On November 10, 1989, Germans began tearing down the Berlin Wall following its premature opening the evening before. The Berlin Wall, Berliner Mauer in German, was a guarded concrete barrier that physically and ideologically divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989. Constructed by the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany), starting in the dead of night on August 13, 1961, the Wall cut off (by land) West Berlin from virtually all of surrounding East Germany and East Berlin until November 1989. Its demolition officially began on June 13, 1990 and finished in 1992. The barrier included guard towers placed along large concrete walls, accompanied by a wide area (later known as the “death strip”) that contained anti-vehicle trenches, “fakir beds” and other defenses. The Eastern Bloc portrayed the Wall as protecting its population from fascist elements conspiring to prevent the “will of the people” in building a socialist state in East Germany.
GDR authorities officially referred to the Berlin Wall as the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart (Antifaschistischer Schutzwall). The West Berlin city government sometimes referred to it as the “Wall of Shame”, a term coined by mayor Willy Brandt in reference to the Wall’s restriction on freedom of movement. Along with the separate and much longer Inner German border (IGB), which demarcated the border between East and West Germany, it came to symbolize physically the “Iron Curtain” that separated Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.
Before the Wall’s erection, 3.5 million East Germans circumvented Eastern Bloc emigration restrictions and defected from the GDR, many by crossing over the border from East Berlin into West Berlin; from there they could then travel to West Germany and to other Western European countries. Between 1961 and 1989 the Wall prevented almost all such emigration. During this period over 100,000 people attempted to escape and over 5,000 people succeeded in escaping over the Wall, with an estimated death toll ranging from 136 to more than 200 in and around Berlin.
In 1989 a series of revolutions in nearby Eastern Bloc countries — Poland and Hungary in particular — caused a chain reaction in East Germany that ultimately resulted in the demise of the Wall. After several weeks of civil unrest, the East German government announced on November 9, 1989, that all GDR citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin. Crowds of East Germans crossed and climbed onto the Wall, joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. Over the next few weeks, euphoric people and souvenir hunters chipped away parts of the Wall; the governments later used industrial equipment to remove most of what was left. The “fall of the Berlin Wall” paved the way for German reunification, which formally took place on October 3, 1990.
I arrived in West Berlin the morning of November 4, 1989, the date that between half a million and a million protesters arrived in Alexanderplatz in the center of East Berlin in what was one of the largest demonstrations in German history. This was the latest in a series of demonstrations in East Germany that had begun with the “Monday demonstrations” (Montagsdemonstrationen) on September 4 after the weekly Friedensgebet (prayer for peace) in the St. Nicholas Church, Leipzig. The Alexanderplatz demonstration was a milestone of the peaceful revolution that was occurring throughout eastern Europe that autumn. This demonstration was organized by actors and employees of theaters in East Berlin and was the first demonstration in East German history that was organized by private individuals and was permitted to take place by the authorities. Change was truly in the air; although I concluded my business in Berlin and was scheduled to depart on the 7th, I decided to stick around a bit longer to see if anything “interesting” would happen. I am glad that I did.
I began collecting German stamps relatively early after my entry to the hobby circa 1974 as I saw them as a connection to my father’s side of the family (it wasn’t until several years ago that I learned my mother’s family also came from Germany but had first come to North America in the late 17th century). I remember reading magazine articles about Berlin and the Wall, probably in National Geographic, when I was in school but I first became truly interested in all that it meant as a result of United States President Ronald Reagan’s June 12, 1987, speech at Brandenburg Gate. He was there to help celebrated the 750th anniversary of Berlin and decided to challenge General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to tear down the Wall:
“We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!“
Less than a week prior to President Reagan’s speech, on June 6, David Bowie, who had previously lived and recorded in West Berlin for several years, played a concert close to the Wall during his Glass Spider Tour. This was attended by thousands of Eastern concertgoers across the Wall, followed by violent rioting in East Berlin. According to Tobias Ruther, these protests in East Berlin were the first in the sequence of riots that led to those of November 1989.
