In 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan famously challenged the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” in a plea that seemed little more than political posturing.
Yet just two years later, the Berlin Wall was opened, allowing East Germans free access to the West for the first time since 1961. How this happened — and the role played by activists, religious leaders, journalists, disgruntled party officials and other individuals — is the subject of a book by historian and award-winning author Mary Elise Sarotte.
In “The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall,” Sarotte asserts that while Reagan’s speech provided a compelling sound bite heard far and wide, it did nothing to prod the East German politburo into action. In fact, as late as nine months before the Wall opened, guards shot and killed East Berliner Chris Gueffroy as he attempted to flee to the West.
Death and terror along the Wall were nothing new, despite widespread outrage from Europe and the West. During the Wall’s 28-year-history, more than 1,700 shots were fired at people attempting to escape from East Berlin into West Berlin, resulting in about 100 deaths. Still more died as a result of fatal accidents during escape attempts.
By 1989, East Germans had had enough. That autumn, hundreds of thousands fled to the West through Hungary. East Germany soon prohibited travel to Hungary, but would-be refugees could still exit to Czechoslovakia, where they descended on West German embassies in Prague and also in Warsaw, Poland. At the same time peaceful protests swelled in the East German city of Leipzig, attracting about a half million demonstrators.
In November, East German officials crafted a policy meant to appear to offer more freedom while actually leading to increased control. But, as Sarotte documents, a series of mistakes resulted in the policy unintentionally backfiring. The epic failure happened when an unprepared bureaucrat who misunderstood the wording presented the policy to the media hours before its intended release. Instead of restricting travel, he announced that, effective immediately, East Germans could now freely cross the border.
The news spread like wildfire, as reporters hustled to be the first to report the news. Crowds of East Germans rushed to the Wall, quickly sparking a final and irrevocable showdown at the border crossing. Guards overwhelmed by the crush and confused about proper protocol eventually capitulated. After 28 years, the Wall had collapsed.
Sarotte, a history professor at the University of Southern California and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, draws on the accounts of real people on the ground to craft a captivating story of revolution, idealism, political infighting, deception and incompetence.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including an interview with Sarotte, are at boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner. To listen to previous interviews anytime, download our free player from the iTunes App Store.