The Fall of the Berlin Wall is an event that is very personal to me, since I was stationed at Tempelhof airbase in Berlin with the US Air Force when it happened.  As the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall is being celebrated in Germany, there are two key people being credited and remembered for the opening of the East German borders that occurred on that November 9th, 1989. One was the [East] German Democratic Republic (GDR) politician who mistakenly mentioned that the borders were being opened, and the other was the GDR border guard who ultimately chose to open the border due to an unclear situation with his leadership. The NPR article referenced here has the details of who they are, and how this played out:

The Man Who Disobeyed His Boss And Opened The Berlin Wall

There is another person who deserves some credit for the ultimate opening of the border, although his actions occurred weeks before Nov 9th.  Still, his critical decision opened the door in East Germany for the wave of democratic reforms, started by Gorachev with his Glasnost policy in the former USSR, to culminate in the events of November 9th which truly ended the Cold War.

That person is Egon Krenz, who was the General Secretary of the German Democratic Republic on that day.

But to understand his contribution, it is necessary to first go back to May of 1989. It was the time when the protests for democratic reform were occurring on the other side of the world in Tienanmen Square, Beijing China. The ultimate result of those protests were a harsh crackdown by the Chinese military to disperse the crowds and arrest the leaders. It resulted in a lot of condemnation of the action by the world, and also left the indelible impression of “tank man”: the lone unknown man who stood in front of a set of tanks trying to leave Tienanmen Square and brought them to a stand still. The symbolism of that one act was a catalyst for the wave of changes that swept Eastern Europe in the coming months.

Fast forward to October 9th, 1989, to the town of Leipzig, in the southern part of the GDR.  At the time, Egon Krenz is not yet the General Secretary of the GDR.  Erich Honecker was still the General Secretary of the country, as he had been since 1971. Der Spiegel has a great article on how this huge protest started. It was a major step to the Berlin Wall coming down.

‘We Are the People’: A Peaceful Revolution in Leipzig

This large, spontaneous protest put the GDR goverment under similar pressure as the Tienanmen Square protests had done to the Peoples Republic of China.  How does the government react to the protests? Ultimately, General Secretary Eric Honecker made the decision to deploy the military to suppress the protests. He had been a big advocate for following China’s example of dealing with the reform movements. Egon Krenz received the order for Honicker and, for whatever reason, ordered his subordinates to ignore it and made sure that it would not be implemented. His decision undoubtedly saved numerous lives.

Not long after, an unpopular Honecker left his office, and Egon Krenz replaced him as General Secretary of the GDR. He held that office during the border openings, and until December of 1989. Interestingly, he became one of a number of former GDR officials in the 1990’s who were tried and imprisoned for a period of time for the human rights abuses related to the killing of people trying to flee the country.

Krenz’ contribution to an almost completely peaceful fall of communism in East Germany is not that well known outside of Germany and deserves mention. You can read more about him specifically in the article below. He is commonly labeled as a Communist apparatchik, was only at the pinnacle of his career for a very short period of time, and probably spent time in prison symbolically for other people who should have (but no longer couldn’t). Yet, he was definitely in the right place at the right time, and made a very good decision that prevented would would have been inevitable bloodshed.

Hero or Villian? Egon Krenz, Communist who got to the top just as the Party was over.