East Germany’s Peaceful Revolution: Remembering the Berlin Wall’s Fall

The Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago this year, on November 9, 1989. This massive barrier that since the 1960s had effectively imprisoned the residents of Communist-ruled East Berlin was also a symbol of the larger Cold War division between Eastern and Western Europe and the Soviet Union and the United States. When Berliners broke down the Wall, this signaled the Cold War’s approaching end. The events that led to the Wall’s collapse and the Cold War’s end show how nonviolence resistance can resolve a conflict seemingly destined to be resolved only through catastrophic violence.

Cold War Tensions

To appreciate the full significance of the Wall falling, we must remember how bitter and seemingly entrenched the East-West divide was only a few years earlier. In the early 1980s, the mutual hostility and arms race between the hawkish Reagan administration and a hardline Soviet leadership made nuclear war seem the Cold War’s most likely outcome. Taylor Downing relates in his book 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink how precisely six years before the Wall came down, from November 9 to 11, 1983, the world came very close to nuclear holocaust.[1]

During those days, an elaborate NATO military exercise, which included forces in West Germany, rehearsed procedures for launching nuclear weapons. Fearing this rehearsal might be preparations for a genuine attack, the Soviet leadership reacted with alarm and heightened military readiness. The exercise ended without violence breaking out, but some further miscommunication or provocation could easily have led to a very different outcome.[2]

Meanwhile, the Wall had served as an oppressive presence in East Germans’ lives for decades. One observer of the country’s affairs, writer Timothy Garton Ash, noted that an East Berlin doctor even wrote a book called The Wall Sickness, describing the Wall’s toll on people’s health, including contributing to suicides.[3] The Wall also led to death more directly: over 100 people were killed at the Wall while trying to escape or simply because of accidents.[4]

The European tensions of the early 1980s began to ease by the decade’s end, though, as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev established a friendlier relationship with the United States while introducing greater political freedom, including freedom of expression, in the Soviet Union. Such changes were especially significant for Communist East Germany, which even more than most Eastern bloc states took its cue from the Soviets. In his book Magic Lantern, Garton Ash noted that East German youth were taught the slogan “To learn from the Soviet Union is to learn how to a win,” a phrase that took on a new meaning by the late 1980s.[5]

Nonviolent Resistance and Crisis in East Germany

Grassroots political dissent in East Germany changed at this time. For years, activists in the city of Leipzig would meet in St. Nicholas’ Church to pray for peace. In 1988, these services grew to include silent marches through the city to protest restrictions on travel outside the country. Such marches were a radical act of defiance of the authorities. Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall explain in their history of nonviolent resistance, A Force More Powerful, that while Communist regimes would tolerate a certain amount of dissent in private spaces such as churches,

when dissidents ventured out into city streets and public squares, they met with instant repression. Along with command over the mass media, control over the physical arena was a primary means by which communist rulers made sure that opposition was confined to intellectuals and activists, cut off from the larger public.[6]        

That the Leipzig protesters could publicly demonstrate, even silently, showed how the political situation was changing. By early 1989, they were no longer silent but chanted “We want out!”[7] Public protest against the regime continued to grow in size and assertiveness.

The East German regime had originally built the Wall in 1961 to stem the flow of East Berliners into the freer and more prosperous West, a trend that threatened the regime’s legitimacy. A similar crisis had arisen by summer 1989. East Germans began seeking asylum in West German diplomatic missions in East Berlin and elsewhere. In September, neighboring Hungary, an Eastern bloc state where the Communist Party had agreed to end its monopoly on political power, decided to open its border with Austria. East Germans responded by fleeing to Hungary and then the west; perhaps 50,000 had fled by the end of October. Not all wanted to flee, however: in Leipzig, where public protests had now swelled to include thousands, the protesters had changed their chant to “We are staying.” Reforming East Germany from within was the goal.[8]

Turning Point

That autumn, the protesters again received significant support from the leader of East Germany’s most significant ally. Gorbachev had already announced a reduction in Soviet military forces in Eastern Europe and allowed Hungary and Poland to reform their political systems significantly without Soviet interference.[9] The likelihood that the East German regime would receive outside support in suppressing dissent dwindled. Gorbachev confirmed this non-interventionist attitude in an early October speech in East Germany, in which he urged reform while also saying that the country’s policy should be made “not in Moscow but in Berlin.” He also privately ordered Soviet troops in East Germany not get involved in any conflict within the country.[10]

Conflict between the authorities and protesters grew. Police beat and arrested protesters in Leipzig, East Berlin, and elsewhere during early October. A crucial turning point came when Kurt Masur, the conductor of the Leipzig orchestra, arranged an impromptu discussion involving the city’s Communist Party officials, Masur, another musician, and a clergyman. The private talk was meant to find a way of averting further violence and produced an appeal for nonviolence that was read in St. Nicholas’ Church and over the radio. The authorities opted not to employ riot police or the army, and tens of thousands of protesters marched in Leipzig on October 9.[11] 

Events moved quickly over the following month. The Communist Party leadership went through a shake-up, while protests in Leipzig and East Berlin grew to number hundreds of thousands. The final act, though, was essentially the result of an accident. The regime decided to relax restriction on travel to the west; when an official announced this decision on November 9, however, he garbled it and said incorrectly that East Germans could leave the country through Berlin or any other border crossing, effective immediately. When crowds gathered on the east side of the Berlin Wall, the guards decided on their initiative to let them through. The crowds not only poured into West Berlin but quickly took to standing and dancing on the Wall and eventually knocking it down with hammers.[12]

These dramatic scenes were followed in the coming years by the Communist Party’s fall, the reunification of East and West Germany into a single country, and the Cold War’s end.

Looking Back

Remembered 30 years later, the Berlin Wall’s collapse seems more bittersweet than it did at the time. The 20th century’s Cold War has been succeeded by a new one between the United States and Russia, with the dividing line running through Ukraine rather than Germany. (The fact the line of conflict is now much further east than before should perhaps raise some questions about which side has been more expansionist over the past three decades.)[13] Meanwhile, other nonviolent revolutions, such as Egypt’s in 2011, have been less successful than East Germany’s. Nonviolent resistance to oppression doesn’t always have happy results—although its track record is still better than violent resistance.[14]

Even with these qualifications, the events leading to the Wall coming down should be celebrated for what, often contrary to conventional wisdom, they accomplished. The Cold War’s hostility was replaced with eased tensions, the Soviet Union reformed and reduced its influence in Eastern Europe, and nonviolent protest brought down highly repressive regimes such as those in East Germany and other Communist nations. While efforts against war and political repression do not always follow this pattern, we should remember that they sometimes do and take inspiration from that.

When the Wall fell, some Berliners drew historical connections and lessons about nonviolence prevailing over violence. Garton Ash reported that someone stuck a note to the Wall’s remains reading “Stalin is dead, Europe lives.” Another said “You see, it shows Lenin was wrong…Lenin said a revolution could succeed only with violence. But this was a peaceful revolution.”[15]

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.


[1] Taylor Downing, 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink (New York: Da Capo Press, 20180). For a review of the book and an overview of this historical episode, see Jonathan Steele, “1983: The World at the Brink and The Brink Reviews – The Unknown Nuclear War Scare,” Guardian, July 25, 2018, https://bit.ly/3hhTy3c. Also, I discuss the episode, as chronicled in the book The Brink, in “Apocalypse Averted.”

[2] Downing, 250-256.

[3] Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 65.

[4] “Fatalities at the Berlin Wall, 1961-1989,” Berlin Wall Memorial, accessed September 10, 2020, https://bit.ly/35qorzR.

[5] Garton Ash, Magic Lantern, 65.

[6] Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 429.

[7] Ibid., 429.

[8] Ackerman and DuVall, Force More Powerful, 428-429; Garton Ash, Magic Lantern, 66; Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbott, At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War (Boston: Little Brown, 1993), 132.

[9] Ackerman and DuVall, Force More Powerful, 427-428.

[10] Beschloss and Talbott, At the Highest Levels, 133.

[11] Ackerman and DuVall, Force More Powerful, 429-430; Garton Ash, Magic Lantern, 67-68.

[12] John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (New York: Penguin, 2005), 245-246.

[13] I discuss current US-Russia tensions in “​Using Empathy during a New Cold War.”

[14] On nonviolence’s effectiveness, see Erica Chenoweth, “Think Again: Nonviolent Resistance,” Foreign Policy, August 24, 2011, https://bit.ly/3ijLYpL.

[15] Garton Ash, Magic Lantern, 63-64.

© 2019 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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