A year later, my then- (and current) favorite live performer, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, played a three-hour concert in East Berlin on July 19, 1988, part of a multi-day event called Rocking the Wall. This was towards the end of his Tunnel Of Love Express Tour (which also included a West Berlin concert a few days later). Springsteen’s East Berlin concert was attended by 300,000 people in person and had an edited delayed broadcast on radio and television. Springsteen spoke to the crowd in German, saying:
“I’m not here for or against any government. I’ve come to play rock ‘n’ roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down“.
East Germany and its FDJ youth organization were worried they were losing an entire generation. They hoped that by letting Springsteen in, they could improve their sentiment among East Germans. However, this strategy of “one step backwards, two steps forwards” backfired and the concert only made East Germans hungrier for more of the freedoms that Springsteen epitomized. While John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan delivered their famous speeches from the safety of West Berlin, Springsteen’s speaking out against the Wall in the middle of East Berlin added to the euphoria.
In April 1989, the Hungarian government ordered the electricity in the barbed-wire border fence along the Hungary–Austria border turned off. On May 2, border guards began removing sections of the barrier — filmed by Western TV crews summoned for the occasion. Local elections were held in the GDR on May 7. Opposition groups proved that the results were faked which led to demonstrations against the election rigging in East Berlin held on the seventh day of every subsequent month.
On June 27, Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gyula Horn, and his Austrian counterpart, Alois Mock, held a symbolic fence-cutting ceremony at the Sopron (Hungary) border crossing. The open border meant that it was easier for Hungarians to cross into Austria for goods and services; many Hungarians availed themselves of this to purchase consumer goods which had been unavailable or scarce in their own country; a visible sign of this in the first few weeks was that many cars could be seen in Austrian towns such as Graz with washing machines strapped to them.
The most famous crossing came on August 19, when, during a “friendship picnic” between Austrians and Hungarians, over 900 East Germans on holiday in Hungary rushed the border and escaped into Austria and then traveled safely to West Germany. In September, more than 13,000 East German tourists escaped through Hungary to Austria. This set up a chain of events. The Hungarians prevented many more East Germans from crossing the border and returned them to Budapest. These East Germans flooded the West German embassy and refused to return to East Germany.
The open border infuriated East German officials, who feared a return to a pre-Berlin Wall day, when thousands of East Germans fled daily to West Berlin. Although worried, the Soviet Union took no overt actions against Hungary, taking a hands-off approach. The East German government responded by disallowing any further travel to Hungary, but allowed those already there to return to East Germany.
This triggered similar events in neighboring Czechoslovakia. On October 3, the East German government banned travel to Czechoslovakia without passports and visas to stem the mass exodus. This time, however, the GDR authorities allowed people to leave, provided that they did so by train through East Germany. Special trains transported people from the Prague and Warsaw embassies to the West, through East Germany. There are violent clashes with police along the railway line, as well as in Dresden.
Protest demonstrations spread throughout East Germany in September 1989. Initially, protesters were mostly people wanting to leave to the West, chanting “Wir wollen raus!” (“We want out!”). On the 40th anniversary of East Germany on October 7, 1989, several thousand people demonstrated in Berlin outside the Palace of the Republic. In numerous East German towns and cities, similar protests were broken up by force.
Despite fear of military repression of the Monday Demonstration, on October 9, 70,000 people took to the streets in Leipzig. The police, military and civilian forces did not intervene. Protestors began to chant “Wir bleiben hier!” (“We are staying here!”). This was the start of what East Germans generally call the “Peaceful Revolution” of late 1989.
The longtime leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, resigned on October 18 and was replaced by Egon Krenz that day. Honecker had predicted in January of that year that the Wall would stand for 50 or 100 more years if the conditions that had caused its construction did not change.
The protest demonstrations grew considerably by late October. The movement neared its height on November 4, when up to a million people gathered to demand political change, at the Alexanderplatz demonstration, East Berlin’s large public square and transportation hub.
