Documents show accident and contingency, anxiety in world capitals
East German crowds led the way, with help from Communist fumbles, self-fulfilling TV coverage, Hungarian reformers, Czechoslovak pressure, and Gorbachev's non-violence
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 490 Posted November 9, 2014
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Washington, DC, November 9, 2014 -- The iconic fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago today shocked international leaders from Washington to Moscow, London to Warsaw, as East German crowds took advantage of Communist Party fumbles to break down the Cold War's most symbolic barrier, according to formerly secret documents from Soviet, German, U.S., Czechoslovak and Hungarian files posted today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (www.nsarchive.org).
The historic events of the night of November 9, 1989 came about from accident and contingency, rather than conspiracy or strategy, according to the documents. Crowds of East Berliners, already conditioned by months of refugee flights to the West and weeks of peaceful mass protests in cities like Leipzig, seized on media reports of immediate changes in travel restrictions -- based on a bumbled briefing by a Politburo member, Gunter Schabowski -- and inundated the Wall's checkpoints demanding passage. Television coverage of the first crossing that yielded to the self-fulfilling media prophecy then created a multiplier effect and more crowds came, ultimately to dance on the Wall.
The documents show that the actual collapse of the Wall began with Hungarian Communist reformers who proposed in early 1989 to open their borders to the West, while seeking particularly West German foreign investment to solve Hungary's economic crisis. Hungarian Communist leaders checked in with Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in March 1989, letting him know they planned to take down the barbed wire; and Gorbachev -- true to his "common European home" rhetoric -- responded only that "we have a strict regime on our borders, but we are also becoming more open." The Hungarian decision sparked a stream and then a flood of East German refugees.
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