The week the Iron Curtain began to be torn apart

Twenty years ago, marches convulsed the cities of East Germany, from Berlin to Leipzig and Dresden


Countdown to the fall of the wall

In 1989, the Communist bloc began to crumble. Russia repudiated the Brezhnev Doctrine (used to justify military interference in Warsaw Pact countries), declined to stop Poland holding free elections, then watched, impotently, as Hungary opted for democracy.

And, that summer, despite attempted clampdowns, tens of thousands of East Germans escaped over the Hungarian and Austrian borders - a criminal offence in their own land.

As demonstrations grew in strength, the East Berlin authorities struggled to contain pressure for freedom. Our build-up to the fall of the wall –as reported by The Independent - begins 20 years ago:

18 October 1989

East Germany's ruling Communist Party agreed yesterday to retire its veteran leader Erich Honecker, 77, following mass emigration and huge demonstrations for political reform.

His successor was named as Egon Krenz, 52, the country's security chief, who has been seen as a protégé of the hardline Mr Honecker. In a debut speech broadcast last night, Mr Krenz criticised the party's past insensitivity, and expressed sympathy with families divided by emigration. "We must recognise the signs of the times and react accordingly, or we will be punished by life itself," he said.

20 October 1989

In a drastic bid to stem or even reverse the exodus of tens of thousands of its citizens in recent weeks, East Germany said yesterday that those who had fled to the West would be allowed to apply to return.

The new conciliatory tone is a remarkable turnaround from the government's position of only two weeks ago, when official commentaries said "we should weep no tears" for the refugees, many of whom were formally expelled from the country.

In addition, the authorities yesterday lifted a ban on Sputnik, a Soviet magazine banned in the country last year because of its radical tone. In Dresden last night, up to 50,000 people staged a silent, candlelit march in the biggest demonstration for reform since Mr Krenz took over.

22 October 1989

In East Berlin on Saturday, several thousand demonstrators formed a human chain through the city centre. Politburo member Günter Schabowski, in his meeting with the crowds, admitted the depths of scepticism that the government now faces: "We will have to get used to living for a time with people seeing everything we do as a trap – even though it isn't."

In the southern border town of Plauen, marchers shouted "Freedom of speech" and "Freedom of travel". The official East German news agency, ADN – which until a few days ago ignored popular protests entirely – said around 15,000 took part (eyewitnesses said the crowd was twice that size). Police did not intervene.

West German border police said yesterday that 1,300 East Germans had entered West Germany via Austria in the past 24 hours.

23 October 1989

Up to 250,000 East Germans marched through the streets of Leipzig yesterday, and thousands more filled the streets of three other cities in the biggest protests yet during East Germany's rising political turmoil. It was a clear sign that the popular pressure for reform in East Germany has in no way been diminished by last week's change of leadership, nor by the new hints of glasnost.

The Leipzig march eclipsed by far even last week's demonstrations, which brought more than 100,000 on to the streets, and which, at that point, were the largest seen in East Germany for more than 30 years. The first hints of industrial solidarity are appearing: some workers in East Berlin yesterday announced the formation of an independent trade union.

Demonstrators in Leipzig shouted "Free elections", "We are the people", and "Freedom for detainees". Police allowed the march to go ahead without interference. It was the third Monday night in succession that the numbers marching in Leipzig have doubled. In the city of Halle, south-west of Berlin, 10,000 demonstrated for reform yesterday, shouting "Gorby! Gorby!", and in Dresden thousands of people massed on streets and squares. In East Berlin, several thousand people gathered at the Gethsemane Church and held candles aloft in a service for those people still held in detention after demonstrations.

Last night's demonstration heard slogans more radical than the leadership can stomach. Freer travel has been promised, but free elections – as agreed to in Poland and Hungary – are an impossibility if the East German state is to survive.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory