1989/1990: When anything was possible

Unforgettable years: the peaceful revolution, the fall of the Wall, reunification. We got the mayors of West Berlin and East Berlin, Walter Momper and Thomas Krüger, to sit down for a chat about that time.

A new beginning.West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper holds a speech on 12 November 1989 at Potsdamer Platz during the opening of a new border crossing. The man to his left is Erhard Krack, his counterpart in East Berlin.
A new beginning.West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper holds a speech on 12 November 1989 at Potsdamer Platz during the opening of a new border crossing. The man to his left is Erhard Krack, his counterpart in East Berlin.Photo: dpa picture alliance/ddrbildarchiv/Gerhard Murza

Berlin-They were the leaders of divided Berlin at the same time, from 11 to 24 January 1991: Walter Momper was the mayor of West Berlin and Thomas Krüger was the provisional mayor of East Berlin. They had known each other since 1988. As the frontrunner of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Momper met with Krüger who was working as a civil rights campaigner in the East. At that time, neither believed that the Berlin Wall could fall one year later. In our interview, they talk about how they experienced the Wende – the period from the Fall of the Berlin Wall to the reunification of Germany – and whether they have any regrets.

Mr Momper, do you still have your legendary red scarf and, if so, do you wear it? 

Walter Momper: I still have it but I don’t wear it anymore because it’s in such bad shape. But it is lovely - and has a green embroidery: “Der Senat tanzt” (The Senate dances). I received it as a gift from a waiter at Joe, a restaurant in Wedding, following the electoral victory of the “red-green” coalition (the SPD and the Green Party) in January 1989. I still have it and treasure it. A museum asked for it but they’re not going to get it as long as I’m alive. Beside the original, there are still another 30 red scarves.

Mr Krüger, do you still have to take off all of your clothes like you did on the SPD poster for the 1994 Bundestag elections to prove that you have nothing to hide?

Thomas Krüger: No, but every other taxi driver still remembers it. That poster will follow me for the rest of my days.

Momper: Everyone remembers you being naked on that poster, not just the taxi drivers.

Krüger: It’s true, I received amazing publicity in my constituency with that poster at the time. For me, it was a sign that it was a good campaign

The naked truth. Thomas Krüger bares it all while announcing his candidacy in 1994. 1,000 election posters were hung in the eastern districts of Friedrichshain and Lichtenberg. At the time, Krüger was Berlin’s secretary for family and youth.
The naked truth. Thomas Krüger bares it all while announcing his candidacy in 1994. 1,000 election posters were hung in the eastern districts of Friedrichshain and Lichtenberg. At the time, Krüger was Berlin’s secretary for family and youth.Photo: dpa picture alliance/ZB/Hubert Link

How did you end up stripping off all your clothes?

Krüger: It was a coincidence. The photos were taken by punks from Kreuzberg. We improvised a lot. And at some point, they said “take your clothes off!” And then I said “Okay, as long as it doesn’t end up on the poster, let’s have some fun!” But it did end up on the poster. I’ve never regretted it. For an Ossi (German slang for an East German) who is used to FKK (Freikörperkultur, the German nudist movement), it really wasn’t a problem. 

Mr Krüger, you grew up in East Germany, were a civil rights activist and, on 7 October 1989, you became a co-founder of the SPD, the Social Democrat party, in East Germany. Mr Momper, you were the mayor of West Berlin for a time. When did the two of you meet for the first time?

Krüger: Before that. It was in the fall of 1988. Walter was the frontrunner for Berlin’s SPD and we had invited him to East Berlin. It was an evening with artists and civil rights activists in an apartment.

Momper: A night I’ll never forget. The writer Monika Maron got a hold of me. She treated me like the son of a big SED (the East German communist party) bigwig. She kept asking me what I thought about everything and everybody.

Krüger: Yeah, for East Germans like us, it was a real highlight back then to host a frontrunner from the West and be able to ask them questions. As civil rights activists, we knew the political situation thanks to Abendschau (the West Berlin TV news) and had of course sympathised with the red-green coalition in West Berlin even though we didn’t think they’d have a chance. We were mistaken.

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Did you think in 1988 or 1989 that the Berlin Wall could come down?

Momper: Not in 1988, that was still too far away. There were always speculations that Erich Honecker could be replaced by Egon Krenz. When I saw the images on television at the end of June 1989 of Gyula Horn and Alois Mock, the foreign ministers of Hungary and Austria, cutting a symbolic hole in the barbed wire at the border, then I suddenly thought everything was possible. Especially because it was declared then that escapees would no longer be shot at. This feeling intensified in the middle of August, when Otto Habsburg (at the time a member of the European Parliament for the CSU) organised a Pan-European picnic on the Austrian-Hungarian border. Hundreds of escapees from East Germany simply crossed the border during the event. I was completely astounded when I saw that on TV.

