On Thursday, July 6, 1989, I sat in bright summer sunshine on the veranda of the old vicarage in Pankow, a suburb of East Berlin, talking to Joachim, the twenty-one-year-old son of my dearest East German friends, Werner and Annegret Krätschell. The little boy I remembered had grown into a tall, strong, and angry young man, who now poured out his heart to me. He and some friends from his theological college had mounted a demonstration against the falsification of the results of local elections held just over a month before. They had been arrested and dragged by their hair across the street while—this was what most angered Joachim—nearby residents audibly supported the police from their balconies. A night in a Stasi cell and a nasty interrogation followed. East Germany wouldn’t change, young Joachim fumed. In the end, there would be no one left behind the Wall but “the stupid philistines and a handful of idealists.” He’d had enough. He wanted to live. Perhaps there was a way to breathe free air.
More than thirty years later Joachim, now a pastor in West Berlin, tells me what happened next. A few weeks after our conversation on the veranda, he and his girlfriend, Sirka, went on a long-planned holiday to Hungary. There they decided to attempt an escape to Austria across the half-open Iron Curtain. West German friends—honor to them—had checked out an escape route near the pretty Hungarian town of Sopron. They would wait for the escapees just across the border, next to the church in the village of Deutschkreutz. So one hot August night, by the light of a full moon, Joachim and Sirka set out, stealing past the Hungarian guard tower, over some train tracks and under the barbed wire, until freedom was in sight across a moonlit meadow.
At that moment sirens sounded, guard dogs barked furiously, and a frontier police jeep roared up. “Hands up! Lie on the ground!” Early the next morning the young couple were released somewhere in a forest. Fearing arrest if they returned to East Germany, they resolved to try again that evening, taking an alternate route reconnoitered by their West German friends. This time they were even more frightened.
Through the barbed wire again. Across a maize field. Onto the train tracks. Suddenly, in the distance, two men appear, waving flashlights. Joachim and Sirka press themselves down flat between the rails, praying no train will come. After the men have disappeared, they press on to find a small wood, exactly as their friends had told them. But because this wood has been in the frontier zone for decades, the undergrowth is thick with brambles. The night is dark as death and they have no tools to cut through the thorny thickets. Eventually they emerge, exhausted and bleeding, only to find that what should have been a field of shoulder-high corn has just been harvested. Now it is bare and brightly lit by the floodlights from the nearby frontier post.
Turn back or press on? Desperate indecision. Hellish fear. No, we’ve come this far, through all those bloody brambles. Let’s risk it! They set off, running as fast as they can across the brightly lit field. Out of the corner of his eye, Joachim sees a jeep driving toward them from the frontier guardhouse. “They could easily have caught us.” But it stops. Suddenly they see a frontier sign: Republic of Austria. Freedom. What a feeling. “I can’t describe it.”
Less than a week later East Germans attending a “pan-European picnic” in the same Sopron neighborhood were able to flee across the border en masse without being stopped. A few days after that, Hungarian leaders met discreetly with West German chancellor Helmut Kohl and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, his wily foreign minister, in Schloss Gymnich, a castle near Bonn. In the course of a dramatic conversation, the Hungarians said they would abrogate their agreement with the comrades in East Berlin and let East Germans like Joachim cross freely to the West. In return, the heavily indebted Hungarian state got a loan of 500 million deutschmarks and a promise to support its wish to join the European Community. With adroit timing, Hungary had changed sides, putting West Germany before East Germany and Western Europe before Eastern Europe.
By September Joachim was in West Berlin, where his West German relatives gave him a cool and ungenerous welcome. The poor cousins in the East were meant to stay where they were, not turn up on your doorstep expecting family solidarity. Joachim was quite certain the Berlin Wall would be standing for many years and he would never be allowed back to visit his siblings. But he could talk to them on the phone—at the cost of a local call from West Berlin to East Berlin, whereas from East to West it was charged as an expensive international call.
“I wish we could see you,” said his fourteen-year-old brother, Johannes. Or at least see you. And so they hatched a plan. In one of those crazy details of divided Berlin that always fascinated me, there was a place where a section of the overground city railway used only by West Berliners not merely passed through East Berlin but came so close that East Germans on the other side of Schulzestrasse, a street running parallel to the line, could look up, past a frontier watchtower, and see those fortunate Westerners standing on the elevated platform of the Wollankstrasse S-Bahn station. Just a few meters away, but in another world. Joachim had often passed what he calls “the railway station of desire,” staring up at “those people in paradise, while we were down there in the darkness.”
So he arranged for Johannes and their little sister Karoline, just seven years old, to go to exactly the right spot on Schulzestrasse and clamber onto a concrete flower box. At the appointed time, their older brother was standing on the railway platform, in the Western heaven above.
They waved and shouted at each other, emotion choking their voices.
“How are you? How’s it going?”
“Achim! Achim!” cried the seven-year-old Karoline, as loud as she possibly could. Joachim will never forget the distant sound of her little girl’s voice.
That night, she was in tears and could not sleep. Why can’t my brother come to see me?
A good question, to which there was no good answer.
In War and Peace, Tolstoy devotes a whole chapter to the innumerable causes, great and small, that led Napoleon’s army to cross the Russian frontier in June 1812. “So all those causes—myriads of causes—coincided to bring about what happened,” Tolstoy writes. “And consequently nothing was exclusively the cause of the war, and the war was bound to happen, simply because it was bound to happen.” In fact, “it was predestined from all eternity.” In trying to explain the opening of the Berlin Wall on the night of Thursday, November 9, 1989, one has the same sense of a multiplicity of causes all converging on one great turning point. Yet the right conclusion to draw is the opposite of Tolstoy’s: not that it was predestined but that it was an exceptional, one-in-a-million piece of historical luck.
The significance of what happened on that November night is inseparable from how it happened. If this had been a planned, controlled opening of the frontier, as the East German authorities intended, with everyone dutifully queueing up to get permission the next day, it would still have been an important milestone, but it would not have been “the fall of the Wall”—that spontaneous, joyful epitome of people power.
All the developments in the upward turn of the late 1980s—those long-term processes and examples of individual leadership in the Soviet Union, the United States, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and Germany—were needed to get to this point. So was the peaceful protest of the East German people. Before November 9 in Berlin there was October 9 in Leipzig. That evening it nearly came to what my East German friends called “the Chinese solution”—violent repression, as in the Tiananmen massacre just four months earlier, on June 4. But in Leipzig the impressive nonviolent discipline of the protesters, mediation by civic leaders, and a mix of indecision and restraint on the part of the Communist authorities all combined to enable that Monday’s demonstration to go ahead peacefully, with an unprecedented 70,000 people processing around the city’s ring road. Domestically, this was the turning point. The barrier of fear was broken. After an even larger demonstration in East Berlin on November 4, East Germans would at last have the insubordinate self-confidence to come knocking at the frontier.
Yet on the day itself, incompetence, confusion, and miscommunication were the handmaidens of liberation. Under acute pressure from Czechoslovakia, which was fed up with thousands of East Germans trying to escape through its territory, East German officials hastily drew up a new regulation allowing people to leave directly from East to West Germany. Crucially, it mentioned West Berlin and applied “with immediate effect.” It was meant to be implemented in an orderly fashion the next morning, but a bungling Politburo member named Günter Schabowski read it out at an early evening press conference and, in response to a journalist’s question, said it came into force “at once, immediately.” My former West Berlin flatmate Daniel Johnson, then a correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, took his place in world history with the last question, at 6:58 PM: “Herr Schabowski, what will now happen with the Berlin Wall?”
Journalists then turned what was already a remarkable piece of breaking news into a sensation. The lead item on the 8 PM West German television news had a headline proclaiming “GDR opens frontier.” A reporter explained that “the Wall, too, should become permeable overnight.” The pinnacle of journalistic hype was reached when, shortly after 10:40 PM, a silver-haired, widely respected West German television anchor named Hanns Joachim Friedrichs declared: “The gates in the Wall stand wide open.” This was not true. One might even say, in the vocabulary of the 2020s, that it was “fake news.” But because West German television was so widely watched and believed in East Berlin, the inaccurate report became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thousands of East Berliners hurried down to the frontier crossings.
