THE COLLAPSE: THE ACCIDENTAL OPENING OF THE BERLIN WALL by Mary Elise Sarotte

(The day after the Berlin Wall was opened the German people celebrate on the section of the Wall that abuts the Brandenburg Gate, November 10, 1989)

In German history it seems that November 9th commemorates many important twentieth century dates.  In 1918, following the defeat of Germany in World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the Hohenzollern throne.  In 1923, Adolf Hitler launched his failed Beer Hall Putsch in trying to seize power in Munich.  In 1938, the Nazis unleashed Kristallnacht (the Night of the Broken Glass) against the Jews of Germany.  Finally, November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down which is the topic of Mary Elise Sarotte’s informative and interesting new monograph, THE COLLAPSE: THE ACCIDENTAL OPENING OF THE BERLIN WALL.  Sarotte’s thesis is evident in the title of her book.  She argues in a clear and evocative manner that the opening of the Berlin Wall was not planned and it came as a dramatic surprise when “a series of accidents, some of them mistakes so minor that they might otherwise have been trivialities, threw off sparks into the supercharged atmosphere of the autumn of 1989 and ignited a dramatic sequence of events that culminated in the unintended opening of the Berlin Wall.”  The purpose of the book according to its author was to examine not only the sparks, but the friction in East Germany that produced them in the first place; the rise of a revolutionary but nonviolent civil resistance movement; and the collapse of the ruling regime.”(xx)  Sarotte argues further that the wall did not come down on November 9th because of the actions of the superpowers, and the figures that brought down the wall were not internationally known.  The book is an important contribution to the literature on the subject because on the night of November 9, 1989, a peaceful civil resistance movement overcame a dictatorial regime.  “It is all too seldom that such a peaceful process happens at all, let alone leaves a magnificent collection of evidence and witnesses scattered broadly behind itself for all to see.”(xxv)

Sarotte has written a carefully constructed narrative as she tries to ascertain why the Berlin Wall came down when it did.  The book is cogently written, well thought out, and impeccably researched.  The reader is drawn into the reasons behind events leading up to November 9 and almost half the narrative is spent explaining what led up to the opening of the wall that evening.  The first half of the book describes the gradual growth of opposition in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany, GDR) regime under Erich Honecker and his replacement, Egon Krenz.  Sarotte lays out her argument carefully as the civil opposition movement gains the confidence and support it needed in order to confront the regime.  The reader is witness to the growing opposition that relied on churches in Leipzig and East Berlin to host prayer meetings that throughout the summer of 1989 continuously grew in attendance that in the weeks leading up to November 9 saw crowds of upwards of 500,000 people leave the churches and take to the streets.  These demonstrations were a key as dissidents adopted a peaceful approach in matching government repression and violence.  Sarotte effectively explores the leadership on both sides, analyzing their strategies and actions to determine why events evolved as they did.

(President Reagan tells Soviet Premier Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” on June 12, 1987 in a speech in Berlin by the Brandenburg Gate)

The three most important elements leading up to November 9 appear to be the dissident and church leadership during prayer meetings; the strategy, or lack of thereof by officials of the GDR government in trying to defuse the opposition by issuing looser travel restrictions into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany, FRG); and decisions made during the course of November 9 that led to the unexpected opening of the Berlin Wall.  The most important characters in this process were a pair of dissident filmmakers and their contacts in West Berlin, church leaders in Leipzig and East Berlin, the intransigent attitudes of Honecker and Krenz, and the draft of a new travel law by Gerhard Lauter, head of the GDR Interior Ministry that led to the uncertainties that resulted in the opening of the wall.  We must be kept in mind is that none of this could have taken place without the actions, or inaction by Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.  The Russian economy was in dire condition and Gorbachev made the decision that the Soviet Union could no longer afford to keep 380,000 troops in the GDR.  What is fascinating as Sarotte points out is that throughout the period leading up to and including November 9, the Soviet Embassy remained ignorant of what Lauter and his colleagues had drawn up.  Moscow thought that a “hole variant,” allowing one exit gate with severe restrictions was the policy that they approved of.  But in reality, that policy was obsolete and was replaced by a much more liberal plan.

The most interesting and surprising aspect of the book is Sarotte’s presentation dealing with the GDR Politburo meeting when Krenz announces the new travel plan and there is no opposition to it.  Following the meeting, Gunter Schabowski, a member of the GDR Politburo holds a live broadcast news conference in which he announces that “private trips to foreign countries may, without presenting justifications—reasons for trips connections to relatives—be applied for.  Approvals will be distributed in a short time frame.”(117)  This included emigration and short trips and when pressed on when this would take effect, Schabowski replied, “right away.”  What is incredible about the press conference that ended around 7:00 pm on November 9th is that Schabowski never read the new travel law before he made his presentation.  This lack of communication is a dominant theme throughout the book and as evening took over on November 9, border guards and other officials were taken aback as they had no clarification as to what to do when thousands of people approached different parts of the wall.  GDR officials tried to contact their counterparts in Moscow, but the Soviet Union was just completing a holiday and no one in authority was available.

Sarotte concludes her book with the reactions in Moscow, London, Washington, and Bonn to events and she is very clear that western officials and intelligence officers were taken completely by surprise.  Sarotte brings her monograph to a close with an epilogue in which she examines the reunification of Germany as a year after the wall fell five new states that were carved out of the GDR were able to join West Germany on October 3, 1990.  Sarotte points out that West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had moved quickly for fear of a Soviet change of heart based on hard line opposition to the reform policies of Mikhail Gorbachev.  Sarotte goes on to update the reader on the lives of the major participants in the drama she described, one of which was Vladimir Putin who was a KGB officer stationed in Dresden at the time, who returned to Russia full of regret of how the Soviet Union had lost its position in Europe.  This would lead to his political career fueled by the desire to restore Russia to what he believed to be its rightful place in Europe.  The issues of justice also emerge as well as memorials to celebrate the events she describes.  One interesting aspect in closing is that there are more “wall memorials” in the United States than there are in Germany.  Sarotte’s monograph is an excellent tool for anyone who is interested in understanding why the Berlin Wall fell when it did and why it was so significant

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