November 9, Berlin, East Germany
When did the Berlin Wall cease to exist? I had a ringside seat at the event that would reshape Europe and reverberate across the globe; and still, I couldn't say exactly when that concrete monument to division and folly finally crumbled into dust and souvenirs. No plan existed for the Wall's demise. A country that had a five-year plan for everything from the production of cotton reels to spies and gymnasts could not predict or manage the event that sealed its end.
The German Democratic Republic had fascinated me since childhood, so I'd grabbed every opportunity to travel there throughout the 1980s the terminal phase of the G.D.R.'s existence, as it turned out. But when I returned in May 1989, the mood had changed. Something bitter and edgy had entered the soul of the semi-nation of 16.7 million Germans. My oldest friend, son of a senior nomenklatura professor, hugged me as we stood beside Checkpoint Charlie and I headed off, for the umpteenth time, to a break in what he called "my other world." With a new bitterness in his tone, he murmured "verdammte Mauer" that damn wall. Hungary, one of the countries where East Germans could vacation, had opened its border at the beginning of the month, poking the first hole in the barbed-wire frontier across Europe. The Iron Curtain was rusting.
The elections in the G.D.R. that May were intended to rubber-stamp communist rule. They merely confirmed a sullen atmosphere; even the official statistics revealed a decline in votes for the party line, while concealing the true scale of dissent. East Germans set off on holidays from which many did not return. By August, the streams of small pastel Trabant cars phut-phutting their way south to Dresden and into Czechoslovakia and Hungary told the true story. Seeking out breaches in the Hungarian-Austrian border through which to flee, or holing up in West German embassies, they wanted out. We joked that at this rate only the dissidents and the party bosses would be left to fight it out.
Summer was long, hot and tense. The Czechs, with an equally hard-line government to that of the G.D.R., started to return East Germans and refused to let them through the western border. The fear of being "walled in" even further haunted the young. West German embassies were deluged with Ossis seeking asylum. At home, opposition groups, previously consigned to churches and kitchen meetings, flourished. I moved into the vast bronze-windowed monstrosity of the Palast Hotel. You couldn't get a fax without it passing through an office where, a waiter told me, copies were made and sent on to the Stasi, the state's intelligence service. In Erfurt, the grand cathedral city in the south, I befriended a group of young intellectuals: bookbinders, musicians and artists. One subsequently sent me a letter begging me to marry him the quickest way to gain permission to leave was to wed a Westerner. "Not that I want to disturb your life in any way," he wrote, "but I just have to get out of here."
In Autumn, Mikhail Gorbachev came with a breath of Moscow fresh air and publicly wagged glasnost at his truculent host, Erich Honecker. The German party leader played deaf and ordered mass arrests of demonstrators in the middle of East Berlin, just to jolly along the visit. Gorbachev looked grim and issued his Cassandra warning: "Those who come too late will be punished by life." (Being Gorby, he took far longer to say it than that; it was his savvy interpreter who made a memorable phrase of the Russian's comments.) The New Forum opposition movement adopted the slogan "No Violence!" a demand, but with an undertone of real fear. Rumors of body bags and blood banks were spread to intimidate demonstrators. Honecker gave way to Egon Krenz, a man known unaffectionately as "horse face," who had built his career as the socialist crown prince and, after decades of party obeisance and Politburo maneuvering, would last precisely 44 days in office.
Avalanche politics swept away one dust-encrusted institution after another. The Central Committee, resigned. The Politburo followed. "Who is it today?" the copy taker at the Times in London would ask when I phoned up to file another dispatch of mayhem. Power was in the streets, with the protesters and emigrants. WE ARE THE PEOPLE read the famous banner. And at last, the people were being heard.
In one sense, the events vindicated the fears of the sclerotic regime: "In our hearts," Hans Modrow, the pro-Gorbachev party chief in Dresden would tell me later, "we knew that the fortified border was what kept this country together. We were stuck in a circular logic: no wall equals no G.D.R. So the fortified border had to stay, or what was the point of us?"
Honecker, in power since 1971, had predicted "the Wall will still be standing in 50 and even 100 years if the conditions which led to its erection remain unaltered." Looking back at the pace of events, it now all seems like an inexorable roll towards a fall. It certainly didn't feel like that at the time: I guess if you'd asked me, I would have said that, whatever the changes, the Wall would be last to go. It imprisoned our imaginations, as well as those behind it.
A Glorious Time
The friend who had bid me farewell at checkpoint Charlie joined New Forum. His old schoolmate and Friday-night drinking partner was in the army and of a senior enough rank, he once let slip, to be tasked with overseeing the burial of the SS20 rocket launchers, trained on the West, in the woods outside Berlin. In this small circle of old friends, the big picture could also be intensely personal. "It could be that one day we'll find ourselves facing each other across the lines," said one friend to the army officer, late one evening. "I won't let that happen," he replied. But there was silence afterward.
Yet for all the unease, it was a glorious time to be in the East. Demonstrators in Leipzig held up posters saying SEND THE STASI TO THE FACTORIES. Signs reading CLOSED FOR TECHNICAL REASONS appeared in shops when too many staff had left the country to run the businesses. (One sign near my flat was changed more candidly to read CLOSED FOR HUNGARIAN REASONS.) The evening news, usually a numbing ritual of party-processed, statistical information and announcements of ministerial meetings, became unmissable. Spontaneous gatherings in kitchens and courtyards echoed a new mood of openness: politics ruled by day, parties by night. There was only one topic of conversation: "What happens next?"
