He might not agree with the label, but Harald Jaeger is the man credited with opening the Berlin Wall.
“It’s not me who opened the Wall. It’s the East German citizens who gathered that evening,” Jaeger says, humbly.
Nevertheless, the former East German border guard — and, at the time, loyal follower of the embattled communist regime — has gone down in history as the man who, literally, did just that.
Amid total confusion and without clear orders from on high, Jaeger made the snap decision to open the barrier at the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing between East and West Berlin on the night of Nov. 9, 1989.
Euphoric East Germans, who had massed there through the cold evening, flooded into the West, peacefully bringing down the Iron Curtain after 28 years of Berlin’s division by the iconic symbol of the Cold War.
Twenty-five years later, Jaeger, now 71, still recalls the disbelief he felt hearing the words that drew the crowd in the first place.
Out of the blue, a communist official had declared on TV that East Germans could now travel abroad “immediately, without delay.”
“I almost choked on my bread roll,” he told AFP in an interview. “I didn’t believe my ears and said to myself: ‘But what stupidity has just been announced?’”
The lieutenant colonel, who was also attached to the Stasi secret police, had worked for the East German border police for 28 years and was the deputy chief at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing in the north of East Berlin.
The East German protest movement had been snowballing for weeks and the border posts were on alert. However, Jaeger said that nothing on that day, Nov. 9, indicated that history would be made that night.
He had anticipated a normal shift, taking over responsibility for 14 officers from 6pm, when his boss knocked off and went home.
However, at the canteen where Jaeger was eating supper, things quickly changed when he watched the TV coverage of the unexpected and apparently unscripted announcement giving the green light for travel to the West.
He rushed back to his post, he said, where colleagues were at first skeptical, thinking he had been mistaken, and so he telephoned his superior hoping for clarification.
“You’re calling because of such a stupid thing?” his boss grumbled down the line, instructing Jaeger to simply send the citizens home if they did not have the necessary travel authorization to cross the border.
The trickle of curious East Germans congregating outside his office window gradually grew bigger, and people began shouting: “Let us leave.”
In a panic, Jaeger rang his boss back, but he recalls being told by his superior: “I have no order from above. I have no instructions to give you.”
The crowd kept swelling and by around 9pm, the access road to the border crossing was blocked by the mass of people.
Jaeger picked up the phone again and shouted down the line: “We have to do something.”
NO BLOOD SPILLED’
Jaeger then received orders to identify the most agitated members of the crowd and let them alone cross into the West, in the hope that this would calm the mass of people.
“But that had the opposite effect. The crowd became increasingly agitated,” Jaeger said, recalling his fear of a stampede in which citizens would be crushed.
“That’s when I said to myself: ‘Now it’s for you to act. Whatever happens, we have to let the East German citizens cross the border,’” he said.
At about 11:30pm, he gave the fateful order. “Open the barrier.”
Initially, his men stood glued to the spot, dumbfounded, and so he repeated his instruction.
Even 25 years on, recounting the tale from the sofa in his small two-room apartment in a village north of Berlin, he becomes emotional as he remembers the white-and-red barrier being opened.
“I had never seen such euphoria, and I’ve never seen it since,” Jaeger said, smiling.
However, he was quick to add that the credit goes to the power of the people who had gathered that night.
“The only thing I can be credited with is that it happened without any blood being spilled,” he said.
At dawn on Nov. 10, when his shift finally ended, Jaeger said he rang his sister.
“It’s me who opened the border last night,” he told her.
“You did well,” she replied.
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