Krüger: There were already a few signs that the dissatisfaction was beginning to result in political organisation. In 1988, there was a discussion about the magazine Sputnik. It was a mainstream magazine, but it contained a little bit of glasnost and perestroika. People complained in stores that the magazine could no longer be purchased. In the spring of 1989, the local elections were a sham. We recounted the votes and the staggering victory of the SED simply wasn’t true. The fourth of June in Poland was also important, the first time there was a round table discussion that the opposition took part in. The Tiananmen Square massacre was also important. At the time, we civil rights activists often discussed what awaited us now in East Germany: the Polish or the Chinese solution? Another indicator was the Warsaw Pact summit in Bucharest in July. During the summit, Russian President Gorbachev declared that no country in the Eastern Bloc should interfere in the internal affairs of the sister states any longer. This was the end of Moscow’s diplomacy by tank. Erich Honecker had to leave the summit early because he suffered a gallstone attack. He was incapacitated until the autumn, resulting in a power vacuum in the government

The number of escapees from East Germany also increased.

Momper: It really got started in August 1989. At that point, up to 3,000 people were fleeing East Germany every day via Hungary and Poland. It was just a question of time before escapees cross the inner-German border. At the time, we had taken all the precautionary measures and had the West Berlin police draw up a plan of action for what would happen if East German citizens stormed the Brandenburg Gate. Seven hundred would be enough. Shooting from our side, of course, was ruled out. But how would the SED react? At the time, what I was most scared of was that a civil war would break out and that there’d be a bloodbath in Berlin.

East Germany was alarmed at the time.

Momper: Of course. Manfred Stolpe (deputy chair of the Federation of Protestant Churches in East Germany at the time, editor’s note) told us in August that the Ministry of State Security, the Stasi, was moving the demonstration on the national holiday, 7 October, where 100,000 members of the Free German Youth association marched, ahead to the afternoon so that the situation would be easier to control. A torchlight parade during the day didn’t make any sense, however, so they didn’t proceed with the plan.

The famous Monday demonstrations started in September 1989 in Leipzig and more people protested the regime on the street every week. Was it clear for you at the time that it would remain peaceful?

Krüger: At the time it was clear to me that the state no longer had power. The troops had long since refused to shoot their own citizens.

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Photo: Volkmar Otto
Walter Momper (75)
....studied history, political science and economics. He became a member of West Berlin’s parliament in 1975. His term as mayor of West Berlin from 1989 to 1991 saw the Peaceful Revolution in East Germany and German reunification take place. He left politics in 2010. Since then, he’s developed projects for real estate developers with his own company.

Mr Momper, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, you met on 29 October with Politburo member Günter Schabowski, its Secretary for Information. On 9 November, Schabowski read the travel regulations during his legendary press conference that led to the fall of the Wall. How did the meeting come about?

Momper: Manfred Stolpe took me with him. He wanted to speak with the new leadership. But instead of Egon Krenz (Erich Honecker’s successor as SED General Secretary and Chairman of the State Council of East Germany), Schabowski came instead, and he thought that I should be there too. Schabowski told us about life in East Germany, about his time as First Secretary and how he always had to make up for shortages. Sometimes he would have to spend an entire day looking for an S16-size screw in East Germany. He gossiped, too, about Politburo member Harry Tisch always being drunk and running his mouth. Schabowski also told us about a particular sentence in a commentary in Neues Deutschland (a leading East German newspaper) where escapees from East Germany were mentioned for the first time. “We won’t cry any tears for them” had been inserted by hand in pencil by “Uncle Erich” (Honecker) during the galley proofs. At the end, Schabowski mentioned casually that there would be freedom of travel. I then issued a call to temporarily stop holiday leave for all staff members in leadership positions in our authorities. That was unusual.

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Foto: Volkmar Otto
Thomas Krüger (61)
....studied protestant theology after vocational training in plastic and elastomer processing. He was city councillor for internal affairs from 1990 to 1991 and served as provisional mayor in 1991. He then served as secretary for family and youth affairs and as a member of the Bundestag. He has been president of the German Children’s Relief Organisation since 1995 and president of the Federal Agency for Civic Education since 2000.

Krüger: You have to go back a few years. There was a serious incident when the Russians sealed off the oil supply in 1983. Prior to this, East Germany had stored Soviet oil on tankers to sell it in Rotterdam in order to buy foreign currencies. In response, the Russians said: “You’ve lost your minds!” and then they turned off the tap. That was the first nail in the coffin because production gaps arose in all of the semifinished operations that relied on oil.

Mr Momper, you prepared for a possible collapse of the Berlin Wall after the conversation and, amongst other measures, arranged for every East German to receive welcome money.

