The Collapse by Mary Elise Sarotte

In The Collapse, Mary Elise Sarotte engages in a very close examination of the events in East Germany that led up to the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and a nearly minute-by-minute analysis of the day itself. Not quite an eyewitness to the events herself, though she is of an age where she well could have been, she has interviewed many of the principals to the action, and she has combed both archival sources and contemporary media to paint a photorealistic picture of what the people involved were doing and thinking during those crucial days and hours. Such care is important, not only because people’s later testimony tends to shade events in their favor, but because of the argument that Sarotte is making, as revealed in her subtitle, “The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall.”

The opening of the Wall was a cock-up of epic proportions, to exaggerate her view slightly, the result of a series of missteps, overreaching, and miscommunications that quite literally changed the world, practically overnight. The book is a model of historical argument, brief at under 300 pages in its main text, densely sourced and clearly referenced. Sarotte opens the book with examples of the brutality that the Wall both required and made possible. Gunfire along the Wall meant that guards were shooting at a person trying to escape East Berlin. Even in 1989, it was a regular occurrence.

Sarotte also provides a sketch of divided Europe, along with a brief overview of the people and forces that were pushing toward change in the Soviet-dominated eastern half of the continent. Her summary helps lead the general reader into the specifics that make up her argument, and it is a useful reminder to the specialist reader. Economic shortcomings had increased the East’s need for financial assistance from the West; this was particularly acute in relations between East and West Germany, since they were countrymen divided by different systems of government. Mikhail Gorbachev’s tenure in power as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR had signaled that change was necessary in the imperial center and that it would be accepted in the periphery. In Poland, the Communists had allowed competitive elections, and been soundly defeated. Hungary had opened its borders to the West in May 1989 (I crossed from Austria about ten weeks later). Change was not a given, however. In June, China’s Communist Party defended its monopoly on power by massacring hundreds in the capital and dispersing protestors by force. East Germany’s leadership had demonstratively supported their Chinese comrades.

With the stage set, Sarotte follows three key thematic threads: first, emigration of East Germans, initially through the opening provided by Hungary and later by seeking refuge in West German embassies in other Communist states, particularly Czechoslovakia; second, East German dissidents, and the sudden swelling of a protest movement centered in Leipzig; and third, attempts by East German officials to find an adequate response to these events. The Berlin Wall (and the other fortifications along the German-German border) had been built to prevent people from leaving East Germany. When Hungary started letting East Germans leave for the West, it was a reminder of what had led to the Wall’s construction, and a signal that the policy of keeping East Germans in also depended on cooperation from allies. The new wave of emigration and the measures the regime undertook to stop it spurred protest in East Germany. Sarotte looks closely at the place that emerged as the locus of protest in East Germany: the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig. A combination of history and specific personalities combined to make the Nikolaikirche a relatively safe space for nonconformist thinking and for protest. By 1988 there were prayers for peace every Monday, which took on a political tinge. Unintended consequences played a role, too. At one point the church’s leadership grew uncomfortable with the political nature of the ideas being expressed at the Monday prayers, and they asked the dissidents to take their politics outside.

Yet their expulsion from the church gradually revealed itself as a blessing in disguise. … Denied the space inside, they decided to continue congregating on the space outside for a regular forum on Monday evenings, despite the presence of secret police and the lack of church shelter. “We were forced to break out,” Schwabe recalled. The result of their move outside, Schwabe came to realize, was a new “symbiosis between the critical people from inside the church and the critical people outside of the church.” Over the course of late 1988 and 1989, “it turned out to be a wonderful thing: people were interested!” Partly, he came to realize, this was because of the examples set by Gorbachev and Solidarity abroad. Then the emigration crisis of 1989 swelled their ranks even more. Schwabe concluded that the “most important reason” he and his friends had come to enjoy massive support by the autumn of 1989 was “the mass emigration and the trains from the embassies, where thousands of people tried to jump on,” and the violence in nearby Dresden. These events had been so traumatic that they drove many people in the GDR to political engagement, often for the first time. The activists … started offering a venue for civil engagement at just the right time in a society critically short of such opportunities. (pp. 39–40)

Outdoor meetings soon included short marches, and in the fall of 1989 the number of participants swelled rapidly. The regime did not stand idly by. The secret police arrested and imprisoned activists; informers within dissident circles continued to report. The state authorities did choose not to roll up the whole Nikolai group. The argument that carried the day was that it was easier to keep an eye on them if they were all in one place. That autumn, though, the numbers grew so large that wholesale repression would have been required. The Communist Party considered it. Sarotte gives details from both sides of a crucial march on October 9. By then, activists were expecting tens of thousands; in the event, the number was closer to 100,000. State and party had mobilized police, paramilitaries and soldiers to deny people the ability to march around a ring road in central Leipzig.

The eventual decision not to repress the demonstration by force in a “Chinese variant” shows several of the elements that played a role in the opening of the Berlin Wall a month later. Key people were out sick, devolving decisions a layer or two in the bureaucracy. Higher-ups at the national level were divided, and unavailable to give guidance at crucial junctures. People at the local level suspected that they were being set up as scapegoats whatever happened, and were in any event not united behind a strategy of forceful repression. Security forces received last-second orders to assume a defensive posture and let the massive protest pass peacefully. A clandestine video of the march was immediately smuggled out to West Germany, where its broadcast on television was a sensation, showing the full scale of East German protest against the existing regime. Those Western TV channels could also be received in the East, where they catalyzed still more people to join.

East German officialdom scrambled to square the circle of allowing travel without giving up control over its citizens’ movements. Protests across the country grew, but were still largest in Leipzig. “Fueled in part by dismay at the draft [travel regulations], the Leipzig protest [November 6] saw a half million people—equal to nearly the entire population of the city—circle the ring road despite a cold, drenching rain. The marchers demanded the abolition of travel and emigration restrictions altogether.” (p. 98)

That set the background for the fateful events of November 9. By that time, one Communist leader had pushed out the country’s long-time ruler. The new head could not be sure that change would stop there. During these crucial days, his bureaucratic control was less than certain. The Soviets were busy celebrating the anniversary of their revolution, making political guidance from Moscow difficult to come by. Years of rote acceptance meant that people did not look closely at various documents; further, everything was being undertaken in great haste. Errors and the unexpected naturally crept in.

The regime’s attempted solution was to allow emigration, after exit had been applied for, from a border crossing somewhere fairly remote. A group of four bureaucrats was tasked with drawing up guidelines. One of them boldly stated what he really thought of the orders: they were a contradiction in terms. So the group took it on themselves to exceed their orders and produce a new draft that addressed both emigration and temporary travel. They added that the rules would be valid immediately, and they included travel to West Berlin. “With the stroke of a pen, the four midlevel bureaucrats thus declared the current rules to be suddenly null and void.” (p. 107) Application and approval was still required.

The four men thought they had thereby succeeded at the impossible task given to them. Their text sounded as though it was promoting freedom of travel, but it contained enough caveats—it was only temporary, still required multiple forms of permission, and granted no foreign currency—to maintain control and to prevent the depopulation of East Germany. None of them would realize just how wrong they had been, and how far-reaching the unintended consequences of their actions would be, until it was too late. (p. 108)

Next, bureaucratic bungling and self-confidence took over, aided and abetted by international news media. The draft passed up the chain to the top leadership over the course of the day, but apparently nobody read it closely enough to note the differences, or they presumed that it had been approved, or they presumed that whatever the text said, implementation would make the difference. Certainly no objections are found in the historical record, which Sarotte scoured carefully.

The text was supposed to be embargoed until 4am on the next day. Günter Schabowski, a senior member of the Politburo, had recently begun giving press conferences to German and international media. His conference on November 9 was initially dreadfully dull, with some worn-out journalists even falling asleep.

Suddenly [Michele] Neubert [of NBC News] went on high alert. An Italian journalist, Riccardo Ehrman, had asked Schabowski a question about travel possibilities for East Germans. Schabowski’s long-winded, German-language answer was not what Neubert had expected. Schabowski had started by replying in the same vague in which he had answered all of the questions until then . … Then, however, Schabowski added, “Anyway, today, as far as I know … a decision has been made. …
Schabowski pressed ahead, saying, in between pauses and “uhs,” that the party had decided “to issue a regulation what will make it possible for every citizen … to emigrate.” He would now read a text of the new rules, he said, as soon as he could find it. He began digging through his thick stack of papers. Now not just Neubert but also the German-speaking NBC sound technician, Heinrich Walling, seemed visibly shocked. [Tom] Brokaw looked at Walling questioningly. Walling whispered to Brokaw in English, “It’s the end of the Cold War.” …
A frenzy of questions erupted in German. “Without a passport, without a passport?” shouted one reporter. “When does that go into force?” shouted another. The chaotic outburst visibly irritated and disoriented Schabowski. …
Schabowski became even more visibly rattled as he continued to fumble with his papers, and it was only with help from an aide that he finally found the group of four’s text. As if to make up for the time lost, he began reading the text aloud very quickly. Startled journalists heard him say the following words so rapidly as to be nearly incomprehensible: “Private trips to foreign countries may, without presenting justification—reasons for trip, connections to relatives—be applied for. Approvals will be distributed in a short time frame.” In other words, the text, contrary to his introduction of it, concerned not just emigration but private travel and short trips as well. Some of the reporters in the room interrupted Schabowski, unable to restrain themselves. One asked once more if a passport was needed. Schabowski, once more, did not answer. Other queries followed insistently. Brinkmann shouted the truly crucial question: “When does that go into force?” Schabowski scanned the unfamiliar text in his hands again and picked out some of the words that he saw printed on it: “right away.” (pp. 116–18)

Schabowski had ignored the embargo on the new regulations. Sarotte concludes that he had, at most, barely glanced at them on the way to the press conference. The draft that the four bureaucrats had changed bubbled up to the top of the leadership, and Schabowski had announced it to the world.

Regulations were one thing, putting them into practice another, even in East Germany. Sarotte focuses on a key border crossing station, at Bornholmer Strasse, which linked the East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg with West Berlin’s Wedding. News of Schabowski’s comments traveled quickly, and within half an hour of the end of the press conference, between 50 and 100 people had already gathered at Bornholmer Strasse, wanting to be allowed into West Berlin. Within another hour, that number had swelled into the hundreds, and it grew to thousands as the evening went on. The local commander, a twenty-five year veteran of both secret police and border guard sought guidance from his superiors again and again. Nothing substantive was forthcoming. Eventually, headquarters said that letting the loudest troublemakers through but stamping their IDs so that they could not return would be sufficient to let off steam and keep the crowd under control. Completely wrong. Shortly before 11:30 pm, with tens of thousands pressing to get out, the local commander informed headquarters that he was ending all controls and letting the people out.

“Within the next three days, it is possible that as many as three million GDR citizens visited West Berlin and West Germany.” (p. 167) Individual choices, errors, inactions, and courageous acts of dissidence added up to peaceful revolution. The Bornholmer crossing was the first to open, and Sarotte writes that it is probably the one where the largest number of East Germans crossed.

The Collapse brings the events vividly to life. Sarotte marshals sources and arguments not only to recreate those startling weeks, but to make her point that the opening of the Berlin Wall was an accident. She demonstrates the contingency of history, pushing back against narratives of inevitability and, particularly in American discourse, a triumphal notion that Reagan suddenly appeared at the Brandenburg and caused the Wall to blow away with a single sentence.

She’s right in that endeavor, and in the details that she has gathered and written about so clearly. At the end of the book, though, I am not quite certain what the flip side of her thesis is. The opening of the Wall as it actually happened was full of accidents and contingency, from Schabowski’s unwillingness to read the new regulations in advance, to the insulting way that border patrol officials referred to the commander at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing, which helped him make the decision to open the gates. But the opposing position, that absent this particular chain there would have been no opening of East Germany at all in late 1989 is much harder to support.

The Hungarians were not going to re-close their border for the sake of East Berlin. The hard-line comrades in Czechoslovakia were getting impatient with East Germans filling the West German embassy in Prague and then having to be taken out of the country on special trains. The new Solidarity government in Poland was intent on opening to the West, and would not have taken measures to keep East Germans from entering. Containment of East Germany’s populace would therefore have fallen entirely on East Germany itself.

The size of the Leipzig demonstrations also indicates the scale of repression that would have been necessary. Security forces had just barely been able to maintain order when trains full of emigres passed through Dresden in September and October. Soviet forces would not have taken the lead in repressing German protesters, as they did in June 1953; given the tenor of Gorbachev’s policy in 1989, it is likely that they would not have joined in repression at all. Without unified leadership support for murderous repression, the alternative is some kind of opening, sooner or later. Even if the regime had been competent enough to set up a “pressure valve” kind of crossing in a remote location on the German-German border, it’s difficult to see how they could have kept the flow from changing from a trickle to a torrent. Tens of thousands had overstayed their vacations in Hungary during the summer; more hundreds had gone to the West German embassy in Prague; certainly as many would have camped at the “pressure valve” crossing.

The opening on November 9 was an accident, as Sarotte argues, but it was an accident very much waiting to happen.

Two more items of interest. On November 6, Robert Blackwell of the US National Security Council wrote, “In the event of severe internal unrest in the GDR, our overriding objective should be to prevent a Soviet military intervention, which could and probably would reverse the positive course of East-West relations for many years to come” and “would raise the risk of direct US-Soviet military confrontation.” (p. 98) This strikes me as bluster. The Soviets had intervened in Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and very nearly in Poland in 1980. There’s little in the record to indicate that US actions had any effect on Soviet choices in such situations. Further, there had not been military confrontation during far more serious Berlin crises over the blockade and airlift, or the building of the Wall. There’s no reason to think that a crackdown in East Berlin would have elicited a different response.

On a more positive note, Sarotte points out someone else who went to the crossing at Bornholmer Strasse. “Another young woman, an employee of the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry, was on her way home from a visit to a sauna when the news of the night inspired her to head for Bornholmer. Her name was Angela Merkel. She had chosen a career in chemistry, not in politics, but that night would change her life. Merkel had been born in Hamburg in 1954, and even though she and her immediate family had moved to East Germany in 1957 [her father was a Lutheran pastor], she still maintained contact with an aunt in her hometown. On the night of November 9, once she made it to West Berlin, Merkel would call that aunt to say that she had crossed the border.” (p. 147) A decade and a half later, she was Chancellor of unified Germany.

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