In 1988–1989 I took my second Sabbatical Leave. Faculty are supposed to take a Sabbatical every seventh year. You are relieved of teaching duties and supposed leave the University and spend a year (at half salary) or a semester (at full salary) working on your research or delving into new areas of knowledge. My last Sabbatical had been when I was at the University of Illinois in 1967–1968, twenty years earlier. With my dual arrangement between Illinois and Miami, spending a moth each year at University College in London, and then being full time at RSMAS before I became Dean, it had been rather like I was on Sabbatical every year.
I wanted to spend another year in my favorite city, Munich, and I was welcomed into the Institute of Paleontology in the Richard-Wagner-Strasse by my old friend from my 1959–1960 Postdoctoral year in Basel, Dieter Herm, Professor and Head. I was given an office, and keys to the building. I had several years of research done with colleagues at NCAR to write up, and I wanted to develop a better set of maps of the Earth’s geography in ancient times.
In 1987 I had made arrangements from one of my Master’s Degree candidates in Geological Sciences at CU Boulder to spend a couple of years of his graduate school experience abroad, in Munich. Chris Wold didn’t know German before he went, and he spent the summer of 1987in one of the intensive language courses ‘Deutschkurse für Ausländer’, taught by the University for foreign students. It was very much like what I had experienced in 1957.In three months Chris had mastered the language well enough to be able to register in Ludwig-Maximillians-Universität zu München, the University of Munich as a regular student. Because he was working on plate tectonic maps he soon found a home in the Institute of Geophysics. He would stay on in Munich during my sabbatical year.
Chris lived with a family in Schwabing, the northern suburb where many of the University students lived. Before I arrived he found a small apartment for me not far away. Working together, we made a lot of progress on the maps. If you are interested you can see where it all led a decade or so later with involvement of many other students and colleagues :http://www.odsn.de/odsn/services/paleomap/paleomap.html.
1989 started out as a rather normal year. But during the spring a number of things happened. Mikhail Gorbachev had become General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985.In 1988 he had become Head of State. He was promoting perestroika—restructuring of the Soviet political and economic system, and glasnost—openness and free discussion.
On March 26, 1989The first free elections took place in the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian Federation. New faces filled 1,500 of more than 2,000seats in the new Congress of Peoples’ Deputies.
On April 7I traveled from Munich to Halle an der Saale in the German Democratic Republic (DDR = East Germany) to attend a meeting of the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina (literally translated that is ‘The German Academy of Researchers of Nature’. I had been elected to the Leopoldina in 1986. It is the second oldest Academy of Natural Sciences, founded in 1652 in the Free Imperial City of Schweinfurt. Since 1878, it has been seated in Halle on the Saale river.
Although I had been to Berlin and had seen East Berlin, this was my first time in the DDR proper. There was the usual inspection of the train at the border, and my invitation from the Leopoldina earned me a salute form the border guards. Arriving in Halle I was able to wander around a bit before the meeting. The city had that same grey pall as Prague. Almost everything seemed in bad need of repair. The meeting was a wonderful experience. The word ‘German’ in the Academy’s name was used loosely. It was in fact the Academy of Sciences for all of German-speaking central Europe, including Austria and Switzerland. It had many members from more distant regions as well. It was quite free from interference by the DDR government, which treated it as a hands-off national treasure they had inherited. I had never met so many well-known scientists in one place in my life.
We had excursions so that we could see more of the country. One was to Leipzig, to the Thomasakirche, the church where Johann Sebastian Bach had been organist. Its famous choir gave a concert for us was a memorable experience, It was made especially memorable for me because my chair was on Bach’s gravestone.
Then, later in April Chinese students began demonstrating for democracy. The protest movement centered in Tiananmen Square, Beijing the demonstrations continued until the government cracked down with military force on June 4.
But things were becoming loose elsewhere. On June 16, Hungarians paid homage to former premier Imre Nagy who hade lead the revolt against the Soviets in 1956.At least 250,000people attended the ceremonial reburial of PM Imre Nagy and four others who had been hanged 31 years earlier and buried face down in unmarked graves. Hungary’s communist leadership and the democratic opposition began negotiations on a transition to democracy. Communist eastern Europe was starting to become unraveled.
