Berlin Wall went down with a party — rather than a bang
One of the most amazing aspects about the Berlin Wall’s sudden collapse 20 years ago was that no one lost their nerve. Not a single shot was fired. The Cold War ended with the biggest street party Berlin, or any city anywhere, has ever seen.
Who would have thought that’s how the Berlin Wall would go out? Berlin’s long division was the result of World War Two. The Wall was the focal point of the Cold War — Soviet and American tanks faced off almost barrel-to-barrel at Checkpoint Charlie. Not surprisingly, many people thought that the stalemate would only be changed by another war. But instead on Nov. 9, 1989 there was no bang, no blood. Just a lot of celebrating. And a lot of tears.
That’s for me probably the most fascinating thing about the sudden implosion of the Communist East German regime — it went out so peacefully. And that’s one of the themes that has been touched upon in the myriad of German media accounts in recent weeks ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Wall’s fall on Nov. 9.
It’s also an issue that’s been explored by Reuters correspondents in Berlin past and present — in a series of stories that you can read on this special page .
The collapse of the Wall was for Reuters a special occasion — not only because it was both the first to report the news to the world that the Wall had fallen but also because it was the first to report it was being built 28 years earlier, as my German language service colleague Volker Warkentin notes in his illumating story (click here) about the famous press conference on Nov. 9, 1989 that led to the Wall bursting open in the hours that followed.
Guenter Schabowski, a Politburo member, had inadverently announced at the very end of that otherwise dull hour-long news conference that East Germans would be allowed to travel directly to the West from now on. Schabowski was asked when the new rules took effect and stammered: “That comes into effect…according to my information…. immediately, without delay,” he said, shuffling through the papers spread in front of him as he sought in vain for more information. It later emerged the announcement was not supposed to be released until 4 a.m. the next morning and it was supposed to include instructions for an orderly process of applying for visas first — not the mad dash to the border that he caused.
Tom Heneghan, the bureau chief for Germany at the time, was in East Berlin writing many of the stories on that famous evening when the Wall burst open. But as the American journalist notes in his intriguing story (click here) there was so much going on that many of the details of the action only came to be known later. “What we only found out much later was that Schabowski silently asked himself: ‘I wonder if this has been cleared with the Soviets.’ He didn’t know!”, Heneghan writes. “Later that evening, as the world’s eyes zeroed in on the partying at the Wall, East Germany’s communist leader Egon Krenz was pacing the long corridors of the Central Committee headquarters alone mumbling ‘What should I do now?’ What a gem that would have been in our story that night.”
Douglas Hamilton, who came to Berlin from Paris to reinforce the bureau, was out on the streets on that night and describes the scene here. Paul Taylor, who later came to Berlin from Jerusalem, steps back here to look at Germany’s relations neighbours then and now. Ralph Boulton, who worked for many years in East Berlin for Reuters, recalls some of his experiences here in this post.
Fabrizio Bensch, who was in his last year of high school in West Berlin, grabbed his camera and went to Checkpoint Charlie when he heard on the news the Wall was opening. But it took another hour or so before the first East Germans came through. “It changed my life,” said Bensch, who decided on that night he wanted to be a photojournalist. Here’s his story.
Perhaps the most moving story is Peter Jebautzke’s. He grew up in East Germany and always dreamed of climbing in the Alps. But the Berlin Wall (3.5 metres high) kept him away from the 4,000 metre high peaks — until Nov. 9. Here’s what Jebautzke did when the Wall finally opened.
There are many theories about what led to the Wall’s opening in 1989 — my personal favourite story is that Bruce Springsteen may have helped let the genie out of the bottle a year earlier when he held a concert in front of 160,000 people in East Berlin and said: “I came here to play rock ‘n’ roll for you East Berliners in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down.”
But colleagues currently working in Berlin have also weighed in with interesting examinations of what’s going on now, 20 years later. Paul Carrel writes that the economy in formerly Communist East Germany has recovered in the last two decades in this story even if it’s not quite the “flourishing landscapes” everywhere that then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl had promised.
And Madeline Chambers shows that thousands of former workers at the loathed Stasi security police still have no remorse for the repressive regime they so ruthlessly kept in power. Here’s her story.
The German media have also had a lot of great stories. The ARD network had a fascinating documentary “Schabowskis Zettel” (Schabowski’s note) that ends with the head of the border guards at the first crossing point to open the Wall, Harald Jaeger, getting home early in the morning of Nov. 10 and telling his wife: “Honey, I just opened the Wall last night.” And then she said: “Erzaehl nicht so dummes Zeug” (Don’t come in here with rubbish like that).