The Fall of the Berlin Wall “Was Like Heaven on Earth”

Fletcher alum and former German ambassador to the U.S. tells how the November 9, 1989 event led to German reunification
People standing on the ground and on the Berlin Wall, with a towering old building in the background. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led to German reunification because diplomats seized on the momentum after East Germany eased travel restrictions.
Germans from East and West stand on the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate on November 10, 1989, one day after the wall opened. Photo: AP
November 5, 2019

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For twenty-eight years, the Berlin Wall split East and West Germany, separating families and symbolizing the wider Iron Curtain that divided the communist countries in eastern Europe and Western democracies.

So when East German authorities began to allow citizens from the East to cross the border freely on November 9, 1989, “it was like heaven on earth,” recalled Klaus Scharioth, F74, F75, F78, a professor of practice at The Fletcher School and former German ambassador to the United States. “For many people in Germany, especially, of course, for those with family and friends in the other part, this was one of the best days in their lives.”

The peaceful fall of the wall was cause for celebration around the world. In Berlin, throngs of people clambered up on the barrier and jubilantly chipped away at its concrete with pickaxes, shovels, and their bare hands, relishing how nonviolent citizen protests had helped topple Soviet restrictions. For a West German diplomat like Scharioth, that fateful day was also a signal to spring into action to secure what he believed would be an even greater achievement: the reunification of Germany.

“There was only a relatively small window of opportunity,” said Scharioth, who was then a member of the West German mission to the United Nations. “We knew that, and we acted on it, because we were very much afraid that [Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard] Shevardnadze would at some point be ousted, [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev would be ousted. We had the idea, if those two are gone, German unity is dead.”

Scharioth would later serve as ambassador to the United States from 2006 to 2011. He is now dean of the Mercator College for International Affairs in Germany, in addition to his role at Fletcher.

Tufts Now spoke with Scharioth to understand how the fall of the Berlin Wall led to German reunification—and what that chapter in German history can teach all of us today.

Tufts Now: In the West, the wall’s dismantling was considered a symbolic breakthrough. How was it perceived in West and East Germany?

Klaus Scharioth: For many people in Germany, especially, of course, for those with family and friends in the other part, this was one of the best days in their lives. I remember speaking to my father, who almost couldn’t believe it, that this was happening. There was an overwhelming joy all over the place. Families could reunite, friends could visit, you could travel wherever you wanted. It was like heaven on earth, a huge day.

Where were you when the wall fell and what was your reaction?

East Germany’s fifty-seven years under authoritarian rule “are the reason why parties on the extreme right and on the extreme left of the political spectrum are much stronger in the East than in the West,” said Klaus Scharioth.I was a member of the West German mission to the United Nations in New York. We had a lunch with all the legal advisors the next day and talked about the future. I had not been very hopeful before that there would be a chance to reunite Germany. That was the first time in a long, long time that I had the feeling, “Now we have the chance and we have to grasp this unique historic opportunity.”

I reminded my colleagues, especially the French, British, and American ones, that according to the Germany treaty of 1952, the U.S., the U.K., and France shared the essential aim of working with peaceful means toward a reunited Germany with a free democratic constitution and integrated into the European Union. There was a treaty obligation of those countries to now work toward German unity again.

When you entered the German diplomatic service, did you anticipate that the wall would fall?

No, I did not. My family, like so many other German families, was divided between East and West Germany. I grew up in the West, but my grandmother, my uncles, some of my aunts, they all lived in East Germany. I had spent some time during vacations in the Eastern part of the country, but my father was not able to see his mother for more than twenty years.

In many parts of the country, there was a huge desire for the wall to come down, but very little hope, because we were very much aware that the Soviet Union had rudely crushed an uprising in all of East Germany in 1953. More than 10 percent of the East German population then had turned to the streets and had demonstrated for freedom, unity, and justice. The same had happened in 1956 in Hungary and in 1968 in Czechoslovakia.

There was very little hope that the Soviet Union would ever allow Germany to reunite. For the Soviet Union, East Germany was one of the big prizes of the Second World War.   

What was the immediate impact of the barrier coming down, in German society and German politics?

There was of course unlimited travel. The East had already lost, before then, two million people. That was one reason why the wall was built, to stop that. Immediately after it came down, another million left East Germany for the West.

Then, of course, without the wall coming down, you wouldn’t have had the first and only free election of the GDR [German Democratic Republic, East Germany’s official name], which took place in March 1990 and which led to an overwhelming victory of those favoring unification. Also it led to the all-German election on December 2, 1990, when those who had argued for German unification won an overwhelming victory. It changed everything in German politics.

What’s been the legacy of that change in Germany and more broadly in Europe?

