9 November 1989 – The Berlin Wall Came Down

The Cold War, a global power struggle between dictatorship and democracy, ended in Berlin on November 9, 1989. The course of history, however, was set in motion by decisive events outside the country long before that.

It was the global symbol of the division between East and West, for the battle between communism and capitalism: the Berlin Wall, erected by the dictatorship of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), better known as East Germany, in 1961.

Surrounded by a 155-kilometer-long (96.3-mile-long) guarded border of concrete and barbed wire, citizens in the Berlin’s West sector lived in an island of freedom in the middle of the communist GDR. And over the decades, many East Germans looked to the unreachable West in desperate longing, hoping they might one day escape.

That all changed in an instant on November 9, 1989, when a new East German travel policy was announced at a press conference live on state TV. The law announced that — effective immediately — all East German citizens were free to travel to the West. Thousands of people ran straight to the guarded border crossings in the heart of Berlin which would be opened just hours later.

The images of people celebrating together on both sides of the border flashed across the world, poignantly marking the end of German division. Less than a year later, on October 3, 1990, the country, divided into East and West after World War II, was once again unified. But that momentous historical event was made possible only by the consent of the WWII victors: the Western Allies of the US, UK, and France plus the communist Soviet Union.

East German authorities began patrolling the inner-German border in 1952. Until then it had been relatively easy to pass between the two. They sealed off West Berlin in 1961. Here, soldiers keep people from crossing as the Berlin Wall is built.

Magic of Glasnost and Perestroika

Concessions made by Mikhail Gorbachev, a Soviet reformer who came to power in 1985, were key to the agreement.

Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform) were a clear break from the Brezhnev doctrine, a policy that aimed to ensure that Warsaw Pact Countries of the Soviet Union and the satellites would not diverge from the political course set out by the Kremlin.

With Gorbachev, there was a new policy: “No matter what happens in our socialist brother countries, these states are responsible for themselves.” The Soviet decision not to march into Poland, Hungary or East Germany as calls for democratic reform grew louder and louder was a decidedly different approach than in decades past. Before Gorbachev, calls for freedom in the Eastern Bloc had been brutally crushed by the Soviets: in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and former Czechoslovakia in 1968.

In 1961, communist East Germany was having trouble keeping its young, educated population from emigrating to the West. The Berlin Wall was erected almost to completion in a single night, without warning, on August 13.

Gorbachev an Inspiration to Eastern Europeans

Increasingly, civil rights activists felt emboldened to push for glasnost and perestroika in their own countries. In Poland, contacts between communist leaders and the union pro-democracy movement Solidarity which was still officially banned began as early as the Summer of 1988.

Those contacts led to the so-called Round Table Talks, in which not only members of the political opposition took part but also representatives from the country’s highly influential Catholic Church.

Among those church representatives was Karol Jozef Wojtyla, who as Pope John Paul II, openly displayed sympathy toward the Solidarity Movement during the three trips he made to his homeland as pontiff. His authority as head of the Catholic Church strengthened the belief among opponents of the communist government that a positive turn of fate might be at hand.

One important milestone happened in June 1989, when opposition candidates were allowed to participate in parliamentary elections for the first time in communist Poland’s history but with one catch. The country’s leadership, which had been in power for decades, had to be given in advance two-thirds of all parliamentary seats while the remaining third could be freely contested.

Mikhail Gorbachev.

Communism’s Grip First Broken in Poland

Still, the compromise was a historic turning point as it broke the communist party’s monopoly on power. Signs of an impending watershed were also seen in other countries across the bloc. In May, the Hungarian government began dismantling surveillance equipment along its Austrian border.

That made the path dividing East and West far less dangerous thus prompting hundreds of East Germans to head westward and leave the GDR behind.

Simultaneously, during the summer of 1989, thousands of East Germans managed to leave by making their way to West German embassies across the Eastern Bloc. Discontent and subsequent pressure on the reform-averse East German government grew by the day.

In September, tens of thousands of citizens began gathering in the streets of Leipzig each Monday for demonstrations. 9 October 1989 which saw 70,000 people gather to peacefully protest for change is largely seen as the high point of the demonstration movement.

Honecker in 1976.

