Opinion: The Berlin Wall: Our reaction the day after the fall


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When I say ‘our,’ I mean the collection of Times editorial writers and editors who worked in the same department 20 years ago as I do now (for the record, I was 9 years old when the then-undead German Democratic Republic announced on Nov. 9, 1989, that it would allow its prisoners -- er, citizens -- to travel freely to capitalist West Berlin and West Germany). Brighter minds than mine have already weighed in on the historical significance of the intervening 20 years between the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe of 1989 and now (click here for a roundup of today’s Berlin Wall punditry). Today on our own Op-Ed page, columnist Gregory Rodriguez waxes historical about the Cold War nostalgia for the moral clarity provided by the Berlin Wall, and Mitchell Koss reminds us of the revolutionary actions of Hungarians several months prior to the events in East Germany. On Sunday we published the accounts of six former East Germans on their experiences as citizens of a reunited Germany.

Below is a Times editorial published on Nov. 10, 1989, the day after the East German politburo lifted emigration restrictions on its own citizens and precipitated the demolition of the Berlin Wall. Though The Times relishes the excitement of the moment, the editorial steers clear of any prognostication about the future of communism in Eastern Europe (much less the Soviet Union, which would cease to exist two years later) and devotes much of its ink to analyzing the realpolitik behind East Germany’s actions.


-- Paul Thornton

The full editorial:

Friday, November 10, 1989

Stunning Unfolding of Events

Suddenly, dramatically, momentously, the political change that for months has been demanded, debated and finally promised in East Germany is beginning to take concrete form. The Berlin Wall, which for 28 years has separated East from West Germany and stood as an indictment of the Communist regime’s fear of its own people, is about to disappear, if not yet physically then at least as a symbol of repression and confinement. East Germans are being given the freedom to cross legally and directly into West Germany, to come and go as they please. Many in Germany and certainly in Europe are wondering, more than a few of them apprehensively, whether easing the physical separation of the two Germanys may not be a precursor to ending their political division as well.

Egon Krenz has spent the three weeks since he took over as East Germany’s Communist Party chief shuffling his cards. Now he is playing them. The government has been required to resign en masse, the Politburo has been purged. Younger and supposedly more progressive-minded officials have been moved to the fore. Krenz has promised that East Germans will soon have the chance to vote in free and honest elections, a tacit admission that the elections of the past have been neither. Significantly, though, he has yet to say anything to indicate that future elections will be multiparty in scope. For now, the line that the party will keep its monopoly on power is unchanged.

But the voice of the people has been heard, and the dissatisfactions of a bitter and frustrated populace have been registered. Krenz and other high officials have publicly acknowledged that the party has been too aloof, too insensitive to popular needs and hopes, too arrogant in its isolation. ‘We want,’ Krenz now says, ‘a socialism that is economically effective, politically democratic, morally clean and most of all has its face turned to the people.’ Most East Germans would no doubt be happy to see such a platform materialize. But whether Krenz ascribes the same meaning to those pledges as most East Germans is something else.

The promise to unseal the border to West Germany is clearly aimed at stemming the flight of East Germans--more than 50,000 in the last week alone--that, by stripping the country of some of its most productive workers, threatens to cripple its economy. In effect the party is saying that there’s no need to flee through Czechoslovakia, since legal travel to West Germany will now be available to all; stay, it is pleading, and see how things improve. The next few days should tell whether East Germans are ready to accept these assurances and the larger if still ambiguous promises of beneficial change that lie behind them. Meanwhile, one of the most stunning events in Europe since World War II is unfolding.