EAST BERLIN, Nov. 9 — Communist East Germany today opened its borders to the West, including the Berlin Wall, announcing that its citizens could travel or emigrate freely, in the most stunning step since World War II toward ending the East-West division of Europe.
Confronted by a mounting political crisis that a top East German official said has placed the ruling Communist Party’s very existence at stake, the government said authorities had been instructed to grant permission without delay for people to journey abroad or leave the country.
“Today, the decision was taken that makes it possible for all citizens to leave the country through East German border crossing points,” media chief Guenter Schabowski told a news conference shortly before 7 p.m. (1 p.m. EST).
As word spread, hundreds of jubilant East Berliners poured into West Berlin on their first visits ever to the western half of the city, divided for 28 years by the 13-foot-high concrete wall that is the best-known landmark along the Iron Curtain.
On the western side, large crowds gathered at the wall, passing champagne bottles around to joyful fellow Berliners, whose city has been the site of tense confrontations between Soviet and American troops and life-and-death scenes of desperate East Germans trying to flee across the heavily fortified wall.
In an extraordinary sight near the Brandenburg Gate along the city’s dividing line, scores of young West and East Germans climbed to the top of the wall to greet each other and celebrate. Some used small hammers and chisels to chip away at the wall.
Fireworks exploded over the Kurfuerstendamm, West Berlin’s main boulevard, in an impromptu street festival that lasted into the early hours of the morning.
“We woke up the children when we heard the radio, and brought them over for this historic day,” East German Joachim Lucchesi, 41, said as he strolled with his wife and two sons by rows of cars continuously honking their horns.
In Poland, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said he might have to break off his visit to that country because “developments [in East Germany] are now unforeseeable.”
The East German action was hailed in the West as a historic victory for freedom. President Bush called the decision a “dramatic happening for East Germany and, of course, for freedom.”
In Bonn this evening, the West German parliament broke into spontaneous singing of the national anthem when it heard the news.
“The long-awaited day has arrived. The Berlin Wall no longer divides Berliners,” West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper said.
As news of the dramatic new decision reached Czechoslovakia, East Germans in that country began pouring across the border into West Germany’s southern state of Bavaria at the rate of 4,000 per hour, according to the East German news agency ADN. That was 10 times the number that had been crossing just a few hours earlier.
Until tonight’s announcement, more than 50,000 East Germans in the last few days had used a route through Czechoslovakia to flee their homeland, and it was this exodus that helped push the East Berlin government to give in to what seemed inevitable.
There was considerable confusion at first over precisely what kind of document was necessary to enter West Berlin, as some border guards turned back people and said they needed a permit from police obtainable only in the morning.
But guards eventually just opened the gates and even stopped stamping personal identity cards and allowed completely unrestrained traffic between the two halves of the city. Passengers rode free on the one subway line that passes under the wall, and there was no waiting for document checks at the Friedrichstrasse stop on the eastern side.
Some fears arose that West Germany, which automatically grants citizenship and social benefits to any East German who moves there, could be swamped by more than 1 million immigrants in coming months.
[Kohl said in Warsaw Thursday that he wanted to hold urgent talks with new East German leader Egon Krenz as soon as the West German chancellor returned home.]
Schabowski said the government acted to ease the burden on Czechoslovakia caused by the latest wave of this year’s exodus of East Germans to West Germany since the weekend, when authorities here opened a legal escape route to the West through the neighboring Communist state.
“We think that it is no longer possible to handle this through a friendly third country,” Schabowski said.
In addition, the government hoped that it would encourage citizens to decide against emigrating now that they finally had the right to travel freely.
Schabowski said the government was not planning soon to tear down the wall and suggested that its dismantling could come only through a “peace-building process” with West Germany.
The sweeping relaxation of travel restrictions is the latest in a series of steps taken by the Communist leadership to try to regain its authority in the face of huge demonstrations for democratic reform in the last month and the emigration this year of 225,000 East Germans to West Germany.
In an indication of the seriousness of the situation, the party’s most prominent reformist leader, Hans Modrow, said the Communists had to move more quickly or risk losing power altogether.
“The existence of the party, of socialism in the GDR [the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany] and of a renewed socialism are at stake,” the official news agency ADN quoted him as telling a special meeting of the party’s Central Committee.
Modrow was promoted to the Politburo and nominated to be the nation’s next prime minister in a major leadership shake-up Wednesday.
In another step today to try to show it is genuinely interested in change, the Communist leadership called an extraordinary party conference to take place Dec. 15-17.
The conference, which will be only the fourth in East Germany’s history and the first since 1956, was called on the second day of the three-day meeting of the 163-member Central Committee.
The conference will consider making major changes in the membership of the Central Committee, the party’s principal policy-making body, and discuss the program of “socialist renewal” launched by Krenz since he came to power Oct. 18.
The leadership called the conference after about 5,000 disgruntled, lower-ranking party members protested Wednesday outside party headquarters while the Central Committee was meeting inside. The demonstrators were unhappy with what they viewed as the reluctance of the leadership to move fast enough in responding to popular demands for a more pluralistic society and a more effective economy.
The conference was called “in response to many proposals and demands from the party rank and file,” the official news agency ADN reported.
Nevertheless, the Central Committee stopped short of meeting many demands from within the party for calling a party congress, which would have greater powers to replace discredited Central Committee members.
It also was announced that the People’s Chamber legislature will meet on Monday to elect a new prime minister, who is almost certain to be Modrow, and a new cabinet.
The 44-member cabinet resigned on Tuesday to pave the way for new leaders who might have more credibility with the public. The former heavy restrictions on travel have long been one of the principal causes of discontent among East Germans.
“The Wall Must Go!” has been a frequent chant at huge demonstrations that have erupted in the last month throughout the country.
The authorities have blocked citizens from traveling because they feared that too many would fail to return. The new policy technically is only an “interim” measure, until a new travel law can be approved.
But it seemed clear that the embattled government could not withdraw travel freedom once it had been granted. The policy adopted today was much more liberal than that envisaged in the first draft of the travel law, presented on Monday, which was widely criticized by the public and rejected by a parliamentary committee within a day.
The new policy strips away the longstanding requirement that citizens provide a special reason, such as a relative’s birthday or death, to visit the West.
Citizens still have to apply for permission to travel, but “permits will be issued at short notice,” a statement read by Schabowski said.
There were conflicting accounts as to whether people would need a passport to travel, but Schabowski dismissed this as a “technical” question. If passports were needed, he said, they would be issued “immediately.”
Only about a quarter of East Germans have passports, and most citizens have had to turn them in to police when they return from a trip abroad.
To leave the country permanently, citizens must apply to local police headquarters or the Interior Ministry. The authorities “have been instructed to issue visas for a permanent exit without delay,” the official statement said.
The elimination of most travel and emigration restrictions applies to travel across the heavily fortified inter-German border as well as to West Berlin, a Western enclave 110 miles from West Germany.
In another development today, a statement by Krenz appeared to weaken his call Wednesday for free and democratic elections in East Germany.
During a brief appearance with visiting senior West German politician Johannes Rau, Krenz said the Communists were “not afraid to stand up to free elections, because in my opinion we’ve always had free elections.”
Rau, who is the Social Democratic premier of the West German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, said after the meeting that he and Krenz had “very different ideas” about what was meant by free elections. He did not provide details but said Krenz had indicated that, in any case, legislative elections would not be held before they are scheduled in 1991.
Read more Retropolis: