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‘Open the gate!’

DATE OF EVENT: Thursday, Nov. 9, 1989

DATE PUBLISHED: Friday, Nov. 10, 1989, in The Kansas City Times

BERLIN — East Germany on Thursday declared the end of restrictions on emigration or travel to the West, and within hours thousands of East Germans swarmed across the Berlin Wall in a mass celebration of their newly won freedom.

About 100 East Berliners at the Brandenburg Gate chanted “Open the gate! Open the gate!”

Giving way to a swelling flight through temporary cracks in the border through Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland, the East German leadership announced that permission to travel or emigrate would be granted quickly and without conditions.

The leadership said East Germans would be allowed to move through any crossing into West Germany or West Berlin, including across the wall.

But the wall itself, built in 1961, will not be torn down immediately, and visas will still be required for persons entering East Germany, officials said. Visitors can still go into East Berlin on one-day permits.

“We know this need of citizens to travel or leave the country,” said Guenter Schabowski, a member of the Politburo who made the announcement at a news conference Thursday evening. “Today the decision was made that makes it possible for all citizens to leave the country through East German crossing points.”

A tentative trickle of East Germans testing the new regulations quickly turned into a swarm of ecstatic people, who were met in the middle of the crossings by crowds of flag-waving, cheering West Germans. Some West Berliners came in cars and offered to take those from the East on a tour, and others clambered on top of the walls, unbothered by border guards.

“What joy! This is the best thing that happened in 100 years,” yelled a West Berlin man as he crossed into what only hours earlier had been forbidden territory.

By 1 a.m. today, celebrating Berliners, East and West, had filled the celebrated Kurfuerstendamm, blowing on trumpets, dancing, laughing and absorbing a glittering scene they had glimpsed before only on television. East Berliners said cars were backed up for more than a mile on the eastern side of some border crossings, as East Berliners abandoned their cars for a quick taste of the West on foot.

The extraordinary breach of what had been among the most iron-clad portions of the Iron Curtain marked a dramatic culmination of a month that has seen the virtual transformation of East Germany under the twin pressures of unceasing flight and demonstrations. It also marked a breach of a wall that had become the premier symbol of repressive communism and of the division of Europe and Germany into hostile camps after World War II.

Schabowski said the decision to lift the restrictions meant the end to the agreement to let East Germans leave through Czechoslovakia or other countries. The flow through Czechoslovakia reached flood proportions over the weekend; a 14-mile-long line of East German cars was reported Thursday at the Schirnding border crossing on the Czech-West German border.

The immediate reason for the decision was evidently a recognition by East Germany’s embattled authorities that they could not stem the outward tide by opening the door a crack and hoping that rapid liberalization at home would end the urge to flee.

They now seemed to hope that an open door would quickly let out those who were determined to leave and give pause to those who had doubted the sincerity of the government’s pledge of profound change.

The Berlin Wall — erected Aug. 13, 1961, to halt a hemorrhage of East Germans to the West — evolved into a double row of 8-foot-high concrete walls with watchtowers, electronic sensors and a no man’s land in between.

Frequent attempts to breach the barrier often ended in death, and the very sophistication of the wall became a standing indictment of a system that could hold its people only with such extraordinary means.

The decision to allow East Germans to travel freely came on a day when Egon Krenz, the new East German leader, was reported to have called for a law ensuring free and democratic elections.

In a speech to the Communist Party’s Central Committee on Wednesday night, Krenz also called for new laws on freedom of assembly, association and the press. He gave no details.

Schabowski’s announcement was greeted with an outburst of emotion in West Germany, whose constitution sustains the hope of a reunited Germany and whose people have seen in the dramatic changes in East Germany the first glimmers of an end to the division.

The West German Parliament abandoned a heated debate after learning of the new developments and ended its session with a spontaneous singing of the national anthem.

“We demand of the responsible people in the German Democratic Republic that they start tomorrow to tear down the wall,” declared Friedrich Bohl, the chief whip of the governing Christian Democrats.

In West Berlin, Eberhard Diepgen, the former mayor, said, “This is a day I have been awaiting since Aug. 13, 1961. With this, the wall has lost its function. It can, and must be, torn down.”

Schabowski, however, said that the wall would not be coming down. “There are other factors for the existence of the wall other than traveling,” suggesting that its fate depended on broader questions of relations between the two Germanys and between East and West.

His statement underlined that the new regulations did not change the status of Berlin, which is still formally occupied by the victorious Allies of World War II, with East Berlin as the Soviet zone.

There was also no change in the requirement that Westerners obtain visas for East Germany or day passes to visit East Berlin.

East Germans began almost immediately to test the new measure.

One couple crossed into West Berlin at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing with only their identity cards just two hours after Schabowski spoke.

After a gleeful exchange with some West Berliners, they returned to their side of the wall, saying they had only wanted to test the new permeability of the barrier.

West German television showed curious East Germans flocking to crossing points at the wall, some passing through it with their identity cards.

Other East Berliners were more muted in their reaction, reflecting the skepticism fostered by the dizzying rate of change in East Germany in recent weeks. The government had already allowed virtually unrestricted emigration to West Germany through Czechoslovakia, and on Monday it published the draft of a new travel law that went far beyond anything granted previously. The measure, however, was roundly condemned because it limited foreign travel to 30 days.

The new measures also raised some questions, including how much currency East Germans would be allowed to change into Western money.

The East German mark is not freely convertible, and up to now East Germans have been allowed to exchange just 15 of their marks, about $8 at the official exchange rate.

The official East German press agency, ADN, said the new measures took effect immediately.

They provided that East Germans could apply for trips abroad without giving any reasons, as they had to do in the past, and that permission would be granted on short notice. ADN added that permission would be denied only in exceptional cases, evidently concerning state security.

The new regulations also called on the authorities to grant emigration papers immediately and without condition.

Although millions of East Germans have traveled to the West in the past, the permission was always conditional and difficult to obtain.

The excitement over so momentous an opening failed to conceal a growing anxiety on both sides of the border over the exodus from East Germany.

More than 50,000 East Germans fled last weekend alone. West German estimates have put the figure of East Germans yearning to settle in the West at up to 1.4 million, out of a population of 16.5 million.

The huge influx of East German and of ethnic Germans from the Soviet Union, Poland and other East European countries had already severely taxed West Germany’s capacity.

In Bonn, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said in Parliament that 225,000 East Germans had crossed into West Germany this year, in addition to about 300,000 other ethnic Germans.

He said East Germans should consider that they might be living in worse conditions in the West than they had in the East.