Bush on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Bush on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

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The day after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 20, 1989, President George H. Bush met with West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher to discuss plans for the reunification of Germany. As a token of his gratitude to the United States, Genscher brought President Bush a piece of the Berlin Wall. In a press conference, Bush thanks the foreign minister for the gift.

The Man After the Wall: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War

On this day in 1987, Ronald Reagan famously called on Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”–a wall which physically separated East and West Berlin, and symbolized the separation between the Soviet Block and the West.

Yet the wall did not come down in 1987, or in 1988. It would not be torn down until 1989, after Reagan had left office, and after his vice president, George H.W. Bush, had been elected as president.

A few months before the wall fell, Bush had also advocated for its destruction, albeit in a less dramatic fashion than Reagan. During a speech in Mainz, Germany to celebrate the 40th anniversary of NATO, he noted that barriers in Austria and Hungary had recently been removed, and so:

“Let Berlin be next — let Berlin be next! Nowhere is the division between East and West seen more clearly than in Berlin. And there this brutal wall cuts neighbor from neighbor, brother from brother. And that wall stands as a monument to the failure of communism. It must come down.”

On November 9, 1989 Bush received word that the wall had been breeched.

To Bush, the fall of the wall represented a great symbolic victory, but also a danger of violence. He worried that police in East Germany would fire upon demonstrators, and that this could turn a cold war into a hot one. From the Soviets, the Bush White House received a plea for calm, urging the Americans to “not overreact.” Bush later recalled that, “[Gorbachev] worried about demonstrations in Germany that might get out of control, and he asked for understanding.”

To the gathered press, Bush gave a prepared statement which welcomed the fall of the wall, nothing that the “the tragic symbolism of the Berlin Wall…will have been overcome by the indomitable spirit of man’s desire for freedom.”

But Bush, noted biographer John Meacham in his book Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George H.W. Bush, was more focused on what could go wrong rather than the symbolic triumph of the West over the Soviets, which led to a contentious exchange between the president and CBS reporter Lesley Stahl.

“This is a great victory for our side in the big East-West battle, but you don’t seem elated,” said Stahl. “I’m wondering if you’re thinking of the problems.”

“I’m not an emotional kind of guy,” Bush replied.

Democrats in Congress also sought a stronger response from the president. Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell thought Bush should fly to Berlin so that he could make a statement about the end of Communism, with the fallen wall as a dramatic background. House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt said that Bush was “inadequate to the moment.”

From the Soviets, Gorbachev warned of “unforeseen consequences.” Bush heard reports of violence in other Soviet republics. In the days and weeks that followed, it appeared that Soviet power in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia were also faltering. In his diary, Bush wrote that Mitchell had been “nuts to suggest you pour gasoline on those embers.”

When Bush met with Gorbachev at the Malta Conference that December, he was cautiously optimistic, and prepared.

“I hope you have noticed,” he said to Gorbachev, “we have not responded with flamboyance or arrogance that would complicate Soviet relations…I have been called cautious or timid. I am cautious, but not timid. But I have conducted myself in ways not to complicate your life. That’s why I have not jumped up and down on the Berlin Wall.”

“Yes, we have seen that,” said Gorbachev, “and appreciate that.”

On December 3rd, the two men held the first ever joint press conference between an American president and a leader of the Soviet Union.

Expressing gratitude for Bush’s caution, and recognizing the danger of exaggeration, Gorbachev said that he and Bush agreed that “the characteristics of the cold war should be abandoned…the arms race, mistrust, psychological and ideological struggle, all those should be things of the past.”

Coming home, Bush found he faced criticism not only from the left, but also from the right–from within his own White House. Vice President Quayle, Bush wrote in his diary, saw a chance to become “the spokesman of the right,” a sort of disloyalty to Bush’s efforts that he had never been guilty of during his eight years as Reagan’s vice president.

Ultimately Bush’s caution about the fall of the wall allowed him to navigate fragile relationships with both Gorbachev and the Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl. It allowed him to piece together a new, post-Cold War world order. His refusal to gloat despite pressure on both sides proved crucial, and can serve today as a lesson to other American leaders on the world stage.

Former President Bush 41 Reflects on the Fall of the Berlin Wall 20 Years Later

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Now you are heading to Germany. Now, two decades ago, on November 9th, 1989, that horrible Berlin wall finally came down. President George H.W. Bush was in office when the wall came down. President Bush gives you the inside story.


VAN SUSTEREN: Mr. President, nice to see you, sir.


VAN SUSTEREN: Well, you've obviously made a big impact here in Germany.

BUSH: A little coverage. Isn't that nice.

VAN SUSTEREN: It is a little -- it's not just a little, it's a lot of coverage. Of course, my favorite one, though, I think, in today's paper might be this one, although it's a little bit smaller -- the hands.

BUSH: That's right. It was a wonderful reunion with two men for whom I have not only respect but friendship. It was very emotional, very nice.

VAN SUSTEREN: Take me back to -- let's go back to about 1959, 1960. What was it like before the wall went up?

BUSH: It was hard to think there would be freedom on the East German, GDR side of the wall. One side was oppressive, one side was denying all of human rights, and the other side was freedom.

And Cole said when they saw the advertisements from the west going into the east, that just stirred up public opinion on the east side that they wanted freedom. And it was inevitable, I guess, eventually, but it happened so fast. It happened faster than any of us thought.

VAN SUSTEREN: When I was a young girl in 1961, it seemed that that wall was always going to be there, the Berlin Wall. I never in my wildest dreams did I think that it would come down.

BUSH: Well, I think a lot of people felt that way, and when I took office a lot of people felt that way. But it was the long-term objective of the United States that it to come down, and, of course, it did.

And it would not have happened if a Gorbachev had believed in self- determination, letting people choose where the wanted it to be. And down it came. Everybody gets a little taste of freedom, and that's very strong.

VAN SUSTEREN: In seems that important point in our history for the wall start a little bit in the early 1980s, when you were vice president, and Chancellor Kohl decided to get more involved with the Pershing missiles. Am I right about that?

BUSH: Yes, the deployment of the Pershing missiles was a very big yard mark, because most of Europe was worried about it and a lot of people didn't want it.

But when we went ahead and he went ahead and deployed the missiles, that showed a real commitment to the west, you might say. And it was controversial, and he and I got into a couple of big demonstrations against it when I was over here with him. I was vice president then

But I think it was a turning point, I think it was an important point.

VAN SUSTEREN: As I recall, President Reagan dispatched you to come over here and to sell the whole concept of the Pershing missiles here locally in Germany.

BUSH: Not just here but around the rest of Europe, because there were a lot of skeptics in the Netherlands, and everyplace, you name it. And so we had to convince people that this was not detrimental to their own security. They would not be targets because of the deployment of the Pershing II missile.

VAN SUSTEREN: You tell one story I heard where you even got egged, that the motorcade got egged.

BUSH: Yes, we had some eggs thrown at us. But it is -- we get used to it a little bit. It's like going into San Francisco if you're a Republican.

VAN SUSTEREN: It terms of that time, when you helped Chancellor Kohl sell the Pershing missile, did you ever in your wildest dreams thing that that wall would come down?

BUSH: Not then. Not then, I really did not. But things happened really fast. And Gorbachev, with his perestroika and glasnost, carried the day, you might say. I think if it had not been for his vision, it wouldn't have happened. And if it hadn't been for Kohl's determination it wouldn't have happened, and they say, because of unwavering support, it would not have happened, without that, it would not have happened.

I know we had a great team working on it, and they all deserve credit.

VAN SUSTEREN: One of the things I thought it would be the hardest thing to do is to have you take credit for what you did during that time.

And actually I wrote a list, if I can find my list -- is that you presided over the wall coming down. And nobody thought that that wall with come down, but you were president. You presided over the reunification of Germany while you were president. France didn't want it. England didn't want it, but that was done under your watch.

You know, in coming here today, I figured one of the hardest things to do was f for y to take credit for all of the things when you were president about this.

BUSH: I do not deserve credit. We had a team working the problem. We had Brent Scowcroft. Jim Baker was extraordinarily helpful in negotiating with the Russians and with the rest of Europe. It was a team effort, and I was blessed by having a strong team, all of whom were committed to a free Germany in the heart of Europe.

VAN SUSTEREN: I do not want to quibble with you, but it is the historic fact that you're in the middle of it, you were the president when this was happening, and the president gets criticized for things that happen under his watch that are not good, so you ought to take credit for the remarkable things that happen under your watch as well.

BUSH: I would take credit, but my mother is looking down from heaven, and she doesn't like braggarts and she doesn't like people taking a lot of credit. "Give the other guy credit," my mother would say all through life.


VAN SUSTEREN: Up next, President Bush takes you behind the scenes into the Oval Office, the moment he first heard that the Berlin wall was coming down. That's next.


VAN SUSTEREN: Continuing with former president George H.W. Bush from Berlin Germany, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.


VAN SUSTEREN: In the months leading up to the wall coming down, let me go back to like the summer before the wall came down in November, what was it like as president. You saw the unrest that was building here in Europe.

BUSH: Yes, you did, and it was probable. You could feel it, but I was not sure it would result in the wall actually coming down. And I think most other people weren't. And these young people particularly got their hammers and started hammering away.

It was inevitable, you might say, but I did not think it would happen as soon as it did.


BUSH: Well, just because it had been there so long and it was so obscene and so tough, and it was patrolled so intolerantly by the Stasi, by the East Germans.

It is funny, you think of Germany divided, and now you come to Berlin and it is united, it is hard to believe that there was this division, this wall separating family from family and certainly ideology from ideology. But down it came and life went on.

VAN SUSTEREN: On the day that it came down, do you remember getting the first word that the first hammer had been hit again the wall. Do you remember that?

BUSH: I think it was in the Oval Office that I heard it from Brent or somebody from the National Secretary Council that it was actually happening, and it was dramatic.

But then I got a little criticism at for not being emotional enough. Why don't you express the emotion of the American people and do what Mitchell and Gephardt suggest, go and dance on the wall with these young people. It would have been the stupidest thing a president, in my view, could do.

We did not know how the Soviet military was going to react. We did not know if they were just going to say to Gorbachev, "Enough. We are not going to be kicked around like this." And so we used a little diplomacy and it all happened peacefully.

But it would have been a crazy idea for the American president to beat his chest and come over here and get three points in the polls and maybe threaten the whole peaceful resolution.

VAN SUSTEREN: There was a lot of uncertainty around the unification of Germany. Margaret Thatcher was not wild about it, what she?