East German Leader Erich Honecker Forced Out

Protesters marched through the streets chanting “We are the people!” and “No violence!” Despite the bold demonstrations, many who marched said they were extremely fearful of how the government would react. But when the government did nothing to intervene, the opposition had the feeling they had won.

A few days later, the head of the East German state and General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), Erich Honecker, was forced from power and replaced by Egon Krenz, who signaled a willingness to meet with civil rights activists.

Soon after, on November 4, Berlin’s Alexanderplatz became the site of the largest demonstration in the country’s history. Some half a million people cheered and applauded as opposition figures addressed them and booed when SED politicians, including Günter Schabowski, director of the party’s East Berlin district spoke.

Amidst mounting internal and international pressure, a mistaken announcement by an East German official on November 9, 1989 led to the wall being opened. Germans on both sides of the border celebrated for days. New openings were made in the wall, like here at Potsdamer Platz two days later.

Dissolution of the Soviet Union

Five days later on November 9, 1989, it was Schabowski who announced East Germany’s new travel policy. In doing so, whether intentionally or not he had ordered the toppling of the Berlin Wall. Not a single shot was fired at the border. The door to freedom was flung wide open and it could never be shut again.

In the months that followed, people across the entire Eastern Bloc fought for their freedom. Things eventually came full circle when the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991.

But the first step was taken when Gorbachev came to power in 1985. Six years later in 1991, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

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9 November 1938 – Kristallnacht

Businesses and properties owned by Jews were the targets of vicious Nazi mobs during a night of vandalism that is known as Kristallnacht.

On November 9, 1938, in an event that would foreshadow the Holocaust, German Nazis launch a campaign of terror against Jewish people and their homes and businesses in Germany and Austria. The violence, which continued through November 10 and was later dubbed Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, after the countless smashed windows of Jewish-owned establishments, which left approximately 100 Jews dead, 7,500 Jewish businesses damaged and hundreds of synagogues, homes, schools, and graveyards vandalized. An estimated 30,000 Jewish men were arrested, many of whom were then sent to concentration camps for several months. They were released when they promised to leave Germany. Kristallnacht represented a dramatic escalation of the campaign started by Adolf Hitler in 1933 when he became chancellor to purge Germany of its Jewish population.

The Nazis used the murder of a low-level German diplomat in Paris by a 17-year-old Polish Jew as an excuse to carry out the Kristallnacht attacks. On November 7, 1938, Ernst vom Rath was shot outside the German embassy by Herschel Grynszpan, who wanted revenge for his parents’ sudden deportation from Germany to Poland, along with tens of thousands of other Polish Jews. Following vom Rath’s death, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ordered German storm troopers to carry out violent riots disguised as spontaneous demonstrations against Jewish citizens. Local police and fire departments were told not to interfere. In the face of all the devastation, some Jews, including entire families, committed suicide.

In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, the Nazis blamed the Jews and fined them 1 billion marks or $400 million in 1938 dollars for vom Rath’s death. As repayment, the government seized Jewish property and kept insurance money owed to Jewish people. In its quest to create a master Aryan race, the Nazi government enacted further discriminatory policies that essentially excluded Jews from all aspects of public life.

Over 100,000 Jews fled Germany for other countries after Kristallnacht. The international community was outraged by the violent events of November 9 and 10. Some countries broke off diplomatic relations in protest, but the Nazis suffered no serious consequences and leading them to believe they could get away with the mass murder in which an estimated 6 million European Jews died.

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8 November – Today In German History / 8. November – Heute in der deutschen Geschichte

1895

Physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, 1845-1923, becomes the first person to observe X-rays, a significant scientific advancement that would ultimately benefit a variety of fields, most of all medicine, by making the invisible visible.

1923

Adolf Hitler made his first attempt at seizing power in Germany with a failed coup in Munich that came to be known as the Beer Hall Putsch.

1939

An assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler failed.

1942

During World War II, Operation Torch began as U.S. and British forces landed in French North Africa.

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8 November 1923 – Beer Hall Putsch

Adolf Hitler, Fuhrer of the Nazi Party, launches the Beer Hall Putsch, his first attempt at seizing control of the German government.