In Poland Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement and gaining ground, and on June 30, General Wojciech Jaruzelski announced he would not run for Poland’s new presidency.
I returned to the US in July to attend the 28th International geological Congress being held in Washington, D.C. With European colleagues I watched the news as events developed.
In July President George H. W. Bush began a visit to Poland, continuing on to Hungary. He gave a speech that stunned Europeans but was not widely reported in the US. He said that Lech Walesa, a trade unionist, was not much better than the old Communists. There was no European response for several days, and then the German Foreign Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher announced that Germany would begin supplying aid to Poland in its transition to Democracy. That made it clear that the liberalization movements in Eastern Europe were not going to be stopped.
I was back home in Estes park when, on August 11, Poland’s Solidarity-dominated Senate adopted a resolution expressing sorrow for the nation’s participation in the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.
A week later, members of Hungary’s opposition organized the “Pan-European Picnic” on the border with Austria to press for greater political freedom and promote friendship with their Western neighbors. Among the 10,000 participants were 600East Germans vacationing in Hungary. They took advantage of the occasion to escape to Austria.
A few days later, on August 23,two million people joined hands to form a human chain over600 km (373mi)long across the three Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It marked the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, when the Soviet Union and Germany agreed on spheres of interest in Eastern Europe, leading to the occupation of these three states. That same day Hungary removed its physical border defenses with Austria.
I was back in Europe, attending a Conference on Paleoceanography in Cambridge, England, in September when things really began to come apart. Hungary gave permission for thousands of East German refugees and visitors to emigrate to West Germany. More than 13,000 East German tourists in Hungary escaped to Austria and proceeded on to West Germany. Thousands of East Germans who had sought refuge in West German embassies in Czechoslovakia and Poland began emigrating under an accord between Soviet bloc and NATO nations. I flew back to the US.
At the beginning of October I was back in Germany attending geological meetings when the Czech Government agreed to let the Germans in the embassies leave for the West. Then the demonstrations in Leipzig began, with 10,000people ion thee streets demanding reforms. Things reached a climax on December 3, when special convoys of trains carrying East Germans from Prague to West Germany passed through Dresden and Leipzig. That evening I had been at dinner with friends in a village north of Munich. On the drive back into the city we listened to the radio account of what was happening as the trains passed through those cities; it was evident that massive change was on its way. The next week I was back in Colorado.
Events continued to unfold. On October 23, Hungary proclaimed itself a Republic and declared an end to communist rule. The next day Egon Krenz assumed the chairmanship of the Council of State in East Germany replacing Erich Honecker, who had always been severely out of touch with reality. A few days later Krenz delivered a nationally broadcast speech in which he promised sweeping economic and political reforms and called on East Germans to stay put and not to emigrate. He then ousted the old guard of the ruling Politburo, replacing them with reformers.
Then came that momentous day, November 9, when Communist East Germany threw open its borders, allowing citizens to travel freely to the West. Joyous Germans danced atop the Berlin Wall. I had been there in 1961 when the wall went up. I so wished I could have been there to see its fall.
The story of the fall of the wall has only become fully known in recent years. In fact it seems to have been a misunderstanding. The border crossings were to be open only to those East Germans who had been in the embassies in Prague, or in Hungary and who now had permission to emigrate. The new rules were to go into effect a few days later. Somehow the details got left out of the internal communications. When asked at a press conference that day when the crossing points would be opened, Günter Schabowski, the Communist Party boss in East Berlin said, “As far as I know effective immediately, without delay” He had forgotten to mention it was only for those East Germans who could prove they had been in Czechoslovakia or Hungary and had permission to emigrate.
The Border Guards simply heard that the border was open to anyone, immediately.
There is a film about all this I can highly recommend: Good Bye Lenin—a hilarious account of the changes 1989.
On November 23 at least 300,000 people jammed my old haunt Václavské námestí (Wenceslas Square) in Prague. They demanded democratic reforms in Czechoslovakia. The next day the hard-line Communist party leadership resigned. The ‘velvet revolution’ was under way.
On December 28 , Alexander Dubček, the reform-minded Czechoslovak Communist leader deposed in the 1968in the Soviet invasion, was named chairman of the country’s parliament. The next day Playwright Vaclav Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia, George H. W. Bush was astonished. He said he simply couldn’t understand how any country could elect someone other than a politician to be its leader.