The Fall of the Berlin Wall: A Personal Account
Berlin, 11th and 12th of November, 1989: On Thursday, the 9th of November, 1989, and Friday the 10th, the TV and radio in Denmark was filled with news about the events in Berlin. The Berlin Wall was about to fall. On Saturday morning, the 11th of November, I heard on the radio that East Germany was collapsing. At the spur of the moment, I suggested to Karen, my Danish wife, and two Danish friends, Rolf Reitan and Nana Kleist, that we should go to Berlin. We talked about what one should take to a revolution: it was a very cold, dry November day. We settled on a dozen boiled eggs, a thermos pot of coffee, extra warm clothes, sleeping bags, and a battery-powered radio. The four of us packed into my 25-year old Volkswagen bug and we drove off.
It's normally an eight hour drive from Aarhus, Denmark, to Berlin. We took the Autobahn down to Hamburg and then across one of the transit routes to Berlin. Berlin is in the center of East Germany. There are only three highways which allow access from West Germany. At the border city of Braunschweig (Brunswick), on the German side, we began to see the first Trabants. These are small East German cars. They don't just look like toy cars, they look like Donald Duck's car. It was designed by a famous East German industrial designer during the 50s and it never changed. It's the only car in the world with tail fins. It has cheap, thin metal that rusts easily. The two-stroke engine buzzes like a lawn mower and pumps out clouds of smoke. God help you if you're standing near one. Trabants, which Germans call Trabis, have a top speed of about 50 miles an hour.
After a pizza in Braunschweig, we drove towards the German/German border. It was about 11 p.m. at night now. The traffic began to slow down. Soon there was very heavy traffic. In the distance there was a tremendous cloud of light. No one knew what was going on. On the radio, reports followed one another, contradicting each other. Soon, we began to pass cars that were parked along both sides of the Autobahn. People were walking along, all heading towards the border.
We finally reached the border just after midnight. The East German border was always a serious place. Armed guards kept you in your car, watching for attempts at escapes. Tonight was a different country. Over 20,000 East and West Germans were gathered there in a huge party: as each Trabi came through, people cheered and clapped. East Germans drove through the applause, grinning, dazed, as thousands of flashbulbs went off. The traffic jam was spectacular. The cloud of light turned out to be the headlights of tens of thousands of cars in a huge cloud of Trabi exhaust fumes. We got out of the car and began walking. Between lanes of cars, streams of people were walking, talking together. Under one light, a group of musicians were playing violins and accordions and men and women were dancing in circles. Despite the brilliantly cold night, car windows were open and everyone talked to each other.
We met people from Belgium, France, Sweden, Spain, England: they had all left their homes and come to see the wall be torn down. Germans were drunk with joy. Everyone spoke in all sorts of languages and half languages. French spoke German and Spaniards spoke French and everyone spoke a bit of German. We walked for a while with a French family from Belgium: the mother had packed her two young daughters into the car and came to see the German revolution.
Along with everyone else headed towards Berlin were thousands of East Germans; they had been in West Europe for a blitz tour with the kids and grandmother in the back, to look around and drive back again. Without passports, they had simply driven through the borders. Amused West European border guards let them pass. They smiled and waved to everyone.
At the checkpoint, which is a 25 lane place, people milled around. It was nearly 3 a.m. by now. It had taken us three hours to go through the traffic jam of cheering and applause. West Germans are environmentally conscious and if they're stuck in traffic, they turn off the engine and push their cars. East Germans, on the other hand, sat in their Trabis, putting out clouds of exhaust. Everyone had their radios on and everywhere was music. People had climbed up into trees, signs, buildings, everything, to wave and shout. Television teams stood around filming everything. People set up folding tables and were handing out cups of coffee. A Polish engineer and his wife had run out of gas; someone gave us some rope, so we tied the rope to his car and pulled them along.
We walked through the border. On both sides the guard towers were empty and the barbed wire was shoved aside in great piles. Large signs told us that we needed sets of car documents. The East German guard asked if we had documents. I handed him my Danish cat's vaccination documents, in Danish. He waved us through.
We were finally inside East Germany on the transit highway to Berlin. We could see headlights stretching into the distance, a river of light winding through hills and valleys as far as one could see. We counted our odometer and saw that in the opposite direction both lanes were filled and stopped for 35 kilometers. We counted people and cars for a kilometer and guessed that perhaps another one hundred thousand people were headed westward towards West Germany.
