Ronald Reagan stood before the Berlin Wall in 1987 and cried out, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
No one, not even the most prominent and involved world leaders, could have imagined how quickly the wall would indeed be dismantled.
A review of the events that preceded the fall can help us better understand why it was heralded in Europe as the turning point that led to reunification of the two Germanys on October 3, 1990. And as we mark the 10th anniversary of that momentous occasion, it should also cause us to ask whether what occurred across Europe that year was mere coincidence or something more.
A Date to Remember
One of the most obvious and remarkable aspects of the process that led to German reunification was the sheer speed with which it unfolded. World leaders of that time openly admit that they did not anticipate such a rapid development. In the past, dramatic changes in the course of human history have indeed taken much longer.
For example, 10 years passed between the November 9, 1923, failure of Hitler’s putsch in Munich and the Machtergreifung—his seizure of power. Another five years lapsed before the infamous Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass (November 9, 1938), when store fronts of Jewish merchants were smashed and synagogues were burned, signaling the beginning of the Nazis’ efforts to destroy the Jews.
Like Hitler’s putsch and Kristallnacht, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 also occurred on November 9. The fact that these three events took place on the same date is, of course, quite remarkable. But even without the two earlier recorded incidents, this date would be one of the most significant in history. For it was the events of November 9, 1989, that opened the way for German reunification after 40 years of separation—through a process that took only 11 months.
Former West German chancellor Helmut Kohl called these events "a gift that history has given us and for which we should be thankful to God." Never before in Germany have we heard the word thankfulness as much as in connection with the breach of the wall and the subsequent reunification.
Another astounding aspect of this revolution—for that is really what it was—was the manner in which it occurred. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, former West German secretary of state, remarked in an interview: “It was different than 1953 in Berlin, 1956 in Hungary or 1968 in Prague, when revolt was brutally beaten down. Throughout Eastern Europe in 1989 the people took to the streets. It was a peaceful European revolution.”
Reflecting on these unprecedented events, Wolfgang Thierse, president of the German parliament, the Bundestag, proclaimed it a “miracle with prerequisites.” The prerequisites he spoke of did not become known, however, until the true condition of the communist system, heretofore cleverly concealed by the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe, became visible.
What were these prerequisites, and what was their role in bringing about this peaceful revolution?
The entire communist system of the Eastern bloc found itself faced with immeasurable financial problems. East Germany (the German Democratic Republic or GDR) was no different. As Kohl noted, East German leader Erich Honecker could no longer count on financial help from Russia, who herself faced immense fiscal difficulties. East Germany was much weaker financially than most had imagined and was therefore considerably less stable than it outwardly appeared. Its dependence on hard currency forced it to make more and more concessions to its “class enemies” (a communist term for the West). After the fall of the wall, most observers were shocked as it became apparent that the country was actually bankrupt.
In 1983, Bavaria’s governor, Franz Josef Strauss, had arranged a billion-mark loan (US$500 million) to the GDR. The motivation was to buy advantages for the people of East Germany. What no one realized until much later was that the communist government of the GDR desperately needed that money just to keep their nation solvent. But money did not resolve the GDR’s fundamental problem. Günter Schabovski, member of the Central Committee of the East German Communist Party, eventually confessed that by 1990 massive layoffs would need to be initiated in the work force of East Germany. Until that time the GDR had proudly proclaimed itself to be a “nation of full employment”—a pretense of economic health.
Had more been known about the country’s fiscal woes, would West Germans have been as enthusiastic about undertaking reunification? Many Germans today, from both the East and the West, have their doubts when they reflect on what it has cost them.
Reunification talks began following the fall of the wall. The question at the time was how much would be left after subtracting the costs of the process. In retrospect it was a very good question. East Germany was rated the 10th-largest industrial power of the world, with national assets of about 1.2 trillion marks (US$600 billion), but already the rebuilding process has cost an estimated 1.5 trillion marks (US$750 billion).
The reality was, however, that the circumstances as they developed left no other option.
Had more been known about the country’s fiscal woes, would West Germans have been as enthusiastic about undertaking reunification?
Around the Bloc
The political and social prerequisites for what Germans call die Wende, or the turning point, began falling into place in 1987. Mikhail Gorbachev served as general secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party, and it was his perestroika—his policies of economic and governmental reform—that led to the first free elections in the Soviet Union in 1989. A democratic movement of openness and transparency—glasnost—had been set in motion and would not be stopped. This led to a loosening of the Soviet Union’s grip on all the East European nations, including East Germany.
