassy there. Again, a special deal was negotiated, allowing them to leave by train, and East Germany sealed its border to Czechoslovakia. This meant that all of the discontent was bottled up inside East Germany and the pressure for some kind of easing of travel regulations was immense. Hence, the decision of the East German Politburo to make some changes to the travel laws, which were announced in such a way on Nov. 9 that the world thought the wall had opened.


Washington, D.C.: Did Poland's worker movement play a role in the lead-up to 1989?

Mary Elise Sarotte: Hello Washington,

Yes, absolutely. My article was not all that long, and focused on East Germany, so I did not have an opportunity to talk about how important Poland was to the end of the Cold War in it. However, the example set by the leaders of Solidarity, particularly Lech Walesa and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, was extremely important. Indeed, after the Wall came down, one of the first things that the East Germans did was to organize a central round table along the lines of the one in Poland (as well as many other, smaller round tables).


Rockville, Md.: In much of the discussion the role of Pope John Paul II, in having given people of the East courage to take initiative has been minimized, what is your take on the role of the Pope in the events of 1989

Mary Elise Sarotte: Hello Rockville. This question is related to the one that I just answered about Solidarity. The Catholic Church in Poland was one of the few institutions behind the Warsaw Bloc's border that enjoyed some independence. The fact that the Pope was Polish was of enormous importance to the protest movement in Poland; protestors knew that they had a powerful ally in the Vatican. And, the enormous crowds that turned out when the Pope visited gave individuals a sense that they were not alone.

An interesting open question, which I cannot answer, is the extent to which the Vatican provided covert aid to Solidarity, perhaps in conjunction with Americans. That will be an interesting challenge for a future historian.


Raleigh, N.C.: I am an East European who has lived through the fall of the communist block in his 20's and vividly remember the events. I find the claim that an "accident" between a GDR official and Italian journalist brought down the Berlin Wall ridiculously superficial and ignorant. The whole communist block was falling apart, and all communist governments were doomed by the beginning of November. The accident in question might have speeded up the fall by hours or days, but it is insignificant in the enormous flow of events. The fall of the Wall was the fall of a political system of inefficiency, corruption and oppression that was challenged and brought down by brave politicians in the West and activists in the East. Why don't you focus on the deep politico-social events behind the fall of communism instead of such "accident" fairytales?

Mary Elise Sarotte: Hello Raleigh. It sounds from your question like you originally come from Eastern Europe and have personal experience with the events. Yes, you are absolutely right to say that there were long term causes; see my first answer to the first question on this chat.

I disagree with you, though, that the accidental opening of the Wall on the night of November 9 was insignificant. What I see in the historical documents in an interaction between the long-term causes that you rightly describe and a series of unexpected short-term events. Longer term, it was clear that the Wall's time was limited. However, the nature of the opening was unclear. The world saw in June 1989 in Tiananmen Square that Communist regimes were still capable of using violence. Gorbachev had made clear that he would not, but it was not clear whether or not he was truly still in command of Soviet troops in East Germany. By early 1990, they were selling weaponry -- up to and including tanks -- for cash as they were going hungry and living in decrepit barracks. So, it is not clear what might have happened if local East German authorities called on them for help at a time of a different border opening. Whether or not Gorbachev could have restrained them was an open question. And if there had been violence in Berlin, then the future course of events would have been very different.


Johnstown, Pa.: I lived in West Berlin 1979-1984. I had friends in "the East." I traveled to East Berlin via Checkpoint Charlie at least twice a month. (I had three IDs... legal resident of West Berlin, a military ID as a member of the occupation forces, and my U.S. passport). I became aware through various means that my "friends" in East Germany were not necessarily my friends, and may have been working actively against me. I could recite several instances, but won't.

In any case, what is that status of "revelations" out of the Stazi archives in terms of who was "ratting" on whom, and what foreigners (such as myself) were targeted?

Mary Elise Sarotte: Hello Johnstown:

The archives of the Stasi, which is the German acronym for the state security force of the former East Germany, remain open. There was, as you probably know, a big debate once the two Germanies merged over whether to keep the Stasi archives open or not. Much of the evidence that had been collected in it would be considered inadmissible evidence. However, the united Germany decided to keep the archive open and make its files available to users with protections for the personal data stored there. If you believe that there might be a file on you, you can apply to see your file (and you might already have done this).

The biggest revelations about who worked for the Stasi are probably now past, but of course there are still more files to be read.