We drove along, listening to the radio. The only thing was Berlin. Reporters went back and forth, describing the events on the streets and where people had gathered at the wall. There were reports of shoving and arrests. Large crowds were beginning to form into mobs. Police stood around. There were reports of rumor of soldiers and military vehicles, both East and West. At one point in the wall, the crowd had begun to tear down the wall. They succeeded in carrying away a 3-meter tall slab.
We arrived in Berlin at 4:30 a.m., five hours longer than usual. We drove first to Brandenburgerplatz, where the statute of Winged Victory stands atop a 50 meter column, which celebrates a military victory in the 1890s over Denmark. Cars were abandoned everywhere, wherever there was space. Over 5,000 people were there. I began talking to people. We left the car and began to walk through a village of television trucks, giant satellite dishes, emergency generators, and coils of cables, and tents. Cameramen slept under satellite dishes. At the wall, West German police and military was lined up to prevent chaos. West German military trucks were lined up against the wall, to protect it from the West Germans. Hundreds of West German police stood in rows with their tall shields. On top of the wall, lined up at parade rest, stood East German soldiers with their rifles. Groups of West Germans stood around fires that they had built. No one knew what was going on.
After a while, we walked to Potsdammer Platz. This used to be the center of Berlin. All traffic once passed through the Potsdammer Platz. Now it was a large empty field, bisected by the wall. Nearby was the mound that was the remains of Hitler's bunker, from which he commanded Germany into total defeat. We talked to Germans and many said that the next break in the wall would be here. It was still very dark and cold at 5 a.m. Perhaps 7,000 people were pressed together, shouting, cheering, clapping. We pushed through the crowd. From the East German side we could hear the sound of heavy machines. With a giant drill, they were punching holes in the wall. Every time a drill poked through, everyone cheered. The banks of klieg lights would come on. People shot off fireworks and emergency flares and rescue rockets. Many were using hammers to chip away at the wall. There were countless holes. At one place, a crowd of East German soldiers looked through a narrow hole. We reached through and shook hands. They couldn't see the crowd so they asked us what was going on and we described the scene for them. Someone lent me a hammer and I knocked chunks of rubble from the wall, dropping several handfuls into my pocket. The wall was made of cheap, brittle concrete: the Russians had used too much sand and water.
Progress seemed rather slow and we figured it'd take another hour. The car wouldn't start anymore without a push. We went back towards the city for coffee or beer or whatever. We drove down the Kurfurstendamm (the Ku'damm), the central boulevard. Hundreds of thousands of people were walking around, going in and out of stores, looking around, drinking cheap East German champagne. Thousands of champagne bottles littered the streets. Thousands of Trabis were parked wherever they had found a space, between trees, between park benches, on traffic islands. Everything was open: restaurants, bars, discos, everything. Yesterday over two million East Germans had entered Berlin. The radio reported that over 100,000 were entering every hour. With Berlin's population of three million, there were over five million people milling around in delirious joy celebrating the reunion of the city after 28 years (Aug. 12, 1961-Nov. 9, 1989). A newspaper wrote banner headlines: Germany is reunited in the streets!
The East German government was collapsing. East German money was worthless. West Germany gave every East German 100 Deutschmark, which amounted to several months wages. The radio announced that banks and post offices would open at 9 a.m. so that the people could pick up their cash with a stamp in their identification papers. Thousands stood in line.
We left our car in front of the Gedankniskirchen, the Church of Remembrance, a bombed out ruins of a church, left as a memorial to the victims of the war.
We walked into a bar. Nearly everything was sold out. A huge crowd was talking and laughing all at once. We found a table. An old woman came up and asked if we were Germans. We said no, Danish, and invited her and her family to our table. We shared chairs and beer. They were East Germans, mother, father, and daughter. She worked in a factory, her husband was a plumber, and the daughter worked in a shop. They came from a small village several hundred kilometers to the south. The old woman said that she had last seen Berlin 21 years ago and couldn't recognize it. They told us about the chaos of the last few weeks. I asked them what they had bought in Berlin. They all pulled out their squirt guns. They thought it was so funny to fill up the squirt guns with beer and shoot at everybody. The family had chased a cat in an alley and eaten a dinner of bananas, a luxury for them. We talked about movies; they knew the directors and cameramen. The father was very happy at the idea of being able to travel. He wanted to go to Peru and see Machu Picchu and then to Egypt and see the pyramids. They had no desire to live in the West. They knew about unemployment and drug problems. Their apartment rent was $2 a month. A bus ticket cost less than a penny.
