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Mary Elise Sarotte | October 7, 2020

Mary Elise Sarotte | October 7, 2020


This event was not recorded.

On October 7, Professor Simon Miles joined Mary Elise Sarotte, the Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis Distinguished Professor of Historical Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS, in a conversation about her new book The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall. Professor Sarotte began by setting the stage with the geopolitical context, including the understanding most countries had about East Germany, the gap between Reagan and Bush and how this impacted United States’ foreign policy, Hungary opening its border to Austria (making it possible to circumvent the wall), and the October Ouster when Erich Honecker was replaced by Egon Krenz. Prof. Sarotte noted that in a regime such as East Germany, citizens have three choices: exit, voice, or loyalty. East Germany had sealed off its borders so exit was no longer an option and many citizens did not want to be loyal to the regime, which left the option of voice: mass protests centered in Leipzig occurred weekly, which set the stage for the October Ouster and eventual fall of the Berlin Wall.

Prof. Sarotte then explained the events surrounding the actual fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 at the Bornholmer Straße border crossing point. She emphasized the sudden nature of the event and the role of accident in this critical historical turning point. After a botched statement made it sound like the wall was coming down, the crossing point was overwhelmed with people who wanted to see the other side. Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jäger of the Passport Control Unit (PKE) defied orders and chose to open the border crossing. Prof. Sarotte noted that for Jäger the critical moment came when he saw young parents separated from their children. His decision led to the fall of the Berlin wall and eventual German reunification.

Prof. Sarotte then discussed the implications of the fall of the Berlin Wall for Germany and for the Cold War. She suggested that the path from the Wall to reunification was difficult but necessary, as the East German regime had little legitimacy on its own. It was, however, the result of substantial active maneuvering by a lot of people in order for reunification to occur. Prof. Sarotte also noted the wider implications of the fall of the Berlin Wall, as it ultimately was a breaking point for Gorbachev in his hold on the USSR, and an important turning point for other countries in the Warsaw Pact.