The second half of 1989 saw the demise of the communist regimes that had held their iron grip on eastern Europe for more than fifty years. During the preceding years, Soviet leader Mihkail Gorbachev had cautiously been moving towards liberalization, and Russian ‘glasnost’ (openness) en ‘perestroika’ (reform) had become household words in those days, garnering much attention in the West.
But among the leaders of Eastern Europe were several old-style communists who were not at all ready to follow that example, and East Germany’s Erich Honecker was one of the staunchest hardliners.
The people of the country he ruled thought otherwise. Over the preceding months, thousands had fled to the West, first through Hungary, then through Czechoslovakia, with many seeking refuge at the West German embassy in Prague. And when the regime set up its grand celebration of the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic, guest of honor Gorbachev spoilt the party by pointing out that times had changed. He was quite popular with the people at the time, and massive demonstrations in Leipzig and Berlin further increased the pressure on the ailing state.
It all came to a climax on the evening of November 9th. The government had intended to relent on travel restrictions, and a somewhat confusing announcement was made at a press conference. What they had not intended, was to abolish the country. But the events of that evening led precisely to that within another year’s time. A huge crowd appeared at the border, and as the guards had not received any instructions, they finally gave in and allowed thousands to enter West Berlin unchecked.
Within a few days, it became clear that the situation was irreversible. The infamous Berlin Wall had fallen.