After World War I, the victorious allies demanded billions of dollars in war reparations from Germany. Efforts by Germany’s democratic government to comply hurt the country’s economy and led to severe inflation. The German mark, which at the beginning of 1921 was valued at five marks per dollar, fell to a disastrous four billion marks per dollar in 1923. Meanwhile, the ranks of the nationalist Nazi Party swelled with resentful Germans who sympathized with the party’s bitter hatred of the democratic government, leftist politics, and German Jews. In early November 1923, the government resumed war-reparation payments, and the Nazis decided to strike.

Hitler planned a coup against the state government of Bavaria, which he hoped would spread to the dissatisfied German army, which in turn would bring down the central, democratic government in Berlin. On the evening of November 8, Nazi forces under Hermann Goering surrounded the Munich beer hall where Bavarian government officials were meeting with local business leaders. A moment later, Hitler burst in with a group of Nazi storm troopers, discharged his pistol into the air, and declared that “the national revolution has begun.” Threatened at gunpoint, the Bavarian leaders reluctantly agreed to support Hitler’s new regime.

In the early morning of November 9, however, the Bavarian leaders repudiated their coerced support of Hitler and ordered a rapid suppression of the Nazis. At dawn, government troops surrounded the main Nazi force occupying the War Ministry building. A desperate Hitler responded by leading a march toward the center of Munich in a last-ditch effort to rally support. Near the War Ministry building, 3,000 Nazi marchers came face to face with 100 armed policemen. Shots were exchanged, and 16 Nazis and three policemen were killed. Hermann Goering was shot in the groin, and Hitler suffered a dislocated elbow but managed to escape.

Three days later, Hitler was arrested. Convicted of treason, he was given the minimum sentence of five years in prison. He was imprisoned in the Landsberg fortress and spent his time writing his autobiography, Mein Kampf, and working on his oratorical skills. Political pressure from the Nazis forced the Bavarian government to commute Hitler’s sentence, and he was released after serving only nine months. In the late 1920s, Hitler reorganized the Nazi Party as a fanatical mass movement that was able to gain a majority in the Reichstag in 1932. By 1934, Hitler was the sole master of the nation.

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8 November 1939 – Hitler Survives Assassination Attempt

On November 8, 1939, on the 16th anniversary of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch, a bomb explodes just after Hitler finished giving a speech. He was unharmed.

Hitler had made an annual ritual on the anniversary of his infamous 1923 coup attempt of regaling his followers with his vision of the Fatherland’s future. Hitler’s first grab at power that ended in his arrest and the virtual annihilation of his National Socialist party. On this day, he had been addressing the Old Guard party members, those disciples, and soldiers who had been loyal to Hitler and his fascist party since the earliest days of its inception. Just twelve minutes after Hitler had left the hall, along with important Nazi leaders who had accompanied him, a bomb exploded, which had was located in a pillar behind the speaker’s platform. Seven people were killed and 63 were wounded.

The next day, the Nazi Party official paper, the Voelkischer Beobachter, squarely placed the blame on British secret agents and even implicating Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain himself. This work of propaganda was an attempt to stir up hatred for the British and whip the German people into a frenzy for war. But the inner-Nazi Party members knew better, they knew the assassination attempt was most probably the work of a German anti-Nazi military conspiracy.

In an ingenious scheme to shift blame while getting closer to the actual conspirators, Heinrich Himmler the Gestapo chief sent a subordinate by the name of Walter Schellenberg to Holland to make contact with British intelligence agents. The pretext of the meeting was to secure assurances from the British that in the event of an anti-Nazi coup, the British would support the new regime. The British agents were eager to gain whatever inside information they could about the rumored anti-Hitler movement within the German military. Schellenberg, posing as Major Schaemmel, was after any information British intelligence may have had on such a conspiracy within the German military ranks.

But Himmler wanted more than talk, he wanted the British agents themselves. On November 9, SS agents in Holland kidnapped with Schellenberg’s help two British agents, Payne Best and R.H. Stevens, stuffing them into a Buick and driving them across the border into Germany. Himmler now proudly announced to the German public that he had captured the British conspirators. The man who actually planted the bomb at their behest was declared to be Georg Elser, a German communist who made his living as a carpenter.

While it seems certain that Elser did plant the bomb, the instigators were either German military or British intelligence remains unclear to this day. All three official conspirators spent the war in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Elser was executed by the Gestapo on April 16, 1945, so he could never tell his story.

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