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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?