Among them was my old friend Werner Krätschell, Joachim’s father. At a church service earlier in the evening he had heard from a French journalist about a new travel regulation, so when he got home to the Pankow vicarage at about 9 PM he asked his nineteen-year-old daughter, Tanja, and her friend Astrid whether the West German television news had said anything about opening the frontier. Yes, there was something like that. The three of them jumped into Werner’s yellow Wartburg car and drove down to the Bornholmer Strasse frontier crossing to see what was going on.
“Am I dreaming?” Werner asked the frontier guard who lifted the first barrier for them.
“Yes,” said the guard, “you’re dreaming.”
At the control post, Werner’s East German identity card was stamped “Invalid.”
“But I can come back?”
“No, you have emigrated and are not allowed to reenter.”
Horrified, because his younger children, Johannes and Karoline, were asleep on their own in the vicarage, Werner did a U-turn inside the frontier crossing and prepared to head home. Then he heard another frontier guard tell a colleague that the orders had changed: “They’re allowed back.” So he did another U-turn, pointing his yellow Wartburg again toward the West. Soon they were being greeted by jubilant West Berliners, cheering and clapping. When Werner eventually decided he must return to East Berlin, Astrid spoke up from the back seat. “Please stop the car for a moment,” she said. So he stopped and then this young woman, who had never in her life been in the West, did something extraordinary. She opened the car door and put just one foot on the ground. The West! It was, Werner would later write, like Neil Armstrong taking his first step on the moon. One small step for Astrid, one giant step for humankind.
As we now know, he had been let out to the West only because the local commander at Bornholmer Strasse, a Stasi officer named Harald Jäger, had implemented what he called a “safety valve solution”—letting particularly insistent individuals out with that “invalid” stamp on their identity cards, intended to expel them for good. But the frontier officers later allowed some returning citizens, including Werner, Tanja, and Astrid, back in. So when Werner heard that frontier guard say “they’re allowed back,” seconds after having his identity card stamped “invalid,” he may have caught the exact moment the orders changed. Or it may have been a misunderstanding that subsequently became a reality.
The world-historical turning point came slightly later. At around 11:30 PM, as the crowd on the eastern side of the Bornholmer Strasse crossing point grew huge and raucous, chanting, “Open the gate! Open the gate!,” Jäger gave an unprecedented order: Let everyone through! Other frontier crossings followed suit. By the early hours of Friday, November 10, tens of thousands of East Germans had put their feet on the moon.
When I got to Berlin the next day, it felt like Pentecost. The whole city was on the move. Ordinary people spoke in tongues. “I think the sick will get up from their hospital beds,” one East Berliner told me. As if in a dream, I walked across what had been the death strip at Potsdamer Platz, stopping to pick up a small, irregular, red spray-painted chunk of the Wall, which is before me as I write. Later, I sat with Werner in a hotel room overlooking the Friedrichstrasse frontier crossing, with its glass-walled entry hall popularly known as “the palace of tears.” We watched the crowds of excited people walking to and fro, East to West, West to East, and it seemed in that moment that all would be well, and all manner of things would be well.
On the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Wall, in November 1999, I chaired a retrospective “summit meeting” in Berlin between Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Kohl, and George H. W. Bush, high up in the headquarters of the Axel Springer publishing house, overlooking the line of the former Wall. I started by asking Gorbachev what he’d done and thought on the historic night. His response was characteristically long and distinctly Tolstoyan in its view of history, but about twenty minutes into our subsequent discussion I finally got my answer: he had slept soundly through the night. As we know from other sources, his advisers did not think it worth waking him. When he received a telephone report from the Soviet ambassador in East Berlin on the morning of November 10 his reaction was: “They did the right thing.” He did not even call a special session of the Politburo.
Yet looking back all three elder statesmen emphasized just how fragile, uncertain, and even dangerous the situation was in the days and weeks that followed. There were still hard-liners in Moscow who wanted to use force, as they had so often before, to reimpose the Soviet version of normality. Fortunately Gorbachev was just then at the height of his powers, having become head of state as well as party general secretary. There was a relationship of trust between these world leaders, and they felt their historic responsibility.
“All three still knew what war was,” Kohl said. “His father badly wounded”—he pointed to Gorbachev—“an uncle killed; my brother was killed…George Bush was a naval pilot in the Pacific.”
The former US president explained why he had resisted calls from some in Washington to fly to Berlin the next day (as Ronald Reagan might have done) and celebrate this Western triumph. Everyone had to show prudence and restraint. He was always worried about Gorbachev’s domestic position. “I thought it would be obscene for the president of the United States to appear to be putting my fingers in his eyes, sticking them arrogantly in his eyes”—and the usually undemonstrative, patrician Bush made a vivid gesture of stabbing with two fingers of his left hand. Yes, Gorbachev responded, and when he and Bush met in Malta at the beginning of December, “George told me, ‘I have no intention of dancing on the Berlin Wall.’”
Meanwhile, the photographs that everyone remembers, that the media will reproduce until the end of time, are precisely those of people dancing on brightly painted stretches of the Wall. But that is the Western side, the graffiti-covered outer wall of the East German frontier complex, and most of the people standing on it were probably Westerners. Joachim was there that night, on the western side of the Brandenburg Gate, but he didn’t dare clamber up. The Easterner’s fear of the frontier was still deep in his bones.
The unplanned, spontaneous character of the opening, in which an essential part was played by East Berliners demanding to be let through the border crossings, means that it can be seen as a continuation of people power, from October 9 in Leipzig to November 9 in Berlin, and therefore of the East Germans’ “peaceful revolution.” Yet it was also the moment when that turned into something else. Just ten days later, I would watch a large crowd in a cold, foggy Leipzig chanting “Germany, United Fatherland.” One banner summed up the new direction. It read: “We are the people and demand reunification.”
“Do you realize,” Helmut Kohl asked me, “that you are sitting opposite the direct successor to Adolf Hitler?” The chancellor who had just managed to peacefully unite Germany was a giant of a man, both in height and in girth. Even seated in a low easy chair, he towered over me. “I don’t like it,” he went on, “but that’s the fact.” His predecessors had been chancellors of only West Germany. He, Kohl, was the first chancellor of a united Germany since Hitler.
He mentioned this disagreeable fact only to emphasize his heavy sense of historical responsibility. Had not the treaty he signed with Gorbachev on the first anniversary of the fall of the Wall declared that Germany and the Soviet Union wished “to finally finish with the past”? Hitler had sought a German-dominated Europe. He, by contrast, wanted to put a European roof over Germany. That is why he welcomed the plan for European economic and monetary union, agreed in principle by a summit of European leaders in Strasbourg as early as December 1989 and now—we were talking in his office in Bonn in the autumn of 1991—to be enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty. That economic union should soon be followed, he insisted, by a European political union.
Everyone felt the hand of history on their shoulders in those giddy months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Margaret Thatcher said as much when she summoned me and five other historians to Chequers, the country house where she had done lunchtime battle with Gorbachev, for a seminar about German unification in March 1990. Had Germany changed? she wanted to know. Or, as our advance briefing note ripely put it, “Are we really dealing with the same old Huns?” At that time Thatcher kept producing from her handbag, at meetings with fellow leaders such as François Mitterrand, a map of Central Europe on which were marked, with a heavy felt tip, Germany’s pre-1939 frontiers and the former German territories in the East that had provisionally been given to Poland and the Soviet Union at the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945, pending a final peace settlement. “That damned map,” her private secretary called it.
For close to five hours at Chequers that day, we all—among us such notable historians of Germany as Fritz Stern and Gordon Craig—tried to persuade her that this was a very different Germany, one that intended to play a very different role in Europe. This was, of course, exactly what Kohl wanted me to understand with his reference to Adolf Hitler. Yet oddly enough, Kohl himself was almost as much of a problem for Thatcher as Germany’s Nazi past. “You didn’t see how Helmut browbeat us all in Strasbourg!” she exclaimed, referring to the December 1989 summit that opened the door to both German unification and European monetary union. The Iron Lady had been handbagged by the gargantuan chancellor. That she found hard to forgive. But the venerable British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper visibly struck a chord with her when he said that he had been in Germany in 1945, interviewing the surviving Nazi leaders, “and if you had told us then that we could have a united Germany as part of the West, we would not have believed our luck.” In the end, she seemed to take our message on board. “All right,” she concluded unforgettably, “I’ll be very nice to the Germans.”
These years saw the postwar era segue into the post-Wall era. After World War II, Europe had not reached the final peace settlement envisaged at the Potsdam Conference because the cold war intervened. Nor was there now a single grand peace conference to seal the end of the cold war, as there had been at the end of World War I, when the victorious Western allies dictated punitive terms to a defeated Germany in the Versailles Treaty of 1919, as well as to other defeated powers such as the Ottoman Empire in the Sèvres Treaty of 1920, and to Hungary, deprived of two thirds of its territory in the Trianon Treaty the same year. Yet what happened in 1990–1991 was, in all but name, the final peace settlement left unfinished in 1945. As that unknown Berliner had scribbled on a handmade poster when the Wall came down: “Only today is the war really over.” In effect, the cold war and World War II ended together.
The “2+4” treaty on German unification, signed in Moscow in September 1990, was negotiated between representatives of the two German states and the four occupying powers of 1945 (the Soviet Union, the United States, France, and Britain), which had never ceased to exercise their residual occupation rights, especially in Berlin. It explicitly referred to “wartime and post-war agreements and decisions of the Four Powers.” In November 1990, soon after the unification of Germany on October 3, the “provisional” Polish-German frontier on Thatcher’s handbag map was formally accepted by united Germany as permanent and inviolable.
When George H.W. Bush and his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft dreamed up the term “New World Order” on a fishing trip off the coast of Maine one August day in 1990, they were thinking of the kind of Soviet-American cooperation that Franklin D. Roosevelt had hoped for in 1945. Bush later wrote to Gorbachev proposing “a new world order of Soviet-American co-operation against aggression.” The aggression, in this case, was real and immediate: Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which was reversed in the Gulf War. The United States and the Soviet Union also agreed two major arms reduction treaties, one on conventional forces in Europe and the other on strategic nuclear weapons, the latter signed just five months before the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
And what of the “Declaration on Liberated Europe,” which, at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, had promised free elections across Soviet-occupied Europe? Well, starting with the Helsinki Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1975, through a long series of subsequent review conferences, the “Helsinki process” culminated in a Charter of Paris for a New Europe, promulgated in November 1990. Unlike the vague commitments in the Yalta Declaration, which Churchill would soon describe as “a fraudulent prospectus,” this Paris Charter was a detailed, specific prescription for a reordering of the entire continent, including the Soviet Union, on Western liberal-democratic terms.
Gorbachev signed on the dotted line and, unlike Stalin, he meant what he said. Unfortunately he had failed to notice that since the Soviet Union was composed of different peoples, some of whom did not wish to stick with Russia, a democratic Soviet Union was a contradiction in terms, like fried snowballs.
“We undertake to build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations,” declared this remarkable document. The Charter of Paris went on to give a clear liberal definition of democracy, including not just “free and fair elections” but also “respect for the human person and the rule of law,” freedom of expression, association, and movement, and political pluralism. Besides a new Conflict Prevention Centre, based in Vienna, it established an Office for Free Elections, based in Warsaw. This was subsequently renamed the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, while in 1995 the world’s longest-running conference finally became the permanent Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the OSCE. Its election monitors had—and still have—a minutely detailed description of what is needed for a free and fair election. All this was subscribed to by Gorbachev for the Soviet Union, along with the leaders of the United States, Canada, and most European countries.
A more comprehensive Western victory declaration would be hard to imagine, and one covering the largest possible “Europe”—from Vancouver to Vladivostok. “We molded it so there were no losers, only winners,” Bush would reflect a few years later. “We eluded the shadow of another Versailles.” But some years later many Russians would come to view the post–cold war settlement as, precisely, another Versailles. In private, Bush could be less Olympian. During a vigorous discussion with Kohl in the summer of 1990, he explained that the “Soviets” could not have a veto on united Germany’s membership in NATO. “To hell with that!” the US president exclaimed. “We prevailed, they didn’t.”
By 1991 the Soviet Union—which Gorbachev had thought of as a single country, a Soviet motherland—was already reeling from the impact of the independence struggles of the Baltic nations, which were quite as dramatic and inspiring as the velvet revolutions in Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest. When the republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and, decisively, Russia itself under Gorbachev’s power-hungry rival Boris Yeltsin decided to create a Commonwealth of Independent States, the Soviet Union ceased to exist at the end of that year. This was the final scene of the last act of the cold war.