In the wake of the events occurring in the Soviet Union, Solidarity, Poland’s independent labor union headed by Lech Walesa and actively supported by the Polish pope, began to push for monumental changes in that country. And so Poland elected its first democratic prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki. These free elections gave important moral support to those pressing for citizens’ rights in East Germany, a movement that grew daily in courage and numbers.
A similar citizens’ rights movement developed in Czechoslovakia, led by Václav Havel, who went on to become the president of Czechoslovakia and later of the Czech Republic.
In the meantime, on September 10, 1989, the Hungarian government opened the nation’s border to Austria, and the breach in the Iron Curtain became visible to the entire world as tens of thousands of East Germans fled, via Hungary, to the West. None of this would have been thinkable without the courageous decisions of Hungary's reformed communist prime minister, Miklos Nemeth, and Gyula Horn, the minister of foreign affairs.
All the while, another player was quietly active behind the scenes. With the cooperation of Britain’s prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and America’s president, Ronald Reagan, the Vatican smuggled computers and communication equipment behind the Iron Curtain. This helped ensure that those in the East—whose media were controlled by their governments—had access to information from the West as events unfolded.
A Threefold Cord
Most of us live in blissful ignorance of the intrigue, secrecy and diplomacy of world politics. To the extent that we are aware of it, we are suspicious and cynical. But the deconstruction of a wall that had stood for 40 years—first figuratively and then literally—could not have occurred had not some remarkable people quietly worked together, trusted one another and supported each other to achieve a common goal.
Many who have analyzed the events of 1989 and 1990 are of the opinion that if the protagonists had not been U.S. president George Bush, soviet premier Gorbachev and West German chancellor Kohl, the situation could have developed quite differently. And there were other leaders who preceded these individuals: Reagan, for example, and some of Kohl’s predecessors in the chancellor's office (Konrad Adenauer, Kurt Kiesinger, Willi Brandt and Helmut Schmidt), had all played an important part in the process.
On November 9, 1999, at the 10-year anniversary celebration of the wall’s demise, Kohl, Bush and Gorbachev were all given Germany’s highest civilian honor for their part in bringing the wall down. At the ceremonies these three men confirmed unanimously that their extraordinary personal relationship had figured prominently in the miracle of that peaceful revolution.
Each could cite examples of visionary restraint or action that had propelled the revolution on the one hand but kept it peaceful on the other. Bush, for example, had rejected advice to fly to Germany immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall to celebrate the demise of communism. He refused an opportunity for political gain so as not to further destabilize the still fluid situation in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev had chosen to trust Kohl and disbelieve the KGB and the East German Stasi (Staatssicherheit, the ill-famed state spy apparatus) when on the evening of November 9 they tried to convince him that the Germans would attack soviet military bases. In a brief phone conversation between the two leaders, Kohl had assured his soviet colleague that no such attacks would take place. A situation had been averted because of the trust that existed between these two men.
In Western Europe the possibility of German reunification was by no means greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm.
In Western Europe the possibility of German reunification was by no means greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm. According to Kohl, it was only Spanish prime minister Felipe González who pledged his unqualified support. Even Britain’s Thatcher, despite her pioneering role and participation in the European Community, commented that fear of an overly powerful Germany was still alive in Western Europe 44 years after the end of World War II. Kohl recalled overhearing Thatcher remark privately at a conference of European heads of state in December 1989, “We have beaten them twice, and now here they are again!”
Flood of Humanity
On December 19, 1989—just a few short weeks after the Berlin Wall fell—Kohl found himself speaking rather bluntly in an unprepared speech to a crowd of over 100,000 who had spontaneously poured into the streets of Dresden. In that speech he announced that the two Germanys would press on toward unification. Several days later Gorbachev expressed concern over Kohl’s hasty remarks.
Kohl responded: “Herr General Secretary, this water will flow to the sea. If you dam the river it will overflow the banks. But the water will reach the sea. And so the unification of Germany will also come. Whether I will live to see it or not, I do not know, but it will come and principally because our own people believe in it.”
Whether Kohl’s latter statement is an accurate assessment is debatable. However, the role the people played by virtue of their sentiment for reunification was a powerful force that could not be ignored. It, too, was a prerequisite to the fall of the wall and eventual unity.
For many in East Germany, though, there remained no good prospects in their own land. More than 230,000 people, many of whom made up the backbone of the economy, had fled to the West through Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the autumn of 1989. “The masses of fleeing citizens were an embarrassment for the East German government,” said Politburo-member Schabovski. “They made it clear to the entire world that the German Democratic Republic was not a civilized state, because they would not have fled had it been so.”
And so the people voted with their feet, as the saying goes. The majority of the people were simply not prepared to continue enduring such a system. Ever larger gatherings moved into the streets. Their cry was, “We are the people,” and later, as the reunification movement progressed, “We are one people.”
In one sense, for the people of East Germany the end of World War II did not come until 1989 when their liberation began. The 1.2 million people who charged over the border between the 9th and the 11th of November cried out with deep emotion and enthusiasm, “Freedom!” It is to the credit of the East German people that they chose a peaceful path to that freedom.
What is amazing about the course of these events is that the sudden opening of the wall and the subsequent irreversible acceleration of events were actually quite accidental.
What is amazing about the course of these events is that the sudden opening of the wall and the subsequent irreversible acceleration of events were actually quite accidental. The East German Politburo had been considering easing restrictions for travel outside the country. At a press conference on the evening of November 9, 1989, journalists asked Schabovski when the new travel regulations would take effect. He remarked after a bit of hesitation, “As far as I understand, immediately.” Within minutes the reports reached all the news agencies, who, in a gross exaggeration of what was actually stated, declared, “The borders are open!” Hundreds of thousands of East Germans stormed the borders. Pictures of the exodus streamed instantaneously around the world, creating their own dynamic—a role the mass media so often plays.
When the wall fell, there were still about 500,000 soviet soldiers stationed in East Germany and approximately 1.2 million East Germans bearing arms in various official capacities. Who could predict the reaction of these forces when they realized the dramatic power shift? Consider that about 1,000 East Germans had been killed over the years as they tried to cross from East to West. It was certainly conceivable that the East German border guards, in all the confusion, might unleash a bloodbath, sparking a very different kind of revolution. What is more, 200,000 political prisoners who had opposed the communist system sat inside East German jails. What would happen to them? All of this militated against peace.
In fact, former president Bush revealed at the 10-year anniversary celebration that many who knew what could happen were understandably worried and fearful. Gorbachev also stated in his speech commemorating the event that the road that led to German reunification had been complicated and dangerous. Yet the world saw no images of border guards executing innocent people. Instead we saw pictures of seemingly helpless border guards as the wall fell. A strange phenomenon, considering the fact that those guards were trained in shooting to kill.
The Art of the Impossible
Was the peaceful European revolution of 1989 a “fortunate fitting together of history,” a “gift given us by history,” or simply the inevitable result of a corrupt system that self-destructed?
However one views it, the cooperation, respect and trust that had to exist among the various leaders to produce the results that are now a part of history were necessary prerequisites to the miracle in Europe. The characteristics exhibited by those involved in bringing the wall down and facilitating German reunification are unusual in world politics—as are peaceful revolutions. What could have been one of the bloodiest confrontations of the last century turned out to be one of the century’s most jubilant celebrations. How is it that all the prerequisites came together so well? Can it all be attributed to human wisdom and action?
A man well acquainted with human politics, when confronted with the impossibility of his own nation’s survival in World War II, was amazed at how events in that war unfolded. He declared that "a strong hand from somewhere" had intervened. Perhaps Kohl felt that the hand that Sir Winston Churchill believed had touched the United Kingdom more than four decades earlier had also touched the German people. Regardless, he felt motivated to thank God for making possible what he thought humanly impossible.
Without doubt the events of 1989 and 1990 were a historic turning point for Germany and for Europe as well. People who had been oppressed for decades were freed. A nation was reunited, and a continent that for centuries has been torn by war and divided into hundreds of individual principalities, kingdoms and nations is now putting its hope in a “common European house.” With the fall of the wall the way has been opened for the enlargement of Europe and the unification of its many diverse nation states. One thing is certain: No person or group of people could have orchestrated the events that produced those results, despite the fact that the outcome was something many had longed for and worked toward.
So how did it happen? The book of Psalms tells us that “the counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:11). He is the one who guides events among and within nations. That includes deciding who will govern. The apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans said that all civil authority comes from God (Romans 13:1-2). He, then, is the one who gives leaders their power and office, and He ensures that their actions produce the overall results He intends.
Just as important as how the events that startled the nations happened is why they happened. Why did God open the way for the reconstruction of a unified Europe?
Just as important as how the events that startled the nations happened is why they happened.
The Scriptures reveal that a power bloc within a unified Europe will play an important role leading up to the return of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. Its role will be both instructive and corrective—but through it all, it will demonstrate, as does the fall of the Berlin Wall, that it is ultimately God who rules over the nations (Psalm 22:28).