In 1956, in Communist-ruled Hungary, Soviet tanks crushed an anti-Communist rebellion. Despite that Marxist-Leninist achievement, Hungary’s new Soviet-installed leader, János Kádár, felt he would need more than Soviet tanks to secure his stay in office. So for popularity’s sake — a novel concept in a Communist state — Kádár gradually liberalized Hungary’s State-owned economy, allowing just enough capitalist free enterprise to make daily life under Communism a little more tolerable through a few more consumer goods.

By “gradually,” I mean the liberalization process took thirty years. Nevertheless, he did so, and by July 1989, when Kádár died, Hungary’s liberalization had progressed quite far. And the momentum didn’t end with his death. Hungary’s leaders, seeing a relatively liberal-minded Mikhail Gorbachev in power in the Soviet Union, decided to go even farther by opening up Hungary’s border with neighboring Austria, a Western democracy but also officially “neutral” because Austria had not joined the West’s NATO military alliance. Hungarian soldiers were filmed on the border removing barbed wire and other frontier obstacles. News of Hungary’s newly open border with Austria was broadcast on West German television.

In East Germany, meanwhile, the Communist regime censored a great many things, but jamming West German television broadcasts was darn difficult to do, day after day after day. When the censors got lax, East Germans got to watch West German television, including this very interesting news item. Why so interesting? The Communist regime prohibited most East Germans from going to West Germany — that’s why the Berlin Wall was built, after all — but the regime did permit East Germans to visit “fellow” Communist countries. Such as Hungary.

Why not visit Hungary, defect to German-speaking Austria, and move to West Germany? This idea was so easy to imagine and implement that many East Germans did. And did and did and did. Within a few short weeks, 13,000 East Germans did. Eventually, 50,000 did.

Located between East Germany and Hungary was Czechoslovakia. The East German regime, now extremely embarrassed, urged its fellow Communist regime in Czechoslovakia to halt the transiting torrent of East German “tourists” trying to reach Hungary. Thus the flow was halted — so abruptly, in fact, that it suddenly stranded thousands of wayward East Germans in Prague, Czechoslovakia’s capital city. Refusing to return, many of them fled into Prague’s West German embassy, pleading for political asylum. Five thousand of them, crowding the embassy’s grounds.

Now it was the turn of Czechoslovakia’s Communists to be embarrassed. Their police could not enter the West German embassy to arrest the East Germans because doing so would violate the embassy’s diplomatic immunity. And it wasn’t long before the freedom-seeking East Germans, largely exposed to the weather and without much food or water, became the subject of sympathetic television broadcasts and poignant news articles by Western journalists. Bad publicity for the Czechoslovak Communists. So the regime soon relented, allowing the East Germans to leave for the West on special trainings. They didn’t even need to go via Hungary.

For decades, East Germany’s Communists had portrayed West Germany as a “Fascist” state and claimed that ordinary East Germans were better off where they were. Almost nobody believed that, erecting the Berlin Wall had proven that almost nobody believed that, and almost thirty years later the renewed mass defections re-confirmed it. West German television programs revealed a freer, more prosperous society just beyond the unnatural “inner German border” — and yet the Communist regime was still trying to deceive and oppress ordinary East Germans, even when they went to other Communist countries. The regime survived because it had a monopoly on force, including some of the toughest border guards and secret police among the Soviet bloc countries. The only monopoly ordinary Germans had was moral, and in the past that wasn’t enough. Back in 1953, Soviet tanks had crushed a mass uprising by East Berliners who resisted by picking up rocks and throwing them at the tanks.

In 1989, ordinary East Germans resisted by picking up — candles. And by saying prayers. Peaceful demonstrations. They became known as the Monday Protests, occurring every Monday since early September 1989. They were also called the Religious Protest, for they began at the Lutheran Church of Saint Nicholas, in the city of Leipzig. Leipzig was located a considerable distance from Berlin. But television was about to change that.

Asserting that Marxism-Leninism was the only faith worth having, Communist regimes had long opposed traditional religion. But they could never eradicate it entirely, not even when nearly every church, mosque, and temple in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China was closed or destroyed, decades earlier. By the 1980s, many were allowed to reopen and Communist persecution of religion in general amounted to “only” harassment, such as occasional arrests. At that time Poland’s most popular son was Pope John Paul II; and in Asia, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. In East Germany, Christian churches became places where even atheists were treated with respect and heard religious people preach non-violence and reconciliation. As a result, some churches became places of free discussion. And where non-violent protests were organized.

In Leipzig, the first Monday Protest began with only a few hundred protestors. But as news spread of events in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, even in the Soviet Union where Gorbachev was pushing for glasnost and perestroika, the Monday Protest of October 9th numbered 70,000. The Monday Protest of October 16th numbered 120,000. They chanted “Wir sind das Volk!” — “We are the People!” — and were televised by West German television news. Similar non-violent protests appeared in other cities and towns all over East Germany.

The regime responded with some arrests and in other ways that were intended to discourage and intimidate. But the sheer number of protestors caught the regime by surprise, and they were always peaceful. A senior Party official later recalled, “We were ready for anything, except candles and prayers.” By now, many East German Communists were getting tired of being the bad guys. On October 18th, they compelled Erich Honecker, East Germany’s longtime Stalinist dictator, to resign in favor of a younger Communist, Egon Krenz. Twenty-eight years earlier, Honecker had helped to arrange construction of the Berlin Wall. Now he was powerless.

But the Monday Protests didn’t stop. In Leipzig, the one on October 23rd numbered 320,000, and it wasn’t alone. In response, the regime under Krenz, to imply some flexibility without giving up much power, agreed to allow a public demonstration in East Berlin itself. Held on November 4th, it attracted nearly one million protestors, filling the enormous public square of Alexanderplatz. It was the largest public demonstration in the history of East Germany.

Only days later, Krenz’s regime declared that East Germans would be allowed to freely travel abroad.

Well, not quite. Actually, the regime meant “freely travel abroad” only after East Germans navigated a cumbersome East German bureaucracy in order to get permission. But when the announcement was made at an evening press conference, the regime’s spokesman, unaware of those very conditional strings attached, mistakenly announced an unconditional version. And he said it was effective “immediately, without delay.” The announcement came in the evening of November 9, 1989.

Within minutes, the border crossings of the Berlin Wall were swarmed by excited East Germans, first hundreds, soon thousands, demanding to be let through — and vastly outnumbering the border guards, who were totally surprised. And confused. And unable to get consistent orders by telephone, despite multiple attempts. As the crowds grew larger by the minute, they chanted “Open the gate! Open the gate!” Meanwhile in West Berlin, where the same news broadcasts were heard, the commotion attracted crowds as well. “Come over! Come over!” they shouted across the Wall. Like every evening since its erection in 1961, the Wall was awash in floodlights: one more form of surveillance. But now Western television cameras exploited that same lighting to watch the developing story.

Ultimately, one senior border guard, fed up with his superiors, relented — and allowed the Eastern crowds into West Berlin. Other crossing-points opened soon after. Multitudes of East Berliners, many of them having never before set foot in the Western half of their city, now did so. By midnight, crowds of East Germans were literally climbing on the Wall, stomping on it and smashing parts of it into pieces. Physically, most of the Wall remained standing, but politically it was gone.

Who made this happen? To a remarkable extent, ordinary people did.

And the rest of the world struggled to keep up.

In my next post: visiting Berlin.

— John G. Heidenrich