Seven Minutes that Shook the World

It was a rare privilege to have a footnote in history at the fall of the Berlin Wall, which led to the collapse of communism

The Cold War was the first conflict that came close to annihilating Western civilisation — the first but almost certainly not the last. Yet the story of this global 40 Years War ended happily: it concluded almost bloodlessly in the European Revolution of 1989.

This was a genuine popular revolution, not a coup by professional subversives and terrorists like the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. It came from below, taking the statesmen, diplomats and intelligence services on both sides by surprise.

Unlike most revolutions, that of 1989 did not become a vehicle for new tyrannies: it brought freedom and democracy to hundreds of millions who had lived a twilight existence under the political religion of Marxism-Leninism.

Twenty years after, the fact that all this came to pass seems almost too miraculous to be credible. Yet I was there. As a foreign correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, covering Germany from 1987 until the summer of 1989, and what was then known as Eastern Europe for the rest of that year, I had a ringside seat during the events that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Prague. But journalists do not only report and comment on events: on occasion, they may even play a part, however small. To be a spectator during that period was a rare privilege. To be a footnote in history, and above all in the history that was made in East Berlin that November night, was an extraordinary epiphany that I am only now beginning to appreciate. In his wonderful new account, The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Simon & Schuster, £16.99), Michael Meyer (who was Newsweek‘s bureau chief and an eyewitness at the time) has indeed mentioned me in a footnote, generously giving me “a measure of credit for bringing down the Wall”. Others deserve much more of that credit, from Reagan and Gorbachev to the East Berliners themselves. But it may be of interest to tell the story of how one Englishman found himself in the right place and time to participate in German (and European) history. “History is now and England”: that line from “Little Gidding”, the last of the Four Quartets, applied just as much to me in Germany in 1989 as to T. S. Eliot in England in 1942.

My interest in Germany began as a youth in the 1970s. In those days, state schools in England (or at any rate, grammar schools) still taught German. None of my children has been able to study the language, and university departments of German are now rapidly closing. But at 16, I was able to spend three months at a gymnasium near Kassel, acquiring a taste for beer and Beethoven. My Germanophilia was reinforced by Karl Leyser, J. P. Stern, and various other great émigré scholars who taught me at Oxford and Cambridge. In 1979, I went to Berlin on a scholarship for which I was nominated by Tom Stoppard. There, I was briefly a tenant in an apartment at Uhlandstrasse 127, rented first by James Fenton and then by Timothy Garton Ash, described by the latter in his memoir The File. Garton Ash’s affectionate but mordant depiction — “Then came Daniel Johnson, palely handsome, Nietzsche in hand. He would burst through the double-doors of a morning, beaming, to tell me he had located another German pessimist…Daniel would startle the girls with remarks like: ‘Have you noticed that Steiner uses the word “moment” in a Hegelian sense?'” — doubtless captures something of my obsession in those days with the Germans and their history. There in Berlin they tried to live normally in spite of their unspeakable past, a past from which there could be no redemption.

The spectral atmosphere of pre-1989 Berlin — divided, isolated, haunted — was best captured by Fenton in the poem A German Requiem that he wrote during his time in Uhlandstrasse: “It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist…It is not what they say. It is what they do not say.” Germany in the 1980s was overshadowed by its own past, obsessed not so much with the Holocaust as with its own guilt. A series of scandals erupted, each one focused on “the past that would not pass away”: Bitburg, the Historikerstreit, Waldheim, Jenninger. The present reality — the Berlin Wall — was taken for granted, questioned only by outsiders.

A few years later, I found that my immersion in German thought was unexpectedly useful in my new career of journalism. I was fluent enough in the language and politics to be dispatched to Bonn by the editor of the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings. “Nothing ever happens in Germany,” he said. “You’ve got three months to prove to me that we need a bureau in Bonn. Otherwise, we’ll close it and make do with a stringer, like The Times.”

Once installed in Bonn, I gave the Telegraph what it wanted. Stories about Germany rarely made news in Britain unless they contained the word “Nazi” in the first paragraph, so I was fortunate that Rudolf Hess, the last of the Nazi war criminals languishing in Spandau Prison, died within weeks of my arrival. The Hess story was a foreign correspondent’s dream: a mysterious suicide — or was it murder? — involving Hitler’s deputy, Cold War diplomacy and jackbooted young neo-Nazis in Bavaria. I made the front page and the story had more legs than a centipede. 

