Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?
Ask anyone under 30 that question and you may get a blank stare. But for those of us who came of age during the Cold War, the significance of November 9, 1989, cannot be overstated. On that glorious night, ordinary citizens claimed their natural rights to be free and began to demolish the biggest symbol of their oppression.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was the opening of the final act of a drama that began in Poland with the Solidarity Movement early in the decade and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union a little more than two years later. Poland had freed itself from the Communist yoke earlier in 1989, followed quickly by Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Both of those countries opened their borders with the West. When Hungary opened its borders with Austria, the East German people rushed to go on “holiday,” never to return.
The East German government tried to staunch the flow of people by severely restricting travel to Hungary. This led to the first massive protests in October and the eventual resignation of East Germany’s long-serving Communist dictator, Erich Honecker, on the 19th.
Then, on the evening of November 9, an obscure bureaucrat in the East German government responded to a question at a press conference about the easing of travel restrictions. What happened next — a mix of low comedy and high drama — was chronicled in the book The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall by USC professor Mary Elise Sarotte:
That night at 6, Guenter Schabowski, a member of the East German Politburo who served as its spokesman, was scheduled to hold a news conference. Shortly before it began, he received a piece of paper with an update on the regulations and a suggestion that he mention them publicly. He had not been involved in discussions about the rules and did not have time to read the document carefully before starting.
His hour-long news conference was so tedious that Tom Brokaw, who was there, remembered being “bored.” But in the final minutes, an Italian journalist’s question about travel spurred Schabowski’s memory. He tried to summarize the new regulations but became confused, and his sentences trailed off. “Anyway, today, as far as I know, a decision has been made,” he said. “It is a recommendation of the Politburo that has been taken up, that one should from the draft of a travel law, take out a passage. . .”
Among the long-winded clauses, some snippets leapt out: “exit via border crossings” and “possible for every citizen.”
Suddenly, every journalist in the room had questions. “When does that go into force?” shouted one. “Immediately?” shouted another. Rattled and mumbling to himself, Schabowski flipped through his papers until he uttered the phrase: “Immediately, right away.”
It felt as if “a signal had come from outer space and electrified the room,” Brokaw recalled. Some wire journalists rushed out to file reports, but the questions kept coming, among them: “What will happen to the Berlin Wall now?”
Alarmed about what was unfolding, Schabowski concluded with more muddled responses: “The question of travel, of the permeability therefore of the wall from our side, does not yet answer, exclusively, the question of the meaning, of this, let me say it this way, fortified border.” Furthermore, “the debate over these questions could be positively influenced if the Federal Republic [of West Germany] and if NATO would commit themselves to and carry out disarmament.”
As NATO was unlikely to disarm itself by breakfast, Schabowski clearly did not expect much to happen that night. But it was too late — by 7:03 p.m., the wires were reporting that the Berlin Wall was open.
The news was reported on the nightly news shows in East Berlin. As if by magic, thousands of people streamed into the streets and began to make their way to the wall. West Berliners had also heard the news and they, too, began to mass near the crossings.
Unsure what to do, the border guards, who had received no instructions regarding this turn of events, finally relented to the importuning of the crowd and opened the gates. The shouts of joy echoed in the streets of Berlin drawing more people to the celebration. As if by magic, hundreds of sledgehammers appeared and people on both sides of the wall began to attack the structure with enthusiasm. Some brought ordinary hammers and began to pound away at the hated symbol that had separated the two Germanys for almost 30 years.
This video on the next page captures some of the drama at the gates that night.
It would take another year for reunification to become a reality, followed by a decade of economic turmoil. Even today, people living in the former East Germany have lower standards of living and less economic security. But most Germans would eschew going back to the world the way it was on November 8, 1989.
A case can be made that the fall of the Berlin Wall was the most dramatic moment of the 20th century. The suddenness of the event, the outpouring of emotion when people realized they were free to come and go as they please, and the presence of hundreds of TV news outlets showing the drama to a worldwide audience made the fall of the Berlin Wall the largest shared experience in world history to that point.
Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?