The legacy is that a peaceful revolution can make a difference. Let’s not forget, it was not the governments—it was courageous people first in Leipzig, then other cities, then in Berlin, all over the GDR, who demonstrated in October 1989. I say courageous because it was quite likely that the police would clamp down on these demonstrations and all these people demonstrating would be beaten and would end up in jail.

Solidarity’s rise in Poland in 1981 and also Hungary opening its border with the GDR in August 1989 helped pave the way. They made it a little bit more likely that this would happen. Then later on, we have the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. It was the end of the Iron Curtain in Europe.

What we couldn’t imagine at the time was that two years later, in 1991, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved and a bit later the Soviet Union fell apart. East European countries asked to be member of the Western family, especially members of NATO and of the European Union. That had been totally unforeseeable. It was a huge historical development.

You’ve focused on the positive side. Was there difficulty as well, unifying a relatively poor East Germany with a much more prosperous West Germany?

Yes, and to a certain extent that still exists. Salaries in the West were more than twice as high at the time of unification than in the East and they’re still higher. The latest figures are for 2017—salaries in the East are now 82.5 percent of those in the West. Not total parity, but it’s better than 50 percent. Unemployment went down from fifteen years ago, 18 percent in the East to now 6 percent, still a bit higher than in the West, but only marginally.

At the time of unification, only 18 percent of East Germans had a telephone, which is just amazing. Now 81 percent have a landline telephone; even more have a smartphone. Before the wall fell, the government in East Germany made it extremely difficult to have a phone or a typewriter, and totally impossible to have a fax machine or a printer, because anything easing communications was considered dangerous. Communication now in both parts of the country is the same.

In new opinion polls, 70 percent of all people who lived in 1990 in East Germany believe that they have benefited from German unity, whereas some 17 percent believe they have not.

Do those who lived in West Germany believe it worked?

In what was West Germany, only 66 percent believe that they are better off. It has to do with the fact that we had an extra tax instituted, which collects the money to rebuild the East. That was a money transfer of almost $100 billion per year since 1990. Nowadays it’s a little less—probably it’s around $50 billion per year—but this solidarity tax still exists. I think it is money extremely well spent. Of course, some people say it’s too costly, but it’s a small minority. In the West, it’s only a little more than 10 percent who believe that unification has not worked.

Are there lingering political consequences in Germany of having been a divided country for so long?

I think so. My basic theory is, it takes about as long as you have a division to heal it. We were divided for forty-five years, so I believe it’ll take forty-five years to really reunite. Those people who were, for instance, forty-five or fifty in the GDR at the time of unification, they had a very difficult time integrating into the new Germany, because there were many totally different things demanded, like you had to look for a job yourself.

In East Germany, those people lived for fifty-seven years under an authoritarian regime. You have to add the Nazi years. I believe those fifty-seven years are the reason why parties on the extreme right and on the extreme left of the political spectrum are much stronger in the East than in the West.

Later in your career, you were the German ambassador to the U.S. How did the fall of the wall affect the relationship between Germany and the U.S.?

It ushered in a unique period of extremely close, and I would say extremely fruitful, German-U.S. cooperation. We already had a strong relationship. The Marshall Plan was quite outstanding, because never before had victorious countries helped the aggressor to get back to their feet. The Allies defending Berlin with airlifts in 1948 and 1949 had a huge impact. John F. Kennedy’s visit to Berlin in 1963 and his famous speech, “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”), and then Ronald Reagan’s words, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate . . . tear down this wall,” in 1987 had a tremendous and very positive echo in both East and West Germany.

The positive role of the United States in 1989 and especially in 1990 was huge and will not be forgotten by people who were alive then. I had the great luck to be part of the German Two Plus Four team [that negotiated the sovereignty of a unified Germany] and I can tell you without the United States, we would have had no chance to get Germany reunited, because there was only a relatively small window of opportunity.

We knew that and we acted on it, because we were very much afraid that [Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard] Shevardnadze would at some point be ousted, [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev would be ousted. We had the idea, if those two are gone, German unity is dead; we will have no chance to convince the Soviet Union.

The only ones who really shared this view of urgency were the American team. We were on the phone with Washington all the time. I’m deeply grateful for them helping us to seize this unique opportunity. In my course at Fletcher, U.S.-European Relations Since the Fall of the Berlin Wall, I use it always as an example of how good things can be if we work closely together.

What lessons from that experience are relevant today?

If you have a very close transatlantic cooperation between the United States and Europe, you can achieve almost anything. You can reach for unlimited opportunities. If we are not united, the opposite is true. Neither the United States nor Europe alone are strong enough. We are together only about 12 percent of the world population. There are not many others who share our values, the values of freedom, the rule of law, democracy, protection of minorities, freedom of the press. I think only if we stick together, do we have a chance to shape world events.

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.

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