30-Year Anniversary since the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Brandenburger Tor

In Berlin, they celebrated with a 7-day City-Wide Festival from November 4th to November 10th, 2019. But in Vancouver, the celebration is just getting started. But before we talk about that, let’s go back in time to May 7, 1945, when Germany officially surrendered to the Allies, bringing an end to the European conflict in World War II.

German dictator Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Führerbunker along with Eva Braun, his long-term partner whom he had married less than 40 hours before their joint suicide. In his will, Hitler appointed his successors as follows; Großadmiral Karl Dönitz as the new Reichspräsident (“President of Germany”) and Joseph Goebbels as the new Reichskanzler (Chancellor of Germany). However, Goebbels committed suicide the following day, leaving Dönitz as the sole leader of Germany.

On 23 May, American Major General Rooks summoned Karl Dönitz (known as the Flensburg Government) aboard the Patria (ship) and communicated to him that he and all the members of his Government were under arrest, and that their government was dissolved.

With the arrest of the Flensburg Government on 23 May 1945, the German High Command also ceased to exist, with no central authority having been kept in place to govern Germany even in a nominal capacity, or to assume responsibility for complying with the demands and instructions of the victorious nations. Then on June 5th, 1945 they signed a Declaration Regarding the Defeat of Germany and the Assumption of Supreme Authority by Allied Powers:

The Governments of the United States of America, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom and the Provisional Government of the French Republic, hereby assume supreme authority with respect to Germany, including all the powers possessed by the German Government, the High Command and any state, municipal, or local government or authority.

At the Potsdam Conference (17 July to 2 August 1945), after Germany’s unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945, the Allies divided Germany into four military occupation zones — France in the southwest, Britain in the northwest, the United States in the south, and the Soviet Union in the east, bounded eastwards by the Oder-Neisse (Rivers) line.

On 23 May 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, Bundesrepublik Deutschland) was established on the territory of the Western occupied zones, with Bonn as its “provisional” capital. It comprised the area of 11 newly formed states (replacing the pre-war states), with present-day Baden-Württemberg being split into three states until 1952). The Federal Republic was declared to have “the full authority of a sovereign state” on 5 May 1955. On 7 October 1949 the German Democratic Republic (GDR, Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR)), with East Berlin as its capital, was established in the Soviet Zone.

The city of Berlin, though technically part of the Soviet zone, was also split, with the Soviets taking the eastern part of the city. After a massive Allied airlift in June 1948 foiled a Soviet attempt to blockade West Berlin, the eastern section was drawn even more tightly into the Soviet fold. Over the next 12 years, cut off from its western counterpart and basically reduced to a Soviet satellite, East Germany saw between 2.5 million and 3 million of its citizens head to West Germany in search of better opportunities. By 1961, some 1,000 East Germans—including many skilled laborers, professionals and intellectuals—were leaving every day.

In August, Walter Ulbricht, the Communist leader of East Germany, got the go-ahead from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to begin the sealing off of all access between East and West Berlin. Soldiers began the work over the night of August 12-13, laying more than 100 miles of barbed wire slightly inside the East Berlin border. The wire was soon replaced by a six-foot-high, 96-mile-long wall of concrete blocks, complete with guard towers, machine gun posts and searchlights. East German officers known as Volkspolizei (“Volpos”) patrolled the Berlin Wall day and night.

Many Berlin residents on that first morning found themselves suddenly cut off from friends or family members in the other half of the city. From 1961 to 1989, a total of 5,000 East Germans escaped; many more tried and failed. High profile shootings of some would-be defectors only intensified hate of the Wall.

In the 1980s, however, the rise of both Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to power brought unexpected changes to U.S,-Soviet relations. Although Reagan initially took a hard-line stance, his personal contacts with Gorbachev, a surprisingly articulate and personable reformer, breathed new life into U.S.-Soviet arms-control negotiations. And Gorbachev himself, seeing the Soviet economy heading for collapse, decided to institute dramatic, liberalizing reforms. In doing so, he opened a window of opportunity, which protesters all over Central and Eastern Europe soon widened.

At a press conference on November 9, 1989, Communist party leaders tried to reduce tensions by making it sound as if travel restrictions would soon be liberalized—when in reality travel would remain subject to all manner of fine print. But the official announcing the liberalization botched the messaging so badly that it sounded—unbelievably—as if the ruling regime might just have opened the Wall, effective immediately.

Having seen the press conference on TV, thousands of East Germans flocked to border crossings to see if they could, in fact, pass to the West. Stunned border guards had no idea why they were being inundated, and no orders on how to handle the crowds. Among the many shocked men on duty that night at Bornholmer Street, the biggest checkpoint between East and West Berlin, was Harald Jäger, the senior Stasi officer on duty that historic November night.

Jäger soon had a problem as his superiors told him to let out the biggest trouble-makers to a one-way trip to the west. The only issue was that some of them were parents of young children. They did not know it was a one-way trip and they could no longer get back to their children. They began protesting and pushing loudly. So Jäger agreed to let the parents back in, as well as other people who just wanted to go back home.

By about a quarter past 11:00 p.m., the crowd on the eastern side of Bornholmer had grown into the tens of thousands, filling all of the approach streets. Loud chants of “Open the gate” erupted regularly. Jäger was facing an uncontrollable sea of thousands of agitated, chanting people. He worried he and his men might soon be in mortal danger. A little before 11:30 p.m., Jäger phoned his commanding officer with his decision: “I am going to end all controls and let the people out.” Ziegenhorn disagreed, but Jäger no longer cared, and ended the call.

He began implementing his decision. Jäger’s subordinates Helmut Stöss and Lutz Wasnick received the order to open the main gate, a task that had to be completed by hand. But before they could open it all the way, an enormous crowd started pushing through it from the eastern side. Cheers, jubilation, kisses and tears followed as tens of thousands of people began sweeping through. The massive, unstoppable, joyous crowd poured through the gate and toward the bridge beyond, where even more camera operators filmed the flood of people surging into the West.

German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher traveled to the U.S. to meet with President George H.W. Bush the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In his public remarks, Genscher pledges to encourage democratic reform. Fortunately for Jäger, the collapse of the regime meant that he was never punished, although he did put himself out of work and never again held steady employment. He eventually retired to a small garden cottage near the Polish border, gradually becoming forgotten.

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