Not the most laudable of careers overall but it had its moment, it had its moment:
The Stasi official Harald Jäger, a second-tier passport-control officer overseeing the night shift at Bornholmer Street, became the man who opened the wall. He was an unlikely candidate for this title. Jäger had amassed 25 years of loyal service to the Stasi, mainly as a paper-pusher. Yet on the night of Nov. 9, he was the senior Stasi officer on duty at Bornholmer Street, in charge of all of the men and weapons present.
Jäger watched Schabowski’s botched press conference from a television while on the job and couldn’t believe his ears. Yelling obscenities at the screen, he grabbed the phone to find out what was going on. His superiors told him that there were no new orders—it was business as usual for the wall. But it wasn’t. The crowd of would-be border crossers swelled. Among the first to demand to exit were Radomski and Schefke. They were soon joined by dozens, then hundreds, then thousands more.
Jäger kept calling to plead for orders, but his superiors accused him of being delusional. Finally, at his insistence, they gave him new instructions: Pull the biggest troublemakers out of the crowd and let them out—but put a stamp over the photo on their identity documents. That stamp would mean that they could never return to East Germany.
Jäger and his men yanked some of the rowdiest protesters from the throngs. Radomski and Schefke were among the first to get the stamps and be let out of the Bornholmer checkpoint-control building on its western side. They crossed a bridge into the West on foot, wondering all the while if they were about to be grabbed just before getting out. Once in West Berlin, they headed straight for the home of friends—and later guessed that they weren’t sober again for five days.
A young couple also exited this way and then returned swiftly to the Western entry to Bornholmer, telling the guards that they had only wanted to have at least one peek at the West before returning to their children, home alone in bed. But the East German border guard told them that they had been expelled forever. The young parents were shocked, grief-stricken and furious; just as had happened to so many East Germans in 1961, they had been abruptly amputated from their family by the wall. They pleaded for human mercy, and the guards insisted that Jäger come over to lay down the law.
Instead, seeing the devastated young couple, Jäger snapped. It was, in part, personal: Jäger believed on Nov. 9 that he was dying of cancer. He had recently received suspicious test results and had a doctor’s appointment scheduled for the next day, where he expected to learn the worst. After hours of being called delusional, fearing for the lives of his men in the face of the massive crowds, and feeling that he was a dead man with nothing to lose anyway, the sight of the anguished parents was the final straw. He let them return to East Germany—disobeying a direct order.
Soon, Jäger started letting others back in as well. Around 11 p.m., with the crowds reaching into the tens of thousands, Jäger had had enough. He gathered his men and said, in effect, that either they were going to start shooting or they were going to open up. In a moment that changed history, Jäger decided to open up: He instructed some junior officers to pull open the main gate by hand. The crowds immediately surged peacefully and joyously through the opening.
Jäger’s doctor’s appointment was much delayed amid the tumult, but when he finally made it later that fall, he learned that he didn’t have cancer after all. If he had known that on Nov. 9, history might have been different.
Word that the wall had opened spread quickly. Other border checkpoints opened.
In the end it always, but always, comes down to this. Any system of repression, any mode or method of oppression. Will that guy, the bored career middle ranker, will he kill to uphold it? And it always does come down to that, in the end.