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When the Berlin Wall Came Down

November 2014

Twenty-five years ago this month, the Berlin Wall fell.   It was a surprise to all concerned. At a press briefing on November 9,  the regime spokesman, Günter Schabowski, reading from a note he had just been given, announced that DDR citizens would henceforth be authorized to travel abroad.

“Starting when?” asked a journalist.

Schabowski checked his papers. “As far as I know, immediately.”


That was all it took to send East Berliners pouring towards the frontier. A few hours later, the Wall was open and they were streaming into the West. All through the summer of 1989, East Germans had been sneaking out of the country the back way, through Hungary and Austria. Would-be emigrants had taken West German embassies in Budapest, Warsaw and Prague by storm. Still, no one thought the regime that had gone to the trouble of building the Wall would give in without a struggle. The massacre of Tien An Men had taken place just a few months earlier. Everyone was prepared for violent repression.

But the political will to save the state was no longer there. Huge demonstrations had shown that the East German people would no longer tolerate the regime. Gorbachev had declined to send in reinforcements. The death knell of the DDR had sounded a whole month earlier, in Leipzig.

The Monday Peace Prayers in the Nikolaikirche had been going on for years, but that summer the congregation took to marching peacefully round the Leipzig Ring Road when they came out of the church. The marches got bigger and bigger. The authorities got more and more tense. The Church authorities were pressured to cancel the prayer meetings. The police blocked roads leading to the church, and started to arrest the demonstrators. Every week the turnout swelled. Every week people waited nervously for the police to shoot.


Things came to a head on Monday October 9. Two days earlier, there had been riots in Berlin, provokinga violent police riposte. Loudspeakers warned the population to stay at home. Seventy thousand people turned out on the Ring. They carried candles. You need two hands to hold a candle: one to hold it up, and one to protect the flame. You can’t carry sticks and stones too. The streets leading off the Ring were blocked with trucks, armed men in uniform, dogs and their handlers. Keine Gewalt! cried the demonstrators. No Violence! WIR sind das Volk! they chanted, as they passed the Stasi headquarters. WE are the people! Wir wollen raus! We want to leave! Gorby! Gorby!

“We had planned everything,” said a Party official later, “we were prepared for anything. Only not for candles and prayers.”

No wonder Schabowski scanning his notes showed such confusion. The regime had been in disarray for weeks. The DDR had already collapsed – one month earlier in Leipzig.

The East German state lasted four decades, and the Wall for nearly three.   But it didn’t all just vanish overnight.   What happened later is recounted in my thrillers Music at the Garden House and The Judas Tree.  Music at the Garden Houseset the summer after the wall came down, examines KGB reactions to the loss of “their” Germany.   The Judas Tree shows what happened when the Stasi files were opened.


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