The East German government could not tolerate that, so it responded by prohibiting travel to Hungary.
Dissident East Germans retaliated; they went to the Czech Republic, made their way into the West German embassy, and applied for asylum. Hundreds of them were camped out there for weeks, surrounded by the police; the Czech government could not force them to leave without violating West German extraterritoriality, and the West German government could not transport their new citizens home without the support of the Czechs. Eventually a deal was brokered; it involved shipping the guys by train through East Germany (for symbolic purposes) and then into the west. It also meant that East Germans could no longer be allowed to travel anywhere for fear that dissidents would pull the same stunt again.
Us westerners had no idea what was going on inside of East Germany at this point; it looked as though the walls were closing in on East Germany; there was nowhere the government could allow a discontented population to travel, and a state which had appeared for twenty-five years to be a prison was increasingly resembling a maximum-security lockdown.
And then, on November 9 ... something happened. It was hard to tell what (and it turned out later to have been a mistake). The word had apparently gone out that people were free to travel ... and so they did. They came through the wall, on foot and their disgusting little trabants, by the thousands. And the border guards did nothing to stop them.
The people of West Berlin welcomed their friends, families, and neighbors, and responded by rushing to the wall - a hated artifact that ran through the city like a gaping wound - and began to tear it down, It was mostly gone by the end of the weekend. (I have a piece, passed down to me via a friend in Hamburg who got it from a friend who was there that weekend). It was a party of pure joy, an orgy of destruction and of reunion.
The government of East Germany, paralyzed with confused indecision, did nothing. The Soviet Union, having decided it could no longer afford its empire, did nothing. Within weeks, the East German government had fallen; within months, East Germany was no more. By the end of the year the people of Czechoslovakia (peacefully), Bulgaria (peacefully), and Romania (violently) ousted their governments.
In that moment, everything changed; the people of East Germany were freed from their prison. The cold war ended. The expansion of NATO and the EU became possible; east-central Europe was reunited with its historic partners.
I remember the astonishing pictures in the newspaper that day, of people dancing on top of the wall, where a day before they would have been shot.
I remember the tears of joy in my German teacher's eyes - herself a refugee, thirty years before, from East Germany.
I remember the astonishing sense that the world could change in an instant; that the struggle of decades could achieve fruition in a snap just when the chances for success looked darkest.
That was today, twenty years ago.
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