BUSH: No, she had reservations, and so did Mitterrand. And you have to understand both of them had in mind very much their country's being devastated by World War II and World War I. And they had in mind a militant Germany. They did not know if it would be good to have a unified Germany in the heart of Europe.

And my view was Germany has earned the right to have a democracy right there in the heart of Europe. And so we had slight differences. I think they did not come out against it, but they were not enthusiastic, let's put it that way, about the speed at which it was happening.

VAN SUSTEREN: If you did not live through the cold war, it may be hard to understand about how frightened people were. And World War II, of course, the devastation here in Europe, it's hard. Unless you understand it is hard to have a full appreciation of what a huge event it was during your presidency that that wall came down and that there was unification. It was giant.

BUSH: It was major. And I think most people in the United States forget it, but you come to Germany like we did the last couple of days and you see the emotion of the people, it is just great.

VAN SUSTEREN: You never take credit for anything, so I am going to exempt you from this question. Who are the heroes on the wall coming down?

BUSH: I think clearly Gorbachev and clearly Kohl. And I would say the American side deserves credit for persevering and keeping things going forward, bringing Europe onboard, reassuring the Poles that this was not detrimental to their interest, and making the world the understand that this was a good thing for everybody.

So there is plenty of credit to go round, and to that degree we'll take some.

VAN SUSTEREN: In the days and months after the wall came down, I imagine there was a flurry about where the world was going to go. What were your thoughts about what the role of Germany would be in Europe?

BUSH: I think it was a goal of mine that I stated at a speech in Minsk prior to all of this, Europe, Poland free. And I think it became a reality. I think that was a goal, and it proved to be realizable goal.

VAN SUSTEREN: You come here, and you guys are rock stars here because you utterly changed this country, the East Germans, but the way this country as compared to what it is 21 years ago.

BUSH: I think they were very generous in their recognizing all of this. But I'm not sure how many -- I've talked to people about this, how many of the young people in Germany remember the divisions about the wall.

I am sure in our country, people do not remember. They've got soccer games to go to and important events on their own current events calendar. But I think a lot of people do not remember how divisive the wall was and what it meant for freedom when the wall came down.

VAN SUSTEREN: People who did not live to this period of time, I think one of the best ways to see it, there is a big chunk of the wall, and you can see on one side there is beautiful color, crazy graffiti on sections. On the other side it is stark and cold, the communist side. Just the physical piece of the wall is so telling.

BUSH: The imagery that sticks in my mind is a picture of a young man named Peter Fechter, who was shot as he tried to leave East Germany, the GDR, to come to the west, to come to freedom. And they shot him and left him bleeding to death in the sort of no-man's land between the wall and the west.

And you see pictures of the guards, the Stasi, just coming out and dragging him in. That one still lives in my mind.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do what extent do you think you're service in World War II has a bearing on this? I would assume this is a personal matter to you as well as a president.

BUSH: I do not know that it has a direct bearing on how I handled East Germany and the wall coming down situation. But my military service and being in combat with a fierce and enemy in those days, Japan, served me well because I realized that without American power and without American conviction, good things would not have happened.

I also realized that even though Japan was an enemy, they would not be enemies forever. And Japan is a friendly country, a democracy, and we can look at them as a dramatic change from the old imperialist days.

VAN SUSTEREN: With communism, it seems it is disappearing from this planet, but what about North Korea? Do you think we will ever see it go there?

BUSH: Yes, eventually, we will, eventually, there will be some change there. They cannot hold out with this rigid totalitarianism for too much longer, I do not think.

VAN SUSTEREN: It is nice to see you, Mr. President.

BUSH: Thanks for stopping by with your busy schedule, Greta, my gosh.

VAN SUSTEREN: Yes, and I am sure that all the Germans are absolutely ecstatic to see the three of you here, and what a huge moment in history that wall coming down.

BUSH: It was a wonderful moment, and I think it did bring back a lot of memories for Germans, a lot of good memories.

VAN SUSTEREN: Thank you, sir.


VAN SUSTEREN: We are posting our entire interviews with Secretary Clinton and former President Bush on GretaWire.com. Check them out.

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Opening of the Iron Curtain Edit

The opening of the Iron Curtain between Austria and Hungary at the Pan-European Picnic on August 19, 1989 set in motion a peaceful chain reaction, at the end of which there was no longer an East Germany and the Eastern Bloc had disintegrated. Extensive advertising for the planned picnic was made by posters and flyers among the GDR holidaymakers in Hungary. It was the largest escape movement from East Germany since the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. After the picnic, which was based on an idea by Otto von Habsburg to test the reaction of the USSR and Mikhail Gorbachev to an opening of the border, tens of thousands of media-informed East Germans set off for Hungary. Erich Honecker dictated to the Daily Mirror for the Paneuropa Picnic: "Habsburg distributed leaflets far into Poland, on which the East German holidaymakers were invited to a picnic. When they came to the picnic, they were given gifts, food and Deutsche Mark, and then they were persuaded to come to the West." The leadership of the GDR in East Berlin did not dare to completely block the borders of their own country and the USSR did not respond at all. Thus the bracket of the Eastern Bloc was broken. [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

Following the summer of 1989, by early November refugees were finding their way to Hungary via Czechoslovakia or via the West German embassy in Prague.

The emigration was initially tolerated 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. In addition, East Germany was struggling to meet loan payments on foreign borrowings Egon Krenz sent Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski to unsuccessfully ask West Germany for a short-term loan to make interest payments. [8] : 344

Political changes in East Germany Edit

On 18 October 1989, longtime Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) leader Erich Honecker stepped down in favor of Krenz. Honecker had been seriously ill, and those looking to replace him were initially willing to wait for a "biological solution", but by October were convinced that the political and economic situation was too grave. [8] : 339 Honecker approved the choice, naming Krenz in his resignation speech, [9] and the Volkskammer duly elected him. Although Krenz promised reforms in his first public speech, [10] he was considered by the East German public to be following his predecessor's policies, and public protests demanding his resignation continued. [8] : 347 Despite promises of reform, public opposition to the regime continued to grow.

On 1 November, Krenz authorized the reopening of the border with Czechoslovakia, which had been sealed to prevent East Germans from fleeing to West Germany. [11] On 4 November, the Alexanderplatz demonstration took place. [12]

On 6 November, the Interior Ministry published a draft of new travel regulations, which made cosmetic changes to Honecker-era rules, leaving the approval process opaque and maintaining uncertainty regarding access to foreign currency. The draft enraged ordinary citizens, and was denounced as "complete trash" by West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper. [13] Hundreds of refugees crowded onto the steps of the West German embassy in Prague, enraging the Czechoslovaks, who threatened to seal off the East German-Czechoslovak border. [14]

On 7 November, Krenz approved the resignation of Prime Minister Willi Stoph and two-thirds of the Politburo however Krenz was unanimously re-elected as General Secretary by the Central Committee. [8] : 341

New East German emigration policy Edit

On 19 October, Krenz asked Gerhard Lauter to draft a new travel policy. [15] Lauter was a former People's Police officer. After rising rapidly through the ranks he had recently been promoted to a position with the Interior Ministry ("Home Office" / "Department of the Interior") as head of the department responsible for issuing passports and the registration of citizens. [16]

At a Politburo meeting on 7 November it was decided to enact a portion of the draft travel regulations addressing permanent emigration immediately. Initially, the Politburo planned to create a special border crossing near Schirnding specifically for this emigration. [17] Interior Ministry officials and Stasi bureaucrats charged with drafting the new text, however, concluded this was not feasible, and crafted a new text relating to both emigration and temporary travel. It stipulated that East German citizens could apply for permission to travel abroad without having to meet the previous requirements for those trips. [18] To ease the difficulties, the Politburo led by Krenz decided on 9 November 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. [19]

VVS b2-937/89 Edit

Zur Veränderung der Situation der ständigen Ausreise von DDR-Bürgern nach der BRD über die CSSR wird festgelegt:

1) Die Verordnung vom 30. November 1988 über Reisen von Bürgern der DDR in das Ausland (GBl. I Nr. 25 S. 271) findet bis zur Inkraftsetzung des neuen Reisegesetzes keine Anwendung mehr.

2) Ab sofort treten folgende zeitweilige Übergangsregelungen für Reisen und ständige Ausreisen aus der DDR in das Ausland in Kraft:

a. Privatreisen nach dem Ausland können ohne Vorliegen von Voraussetzungen (Reiseanlässe und Verwandtschaftsverhältnisse) beantragt werden. Die Genehmigungen werden kurzfristig erteilt. Versagungsgründe werden nur in besonderen Ausnahmefällen angewandt.

b. Die zuständigen Abteilungen Paß- und Meldewesen der VPKÄ in der DDR sind angewiesen, Visa zur ständigen Ausreise unverzüglich zu erteilen, ohne daß dafür noch geltende Voraussetzungen für eine ständige Ausreise vorliegen müssen. Die Antragstellung auf ständige Ausreise ist wie bisher auch bei den Abteilungen Innere Angelegenheiten möglich.

c. Ständige Ausreisen können über alle Grenzübergangsstellen der DDR zur BRD bzw. zu Berlin (West) erfolgen.

d. Damit entfällt die vorübergehend ermöglichte Erteilung von entsprechenden Genehmigungen in Auslandsvertretungen der DDR bzw. die ständige Ausreise mit dem Personalausweis der DDR über Drittstaaten.

3) Über die zeitweiligen Übergangsregelungen ist die beigefügte Pressemitteilung am 10. November 1989 zu veröffentlichen.

1. The decree from 30 November 1988 about travel abroad of East German citizens will no longer be applied until the new travel law comes into force.

2. Starting immediately, the following temporary transition regulations for travel abroad and permanent exits from East Germany are in effect:

a) Applications by private individuals for travel abroad can now be made without the previously existing requirements (of demonstrating a need to travel or proving familial relationships). The travel authorizations will be issued within a short period of time. Grounds for denial will only be applied in particularly exceptional cases.

b) The responsible departments of passport and registration control in the People's Police district offices in East Germany are instructed to issue visas for permanent exit without delays and without presentation of the existing requirements for permanent exit. It is still possible to apply for permanent exit in the departments for internal affairs [of the local district or city councils].

c) Permanent exits are possible via all East German border crossings to West Germany and (West) Berlin.

d) The temporary practice of issuing (travel) authorizations through East German consulates and permanent exit with only an East German personal identity card via third countries ceases.