The wave of refugees leaving East Germany for the West kept increasing. By early November refugees were finding their way to Hungary via Czechoslovakia, or via the West German Embassy in Prague. This was tolerated by the new Krenz government, because of long-standing agreements with the communist Czechoslovak government, allowing free travel across their common border. However this movement of people grew so large it caused difficulties for both countries.
To ease the difficulties, the politburo led by Krenz decided on November 9 to allow refugees to exit directly through crossing points between East Germany and West Germany, including between East and West Berlin. Later the same day, the ministerial administration modified the proposal to include private, round-trip, travel. The new regulations were to take effect the next day.
Günter Schabowski, the party boss in East Berlin and the spokesman for the SED Politburo, had the task of announcing the new regulations. However, he had not been involved in the discussions about the new regulations and had not been fully updated. Shortly before a press conference on November 9, he was handed a note announcing the changes, but given no further instructions on how to handle the information. These regulations had only been completed a few hours earlier and were to take effect the following day, so as to allow time to inform the border guards. This starting time delay was not communicated to Schabowski.
At the end of the press conference, Schabowski read out loud the note he had been given. One of the reporters, ANSA’s Riccardo Ehrman, asked when the regulations would take effect. After a few seconds’ hesitation, Schabowski assumed it would be the same day based on the wording of the note and replied, “As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay”. After further questions from journalists, he confirmed that the regulations included the border crossings through the Wall into West Berlin, which he had not mentioned until then.
Excerpts from Schabowski’s press conference were the lead story on West Germany’s two main news programs that night — at 7:17 p.m. on ZDF’s heute and at 8 p.m. on ARD’s Tagesschau. As ARD and ZDF had broadcast to nearly all of East Germany since the late 1950s and had become accepted by the East German authorities, the news was broadcast there as well simultaneously. Later that night, on ARD’s Tagesthemen, anchorman Hanns Joachim Friedrichs proclaimed, “This 9 November is a historic day. The GDR has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone. The gates in the Wall stand open wide.”
After hearing the broadcast, East Germans began gathering at the Wall, at the six checkpoints between East and West Berlin, demanding that border guards immediately open the gates. The surprised and overwhelmed guards made many hectic telephone calls to their superiors about the problem. At first, they were ordered to find the “more aggressive” people gathered at the gates and stamp their passports with a special stamp that barred them from returning to East Germany — in effect, revoking their citizenship. However, this still left thousands of people demanding to be let through “as Schabowski said we can”.
It soon became clear that no one among the East German authorities would take personal responsibility for issuing orders to use lethal force, so the vastly outnumbered soldiers had no way to hold back the huge crowd of East German citizens. Finally, at 10:45 p.m., Harald Jäger, the commander of the Bornholmer Straße border crossing yielded, allowing for the guards to open the checkpoints and allowing people through with little or no identity checking. As the Ossis swarmed through, they were greeted by Wessis waiting with flowers and champagne amid wild rejoicing. Soon afterward, a crowd of West Berliners jumped on top of the Wall, and were soon joined by East German youngsters. They danced together to celebrate their new freedom.
When the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, its destruction was nearly as instantaneous as its creation. For 28 years, the Wall had been a symbol of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain between Soviet-led Communism and the democracies of the West. When it fell, it was celebrated around the world. I was there, a part of history.
Scott #1619 is a souvenir sheet released by the Germany on November 6, 1990, to commemorate the first anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It contains two stamps which were also issued in a larger sheet format (Scott #1617-1618), printed by the German Printing Works in Leipzig using photogravure and perforated 14. Designed by M. Gottschall, the 50-pfennig design portrays a hole knocked through the Berlin Wall while the 100-pfennig stamp pictures Brandenburg Gate. The difference between the stamps is that the rainbow continues into the margins on the souvenir sheet versions. The card pictured above contains Scott #1619 as well as the two stamps released on October 3, 1990, commemorating the reunification of East and West Germany (Scott #1612-1613). The cover with the medallion contains the two regular Berlin Wall anniversary sheet stamps, Scott #1617-1618.