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Thursday, 6 November 2014

The man who opened the Berlin Wall....

East German border guard who gave the order to open the Berlin Wall speaks about his historic decision 25 years on

Harald Jäger, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the former east German secret police Stasi, poses in his home in Werneuchen, north of Berlin
At 11.30pm on November 9, 1989, Lieutenant-Colonel Harald Jäger was faced with a stand-off. For hours, some 20,000 East German protestors had amassed at Berlin's border crossing demanding to be let through.
Lt-Col Jäger gave the order to 46 armed guards at his command to open the barrier and stand aside.
It was the moment the Berlin Wall fell.
The other border crossings followed Lt-Col Jäger's lead, and thousands of jubilant East Germans poured into West Berlin, among them the future Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Some even began to climb over the wall. Its years dividing the city were finally over.
But as the crowds rushed through his checkpoint, Lt-Col Jäger wept, he told reporters – from a combination of relief that the confrontation had ended without violence, and despair that the communist ideal he had served for much of his life had failed.
The 71-year-old rejects any suggestion that he was a hero that night.
"The heroes were the other side," he told Mitteldeutsche Zeitung newspaper. "I was so on the safe side."
But if Lt-Col Jäger had not given the order for the Wall to be opened, the night could easily have ended in bloodshed.
The stand-off began after the East German regime, reeling from weeks of protests and a flood of refugees fleeing to the West via Czechoslovakia and Hungary, decided to allow open the borders and East Germans to travel freely.
But the flustered apparatchik tasked with announcing the decision mistakenly said it would take effect immediately, and tens of thousands of East Germans began streaming to the wall, demanding to be allowed across.
"When I saw him say that on TV, I thought: 'What a load of total c***'," Lt-Col Jäger told Reuters news agency. "He should have known East Germans would head straight for the exits when they heard that. But they didn't inform us at all. We were kept in the dark."
As the crowds massed outside the border crossing he commanded on Bornholmer Strasse, Lt-Col Jäger made a series of increasingly desperate calls to his superiors, asking how to proceed.
None of them would tell him what to do. One told him to send the East Germans home unless they had official travel authorisation to cross the Wall. But outside, Lt-Col Jäger could see that the crowd was growing angry.
When he called again and told his superiors he had to do something, he was told to let a few of the most agitated people in the crowd through, in the hope it would calm the others. But this just made the crowd more restive. Lt-Col Jäger began to fear a stampede.
"My world was collapsing and I felt like I was left alone by my party and my military commanders," he said.
"There were fears they could get their hands on our weapons. My border guards were urging me to do something but they didn't know what. They knew their necks would be on the line, so they wanted me to make the decision."
At 11.30pm, he made the decision to let everybody through. "When I saw the masses of East German citizens there, I knew they were in the right," he said. "I was only a lieutenant-colonel and didn't have the authority. But when no one from above would give any orders, I was practically forced to take action."
When he told his sister the next day he was the one who had opened the Wall, she said "You did well". But it wasn't until many years later that Lt-Col Jäger's role became more widely known.
"It wasn't me who opened the wall. It was the East German citizens who gathered that evening," he told The Local website. "The only thing I can be credited with is that it happened without any blood being spilled."