BERLIN – It’s been nearly 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but Harald Jaeger has no trouble remembering exactly where he was when the first border crossing was opened.
He was, after all, the East German border guard commander who made the decision to open Berlin’s Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint – telling his men to stand aside and let the throng of people through.
“When the East German citizens started to run in euphoria in the direction of West Berlin, cheering with bottles of champagne and other things, we were also happy,” the 71-year-old recalled in an interview with The Associated Press, ahead of Sunday’s landmark anniversary.
“Happy because it had all happened without weapons and violence,” he said, “that no drop of blood had been spilled on this evening – only tears of joy and a bit of cold sweat running down my back.”
The decision to open the wall was sudden, but momentum had been building for months. Already the Iron Curtain separating the communist east of Europe from the capitalist west had started to show strains elsewhere – notably in Hungary.
About seven months earlier, Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth had received a promise from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that Nemeth decided to test: “Gorbachev’s vow, which he made to me in March 1989, (was) that ‘as long as I’m sitting in this chair, Miklos, the disgrace – that was the word he used – the disgrace of 1956 will not be repeated,” Nemeth recalled in an interview with the AP.
1956 was the year of the Hungarian uprising, which was brutally put down by Soviet tanks and troops.
Nemeth said he decided to open a section of his border with Austria at Rajka, choosing it to see what nearby communist Czechoslovakia, neighbouring Austria and the Soviet troops stationed in the area would do.
“I told the interior minister and the chief of police, who oversaw the border guards: ‘OK boys, let’s start dismantling a 3.5 kilometre section at Rajka to see if anyone complains,”’ he said. “There are no Soviet objections, there is no reaction. We continue.”
With the border there effectively open, Hungary by late August was performing more “tests” and letting small groups of East Germans through to Austria. On Sept. 11, Hungary formally opened the border and tens of thousands of East Germans, many of whom had been camping out for months in Budapest, flowed West. That increased pressure on the East German authorities, who already felt besieged by regular protests in their own territory demanding reforms and travel freedoms.
When the decision was finally made to open the Wall, it was conveyed off-handedly at a news conference on Nov. 9, 1989, by East German Politburo spokesman Guenter Schabowski, who told reporters that new regulations had been passed that “makes it possible for every citizen of East Germany to travel through every border checkpoint of East Germany.”
Asked when the rules were to go into effect, Schabowski scratched his head, put on his glasses and looked at his papers in perplexity. He finally said: “To my knowledge, this is immediately.”
That triggered the wave of people who swarmed Jaeger’s checkpoint at Bornholmer Strasse, leaving the then-lieutenant colonel of the East German Stasi secret police puzzled about how to act.
“It was unimaginable that there were around 20,000 East German citizens at the border crossing,” he said. “I tried to get a directive from a superior so I could start letting the East German citizens through but there were simply no superiors around that night. So I had to act myself and give the order that the wall should be opened.”