The Happiest Year in Recent German History

** PACKAGE TO GO WITH THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL ** FIFTEEN OF TWENTY ** FILE -- Germans from East and West stand on the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in this Nov. 10, 1989, file photo, one day after the wall opened. Monday, Nov. 9, 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. (AP Photo)

On the evening of the 9th of November 1989, when the message came in that the Berlin Wall was open, I was sitting in the Chancellery in Bonn, in a meeting on the issue of housing migrants from the German Democratic Republic. Suddenly Eduard Ackermann, head of the Department of Communication in the Chancellery, appeared. There are news agency reports that the GDR is opening up the Wall, he said. First I joked, Ackermann must be drunk -- that's how unbelievable it sounded. After deliberating shortly it was decided to interrupt a still ongoing German Bundestag session. There a few delegates decided to spontaneously sing the German national anthem, and almost the whole house joined in. The session wasn't continued. Everyone stormed to the nearest television sets.

There had been quite some movement in the GDR and the Eastern bloc in the years leading up to 1989 -- not least in Poland: Lech Walesa's triumph with the Round Table and the at least partially free elections, not forgetting the election of the Polish pope in 1978. There had also been unrest in other countries under the Soviet reach of power: the continuous protests due to massive voter fraud after the local GDR elections in 1989; the surge of the "Holiday Movement" to Hungary, which culminated in a pan-European picnic that led to the temporary opening of the border to Austria, were concrete signs. The German embassy in Budapest was also filling with GDR citizens -- lastly Prague, where everything intensified.

There were high risks in the weeks before and after the 9th of November 1989. That the demonstrations during the month of October in Leipzig and Dresden remained peaceful was extremely fortunate and in large part thanks to the fearlessness and peacefulness of the demonstrating GDR citizens. On the night of the 9th of November, although I was full of joy, I still had the grave fear that we were possibly stuck in one of the most dangerous situations since the end of the Second World War. How would the Soviet Union react? Now we know: The Soviet embassy in East Berlin inquired who was on duty in Moscow. Due to the time difference, only the night duty was available. The embassy subsequently decided to forward the information about Günther Schabowski's press conference [where he declared the Berlin Wall to be open] the next day -- which really is unbelievable, but that's how world history sometimes goes.

The following day remained critical: During an event with Helmut Kohl [the former chancellor of West Germany] in front of the Schöneberger Rathaus [a town hall in Berlin] Horst Teltschik, who was a foreign policy advisor to the chancellor, came to tell him that "Gorbachev wants to talk to you. He has a report: attacks on Soviet garrisons." Kohl answered: "I can't right now, but I promise -- nothing will happen!"

On the other hand, it was foreseeable that the Soviet Union, and even less so the GDR, could stop or even turn around what had spun loose. Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski was, for me as the Minister of the Chancellery, the negotiating party on the side of the GDR, for top secret talks on inner-German reliefs, deals and transactions. One day he cited the leader of the Social Democratic Party Hans-Jochen Vogel, saying everything was fine with the GDR, one just had to open the Brandenburg Gate. To which Schlack-Golodkowski answered to me shaking his head: "He has no clue. If we open the Brandenburg Gate, we are assuredly gone!"

That's how it went. And thus began, in said November, the happiest year in recent German history.

This blog post was translated from German.

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