Ewald Koenig, editor-in-chief of EURACTIV Germany, was present in Berlin during the “craziest and luckiest night in German history” when the Wall fell. This piece is part of a series of 45 articles by Koenig covering his memories of communist times.
“Once in my life dancing on top of the wall! Once in my life parking my Trabi car on the famous Ku’damm! People got crazy and lost their mind on that unforgettable Berlin night twenty years ago.
On the evening of 9 November 1989, people were hesitant to believe what Guenter Schabowski had announced in his press conference: “Freedom to travel, at once, immediately.” But after they heard the news on West German television later that evening, when ZDF anchorman Hanns Joachim Friedrichs interpreted the statement rather generously and pronounced the simple and clear statement “today the GDR opened the doors” – after that, masses came to the border checkpoints. At 11:29 p.m. the first checkpoint was given up by frontiersmen on Bornholmer Street.
“I am completely mad: I am sitting on the top of the Wall and drinking sparkling wine!,” a 54-year-old woman from East Berlin cried. Just a few weeks beforehand, her application to visit her 20-year-old daughter in the Western part of Berlin had been rejected. The authorities told her she would be allowed to visit the other side when her daughter had celebrated her 50th birthday. “And now, after these 28 years of the Wall, the whole world is open for me!”
In front of the Brandenburg Gate, the Wall was lower than in other parts of divided Berlin. It was just 2.5 metres high instead of 3.5 metres. Due to hidden anti-tank barriers, this part of the wall was 3.5 metres wide. It was a wonderful place to dance and party, to pull up many other young people from the Western and Eastern side.
Michael Wolfram (36) and Michael Seeger (40), both from the West side, even raised their bikes because they wanted to be the very first people to cross the Wall by bicycle – in sight of thousands of people and in sight of hundreds of policemen. The two men never had been to East Berlin before.
People climbed the Wall from both sides. The East German policemen warned them by megaphone not to do so. Three hours after midnight, GDR water cannons stopped people climbing from the East side to the West. But they let people climb from the West side to the East.
A 43-year-old auto mechanic who crossed the wall with his dog said at the time: “No-one on the Wall knows who is West and who is East German! The fact that I can stand on the Wall, I never had dared to dream this morning!”
Now the concrete segments of the Wall could be used for social buildings, he suggested. His idea was to go to West Berlin by taxi from East Berlin. This was a big adventure, because the taxi drivers knew the road system on the other side of their town about as well as they knew the lunar landscape.
Two young police officers from the communist side were ready to say something to a reporter. They told me how nervous they were when they were put on standby alert and posted at the Brandenburg Gate. The one, 25-years-old and a father of two children, said: “If you are not prepared for the alert and you have to come instantly, you have a lot of very heavy thoughts on your mind. My wife, too, is extremely nervous.” They tried to avoid any confrontational situation. The policemen were posted in five rows but after some time they let people pass.
The police megaphone shouted into the night: “People of West Berlin: I request you to leave the Wall!” It was the first time GDR officials had used this word. Officially the Wall had been the “antifascist protective wall”. But nobody noticed what the officer said, because he was greeting with whistling and yelling from thousands of people.
Even the young police officer himself told me that after he had finished his duties he wanted to make a short trip to the West, too, for the first time in his life. “This new law is effective for all GDR citizens now, and above all we are citizens, too!”
His 29-year-old colleague said: “Most of the older policemen here don’t know what to think at this moment. Let me tell you: here are so many brigade groups close to the Wall. Some of these officers had been in duty on 13 August 1961 when the Wall was constructed. They might struggle with the current situation.”
The experience of 22-year old Tobias Perlick was very similar as he passed the border on Bornholmer Street. “You can see it in their face how stonily they are looking. I can feel it: they would prefer to stop this spook immediately.”
In West Berlin, the people of the GDR found an enthusiastic reception. Their Trabi cars were sprinkled with sparkling wine. People were drumming on the roofs of the GDR cars, which blocked the whole of West Berlin.
A young cook could not believe that he received a job offer instantly. Taxi drivers accepted the GDR mark, which was soft currency and worth just a tenth of the value of the West German D-Mark, at a 1:1 rate. Many pubs invited GDR citizens for free drinks. McDonald’s on Ku’damm reopened its fast food restaurant that night. A young family was eating a single hamburger and a small packet of French fries, shared between the parents and the children, and they looked overjoyed, as though they were in paradise.
For 28 years, the Wall had been the most hated piece of Berlin, and suddenly it became the most desirable collectible. Wherever concrete pieces of the Wall had been demolished, people took the stones and let policemen sign them as mementoes. One worker said: “Never before had I seen a construction site as clean as this one.”
On the capitalist side of the Wall, some Turkish immigrant workers started to sell pieces of the Wall for D-Marks.
The next night, they opened the Wall in five places to let people go through. It was a shock when people saw the death strip between the two Wall lines.
A worker busy demolishing a segment of the Wall with a excavator could not hide his tears when I asked him about his feelings. It was exactly this place where he had to build the wall in 1961, it was exactly this place where he lost his best friend who had tried to escape by climbing over the inner wall and jumping into the death strip – landing on a iron ‘fakir’ gadget and bleeding to death – and it was exactly this place where I was told to tear down the Wall.”
Ewald Koenig, 2009.
Now editor-in-chief of the Berlin-based euractiv.de, Ewald Koenig is part of a European news and policies network, which would have been impossible without the German reunification process 20 years ago.
Prior to the Berlin Wall's erection in 1961, some 3.5 million East Germans emigrated to West Germany. After the Wall was built, around 5,000 people attempted to cross it, with estimates of resulting deaths ranging between 100 and 200.
During a revolutionary wave sweeping across the Eastern bloc, on 9 November 1989, an East German government official announced after a misunderstanding that all citizens of East Germany could visit West Berlin and West Germany freely. Tens of thousand of East Germans immediately went to the border crossing points. The East Germany border guards did not oppose them.
Crowds of East Germans climbed onto the wall and crossed it, soon joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. Over the next few weeks, parts of the wall were destroyed. The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for Germany's reunification, which was formally concluded on 3 October 1990.