The Man Who Opened the Berlin Wall

Harald Jaeger, Checkpoint Guard Who Was Swept Aside in Berlin Wall StampedeCourtesy Heyne
When dozens of East Berliners showed up at the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing on a cold and gray November evening in 1989 demanding to be let into West Berlin, Lt. Col. Harald Jaeger asked for guidance from his superiors.

When dozens of East Berliners showed up at the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing on a cold and gray November evening in 1989 demanding to be let into West Berlin, Lt. Col. Harald Jaeger asked for guidance from his superiors.

By the time the crowd grew into the hundreds and became more demanding, it became clear to Jaeger that he would get no guidance from his superiors.

The excited East Germans converged on the border crossing that Jaeger commanded because hours earlier Politburo member Gunter Schabowski announced to the international media gathered at the government's press center in East Berlin that "the ruling Communist Party had declared East Germans were free to travel immediately."

That dramatic decision took everybody by surprise. It wasn't long before the first dozen or so East Berliners were gathering at the border crossing Bornholmer Strasse shouting at the armed guards to let them out.

Jaeger, who had been serving with the East German border guards for almost 30 years, was the highest-ranking officer in command of Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint that evening 20 years ago.

The man who would soon give the order to open the Berlin Wall was, at first, shocked by the Politburo's decision, all the more because no one had alerted him to any change of policy.

Jaeger immediately called his superior to ask for instructions.

His superior was as stunned as he was and had no orders for him, Jaeger said.

"In fact, he asked me if I was aware of the Politburo's decision? He obviously had no prior knowledge that the travel ban was to be lifted either and needed to call his superior to inquire what to do," Jaeger said.

Jaeger's superior called him back about a half hour later while more and more people gathered outside the border checkpoint.

The two men, both experienced in how to deal with "provocateurs" -- as East German dissidents were called -- came to the conclusion that the people should be allowed to cross into the western part of Berlin on the condition they would not be allowed to return to their homes in the east.

"We thought if we relieved the pressure a bit by suggesting that, that would help to ease the situation, but little did we know," Jaeger said. "People only started shouting louder and louder, and there were more and more people gathering. Within an hour or so after the first people arrived at the checkpoint, there were about 100 or so and the situation was becoming really nasty."

Opening the Berlin Wall

Jaeger called the boss yet again, he said. But his superior had contacted his own boss again, but no one in command knew what to do.

"My boss told me in no uncertain terms that he had no more orders," Jaeger said. "I was practically left on my own."

Jaeger, who was 18 years old when he first joined the East German army, witnessed the wall being built in 1961. He knew that the situation could easily get out of hand.

A few days before, East German leader Egon Krenz had been visiting Moscow to discuss his country's deteriorating situation with Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, who had made it clear that the Soviet leadership opposed any use of force against the East German people.

Instead, Krenz was told the Politburo should do everything possible to stabilize the situation and bring people around.

Krenz had barely been back to East Berlin when East German border guards were instructed to avoid the use of firearms on any account, a drastic change from the "shoot to kill" order that had been existing for many years.

For once in his long career, Jaeger did not know what to do.

The situation outside his command post became nastier by the minute.

People were screaming and shouting. They wanted to be let through the wall that had kept them from the Western world and the situation was escalating dramatically.

He thought it would not be long before people would turn violent against a handful of border guards outside the command post, who were helplessly confronted by thousands of angry East Berliners now.

That's when Jaeger decided, shortly after 11 p.m., to give the order, "Open the gate," making the checkpoint at Bornholmer Strasse the very first one to let a couple thousand East Berliners through into West Berlin.

Most of those people, who had been gathering there for a couple of hours, returned shortly.

For the most part, they just wanted to see what it was like there and if the Politburo was telling the truth, for once, when Politburo members announced that East Germans were free to travel.

Other checkpoints were also opened in the course of the night of Nov. 9, 1989, but the one under Jaeger's command was the first to let many thousand easterners through the gates into the West, most of them just to experience and enjoy their sudden freedom of movement.

The Crowd Made Jaeger Do It

"It wasn't me," Jaeger said. "It was that crowd in front of my checkpoint. The situation was explosive. That made me do it."

Later, after the two Germanys were reunited in 1990, Jaeger was forced to take early retirement.

He and his wife live in a small apartment outside of the former East German capital.

He has since written a book called "The Man Who Opened the Berlin Wall."