At seven a.m. or so, we left and headed back to the Potsdammer Platz. Old Volkswagens don't have gas gauges. The car ran out of gas. Someone said that there was a gas station five blocks ahead. People joined us in pushing the car to the gas station. When we arrived, people were standing around. The electricity had failed in the neighborhood so the gas pumps were dead. The owner shrugged at the small bother and waved us towards the coffee. Dozens of East Germans, young, old, children, stood around drinking coffee. After an hour or so, the electricity came on and we filled up the tank. With a crowd of people, we pushed the car up and down the street three times to get it to start. We drove back to Potsdammer Platz.
Everything was out of control. Police on horses watched. There was nothing they could do. The crowd had swollen. People were blowing long alpine horns which made a huge noise. There were fireworks, kites, flags and flags and flags, dogs, children. The wall was finally breaking. The cranes lifted slabs aside. East and West German police had traded caps. To get a better view, hundreds of people were climbing onto a shop on the West German side. We scampered up a nine foot wall. People helped each other; some lifted, others pulled. All along the building, people poured up the wall. At the Berlin Wall itself, which is 3 meters high, people had climbed up and were sitting astride. The final slab was moved away. A stream of East Germans began to pour through. People applauded and slapped their backs. A woman handed me a giant bottle of wine, which I opened and she and I began to pour cups of wine and hand them to the East Germans. Journalists and TV reporters struggled to hold their cameras. A foreign news agency's van with TV cameras on top was in a crowd of people; it rocked and the cameramen pleaded with the crowd. Packed in with thousands, I stood at the break in the wall. Above me, a German stood atop the wall, at the end, balanced, waving his arms and shouting reports to the crowd. With all of the East Germans coming into West Berlin, we thought it was only fair that we should go to East Berlin. A counterflow started. Looking around, I saw an indescribable joy in people's faces. It was the end of the government telling people what not to do, it was the end of the Wall, the war, the East, the West. If East Germans were going west, then we should go east, so we poured into East Berlin. Around me, people spoke German, French, Polish, Russian, every language. A woman handed her camera to someone who was standing atop rubble so that he could take her picture. I passed a group of American reporters; they didn't speak anything and couldn't understand what was going on, pushing their microphones into people's faces, asking "Do you speak English?" Near me, a knot of people cheered as the mayors of East Berlin and West Berlin met and shook hands. I stood with several East German guards, their rifles slung over their shoulders. I asked them if they had bullets in those things. They grinned and said no. From some houses, someone had set up loudspeakers and played Beethoven's ninth symphony: Alle Menschen werden Bruder. All people become brothers. On top of every building were thousands of people. Berlin was out of control. There was no more government, neither in East nor in West. The police and the army were helpless. The soldiers themselves were overwhelmed by the event. They were part of the crowd. Their uniforms meant nothing. The Wall was down.
After a while, we left and went back to the city, to find some food. The TV was set to East German TV. The broadcasters began showing whatever they wanted: roving cameras in the street, film clips, porno, speeches from parliament, statements, videos, nature films, live interviews. West Berliners went out of their homes and brought East Germans in for food and rest. A friend of ours in Berlin had two families sleeping in her living room. The radio told that in Frankfurt, a Trabi had been hit by a Mercedes. Nothing happened to the Mercedes but the Trabi was destroyed. A crowd of people collected money for the East German family; the driver of the Mercedes gave them her keys and lent them her car for the weekend. A West German went home, got his truck, and drove the Trabi back to East Germany. Late Sunday, the West German government declared on radio and TV that East Germans had free access to all public transportation: buses, streetcars, and trains, plus free admission to all zoos, museums, concerts, practically everything. More than 80% of East Germany was on vacation in West Germany, nearly 13 million people, visiting family and friends in the West. After a week, nearly all returned home.
After a dinner of spaghetti, we got back into the Volkswagen and headed home. The radio talked about delays of ten hours, but then again, that was just another rumor. At the border, there were no guards anymore. Late the next morning, we were back in Denmark.
1989: The End of Communism in Central Europe
In 1848, Europe went through a year of revolution, as kings fell and democratic governments were created. 1989 was another one of these years for Europe. With countries that are literally a short automobile trip apart, where people tend to know each other, where international news is local news, political movements leap like wildfire from city to city.
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