Momper: Yes, I did. We ran out of the welcome money very quickly after 9 November and the Americans had to fly in seven tonnes of fresh money for us from Frankfurt am Main. It was also difficult to determine if the BVG (the public transportation company in West Berlin) could transport everyone. We had guessed The end. A worker on a high-rise in East Berlin begins removing the East German crest. The East German parliament voted on 31 May 1990 to remove the symbol from all public buildings. The Berlin Wall’s destruction began two weeks later. 30 Nr. 01/2020 500,000 would come but more than a million people came per day. But we mastered that challenge as well.

What was the reaction from Bonn (the capital of West Germany at the time)? Did they believe it was happening?

Momper: No, they didn’t think it was possible until the very end. We felt very close to East Germany politically, while West Germany was very far away. This could also be seen later with the young politicians who couldn’t imagine reunification.

And you, Mr Krüger, did you believe in a reunification?

Krüger: The civil rights movement was ascendant at the time and we believed that we could transform East Germany into a democratic country. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a huge mishap for us. At first, I was shocked and disappointed. At first, I didn’t even want to believe it when I heard. At the time, I was a trainee in the art service for the Evangelical Church and we put on a video workshop on 9 November. We sat in the French Cathedral and discussed matters heatedly. Then a member of the Permanent Representation of the Federal Republic came over and said: “The Wall is open!” We simply told him: “You can go tell your hairdresser, we’re busy here.” I went home to Lichtenberg and went to bed.

When did you cross the border?

Krüger: I visited friends in Kreuzberg the next day. I also really wanted to get a stamp from Checkpoint Charlie in my ID. The Philharmonic performed for everyone on the weekend and people from East Germany got into the concert for free. That was truly an incredible experience.

Ihre Nacht an der Mauer ist legendär, Herr Momper.

Momper: I started out at an awards ceremony, the Goldenes Lenkrad (Golden Steering Wheel, a German award for new car models) at the Axel Springer building. More and more people started saying that the Berlin Wall would be opened. I said so too, but people laughed at me. When it did, I gave an interview and headed over to the section of the Wall at Invalidenstraße. Those were moments I will never forget.

Thirty years have passed since then. The euphoria at the time changed quickly to frustration. Many East Germans still feel they are treated like second-class citizens. Why is that?

Krüger: This experience of transformation touched many people and caused much loss, also because the potential that existed in East Germany wasn’t sufficiently realised. As a result, many people still feel like second-class citizens today. They feel especially unappreciated culturally. This can be seen by the fact that 50 per cent of East Germans say that East Germany was not an illegitimate state. They say that partially to avoid devaluing their own biography. In this case, “illegitimate state” is not defined politically, but culturally. They felt that culturally the West was held at a higher esteem than the East.

Do you see it like this as well, Mr Momper?

Momper: Yes, exactly like that

The end. A worker on a high-rise in East Berlin begins removing the East German crest. The East German parliament voted on 31 May 1990 to remove the symbol from all public buildings. The Berlin Wall’s destruction began two weeks later.
The end. A worker on a high-rise in East Berlin begins removing the East German crest. The East German parliament voted on 31 May 1990 to remove the symbol from all public buildings. The Berlin Wall’s destruction began two weeks later.Photo: imago images/imagebroker

Was everything a little too fast? The fusion of East and West took place in accordance with article 23 of West Germany’s constitution, the Grundgesetz. The alternative would have been drafting a new constitution in accordance with article 146. Was it the right decision at the time or a missed opportunity?

Krüger: Seen historically, the path according to article 23 of the Grundgesetz was the fastest possible. The international window could have closed very quickly, as the putsch in Moscow demonstrated. But it was a decision with a mortgage. The people of East Germany not only had to tread the weary path of German post-war history, they also had to shoulder the lion’s share of the burdens that came with the transformation after 1990. The next generations will still be dealing with these consequences.

Momper: The Grundgesetz proved itself to be resilient. It simply wouldn’t have made sense to pass a new constitution.

Two final questions: 100 Years of Greater Berlin - what do you value about the city?

Momper: Its openness, its cosmopolitanism, its predominantly liberal inhabitants and the ability to be able to live however you like in this lovely and diverse city.

Krüger: Its rebelliousness and rough edges. Berlin is not polished and clean-shaven. It’s tabula rasa, a blank sheet of paper that invites you to write on it and leave your own mark, or not. Berlin has an unmistakeable sound. In the words of Peter Fox: “Good morning Berlin / You can be so ugly / So dirty and grey / You can be so terrible / Your nights eat me alive / It will be the best thing for me / I go home and get from rest / And while I walk through the streets / Black slowly becomes blue.”

What do you wish the city for the future?

Momper: To continue to be as open and liberal, as metropolitan and even more social than it already is.

Krüger: Endless serenity and a heart for everyone stranded and marginalised here, without whom this city would be nothing. “And never forget! Eisern Union!” (The football club 1. FC Union Berlin)