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Prague 1989: Jumping the wall at the West German embassy

Prague Communists Called for Wall to Open on November 8, 1989

East German Refugee Crisis in Embassies in Prague Turned Hardliners into Advocates for Change 20 Years Ago

New Documents from Prague, Berlin, and Bonn detail the pressure on the "System" from East Germans voting with their feet

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 294

Posted - November 8, 2009

For more information contact:
Vilém Prečan, Czechoslovak Documentation Centre
Thomas Blanton, National Security Archive - 202/994-7000

Forthcoming from CEU Press:

"Masterpieces of History:" The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989
A National Security Archive Cold War Reader (Malcolm Byrne, series editor)
By Svetlana Savranskaya, Thomas Blanton and Vladislav Zubok

Related Postings

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October 9, 2009
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Washington, D.C., November 8, 2009 - Just before the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago, even the hardline Czechoslovak Communist leaders called for the opening of the German border, according to documents from high-level archives in Berlin, Bonn and Prague published for the first time in English and posted on the Web today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Czech police try to stop wall jumpers

Compiled and edited by Czech historian Vilem Precan and translated by Todd Hammond, the documents show that waves of East German refugees fleeing to the West through Czechoslovakia (more than 62,000 just in the period from November 4 to 10, 1989) so alarmed the Czechoslovak Communist authorities – who previously had resisted the reforms under way in Poland, Hungary and in Moscow – that they asked the East German leadership on November 8 to allow its citizens to go directly to West Germany, in effect to open the border.

The documents posted today include the secret diplomatic exchanges between the West German foreign ministry and its embassy in Prague where thousands of refugees took shelter, between East German diplomats in Prague and their bosses in East Berlin, between Czechoslovak diplomats and Party officials and their counterparts, and eyewitness accounts by dissident Charter 77 spokespeople about the refugee crisis.

The posting also includes contemporaneous photographs of the scene at the West German embassy in Prague, Czech police attempting to prevent refugees from scaling the embassy walls, the tent city that arose in its courtyard, and rows of abandoned Trabant cars in the streets of Prague.

The detailed essay by Vilem Precan, "Through Prague to Freedom," that accompanies the documents cites the Czechoslovak government’s demarche to East Berlin on November 8 as "a kind of ultimatum" that forced the East German Communists into a rapid "modification of rules for permanent exit" – a reform famously announced and flubbed by an East German Politburo member at a press conference on November 9.  The statements by Gunter Schabowski led Western TV reporters to declare the Berlin Wall open when it was not, but the televised news brought crowds of East Germans to the checkpoints in East Berlin that evening who eventually forced their way through and made the media reports ultimately accurate.

Partners of long standing with the National Security Archive, the Czechoslovak Documentation Centre also acknowledges the generous support of the Fritz Thyssen Foundation specifically for the intensive archival and translation efforts involving in researching and compiling the previously secret history of the refugee crisis of 1989.

 


Through Prague to Freedom
The Exodus of GDR Citizens through Czechoslovakia to the Federal Republic of Germany, September 30 – November 10, 1989

An introductory essay by Vilém Prečan (PDF version)

East Germans line up in Prague

Document 1
August 22, 1989, Bonn – Foreign Ministry of the Federal Republic of Germany to the embassy in Prague. Orders dealing with the temporary closing of the Prague embassy to the public.

PA AA Berlin, Record group B85, Vol. 2346E. Drahterlass No. 402.
Translation (extract) by Todd Hammond.

Document 2
September 12, 1989, Prague – Statement from Czechoslovak Press Agency on the alleged anti-Czechoslovak campaign by the media and some political circles in the Federal Republic concerning the "illegal emigration" of GDR citizens.

CTK (Czech Press Agency), Prague. Archival database, 9/12/1989.     
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Document 3
September 14, 1989, Prague – Charter 77 spokepersons to the CSSR government. Letter on the situation of East German refugees at the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Prague.