Much more important was the visit that autumn of Erich Honecker, the desiccated but still dangerous East German leader. Having scarcely altered his attitude to the West since he had built the Wall in 1961, Honecker had trouble adjusting to the Gorbachev policies of glasnost and perestroika. His motto was that capitalism and communism were like “fire and ice” and his guards would still shoot those so desperate to escape his system that they tried to cross the Wall. Some 5,000 people tried to cross it during its 28-year existence, of whom up to 200 were killed. But the sad truth was that the Wall had done the job it was meant to do: between 1949, when the division of Germany was formalised, and the erection of the Wall in 1961, some 3.5 million people had voted with their feet: an exodus of the brightest and best that the communist German Democratic Republic could not afford. Honecker, the jailer of a third of the German people, pretended that the Wall was a defence against renascent Nazism in the West. The consequence of Honecker’s visit was a further normalisation of the division of Germany, at a time when the division of Europe was no longer so rigid. Honecker’s detachment from reality was demonstrated by the cult of personality that he permitted: in an edition of the party newspaper Neues Deutschland during the Leipzig trade fair in 1989, his photograph appeared on almost every page. Honecker’s hubris was swiftly followed by an unexpected nemesis: within months he had fallen, and the Wall he had built, which seemed so permanent, outlasted him only by weeks.

By the end of 1987 the Bonn bureau was secure, and it was safe to settle down there. Because I was new to the scene, I was perhaps better placed than old hands to notice the political tremors that heralded the revolutionary earthquake to come. In particular, I began to question some of the assumptions of the German political class and, by extension, of the diplomats and journalists in Bonn. One of their assumptions was that German reunification would not happen in our lifetime, because it implied nothing short of an end to the division of Europe. That division, and the ideological gulf that separated the two halves of the continent, was the fundamental axiom of post-war politics. It was literally unthinkable that the process of historical change could suddenly accelerate. But history was not just something that happened in the past: the dispensation that everybody now took for granted had only been created over time. 

A turning point came at about the time I arrived in Bonn. On 12 June, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall to make his second great Cold War speech, following that of 1984 when he described the Soviet Union as “an evil empire”. Once again he ignored the conventional niceties — “the boys at State are going to kill me, but it’s the right thing to do,” he told an aide — and articulated the hopes of millions: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” 

“Ossies” travel West in a Wartburg 

My first flash of insight came after the Bavarian Prime Minister Franz Josef Strauss’s visit to Gorbachev in December 1987. Although he was already the most popular foreign leader in both East and West Germany, Gorbachev remained an enigma. He certainly did not see himself as the gravedigger of socialism, but rather its saviour. “I never for a moment thought that the transformations I had initiated, no matter how far-reaching, would result in the replacement of the rule of the ‘reds’ by that of the ‘whites’,” he later wrote in his memoirs. The swashbuckling Strauss (who had fought for the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front) piloted his own plane to Moscow, met Gorbachev and returned declaring that the Soviets would like to do serious business with the Federal Republic. The outline of a new Soviet-German deal began to take shape: German soft loans to modernise the Soviet economy in return for liberalisation in East Germany. 

This was an extension of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik of the 1970s. But could it go further? What if the Soviet malaise were so profound that the Kremlin would pay any price for German capital? Might the postwar solution to the German Question — “one people, two states” — itself be called into question? I wrote a piece for the Telegraph predicting that German reunification could happen much sooner than anybody was expecting. Nobody believed me.

My growing belief that there was nothing permanent about the division of Germany — and hence the division of Europe — was based as much on an inner conviction as on empirical evidence. The attempt by Gorbachev to reform the Soviet Union was having all kinds of unforeseen side-effects outside its borders that spelt doom for the empire Stalin had bequeathed. Against the background of perestroika in the Soviet Union, the signs of dissolution were everywhere to be seen across Eastern Europe. I had visited Poland a couple of times in the mid-1980s, during the grim years that followed the crushing of the Solidarity trade union, when the dissident priest Father Jerzy Popieluszko was murdered by the secret police. I had watched with growing admiration as the Polish people, under the leadership of Lech Walesa and inspired by Pope John Paul II, had forced the communist system to concede an ever-greater latitude to its critics. Hungary, too, had embarked on a gradual relaxation of the despotic regime imposed by Soviet tanks in 1956. Uniquely, this process was presided over by János Kádár, the man who had crushed the uprising. True, such concessions had not yet been granted in East Germany, Romania or Czechoslovakia, where the old dictators Erich Honecker, Nicolae Ceausescu and Gustav Husak still ruled and dissidents (such as Vaclav Havel or this year’s Nobel laureate Herta Müller) were still being imprisoned or forced into emigration. 