In this mood of anxious exhilaration, journalists gathered at the International Press Centre, a Stasi-infected building close to the Wall that had become the center of our daily routine. Theoretically, press from the "nonsocialist economic areas" (the West) had minders who were supposed to keep an eye on us. Really though, there was nothing they could do as we raced around interviewing dissidents like Rainer Eppelman, the "turbulent priest" from the Samaritans Church, and Bärbel Bohley, the feisty doyenne of the opposition who had the distinction of being thrown out by the regime and then bringing a legal case to come back. All the minders could insist on was the odd lunch, presumably to keep up a flow of information about our views of the situation. Even the informers had lost the will to spy.
Between 1 and 1.5 million adult East Germans had applied to leave the country, no longer fearing recrimination. So at the evening press conference of Nov. 9, as Günter Schabowski, the broad-shouldered Berlin party chief, took the chair, the exodus and its impact especially on the hospitals and emergency services loomed over all other considerations. Schabowski was one of the few remotely sympathetic characters of the old Politburo. He'd been a journalist on the party mouthpiece Neues Deutschland and fancied himself as good at cut and thrust with Western reporters. He also had a touch of the city's famous uppity attitude and its thick accent, which added a certain comedy to the proceedings.
It was a hot room and I was at the back, taking notes when, shortly before 7 p.m., an Italian reporter asked about the new travel law. Schabowski announced that the Politburo would henceforth permit East Germans to leave the G.D.R. on application. Visas would be issued "without delay." Peter Brinkmann, from the anti-communist West German Bild Zeitung, asked whether this would apply to West Berlin, and when the new law would come into effect. "Ab sofort" (Immediately), said Schabowski, flicking through his notes in search of validation. "It's a matter for the council of ministers," whispered the minister next to him. Too late.
The British correspondent Daniel Johnson was up next and sounded puzzled. "What will happen to the Wall now?" Schabowski looked stricken: "The permeability of the Wall from our side does not yet and exclusively resolve the question of the meaning of the fortified state border of the G.D.R.,'' he replied. So there we had it a wall open, but still closed. Lewis Carroll would have been proud.
No one knew what to do with this tangled logic, least of all Schabowski, who hurriedly called the meeting to a close. At the end, he promised "fair and free elections." That would have been sensational news the day before, but we weren't even interested in it. Unthinkables were tumbling by the minute. All that needed to follow were the bricks in that damn wall. An almighty rush to the scant number of telephones followed, so I decided to run to the nearest border-crossing point at Checkpoint Charlie before the Times' evening deadline. The only other journalist with the same idea was Brinkmann, who was intent on finding cheering East Germans. People were either too busy trying to digest Schabowski's gnomic utterances, or hadn't yet seen the news.
On the Leipziger Strasse, which amounted to a showy shopping street by East Berlin's standards, two girls with straggly mid-seventies hairstyles were languidly looking in the shoe-store windows. I ran up to them. "The border's open!" I cried. One shrugged. The other returned to looking at imported stilettos. "She's not quite right in the head," was the last I heard as they ambled off. Brinkmann puffed along, his camera at the ready; I heard his mounting desperation as the first Ossis at the Wall's opening stubbornly refused to take it in. "For God's sake," he cried, "can't you just cheer or something?"
The guards were, as usual, distant, sitting high up in their bulletproof boxes. I tried again. "The border's open!" No response. "Herr Schabowski just announced it!" "Well it was still closed a minute ago," snapped his colleague, incontrovertibly. They had "no instructions" and no one had seen the television broadcast. Pending further instructions, etc., etc., I should remove myself immediately from the secure zone. So ended my attempt to breach the Berlin Wall. I hung around and watched a younger guard slip away, a radio to his ear. He gave a little impromptu jig and then straightened his jacket and went back into his box. This was Prussia, after all.
Within hours, the mass of people streaming toward the border crossings had reached such proportions that the Wall had to be opened, which it was, before midnight. Some time later, I sought out Schabowski, who lived in a rather natty apartment by the Spree with his Russian wife Irina and a parrot. "Really, it was a slip of the tongue," he confessed. "When I said 'immediately' I meant that people would present themselves with ID at post offices and form a queue. This was the GDR: it was the only way we could envisage doing anything!" Was there no anger from Schabowski's colleagues for his fateful mistake? "Well, a bit," he recalled. "But then, all things considered, you could say we were all in the s___ together. The only choice was to open up the pressure cooker, or watch it explode."
After dark, Germans poured through the wall, the first still in their nightclothes, sleepwalkers into history. Ten thousand of them partied and hammered, or simply looked around dazed at the strange new world without the Thousand-Year Wall. The next night, the bulldozers began to move in and the opening became official. I watched it happen in the Bornholmer Strasse, a checkpoint in a suburb near my flat. It had the feel of a neighborhood party, with housebound grandmothers shouting down from the tenements, "Bring me a piece of the Wall up, son!" as if calling for an apfelstrudel, and separated families meeting again. When the first chunks of the Wall came flying out, one hit my eye and dislodged my contact lens. (That enabled a claim to my managing editor for "Lost contact lens, due to falling Berlin Wall.") Someone brought out glasses and vodka, with chunks of the Wall's concrete instead of ice in the drinks. Twenty years on, I know a night out doesn't get any better than this.
I would go on to cover the more punitive mood towards East Germany's Stasi oppressors; the unending saga of complicity and blame; the arrival of the deutsche mark and the transition from "We are the people" to "We are one people," as unification became inevitable. It was the birth of a different Europe, free of old divisions and shackles, and one still coming to terms with its variety and responsibility even now. That's the big picture we'll be marking this year. Yet it's the details that stay freshest in the mind from the autumn that changed the world. One of the great happinesses of my life is that when people ask me, "Where were you in 1989?" I can just say: "I was there."
McElvoy, a former foreign correspondent, is political columnist of the London Evening Standard