3. The attached press release explaining the temporary transition regulation will be issued on 10 November.

Verantwortlich: Regierungssprecher beim Ministerrat der DDR

Wie die Presseabteilung des Ministeriums des Innern mitteilt, hat der Ministerrat der DDR beschlossen, daß bis zum Inkrafttreten einer entsprechenden gesetzlichen Regelung durch die Volkskammer folgende zeitweilige Übergangsregelung für Reisen und ständige Ausreisen aus der DDR ins Ausland in Kraft gesetzt wird:

1. Privatreisen nach dem Ausland können ohne Vorliegen von Voraussetzungen (Reiseanlässe und Verwandtschaftsverhältnisse) beantragt werden. Die Genehmigungen werden kurzfristig erteilt. Versagungsgründe werden nur in besonderen Ausnahmefällen angewandt.

2. Die zuständigen Abteilungen Paß- und Meldewesen der VPKÄ in der DDR sind angewiesen, Visa zur ständigen Ausreise unverzüglich zu erteilen, ohne daß dafür noch geltende Voraussetzungen für eine ständige Ausreise vorliegen müssen. Die Antragstellung auf ständige Ausreise ist wie bisher auch bei den Abteilungen Innere Angelegenheiten möglich.

3. Ständige Ausreisen können über alle Grenzübergangsstellen der DDR zur BRD bzw. zu Berlin (West) erfolgen.

4. Damit entfällt die vorübergehend ermöglichte Erteilung von entsprechenden Genehmigungen in Auslandsvertretungen der DDR bzw. die ständige Ausreise mit dem Personalausweis der DDR über Drittstaaten.

Responsible: Government spokesman of East Germany Council of Ministers

As the Press Office of the Ministry of the Interior has announced, the East German Council of Ministers has decided that the following temporary transition regulation for travel abroad and permanent exit from East Germany will be effective until a corresponding law is put into effect by the Volkskammer:

1) Applications by private individuals for travel abroad can now be made without the previously existing requirements (of demonstrating a need to travel or proving familial relationships). The travel authorizations will be issued within a short period of time. Grounds for denial will only be applied in particularly exceptional cases.

2) The responsible departments of passport and registration control in the People's Police district offices in East Germany are instructed to issue visas for permanent exit without delays and without presentation of the existing requirements for permanent exit. It is still possible to apply for permanent exit in the departments for internal affairs [of the local district or city councils].

3) Permanent exits are possible via all East German border crossings to West Germany and (West) Berlin.

4) This decision revokes the temporary practice of issuing (travel) authorizations through East German consulates and permanent exit with only an East German personal identity card via third countries ceases.

Misinformed public announcements Edit

The announcement of the regulations which brought down the wall took place at an hour-long press conference led by Günter Schabowski, the party leader in East Berlin and the top government spokesman, beginning at 18:00 CET on 9 November and broadcast live on East German television and radio. Schabowski was joined by Minister of Foreign Trade Gerhard Beil and Central Committee members Helga Labs and Manfred Banaschak. [1] [8] : 352

Schabowski had not been involved in the discussions about the new regulations and had not been fully updated. [22] Shortly before the press conference, he was handed a note from Krenz announcing the changes, but given no further instructions on how to handle the information. The text stipulated that East German citizens could apply for permission to travel abroad without having to meet the previous requirements for those trips, and also allowed for permanent emigration between all border crossings—including those between East and West Berlin. [18]

At 18:53, near the end of the press conference, ANSA's Riccardo Ehrman asked if the draft travel law of 6 November was a mistake. Schabowski gave a confusing answer that asserted it was necessary because West Germany had exhausted its capacity to accept fleeing East Germans, then remembered the note he had been given and added that a new law had been drafted to allow permanent emigration at any border crossing. This caused a stir in the room amid several questions at once, Schabowski expressed surprise that the reporters had not yet seen this law, and started reading from the note. [1] After this, a reporter, either Ehrman or Bild-Zeitung reporter Peter Brinkmann, both of whom were sitting in the front row at the press conference, [23] [24] [25] asked when the regulations would take effect. [1] After a few seconds' hesitation, Schabowski replied, "As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay" (German: Das tritt nach meiner Kenntnis … ist das sofort … unverzüglich.) [26] [27] [8] : 352 This was an apparent assumption based on the note's opening paragraph as Beil attempted to interject that it was up to the Council of Ministers to decide when it took effect, Schabowski proceeded to read this clause, which stated it was in effect until a law on the matter was passed by the Volkskammer. Crucially, a journalist then asked if the regulation also applied to the crossings to West Berlin. Schabowski shrugged and read item 3 of the note, which confirmed that it did. [24] [1]

After this exchange, Daniel Johnson of The Daily Telegraph asked what this law meant for the Berlin Wall. Schabowski sat frozen before giving a rambling statement about the Wall being tied to the larger disarmament question. [28] [29] He then ended the press conference promptly at 19:00 as journalists hurried from the room. [24] [1]

After the press conference, Schabowski sat for an interview with NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw in which he repeated that East Germans would be able to emigrate through the border and the regulations would go into effect immediately. [30] [31]

Spreading news Edit

The news began spreading immediately: the West German Deutsche Presse-Agentur issued a bulletin at 19:04 which reported that East German citizens would be able to cross the inner German border "immediately". Excerpts from Schabowski's press conference were broadcast on West Germany's two main news programs that night—at 19:17 on ZDF's heute, which came on the air as the press conference was ending, and as the lead story at 20:00 on ARD's Tagesschau. As ARD and ZDF had broadcast to nearly all of East Germany since the late 1950s, were far more widely viewed than the East German channels, and had become accepted by the East German authorities, this is how most of the population heard the news. 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." [8] : 353 [22]

In 2009, Ehrman claimed that a member of the Central Committee had called him and urged him to ask about the travel law during the press conference, but Schabowski called that absurd. [25] Ehrman later recanted this statement in a 2014 interview with an Austrian journalist, admitting that the caller was Günter Pötschke, head of the East German news agency ADN, and he only asked if Ehrman would attend the press conference. [32]

Peace prayers at Nikolai Church Edit

Despite the policy of state atheism in East Germany, Christian pastor Christian Führer regularly met with his congregation at St. Nicholas Church for prayer since 1982. [33] [34] Over the next seven years, the Church grew, despite authorities barricading the streets leading to it, and after church services, peaceful candlelit marches took place. [33] The secret police issued death threats and even attacked some of the marchers, but the crowd still continued to gather. [33] On 9 October 1989, the police and army units were given permission to use force against those assembled, but this did not deter the church service and march from taking place, which gathered 70,000 people. [33] [34] Many of those people started to cross into East Berlin, without a shot being fired. [33]

Crowding of the border Edit

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. [22] 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". [8] : 353 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. Mary Elise Sarotte in a 2009 Washington Post story characterized the series of events leading to the fall of the wall as an accident, saying "One of the most momentous events of the past century was, in fact, an accident, a semicomical and bureaucratic mistake that owes as much to the Western media as to the tides of history." [22]

Border openings Edit

Finally, at 10:45 p.m. (alternatively given as 11:30 p.m.) on 9 November, Harald Jäger, commander of the Bornholmer Straße border crossing, yielded, allowing guards to open the checkpoints and letting people through with little or no identity-checking. [35] [36] 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. [37] The evening of 9 November 1989 is known as the night the Wall came down. [38]

Walking through Checkpoint Charlie, 10 November 1989

Juggling on the Wall on 16 November 1989

"Mauerspecht" (November 1989)

The Fall of the Wall (November 1989)

Celebration at the border crossing in the Schlutup district of Lübeck

Another border crossing to the south may have been opened earlier. An account by Heinz Schäfer indicates that he also acted independently and ordered the opening of the gate at Waltersdorf-Rudow a couple of hours earlier. [39] This may explain reports of East Berliners appearing in West Berlin earlier than the opening of the Bornholmer Straße border crossing. [39]

"Wallpeckers" demolition Edit

Removal of the Wall began on the evening of 9 November 1989 and continued over the following days and weeks, with people nicknamed Mauerspechte (wallpeckers) using various tools to chip off souvenirs, demolishing lengthy parts in the process, and creating several unofficial border crossings. [40]

Television coverage of citizens demolishing sections of the Wall on 9 November was soon followed by the East German regime announcing ten new border crossings, including the historically significant locations of Potsdamer Platz, Glienicker Brücke, and Bernauer Straße. Crowds gathered on both sides of the historic crossings waiting for hours to cheer the bulldozers that tore down portions of the Wall to reconnect the divided roads. While the Wall officially remained guarded at a decreasing intensity, new border crossings continued for some time. Initially the East German Border Troops attempted repairing damage done by the "wallpeckers" gradually these attempts ceased, and guards became more lax, tolerating the increasing demolitions and "unauthorized" border crossing through the holes. [41]

Prime ministers meet Edit

The Brandenburg Gate in the Berlin Wall was opened on 22 December 1989 on that date, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl walked through the gate and was greeted by East German Prime Minister Hans Modrow. [42] West Germans and West Berliners were allowed visa-free travel starting 23 December. [41] Until then, they could only visit East Germany and East Berlin under restrictive conditions that involved application for a visa several days or weeks in advance and obligatory exchange of at least 25 DM per day of their planned stay, all of which hindered spontaneous visits. Thus, in the weeks between 9 November and 23 December, East Germans could actually travel more freely than Westerners. [41]

Official demolition Edit

On 13 June 1990, the East German Border Troops officially began dismantling the Wall, [43] [44] beginning in Bernauer Straße and around the Mitte district. From there, demolition continued through Prenzlauer Berg/Gesundbrunnen, Heiligensee and throughout the city of Berlin until December 1990. According to estimates by the border troops, a total of around 1.7 million tonnes of building rubble was produced by the demolition. Unofficially, the demolition of the Bornholmer Straße began because of construction work on the railway. This involved a total of 300 GDR border guards and—after 3 October 1990—600 Pioneers of the Bundeswehr. These were equipped with 175 trucks, 65 cranes, 55 excavators and 13 bulldozers. Virtually every road that was severed by the Berlin Wall, every road that once linked from West Berlin to East Berlin, was reconstructed and reopened by 1 August 1990. In Berlin alone, 184 km (114 mi) of wall, 154 km (96 mi) border fence, 144 km (89 mi) signal systems and 87 km (54 mi) barrier ditches were removed. What remained were six sections that were to be preserved as a memorial. Various military units dismantled the Berlin/Brandenburg border wall, completing the job in November 1991. Painted wall segments with artistically valuable motifs were put up for auction in 1990 in Berlin and Monte Carlo. [41]

On 1 July 1990, the day East Germany adopted the West German currency, all de jure border controls ceased, although the inter-German border had become meaningless for some time before that. [45] The demolition of the Wall was completed in 1994. [43]

The fall of the Wall marked the first critical step towards German reunification, which formally concluded a mere 339 days later on 3 October 1990 with the dissolution of East Germany and the official reunification of the German state along the democratic lines of the West German Basic Law. [40]

An East German guard talks to a Westerner through a broken seam in the wall in late November 1989.