Atlanta, Ga.: In your column on the fall of the Berlin Wall, you state that East German officials were all stuck in lengthy meetings when the guards decided to open the wall. Give us more details about this. Was no one authorized to interrupt these meetings? Were there no procedures for staying informed while locked up in a meeting? Were the East German leaders really this clueless about what was going on at the wall?

Mary Elise Sarotte: Hello Atlanta!

You asked for more details about the night of Nov. 9, particularly about the meetings of the East German leadership.

The main meeting going on was the East German Central Committee meeting. It was supposed to end at 6:00pm. Instead, it kept running until 8:45pm. This meant that the most important leaders in the country did not see Schabowski's press conference go out live. Also, they thought they knew what he was going to announce, which was to say some liberalization of travel. The new rules that Schabowski was supposed to announce included, however, the requirement to get a visa in your passport, among other things. This meant, for most East Germans, not only getting a visa, but also getting a passport, since most did not have one. Both of those were time-consuming procedures. So, the top leadership does not seem to have focused on the press conference because they did not know that they needed to do so. They also had a large number of other problems demanding attention, most importantly the economic collapse of the country. As a result, distraction played a big role.

It is important to remember that, while the press conference ended at 7pm, it was not until about 11:30pm that the Wall actually opened. There were crowds at various border crossings, but hardly anyone was actually getting through the Wall (there were a few exceptions at Bornholmer Street). So it was quite late when the full extent of the disaster became apparent.


Borrego Springs, Calif.: Sorry it is not true. The West Berlin Senate knew two weeks before the wall would be opened. They already informed the public transport system in west Berlin to prepare for 200,000 more people in this night. Read the German magazine "Der Spiegel, Die Zeit." Regards.

Mary Elise Sarotte: Hello Borrego Springs, what a beautiful place!

There was definitely contingency planning of all kinds going on in the West, not only West Berlin. The crowds of refugees getting out other ways (see my earlier answer to the question about Hungary) meant that a lot of places were making plans to handle the crowds. I think, and have said this in an earlier answer, that it was becoming clear by late 1989 that the Wall's continued existence was in question, but no one expected it to be so short-lived. To date, however, (journalistic accounts notwithstanding), the best documentary-based work that we have does not show more than lucky guesswork about what would happen on Nov. 9.


Hyattsville, Md.: Why has it taken so long for the story of the bungled press conference to be reported?


Mary Elise Sarotte: Hello Hyattsville,

There have been reports about it before. Mostly they have been in German, a lot of them by my colleague Hans-Hermann Hertle, a German scholar who knows more about this than anyone else. Journalists such as Cordt Schnibben of Spiegel have written about it too. Scholars have worked on it as well, and I published a scholarly article back at the time (written in 1992, and published in 1993). I have been surprised, however, by how little-known the story remains in English-speaking countries. For that reasons I was happy that the Post gave me the opportunity to write about it for an English-speaking audience. The huge number of questions lined up for me in this chat room suggest that there is, in fact, interest in knowing this story in detail, so thanks for your question and attention.


Middleburg, Va.: I am struck that a university professor publishes a major historical piece in a national newspaper that highlights how the Cold War ended 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..."

Nothing about the Cold War, NATO, Lech Walesa, the Reagan defense buildup, the Gorbachev recognition of reality and acting on it, the rising role of churches in the East to support dissent, the earlier opening of borders by Hungary.

Was your intent to dumb down and diminish history, or just to write a cute story?

Mary Elise Sarotte: Hello Middleburg,

I am sorry to hear that you are disappointed in the article, but perhaps I could suggest that you look at my new book, _1989_? Due to space constraints, I could not really cover much ground in the article, but if you have a look at my book you will see that I address all of those significant topics.


washingtonpost.com: How it went down (Post, Nov. 1)


Falls Church, Va.: One of the most poignant, fascinating and informative reports about the background of the fall of Berlin's wall is Ekkehart Kuhn's "Der Tag der Entscheidung." But it is not mentioned in yesterday's Outlook section of the Post. Are you aware of an English translation anywhere?

Mary Elise Sarotte: Hello Falls Church,

You are well informed, yes, that is a good account and no, I do not know of an English version. Likewise, the works of Hans-Hermann Hertle, especially his 'Chronik des Mauerfalls' are very useful, but not available in English. I do my best to summarize this research in English in my book, and acknowledge it in the footnotes, since it deserves a much wider audience.


washingtonpost.com: 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (Princeton University Press)


Mary Elise Sarotte: Dear Chat Room Guests,

I am sorry that I will not be able to answer all of the questions. There is still a huge lineup but unfortunately I am going to have to depart. Thank you for your interest in my article!


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