On the evening of November 9 1989, East Germans began to walk through the Berlin Wall. Now, with hindsight, it seems inevitable that their story would end happily, that East and West Germany would reunite, that Berlin would become one city as it is so triumphantly today. But nothing seemed obvious at the time, and nobody was at all sure of that happy ending. On the contrary, the Berlin I remember was darker and stranger than any of the “vintage” footage you’ll see replayed this weekend. So many things could have gone wrong, and so many nearly did.
Some of this I saw because I arrived a day late, after the television cameras were gone: I drove to Berlin from Warsaw on November 10, in the company of two Polish journalists I knew slightly. Back in that now impossibly distant era of fuel shortages and pointless regulations, it was not so easy to drive a car across an Eastern Bloc border. We had to buy special insurance stamps, and acquire cans of extra petrol. When we finally started driving, we made slow progress along the crowded two-lane road that then connected Berlin and Warsaw, so different from the motorway that exists today.
By the time we arrived, it was after midnight. The eastern half of the city was mostly dark, lit by eerie, orangey streetlights, and mostly silent. Without a map, we drove straight to the city centre, right up to Checkpoint Charlie. The guard stopped us: Checkpoint Charlie was for military personnel only. We leaned out of the windows and shouted that he should let us through: “The Wall’s open, who cares about the rules?” The guard looked at us, shrugged, and opened the barrier.
We kept driving, all the way up to Brandenburg Gate – and suddenly there were bright lights and a big crowd. But this wasn’t a happy, celebrating crowd: by the time we arrived, the champagne corks had all been popped, and the mood had turned distinctly ugly. People were sitting on the Wall, and we climbed up to join them – an unthinkable act only a couple of days earlier.
Below us stood the East German guards, still dressed in riot gear. The crowd was taunting them. Some people shouted out insults, or threw down the odd bottle. Then a man sitting near me began to play a game. He stood up and jumped off the Wall from the west to the east. Immediately, the guards rushed over, picked him up and threw him back over. The crowd hissed. Then, farther along, someone else did the same thing; the guards tossed the new intruder back, too. This wasn’t a cheerful game: the established order had broken down, men with guns – and without clear orders – faced a hostile crowd.
All of us felt that this was the moment when something violent could happen. And, as I learnt a few years ago from a German historian who has seen the archives, we were right. Not far away from the Brandenburg Gate, as we were sitting on the Wall, the men of the East German Politburo were debating what to do about the unruly crowd teasing the guards. Among other options, they considered shooting at the mob to make it disperse.
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