November 9th, 1989


Borders Families & Relationships Identity & Belonging

On the night of November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall falls after standing for more than 28 years. Nearly a year later, the reunification of East and West Germany, after more than four decades of division, is made official. The resulting surge in national sentiment, however, brings exclusion for many.

The first big changes were already visible in the summer of 1989. In May 1989, Hungary loosened restrictions on its border with Austria, before opening it entirely in August. Many citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) consequently travelled via the present-day Czech Republic, Hungary, and finally Austria into West Germany. East German citizens also occupied West German embassies in the GDR, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, demanding the opening of the borders.

The massive emigration effected a stagnation in productivity and major economic losses in the GDR. In addition, a wave of popular protest, later to be referred to as a “peaceful revolution”, grew louder and more powerful throughout the year: first in Leipzig, then in other East German cities, including East Berlin and Dresden, hundreds of thousands of citizens would soon be taking part in the so-called “Monday demonstrations” to call for an “open country with free people”.

This all led to the toppling of Erich Honnecker as General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), the ruling party in East Germany, on October 17, 1989. On November 9, a provisional measure was passed that would loosen the massive travel restrictions imposed upon GDR citizens and allow travel out of the country from November 10. On the evening of November 9, the spokesman for the SED Central Committee, Günter Schabowski, announced the new regulations at a press conference, but stated falsely that they were to enter into effect immediately. News of the open borders was rapidly diffused by the national and international press; shortly thereafter, massive crowds gathered at the border crossings, which they would go on to breach on that same evening.

Nonetheless, while this period is associated for many with freedom, happiness, and euphoria, for others it is tied up with feelings of fear and unfreedom. Many migrants, contract and so-called guest workers, as well as non-white (former) East and West German citizens experienced the weeks before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall as threatening and exclusionary. The slogan “Wir sind das Volk (We are the people)” that was heard at many of the Monday demonstrations and which, in the course of the reunification, was transformed into “Wir sind ein Volk (We are one people)” expressed a feeling of national unity and solidarity that at the same time excluded many, a feeling which would intensify through the early 1990s. The political unification of East and West German citizens made it again possible to speak of an ethnically, nationally, even “racially” conceived unity of Germans, that generated a clear distinction between an “us” and a “them”.