I was able to observe another key moment in the process, however, when I accompanied the then Chancellor Helmut Kohl to Moscow in October 1988. Two images stuck in my mind. One was the sight of hundreds of so-called Volga Germans returning “home” to a country from which their ancestors had emigrated in the time of Catherine the Great. Kohl may have hoped to rejuvenate the ageing indigenous German population by bribing the Kremlin to let these ethnic German Aussiedler emigrate; if so, he failed. But the other abiding memory of that trip is even more revealing: Alfred Herrhausen, the head of the Deutsche Bank, who was there to offer the disintegrating Soviet economy huge state-backed soft loans. He allowed me to interview him with a Financial Times colleague in his lavish Moscow HQ. The visionary banker was already paving the way for the deal that would set the seal on reunification when Kohl and Gorbachev met in the Caucasus in 1990. By then, however, Herrhausen was dead: killed by a terrorist bomb, the last bloody stunt of the Baader-Meinhof gang.

In the summer of 1989, the Telegraph moved me from Bonn back to London, to become Eastern Europe correspondent. Across the world in China, the empire struck back. In Tiananmen Square, students were slaughtered by Deng Xiaoping’s minions; he was congratulated by Honecker’s heir apparent, Egon Krenz — a gesture for which Krenz was not forgiven. But in Central Europe the pace of events began to quicken, as the ancien régime of Lenin’s heirs began to disintegrate. The first country to dump communism was, predictably, Poland, followed by Hungary. By this time, Hungary had made the first breach in the Iron Curtain by opening its border with Austria. Thousands of East Germans began to make their escape both via Hungary and through the West German embassy in Prague. On 4 October, Gorbachev came to East Berlin to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the GDR. There was nothing the Stasi could do about pro-Gorbachev demonstrations, but the evident impatience of the Soviet leader with Honecker’s resistance to reform sparked protests immediately after the visit. As demonstrations in Leipzig grew by the week, even the Stasi could no longer guarantee order. Honecker’s attempt to crush the protesters by force — the “Chinese solution” — was thwarted and he was forced out of the Politburo. 

Krenz, who took over as party leader, pretended to be a German Gorbachev, but he was neither loved nor feared, merely held in contempt. He tried to relieve the pressure with a new travel law, permitting visits of up to 30 days per annum to the West, but not emigration. It was a classic case of too little, too late. On 4 November, half a million people marched in East Berlin to demand freedom of the press and freedom to travel. Meanwhile, Krenz had visited the Kremlin to reassure Gorbachev that he was still in control. He promised that the police, together with “certain elements” (presumably military), had plans to prevent a mass attempt to rush the checkpoints along the Wall. (In the event, there was no such plan.) However, individuals who tried to cross the Wall would no longer be shot. A new travel law would allow free movement to all countries, with the state using passports and exit visas to maintain an orderly flow. Dismantling the Berlin Wall was not discussed, though we now know that Gorbachev and his most senior colleagues had briefly considered that option in private, only to dismiss it as far too risky. The idea that the people might take the matter into their own hands was not taken seriously.

Back in London, I felt frustrated not to be back in my old haunt. I recall waking up in the small hours, thinking: “I should be in Berlin!” Finally, on 8 November, the Telegraph allowed me to fly out there. I stayed at the pompous new Hotel Grand in East Berlin, lavishly equipped with Stasi bugs and spies, but with the same wretchedly few telephone lines that meant we journalists had to dial many times to get a line to the West, even though the Wall was visible from one’s room. 

That week, the Central Committee was meeting and at 6pm on 9 November the daily press conference took place to announce its decisions. We all trooped into a dreary hall at the international press centre in the Motzstrasse. The central committee spokesman was Günter Schabowski, the East Berlin party boss, who spoke for nearly an hour on live television. Most of the questions came from tame East German journalists and the wait for a chance to get the microphone was almost unbearable. It seemed like a non-event. The last seven minutes of the press conference, however, were dramatic in every sense, except that no playwright could have come up with a script that so effectively exposed the colossal confidence trick that the Wall had always been.

