HOW A SOCIETY DISAPPEARED THROUGH A HOLE IN THE WALL

THE CITY that became the symbol of Europe's division during the Cold War will on Tuesday celebrate 10 years since the Berlin Wall came down. By 1989 it had been up 28 years and was pointless. One by one, the imprisoned nations of Eastern Europe were sneaking out of their cells. In May, Hungary tore down the Iron Curtain on its Austrian border. Poland was planning free-ish elections, and the Soviet Union, the heart of the empire, was beating to the new rhythms of perestroika and glasnost.

East Germany's leaders declared that they would not "change the wall- paper just because the neighbour was doing it". Their people ignored them. In the summer of 1989, the East German holiday camp known as Hungary filled with travellers with more distant journeys in mind. Some headed straight for the now porous border, risking being caught reluctantly by Hungarian guards. Others waited in camps in Budapest and by Lake Balaton for an orderly exit. On 10 September, Hungary renounced its "friendship treaty" with the German Democratic Republic, and empowered GDR citizens to move freely across the Austrian border and beyond. Overnight, the Wall was reduced to a traffic obstacle.

East German's Communist President, Erich Honecker, took a while to understand. By the time his party ditched him on 18 October, hundreds of thousands of people had flocked to the streets demanding change.

The new leadership of Egon Krenz bowed to demand on 9 November, but in panic, botched the timing. The people heard Gunter Schabowski, a Politburo member, say the border would open "immediately". East Berliners in their thousands went for it. At 11pm, border guards opened the floodgates.

An entire country began to vanish. Within weeks, Krenz was gone, within months Western parties had triumphed in free elections, and in less than a year the constituent provinces of the GDR were admitted into the Federal Republic. Then the economic infrastructure started to disappear, too, and a society with it.

Comments