Informace o Chartě 77, Vol. 12 (1989), No. 17, p. 2.
Translation (extract) by Todd Hammond.

Document 4
September 20, 1989, Prague – GDR Ambassador Helmut Ziebart to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin. Reports on measures taken by the Czechoslovak authorities against attempts by citizens of the GDR to cross into Hungary, and the situation at the Federal Republic embassy in Prague.

BStU Berlin. MfS, ZAIG, 22477, Fol. 17 f.
Translation (extract) by Todd Hammond.

Document 5
September 21, 1989, Berlin – Memorandum of conversation between GDR Foreign Minister Oskar Fischer and director of the fourth territorial department of the Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry Kadnár. With the authorization of the General Secretary of the CPCz Central Committee and the CSSR Government, Kadnár relays the Czechoslovak position on the question of the GDR citizens at the Embassy of Federal Republic in Prague. "The Czechoslovak side asks that the GDR consider the possibility of solving the problem in Prague with a one-time measure explicitly described as a great exception."

SAPMO-BArch. Berlin. DY 30, 11621.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

In the courtyard of the West German embassy

Document 6
September 29, 1989, Prague – Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs to CSSR Permanent UN Mission in New York. Report of the territorial department IV for Minister Johanes on the newest Czechoslovak proposals and other steps to resolve the situation at the embassy of the Federal Republic in Prague. "The GDR must take a more active part in the interest of easing the entire set of problems..."

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archive, Prague. Telegrams sent, 1989, vol. 9, ref. no. 3335
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Document 7
September 29, 1989, Prague – Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the CSSR Permanent UN Mission in New York. Report by the Territorial Department IV for Minister Johanes on the meeting between Soviet ambassador Lomakin and Secretary of the CPCz Central Committee Jozef Lenárt over the issue of the GDR citizens at the Federal Republic embassy in Prague.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archive, Prague. Telegrams sent, 1989, vol. 9, ref. no. 3338.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Document 8
September 29, 1989, 16:35, Prague – GDR Ambassador Helmut Ziebart to the SED Central Committee and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin, relaying his observations from conversations with officials of the CPCz and the CSSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

BStU Berlin, MfS, HA II, 32922, Fol. 5 – 7.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Document 9
September 30, 1989, Prague – Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the CSSR Permanent UN Mission in New York. Report of the Territorial Department IV for Minister Johanes on proposals by the GDR leadership for transport of GDR citizens from the Prague embassy of the Federal Republic, and agreement by CSSR officials with this solution.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archive, Prague. Telegrams sent, 1989, vol. 9, ref. no. 3340.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Document 10
October 2, 1989, Prague – Embassy of the Federal Republic in Prague to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bonn. Summary report on the one-time transfer of citizens of the GDR to the Federal Republic on the night of September 30 – October 1 after intervention by Foreign Minister Genscher, and another wave of refugees on the embassy grounds.

PA AA Berlin. Record group AV, Vol. 20.682E. Drahtbericht  No.2294.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Outside the West German embassy

Document 11
October 3, 1989, 17:40, Prague – GDR Ambassador Helmut Ziebart to the GDR Foreign Ministry and the SED Central Committee, conveying a plea by the CPCz leadership and the CSSR Government to have some understanding for Czechoslovakia’s difficult situation resulting from the mass influx of GDR citizens; expressing the CSSR Government's thanks for finding a solution; and informing the GDR Foreign Ministry of the Czechoslovak intention to stand behind the GDR position.

BStU Berlin, MfS, HA II, 38061, Fol. 110 f.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Document 12
October 3, 1989, Prague – CSSR Government statement about the gathering of citizens of the GDR at the Embassy of the Federal Republic, and their departure to the Federal Republic, with criticism of the allegedly irresponsible measures taken by the Federal Republic.