A crane removes a section of the Wall near Brandenburg Gate on 21 December 1989.

Almost all of the remaining sections were rapidly chipped away. December 1990.

West Germans peer at East German border guards through a hole in the wall on 5 January 1990.

Short section of the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz, March 2009

Souvenir chunk of concrete from the Wall

International opposition Edit

French President François Mitterrand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher both opposed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the eventual reunification of Germany, fearing potential German designs on its neighbours using its increased strength. In September 1989, Margaret Thatcher privately confided to Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that she wanted the Soviet leader to do what he could to stop it. [46] [47]

We do not want a united Germany. This would lead to a change to postwar borders and we cannot allow that because such a development would undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security, Thatcher told Gorbachev. [46]

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, François Mitterrand warned Thatcher that a unified Germany could make more ground than Adolf Hitler ever had and that Europe would have to bear the consequences. [48]

Celebrations and anniversaries Edit

On 21 November 1989, Crosby, Stills & Nash performed the song "Chippin' Away" from Graham Nash's 1986 solo album Innocent Eyes in front of the Brandenburg Gate. [49]

On 25 December 1989, Leonard Bernstein gave a concert in Berlin celebrating the end of the Wall, including Beethoven's 9th symphony (Ode to Joy) with the word "Joy" (Freude) changed to "Freedom" (Freiheit) in the lyrics sung. The poet Schiller may have originally written "Freedom" and changed it to "Joy" out of fear. The orchestra and choir were drawn from both East and West Germany, as well as the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. [50] On New Year's Eve 1989, David Hasselhoff performed his song "Looking for Freedom" while standing atop the partly demolished wall. [51] Roger Waters performed the Pink Floyd album The Wall just north of Potsdamer Platz on 21 July 1990, with guests including Bon Jovi, Scorpions, Bryan Adams, Sinéad O'Connor, Cyndi Lauper, Thomas Dolby, Joni Mitchell, Marianne Faithfull, Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Van Morrison. [52]

Over the years, there has been a repeated controversial debate [53] as to whether 9 November would make a suitable German national holiday, often initiated by former members of political opposition in East Germany, such as Werner Schulz. [54] Besides being the emotional apogee of East Germany's peaceful revolution, 9 November is also the date of the 1918 abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and declaration of the Weimar Republic, the first German republic. However, 9 November is also the anniversary of the execution of Robert Blum following the 1848 Vienna revolts, the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch and the infamous Kristallnacht pogroms of the Nazis in 1938. Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel criticised the first euphoria, noting that "they forgot that 9 November has already entered into history—51 years earlier it marked the Kristallnacht." [55] As reunification was not official and complete until 3 October (1990), that day was finally chosen as German Unity Day.

10th anniversary celebrations Edit

On 9 November 1999, the 10th anniversary was observed with a concert and fireworks at the vid Brandenburg Gate. Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich played music by Johann Sebastian Bach, while German rock band Scorpions performed their 1990 song Wind of Change. Wreaths were placed for victims shot down when attempts to escape to west, and politicians delivered speeches. [56] [57]

20th anniversary celebrations Edit

On 9 November 2009, Berlin celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a "Festival of Freedom" with dignitaries from around the world in attendance for an evening celebration around the Brandenburg Gate. A high point was when over 1,000 colourfully designed foam domino tiles, each over 8 feet (2.4 m) tall, that were stacked along the former route of the Wall in the city center were toppled in stages, converging in front of the Brandenburg Gate. [58]

A Berlin Twitter Wall was set up to allow Twitter users to post messages commemorating the 20th anniversary. The Chinese government quickly shut down access to the Twitter Wall after masses of Chinese users began using it to protest the Great Firewall of China. [59] [60] [61]

In the United States, the German Embassy coordinated a public diplomacy campaign with the motto "Freedom Without Walls", to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The campaign was focused on promoting awareness of the fall of the Berlin Wall among current college students. Students at over 30 universities participated in "Freedom Without Walls" events in late 2009. First place winner of the Freedom Without Walls Speaking Contest [62] Robert Cannon received a free trip to Berlin for 2010. [63]

An international project called Mauerreise (Journey of the Wall) took place in various countries. Twenty symbolic Wall bricks were sent from Berlin starting in May 2009, with the destinations being Korea, Cyprus, Yemen, and other places where everyday life is characterised by division and border experience. In these places, the bricks would become a blank canvas for artists, intellectuals and young people to tackle the "wall" phenomenon. [64]

To commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the 3D online virtual world Twinity reconstructed a true-to-scale section of the Wall in virtual Berlin. [65] The MTV Europe Music Awards, on 5 November, had U2 and Tokio Hotel perform songs dedicated to, and about the Berlin Wall. U2 performed at the Brandenburg Gate, and Tokio Hotel performed "World Behind My Wall".

Palestinians in the town of Kalandia, West Bank pulled down parts of the Israeli West Bank barrier, in a demonstration marking the 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. [66]

The International Spy Museum in Washington D.C., hosted a Trabant car rally where 20 Trabants gathered in recognition of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Rides were raffled every half-hour and a Trabant crashed through a Berlin Wall mock up. The Trabant was the East German people's car that many used to leave DDR after the collapse. [67] [68]

The Allied Museum in the Dahlem district of Berlin hosted a number of events to mark the Twentieth Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. The museum held a Special Exhibition entitled "Wall Patrol – The Western Powers and the Berlin Wall 1961–1990" which focused on the daily patrols deployed by the Western powers to observe the situation along the Berlin Wall and the fortifications on the GDR border. [69] A sheet of "Americans in Berlin" Commemorative Cinderella stamps designed by T.H.E. Hill, the author of the novel Voices Under Berlin, was presented to the Museum by David Guerra, Berlin veteran and webmaster of the site www.berlinbrigade.com. The stamps splendidly illustrate that even twenty years on, veterans of service in Berlin still regard their service there as one of the high points of their lives. [70]

30th anniversary celebrations Edit

Berlin planned a weeklong arts festival from 4 to 10 November 2019 and a citywide music festival on 9 November to celebrate the 30th anniversary. [71] [72] On 4 November, outdoor exhibits opened at Alexanderplatz, the Brandenburg Gate, the East Side Gallery, Gethsemane Church, Kurfürstendamm, Schlossplatz, and the former Stasi headquarters in Lichtenberg. [72]

Hertha Berlin commemorated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall by tearing a fake Berlin Wall in their match against RB Leipzig. [73]

Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, 1989

On November 9, 1989, thousands of jubilant Germans brought down the most visible symbol of division at the heart of Europe—the Berlin Wall. For two generations, the Wall was the physical representation of the Iron Curtain, and East German border guards had standing shoot-to-kill orders against those who tried to escape. But just as the Wall had come to represent the division of Europe, its fall came to represent the end of the Cold War. In the White House, President George H. W. Bush and his National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, watched the unfolding scene on a television in the study, aware of both the historical significance of the moment and of the challenges for U.S. foreign policy that lay ahead.

Not even the most optimistic observer of President’s Ronald Reagan’s 1987 Berlin speech calling on Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” would have imagined that two years later the communist regimes of Eastern Europe would collapse like dominoes. By 1990, the former communist leaders were out of power, free elections were held, and Germany was whole again.

The peaceful collapse of the regimes was by no means pre-ordained. Soviet tanks crushed demonstrators in East Berlin in June 1953, in Hungary in 1956, and again in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Soviet military planners were intimately involved in the Polish planning for martial law in 1980, and Soviet troops remained stationed throughout Eastern Europe, as much a guarantee for Soviet security as an ominous reminder to Eastern European peoples of Soviet dominance over their countries.

The Reagan administration’s strong rhetoric in support of the political aspirations of Eastern European and Soviet citizens was met, following 1985, with a new type of leader in the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (transparency) further legitimized popular calls for reform from within. Gorbachev also made clear—at first secretly to the Eastern European leaders, then increasingly more public—that the Soviet Union had abandoned the policy of military intervention in support of communist regimes (the Brezhnev Doctrine).

On February 6, 1989, negotiations between the Polish Government and members of the underground labor union Solidarity opened officially in Warsaw. Solidarity was formed in August 1980 following a series of strikes that paralyzed the Polish economy. The 1981 Soviet-inspired imposition of martial law drove the organization underground, where it survived due to support from Western labor organizations and Polish émigré groups. The results of the “Round Table Talks,” signed by government and Solidarity representatives on April 4, included free elections for 35% of the Parliament ( Sejm ), free elections for the newly created Senate, a new office of the President, and the recognition of Solidarity as a political party. On June 4, as Chinese tanks crushed student-led protests in Beijing, Solidarity delivered a crushing electoral victory. By August 24, ten years after Solidarity emerged on the scene, Tadeusz Mazowiecki became the first non-communist Prime Minister in Eastern Europe.

In Hungary, drastic changes were also under way. The government, already the most liberal of the communist governments, allowed free association and assembly and ordered opening of the country’s border with the West. In doing so, it provided an avenue to escape for an ever-increasing number of East Germans. The Hungarian Party removed its long-time leader, Janos Kadar, agreed to its own version of the Round Table talks with the opposition, and, on June 16, ceremoniously re-interred Imre Nagy, the reformist communist leader of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. By October 23, ten months after political reforms began, Hungary adopted a new constitution allowing a multi-party system and competitive elections.

The economic collapse of East Germany led increasing numbers of East Germans to seek to emigrate to the West. Thousands sought refuge in West German embassies in other communist countries, eventually forcing the government to allow them to emigrate via special trains. Visiting Berlin in early October, Gorbachev cautioned the East German leadership of the need to reform, and confided in his advisors that East German leader Erich Honecker had to be replaced. Two weeks later, Honecker was forced to resign, while hundreds of thousands marched in protest throughout major East German cities. On November 9, as the world watched on television, the East German Government announced the opening of all East German borders. In a fluid situation, the Berlin Wall came down when an obviously ill-prepared East German spokesman told reporters that the new travel regulations also applied to Berlin. Before the end of the month, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl unveiled a plan for reunification of the two Germanies.

As the Wall came down and the fears of a Soviet reaction receded, the dominoes started falling at a quickened pace. In October, riot police arrested hundreds in Prague after an unsanctioned demonstration only weeks later, hundreds of thousands gathered in Prague to protest the government. Alexander Dubcek, the reformist communist who led the Prague Spring in 1968, made his first public appearance in over two decades. A new, non-communist government took the country’s reins on December 5, and on December 29, Vaclav Havel, the famed playwright and dissident, was elected President. In Bulgaria, protests lead to the removal of Todor Zhivkov, the long-time leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party, and his replacement with reformist communist, Petar Mladenov. The new government quickly announced that the government would hold free elections in 1990.

Only in Romania did the events turn violent. Nicolae Ceausescu, an increasingly idiosyncratic relic of Stalinist times, refused any reforms. On December 17 in Timisoara, the army and police fired into crowds protesting government policies, killing dozens. Protests spread to other cities, with hundreds killed when Ceausescu ordered the violent repression of demonstrations on December 21. By the next day, Ceausescu was forced to flee Bucharest and was arrested by Army units in the countryside. The interim government, led by a reformist communist Ion Iliescu, held a quick mock trial and Ceausescu and his wife were executed on December 25.

By the summer of 1990, all of the former communist regimes of Eastern Europe were replaced by democratically elected governments. In Poland, Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, newly formed center-right parties took power for the first time since the end of World War II. In Bulgaria and Romania, reformed communists retained control of the governments, but new center-right parties entered Parliaments and became active on the political scene. The course was set for the reintegration of Eastern Europe into Western economic, political, and security frameworks. Writing in his journal on November 10, 1989, Anatoly Chernyaev, foreign policy advisor to Gorbachev noted that the fall of the wall represented “a shift in the world balance of forces” and the end of Yalta.


Document 1: Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and Miklos Nemeth, Moscow, March 3, 1989.

Document 2: Mikhail Gorbachev Press Conference Excerpts, Bonn, June 15, 1989.

Document 3: Hungarian discussions (Nemeth/Horn) with West German leaders Kohl and Genscher, Bonn, August 25, 1989.

Document 4: Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, Moscow, September 23, 1989.

Document 5: Anatoly Chernyaev diary excerpt, October 5, 1989.

Document 6: Notes from the Soviet Politburo Session, November 3, 1989.

Document 7: Demarche from the Czechoslovak Communist Party to the GDR SED, November 8, 1989 (original German language version).

Document 8: Record of Conversation between Helmut Kohl and Lech Walesa, Warsaw, November 9, 1989.

Document 9: Documents from the East German Communist Party (SED) and the transcript of the Günter Schabowski press conference, November 9, 1989. [1]

Document 10: President Bush Remarks to Reporters, Washington D.C., November 9, 1989.

Document 11: Record of Telephone Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl, November 11, 1989.

Document 12: Anatoly Chernyaev diary excerpt, November 10, 1989.

[1] Document 9 is courtesy of the German scholar Hans-Hermann Hertle, who was the first to reconstruct in detail the Schabowski press conference debacle, including his own transcription of the Schabowski video and publication of the backstory documents of drafts and SED decision making on travel regulations, in his seminal article, "The Fall of the Wall: The Unintended Dissolution of East Germany's Ruling Regime," in the Cold War International History Project Bulletin No. 12/13, Fall/Winter 2001, pp. 131-164.

George H.W. Bush — Revisited

He’s 86 now, his eyebrows silver and his legs weakened by Parkinson’s-like symptoms. But as George Herbert Walker Bush approaches his twilight years, the untold tales of his life of public service are beginning to spill out.

Americans grown weary of political spin and attack-dog politics are coming to embrace the 41st president in ways they didn’t when he actually occupied the Oval Office, or before that, when he served as Ronald Reagan’s loyal right-hand man.

Democrats who once mocked the Bush political dynasty are leading the charge. President Barack Obama has saluted the elder Bush several times, mostly recently bestowing on the Bush family patriarch America’s highest civilian honor last month at the White House.

And Bill Clinton, who ousted Bush from office in 1992 and later became his friend, is slated to lead a celebration Monday at Washington’s Kennedy Center to honor Bush’s volunteer efforts through the Points of Light Foundation.

Former first lady Barbara Bush “likes to refer to me as her errant son, the black sheep of the family,” Clinton told the Center for Public Integrity in emailed answers to questions on Friday. “I have always liked and admired President Bush. In the last decade, I have come to love him and the time we share.”

Clinton also sees in Bush a civility and pragmatism absent in today’s politics.

“I think people appreciate the leadership he provided in the critical years after the Berlin Wall fell, supporting democracy in Russia, the reunification of Germany, and the reaffirmation of the NATO alliance his success in building a real coalition to win the first Gulf War.” But as much as any of that, Clinton said, people have come to value “the contrast between his kind of conservatism and that which dominates today – less extreme in substance, less harsh in rhetoric, more open to reasonable compromise.”

The questions that once dogged Bush’s political ascension — Iran-Contra, the “wimp” factor and “read my lips” to name a few — are long since faded to memory as Americans now are reminded of acts of heroism, bipartisanship, political selflessness and stubborn discipline revealed by close friends seeking to cement his place in history.

One such dramatic episode took on new significance last weekend during Obama’s first trip to Latin America, eyeing new threats to democracy born during the strife and violence of the 1970s and 1980s.

In December 1983, then-Vice President Bush slipped away from a Latin America trip on a secret mission known only to a handful of U.S. leaders — his absence hardly noticed amidst the season’s normal holiday fare.

El Salvador’s military, embroiled in civil war, was losing American confidence as reports multiplied of human rights abuses and murders of civilians carried out by death squads of soldiers. And emotions were still raw over the unsolved killings of three Roman Catholic nuns and a laywoman.

Bush and a small contingent of White House aides and Secret Service agents whirled through the Salvadoran mountains aboard two Army Black hawk helicopters.

Their task was to deliver a stern warning to the Salvadoran military commanders from Reagan: end the murders and human rights abuses and allow fully free and democratic elections or the United States would instantly cut off aid in the fight against Cuban-backed communist guerillas.

Air Force II landed at San Salvador’s airport and Bush was then escorted onto a green Army Black Hawk chopper — absent the vice presidential seal. As the chopper wound its way through the mountains, the pilots maintained an unusually high altitude — about 5,000 feet — hoping to avoid anti-aircraft and small arms fire from rebels on the ground below.

For the White House advance staff, the setting seemed more than a bit incongruous for a man just one heartbeat away from the U.S. presidency: a sultry mountainside villa with faded pink concrete walls that was part of a compound purportedly used by San Salvador’s president as a residence.

When Bush’s advance team scouted the location a few days earlier, they thought they’d stumbled onto the set of a Grade B horror movie.

The carpets were stained with a brown, bloody color, and there were similar spatter stains on the walls. “It looked like a meeting had gone terribly wrong and no one survived,” recalled Antonio Benedi, one of Bush’s most trusted advance aides, who accompanied him on the mission.

Added Hector Irastorza, a White House aide who went with the security detail to inspect the presidential meeting place: “There was blood all over, and things were turned upside down. There were bullet holes in the wall. It was pretty fresh. It was clear they had had a skirmish there.”

“My first thought,” Irastorza recalled in an interview Friday, “was, ‘Is he (Bush) really going to meet with the people who did this?’”

Benedi and his team pondered calling off the get-together, but no one wanted to tell Bush, a former World War II bomber pilot who survived being shot down in the Pacific, that they were afraid for his safety.

Bush’s stated reason for the Latin American trip was the typical pro-democracy boosterism reserved for a vice president — attending the inaugural celebration of Raúl Alfonsín, Argentina’s democratically elected president.

Only a handful of top Reagan and Bush aides were privy to the Salvadoran side-trip and the planned confrontation with military commanders who supervised the death squads.

A Marine officer assigned to the National Security Council — who a few short years later would burst into the national limelight as the unrepentant central figure of the Iran-Contra affair — was among the chosen few. Then-Major Oliver North was at Bush’s side for much of the journey.

The night before the Salvadoran mission, Bush retreated from the Argentinian festivities to the U.S. embassy. Seemingly at ease, he challenged his traveling partners to a game of low-stakes poker.

“Bush pulled a Harry Truman, and asked if anyone wanted to play poker,” North recalled in an interview last week. “I told him my personal limit is $5, and before long I’m out of the game, real quick.”

The next morning Bush’s jet departed for El Salvador, and the crew made a re-fueling stop in Panama.

There, Bush asked Panamanian strong-arm man Manuel Noriega — who years later Bush, as president, would oust from power in a military invasion — to meet him at the airport for a lecturing on the need for more democracy in the Central American nation.

“I watched George H.W. Bush confront the man directly about the drug trade, his support for bad people in Latin America and the need to bring real democracy to Panama,” North recalled.

Then it was off to El Salvador. The official report of the trip states that Bush visited with the Salvadoran president Álvaro Magaña and urged him to disband the so-called death squads, even giving a tough speech before he left the country.

But the full mission was the stuff of thrillers. The Black Hawks landed in a grassy field near the presidential villa. Surrounded by peaks, the location offered a reminder of the violent divisions inside the country at a moment when the military was locked in a stalemate with the communist rebels. The sound of fire from a Salvadoran gunship — perhaps 10 to 15 kilometers away — was faintly audible as the vice president strutted inside.

The Salvadorans had spruced the villa’s walls with a fresh coat of paint and installed a new carpet.

After some brief pleasantries, Bush retreated to a room for a private discussion with the Salvadoran president.

Outside in the hallways, a couple of Secret Service agents grew alarmed as a large number of Salvadoran military commanders — each with pistols in holsters and some with semiautomatic rifles slung across their shoulders — entered the villa, preparing to meet the vice president.

A commotion broke out as the soldiers refused the Secret Service agents’ request to leave their arms outside. Bush poked his head out to ask for quiet.

“We Americans were outgunned 5-to-1 and the prospect of having the VP deliver a message that they clearly didn’t want to hear was stark at best,” North recalled.

Aides suggested to Bush that perhaps the session be called off for security reasons. The vice president refused. “That is what we are here for. We’re here so they get the message,” North recalled Bush saying.

Soon, an entourage of military commanders filed into the room with their sun-faded camouflaged fatigues and weapons. Some stood, as there weren’t enough chairs to go around.

After brief pleasantries, an animated Bush slammed his fist on the table as he condemned the killings of the nuns and other human rights abuses. His message and tenor were unmistakable.

The vice president “told these commanders that their actions would have to stop immediately in order to restore the United States confidence in their ability to fight this war. Otherwise, the US would be forced to cut off aid,” Benedi recalled.

North said the scene was surreal. “They’re all senior guys, some of whom we had good reason to believe were involved with deaths squads. And everybody — to include the VP — knew that,” he said.

“He delivers this incredibly stark message, ‘If the killings don’t stop and you don’t hold elections, we are going to cut off our aid and it will stop you dead in your tracks and you know what that means.”

Bush dispatched the message and boarded his Black Hawk again, hoping the abrupt visit would make a lasting impression. North had handed the military leaders a list of death squad leaders the Americans wanted removed. And then they were off.

Within two weeks, the Salvadoran army reported it had begun disbanding its notorious death squads — and U.S. aid continued to flow as reports from private groups and the United Nations indicated that human rights abuses grew more infrequent. A democratic election was held the next year.

Cynthia Arnson, director of Latin American Programs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said it had long been rumored that Bush met privately with Salvadoran military leaders and the detailed account emerging today fits Bush’s mission to deliver a blunt mission.

She said human rights and UN reports at the time clearly indicated human rights abuses went down after the Bush visit and Democratic elections occurred successfully. But recently declassified document shows the CIA was less convinced of the progress.

Still, Bush’s visit with the military commanders “was a dramatic demonstration that the most senior levels of the Reagan administration saw curbing death squad violence as the key to accomplishing U.S. goals in El Salvador,” Arnson told the Center.

The civil war, however, would rage on for years and reports of deaths squads returned during Bush’s presidency, when the 1989 slayings of Jesuit priests renewed human rights concerns.

Bush ultimately brought closure to the Salvadoran conflict, traveling in person to San Salvador in 1992 shortly after the government and rebels signed a peace accord that brought democracy to the central American country — a peace that holds even today amidst continued violence and strife inside the country.

Julia Sweig, a Latin America policy expert on the Council of Foreign Relations, said Friday that Bush as president ultimately “put the full force of his office behind the peace process and disarming both the Salvadoran right wing squads and the guerillas.”

On the helicopter ride back from the 1983 sojourn, Bush kept his matter of fact tone, refusing to acknowledge even for a second the risks he had just taken.

But his team was quickly reminded. Just two weeks later the veteran Army pilot who flew Bush’s chopper was shot dead as he sat in his cockpit in San Salvador, the victim of a communist rebel gunman, Benedi recalled.

Bush prefers to keep such stories to himself, seldom venturing into public save for an occasional sporting event or social dinner. He declined an interview request from the Center.

Mostly gone from public memory is Bush’s infamous portrayal of himself as a passive bystander in the Iran-Contra scandal or the Newsweek cover questioning whether the president-to-be was a “wimp.” Faded too are the memories of a painful 1992 re-election loss or the chronic attack ads playing back Bush’s broken “read my lips” promise on taxes.

Bush wasn’t afraid to mix it up politically — as Republican Party chairman he was a fierce defender of Richard Nixon during the early Watergate scandal and he later knocked Michael Dukakis out as a presidential candidate with the Willie Horton soft-on-crime line of attack.

But he also possessed a willingness to compromise with Democrats that often alienated his conservative base, as well as an aw-shucks, aloof but humble side that at times seemed awkward for a man at the pinnacle of powers.

A fumbled phrase, an awkward joke or lines like, “Not going to do it. Wouldn’t be prudent” gave comedian Dana Carvey plenty to parody on Saturday Night Live. But today those quirks have also given the 41st president a tangible, human quality.

“At the time, they didn’t seem to be leadership qualities to the public. They didn’t seem to have impact. Some even saw it as weaknesses,” said Roman Popadiuk, who worked alongside Bush in the White House as a national security spokesman and today heads his presidential library foundation.

“But now people are looking back at how he treated people and how Washington is now. And they’re appreciating how he harkened back to an era in which people were treated with respect and in which politics had some civility,” Popadiuk said. “The mutually cooperative way he tried to address things, the calm way he handled things in crisis, people see it today as a strength.”

Former President Clinton remembers back in 1983 when he visited the Bush family at its vacation compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, and his daughter Chelsea needed a bathroom.

“The then-Vice President took her by the hand and led her straight to the bathroom. I was so impressed,” Clinton recalled.

Two decades later while returning with the elder Bush on a trip back from visiting tsunami victims in Asia, the two former presidents faced a dilemma aboard their small plane.

“We took one long flight together to Indonesia to tour the tsunami zone and the plane had one small room with a bed,” Clinton recalled. “He offered the room to me to start and said that we’d switch. But I told him to go ahead and take the room, that I’d be fine sleeping on a mat on the floor. After forty years of sleep deprivation I can sleep anywhere. He deserved the bed.”

Popadiuk and Benedi also remember how Bush’s calm, muted response to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 led some conservatives to question why he hadn’t celebrated more overtly the American victory over communism. To this day, many conservatives give Reagan the credit, though it occurred on Bush’s watch.

What the public didn’t know then — and Bush refused to discuss publicly — was that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had sent an urgent cable to Bush on Nov. 9, 1989 as the wall crumbled asking the United States not to take provocative action that might instigate a Tiananmen Square-like military crackdown in East Germany.

The letters remain classified but sources described to the Center that Gorbachev’s letter pleaded that neither side take any action that would lead to confrontation or provoke protests that might spiral.

The president acquiesced, settling for a response so muted that reporters opined during an Oval Office news conference why he didn’t seem more enthused about the historic crumbling of communism’s most famous symbol.

Bush didn’t let on. Six days later, Bush penned a three-page letter to Gorbachev assuring him the United States appreciated the Soviet leader’s careful approach to the events in East Germany and was supportive of the peaceful transition of power.

Today, the continuing attacks on the 41st president’s son, George W. Bush and his performance as the 43rd president, don’t seem to faze the patriarch of America’s modern political dynasty.

He’s known to start a tale among friend with lines like, “Back when I gave a damn.”

Friends say Bush still likes to take a personal stroll to the local grocery store in Houston or take in a ballgame or two. But he has slowed with the loss of strength in his legs, which friends describe as Parkinsonism, a vascular condition that weakens his lower extremities and manifests some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease like unstable walking.

The symptoms started a few years back as Bush recovered from back surgery and the weakness has progressed such that he struggles to walk, even with a cane these days, though his upper body remains firm, friends say.

When the elder Bush came to Washington for the Medal of Freedom ceremony with Obama, he stopped first for lunch with some of his friends like Benedi. Bush arrived in a wheelchair before getting into a chair at the table.

But when the time came for him to appear in public, Bush left the wheelchair behind, insisting to walk on his own at the White House –with the help of a military aide. The ceremony gave much of America its first glimpse in years of the 41st president.

Separated by generation and ideology from the man he was honoring, Obama rattled off a litany of accomplishments, then quipped about one of Bush’s late-in-life exploits that endeared him to many younger generations. “Just to cap it off, well into his 80s, he decides to jump out of airplanes,” the current president said adoringly as he secured the blue-and-white ribbon around Bush’s neck.

To those who honor Bush – Democrat and Republican alike — what matters now is highlighting the resume and accomplishment of a man who traded his privileged upbringing for the cockpit of a Navy torpedo bomber. Shot down into the Pacific by Japanese fire, Bush only yearned for more public service after three years of education at Yale and a chapter as a Texas oilman who earned a small fortune.

Bush held nearly every power title one could crave: congressman, Republican Party chairman, CIA director, envoy to China, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, vice president and finally president.

But lofty titles, the perks of power or even the warm embrace of political popularity seemed to matter less to Bush than the simple satisfaction of getting a job done effectively.

It’s likely what made him comfortable in the shadows of the more famous and eloquent Reagan, or made him willing to swoop into a room full of armed military officers in a Latin American mountainside villa, friends say.

These are also the qualities that have led Americans — even Democrats — to cast aside whatever doubts they held from a political era gone by and to embrace Bush Sr. as elder statesman.

During the bitter debate last year over cap-and-trade regulations opposed by Republicans, Democrats hailed the elder Bush for creating an earlier cap-and-trade permitting system in the early 1990s that helped substantially reduce the pollution that causes acid rain. Anathema to his own party today, Bush’s stance two decades ago is cherished by environmentalists.

Last summer, Obama singled out the elder Bush on the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, another law fostered during the 41st presidency.

“Equal access. Equal opportunity. The freedom to make our lives what we will. These aren’t principles that belong to any one group or any one political party. They are common principles. They are American principles,” Obama declared that day.

Bush was absent from the ceremony. But friends say he basked in being recognized for the spirit of compromise and cooperation it took to get something like the ADA made into law two decades ago.


The Berlin Wall, a symbol of the Cold War that split the city and Germany, opened in November 1989 and the two Germanys reunited 11 months later. Researchers said at least 136 people were killed trying to cross to the West.

Gorbachev, president of the Soviet Union at the time who was later awarded the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize, said the opening of the Wall and end of the Cold War was the culmination of a long process of post-World War Two rapprochement.

“The people were the heroes,” said Gorbachev, 78, who remains hugely popular in Germany for his pivotal role in the autumn of 1989. “The three of us don’t want to take credit for the accomplishments of the previous generations.”

Gorbachev, who went out of his way to say he thought “it’s a good thing he (Barack Obama) won the Nobel Peace Prize” this year despite misgivings in the United States, also offered his unsolicited thoughts on Bush’s predecessor, Ronald Reagan.

Bush had initially been criticized in some U.S. circles in 1989 for not rushing to Berlin to celebrate the opening of the Wall. By contrast, Reagan had delivered a hard-hitting speech just west of the Berlin Wall two years earlier in 1987.

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall,” Reagan had said.

On Saturday Gorbachev brought that up and said: “We knew the first specialty of a president is that he has to be an actor.”

Gorbachev added: “We’ve got to understand that the European project cannot be completed, that there won’t be any triumph if it’s built upon an anti-Russian or anti-American sentiment.”

Bush was full of praise for Gorbachev on Saturday.

“I have no doubt, zero, that historians will recognize Mikhail for his rare vision and unfailing commitment to reform and openness despite the efforts of those who would resist change and ignore the call of history,” he said.

“Today we have a fuller appreciation of the tremendous pressure Mikhail faced in that pivotal time. And through it all he stood firm, which is why he’ll also stand tall when the history of our time in office is finally written.”

Reagan Brought Down the Berlin Wall, but It Was George H.W. Bush Who Unified Germany

A united Germany might not have emerged at all without the consummate skill that the late president displayed.

Andrew Nagorski

Dirck Halstead/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

Ronald Reagan is deservedly famous for the ringing challenge he delivered at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” But after the Berlin Wall collapsed on November 9, 1989, it was his successor, President George H.W. Bush, who worked with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to harness the energy of the upheavals in the crumbling Soviet empire to deliver on the long-proclaimed promise of German reunification.

On October 3, 1990, East and West Germany ceased to exist, replaced by one country. As Angela Merkel, Kohl’s political protégée and eventual successor, explained at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires upon hearing the news of Bush’s death, she “probably couldn’t be standing here” if Bush had not played his pivotal role.

In other words, a united Germany might not have emerged at all—or at least not a Germany still firmly anchored in NATO—without the consummate skill that the late president displayed in handling the most difficult assignment any statesman could have confronted at the tail end of the Cold War.

There was not a hint of exaggeration in Merkel’s statement. Her country, along with the United States and all its allies, was extraordinarily fortunate that the leader of the free world at the moment was so well prepared for this assignment. His foreign policy credentials were beyond dispute, given his stints as ambassador to the United Nations and then to China, CIA director, and, of course, Reagan’s vice president. No other recent occupant of the White House has come close to matching his résumé.

The magnitude of the task facing Bush and Kohl is also hard to overstate. Despite formally backing German reunification, most of the country’s neighbors made no effort to hide the fact that they were only paying lip service to that goal—and that, in reality, many of them were horrified by the idea. French writer Francois Mauriac caustically summarized that sentiment. “I love Germany so much that I am glad there are two of them,” he wrote.

In September 1989, just two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: “We do not want a united Germany.” She added that such a development would “undermine the whole international situation.” After Kohl announced his 10-point plan to unify his country on November 28, she complained to European leaders: “We beat the Germans twice, and now they're back.”

But the largest obstacle to German reunification was Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. His countrymen had paid the highest price in lives for Nazi aggression, and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker worried that his regime “would not tolerate a revived German threat”—which is how Soviet hardliners would see a reunited Germany. But Bush had already concluded that the unrest in East Germany and the rest of the Soviet bloc meant that such long-held assumptions, at the very least, needed to be reexamined. “I don’t share the concern that some European countries have about a reunified Germany,” he said.

Bush declared he was not “pushing” for speedy reunification. And he sought to assure Gorbachev that he appreciated the Soviet leader’s precarious standing at home where hardliners were infuriated by his liberalization program and overtures to the West. As a result, Bush refused to make any triumphant pronouncements after the fall of the Berlin Wall, ignoring his domestic critics who accused him of timidity for not doing so.

At the Malta summit in December 1990, Bush made sure Gorbachev understood the motivation for his behavior. “I hope you noticed that the United States has not engaged in condescending statements aimed at damaging the Soviet Union,” he told him. He also specifically mentioned the accusations at home that his approach was overly cautious. “I am a cautious man, but I am not a coward and my administration will seek to avoid doing anything that would damage your position in the world.”

At the same time, Bush left no doubt that his country would back reunification, whatever the objections of some of his allies and Moscow. But he coupled that message with reassurances to Gorbachev about his administration’s support for the Soviet leader’s reform initiatives at home. Gorbachev also left with the distinct impression that Bush would not seek to expand NATO to the east—something that U.S. officials would later hotly dispute.

Gorbachev had repeatedly floated the idea of replacing NATO and the Warsaw Pact with a vague confederation of all the countries in the “common European home.” But this was too reminiscent of Stalin’s proposal for a neutral unified Germany, which Western governments feared would offer Moscow the opportunity to control it. As Bush told French President Francois Mitterrand in April 1990, no organization “could replace NATO as the guarantor of Western security and stability.”

And for all his sensitivity to Gorbachev’s position at home, Bush was completely resolute in his approach to this central issue in his talks with Kohl. “We prevailed. They didn’t,” he told him. “We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.” At the same time, Bush and Baker sought to convince Gorbachev that it was better to have a united Germany anchored in Western institutions, specifically NATO, than seemingly on its own—and possibly unpredictable in its behavior again. With little maneuvering room, Gorbachev gradually gave in to those arguments.

In pre-1989 West Germany, most people had appeared resigned to living in a divided nation for the indefinite future. Some were even happy with the stalemate, since they had no idea how the country could cope with the economic costs and political fallout of reunification. In his book “The Wall Jumper,” West German writer Peter Schneider mocked the ritualistic rhetoric about reunification. “It’s like watching the 1,011th performance of a repertory play in which actors and audiences both stifle their yawns,” he wrote.

The yawns disappeared when East Germans began running for the exits, triggering the crisis that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall. In one poll conducted in the midst of those events, 79 percent of West Germans and 71 percent of East Germans called reunification desirable. It was then that Bush and Kohl took charge of what could have been a chaotic process—and led it to its successful conclusion.

Not that everything went smoothly. The economic costs were even greater than most political leaders had anticipated, and the tensions about NATO expansion have continued into the present. But the overall results were stunningly impressive.

On October 3, 1999, the ninth anniversary of reunification, I watched Kohl greet Bush and Gorbachev at a celebration and reception near the Brandenburg Gate. Kohl was the only leader still in power at that point, but all three were hailed as architects of a political miracle. As recently as 2009, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the three men met there again.

Kohl died last year. Now the second of the miracle makers has joined him.

Freedom! The Berlin Wall

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For 28 years it had stood as the symbol of the division of Europe and the world, of Communist suppression, of the xenophobia of a regime that had to lock its people in lest they be tempted by another, freer life — the Berlin Wall, that hideous, 28-mile-long scar through the heart of a once proud European capital, not to mention the soul of a people. And then — poof! — it was gone. Not physically, at least yet, but gone as an effective barrier between East and West, opened in one unthinkable, stunning stroke to people it had kept apart for more than a generation. It was one of those rare times when the tectonic plates of history shift beneath men’s feet, and nothing after is quite the same.

What happened in Berlin last week was a combination of the fall of the Bastille and a New Year’s Eve blowout, of revolution and celebration. At the stroke of midnight on Nov. 9, a date that not only Germans would remember, thousands who had gathered on both sides of the Wall let out a roar and started going through it, as well as up and over. West Berliners pulled East Berliners to the top of the barrier along which in years past many an East German had been shot while trying to escape at times the Wall almost disappeared beneath waves of humanity. They tooted trumpets and danced on the top. They brought out hammers and chisels and whacked away at the hated symbol of imprisonment, knocking loose chunks of concrete and waving them triumphantly before television cameras. They spilled out into the streets of West Berlin for a champagne-spraying, horn-honking bash that continued well past dawn, into the following day and then another dawn. As the daily BZ would headline: BERLIN IS BERLIN AGAIN.

Nor was the Wall the only thing to come tumbling down. Many who served the regime that had built the barrier dropped from power last week. Both East Germany’s Cabinet and the Communist Party Politburo resigned en masse, to be replaced by bodies in which reformers mingled with hard-liners. And that, supposedly, was only the start. On the same day that East Germany threw open its borders, Egon Krenz, 52, President and party leader, promised “free, general, democratic and secret elections,” though there was no official word as to when. Could the Socialist Unity Party, as the Communists call themselves in East Germany, lose in such balloting? “Theoretically,” replied Gunter Schabowski, the East Berlin party boss and a Politburo member.

Thus East Germany probably can be added, along with Poland and Hungary, to the list of East European states that are trying to abandon orthodox Communism for some as-yet-nebulous form of social democracy. The next to be engulfed by the tides of change appears to be Bulgaria Todor Zhivkov, 78, its longtime, hard-line boss, unexpectedly resigned at week’s end. Outlining the urgent need for “restructuring,” his successor, Petar Mladenov, said, “This implies complex and far from foreseeable processes. But there is no alternative.” In all of what used to be called the Soviet bloc, Zhivkov’s departure leaves in power only Nicolae Ceausescu in Rumania and Milos Jakes in Czechoslovakia, both old-style Communist dictators. Their fate? Who knows? Only a few weeks ago, East Germany seemed one of the most stolidly Stalinist of all Moscow’s allies and the one least likely to undergo swift, dramatic change.

The collapse of the old regimes and the astonishing changes under way in the Soviet Union open prospects for a Europe of cooperation in which the Iron Curtain disappears, people and goods move freely across frontiers, NATO and the Warsaw Pact evolve from military powerhouses into merely formal alliances, and the threat of war steadily fades. They also raise the question of German reunification, an issue for which politicians in the West or, for that matter, Moscow have yet to formulate strategies. Finally, should protest get out of hand, there is the risk of dissolution into chaos, sooner or later necessitating a crackdown and, possibly, a painful turn back to authoritarianism.

In East Germany the situation came close to spinning out of control. Considered a hard-liner, Krenz succeeded the dour Erich Honecker as party chief only three weeks ago, and eleven days after a state visit by Mikhail Gorbachev. Ever since, Krenz has had to scramble to find concessions that might quiet public turmoil and enable him to hang on to at least a remnant of power. He has been spurred by a series of mass protests — one demonstration in Leipzig drew some 500,000 East Germans — demanding democracy and freedoms small and large, and by a fresh wave of flight to the West by many of East Germany’s most productive citizens. So far this year, some 225,000 East Germans out of a population of 16 million have voted with their feet, pouring into West Germany through Hungary and Czechoslovakia at rates that last week reached 300 an hour. Most are between the ages of 20 and 40, and their departure has left behind a worsening labor shortage. Last week East German soldiers had to be pressed into civilian duty to keep trams, trains and buses running.

The Wall, of course, was built in August 1961 for the very purpose of stanching an earlier exodus of historic dimensions, and for more than a generation it performed the task with brutal efficiency. Opening it up would have seemed the least likely way to stem the current outflow. But Krenz and his aides were apparently gambling that if East Germans lost the feeling of being walled in, and could get out once in a while to visit friends and relatives in the West or simply look around, they would feel less pressure to flee the first chance they got. Beyond that, opening the Wall provided the strongest possible indication that Krenz meant to introduce freedoms that would make East Germany worth staying in. In both Germanys and around the world, after all, the Wall had become the perfect symbol of oppression. Ronald Reagan in 1987, standing at the Brandenburg Gate with his back to the barrier, was the most recent in a long line of visiting Western leaders who challenged the Communists to level the Wall if they wanted to prove that they were serious about liberalizing their societies. “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!” cried the President. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” There was no answer from Moscow at the time only nine months ago, Honecker vowed that the Wall would remain for 100 years.

When the great breach finally came, it started undramatically. At a press conference last Thursday, Schabowski announced almost offhandedly that starting at midnight, East Germans would be free to leave at any point along the country’s borders, including the crossing points through the Wall in Berlin, without special permission, for a few hours, a day or forever. Word spread rapidly through both parts of the divided city, to the 2 million people in the West and the 1.3 million in the East. At Checkpoint Charlie, in West Berlin’s American sector, a crowd gathered well before midnight. Many had piled out of nearby bars, carrying bottles of champagne and beer to celebrate. As the hour drew near, they taunted East German border guards with cries of “Tor Auf!” (Open the gate!).

On the stroke of midnight, East Berliners began coming through, some waving their blue ID cards in the air. West Berliners embraced them, offered them champagne and even handed them deutsche mark notes to finance a celebration (the East German mark, a nonconvertible currency, is almost worthless outside the country). “I just can’t believe it!” exclaimed Angelika Wache, 34, the first visitor to cross at Checkpoint Charlie. “I don’t feel like I’m in prison anymore!” shouted one young man. Torsten Ryl, 24, was one of many who came over just to see what the West was like. “Finally, we can really visit other states instead of just seeing them on television or hearing about them,” he said. “I don’t intend to stay, but we must have the possibility to come over here and go back again.” The crowd erupted in whistles and cheers as a West Berliner handed Ryl a 20-mark bill and told him, “Go have a beer first.”

Many of the visitors pushed on to the Kurfurstendamm, West Berlin’s boulevard of fancy stores, smart cafes and elegant hotels, to see prosperity at first hand. At 3 a.m., the street was a cacophony of honking horns and happily shouting people at 5 some were still sitting in hotel lobbies, waiting for dawn. One group was finishing off a bottle of champagne in the lobby of the Hotel Am Zoo, chatting noisily. “We’re going back, of course,” said a woman at the table. “But we must wait to see the stores open. We must see that.”

Later in the day, two young workers from an East Berlin electronics factory who drove through Checkpoint Charlie in a battered blue 1967 Skoda provided a hint that Krenz may in fact have scored a masterstroke by relieving some of the pressure to emigrate. Uwe Grebasch, 28, the driver, said he and his companion, Frank Vogel, 28, had considered leaving East Germany for good but decided against it. “We can take it over there as long as we can leave once in a while,” said Grebasch. “Our work is O.K., but they must now let us travel where we want, when we want, with no limits.”

The world has, or thought it had, become accustomed to change in Eastern Europe, where every week brings developments that would have seemed unbelievable a short while earlier. Nonetheless, the opening of the Wall caught it off guard. President George Bush, who summoned reporters into the Oval Office Thursday afternoon, declared himself “very pleased” but seemed oddly subdued. Aides attributed that partly to his natural caution, partly to uncertainty about what the news meant, largely to a desire to do or say nothing that might provoke a crackdown in East Germany. As the President put it, “We’re handling it in a way where we are not trying to give anybody a hard time.” By Friday, though, Bush realized he had badly underplayed a historic event and, in a speech in Texas, waxed more enthusiastic. “I was moved, as you all were, by the pictures,” said Bush. He also got in a plug for his forthcoming meeting with Gorbachev on ships anchored off the coast of Malta: “The process of reform initiated by the East Europeans and supported by Mr. Gorbachev . . . offers us all much hope and deserves encouragement.”

Gorbachev in fact may have done more than merely support the East German opening. It was no coincidence that Honecker resigned shortly after the Soviet President visited East Berlin, and that the pace of reform picked up sharply after Krenz returned from conferring with Gorbachev in Moscow two weeks ago. In pursuing perestroika — in his eyes not to be limited to the U.S.S.R. — and preaching reform, Gorbachev has made it clear that Moscow will tolerate almost any political or economic system among its allies, so long as they remain in the Warsaw Pact and do nothing detrimental to Soviet security interests. The Kremlin greeted the opening of the Wall as “wise” and “positive,” in the words of Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov, who said it should help dispel “stereotypes about the Iron Curtain.” But he warned against interpreting the move as a step toward German reunification, which in Moscow’s view could come about only after a dissolution of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, if at all.

West Germany, the country most immediately and strongly affected, was both overjoyed and stunned. In Bonn members of the Bundestag, some with tears in their eyes, spontaneously rose and sang the national anthem. It was a rare demonstration in a country in which open displays of nationalistic sentiment have been frowned on since the Third Reich died in 1945.

“Developments are now unforeseeable,” said West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who interrupted a six-day official visit to Poland to fly to West Berlin for a celebration. “I have no doubt that unity will eventually be achieved. The wheel of history is turning faster now.” At the square in front of the Schoneberg town hall, where John F. Kennedy had proclaimed in 1963 that “Ich bin ein Berliner,” West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper declared, “The Germans are the happiest people in the world today.” Willy Brandt, who had been mayor when the Wall went up and later, as federal Chancellor, launched a Bonn Ostpolitik that focused on building contacts with the other Germany, proclaimed that “nothing will be the same again. The winds of change blowing through Europe have not avoided East Germany.” Kohl, who drew some boos and whistles as well as cheers, repeated his offer to extend major financial and economic aid to East Germany if it carried through on its pledges to permit a free press and free elections. “We are ready to help you rebuild your country,” said Kohl. “You are not alone.”

Running through the joy in West Germany, however, was a not-so-subtle undertone of anxiety. Suppose the crumbling of the Wall increases rather than reduces the flood of permanent refugees? West Germany’s resources are being strained in absorbing, so far this year, the 225,000 immigrants from East Germany, as well as 300,000 other ethnic Germans who have flocked in from the Soviet Union and Poland. According to earlier estimates, up to 1.8 million East Germans, or around 10% of the population, might flee to the West if the borders were opened — as they were last week all along East Germany’s periphery. (Within 48 hours of the opening of the Wall, nearly 2 million East Germans had crossed over to visit the West at one frontier post, a 30-mile- long line of cars was backed up.) West Germans fear they simply could not handle so enormous a population shift.

Thus West German leaders’ advice to their compatriots from the East was an odd amalgam: We love you, and if you come, we will welcome you with open arms — but really, we wish you would stay home. “Anyone who wants can come,” said Mayor Momper, but added, “Please, even with all the understandable joy you must feel being able to come to the West, please do it tomorrow, do it the day after tomorrow. We are having trouble dealing with this.” In Bonn, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schauble warned would-be refugees that with a cold winter coming on, the country is short of housing. Hannover Mayor Herbert Schmalstieg, who is also vice president of the German Urban Council, called for legal limits on the influx — an act that federal authorities say would be unconstitutional since West Germany’s Basic Law stipulates that citizenship is available to all refugees of German ethnic stock and their descendants.

The reaction is another indication of how the sudden mellowing of the East German state and the crumbling of the Wall have taken the West by surprise. The West German government has done little or no planning to absorb the refugees: it has left the task of resettlement to states, cities and private charity. “There is no real contingency plan for reunification” either, admits a Kohl confidant. Only in recent days has a small group been assigned to examine the reunification question, and it has not even been given office space.

Much will depend, of course, on whether, and how soon, Krenz delivers on his rhetoric of freedom. The conviction that they will be able to decide their future could indeed keep at home most East Germans who are now tempted to flee it is difficult to see anything else that might. Until the opening of the Wall, however, Krenz’s reformist inclinations had seemed ambiguous. For many years he had been a faithful follower of Honecker’s, and as recently as September defended the Chinese government’s bloody suppression of pro- democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. His conversion seemed sparked less by ideological conviction than by a desperate desire to cling to power in the face of street protest and refugee hemorrhage.

Even some of last week’s moves were ambiguous. The mass resignation of the 44-member Cabinet was not so significant as it was dramatic, since the Cabinet had been a rubber stamp. Its dismissal, however, did serve to rid Krenz of Premier Willi Stoph, a Honecker loyalist. The dissolution of the 21-member Politburo, and its replacement with a slimmer ten-member body, was far more pointed, since that is where the real power lies. Some of its more notorious hard-liners got the ax, including Stoph Erich Mielke, head of the despised state security apparatus and Kurt Hager, chief party ideologist. Hans Modrow, 61, the Dresden party leader, was named to the Politburo and will be Premier in the new government. He has been likened alternately to Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, the reformist thorn in the Soviet President’s side. Some conservatives, however, remain in the reshaped Politburo, and the way Krenz rammed his slate through the Central Committee was scarcely an exercise in democracy.

The initial reforms, in any case, did not satisfy the opposition. “Dialogue is not the main course, it is just the appetizer,” proclaimed Jens Reich, a molecular biologist and leader of New Forum, the major dissident organization. Founded only in September, it claims 200,000 adherents and has just been recognized by the government, which originally declared it illegal. The opposition pledged to keep up the pressure for a free press, free elections and a new constitution stripped of the clause granting the Communist Party a monopoly on power.

The Central Committee responded in co-opting language. “The German Democratic Republic is in the midst of an awakening,” it declared. “A revolutionary people’s movement has brought into motion a process of great change.” Besides underlining its commitment to free elections, the committee promised separation of the Communist Party from the state, a “socialist planned economy oriented to market conditions,” legislative oversight of internal security, and freedom of press and assembly.

Thus, rhetorically at least, the opposition no longer gets an argument from the government. Gerhard Herder, East German Ambassador to the U.S., pledged reforms that “will radically change the structure and the way the G.D.R. will be governed. This development is irreversible. If there are still people alleging that all these changes are simply cosmetic, to grant the survival of the party, then let me say they are wrong.”

Yesterday, with the Wall still locking people in, such talk might have been hard to believe. Today, with the barrier chipped, battered and permeable, it is a good deal easier to accept. In the end it does not matter whether Eastern Europe’s Communists are reforming out of conviction or if, as one East German protest banner put it, THE PEOPLE LEAD — THE PARTY LIMPS BEHIND. What does matter is that the grim, fearsome Wall, for almost three decades a marker for relentless oppression, has overnight become something far different, a symbol of the failure of regimentation to suppress the human yearning for freedom. Ambassador Herder declared that the Wall will soon “disappear” physically, but it might almost better be left up as a reminder that the flame of freedom is inextinguishable — and that this time it burned brightly.

&mdashReported by Michael Duffy with Bush, James O. Jackson/Bonn and Ken Olsen/Berlin

Watch the video: 30 χρόνια από την πτώση του Τείχους του Βερολίνου