The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall

Posted: May 7, 2016 in Chat
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The Collapse – The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall. By Mary Elise Sarotte.
Basic Books, 2014. ISBN 9780465064948

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I want to recommend a great recent book on the story behind the fall of the Berlin Wall. (This piccie of the cover does not catch the eye and face of a border guard peering through the gap in the Wall at the photographer.)  It’s a history book – but don’t let that put you off.

The author, Mary Elise Sarotte, is Visiting Professor of Government and History at Harvard, and Dean’s Professor of History at University of Southern California.

Another link worth following:http://www.katrin-hattenhauer.de/

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I’d like you to meet Harald Jager. He was born in 1943, the son of a Border policeman in what was soon to become East Germany. By 1964 he had entered the Border patrol himself.

What is special, in this story, about Harald Jager?

He was the senior Stasi employee on Bornholmer strasse Border Crossing Point, on the night of 9th November 1989. ‘He was essentially a record-keeper, one of the deputies to the senior figure…’ Mary Elise Sarotte writes.

He had begun work at eight that morning for a twenty-four hours’ stint at Bornolmer. He was the senior figure on duty. He was also very worried, to begin with: he had just had a test for possible cancer. He was nervously waiting for the results.

Gunter Schabowski, the Politburo member for the Media, had made a hasty announcement at the end of a tedious TV broadcast that evening. This end announcement was itself a hastily patched-together script; it couldn’t be examined by top Politburo people because they were tied up in internal wrangling. Nor could it be given assent by the Soviets because they were on extended leave celebrating the anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

They all presumed it was bona fide, and gave it the nod.

What was it about, this script? The relentlessly growing pressure inside East Germany had forced the authorities into giving some kind of placatory announcement. But there were those, the hard-liners, favoured the China Approach: the Tiananmen Square resolution to trouble-causers. And there were the ones who called for more diplomatic solutions. The two were destabilising the already atrophied regime from the inside.

This script announced that East Germans would be able to travel outside, legitimately. But it was an emigration only exit. They must apply for permits of course. And here the regime thought they were being crafty: such permits would be difficult.

When would this come into effect?

Right away.

The gabbled announcement on TV – he had not read it through beforehand – seemingly handed to East Germans an exit visa. Not only that but the announcement named West Berlin, a rare occurrence in connection with travel. Especially during this period of great unrest: the Hungarian border-leak had been plugged; the Czech leak was causing great upset and putting even more pressure on the East German regime,

 

Harald Jager was senior man on duty that night. He had twenty-five year’s loyal service behind him.
Then people started turning up at the check point, demanding to be let through. They had heard the broadcast, and very few regime members had bothered to listen. Harald Jager had heard it – he was astounded.

People began to turn up in their hundreds. This was happening at every check point. The numbers grew all night long. They were peaceful, but insistent. Thousands came, and they were growing.
This was on the back of the huge demonstrations in Leipzig and Dresden

In a centralised system like East Germany, all permissions had to come from above. Harald put through about thirty calls to his superiors that night: How do we deal with this?

And they had no idea. They tried all sorts of tactics, but outright denial of exit would most certainly make matters worse, turn a peaceful gathering of people into a potential danger.
All guards had received instructions months before not to fire unless attacked themselves.

One tactic the superiors suggested was take in the ring-leaders, the trouble-makers, as though processing for exit, then let them out – but do not allow them to return. They did this.

The trouble was people saw others getting through.

The regime had misread the people so badly: there were no ring-leaders; trouble-makers were just people who were more insistent, made more noise.

This made the pressure worse.

He rang his superiors again: What do we do? Harald’s superior patched him into a conference call: Don’t speak, just listen.

And what he heard was his superiors, out of touch, out of the loop of what was actually happening on the ground, questioning his abilities, calling him a coward. The connection was cut. Harald was left to himself, fuming, betrayed, abandoned.

We all know what happened, but it is the How that is most important. Read and find out.

Harald Jager in later life, at Bornholmer strasse:coll1

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This is just one of the fascinating, heartbreaking REAL stories contained in this book.
All are meticulously researched: many, like this one, are pulled together from  interviews cross-checked with Stasi phone transcripts.

What happened to Harald? In unified Germany he had no job. He managed odd work here and there. Then he retired, on a meager pension.

Oh, and his cancer tests proved negative.

Many East German dissidents felt let down by the unification. Some felt that a greater democratisation was already on its way. Think of Gorbachev and his modernisations, his Glasnost etc. But the Czech and East German regimes opposed them. This disunity played its part in the communications failure of 9th November 1989.

Some dissidents hoped for – and I have read this recently as well – that the new Germany would combine the best of both East and West. In the event they felt, rightly, they had been steam-rollered by the Western powers. I had hoped this would happen too: creating a new European model – ah, the old dialectical synthesis idea, how it lingered.

One of the many commendable aspects of this book is how Mary Elise Sarotte has kept Western (USA, Britain, France) politicking out of the story. Hers is a story told by the participants, and they were the people on the ground, the streets.

Mary Elise Sarotte:

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Many talk of ‘tipping points’ in history. This seems a bit of a lazy idea: maybe it is that concepts of such a thing as ‘history’ gives birth to these things. History is the story the historian tells from the information of all sorts, in all forms, its nuances and contexts: history is in reality a scatter of information around several centres within an event time-frame. This posits a psychological angle on the presentation of history as history: the historian’s predilections. It is inevitable. How they get around this, I suspect, is why many seized on Derrida’s ideas so readily: history as the text of texts of texts: objective, measurable to some extent.

An identifiable tipping point is the construct of the historian.

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Wikipedia gives us the following; let’s use it as a footnote:

His claim to be the first to breach the Wall was questioned in 2009 when Heinz Schäfer, a former colonel in the East German army, claimed that he had opened his crossing at Waltersdorf in the south of the city a few hours earlier, which would explain the supposed presence of East Berliners in the area before Jäger opened his gate.[6]

Later life[edit]

Following the fall of the Wall, he was unemployed. In 1997, he was able to save up enough to open a newspaper shop in Berlin with his wife.[2][3] He has since written a book about his experience called The Man Who Opened the Berlin Wall.

The day after: 10th November, 1989, Bornholmer strasse Crossing Point:

Berlin, Grenzübergang Bornholmer Straße

ADN-ZB-Roeske-10.11.89-Berlin: Rund eine Million DDR-Bürger besuchten am Sonnabend Berlin (West). An den Grenzübergangsstellen, wie hier an der Bornholmer Straße wurde zügig abgefertig. Vom Ministerium des Innern wurden seit dem 9. November weit über 10 Millionen Visa für Privatreisen und über 17 500 Genehmigungen für ständige Ausreise aus der DDR erteilt.

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1118-017 / Roeske, Robert / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5424866

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Comments
  1. Wow, this books sounds fantastic. Have you read Stasiland by Anna Funder? Stories of living under the stasi. Bronte

    • Hi there, and mighty thanks.
      Yeah, i read Stasiland some time ago – the ordinary lives of people under the regime were stunning.
      I do have trouble fitting in the Stasiland version with the other versions, like this one, or the novels that have come out of the East. So I do wonder about that book sometimes.

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