CTK (Czech Press Agency), Prague. Archival database, 10/3/1989.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Document 13
October 3, 1989, Berlin – CSSR Ambassador to the GDR František Langer to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Prague. Reports on the decision of the SED leadership to temporarily suspend private travel by GDR citizens to Czechoslovakia, and resolve the situation at the Federal Republic embassy in Prague as was done on September 30.

Foreign Ministry Archive, Prague. Telegrams received, 1989, vol. 35.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Document 14
October 4, 1989, Berlin – First Deputy Foreign Minister Herbert Krolikowski to General Secretary of the SED Central Committee and Chairman of the GDR State Council Erich Honecker. Relays information from Ambassador Helmut Ziebart with urgent inquiries and messages from CSSR officials. "Comrade Jakeš asks that Comrade Honecker himself be told that the situation in Prague is highly critical."

BStU Berlin. MfS, Sekr. des Ministers, 63, Fol. 23 f.
Translation (extract) by Todd Hammond.

Document 15
October 4, 1989, Berlin – Resolution by the SED Politburo on measures to be taken in regard to the emigration of GDR citizens gathering at the embassy of the Federal Republic in Prague, further limitations on the visa- and passport-free travel regime with the CSSR, and increased patrolling of the GRD’s border with Poland.

SAPMO-BArch. Berlin. DY 30, 5195, Fol. 14 f.  Also SAPMO-BArch. Berlin. DY 30, J IV/2/2, 2530, Fols. 1–3.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Abandoned East German Trabants
line the streets of Prague

Document 16          
October 5, 1989, Prague – Czechoslovak State Security Headquarters, Second Department. Information on the exodus of GDR citizens from the Prague embassy of the Federal Republic through GDR territory, and the situation in and around the embassy on October 1–4, 1989

Security Services Archive, Prague. Object file reg. no. 845 ("Obora"), Fols. 209–212.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Document 17
October 5, 1989, Berlin – Summary of information by the GDR Ministry of State Security about the transport to the Federal Republic of East German citizens taking refuge at West German embassy, and related events, occurring on the territory of the GDR, especially in Dresden.
                                               
BStU Berlin, MfS, Arbeitsbereich Neiber, 613, Fols. 22-27.
Translation (extract) by Todd Hammond.

Document 18
October 5–6, 1989, Prague – Report from Charter 77 signatory Jan Urban on the second exodus of GDR citizens from Prague to the Federal Republic, published in the independent samizdat bulletin Information on Charter 77.

Informace o Chartě 77, Vol. 12 (1989), No. 18, 9—11 pp.
Translation (extract) by Todd Hammond.
 
Document 19
October 19, 1989, Prague – Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the CSSR embassies. Summary from the department of information and documentation on the situation in the GDR and personnel changes in the SED leadership.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archive, Prague. Telegrams sent, 1989, vol. 9, ref. no. 3550.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Document 20
October 23, 1989, Berlin – CSSR Ambassador to the GDR František Langer to the Foreign Ministry in Prague. Reports on politics of the new SED leadership, and the political situation in the country. "The Party and state leadership is now being pressured into a number of reforms in a wide range of areas, beginning with travel and ending for example with revising the results of local elections."

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archive, Prague. Telegrams received, 1989, vol. 38.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Document 21
October 24, 1989, Berlin – Resolution of the Politburo of the SED CC, concerning the rescinding of the temporary suspension of travel to the CSSR without a passport or visa, effective November 1, 1989.

SAPMO-BAr Berlin, DY 30, 5195, Fols. 275-277.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Document 22
October 25, 1989, Berlin – CSSR Ambassador to the GDR František Langer to the foreign ministry in Prague. He reports on the intention of the GDR to reopen the border for private travel to Czechoslovakia. "The GDR intends to issue the decision on the allowing of tourist traffic to the same extent as it was in the past."

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archive, Prague. Telegrams received, 1989, vol. 38.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Document 23
November 3, 1989, Berlin – GDR Minister of Foreign Affairs Oskar Fischer to General Secretary of the SED Central Committee Egon Krenz. Relays a telephone message from Prague with proposals by General Secretary Jakeš about the situation at the FRG embassy in Prague, and proposes to resolve the situation by allowing direct travel by citizens of the GDR from Czechoslovakia to the Federal Republic without formal release from GDR citizenship. (Below the address on the letterhead is the handwritten note, "Einverstanden [I agree], Egon Krenz".)

SAPMO-BArch, Berlin. DY 30, 5196, Fols. 17–19; also DY 30 IV/2/2.039 (Bureau Egon Krenz), Vol. 342, Fols. 155–157.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Document 24
November 3, 1989, Berlin – CSSR Ambassador František Langer to the Foreign Ministry in Prague. Reports on the fecklessness of SED officials in the face of the situation created after the reopening of the border for free travel from the GDR to Czechoslovakia. Langer tells East Berlin officials that "no one in the CSSR understands why citizens of the GDR must travel to the FRG through the CSSR".

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archive, Prague. Telegrams received, 1989, vol. 39.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Document 25
November 4, 1989, Prague – Embassy of the Federal Republic to the Foreign Ministry in Bonn. Direct travel by 4600 GDR citizens from Czechoslovakia to the Federal Republic of Germany, organized by the embassy. "The third mass departure through the Prague embassy organized over the past few weeks is now largely at an end."

PA AA Berlin. Record group B85, Vol. 2347E. Drahtbericht No. 2578.
Translation by Todd Hammond

Document 26
November 5, 1989, Prague – GDR Ambassador Helmut Ziebart to the foreign ministry in Berlin. Reports on the numbers of GDR citizens who departed from Prague to the Federal Republic on November 3–5 with only GDR personal identification card, and problems that the new arrangement is causing on the Czechoslovak side. "The Czechoslovak comrades are asking more and more often when citizens of the GDR will be permitted to use the border crossings between the GDR and FRG under the same conditions they can do right now through the territory of the CSSR."

BStU, Berlin. MfS, HA II, 32922, Fol. 22.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Document 27
November 8, 1989, Prague – GDR Ambassador Helmut Ziebart to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin. Ziebart was asked "to relay the request that departures by citizens of the GDR to the FRG be handled directly, and not through the territory of the CSSR."

BStU Berlin. MfS, Arbeitsbereich Neiber, 553, Fol. 2
Translation by Todd Hammond..

Document 28
November 9, 1989, Prague – Information summary from the CPCz Central Committee to the various branches of the CPCz apparatus about the emigration of GDR citizens to the Federal Republic through the territory of the CSSR on November 1– 8, 1989.

National Archive, Prague. Record Group ÚV KSČ (CPCz CC), Documentation 1989 (unsorted). Teletext messages and letters of the CPCz Central Committee.
Translation (extract) by Todd Hammond.

Document 29
November 10, 1989, Berlin (West) – Chief of the CSSR Military Mission in West Berlin Sochor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Prague on the situation after the opening of the Berlin Wall in the night of November 9–10, 1989.
                                   
Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archive, Prague. Telegrams received, 1989, vol. 40.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

Document 30
November 10, 1989, Prague – Statement by the Federal Ministry of the Interior press officer, on the number of East German citizens who emigrated through Czechoslovakia to the Federal Republic during November 4–10, 1989.

CTK (Czech Press Agency), Prague.  Archival database, 11/10/1989.
Translation by Todd Hammond.

 


Notes

Deutsche Reichsbahn: the name adopted by the GDR for its railway system from 1949 to 1994; PA AA Berlin (Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes): Archive of the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Berlin; BStU (Bundesbeauftragter für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen DDR): Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives; Drahtbericht: an encrypted telegram from the Embassy of the Federal Republic; Drahterlass: an encrypted telegram from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bonn; MfS: Ministry of State Security, Berlin (East)

 

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