At the CSCE conference in Helsinki in 1975, the East German leadership agreed in principle, albeit without wanting to admit it, to the right of people’s to move freely and the freedom to travel. Afterwards, more and more East German citizens submitted applications to immigrate permanently to West Germany. An opposition movement had also developed in East Germany in the 1980s that expressed increasingly fundamental criticism of the political and social conditions. Environmental damage and economic stagnation also angered the general public, leading it to turn away from the East German state. Similar developments occurred in other Eastern Bloc states, for example in Poland, where the independent trade union Solidarnosc was established and struggled to achieve national recognition in November 1980.

After Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in 1985, the political situation in the Eastern Bloc slowly began to change. Gorbachev first tried to solve the serious economic and social problems using internal political reforms. In 1988 he gave up the Brezhnev Doctrine, a political principle central to Soviet foreign policy that demanded limited sovereignty of the Warsaw Pact nations. This change allowed the Eastern Bloc states to determine their own national policies. Hungary’s shift towards the West led it to demonstratively dismantle its border fence on May 2, 1989. The first hole was made to the “Iron Curtain.”

The SED was not interested in adopting the reform course of the Soviet Union for East Germany. But the widespread protest movement that emerged within the East German population at the end of the eighties and the growing migration of East Germans to the West brought the dictatorship to an end in 1989. The SED first found itself compelled to make concessions, for example to allow its citizens to travel. When a new emigration law was falsely announced on November 9, 1989, crowds rushed to the border and the Wall fell under the onslaught of people. The fall of the Wall led to the ultimate collapse of the East German state.

In der Nacht vom 9. November am Grenzübergang Bornholmer Straße

The night of November 9 at the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing, photo: A. Schölzel