At 6.53pm, an Italian journalist, Riccardo Ehrman, asked his question: “Herr Schabowski, don’t you think this draft travel law you announced a few days ago was a big mistake?” Earlier this year, Ehrman revealed for the first time that his question was not spontaneous, but that he had been tipped off to ask it by the head of the East German news agency, ADN, who apparently told him it was “very important”. This suggests that Krenz intended to use the press conference to announce his new policy — a last throw of the dice to save his own leadership and the communist regime. Krenz had decided to give the people what they wanted: unrestricted travel to the West. But he had no intention of opening the Wall.

Daniel Johnson (centre, with microphone) asks his question 

Schabowski at first prevaricated, but then announced that the Politburo had made a decision that very day. It had just decided to issue a new set of travel regulations which would allow East German citizens to emigrate. Somebody (Ehrman says it was him, but this has been disputed) asked when this new law would come into effect: “Immediately?” Schabowski did not at first reply, but produced a scrap of paper with the text of the new travel law, and proceeded to read sections of it aloud. “The Passport and Registration Departments of the Volkspolizei district offices have been told to issue visas for permanent emigration without delay” and “permanent emigration can occur at any border crossing between the GDR and the FRG”. He did not at first mention Berlin. Another journalist (it is unclear who) again asked when the new rules came into force. “As far as I know…immediately, without delay,” replied Schabowski. This was a fatal mistake. Krenz had intended the new law to take effect the following day, 10 November, once the border police and officials had been given their instructions. But it did not say this on the document he handed Schabowski, which the latter read out at the press conference. Schabowski’s reply gave the impression that the new regulations were already in effect, there and then, that night. But nobody had warned the guards at the checkpoints, or the officials in charge of them, to issue visas or any other instructions.

Another question: “Does this apply also to West Berlin?” Schabowski confirmed that border crossings in West Berlin were included — a new surprise, because Berlin was still governed by the Four Powers. By now, pandemonium was breaking out in the press conference, with reporters rushing out to tell the world. Yet the import of Schabowski’s announcement was still utterly ambiguous. Nobody knew what it meant, either in the immediate practical sense — could East Germans just get up and go? — or in the deeper sense of its historical significance. Above all, nobody had mentioned the Wall.

It was now 6.58pm. A painfully thin, anxious young man in a slightly fogeyish three-piece tweed suit rose to his feet, microphone in hand. I asked the most obvious question that came to mind: “Herr Schabowski, was wird mit der Berliner Mauer jetzt geschehen?” (“Mr Schabowski, what will happen to the Berlin Wall now?”) Hundreds of thousands of Germans on both sides of the Wall were watching: they wanted the answer, too. Schabowski looked nonplussed. He announced that this would be the last question. He repeated my question to himself, adding that “the permeability of the Wall from our side does not yet and exclusively resolve the question of the meaning of this fortified state border of the DDR”. It was somehow very German to ruminate at such a moment on the meaning of the Berlin Wall. But there was the rub. Now that I had used the fatal words “Berlin Wall”, Schabowski could have seized the opportunity to make it clear that there was no question of opening the Wall that night. He could have explained what its rationale would be, now that people would no longer be shot for attempting to cross it. Instead, he hesitated. He stumbled over his words. He waffled about peace and disarmament for two of the longest minutes of his life. But he did not answer the question, because he had no answer. A wall between two halves of a country could have no “meaning” if the people were allowed to travel freely. It was over. And by the time Schabowski had finished just after 7pm, everybody knew it. The pfennig had dropped. 

To some extent, the media made the message. We decided that what Schabowski had said — and also what he did not say — amounted to the immediate opening of the Wall. Schabowski’s exchanges with Ehrman and me were shown repeatedly on both West and East German news programmes throughout the evening; my question was echoed by commentators: what will happen to the Berlin Wall now?

But it was the people that made the decision. While Schabowski, Krenz and their fellow Politburo members went home for an early night, the East Berliners came out on to the streets. By the time I had filed my story, people were beginning to gather at the Wall. Pretty girls recognised me and hugged me, insisting that I celebrate with them. We toasted the opening of the Wall in home-made wine (there was no champagne). Outside, an indescribable roar could be heard from afar: the sound of liberation. When I went back to the Wall, people were standing on top of it. The officials had no orders, and they did not want to shoot. They had no choice but to let the people go through Checkpoint Charlie and all the other crossing points.

When the people came out on the streets that night, they breached the Wall, symbolically overcoming the totalitarian tyranny that they had once inflicted on others. What happened that night was replete with historical resonances and ironies. The Berlin Wall, in appearance if not in purpose, uncannily resembled the wall the Nazis built around the Warsaw Ghetto — the place where Jews rose up against the Nazis in 1943 in a hopeless but heroic uprising, and where Willy Brandt fell to his knees in silent tribute in 1970. It may be coincidence that 9 November was the anniversary of Hitler’s Munich Putsch in 1923, when the Nazi menace first manifested itself to the world, and was also the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” in 1938, when the Nazis unleashed a nationwide pogrom which made clear their intention to destroy the Jewish people, and removed any hope that the German conscience would revolt against such barbarism. It may have been a coincidence that Riccardo Ehrman, whose question prompted Schabowski’s announcement, was a Jew from Poland who had survived a Nazi concentration camp as a boy, settled in Italy, and returned to Germany as a journalist.

But it was no coincidence that in London Margaret Thatcher reacted to the scenes of jubilation at the Wall with horror. On 10 November, Sir Peter Wright, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, wrote to Stephen Wall, private secretary to the Foreign Secretary, as follows: “I understand that the Prime Minister was frankly horrified by the sight of the Bundestag rising to sing “Deutschland über alles” when the news of developments on the Berlin Wall came in.” There was nothing surprising about Mrs Thatcher’s alarm at the prospect of imminent German reunification. Her anxiety about the reopening of such forgotten but still fraught questions as the Oder-Neisse line, Germany’s disputed eastern border with Poland, was shared by François Mitterrand in Paris. Meanwhile in Moscow, Gorbachev reacted with what Condoleezza Rice called “barely disguised panic”. After watching the scenes at the Berlin Wall, he wrote to President George H. W. Bush next day: “When statements are made in the Federal Republic of Germany designed to stir up emotions, in the spirit of implacable rejection of the postwar realities, that is, the existence of two German states, then such manifestations of political extremism can…bring about a destabilisation of the situation not only in Central Europe, but on a larger scale.” Bush responded cautiously. He had already decided to leave the German people to determine their own future, just as Reagan had urged Gorbachev to do.

Helmut Kohl was dining with the new, post-communist Polish Prime Minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, in Warsaw when his aide Horst Teltschik brought him the news that the Wall was open. At first he refused to believe it. That very night, however, he flew back to Germany — though not directly to Berlin, because the Four Power rules still in force did not permit German aircraft to fly from Poland to Berlin. Kohl was actually flown to Berlin in a United States Air Force plane, a reminder of the Berlin airlift. When he spoke to the crowds, he ignored Gorbachev’s warning against any talk of reunification, exclaiming, “Long live a free German fatherland! Long live a free, united Europe!” Less than two weeks later, with the crowds in East Berlin no longer chanting “We are the people” but “We are one people”, Kohl set out his Ten Point Plan for German unity. There was no turning back.

The fall of the Berlin Wall did not cancel out German responsibility for the Holocaust: nothing could ever do that, nor have decent Germans ever wanted to evade that responsibility. But there was something about the events that night that recalled the Biblical story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho: “When the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city.” (Joshua, 6:20.) 

The East Germans, by recovering their freedom, had regained their self-respect and the respect of others. The fall of the Wall enabled Germans to write a new chapter in the story of liberty. They had earned the trust of erstwhile enemies and victims. Now that they had a future as a nation again, they no longer needed to live in the past. 

T. S. Eliot in “Little Gidding” captured this predicament, which is not unique to the Germans: “A people without history/Is not redeemed from time./For history is a pattern/Of timeless moments.” Thanks to this timeless moment in Berlin, German history, seemingly mired in crime and punishment, made sense. The hollowness of the communist ideology, its false promise of an omniscient state, was laid bare. Far from being omnipotent, its impotence was manifest in that moment of truth.

Schabowski’s answer to Ehrman’s question and his failure to answer mine proved to be the moment when the Berlin Wall — and the Iron Curtain that divided Europe — became history. It was the moment when the Cold War ended. 

And it was the moment when Germany’s terrible history regained some kind of meaning.

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